The annual Experimenta Weekend, programmed by Mark Webber, takes place at the end of London Film Festival, and informally functions as a self-contained festival in itself. Some of the screenings under the Experimenta banner are scattered throughout the main body of the festival, such as this year’s Peter Kubelka retrospective (in a single screening, of course), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s video Mekong Hotel (paired with Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul’s Mother),and slow art films such as Jaime Rosales’s Sueño y silencio (The Dream and the Silence). I travelled to London only for the three-day weekend (19th -21st October), however, so won’t comment on those screenings here. As a whole, London’s major film festival remains a curiously non-cosmopolitan affair, designed as a digest of (predominantly middlebrow) international cinema for a local audience, in whom it appears not to have a great deal of interest. This was signalled this year by the festival’s most vacuous and embarrassing trailer yet, and a program organised around emotive themes (‘Debate’, ‘Laugh’, ‘Thrill’, and so on) that pitch and enclose the spectator as a marketing subject – what Serge Daney once referred to as a mere “consumer-decoder” of images and sounds (Daney 1992: 16). It’s quite obvious that only PR agencies and cultural bureaucrats take this sort of curatorial organisation seriously, and it is largely met with exasperation or resignation on the part of both filmmakers and audiences.
This year’s Experimenta Weekend opened with a restored 35mm print of Isidore Isou’s Letterist manifesto Traité de bave et d’éternité (On Venom and Eternity, 1951). Isou’s film is divided into four quarters (or “circles,” as he describes the film’s narrational structure), although the boundaries between the final two are deliberately unclear. In the first, Isou relates a cinematographic manifesto delivered by Daniel, the film’s primary protagonist, and the second is mostly concerned with Daniel’s everyday life and his relations with women, who he dominates, casually beats, robs, and leaves covered with bruises. The third quarter briefly departs from this vehement misogyny however, and begins with three exhilarating vocal performances of Letterist poems (including two by François Dufresne, one dedicated to Antonin Artaud) that are recited over material manipulations (scratches and patterns of brush strokes) on black leader. Here, Isou demonstrates his demands of “discrepant cinema”: a deterritorial form that decouples sound and image to move beyond language. The remainder of the film is concerned with the relationship between cinema and Letterism (and the “farce” of dominant cinema’s “action photography” – that is, scenarios and stories that literature has supposedly abandoned for being too simple, too vulgar), before returning to one of the film’s invisible female characters, Eve, to inform us that the film is, in fact, centred upon her story. Not that Isou expects us to believe him—here, narrative is more dishonest than in dominant cinema. Throughout the film images are frequently inverted, upended, slowed and rewound, to a soundtrack of three relentlessly looped musical and vocal refrains. Isou did promise future works in this vein, but, tellingly, they remain unmade (by himself or collaborators): clearly, such a dislikeable eruption of ego is difficult to follow.
Isou’s film was followed by Marielle Nitoslawska’s Breaking the Frame, an affected, largely frustrating documentary about the work and life of Carolee Schneemann. One particular memory recounted by Schneemann, concerning her early years as an artist in New York, is quite striking when viewed from the centre of London’s metropolitan asset bubble (which cannot willingly be deflated by neoliberal policy): in 1950s New York, many small manufacturers were driven out of the city, and the resulting abundance of empty buildings (at times covering half the length of a city block), became available for as little as $58 a month. Artists and activists flooded into these spaces, energised by civil rights actions, united against the war and the bourgeois conventions of the 1950s. It is a bittersweet recollection to be screened in the centre of London today (never mind Manhattan), as it is likely that we would see the same across the city if not for the present strictures of the market (that is, a planned economy servicing the inflation of housing capital).
This year’s annual Nathaniel Dorsky screening featured two new works: August and After and April. Both are everyday films that recall the cinema of Yasujirô Ozu and John Ford, and remind me of a comment Dorsky made when interviewed by Scott MacDonald in 1999. After citing Ozu, Ford, Walt Disney, Michelangelo Antonioni, Stan Brakhage and Jerome Hiler (whose Words of Mercury screened after Dorsky’s films) as primary influences on his work, Dorsky singled out Ford’s singular “sense of light and shadow” for praise, in particular the tactility of his first feature, Straight Shooting (1917): its unique attention to “dust, light, glistening water,” and “the way he shoots toward the sun so that everything is backlit” (MacDonald 2005: 81-82). What Dorsky locates in Ford’s early classical film is an attention to the world that, within its very different narrational “container” (to borrow a term from Dan Sallitt), prefigures the most striking qualities of Dorsky’s own cinema. After eliminating classical narrative, sound and a projection speed of 24 fps, Dorsky appropriates the locus of Ford’s attention, repurposing it for a distinctive narrational structure in which, simply, “the addition of each additional shot is the story” (MacDonald 2005: 98). In August and After, these shot additions include a moving portrait of the late George Kuchar; a puppet surrounded by scattered medallions of blue and gold light; reflections of the sun breaking clouds across shop windows and car bodies (the effects of which are described well by Darren Hughes); and the Dorsky signature shot of a slow track across stalks of flora, blades of grass, leaves and branches – often, as in Ford, backlit toward the sun. April, on the other hand,incorporates further images of architecture, retail consumption and technology, beginning with four defamiliarised and initially unrecognisable shots of curling phone wire. In this most recent work, Dorsky’s attention turns to the verticality of buildings, people in the streets, and market transactions – from images of heaped produce on the stalls of outdoor fruit sellers, to a high-contrast LED display of a large flickering H&M ad (prefigured by a shot of an Abercrombie & Fitch bag in August and After). Toward the end of the film, two visual portraits depict a man taking off his glasses in a coffee shop to carefully wipe his brow, and a girl sipping a smoothie whilst holding her phone to her ear, listening patiently as the afternoon light moves across the table before her.
In a program entitled ‘Two Architecture Studies’, Catalina Niculescu’s Along the Lines was paired with Thom Andersen’s Reconversão. Niculescu’s short film is a loose comparative study of the vernacular elements of Romanian modernist architecture, comprising a series of brief video shots of timber and thatched rural dwellings, churches and depopulated bucolic spaces (such as a field of rape, and a dammed river), urban high-rises, and somewhat notorious monuments such as the Memorial of Rebirth (Eternal Glory to the Romanian Revolution and Its Heroes from December 1989), otherwise known as the ‘potato on a stick’. Andersen’s Reconversão selectively documents seventeen buildings by the Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, in an hour-long film commissioned for the twentieth anniversary of the Portuguese festival Curtas Vila do Conde. The formal simplicity of Souto de Moura’s architecture is heavily influenced by a fascination with ruins, which Andersen represents in a style that is intended to animate, as he has stated, “the real life of the buildings” rather than their “ideal, eternal form.” Shooting on video, Andersen captures only one or two fps at a time, enhancing the impression that Souto de Moura’s buildings remain static as the world around them struggles past, jerking and quivering.
Reconversão covers a wide range of projects that Souto de Moura designed for both public and private clients: the Braga Stadium (2000-03), Porto Metro (1997-2005), the extensive conversion of the Santa Maria do Bouro Convent into a State Inn at Amares (1989-1997), and a number of suburban and holiday houses for the nouveau riche in Porto, Braga and other rural areas. Andersen places one particular project in the centre of the film, however: the Carandá Cultural Market in Braga (1980-1984), Souto de Moura’s first commission. Initially constructed in barren space between two muddy tracks, Souto de Moura designed a pedestrian walkway in the centre of the market to connect two parts of town for the first time. Over time, apartment complexes, schools, and nightlife grew around the market, but its economic facility declined, leaving the building to fall into ruin. All that remains of the initial structure today are concrete supporting pillars without walls or roof: lacerated metal struts now spill out of the top of each pillar, and a new patio garden of grass and a few shrubs lies below. Souto de Moura recently returned to the project, adding two further structures (a dance studio and classrooms) to enclose the space, and a sheltered area for the return of sellers at the weekend (Andersen notes that organic farmers tend to sell their produce on Saturday morning). This assemblage of the aesthetics of architectural decay with functional public space encapsulates the elegance of de Souta’s practice, and validates his adage that “a good building will always make a beautiful ruin.”
Ben Russell and Jim Drain’s Ponce de León was the probable highlight of the weekend’s first program of shorts (entitled ‘Rites of Passage’): a sort-of hipster remake of Michael Snow’s La region centrale (1971), in which a camera glacially revolves around a 360 degree axis, replicating certain movements from Snow’s film. This technique enables some striking shots: rotations of the sea (a metallic expanse of water below a bright blue sky), a cityscape from the balcony of a high-rise condo building, and a skate park littered with discarded aerosol cans. At other points, the character of Ponce de León intermittently appears, in a mask seemingly discarded from Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009) – another indicator of pastiche, if it matters.
On the final day, Peter Kubelka’s Monument Film was fatefully postponed due to a fault in one of the two extra 35mm projectors hired for the performance. These projectors were due to be installed in the auditorium of NFT1 (a larger space than NFT3, where the Experimenta Weekend screenings normally take place) for a dual 35mm projection of Arnulf Rainer (1960) and Antiphon. Instead, due to a rectifier failure, both films were simply projected one after the other, rather than side by side then superimposed as planned. The full projection of Monument Film will take place in 2013 instead, but the resultant screening, accompanied by an improvised lecture from Kubelka, was by no means a disappointment. Antiphon is Kubelka’s eighth film, and a direct structural inversion of Arnulf Rainer, in which white is replaced by black, and noise by silence. Tellingly, it is fiercer and noisier than the earlier film – an assault directed at the permanence of what Kubelka refers to as our present era of “digital theatre”. For Kubelka, the medium of film – that is, the medium of twenty-four “lightnings a second” rather than the moving image – retains an “absolute connection” with its historic situation, for every physical succession of frames (or “lightnings”) is linked to the material of the world. Although the continued production of film is increasingly threatened, Kubelka does believe in a nearing resurrection of the medium (already signalled by the use of film as asset-protection stock, primarily by Kodak), and Monument Film was conceived to mark this transitional historical moment: a reminder of what is mechanically projected so that we might glimpse “the structure of the universe.” (1)
After the first London screening of Luke Fowler’s The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott, first exhibited at The Hepworth Wakefield and filmed in collaboration with Peter Hutton (whose compositional sensibility is evident) and George Clark, the weekend ended with two final programs of shorts: ‘Where the Magic Happens’ and ‘Fly Into the Mystery’. The centrepiece of the former was David Gatten’s stunning By Pain and Rhyme and Arabesques of Foraging, which Gatten describes as “a love letter of sorts to natural philosopher, chemist, physicist and inventor Robert Boyle,” in the form of an “exploded Petrarchan sonnet.” The film consists of footage shot on 16mm over the last fourteen years, scanned at high definition (2K), and edited into brief shots of exacting lengths that display texts, objects and luminous phenomena – such as the neck and rims of coloured glass bottles (reminiscent of the inventory of “The Red Shop” in Gatten’s So Sure of Nowhere Buying Times to Come , which screened at Experimenta two years ago), crystalline flares of reflected light, and clustered droplets of water. The film operates, as Michael Sicinski has written of Gatten’s work, “as a network of luxurious surfaces,” in which its texts and objects are found “either emanating and dissipating from within a hazy, milky-amber light, or embossed upon the screen with the shallow, crepuscular ridges of the printed antiquarian page.” An attention to nature and flora structured the rest of the program, most notably in the quivering dead branches and shadows that shift across dimpled snow in Nick Collins’s Dark Garden; Erin Espelie’s four-minute epic True-Life Adventure (starring no more than a wasp, woodlouse, butterfly, pond skater and fly); and Robert Todd’s quiet, elusive Within, which can be viewed in full here.
The final program, ‘Fly Into the Mystery’, opened with Laida Lertxundi’s A Lax Riddle Unit, but was primarily structured around two new films by Beatrice Gibson: Agatha and The Tiger’s Mind. Lertxundi’s film replaces narrativity with a series of shots that underscore the making of its soundtrack (James Carr’s “Love Attack” and Robert Wyatt’s “Alifib” from Rock Bottom ), and has a formal and gestural transparency that suggests Lertxundi is one of the most important American filmmakers working today. Gibson’s most recent work, like Lewis Klahr’s Well Then There Now (featured in the centre of the program), offers a series of clues that equally have no need for a narrative – or, at least, an explicable one. In The Tiger’s Mind, a succession of image-sound situations present “murderous, vengeful” objects that have broken free from “intolerable” language: a sinister set of stereo speakers in woods, a billowing foil curtain against plush interior decor, and a violently shattered tiger. The film’s refusal of meaning leads to a destruction of sense, and the anonymous voiceover’s repetition of a single phrase exhausts any referential capacity that it might once have signalled: “this is what happened...” The excellent score and sound design, inspired by Cornelius Cardew’s 1967 composition of the same name, can be streamed in full here. Gibson’s film was a fitting end to a variable set of programs – indicating that, despite the evident strength of the contemporary moving image, in the era of “digital theatre” everything could just fall apart.
Serge Daney, “Falling Out of Love.” Sight & Sound 2.3 (1992): 14-16. Print.
Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley; Los Angeles: California UP, 2005. Print.
- For a detailed account of Kubelka’s reflections on the “darkest year in film history” during this screening, see Amy Budd’s write-up for LUX.