January 24 – February 4, 2007

In a festival as large and as diverse as Rotterdam, it’s often hard to choose what to see – aside from word-of-mouth recommendations and personal preference, selecting films out of the program guide can frequently be a matter of chance. With upwards of four, five and even six screenings a day, there’s barely time to catch a meal or coffee, much less make careful decisions on what to see. What you watch, what you miss, who you sit next to in the theatre and who you chat with outside – these chance elements are fundamental to shaping any film festival experience.

I spent nearly all of my time in the Venster/Lantaren theatre taking in a barrage of shorts, experimental works, performances and installations. Now in its second year, the Short: As Long As It Takes program was a festival in its own right, held during the first five days of the festival, in a single venue, and with its own devoted audience. Where other festivals, and even other sections of Rotterdam, can be widely dispersed — theatres spread far apart, no central meeting areas — Venster/Lantaren was intimate, its atmosphere convivial, and chances were you’d always run into someone you knew, or someone you just met during the festival. Some of the festival’s most unpredictable and memorable experiences, in fact, happened outside the screening room: wandering the streets with a group of aimless filmmakers in search of a late-night snack, or seeing Tony Conrad push a shopping cart across the bar floor.

At the same time, the festival was making a number of “end of cinema” pronouncements, most notably with the Happy Endings program, an array of video libraries, DVD sales counters and, curiously, an indoor football match. These were set up to address the issue of how films are viewed in a digital age, when film no longer needs to be viewed in the theatre, or even at festivals, but can be obtained rapidly through Internet and DVD distribution. A heightened emphasis on celluloid programming seemed to be another response to the question: are films, and film festivals, still relevant? Such theoretical inquiries, however, seemed to matter less to those that were actually making and watching films. While programmers were kicking footballs to each other, more professionals, filmmakers, critics, and enthusiasts attended Rotterdam than ever before. On the ground, at least, the festival was still very much about the theatre-going experience.

The Short: As Long As It Takes program was celluloid’s stronghold – screenings devoted to 8mm and 16mm film, discussions on film preservation and promotion, and a variety of expanded cinema performances where multi-screen projections created experiences that were utterly unique and incapable of being replicated in exactly the same way. The legacy of the late ’60s and early ’70s performance pieces, with their insistence on the idiosyncratic and the magic of the Happening, manifest itself as a kind of heady nostalgia. Many works were recreated as closely as possible to the original conditions, and, far from transporting the audience back to a dingy SoHo loft in 1973, these sometimes underscored the distance between then and now. Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), for example, was recreated using not the typical fog machine, but with cigarette smoke. The programmers handed out packs of cigarettes and ashtrays, and though the audience dutifully chain-smoked to the point of near-collapse, the resulting cone was nonetheless dim and strangely fragile. The Line Describing a Cone that I’ve known is a utopian expression of cinema, a celebration of the sculptural presence of the beam, and at Rotterdam it became a tenuous link to the past, a last breath of sorts. I stumbled out of the theatre in a haze of smoke, thinking not of the piece’s authenticity, but desperate only for fresh air.

Portraits, 1971-1972

Line Describing a Cone and the other expanded cinema works were held in the Seatless Cinema, a small theatre filled with multiple projectors and an assortment of lumpy beanbags. A number of major historical works were shown there, several in person by Malcolm Le Grice, Tony Conrad and Barbara Meter. Meter was on hand to present a series of works from Electric Cinema, the Amsterdam underground film venue that lasted from 1969-1974. In addition to her Portraits, 1971-1972 (1972), some of the Electric Cinema offerings included Daniel Singelenberg’s Somersault Sally Or The Manipulation of Cinema (1974), a dual projection race of a handspringing woman against her own, slightly slower self, and Le Grice’s landmark film Berlin Horse (1970), an expanded screen mixing found footage with his own, then processed to near-abstraction. Le Grice also used the expanded cinema form to display two competing light bulbs, one within the film and the other strung in front of the screen, manually turned on and off during Castle One (1966). Though the performance encountered a number of problems — it took a long time to set up, and the in-room light bulb apparently malfunctioned during the first half of the screening — the “accidents” fed into a sense that something unique was being created in the moment. At one point Le Grice wondered aloud why anyone would still be interested in a work over 40 years old, but rather than being a nostalgic re-enactment, Castle One was refreshingly spontaneous. When it was over, Le Grice offered the light bulb to anyone who wanted it, and with that simple act of generosity the light of the film was quite literally passed on to its audience.

Light bulbs were also significant in Saul Levine’s installation Dark Light (1998), on display at TENT., Center for Visual Arts. In a room, light bulbs layered with shrink-wrapped magazine covers and advertisements were hung from the ceiling, where they made subtle shifts in colour and light, intermittently turning on and off. Rarely seen for the difficulty in transporting the work, Dark Light presents a fragile forest of glass, with each bulb representing a film frame. Its lights invite the viewer to walk through and experience the “film”, like Levine’s celluloid works, as a matter of space, one shaped by rapid shifts in colour and light. The delicate nature of Dark Light, however, is ever-present, and in the context of plans to phase out the incandescent light bulb in Europe, it becomes an elegy for not only darkened light, but lost light.

During a panel discussion on the future of expanded cinema, Le Grice was surprisingly cavalier about the trend of committing expanded pieces to a digital format. What makes a work expanded, he noted, is the combination of media, the immersiveness of the performance environment. To those concerned that, with the diminishing use of film, expanded cinema had a limited future, he responded by saying, “cinema is not synonymous with celluloid.”

The Surging Sea of Humanity

The “expanded” aspects of cinema seemed to extend into new technologies as well. Ken Jacobs reached into cinematic prehistory with The Surging Sea of Humanity (2007) and Capitalism: Child Labor (2007), both films drawing from turn of the century stereographs: the first depicting a crowd of men adorned with bowler hats from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Columbian Exposition, and the latter a Keystone and Underwood image of children working in a factory. Recalling the meticulousness of his craft in mining early found footage in Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-1971), as well as his recent Nervous System performances, Jacobs here pinches, multiplies and shakes the stereographs in a perpetual play of two- and three-dimensional space. As the image splits or is honeycombed, people reappear as ghosts, vague and sometimes trembling; the two films visibly and materially conjure the rupture between celluloid source and digital manipulation.

John Price reconstructed the first Canadian film ever made in View of the Falls from the Canadian Side (2006), using a camera built to the same specifications as the one used in 1896 by William Heise. Price’s film seemed to combine the awareness of that history into something utterly new; the camera’s unique disposition brings pulsations of light, like ripples of water, over a cluster of tourists who are also positioning their cameras to photograph Niagara Falls. The wavering of light and the blurring on the edges of the screen suggests that the film is always on the brink of abstraction – the shots of the Falls alone, in fact, often wander into this realm, as seen in several takes that play directly on the surface of the screen in washes of grays. The image gradually sharpens into focus and then out again. Edison and Dickson’s camera appears wonderfully suited to translating the mutability of water to the play of light on the cinema screen, and through his re-viewing, Price captures something of the original awe that Heise must have felt just to marvel at what the camera can reveal.

Another reconstruction of sorts was James Benning’s One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later (1977/2006) which revisits the ground of One Way Boogie Woogie (1977) by filming the same one-minute segments in the same industrial Milwaukee locations. The result is a structural film with a wink. It invites you to pay attention to its details in anticipation of their later restaging, underscoring the inevitable changes tracked over time. While it’s remarkable that Benning was able to find so many of the same people after nearly 30 years, the film’s great achievement is its ability to surprise – that knowing what’s “scripted” does not give the slightest idea of what happens next. Here, then, is the wild factor of time added to a simple equation, chance at work: we see the girl who drops three oranges in front of a red silo become a woman who drops three oranges in front of a strip mall, hear a basketball glide through a net that is no longer there, and marvel at the American flag still hanging on a lone pole, tattered and faded.

Still 16, a collection of films made on 16mm, had a nostalgic tone in its description (its subheading was “old-fashioned cut-and-paste”), but the vitality of the films and the many filmmakers present was undeniable. Don’t Leave Without News (2005), by Christine Khalafian, offered a glance into a place both unknown and unknowable: before a mountain, men play soccer in a field without borders, and at a market, a vender sells eggplants from the back of his van. The film was described as a series of chance encounters in Armenia, and Khalafian, the filmmaker-wanderer, gathers her own sense of the local, the “news” transformed into a personal travelogue. Ben Russell shone a flashlight into the sublime with Black and White Trypps Number Three (2006), a film trance that captures the struggle and ecstasy of front-row concertgoers at a Lightening Bolt rock concert. Momentarily held in the dim beam of light, they are then released back into the throbbing mass. Jim Trainor’s Harmony (2004), a film hand-drawn with a permanent marker, had a deceptively simple twist on the animated animals genre, providing birds, dolphins and monkeys with human consciousness and guilt over their animal instincts to murder, rape or engage in incest. And with The Magician’s House (2007), Deborah Stratman creates the sense of an evacuated presence in an empty house, a place that whispers its secrets to those who listen closely. To the faint sound of a piano solo, Stratman’s camera finds the traces of those that once were there, or those who, in the camera’s melancholic insistence, might still be there: fogged windows, a hollow of yellow grass, a rocking chair mysteriously stirred. The Magician’s House performs its own magic by filling a deserted home with its imagination, a filmic dream of light flares and deep shadow.

Last Lost

It was not surprising that, given the focus on celluloid, a number of films dealt specifically with the material nature of film. Tischk (2006), by Olivier Fouchard and Mahine Rouhi, presents a day in a cathedral: the slow passage of light through the stained-glass windows, and the optically-printed visions they inspire. With gradual shifts and murmurs of prayer, we see the sun streaming through trees, the brush-like strokes of a waterfall, deep shadows on a flight of stairs. Eve Heller compiled a program entitled Long Live Film! in celebration of the reprocessed film image, including works like Chick Strand’s glimmering night swim in Kristallnacht (1979) and Ivan Ladislav Galeta’s Water Pulu 1869 1896 (1987), a golden ball fixed in the centre of the frame and the players who scramble around it like the sun. Heller also showed a number of her own films, one of the most powerful being Last Lost (1996), a re-edited Castle film about a chimpanzee’s adventures on a crowded Coney Island seashore. Heller shifts the monkey’s perspective to the fore so that he is witness to the human spectacle before him, a delicate loneliness matched in the film’s soundtrack, which was taken from a recording of heart arrhythmias.

To help audiences understand his working method, Peter Tscherkassky conducted a master class by closely examining his Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2006), a film made entirely in the darkroom with photochemicals, multiple layers of found footage, torches, laser pointers and salt (to cover portions of the image), among other items. In his words, “you can see from the films that they were made by hand”, Tscherkassy’s reaction to the gradual decline in celluloid filmmaking. Perhaps more illustrative of his work was the program of films he assembled, simply titled Traumarbeit (Dream Work). With Parallel Space: Inter-View (1992) and Dream Work (2001) bookending a decade of darkroom filmmaking, the selection of films was its own “dream work”: the work of dreams in the surrealist nude of Man Ray’s Le retour à la raison (1923), the first film ever made in a darkroom; a dream of cinema in Bruce Conner’s haunting compilation Take the 5:10 To Dreamland (1977); and a dreaming through cinema in the bubbling ruins of Phil Solomon’s Twilight Psalm II: Walking Distance (1999).

Often the strongest programs were not those that insisted on celluloid, but those that freely blended video and film, building a complex sense of texture and generating unexpected connections. Many of these “mixed” programs, several masterfully curated by Mark McElhatten, did not avoid the medium distinctions, but, for the first time that I’ve seen, did not force them to compete with each other. Perhaps most emblematically, Jennifer Reeves combined celluloid, HD abstractions and pharmaceuticals in Light Work Mood Disorder (2007) for the pleasure and surprise of alchemical interaction. Some of the most affecting works in McElhatten’s programs included two videos: Gretchen Skogerson’s Drive-Thru (2006), a Miami night portrayed in blacks and neons reminiscent of Edward Hopper, with broken or blank signs pointing the way to nothing but light; and Robert Todd’s Bliss (2006), a seaside community in the midst of preparing, or not preparing, for an impending storm. Bliss hovers in a perpetual moment of anticipation, the air quiet and still. In what might also be an emblematic statement, Todd notes that the work is “a beginning, not an end.”

Video Game

Video Game (2006), by Vipin Vijay, was one of the three winners of the Tiger Award for Short Film, and deservedly so, comprising elements of chance into a journey deep into the geography of Purulia, India, and into the memories of the filmmaker. The film is constructed as a road trip led by fragments, as well as in fragments, of the remains of a film left on the cutting room floor. “Video doesn’t retain memory,” Vijay considers as he splices digressions from his own vehicle into racing games and J.G. Ballard’s Crash, “but it surely creates an illusion.” Another remarkable video essay was Zone of Initial Dilution (2007) by Antoine Boutet, an experimental documentary on the Three Gorges Dam project in China. In austere wide-angle compositions, Boutet captures the tiny movements and rustlings of the people who will soon be displaced by the reservoir being excavated, an industrial story narrated by a plastic loudspeaker disguised as a rock. The film chronicles a future to come, and the present in the moment of its erasure.

Chris McNamara’s Establishing Shots (2006) and Laura Kraning’s American Parade (2006) cleverly rework devices of classical narrative cinema. In Establishing Shots, the first scene normally used to give a sense of place becomes the only indicator of place, and where action usually follows in a succession of shots focused on individual characters, here they are only evoked in multi-lingual voiceovers. We in turn imagine action at a remove, in the surprising fullness of place. American Parade (2007), an experimental documentary on the 2006 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, uses a long tracking shot to document the entire parade route, and, along the way, captures the strangely equalising and darkly prophetic effect of the rain, which makes the middle-class parade-goers, huddled under tarps and brightly coloured tents, barely indistinguishable from the makeshift camps of the homeless.

One of the most stirring uses of the Seatless Cinema was Keith Sanborn’s Clear to Engage (2006), a multi-screen installation that used images to combat images. Screens surrounded the viewer with an endless loop of cartoon scenes, a semi-nude woman jumping on a bed, and even quotes by Guy Debord, all of which were flipped upside down and run backwards. Amid the noise and visual scramble, one screen displayed recovered satellite footage of an American sniper gunning down what are apparently Iraqi insurgents. The war footage, shot from afar, make a disturbingly swift connection to actual gunfire. Against an onslaught of spectacular excess, the passage from image to deadly action, from one kind of shot to another, Clear To Engage warns against the dangers of using images to distance ourselves from action or responsibility. Grappling with responsibility through images, Scott Stark’s More than Meets the Eye: Remaking Jane Fonda (2001/2006) borrows from the actor and activist’s recent autobiography and superimposes her confessions and frustrations over her best-selling workout video. The filmmaker exercises along with Fonda, who, against her own words, seems imprisoned in the small television Stark carries with him. He sets it up in a parking lot where he mimics her jumping jacks and high kicks – perversely, Fonda inspires people to move. But perhaps feeling, like Fonda, the limits of one’s ability to effect change, Stark knows nothing better to do with his body than to wear it out.

NYC Weights and Measures

In early 2005, Jem Cohen was stopped by the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force when filming out a train window. His footage was confiscated and never returned and, in what might be seen as an allegorical response, NYC Weights and Measures (2005) in some ways reclaims the city that was lost: streams of paper tossed from high windows, a boy crouching on wet pavement, a man slumped in a corner of the subway, images that mourn for sister footage forever gone. In the following year he made Blessed Are the Dreams of Men (2006), a series of long, lingering looks at sleeping passengers on a train, which imagines, in a landscape obscured by rain, the window view that might have been. Kwang-Ju Son turned the travelogue into a contemplative work on nationality in Yoyogi Park. Made in 2005, the Korea-Japan Friendship Year, the film considers contemporary Japan from the viewpoint of the Korean-born filmmaker. Over images of crows perched on trees in Yoyogi Park, one of Tokyo’s largest recreation areas, Son confesses in a letter that “as long as I am Korean, Japan becomes larger than its own identity, and more abstract.” The branches, too, tend toward abstraction, rapidly passing back and forth across the screen, and what Son seeks to grasp in both image and nation seems to escape her. Unable to capture a sense of the country, she films instead the place, Yoyogi Park, and wonders where its mysterious crows came from.

It takes a particularly brave filmmaker to incorporate chance operations into their own work, and in my estimation, no one was as courageous as Tony Conrad, who used high voltage electricity in service of his Film Electrocution performance, which was part cooking show (Conrad wore an apron) and part mad scientist experiment (a Tesla coil coupled with maniacal laughter). Arguing that it was “more fun to make films than to watch them”, Conrad exposed, developed and projected an entire filmstrip in less than an hour. There was something truly remarkable in seeing a film as it was being created, to be witness to its alchemical magic. When the first finished filmstrip was too short to loop through the projector, Conrad cheerfully consoled the audience, “I’ll make some more, don’t worry!” (This a refreshing coda to the gloomy predictions for film otherwise taking place at the festival.) The resulting film was a fantastic explosion of light across the frame, and it was as if, by electrocuting the metals affixed to the celluloid, Conrad had summoned the elements in the sound of thunder and wind. David Gatten also left his film in nature’s hands with What the Water Said, No. 4 (2006), the latest in a series of cameraless works in which Gatten leaves unexposed rolls of film in a crab trap off the Atlantic Coast. A kind of letter in a bottle, what returned were “oceanic inscriptions”, the scratches and chew-marks of surrendering film to the sea.

In his opening remarks to Ten Skies (2005), James Benning offered his notion of the artist as one who simply pays attention, then reports back. Ten Skies, which consists of ten shots of skies around Benning’s Val Verde, California home, was, as Benning noted, actually one sky with ten different views. With ten minutes to contemplate each sky, he gives the viewer ample time to relax and tune into the subtle shifts in colour, cloud formations, contrails and the occasional tiny airplane. Ten Skies offered a much-needed moment of rest in an otherwise frantic festival schedule, and though a number of people left midway through the film, I like to think that they too were given a moment to simply drift, cloud-like, through each vignette. For me, it was pleasing enough to have Benning remind me that the sky was something worth looking at.

One of my favourite films of the festival was also my happiest accident, selected for no particular reason on my first bleary-eyed night of the festival. Fulfilling Benning’s imperative (though imperative may be too strong a word), Their Helicopter (2006) by Salomé Jashi, was a gentle and slightly absurdist video documentary about the Ardoleti family who, in 1995, discovered that a Chechen helicopter carrying a load of cheese had crashed onto their Georgian farm. Through the rusted remains of the helicopter, the family’s three children pretend to fly, wasps build nests, and dogs pant in the shade. Their Helicopter is graced with Jashi’s patience in letting moments unfold on their own terms, as when the two older children jump on a bed to lull their infant sibling to sleep, and then, without any noticeable transition, the child’s face softens and he begins to snore. Toward the end of the film, a title reveals that the Ardoleti family plans to turn the helicopter into a guesthouse. It’s a sweet and surprising revelation: dropped into the life of this family, a helicopter is gradually enfolded into their daily rhythms, transformed into something utterly unexpected.