“Most of the filmmakers I cover don’t get paid to make their films, so why should I expect to get paid to write about them?” – Michael Sicinski
To get straight to the point: if the 2014 International Film Festival Rotterdam rolled out a disappointing slate of feature-length premieres, as has been reported, it certainly offered other cinematic pleasures. I say “if” because I saw only four feature premieres, and two of them, Jean-Charles Fitoussi’s On Music or the Dance of Joy and Julian Radlmaier’s A Proletarian Winter’s Tale, are quite good. This should go without saying, but my perspective on the event, like that of any critic reporting on a festival as large and diverse as IFFR, is necessarily limited by my experience with the fest (this was my first trip to Rotterdam) and by my particular programming choices, which were in turn determined by the schedule (what I could see), by my taste (what I wanted to see), and by editorial obligations (what I had to see).
Fortunately, as an unpaid correspondent for Senses of Cinema I’m relatively free of the latter. Michelle Carey, who edits these festival reports, gave me free reign, as usual, so I spent the eight days between the unveiling of the hefty program and my arrival in Rotterdam pouring over the schedule, researching its hundreds of titles and filmmakers, the majority of whom were unknown to me, and plotting an angle of attack. First, there was recent work by established auteurs that I was eager to see on a big screen: Joaquim Pinto’s What Now? Remind Me, Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy, Júlio Bressane’s Sentimental Education, Raya Martin’s How to Disappear Completely, Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s Love is the Perfect Crime, and Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God all met or exceeded my expectations. There were two major retrospectives, of German avant-garde filmmaker Heinz Emigholz and contemporary Danish director Nils Malmros: I managed to see only one collection of shorts from the large but incomplete Emigholz retro, but his bitter and grotesque D’Annunzios Höhle (2005) was among the very best films I saw at IFFR; I will write at length about Malmros, for me the great discovery of the fest, in the next issue of Senses. And, finally, there were the more than 200 films in the Signals: Regained and Spectrum Shorts sections, which I sampled strategically and in large doses. By the end of my week in Rotterdam I’d seen a bounty of very good films and few bad ones.
Which is not at all to discount the legitimate complaints leveled against this year’s program. In the first of his two reports for The Notebook, Michael Pattison describes his experience of covering feature premieres as “a laborious trudge through a swamp of works ranging from the unremarkable to the better-avoided.” Reporting for IndieWIRE, Neil Young points to the 2014 lineup as further evidence of IFFR’s steady and regrettable decline, which he attributes largely to the appointment of Rutger Wolfson as Director in 2009. Similar sentiments could be heard from other Rotterdam veterans in theatre lobbies and bars throughout the city. While I had a very good experience overall, I should add that I did walk out of the third feature premiere I’d scheduled and the fourth was an interesting but forgettable mess.
I suppose I’m in the camp of critics Young refers to in his piece for IndieWIRE, the writers “who concentrated on the retrospective elements [and] tended to beam smug grins at those of us plugging away at newer titles.” The disadvantages of being an unpaid correspondent, especially a non-European covering a festival in the Netherlands, should be obvious – they’re obvious on my most recent credit card statement, certainly – but the status of amateur critic does afford me, quite literally, the luxury of covering truly non-commercial cinema, which by most accounts is IFFR’s greatest strength. Freed of the pressure to sell my writing to outlets that traffic in feature reviews, I was able to cover, instead, artists who often return home from festivals to academic positions and other assorted day jobs, as I do.
Michael Sicinski delivered the comment that opened this report during a panel at the 2010 Houston Cinema Arts Festival, where he, Phillip Lopate and Gerald Peary discussed the state of arts criticism. Knowing Michael, I suspect he would prefer that I replace “amateur” in the previous paragraph with “pro bono,” as it implies a certain degree of professionalism, along with the sense that criticism can on occasion be an act of service to film culture. Acknowledging the material conditions that determine how a festival like IFFR is covered and to what ends is, I hope, not necessarily tantamount to smugness.
The Nostalgic Pleasures of Flutter and Wow
Andrew Lampert’s G is the Dial, which screened in the “Epilogues” program of Signals: Regained, offers a playful take on the ubiquitous “end of film” debate. Laughter can be heard off-screen as Rose Borthwick and Yvonne Carmichael, two British women in their early-30s (I’d guess), sip beers and struggle to load a 16mm projector. Lampert assembles the 6-minute video from jump cuts, which obscures the real duration of their effort and turns it, instead, into a series of small discoveries. It begins as trial and error. They load the supply reel backwards and pop the lens out of its housing. They turn every knob, engage the motor, shut it off, raise and lower the angle of projection, until finally the film threads its way through and an image comes into focus. “What the fuck! It’s so good!” one of the women exclaims at the sight of it. G is the Dial is both a celebration of film projection – we share the pleasure of the women’s accomplishment – and a kind of media anthropology. Lampert reminds viewers, in the most direct way possible, just how mechanical analogue projection really is.
I was born in 1972, which puts me at the tail end of the last generation that learned to load a projector in elementary school. By the mid-1980s most of them had been pushed to the back of storage closets, and the hand-pulled screens at the front of every classroom were collecting dust, replaced by rolling carts of TVs and VCRs. In certain respects, my love of film is nostalgic in the true, unironic sense of the word – a sentimental yearning for some past happiness – and after spending the first three days of IFFR watching some two dozen 16mm shorts, nearly all of which were made by filmmakers of my generation or older, I began to recognise a similar wistfulness and delight among other audience members. The majority of Rotterdam’s shorts programs screen at the LantarenVenster, which is separated from the other venues by a long, cold walk over the Erasmus Bridge. As a result, festivalgoers who make it to the LantarenVenster tend to stay there, milling about the lobby between screenings, talking movies, eating burgers, and drinking Grolsch. I haven’t attended enough festivals to know if this is universally true, but IFFR’s avant-garde shorts programs and retrospectives, like the Wavelengths program at the Toronto International Film Festival, function almost as microfests within the larger event, with their own character and community. It’s part of the fun.
And “fun”, frankly, is a word too seldom used to describe avant-garde cinema and the people who admire it. Last September, Lampert skewered this very idea when he introduced El Adios Largos to a packed house at Wavelengths. The film, which also screened in IFFR’s “Epilogues” program alongside G is the Dial, imagines that Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) has been lost to time and exists only in a black-and-white 16mm print that has been dubbed into Spanish. Lampert, who really is a film archivist (and is also a self-described performance artist), presented this scenario matter-of-factly, with Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard by his side, acting as straight woman. Eighty percent of the audience looked on in self-satisfied disbelief as Lampert spun his yarn about discovering Altman’s lost masterpiece and throwing himself into the painstaking work of restoring it. I laughed a little too hard, probably – partly at Lampert but mostly at the bewildered crowd around me.
El Adios Largos, it should be noted, is a smart and arresting film. Using a computer rotoscoping technique, Lampert maps onto the image blocks of solid colour that shift and warp according to the whims of an algorithm. Along with commenting on the current state of film archivism, the effect is often genuinely beautiful, as in a moment when Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe visits the women who live next door, and a girl who is spinning and dancing in the background is transformed by the rotoscoping into a ghost of the Lumière brothers’ serpentine dancer (1899).
I suspected that IFFR’s “Silver” program would, indeed, be a fun event when I walked in to take a seat and found two 16mm projectors set up in the theatre. Richard Tuohy closed out the program with a live performance of Dot Matrix, in which he projects two black-and-white animations onto the same area of the screen. He made the animations by rayogramming sheets of dots that are more commonly used to create Manga screen tones, and because the dots are printed onto the full width of the 16mm film, they pass over the sound drum and create a percussive, frenetic soundtrack. Each film offers up a seemingly inexhaustible variety of patterns and rhythms, and because they’re projected slightly out of phase – they overlap for the most part, but one film is slightly to the left of and above the other – the two sets of dots bounce and collide, generating a wildly exhilarating optical experience. With Tuohy there in the theatre, live-mixing the two mono soundtracks into a kind of stereo (the sound of two running projectors also adds to the “score”), Dot Matrix has the kinetic energy of a concert and is different with each screening.
“Silver” was, in fact, one of the very best short film programs I’ve ever attended. Tomonari Nishikawa’s 45 7 Broadway, which opened the program, establishes its form in the first few seconds. Discreet shots of Times Square are layered in superimpositions – one red, one green, and one blue – mimicking basic RGB colour production. As each shot is added to and removed from the image, Nishikawa also mixes in and out discreet soundtracks, building and dissembling an audio-visual collage from the material. After introducing this basic theme, Nishikawa works playfully through a number of variations, transforming one of the world’s most photographed street corners into a deeply strange and pulsing piece of pop art. On occasion, all three layers are identical, but Nishikawa’s process of shooting black and white film through colour filters and then optically printing them onto colour stock throws everything just slightly out of alignment, causing the image to quiver and dance. Times Square offers up a trove of visual textures and human activity, and when Nishikawa’s handheld camera passes over a Broadway marquee, a crowd of pedestrians, or even a simple subway grate, the images recall both early movie experiments (I was reminded of the famous collages in Murnau’s Sunrise and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera) and Roy Lichtenstein’s work with Ben-Day dots. 45 7 Broadway is a beautiful thing, a singular city symphony in miniature.
Pablo Mazzolo’s Photooxidation was the most intense thirteen minutes I spent in Rotterdam. A curious study of the sensations and mechanics of sight, the film opens with a loud, low-frequency hum and a small burst of round, red light that strobes and rattles in the darkness. It’s a primordial image akin to pressing your eyes tightly shut when you first step into daylight. We then catch flashes of recognisable images: a city skyline, a montage of people on the street, some of whom acknowledge the camera. These opening sequences are uncannily, disorientingly subjective, and the effect culminates with a jolting cut to an extreme close-up of a young boy, who smiles and stares blindly past the camera, his eyes bulging and distorted. The shot of the boy is difficult to describe: it’s simultaneously joyous, affectionate, shame-making and grotesque.
The cut to the blind boy functions as a logic-defeating eyeline match, momentarily situating Photooxidation’s dizzying perspective in a fixed, impossible subjectivity. Mazzolo’s real accomplishment with Photooxidation, aside from his impressive facility as an image-maker, is the film’s structure, which supports this associative montage and gives the larger piece a sense of progress and inevitability, something missing in too many experiments of this length, I think. In its second act, the film moves to a night scene, and the soundtrack, always loud, turns increasingly aggressive. Mazzolo assembles a beautiful and chaotic montage of car taillights and restaurant windows that streak the screen in red, yellow, white and blue against black – an almost nightmarish inversion of Nishikawa’s Times Square. Mazzolo then returns to the shot of the boy and caps the night sequence with a low-saturation image of light passing through tree branches, which introduces nature as an organising principle for the final act. This move toward the Transcendental – the film ends on a field of tall grass – would risk approaching cliché if the images themselves resolved symbolically, or only symbolically. Instead, they remain tangled, private, transcendent.
“Silver” was rounded out by new films from Eve Heller (b. 1966), Charlotte Pryce (b. 1961) and Esther Urlus (b. 1961). I note their birthdates only to reinforce this notion of contemporary 16mm work having an inherently nostalgic character. Heller’s Creme 21 is a dense essay on subjectivity and time that is chopped together with footage from 1970s educational documentaries. The montage is stuttered, the images are scratched and muddy, and the soundtrack pops and warbles. Creme 21 is an analogue, YouTube-era remix of exactly the types of films we all watched and listened to in those public school classrooms. A Study in Natural Magic is a typically exquisite piece of silent, hand-processed rapture from Pryce. Here she shoots flowers in time-lapse and extreme close-up, spinning them, like Rumpelstiltskin, into gold. The delicacy of Pryce’s work only increases its value for the 16mm fetishist.
I was unfamiliar with Urlus before the fest, so I was grateful to have three separate opportunities to see her films at IFFR. Chrome was a stand-out among the decidedly uneven “Vertical Cinema” program, Rode molen was the strongest piece in the very good “Artist Present” program, and Konrad & Kurfust, my favourite of the three, brought a welcomed bit of historical analysis to “Silver”. Inspired by the story of German eventer Konrad Freiherr von Wangenheim, who fell off his horse during the 1936 Olympics but still managed to lead his team to gold, Urlus’s 7-minute film recreates that moment, in a manner of speaking. Konrad & Kurfust opens with the sounds of a race – a galloping horse, cheering spectators, wind whistling in the trees – and then a body falls briefly into view. Urlus, a former eventer herself, shot the film underwater, so we catch occasional low-angle glimpses of a horse swimming by. Most of the images, though, are obscured by what appear to be small bubbles – making it something along the lines of a silent film-era liquid light show.
Urlus’s work is truly experimental, in the sense that each project is an attempt to learn and reclaim an unusual or lost technique of colour film production. Made from a method patented by the Lumière brothers, Chrome is a lovely piece of abstraction formed by microscopic grains of colored potato starch. Rode molen is, in Urlus’s words, “a research into motion picture printing techniques. . . . Depending [on] what developing process is used the colors mix in two ways: additive or subtractive.” (I won’t pretend to have the technical knowledge necessary to expand on this.) Konrad & Kurfust is an experiment with homemade emulsion, including a technique first developed during World War I that uses instant coffee. As a result, this new work feels as though it might have been found moldering alongside a print of Triumph of the Will on some archive shelf, a brittle piece of nationalistic ephemera that somehow managed to survive the eventual disgrace of its heroes.
The Jodie Mack Experience
“Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends; it is with them that I take those walks in the country at the end of the day.”
– Philip Roth
If the avant-garde world were to advertise for a “Director of Cinema Advocacy” (job prerequisites include: sense of humour, familiarity with analogue technologies, ability to make direct eye contact with strangers, MFA), it would be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Jodie Mack. An Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth College, Mack has, in just the past three years, enjoyed solo screenings at Views from the Avant-Garde, BFI London Film Festival, the Gene Siskel Film Center, Los Angeles Filmforum, Anthology Film Archive, and more than a dozen other galleries and festivals. “Let Your Light Shine”, the five-film program that screened in Rotterdam, garnered strong reviews throughout 2013, including that rarest of feats for an a-g filmmaker, a cover feature in a major film magazine (Phil Coldiron’s piece in Cinema Scope #57). Mack has earned this attention by virtue of her filmmaking, but she’s also a dynamic personality. If Richard Tuohy’s Dot Matrix had the feel of a concert, “Let Your Light Shine” was part rock show, part stand-up routine. She and Andrew Lampert should find a used Econoline and take their act on the road.
The rock show comparison comes directly from Mack. The program, she said, was sequenced like a classic arena concert, with two opening acts (New Fancy Foils and Undertone Overture), a headliner (Dusty Stacks of Mom), and two encores (Glistening Thrills and Let Your Light Shine). The metaphor speaks less to the form or content of the films than to Mack’s artistic and personal voice, which is equally fluent in high culture and kitsch. During the post-screening Q&A, she joked with the audience and prodded us for questions, jumping from well-informed and earnest declarations about post-psychedelic art to naming her favourite hip-hop songs. I had a stupid grin on my face throughout “Let Your Light Shine”, entranced by the beauty and craft of what I was seeing, and also regretful that my three year-old daughter wasn’t there to take it all in with me. Accessibility in art is not necessarily a virtue, of course, but Mack’s talent for bringing lightness and a sense of play to the labour-intensive, old-school animation tradition of Norman McLaren, Oskar Fischinger and Len Lye gives her work a rare and infectious vitality.
New Fancy Foils, as it turned out, was the perfect introduction to Mack’s work. The 12-minute film opens with a sequence of shots of similar duration (7-8 seconds), each of them a two-dimensional graphic design of varying colours. It’s not until a minute into the film that Mack shows us a label that reveals that we’re actually looking at pages from a mid-century book of paper samples, the kind of thing a designer would flip through with a client. At that point, the pace of Mack’s cutting accelerates and New Fancy Foils blossoms into a master class on rhythm and graphical variation. This, I think, is one of the great pleasures of avant-garde cinema – the notion that a film can teach a viewer how best to watch it and, in the process, change the way we see, more generally. Mack is not a structuralist per se, but she very deliberately foregrounds her own process. Here, for example, she shows us whole pieces of paper before cutting them into strips, meticulously arranging the pieces, rearranging them, and then rearranging them again. The sheer effort involved in this work, let alone the artistry of it, can’t go unnoticed. New Fancy Foils is silent, but in our Command-C > Command-V world its ethic is DIY punk.
Midway through New Fancy Foils, as the piece begins a long crescendo, there’s a montage of solid-coloured paper that is edited so quickly it begins to create the illusion of a prismatic effect. Mack does something similar throughout Undertone Overture, a rapid-fire film constructed entirely from images of tie-dyed material. Scored with the sounds of crashing waves, Undertone Overture is relentless. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen two-dimensional animation that so uncannily achieves a semblance of three-dimensional movement. (As an aside, I rewatched both of these films via online screeners after returning home from Rotterdam and found the experience not only categorically different from seeing them in 16mm but borderline useless. The refresh rates and compression algorithms can’t keep pace with Mack’s fastest sequences, and the films are neutered as a result.) I especially like the prismatic moment in New Fancy Foils because it ends with a relatively long shot of a page covered in everyday sales copy, which acts as a jarring intrusion of the literal into what had been pure abstraction. To say that the content of these images is irrelevant would be going too far – Mack clearly enjoys rehabilitating domestic curios and psychedelia, and I suppose one could mount a defense of this project along ideological or historical lines – but the “actualness” of the image, as Nathaniel Dorsky calls it, is what is essential here.
Revealing actualness is at the core of Mack’s best work. The paper in New Fancy Foils and the fabric in Undertone Overture are metonyms for the material of cinema – movement and texture and rhythm and hue – but they are also always essentially paper and fabric. The same could be said of Glistening Thrills, in which Mack builds a fanciful cinematic wind chime from inexpensive holographic stickers. (I hope that sentence doesn’t read like a backhanded compliment; Glistening Thrills is everything its title implies.) Dusty Stacks of Mom and Let Your Light Shine are both very good, but they suffer by comparison due to their relative de-emphasis on the actualness of the films’ material. Practically speaking, Let Your Light Shine doesn’t even have material: its white-on-black images were designed on a computer and then shot directly off of the monitor before being optically printed onto 16mm. (Watching the film while wearing cheap prismatic glasses is a hell of a lot of fun, though.)
In Dusty Stacks of Mom, Mack scours the warehouse of her family’s soon-to-close memorabilia business and assembles a towering heap of posters, programs, buttons and photos. At 41 minutes, it’s Mack’s longest film to date, and her most ambitious. An ambivalent send-up of the psychedelic era, Dusty Stacks of Mom is structured around Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, for which Mack has written new lyrics that address, among other things, post-recession America and the fickleness of pop fandom. At most screenings, Mack sings along with the soundtrack from a seat in the audience, which blurs the lines that have traditionally separated avant-garde cinema from low-culture events like planetarium laser light shows. Dusty Stacks of Mom is also distinguished from the other films in the program in its use of location shooting (nearly all of it was filmed in the warehouse) and in its experiments with human “material” (Mack’s mother appears in the film as one more piece of stop-motion animate-able stuff). Dusty Stacks of Mom, however, is most successful when Mack returns to the techniques of New Fancy Foils and Undertone Overture, as in two sequences that work over a pile of rubber bands and wads of white paper. I’m reluctant to fault Mack for expanding into other styles of filmmaking; that her on-location image-making is not yet on par with her two-dimensional animation is hardly a fault.
The Lighting Round
To the list of factors that affect festival coverage, I suppose I should also add word count (how much I can write). While I’m grateful for having been able to spend my week in Rotterdam hitting the program’s high points, covering avant-garde shorts is a frustrating business because it so quickly turns into a numbers game. To put it into perspective, during those three hours I spent watching Hard to Be a God, I could have watched twenty more shorts by twenty more filmmakers. As it stands, I’ve managed to see nearly 70 of the shorts that played at IFFR, most of which are deserving of critical attention, but covering that many films is impractical. Instead, I’ll close with a few inadequate words on a few notable programs.
“Vertical Cinema” was among my most anticipated events at IFFR. Ten experimental filmmakers from Austria, the Netherlands, and Japan were commissioned to make 35mm films to be projected onto a screen that had been rotated 90 degrees. Because the films were projected in CinemaScope ratio, the resulting image towered some sixty feet over the viewers who packed into both sold-out shows at Arminius, a cathedral-turned-meeting space. As I alluded to earlier, “Vertical Cinema” was a disappointment, if only because too often the individual films were not fundamentally vertical. Esther Urlus’s Chrome is gorgeous, a wonderful film, but it would be essentially the same if projected horizontally. The same could be said of Joost Rekveld’s #43, Rosa Menkman’s Lunar Storm, Manuel Knapp’s V~, Walzkörpersperre by Gert-Jan Prins and Martijn van Boven, and Bring Me The Head Of Henri Chrétien! by Billy Roisz & Dieter Kovačič. The latter was especially frustrating because it opens with a snippet of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), its famous CinemaScope images now shrunken to a fraction of their original size. This led me to expect an extended exploration of the medium itself – something along the lines of Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005) – but Roisz and Kovačič soon abandon Leone for data moshing and compression artifacts. I understand the cost and complexities of working with film, but I was surprised by how many of the films in “Vertical Cinema” were blown up to 35mm from native digital sources.
The overall effect of “Vertical Cinema” was also diminished by a general sameness in the program. Nearly all of the filmmakers, it seems, approached the project with the goal of manufacturing an ecstatic experience for the audience, and they relied too heavily on noise soundtracks to achieve it. We were told at the start that earplugs were available, and I soon wished I’d grabbed some – not because I don’t like that style of score but because a 90-minute program can’t sustain that level of intensity. It exhausts and numbs the senses. The exceptions to this rule were Deorbit, Makino Takashi & Telcosystems’ cacophonous whatsit, which really does achieve rapturous heights, and Johann Lurf’s Pyramid Flare, which was the only silent film and the only docu-realistic piece in the program. (I ask this sincerely: what percentage of avant-garde films would be improved if they screened silently? Twenty-five percent? More?) “Vertical Cinema” is such a timely concept, as Facebook, Instagram, and Vine are normalising portrait and square aspect ratios for moving images. If great vertical filmmakers are to emerge, I suspect that’s where we’ll find them.
“Resonating Spaces” was a welcome opportunity to revisit two of the best films that screened at Wavelengths, Nick Collins’s Trissákia 3 and Robert Beavers’ Listening to the Space in My Room, along with new work by John Price and Laida Lertxundi. Trissákia 3 is a silent, 16mm study of shadow and light, in both the literal and metaphoric senses. Shot in and around the ruins of a Byzantine church in Greece, the film reminded me of a photo I’ve always loved, Brett Weston’s “Broken Window” (1937), which turns the jagged hole at the centre of a shattered piece of glass into an anxiety-causing and impossibly black absence. In Trissákia 3 Collins reverses the effect by shooting from within the shadowed ruins through holes and cracks in the crumbling walls. Ancient icons are still visible within the church, but they’re sterilised by the film, which exalts, instead, the hallowed light that illuminates them. The latest additions to Price’s Sea Series continue his experiments with hand-processed 35mm. Here he shoots fairly typical beach scenes – children splashing in the water, canoes and toy boats, a lighthouse – but the aged stock and handmade techniques turn them into moving versions of James Whistler’s Nocturnes. I didn’t see anything more beautiful all week.
Finally, I attended the “Drive with Care” program because I was intrigued by the publicity images and one-sentence description for Joel Wanek’s Sun Song: “Experience pure poetry on a silent bus journey from night into day in Durham, North Carolina.” As it turned out, Sun Song was the lone standout in what was otherwise a weak and scattershot program. After the screening Wanek talked a bit about the Alabama-born jazz musician Sun Ra, who claimed that he must have been born on another planet – how else to explain the treatment he and other African Americans received here on earth? Sun Song is a kind of naturalistic sci-fi film that imagines a journey back home to some forgotten, more perfect world. Wanek, a recent graduate of Duke University’s Experimental and Documentary Arts program, shot Sun Song over six months during daily rides on public buses. He’d shoot in the morning on the east-bound route and in the evenings while headed west, so that the bus was always driving directly into the light. The film begins in the dark, early morning hours and ends awash in a warm glow.
When I interviewed Dorsky a few years ago, I mentioned that a shot in his film Sarabande (2008) reminded me of those times as a child when I would lie in the back seat of our station wagon at night, staring up at the passing street lights and telephone wires. He smiled: “It’s something primal, right? It’s a moment that has no purpose, except that it’s pure is-ness.” Sun Song is one of those projects that is so perfectly conceived there’s a risk that the film itself might be redundant. But its genius is in the execution, in its particular manifestation of is-ness. Wanek is not another Walker Evans, who famously carried a concealed camera onto Depression-era New York subway trains in order to capture the “true” faces of passengers. The subjects of Wanek’s portraits are active participants in this journey, which lends the images a curious grace and dignity, and the world they inhabit is cloistered, commonplace and sublime. Wanek’s shots of streetlight passing rhythmically over the bus’s sparkling, everyday, slip-resistant floor would not be out of place in Dorsky’s recent work – they have that quality and are that beautiful. And the final three minutes of Sun Song are as exciting and as impeccably edited as anything I’ve seen in years. It’s the most radical depiction of space travel since the highway scene in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972)! That Wanek was able to produce such a mature, surprising, and deeply human piece so early in his filmmaking career (Sun Song was his MFA thesis project) gives me great hope. Films like this are justification enough to celebrate avant-garde shorts programs at our major festivals.
International Film Festival Rotterdam
22 January – 2 February 2014
Festival website: http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com/en/