Acts and Intermissions

San Francisco Mission District’s Other Cinema featured film experimentalist Abigail Child last Saturday night, with her new 57 minute film Acts and Intermissions.  It was preceded by her 2004 short The Future Is Behind You. Child’s work blooms from the soils of the academic experimental film world, crafted with an East Coast sensibility: studious, meticulous, theory-based, and low-budget. Her films display a unique mastery of both form and content, graced with delicate editing, and colored by whispering sound designs which are all her own.

The Future Is Behind You, a work of sheer archival beauty, fabricates a film story of a Jewish family’s displacement and murder, interpreted from scraps of German home movies from the 1930’s. It delivers history from the inside out, bringing nuance to a familiar story of holocaust. Child interrogates the footage with repetition, zooms, slow motion, and flipflopping screen direction, foregrounding moments of laughter over impending terror. The daily joys of two sisters provide a filter — sifting historical events in bits and pieces, treating history as a moving, incomplete process, centralized by real lives.

Arts and Intermissions uses similar techniques from the point of view of famed anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940). The film challenges the viewer by creating an impressionist painting of her life, an assemblage of dots, with heavy use of onscreen text, drawn from Goldman’s letters and diaries. Child uses Emma Goldman to make a film that is not quite about Emma Goldman, but about cycles of political resistance in the last century and a half. The style undermines expectations of traditional historical biography, and may better coalesce if you study the basic facts of Goldman’s life before seeing it. When I asked the filmmaker about her choice to include only a handful of images of Emma Goldman, Child replied that she was trying to “disperse [Emma] into the present.”

Indeed, remarkable early-20th century protest footage interlaces with recent scenes of mass resistance. The film also includes contemporary scenes of workers in a yarn factory. These surreal shots of beautiful mess and mechanization, establish the film’s ground in a Marxist viewpoint. Another recent biographical documentary,  I Am Not Your Negro, about author James Baldwin, similarly interweaves images of past and present. (See my February 12th blog post)  The days of the traditional documentary, with its objectifying, distanced historical perspective, seem to be over. These films suggest there’s no longer space to simply observe. However we choose to act, history is living us, and we are participants.

Häxän Project

Above:  performance by the Church of Color and Light

Last night, Other Cinema hosted a gathering of witches, both embodied and bound in celluloid. The night began with a brewing of cups by the Church of Color and Light, a local ritualistic performance collective that uses overhead projection, dance movement, and incantation for audience involvement and transformation. One slithering spirit even abandoned a rubber snake in my lap. Soundtracked by the buzzing of flies, their cultus ceremony set tone for a spooky evening with intermittent camera flashes punctuating the dark.

Cohesively curated experimental film and video from past iterations of the Häxän Festival filled the remainder of the evening’s program. Häxän celebrates witchcraft and the personal occult from a feminine perspective, with all works curated and made by women. The program was strong yet scrappy, with a generous dose of silence and nudity. A couple of pieces veered too close to the works of experimental film great Maya Deren (unsurprisingly) and animator Lewis Klahr, to be truly original.  But the lovely, ghostly Trapped Between Frames by Nazare Soares seemed outright possessed with its multi-exposed film frames trembling and twitching.

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Trapped Between Frames by Nazare Soares

Saturn Return was the other standout. This homemade video set on a rocky Mexican outcropping featured creators Ale Bachlechner and Olivia Platzer in a smart and satirical take on astrology, self-help and the nature video. Creative costuming and absurd dialogue left us laughing at the enactments of a string of relationship breakups triggered by the unpredictable age of 29-1/2, otherwise known as the dreaded Saturn Return.

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Saturn Return by Ale Bachlechner and Olivia Platzer

Photos by Kristin Cato

Dust to Dust at Gray Area

Above:  Improvised multi-projection by the Trinchera Ensamble

San Francisco Cinematheque‘s Perpetual Motion series opened on Friday night at Gray Area to host a large crowd of live cinema enthusiasts. The series extends through December 7 and features both international and local artists who show up to create work in the moment. A growing arts movement, expanded cinema offers film experiences as live rather than prerecorded events. These may include multiple moving projectors, live manipulation of image and improvised audio tracks.

This premiere installment featured arc, the sentinels of West Oakland’s Black Hole Cinematheque, projecting layers of found film detritus. Jürgen Reble, on a rare visit from Düsseldorf, Germany, and the Trinchera Ensamble, with its eyepopping abstractions, rounded out the show.  These pieces all come from the School of Art as Endurance Test with elongated TRTs (total running times) to form immersive aesthetic experiences.  The chaotic yet repetitive confluences require audience surrender, as they aim for a kind of purifying transcendence. Either they (or you) pass the test or they (or you) don’t.

It was the second piece, Alchemie by Jürgen Reble, that most caught me with its ritualistic fury.  It raised the stakes to fulfill the promise of a true one-off event with a higher level of unpredictability. In this piece, the film loop circled across our consciousness to the point of mania while passing through chemicals and agent-changing solutions.  We saw orphaned, trance-gripped beings change from negative image to positive image to pure grain to obliteration.

The object of art being destroyed by the very act of its presentation isn’t new. Years ago, I witnessed a similar event: a loop of black leader film punctured and eventually destroyed by a sewing machine.  However, this one featured haunted visages that glowed beneath unraveling streams of emulsion, faces of those seemingly lost in time and space under the spell of, or perhaps in communication with, sublime cosmic forms. It was enough to induce a mystical fever in those of us susceptible to such enchantments.

The next Perpetual Motion show takes place on October 11 with Ken Jacobs’ Nervous Magic Lantern.

Field Niggas at Crossroads 2016

The San Francisco Cinematheque presents Crossroads 2016 this weekend, its annual festival of artist-made film and video. The festival celebrates abstract works that fall far outside mainstream cinema, and which include non-traditional documentary, and genre-defying gems of artistic expression. Field Niggas by Khalik Allah, an unflinching observational testimony of the drug-induced street community in Harlem, New York, arguably marks this year’s most significant inclusion.

Pointing a camera at this intoxicated group immediately raises questions of exploitation, but the long takes, tight close-ups, and extensive recordings communicate the consent and respect of its subjects. The relationship gets further complicated by its presentation to the artist-elite at the Crossroads festival, a position from which my own commentary emerges here, but is also testament to the festival’s willingness to accept the challenge of that complexity. Sociological revelations, exposed humanity and the tone of engagement make this video a work of exceptional value.

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Filmed at the crosshairs of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, this video bears witness to a confluence of diverse outsiders, including children and pregnant women, who appear to be drifting in and out of a dangerous sea without life jackets. It generously allows us entry, and makes it impossible to avert our eyes from the difficult realities it represents, a world infected by the use of K2, a rock-bottom-cheap synthetic marijuana that poses severe health risks.

The slow motion portraiture separates voice from bodies, with untethered interviews vaguely associated with faces on screen. This technique disorients the viewer, but also draws us in, demands active listening and forces questions. The words from its multitude of characters vacillate from indecipherable to deluded to spiritually enlightened to intellectually critical. Requiring active viewer participation, it builds a bridge for those willing to cross. For this community accepts anyone and everyone willing to enter, even the police who lurk like familiar uncles. With luscious photography, Field Niggas beautifies and humanizes, accomplishing a most sacred intervention simply by its deliverance.cdn.indiewire.psdops.com

Pixilation Prodigies at Other Cinema

ATA Gallery was stuffed to the gills last night with an audience eager to injest a program of high caliber, mostly local animation work. Politically-tinged experimental shorts introduced the show, then Jeremy Rourke transported us through dreamy ruminations of his shifting studio coordinates in Goodbye Cole/Hello Tunnel. Cutouts of vintage imagery, postcards springing into action, and layers of clay, video, and pencil peeled off into nested realities. Adding spoken word, song, and guitar, Rourke jumped on and off a podium to interact with the projections in surprising ways. With exuberant splash, his inventions brought the audience to cheers. I highly recommend you look out for more performances of Jeremy Rourke, possibly next season at Other Cinema!

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Facing West Shadow Opera then performed an ode to Walt Whitman, celebrating links between opera and nature in the settling of the Wild West. Two opera singers and a cello gave a flawless classical performance. However, music outpaced the visuals. Delicate and beautiful shadow puppets required surer hands and precise direction. At times their movements felt more awkward than graceful. The narrative, with bulky intertitles, fell flat.

The Academy Award nominated short Last Day of Freedom, directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, concluded the program with a somber note. It told the story of Manny Babbitt, a traumatized Vietnam war veteran who ended up on death row through a tragic miscarriage of justice. The pencil drawn animation and rotoscoping of the veteran’s brother sensitively expressed this disturbing story.

Photos by Kristin Cato

Timeless Motion at Shapeshifters

Shapeshifters Cinema, an important East Bay meeting ground for local experimental filmmakers, takes place at Temescal Arts Center on the second Sunday of each month at 8pm.  This series celebrates live cinema performance with a gratifying bias toward old-fashioned celluloid and the technology that accompanies it.

Last night, six artists from the SOMArts Gallery Timeless Motion exhibition collaborated for an evening of multi-screen projection with live audio mix.  I counted at least seven devices – Super8, 16mm, live video feed, and a couple overhead projectors from my 1970s days in elementary school.  Media machinery occupied half the seating space offering every spectator a unique eyeline with clunky silhouettes of technical sprawl.  Artists moved in and out of the space for contiguous and overlapping performances, unified by the sounds of DJ Cyrus Tabar who stepped in last minute with an enjoyable mix of rapidly composed audio when the original sound designer cancelled due to a car accident.

While the spirit of experimentation created an energized space for play, I would have loved more thematic coherence, or perhaps more demarcations between artistic voices.  Visual juxtapositions were hit-or-miss.  Keith Evans’ abstract live video feed of jellyfish skins attached to a rotating Super8 reel provided the most curious invention.

 

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Photo by Gilbert Guerrero

Above: Photo by Bojana Rankovic

Black Spirituals at Other Cinema

The Black Spirituals, a two-man band made up of Zachary James Watkins and Marshall Trammell, opened the “Black Lives Matter” program at Other Cinema last night.  Serving as a benefit for NOW!, an online zine that marries experimental form with radical politics, the night’s programming showed off Black activist video and artful deconstructions of historical crimes against African Americans.

The Black Spirituals set the tone with their radical post-rock urgencies:  improvisational, cacophonous and sophisticated.  Incorporating textures of free jazz, hard rock, and electronica, their elongated sounds crashed over the audience like slow motion tsunamis.  Percussive tidepools swelled into ecstatic gutteral rage, exerting more visceral protest than Peter Menchini’s Waking Up Chief Suhr, the video document showing Black Lives Matters activists outside the San Francisco police chief’s bedroom window at 4am.  The root-tails of the Black Spirituals reach deep, tapping historical torments, which unleash sheer musical explosion, with audio levels assaulting the ears before ebbing back to ripples.   I have long believed no instrument expresses raw suffering rubbed up with anger better than a grinding electric guitar, and this group proves it so.

Here is an interview of the Black Spirituals about their collaboration and process:  http://alibi.com/music/47491/Postmodern-Black-Spirituals.html