“Heretics entombed in flaming graves!”, cites actor Paul McGann, translating from the orchestra pit an Italian intertitle. His steep voice billows throughout the Castro Theater, palatial home of San Francisco’s 2019 Silent Film Festival, as the great Matti Bye Ensemble intones stirrings of doom and dread.
I saw five films in this year’s festival. The most astonishing was L’Inferno. Italy’s first feature length film, it yanks us into a headlong dunk in the diabolical. Released in 1911, it was completed after three years and three directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro. Cineteca di Bologna restored the film in 2007, using fourteen remaining prints with intertitles in various languages. A third of its original length, it now provides 66 minutes of devilish perversion, enumerating Hell’s bolgias (a.k.a. ditches, funnels or chasms) with tortured theatrics and special effects.
An unprecedented ambitious production for its time, it boasts a simple concept: List earthly crimes and depict matching punishments with graphic horror, as described in Dante Alighieri‘s Divine Comedy, written six centuries earlier. Modes of damnation include humans morphing into upright reptiles, a man carrying his own head “like a swinging lantern”, women bathing in excrement, sinners lodged to their chins in a pond of ice, and simonious popes buried head first, feet sticking upright from the ground.
We gain entry (and escape) to this horrid landscape by following Dante and his protector, Virgil, as they inspect the fiery valleys with the detachment of anthropologists. The mood is comfortless, the display carnal, the scope of punishable deeds familiar. With somber pace, we trespass landscapes we would never wish to imagine, much less visit. It all creates an intriguing opportunity to dwell among pitchforks and take tally of our own souls.
Above: Replica of the Artists Television Access’ storefront by Jeremy Rourke
Jeremy Rourke performed I’ll Be Around last Saturday night at Other Cinema, the culmination of a year long residency at Artists’ Television Access, sponsored by the Creative Work Fund. Storyteller, stop motion animator, bard, Rourke drenches his multimedia masterpiece in good old fashioned love. With cinematic song and dance, he glorifies the gritty, amplifies the edgy, and celebrates over 30 years of underground activity. He also offers excavated evidence: ancient video missives from founders Marshall Weber and Lise Swenson, a self-propelled eviction letter from the late-80s, and a dizzying montage of former playbills.
Founder Lise Swenson promotes ATA as a resource for underground filmmakers in a decades-old video.
While I’ll Be Around barely grazes the exhaustive range of film and performance that has taken place over that 30-year span, it highlights the transitional nature of the space itself, as well as its abiding presence. Assisted by his own handmade dioramic reproduction of ATA’s storefront, Rourke narrates architectural changes — evolving screen shapes, bathroom demolitions — and explores the sidewalk scenery outside, a hat tip to ATA’s role as a vital contributor to Valencia Street. In one hilarious scene, a toy skeleton cartwheels across the walls, dancing with every detail and doorbell. It’s quite the giddy experience to watch the room in which you are sitting get so gleefully dissected on screen, both spatially and temporally.
Jeremy Rourke discusses recent bathroom demolition.
I’ll Be Around concludes with a quadra-spectral tribute to the archive beneath the floorboards owned by filmmaker, archivist, and longtime curator of the Other Cinema series, Craig Baldwin. A song constructed from 16mm film titles ensues as Rourke unleashes the poetics of educational film nomenclature.
- Sky and the Telescope
- What Time Is It In Tokyo
- Let’s Watch Plants Grow
- Dihedral Kaleidoscopes
- The Day That Sang and Cried
- The Behavior of Light
- Between Sail and Satellite
For those of us who have enjoyed Artists’ Televison Access for decades, Rourke’s generous reverberating ballad is a fitting tribute to our beloved San Francisco arts space. We can only hope against hope that our favorite underground venue will last another 30 years.
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.