Malcolm Le Grice, Horror Film 2, 1972. Performance view, Raven Row, London, March 4, 2017. Photo: Mark Blower.

VISITORS DRIFTED IN AND OUT of London’s Raven Row all weekend, laying on the floor, sitting on the stairs, waiting out an unexpected power cut, chatting and mixing gin-and-tonics in the interval (with lemon, of course). The convivial occasion was a weekend devoted to restaging a selection of expanded cinema works by the Filmaktion group, widely recognized as central to the history of artists’ film practice in Britain yet rarely seen due to the difficulty of orchestrating their display.

Curated by Mark Webber, the program formed part of Raven Row’s ongoing episodic exhibition “This Way Out of England: Gallery House in Retrospect.” Open only at weekends from February 9 to March 26 in a different iteration each time, the show draws attention to and reactivates the ethos of Gallery House, an influential but short-lived venue for experimental, interdisciplinary art. In 1972, the German Institute in South Kensington (now the Goethe-Institut) took over the townhouse adjacent to its own with plans for expansion. Gallerist Sigi Krauss was recruited to organize an exhibition program in the empty space prior to the beginning of construction—an undertaking that lasted only until the summer of 1973. A decidedly risk-taking, noncommercial space, Gallery House provided support for emerging artists’ film practices, particularly those that pushed beyond the confines of the movie theater to interrogate the apparatus and its relation to the viewer in an expanded context.

In March 1973, the space hosted a group of filmmakers who would soon assume the name Filmaktion. Eager to move their 16-mm projectors out of soundproof booths and into the proximity of the audience, this loosely affiliated group consisted of core members Gill Eatherley, Malcolm Le Grice, Annabel Nicolson, and William Raban. At Raven Row, all but Nicholson were on hand to present their own works and, when needed, collaborate in the staging of others’. Using multiple projectors and often involving the presence of the filmmaker’s own body, the pieces on view tended to emphasize the liveness of the encounter between viewer and screen, extricating the moving image from an economy of the multiple to insist on its status as a performing art.

William Raban, Take Measure, 1972. Performance view, Raven Row, London, March 4, 2017. Photo: Mark Blower.

A statement on a leaflet produced for the June 1973 Filmaktion week at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool captures the group’s anti-illusionist interests: “From a broad base of using film as film, materially and formally, a concern has developed to treat the projection situation as an immediate reality in time and space.” Each artist’s practice explores this in its own way. Le Grice, for instance, shows a keen fascination with the nonnarrative attractions of early cinema: In Horror Film 2 (1972), shown publicly for the first time since the 1970s, he combines anaglyph 3D, shadowplay, and the rear projection of silent horror films in a spectacular dissection of cinema’s basic principles. Eatherley, meanwhile, often explores the relation between an object—chairs in Chair Installation (1972), the artist’s body as she holds a broom in Aperture Sweep (1973)—as it is at once represented onscreen and materially present in the room. Nicolson’s single-screen shorts Shapes (1970) and Frames (1973) testify to the centrality of contact printing to much of the Filmaktion work. And Raban, in now-legendary interventions such as 2’45” (1973), as well as lesser-known works like Diagonal (1973) and Surface Tension (1974–76), turns his attention to the limits of the frame, destabilizing the naturalness of the single rectangle.

The Filmaktion weekend was above all a tremendous opportunity to encounter hard-to-see classics—and for free, no less, as they were at Gallery House. But bringing the group of artists together and presenting their work within the context of an engagement with an historical exhibition space adds significantly to the importance of this already important event. The promise of a history of exhibitions is to move away from narratives of artistic production founded in the agency of the lone individual. Too often, this promise is betrayed, as a history of artists gives way not to a network of affiliation but to a history of star curators. “This Way Out of England”—and in particular Webber’s Filmaktion weekend, with its emphasis on the liveness of artworks and friendships alike—offers a glimpse of what the history of exhibitions can be when it refuses to devolve into a history of curators. The event made a case for the importance of considering the networks of support, whether interpersonal or institutional, that undergird artistic practice. The return to Gallery House speaks to the special power of those off-kilter, idiosyncratic spaces that operate outside the norm, producing an impact out of all proportion with their size. As Raven Row prepares to close its doors to the public for an unspecified period, it’s something worth remembering.

Erika Balsom

“Filmaktion: Expanded Cinema and Film Performance” ran March 4 and 5 at London’s Raven Row as part of the exhibition “This Way Out of England: Gallery House in Retrospect” (through March 26).

Of Montreal


Donald Shebib, Goin’ Down the Road, 1970, 35 mm, 90 minutes.

IN HIS NEWLY PUBLISHED AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Director’s Cut, the filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, a son of Toronto’s Cabbagetown slums, recalls his response to reading his friend Mordecai Richler’s novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz for the first time, in the late 1950s, when the two Canadian expats were cohabiting in London. “‘Not only is this the best Canadian novel ever written,’ I declared, ‘but one day I am going back to Canada and make a film out of it.’ We then both laughed at the absurdity of the idea because, of course, there was no Canadian film industry whatsoever at this time.”

By the time that Kotcheff finally made his Duddy Kravitz movie in 1974, the Canadian film industry had well and truly burst into being, a process already underway when Richler was finishing his novel, as his hometown of Québec was becoming a hotbed of documentary activity in the “direct cinema” style. In fact, someone interested in these bumptious years of Canadian cinema’s adolescence and young adulthood could put together a pretty good curriculum from Anthology Film Archives programming over the past year. The 2016 survey “Québec Direct Cinema” was followed by a program of tax-shelter films produced under the auspices of the Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA), and now following hot on its heels is “1970s Canadian Independents,” a four-film sidebar of outsider movies that wear the impoverished circumstances of their production on their sleeves.

Documentary has been the cornerstone of Canadian cinema from the days of the stern Scotsman John Grierson at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) through the blossoming of direct cinema, and the documentary impulse is a factor in all of AFA’s featured independents—both indulging it and defying the rules of the self-appointed guardians of nonfiction purity. Perhaps the best-known movie playing Anthology is Donald Shebib’s northern Neorealist work Goin’ Down the Road (1970), a simple story, simply, truthfully, and forcefully told. Pete and Joey (Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley), two guys from the rural Maritimes facing the far side of thirty who’ve never had a pot to piss in, jump in their junk-heap Impala and head to the land of opportunity that is Toronto. The city air briefly awakens Pete’s aspirations to gentility: He looks for white-collar work at first, and when his buddies are shoplifting Hank Snow LPs from the Country & Western section in the basement of an A&A’s record emporium, he’s upstairs ogling a high-class broad listening to Erik Satie. Joey, who doesn’t have any of Pete’s highfalutin hang-ups, knocks up a waitress, Beth (Jayne Eastwood), and marries her in a sodden, sloppy, and very touching wedding ceremony that feels fly-on-the-wall observed. As the boys move from the promise of spring to a winter of discontent, however, they find themselves in the same jam—ducking landlords, working the worst jobs in Ontario, and finally brawling with a beefy checkout boy in the parking lot of a Loblaws supermarket after an ill-conceived shoplifting heist.

Shebib had made documentaries for both the NFB and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and his cameraman Richard Leiterman, shooting handheld on 16-mm reversal, likewise had a nonfiction background. A great deal of the film’s enduring power lies in the sense of veracity they give it—in the unpolished performances by actors whose faces bespeak the city miles of working-class wear and tear, and in the presentation of crap bowling-alley, car-wash, and bottling-plant gigs. Goin’ Down the Road was influential in style and, if the films in “Canadian Independents” are to be taken as a representative sample, subject matter, for each film in the series is concerned, to varying degrees, with male friendships and with not making it Pierre Trudeau’s Canada.

Frank Vitale, Montreal Main, 1974, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes.

Larry Kent had been known for some years before the release of The Apprentice / Fleur Bleue (1971), identified in AFA’s catalogue notes as “arguably the first fully bilingual film to see commercial release in Canada.” I haven’t seen Kent’s student feature The Bitter Ash (1963) or High (1967), both apparently held to be groundbreaking efforts, but this story of Québécois layabout Jean-Pierre (Steve Fiset) lured into a life of larceny by his friend Dock (Jean-Pierre Cartier) while torn between a flighty Anglo model (Susan Sarandon) and his French separatist girlfriend (Céline Bernier) was a little too heavy on counterculture quirk to go down smooth. Fiset has the dark, horse-mouthed handsomeness of a young John Travolta, and Sarandon, in only her second screen role, makes an impression in a transparent, backlit peasant dress, but throughout Kent is over-reliant on low-hanging comic fruit like a priest smacking his lips while hearing of free-love escapades in confession. The seriocomic tone is more wobbly and uncertain than complex, right up to a miscalibrated tragic ending, and the political content seems decidedly glib and from an outsider’s perspective compared to something like Gilles Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac (The Cat Out of the Bag, 1964).

The series does contain real revelation, however, in the little-screened collaborations of Frank Vitale, Allan Moyle, and Stephen Lack. Vitale will be at AFA presenting both his Montreal Main (1974) and Moyle’s The Rubber Gun (1977) alongside motormouthed muse and performer Lack, who appears in both films. Vitale, born in Jacksonville, Florida, first came to Montreal in the 1960s to study at McGill University, where he met collaborator Moyle. Today, Vitale is an instructor at New York’s School for the Visual Arts, while Moyle has tasted respectable mainstream success with the superlative Pump Up the Volume (1990), but in the ’70s they were both regulars of the wide-open, skeevy scene on Montreal’s Boulevard Saint Laurent. This is the backdrop of Montreal Main, written by Vitale, Moyle, and Lack, and starring all three. Frank (Vitale), a bearded introvert described early on as “the noisy silent type,” is a photographer who’s spent time in New York but who now follows his tow-headed partner in crime, Bozo (Moyle), around French Canada. Given that the boys hang out in an almost-entirely homosexual milieu, they begin to suspect the nature of their friendship, but a desultory experiment in mutual masturbation in the VW bus that they cruise around in puts any question to rest. After this, the deceptively cherubic Bozo returns to playing sick-fuck misogynistic head games with teenage hippies, and Frank’s attention turns to the beautiful long-haired twelve-year-old son (John Sutherland) of some friends, with whom he begins a disconcertingly close relationship whose true nature he seems afraid to guess, though there’s a long, telling glance at the nape of the boy’s neck during a daytrip up the Colline de la Croix—the cult of unbounded introspective self-exploration leading to a frightening precipice.

Frank Vitale, Montreal Main, 1974, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes. John Sutherland.

Vitale collaborated again with Moyle on his 1976 East End Hustle—unrepresented at AFA, but certainly worth tracking down—before leaving Montreal and returning to shoot The Rubber Gun (1977), in which Moyle stars and narrates as a McGill sociology student drawn, for ostensibly studious reasons, into the orbit of an amateur artist and professional drug dealer who exemplifies the gift of gab and has a stockpile of amphetamines to keep the gifts coming. The drug dealer is played by Lack, later the (much more sedate) star of David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), who made his screen debut in Montreal Main, shooing an old chicken-hawk away from a young Sutherland at a penny arcade before proceeding to rat-a-tat off stream-of-consciousness poetry about “decadent street janitorial paranoia, standin’ here on the tiled urinal of Babylon.”

Lack is a snapping live-wire presence, and the Lack-Moyle-Vitale movies represent a nervous, tweaked-out energy absent from the comparatively lugubrious Goin’ Down the Road—a beer-drinkers’ downer cinema versus a pill-poppers’ uppers cinema, you might say. Studiously reporting on his drug buddies in The Rubber Gun, Moyle’s character describes them as “vitalized by drug use,” but the potential danger of that volatile vitality figures throughout these films, which altogether make up a portrait of Montreal in a moment of deceptively jittery “post-’60s stagnation,” which Vitale described in a 2009 interview: “The Main was populated with Greek and Portuguese immigrants. The shops were owned by former immigrants, the Jews, who had moved to the suburbs. To the east the predominate French culture insulated us from the real world. For a group of us Anglophone artists, who lived on practically no income, the Main was a timeless backwater of communal dinners, art openings and parties.” To this potent brew we can add the intersection of the underground art and criminal communities, as united in Lack’s Rubber Gun character. As a body of work, these Montreal street sketches are among the most dangerous, fearless Canadian films that I’ve seen––proof that stagnation can be remarkably fertile.

Nick Pinkerton

“1970s Canadian Independents” runs Thursday, March 9 through Sunday, March 12, at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Eduardo Williams, The Human Surge, 2016, 16 mm, Super 16, and HD video, color, sound, 97 minutes. Chai Fonacier.

AS THE CULTURAL CONVERSATION breaks down into spasms of splenetic indignation, the fear of being misunderstood runs to epidemic levels. In such an atmosphere, it is an increasing rarity to encounter artworks that come packaged without an instruction manual meant to clear up any potential confusion. And if you, like me, are bored to the point of catalepsy by the resulting parade of self-defining artwork that stretches limitlessly toward the horizon, perhaps you’ll make the ideal viewer for Argentinian director Eduardo Williams’s crackling The Human Surge, a dense snarl of a movie that only gets more spectacularly tangled as you try to unravel it.

Williams, who turns thirty this year, had already made a name for himself on the festival circuit with a series of distinctive, globe-trotting shorts when this, his feature debut, took the main prize in the Filmmakers of the Present competition at the Locarno International Film Festival. (The jury included Dario Argento, who knows a thing or two about formal bravura.) The Human Surge is a maverick work, the most obvious of its distinguishing traits being its triptych form, which individuates each section through location and visual texture. The first part, set in a flooded neighborhood in Buenos Aires, is shot on 16 mm. The second, in Maputo, Mozambique, achieves a unique palette with footage originally captured with a Blackmagic pocket camera that has been filmed off of a computer screen onto Super 16. In the final section, Williams takes a RED Scarlet digital camera to the Philippine province of Bohol.

None of these abrupt location changes are announced by signposting, and Williams takes no pains to keep a sluggish viewer abreast of what’s going on. Each section trots out new “protagonists”—I use scare quotes because it took me a second viewing to get a handle on the narrative elements, in no small part because I was gobsmacked by the total audacity of the thing the first time around. Even Williams’s cameraman doesn’t always seem to be clear on whom he’s supposed to be following, as subjects are picked up and dropped as if by caprice. A bit of dialogue that occurs late in the film—“Have you tried following a beautiful girl when you’re lost?”—seems close to the logic of the camerawork, which feels responsive, alive, unmoored, quixotic, erratic, obedient to whim. The film’s signature move is a wavering handheld sequence shot trailing behind or alongside a character or characters—not the intimate shoulder-perch shot familiar from the Dardenne brothers or a hundred Hubert Bals Fund movies, but one that instead keeps the camera carefully at an uncomfortable distance, where facial features, if visible at all, are just on the cusp of legibility, a distance that stirs a certain tension in the viewer, makes you feel like if you just squint and lean in a little you might get it. This is frequently combined with murky, grainy low-light or even pitch-dark settings, reducing the subjects to disembodied voices, as in a scene where the Argentinian kids pile into the hollow of a tree trunk.

Eduardo Williams, The Human Surge, 2016, 16 mm, Super 16, and HD video, color, sound, 97 minutes. Luca Julián Lopez, Ezequiel Cirigliano, Sergio Morosini, and Emanuele Serra.

Williams and his dual DPs, Joaquin Neira and Julien Guillery, have found their style and tone in part by pulling from the lexicon of amateur videography, from cell-phone video to pornographic webcam—as early as his 2011 short Could See a Puma, Williams can be found experimenting with similar free-floating cinematographic peregrinations. It’s an aesthetic appropriate to the film’s subjects: roving bands of twentysomethings, mostly male, mostly seen at leisure, on their way to nowhere in particular at a rambling, ambling pace, talking about nothing much at all. The dialogue is of tossed-off observations, frequently overdubbed, which occasionally veer into the territory of the poetic-philosophical. “Did you know the future’s silence is going to sound just like a crowded food court?” asks one boy. “I dreamt the sky was covered in advertisements,” muses another. The Argentine section revolves around Exe, one of the film’s more clearly delineated characters, living in his cramped family home, fired from a job as a supermarket stock boy, and keeping up a sideline in webcam exhibitionism with friends—there is an unstimulated sex act, startling precisely for how casually it occurs, for the sheer banality of the thing. In Mozambique, we pick up with another group of boys seen doing the same burlesque with less commitment, a way to make a quick buck between odd jobs—desultory office work, migrant labor, hanging out behind the counter at some kind of arcade. Finally, we surface on the other side of the world, in Bohol, where a cache of characters whose previous acquaintance is difficult to gauge wander through jungle undergrowth, congregating around a swimming hole, where they splash about while discussing, among other things, the possible location of a cyber café.

Up until a tripod-stabilized postscript inside an antiseptic Philippine factory that manufactures tablet devices, the film’s abiding aesthetic is ramshackle, slipshod, and willfully off-key, though Williams is very capable of creating very precise coup de cinema effects, reserved for the transitions between sections. Passing from Argentina to Mozambique, we seem to travel seamlessly through a computer screen to arrive on the other side, while the leap from Mozambique to the Philippines follows a stream of urine falling on an anthill to plunge into the underground tunnels, mingling in close quarters with the shiny black bodies of the teeming insects. (There are shades here of the dive beneath the manicured lawn in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet [1986].)

Eduardo Williams, The Human Surge, 2016, 16 mm, Super 16, and HD video, color, sound, 97 minutes.

Williams endeavors to pass through the wiring of intricate networks in the case of both the internet and the anthill. The casual air disguises The Human Surge’s thematic coherency, beginning with the title’s invocation of organic-technological hybridity, as echoed in the analog-to-digital progression of its format shift, or in a moment where a child is heard measuring the human genome in gigabytes. While precious few filmmakers have seriously attempted to address the enormous cognitive earthquake represented by the internet’s colonization of daily life, Williams dares and is actually up for the challenge. From an interview last year:

“My brain and practice have been transformed by technology. For example, by the video games that I played when I was young. In video games, you have these different levels that you advance to, moving through multiple spaces. And then the chats—at many points in my life, it seemed like online chatting was my only means of communication. It is a different way of speaking, of connecting. I didn’t think of it at first, but this is why I structure my films the way I do. It’s about how I see and relate to the world.”

Inasmuch as his film’s subjects have a single unifying purpose, it is to get themselves online—cadging working cell phones from friends or ranging around in search of a wifi signal. Binaries are invoked only to be busted wide open. Williams shows us ways of life at once state of the art and primitive, borderless and highly parochial, under the sway of both science and superstition. In a discursive conversation about “Black Magic,” two of the Mozambique youths muse over “people controlling one another from afar”—which, of course, is exactly what happens on the Chaturbate site they log onto. And while a sense of threatening environmental cataclysm hangs over the movie from the early images of streets flooded by an unspoken catastrophe, the film is also suffused with moments of bucolic natural beauty, of unspoiled beaches and forests and open fields in what seems like a perpetual gloaming. The mood of The Human Surge is mostly one of repose, but repose haunted by the prospect of work, the threat of which is felt throughout the film—shirking it, submitting to it, dreading waking up to it, getting fired, walking off of the job. (And yes, those are worker ants.) It makes for an exhilarating, boldly paradoxical experience—a headlong dive into the rich, knotty, sticky undergrowth amid a proliferation of tidy, well-lit paths.

Nick Pinkerton

Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge opens Friday, March 3 at the Metrograph in New York.

Fernando Pérez, Últimos días en la Habana (Last Days in Havana), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes. Diego (Jorge Martínez).

DIEGO (JORGE MARTÍNEZ) has been reduced to the status of permanent patient. Dying of AIDS, he lies in bed in the apartment he shares with Miguel (Patricio Wood), a friend with whom he has little in common other than that Miguel once defended him from bullies when they were adolescents. In the depressed environs of contemporary Havana, Miguel has gone into a sort of internal exile. By day, he scrapes by as a dishwasher at a restaurant; at night, he gazes at a map of the United States in the kitchen, dreaming of escape, while in the bedroom, Diego holds court with his ferocious wit in gossip sessions with neighbors, hustlers, and distant relatives.

Through this concentrated, rather minimal storyline, Últimos días en la Habana (Last Days in Havana), the latest from Fernando Pérez, evokes the essence of life in the Cuban capital today—the street-level feel of abject desperation mixed with riotous humor and a wealth of creativity in managing the challenges of quotidian life. These rich emotions specific to the Cuban experience reach their apotheosis at the film’s end, when, in an intimate and moving monologue, one of the characters confides, “My greatest fear isn’t change—it’s that nothing will change. That everything will remain the same.”

It was a cinematic force field such as this example for which the Berlin International Film Festival was built, and as its sixty-seventh edition wound to a close last week, I recklessly wandered through without submitting to any one particular program. There were too many discoveries to be made outside the feature competition: Últimos días, for instance, was in the noncompeting Berlinale Special program, while Bruce LaBruce’s latest, The Misandrists, made a splash in the Panorama section. Here, LaBruce returns to his enduring obsession with radical leftist clans, bringing back The Raspberry Reich’s (2004) Susanne Sachsse as the leader of an underground lesbian-separatist enclave in the rural outskirts of Berlin. With its international mix of professional actors and beautiful scenesters, The Misandrists is LaBruce’s radical feminist hijacking of the “women-in-prison” and “girls’ school” B-movie genres, demonstrating how humor as a political weapon is infinitely more tactical than didacticism . . . especially when it’s combined with didacticism! It is one of his best films in years.

All but ignored by critics and the jury, newcomer Liu Jian’s animated feature Hao Ji Le (Have a Nice Day) is a memorable black comedy–slash–violent thriller that centers on the theft of a bag containing a million yuan. The film’s colorful palette is a spot-on evocation of China’s neon-sleaze cityscapes, the voice-over acting is superb, and the sharp script offers a fresh take on materialistic obsession in today’s not-so-red China. Another genre mash-up, Japanese director Sabu’s Mr. Long begins as a blood-soaked martial-arts film before morphing into social drama, then melting into a tender romance, and then switching back to an edge-of-your-seat thriller culminating in tear-drenched drama. It could’ve been a mess, but Sabu’s expert direction, together with an understated performance by lead actor Chang Chen, made for a masterful piece of storytelling.

German filmmaking has never quite recovered from the storm of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Watching a restored version of Fassbinder’s 1973 science-fiction miniseries Welt am Draht (World on a Wire) in a 205-minute-long marathon screening at the Berlinale pointed toward a gnawing lack: It all comes down to style. Fassbinder’s great accomplishment was to make films as though he had never seen a film before, as though he were both a cine-naïf and someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic art. Style is a heightening of affect that is unique to each practitioner, and Fassbinder’s position as a stylist is unparalleled. You can watch a work as masterfully and complexly scripted as Welt am Draht for pure style, following the magnificent Fassbinderian flow of affect: the 360-degree revolving shots, the sudden and inexplicable crescendo in a character’s spiel, the casting of exclusively smoky-voiced male baritones, the bizarre gesticulations of a supporting character in the distant background. Watching Fassbinder in the context of the contemporary filmmaking showcased by the Berlinale highlights the relative flatness—or affectlessness—that passes for style today, but which is actually a lack of style. In the end, the very presence of Fassbinder at this year’s Berlinale made the absence of any disrupting force acutely felt.

Travis Jeppesen

The Sixty-Seventh International Filmfestspiele Berlin ran February 9 through 19.