Every Which Way

Erika Balsom on Experimenta at the British Film Institute

Phil Collins, Tomorrow Is Always Too Long, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 82 minutes.

LURKING IN THE SHADOW of the Frieze Art Fair and relegated to the very back pages of the print catalogue of the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival was Experimenta, an assembly of nineteen programs devoted to experimental cinema and artists’ film and video. Curated for the second year running by LUX’s Benjamin Cook and the BFI’s Helen de Witt and William Fowler, the sidebar showcased some sixty-two works varying in length, ranging from productions with crews the size of a Sundance darling to films made by a single individual in the artisanal mode long associated with avant-garde cinema.

Indeed, the breadth of the program captured the extent to which “artists’ moving image”—seemingly the preferred term in the contemporary UK context—today encompasses not only a plurality of formal and conceptual approaches, but also strikingly different financing structures and modes of production. In Britain this sector is witnessing a clear push toward bigger budgets and longer running times, coming as much from art-world interest as it does from the changed funding policies of an organization like FLAMIN (the Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network), which now offers awards of between £20,000 and £50,000 ($32,000 and $80,000) to a handful of large-scale projects rather than disbursing a greater number of more modest grants.

One outcome of this is the “artists’ feature film,” an entity that must be distinguished from the established tradition of long-form experimental filmmaking not only due to its mode of production but also its crossover aspirations. Features like Emily Wardill’s When You Fall into a Trance (2014) and Phil Collins’s Tomorrow Is Always Too Long (2014) cultivated distinct alliances with conventional genre cinema: Wardill offered a family melodrama complete with a teenage suicide attempt, while Collins staged Glaswegian musical numbers not unlike those found in Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl (2014). If one had not known their makers to be fine artists, the presence of these films within the Experimenta strand would have been somewhat perplexing, particularly given that works far more challenging and daring—to name only two, Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before (2014) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage (2014)—were shown elsewhere in the festival. This is not to suggest that Diaz and Godard would have been better accommodated in Experimenta, but simply to point to how thoroughly the parameters of “artists’ moving image” have been transformed in recent years.

Despite this tendency, it was striking how many of the program’s most outstanding films revisited the history of a more artisanal way of working and testified to its ongoing viability. Robert Beavers’s Listening to the Space in My Room (2013) is an intimate account of self-transformation that retains his mastery of craft while integrating a joy and tenderness not always present in his earlier films. Works by younger filmmakers such as Mary Helena Clark (The Dragon Is the Frame [2014]) and Sylvia Schedelbauer (Sea of Vapors [2014]) engage with established paradigms of experimental film—the diary film and the flicker film, respectively—without feeling slavishly bound to their iterations by preceding generations. Clark’s beautiful memorial to her friend, artist Mark Aguhar, wanders through the San Francisco area, past the locations of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), searching for answers but finding only reminders of loss. Schedelbauer, meanwhile, mesmerizes the viewer with pulsating confusions of scale that turn the human face into landscape and vice-versa. Margaret Honda’s Spectrum Reverse Spectrum (2014) is a cameraless 70-mm film made at FotoKem in Burbank, California, the only lab in the world that continues to process the format. By using color-timing tape to control the opening and closing of the red-green-blue valves, Honda immerses the viewer in a passage across the visible light spectrum, from violet to red and back again, producing a spectacular effect through simple means.

Emily Wardill, When You Fall into a Trance, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 72 minutes.

The clear highlight of the archival selections—and indeed, one of the highlights of the festival as a whole—was “Meditations from Our Lady of the Angels,” a program of eleven films from Los Angeles recently restored by Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive. Toscano’s peerless selection included impeccable presentations of classics like Morgan Fisher’s Projection Instructions (1976) and Chick Strand’s Kristallnacht (1979), as well as world premieres of the Academy preservations of three very different but very accomplished films: Amy Halpern’s Invocation (1982), Pat O’Neill’s Coreopsis (1998), and Penelope Spheeris’s I Don’t Know (1970). When Toscano describes I Don’t Know as a “truly major work” in his program notes, he makes no overstatement. An almost unclassifiable documentary portrait of the relationship between the transgender Jimmie and Linda, who identifies as a lesbian, the film is a moving, playful, and lingering early work from a woman best known as the director of Wayne’s World (1992).

Spheeris’s unorthodox documentary resonates with a major strand of contemporary practice, one that received deservedly strong representation in Experimenta: the engagement with complex contaminations of reality and fiction. Ben Russell’s Atlantis (2014) is a twenty-minute film shot on Malta that explores the enduring myth of the island utopia as imagined both by Plato and by a 1970s American television series. Judith Schalansky has written in her Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, “An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature.” Atlantis interrogates this space of fabulation without ever leaving the real island behind, finding itself caught between a portrait of place and the conjuring of a drowned paradise. Eric Baudelaire’s justly celebrated Letters to Max (2014) also confronts the tension between the real and the imagined, albeit in a very different register. Baudelaire addresses the problematic of the nation as imagined community through epistolary correspondence with Maxim Gvinjia, the former minister of foreign affairs of Abkhazia, a largely unrecognized state that seceded from Georgia in the 1992–93 civil war. The simplicity of Baudelaire’s letters belie his sophisticated knowledge of the region and deep engagement with questions of nationhood, facts that become evident through the film’s deft deployment of the relations among sound, image, and text. Some might see Letters to Max as fitting into the paradigm of the essay film, and in certain ways it does. But it departs from many of the conventions that have lately been deployed with such frequency, such that the mode has calcified into an all too recognizable genre. The essay is by definition something that challenges established categories and gambles on experimental forms; beyond all those who seek to ventriloquize Marker and Resnais, Letters to Max remains faithful to these aims and reveals the enormous potential that resides in doing so.

Joining Letters to Max in this desire to think within and beyond the essay film was Harun Farocki’s last completed work, Parallel I–IV (2012–14). This series continues the late filmmaker’s long-standing investigation into the rise of calculable, actionable images possessing a relationship to reality very different than that of the cinema before them. Tracing the evolution of video game graphics from the two-dimensional schematics of the early 1980s to the photorealistic environments of today, Farocki foregoes the obsession with novelty that too often characterizes discussions of so-called “new” media, instead situating games within a longer history of representation. The Parallel series is a major achievement that exemplifies a key attribute of a singular practice cut far too short: Farocki joins poetic speculation with analytical strength to call upon the viewer not simply to look and listen carefully, but also to think along with him. The closing title of Laure Prouvost’s How To Make Money Religiously (2014) offered excellent advice for Parallel I–IV and many other works of this year’s Experimenta: “MULTIPLE VIEWINGS ARE RECOMMENDED.”

“Experimenta” ran October 8–19 at the British Film Institute in London.