Field Trip

Jason Anderson on the tenth annual Wavelengths

Left: Peter Tscherkassky, Coming Attractions, 2010, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 25 minutes. Right: Thom Andersen, Get Out of the Car, 2010, still from a color film in 16 mm, 34 minutes.

AMONG THE MANY virtues of Get Out of the Car, Thom Andersen’s latest essay-film–cum-travelogue, is the often funny commentary provided by folks curious about the reasons why the filmmaker and CalArts professor is so interested in the ephemera that catch his eye. At one point, a gentleman understandably asks why Andersen is filming an empty billboard structure. By way of reply, Andersen wonders aloud whether he might be making “a movie about absence.” Says the passerby in his best deadpan: “When you make a movie about something, call me.”

Viewers who flock to the Toronto International Film Festival for the latest Oscar bait would no doubt have a similar reaction to other components of Wavelengths, the festival’s tenth annual sidebar of avant-garde film and video. Indeed, the works showcased here frequently appear to lack a familiar “something”—narrative, for one, though there are certainly stories aplenty. And for those patrons eager to discover what’s really transpiring on-screen—the studies of spaces real and invented, the questions of time and perception, the mystery and materiality of the cinematic medium and its digital descendants—Wavelengths’s selections prove to be more stimulating than the more easily recognizable fare on offer elsewhere.

A lively “city symphony” of sights and signage that is a worthy companion piece to Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2005), Get Out of the Car is one of several major new works to receive world or North American premieres at Wavelengths. Andersen’s 16-mm film is also presented as part of Wavelengths’s first-night program of urban-oriented short pieces ranging from Callum Cooper’s Victoria, George, Edward & Thatcher (a frantically paced, iPhone-shot survey of near-identical London row houses) and Landscape, semi-surround (the latest in a series of dauntingly intricate frame-by-frame animated pieces by Japanese artist Eriko Sonoda) to Everywhere Was the Same, in which Beirut-based artist Basma Al-Sharif conveys the horror of an air strike on Gaza via an enigmatic mix of narration and slide show.

There are three more tightly curated programs, as well as evenings devoted to new work by two longtime residents of cinema’s outer limits: James Benning and Nathaniel Dorsky. Benning’s Ruhr, filmed on high-definition video in the titular German industrial region, somehow seems a Bela Tarr–like epic of durational cinema, even though it lasts only two hours. The first hour comprises several lengthy, fixed-camera shots that reveal such locations as the interiors of a steelworks and a mosque. (In another sequence, a worker removes graffiti from what turns out to be a sculpture by Richard Serra.) The second hour invites diligent viewers to study every wisp of smoke that emerges from a stack at a Coke factory. Thus do memories of Andy Warhol’s Empire mingle with reveries about empires in decay.

Less arduous is the program of three new films by the transcendentally minded Dorsky, which mark his final efforts to make something on Kodachrome stock, his long-preferred (and recently discontinued) medium. Fellow alchemist Peter Tscherkassky also debuts Coming Attractions, a typically cunning twenty-five-minute piece that interweaves references to the early cinema trickery of Méliès and Léger, glimpses of later masterpieces (Taxi Driver, Pasolini’s Decameron), and the repeated gestures and expressions of unknown actors in the outtake reels of long-forgotten commercials. Just as kinetic are new offerings by Italian master Paolo Gioli—whose Photo Finish Figures (Il finish delle figure) is a rapturous procession of faces, eyes, and assorted shapes—and the one and only Ken Jacobs—who dazzles with two doses of strobophobic excess, including a dance-happy tribute to his friend Jonas Mekas. Like many of the veteran filmmakers represented at Wavelengths, these deans of experimental cinema are eager to show off the spring in their steps.

Wavelengths runs September 10–13 at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall at the Toronto International Film Festival.