Breaking Waves

Olaf Nicolai, Rodakis, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 12 minutes.

Though Brangelina visitations may be what creates mob scenes at the Toronto International Film Festival, the “Wavelengths” program has quietly become one of the festival’s best assets. Named after Michael Snow’s 1967 slow-zoom wonder (and in acknowledgment of Canada’s disproportionate influence on cinema’s avant-garde), the program was added only eight years ago, and its experimental offerings leave no room for the Oscar bait and celebrity vanity projects that can clog up TIFF’s other arteries. Indeed, the six screenings—which take place at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall from September 5 to 8—constitute a fest within the fest, one in which formal daring and ingenuity take precedence over the medium’s usual priorities.

Not that this subsection of international cinema lacks its own brand of stars—the 2008 edition showcases new material by Nathaniel Dorsky, James Benning, Jennifer Reeves, and, in his first solo work since the death of partner Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub. A key figure in American film and visual art since his pioneering series of installations in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Pat O’Neill is represented here by the latest version of Horizontal Boundaries, his ongoing study of Los Angeles and a film whose shape shifts as much as the city that has long fascinated the artist.

The constant lateral and vertical motion of various categories of images (trees, housing, beach scenes) has a richly hypnotic effect, especially in tandem with a sound track that intermingles ambient noise and composer Carl Stone’s grinding drones, one of the new additions for the 2008 version of the work. A maestro of the optical printer, O’Neill packs the screen with an abundance of detail, though it soon becomes clear that the boundaries that interest him are not just those at the edges of the city but also those that separate the individual frames of film.

O’Neill’s twenty-three-minute movie is included in a program on September 6 that includes six more experiments in form. Particularly cunning is Eriko Sonoda’s Garden/ing (2007), a trompe l’oeil exercise in which a camera’s repeated half-circle motion in front of a screen door eventually dismantles the usual laws of perspective. “Trips,” the shorts program on September 7, includes two other provocative explorations of physical space. Rodakis (2008), an elegant twelve-minute film by Olaf Nicolai, consists of fixed-camera shots of a nineteenth-century house on the Greek island of Aegina. Despite the confident tone of the unidentified narrator, the exact significance and history of this place become increasingly ambiguous in Nicolai’s architectural mystery tale. In Flash in the Metropolitan (2006), the British team of Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer provide eerie views of antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum’s Near Eastern, African, and Oceanic collections, lit only by a strobe. This silent sequence of briefly illuminated objects calls to mind both some mysterious rite and a nighttime expedition by thieves who may be eager to return these objects to their original homes.

A similar effect dominates Black and White Trypps Number Three (2007), another exhilarating installment in an ongoing series by Chicago’s Ben Russell. Here, the light falls on the rapt, sweaty faces of indie hipsters as they lose their collective shit at a Lightning Bolt concert. A burst of noisy mayhem, it couldn’t be more different from the “Wavelengths” program’s more serene selections. But like the series’s most remarkable titles, Russell’s work boasts a bracing degree of rigor and vigor.