Sweet Sixteen

Jason Anderson on Wavelengths at the Toronto International Film Festival

Left: Tacita Dean, Edwin Parker, 2011, still from a color film in 16 mm, 29 minutes. Right: Nathaniel Dorsky, The Return, 2011, still from a color film in 16 mm, 27 minutes.

WHETHER HE’S PUTTERING around his storefront studio in Lexington, Virginia, or ordering a turkey sandwich at a local restaurant, Cy Twombly displays a stubborn vitality in a new film portrait by Tacita Dean, made last year during what turned out to be Twombly’s final autumn. The twenty-nine-minute work, titled Edwin Parker after Twombly’s birth name, is a remarkably circumspect tribute. Shot by Dean from a series of judiciously unobtrusive vantage points, Twombly becomes the rare camera subject who is allowed to preserve his privacy.

Presented in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths program a mere two months after Twombly passed away at age eighty-three, Dean’s film inevitably takes on an elegiac quality. But that air of finality has nearly as much to do with the death knells for 16-mm film, the medium of choice for Dean as well as for so many of the other artists represented in TIFF’s annual survey of experimental world cinema. Indeed, Dean has been increasingly vocal about the declining availability of film stock and labs in which to develop it. (The last one in her native UK has already closed.)

That anxiety and sense of loss permeate many of Wavelengths’ 16-mm selections, including Ben Rivers’s Sack Barrow—an eerie study of corrosion and decay shot in a decrepit electroplating factory outside London—and Joshua Bonnetta’s American Colour, which traces a final pilgrimage for several rolls of 16-mm Kodachrome stock between the film’s original birthplace in upstate New York and the Kansas lab that processed the rolls earlier this year. The Return, another masterful symphony of light, shadow, and shape by Nathaniel Dorsky, stands as further proof that the supplanting of analog forms with digital ones will leave the world a poorer place.

Adding to the gloom of this year’s Wavelengths is the news that it is the last edition to be programmed by Andréa Picard. Thanks to her careful curation, the program became an oasis for adventurous cinephiles otherwise alienated by the ever more frenzied and Hollywood-centric nature of the festival around it. But the works themselves are too full of energy and ingenuity for the mood to grow completely dour.

Among the most dazzling selections is Black Mirror at the National Gallery, a new seven-minute work by Mark Lewis. Lewis, always interested in matters of cinematic space and spectatorship, has created one of his craftiest works yet by inviting viewers to be led by a hulking automated tour guide through two galleries in the National Gallery of London. Blake Williams’s Coorow-Latham Road depicts another memorable journey, this one along a rural Australian highway. But of course there’s a wrinkle: These travels are an animated simulation derived from images collected from Google Street View.

Williams’s work is proof that Wavelengths’ devotion to celluloid wonders shouldn’t be equated with an aversion to digital means. After all, James Benning’s own shift to HD video in recent works hasn’t dented his reputation as America’s master of real-time cinema. A Wavelengths habitué, he’s back this year with the premiere of Twenty Cigarettes, a Warholian gallery of cigarette-smoking subjects lighting up for the camera. Benning’s fellow film artists Thom Andersen and Sharon Lockhart are among the puffers under scrutiny.

While the environs of Wavelengths’ base camp at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall are prime terrain for smoke breaks, TIFF patrons can also venture further afield to the many venues hosting Future Projections, TIFF’s free program of film-based installation art. Gregory Crewdson, Ben Rivers, Duane Hopkins, and Banksy’s coconspirator Mr. Brainwash are among the artists with new works on display in local galleries, though the one that will attract the heaviest foot traffic is surely Memories of Idaho, a collaborative piece by James Franco and Gus Van Sant to be presented in TIFF Bell Lightbox’s atrium. A compendium of outtakes and alternate scenes from My Own Private Idaho (1991), Van Sant’s photographs of Portland street hustlers, and a Super 8 “ghost” version of the feature, Franco’s latest foray into installation art pays homage both to Van Sant’s original movie and to its doomed star River Phoenix. Whatever worries are prompted elsewhere about the future of film as a cinematic medium, Franco’s effort proves we can be confident about cinema’s powers to resurrect our dearly departed stars, at least temporarily.

The Wavelengths and Future Projections programs are presented September 8–18 at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall and various Toronto venues as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.