Spitting Image

Nick Pinkerton on the 27th Images Festival in Toronto

Aykan Safoğlu, Off-White Tulips, 2013, video, color, sound, 24 minutes.

IF YOU WANT a panoramic view of what constitutes experimental film today, there are few more all-encompassing vantage points than the Images Festival in Toronto. Surveying the broad expanse, one may feel tempted to say that the defining dichotomy that emerged from the twenty-seventh edition of Images was between futurist virtual singularity and a backward-looking analog-bucolic ideal—though trying to corral such a vast program into convenient categories is a fool’s errand.

“The largest festival in North America for experimental and independent moving image culture” took place this year over ten days in mid-April. Introducing the nightly programs, executive director Scott Miller Berry proudly ID’d Images as “the second oldest film festival in Toronto”—it was first held in 1987, when Hot Docs was but a glimmer in its founders’ eyes, and what is today the behemoth Toronto Film Festival was a humble affair with the endearingly dorky moniker the Festival of Festivals. Aside from theatrical screenings, Images also includes an Off Screen section of gallery and installation works, many centralized at 401 Richmond Street, an industrial building turned arts hub, though others are in such varied locations as the basement of a Chinatown mall. The locus of the festival, however, is the Jackman Hall theater at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the site of the Cinematheque Ontario before the construction of the shiny new TIFF Bell Lightbox, and a space imbued with many fond memories for Torontonian cinephiles.

Miller Berry’s introductory notes in the Images catalogue are an indictment of the fetishization of festival premiere status, and at the Jackman Hall ticket counter one could pick up a button reading KILL FILM FESTIVAL PREMIERE POLICIES. By casting off the fetters of premiere policy, curatorial freedom should thereby be maximized in, for example, the numerous shorts programs, arranged around conceptual or thematic unities. One such program, self-explanatorily titled “Two Hours Two Minutes” and compiled by Tirdad Zolghadr of Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, included Jean Eustache’s 1977 Une Sale Histoire diptych on 35 mm and Sarah Morris’s well-traveled 2008 film 1972, a coolly observed inquiry into the failure to negotiate for hostages at the Munich Olympics and, incidentally, contemporary German anti-Semitism. (Zolghadr also led one of Images’ multiple scheduled talks—I arrived a day late to catch one called “Is Art School Killing Art?,” but considering that the late Eustache was one of the only people in the catalogue’s Artist Index who didn’t list a university affiliation, it’s hard to imagine an impartial affirmative decision was reached.)

Zolghadr’s stated intention was something to do with the cinema’s intrinsic ability to keep the viewer “stuck in your seat vis-à-vis the screen”—though as works invoking theatrical claustrophobia go, I was most impressed by a piece in another program, Joshua Gen Solondz’s Prisoner’s Cinema. Named after the hallucinated “movies” that are reported to appear to people confined in solitary, dark spaces, Solondz’s video begins with black-and-white strobing in which patterns are fleetingly visible, then suddenly gives ways to a riot of ornate, writhing concentric circles, a consuming and altogether narcotic experience. (Sophie Michael’s fine Attica—comprising images of rotating Greek ceramics set to a selection of traditional Greek music, their spinning motion evoking both potter’s wheel and turntable, wobbling patterns meshing together like gears—is a neatly complementary work.)

Prisoner’s Cinema was included in a program called “A Conjuring, A Slow Acting Poison,” composed of various pieces of cinematic sorcery, while the program “Another Country” was billed as “made up of movements and journeys.” Judging by duration of applause, the big hit of “Another Country”—and rightly so—was Off-White Tulips, Aykan Safoğlu’s personal essay film which ties together photographic records and anecdotes from author James Baldwin’s time in Istanbul in the 1960s with recollections of the Turkish popular culture of the filmmaker’s youth, musing on matters of expatriation, identity, and color, all with a crisp timing and humor. I was also impressed with Carly Short’s maritime reverie She Look Good, a collection of vignettes shot in the coastal town of Scituate, Massachusetts. The film concludes with a sailor deftly plaiting a little girl’s hair, an image rhymed to earlier scenes of nets being mended at sea, which encapsulates the film’s overall theme—how in the life of a fishing village the strong polarities of sea and land, harbor and hearth, define themselves through the other’s absence.

Evan Calder Williams and Taku Unami, Violent X, 2014.

Short’s film was one of a handful to be projected on old-fashioned celluloid, in this case 16 mm. The format—and specifically its deterioration—is essential to Creme 21, a new assemblage by Austrian-American Eve Heller, which repurposes pieces of a Three Stooges short and a 1970s educational film called Time: Measurement & Meaning. The didactic narration is gouged by popping sound track breaks, frayed speech sutured together to create entirely new sentences which occasionally coalesce into something teasingly coherent—“In the process / but / in time / the nature of / physics / begins traveling towards the past…”—the entire thing done with an tricky, stuttering rhythm. Heller’s work was one of several pieces based on repurposed footage: Among the “Live Images: Performances + Projections” shows was a program called Violent X, a collage of overlaid still images taken from ’70s Italian polizieschi (police) films by writer-artist Evan Calder Williams, who live-reads the text over a synth score by Japanese musician Taku Unami. Riffing on the resemblance between polizieschi regulars Maurizio Merli and Franco Nero, Williams develops a William Wilson–esque doppelgänger story, in which a police inspector is credited for the vigilante justice being meted out by his double. The ingenuity of the thing is impressive, while the experience is never more than mock-harrowing—though some of the layered images did manage to multiply the beauty of the originals.

The only programming misstep that was a bona fide faceplant was magnified in impact for coming on closing night. The fest’s semiannual Canadian Artist Spotlight was shined on the work of Jennifer Chan, an artist working in new-media, Web-culture idioms. Chan arranged a program of eight of her own works, as well as shorts by other artists working along parallel lines, and “non-art pieces” like “Cats Morph Into Croissants.” (This was the day after the Internet Cat Video Film Festival had touched down at the nearby TIFF Bell Lightbox, presented by no less a personage than Prime Minister Harper’s wife, an event that sounded altogether more avant-garde.) The Chan material is a pileup of Seapunk dolphins, PornTube provocation, and sham tween naïveté, all “complicated” by crawling, spinning GeoCities, Angelfire chic logos which offer peekaboo suggestions of a depth that’s borne out nowhere else in the material. Then, after the Raptors had been downed by the Brooklyn Nets 87-94 at the Air Canada Centre that Sunday, there was further heartbreak with the selection of Images closing screening, Brett Kashmere’s From Deep, a documentary about the history of professional basketball in America which shows minimal interest in the sport as anything other than malleable material to be molded into sociological generalizations, a pedantic student paper of a movie.

The features selection was lackluster overall, if not risible—there’s not much more to say of the Opening Night film Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, by the Indian collective CAMP, than that it doesn’t sustain its length. There’s more glory and ink to be got by going long, but a word should be said for the short short, for a crackling ninety seconds like Rhayne Vermette’s fusillade of 16-mm scraps called Black Rectangle. Of other honorable mentions, it was a pleasure to catch up with Belgian Manon DeBoer’s One, two, many, made of three distinct meditations on the subject of voice, beginning with a transfixing solo performance by a circular-breathing flautist caught in a single take that lasts just beyond the duration of a very, very long exhale—about as long as it takes to comprehend that just one man is creating all of this cacophony. A word should also be said for the uncanny effects of Jesse McLean’s Just Like Us, in which subtitles for a mute narration describe an upbringing that has disappeared beneath the foundations of a collection of big-box stores, seen standing melancholy and alone in the gloaming: “My house is now a Best Buy,” the text reads, “I made love in a Target parking lot once.” With encroaching cultural blacktop ever threatening to smooth film culture into uniformity, it is a relief to see such work flourishing in the pasture provided by Images.

The twenty-seventh Images Festival ran April 10–19, 2014 in Toronto.