By Tara Judah
Unlike narrative feature films, experimental shorts refuse to be boxed in by ‘must-see’ or ‘must avoid’ festival buzz and reviewer hyperbole. Instead, experimental shorts programs are a space where filmmakers, curators and audiences can entertain the unexpected.
At this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) the program is lively, preferencing play over daring. Opening the program with Australian filmmaker Richard Tuohy’s dual 16mm film projection work, Dot Matrix, is a little like allowing us to eat dessert before dinner. Tuohy uses Man Ray’s ‘rayograph’ process to create the images. A camera-less film, he places objects onto the film stock directly and, exposing it to light, creates a negative shadow producing two films – one with black and the other white – dots. The films are then projected onto the screen via two 16mm projectors so that they create an overlay and traverse one another, offering up a sort of projected interaction.
Introducing his film, Tuohy refers to what happens as ‘drama’ and ‘interference’. But for me viewing the film is far more serene. With flicker effect throughout the dots take on a temporary ontology and mingle rather than interfered with one another. Occasional jitters onscreen remind me of sugary Nerds or Dweebs (sweets) rattling around inside their box, perhaps in the clutches of a small child running to catch a bus or escape a bully.
The dots no doubt invoke disparate occurrences for each viewer; for me they are planets and amoebas and lemmings. They might even be entire civilisations; brokers shouting on Wall Street, microscopic germs or parasites multiplying and mutating, a congregation of computer game characters that included Pac Man and that long since forgotten educational turtle from Logo. Whatever I see and however I hear the din caused by the optical sound (the dots are over-printed so that the visual work bleeds into the soundtrack, creating an aural experience of the optical), there is something calm and steady in Tuohy’s pacing that refuses to let the experience cross over into the unnerving. Perhaps it is owing to the pace that the film further refuses to allow boredom and instead offers endless universes and, in them, much joy.
Punctuated with humour, the program stops to draw breath at the half way mark, momentarily interrupting its meditation on place, belonging, universe and melody (RJ Samir’s No Place to Rest, Eve Heller’s Creme 21 and Nathaniel Dorsky’s Song served in this broader context as a sort of contemplative trilogy). Michael Robinson’s The Dark, Krystle (which went on to win MIFF’s experimental short award) is a video mash-up that highlights stereotype through two characters from the 1980s US television show Dynasty. Krystle Jennings (Linda Evans) performs anxiety through head turns and unsteady glances while Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins) drinks with an almost permanent wryness plastered across her face. The result is humorous enough but offers very little in terms of interrogating the stereotypes or questioning what else (aside from laughs) the images taken out of context might communicate. A sort of Martin Arnold-light entry into the world of experimenta, The Dark, Krystle immediately brings Matthias Muller’s brilliantly orchestrated Home Stories (1990) to mind. Itself an exercise in academic discourse through editing; a visual essay explicating how Hollywood cinema of the 1950s and 1960s terrorised its leading ladies and created the very notion of what constitutes the Hollywood screen woman through panicked tropes played out in domestic spaces. Home Stories remains unsurpassed.
With the more visually dense and intriguing content packed into the second half of the showcase, I experience a rare desire for intermission. Though dealing in duration and abrasive sounds are lessons I learnt long ago, there is almost an element of overstimulation as Tomonari Nishikawa’s 45 7 Broadway transported me from the cinema seat in Melbourne into a stunning visual palimpsest in hectic NYC; and as Rainer Kohlberger’s humming, fast and slow plays out high pitched electronic sounds against a neon and grey scale colour palette that reminds me of afternoons spent dazed and contemplative, lazing in bed and staring at everything and nothing as the sun bleeds in between my own grey scale vertical blinds; and, perhaps most fascinating of all, as Pablo Mazzolo’s Photooxidation asks questions about environmentalism and global warming while showing some of the most stunning natural imagery I’ve seen outside of last year’s Helga Fanderl retrospective in Oberhausen.
Photooxidation is also as confusing as it is compelling. I don’t know if what I see in the young boy’s eyes is hope or despair –perhaps it is both – but I do know that they are unusually and disturbingly deep set for someone so young. I’m not certain that I even vaguely understand the countless graphs and charts that appear momentarily onscreen; their synthetic white like school classroom transparencies, entirely out of place against the luscious greenery they mask. The words and phrases; ‘photochromism’, ‘oxidized silver halide crops’, ‘radical’, ‘electron energy’; do little to reassure me that we can save the planet from ill fate and still somehow suggest an historical prediction that well pre-dates my existence. It’s terrifyingly expansive: so close to infinity it is certainly far and beyond my grasp.
As grand questions rattle around inside my head, the program returns to its punctuating humour and lets me off the hook with an exercise in fiction, farce and haptics. Laure Provost’s Turner Prize winning installation – and perhaps because the installation was made up of more than just the film Grandma’s Dream – sits strangely in this program. The tone lies somewhere between nostalgia and immaturity and despite the strong sense of imagination that Provost communicates through her teapot aeroplane creations and layered imagery, there is definitely anxiety underlining the work. It translates into restlessness in the viewer.
Absolutely at its best when it embraces what’s endearing about (mis)remembering, and as it employs some kind of internal logic through a strange decoupage of voice over narration and haptic imagery, Grandma’s Dream relays between sweet and irritating – at its worst, however, it resembles the cut and paste workbook of a four-year-old. But for all its jumble sale clarity I still have faith in Provost and her ability to win over an audience. Her delicate humour, ruminations over love and strong sense of adventure somehow, perhaps even annoyingly, prevail.
After almost an hour and forty minutes – a standard session time for narrative feature films but a little lengthy for a screening that intends to assault and assuage the senses – the program concludes. My final impressions are enthusiastic, despite reticent feelings towards a number of the works. And though many of the films have already screened internationally (at Rotterdam, Ann Arbor), the program never feels as though it is put together as a catch up session. Always playful even if rarely daring, this program has taken me by surprise – amongst all the things I was prepared for, I never expected to be so easily and exhaustively entertained.