By Zach Lewis
In the relatively small Jackman Hall in the Art Gallery of Ontario, just a few blocks north of TIFF’s central action hub on King Street, a long crowd gathers with tickets, their press and industry badges, or their hopes that they will be able to rush inside. The theatre seats two-hundred, and every seat finds an occupant. This is the empirical evidence of the success of TIFF’s Wavelengths program, shorts and features that are labeled experimental or at least close enough, helmed by programmer Andréa Picard. It’s certainly an odd degree of success – while some of these films will be lauded by the most knowledgeable and influential in the business, most will not receive distribution and very few will make enough money to pay the directors more than a few beers. But this economic sacrifice is the myth-maker for the “true artists” making “true art,” right? Film for film’s sake, yes?
Since the late industrial revolution, nearly every high-cultural object has been subjected to this particular narrative. James Joyce’s Ulysses and John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse must be literature about literature. Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage must have produced music qua music. Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer and Stan Brakhage’s career must be concerned about the qualities of light and film themselves – any external reference and their nearly religious intention is broken. This kind of thinking is not useless and not necessarily wrong, but it has a peculiar history that’s worth considering before every piece like this one. The easiest trace of an experimental trajectory in art comes with the invention of the camera, a device that could accurately display any scene in the world in an instant. This breaks some realists from their hope of recording the world for political action – photojournalists may now give hard evidence to the plight of the poor. Instead, these painters turned their radical thoughts upon the medium itself, and the movements of impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism, abstract expressionism, action painting, color field theory, and many others came into being.
Landmark critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg turned away from the boring job of interpretation and began remarking on the craft itself by using words like “texture,” “color,” and “events.” “Truthfulness to the canvas” became a sign of “purity” (these scare quotes being Greenberg’s) and old elements like subject matter were deemed unimportant. Tom Wolfe chastised these specific critics in his The Painted Word, claiming that the art they admired were not visually impressive but works that simply put their pet theories about art into action. The paintings themselves are criticism – bad, reductive criticism.
Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of Wolfe’s writing. However, film criticism of the avant-garde has cribbed so much from Greenberg and Rosenberg that perhaps it’s time for Wolfe’s complaints to find their way back into the culture. Perhaps art shouldn’t just be a visual reworking of how much an artist knows about her field. Perhaps it should also be beautiful. However, if they can please themselves and the audience with their ideas, perhaps that’s not so bad either. Oh, well. Dialectics for dialectics’ sake.
Calum Walter’s Terrestrial and Blake Williams’s Something Horizontal both work with one of these ideas. Both are concerned about geography, travel, and how we move around it. While Walter literally gives us images of a mapping software, plane windows, airports, and subway lines as a document of his travel, Williams chooses a softer approach in recording the architecture during his trip to a campus in California. While Walter chooses CCTV and guerilla filmmaking as his influence, the intertitles of Williams’s film point to German expressionist films. Walter’s work is flat, pointed at its subjects, while Williams’s is in anaglyph 3D, crafted around its subjects.
As a result, Walter’s Terrestrial works in a simple, linear fashion. Deep blue mapping software slowly veers outside models of architecture until its rendering takes too long, leaving only a flat mapped space as we travel faster and faster. This poetry ends as Walter then shifts to placing his phone on any surface that will hold it. The phone’s camera gives small glimpses outside the subway, rides the moving walkway at an airport, and peeks at Walter’s neighbors on both airplane and subway. Then, the punchline: a quick cut from inside the subway car to a Liveleak clip of a derailment at O’Hare Airport. There’s a certain beauty to films like Terrestrial that are so easily “solved” (the last clip confirms a certain paranoia about traveling, even de-mystifying the first abstract shots), that analysis flies out the window in favor of living in individual choices like framing. It’s the same beauty as Jonas Mekas’s diary films that offer no more than the brief moments that he’s captured. However, Walter’s bookends are not his moments – they are worlds he has infiltrated. They are worlds that Terrestrial is trying to understand.
Something Horizontal also infiltrates worlds outside the camera. Williams shoots an EMT and several scenes outside, but then he makes a strange choice to move indoors in order to capture morphing shapes of light as they beam in. Using 3D to tackle spaces without much depth gives a very unconventional, disorienting image, the likes of which I’ve only seen in Ken Jacobs’s A Loft. This close-quarters approach does away with the notion of 3D as pure spectacle of depth. Instead, Williams’s images are simply not-flat as the anaglyph technology brings architecture and light to the fore in a practical approach to layering. Then, film footage (from Paul Leni’s Backstairs) and intertitles suddenly assert an abstract timeframe. Does it matter that the shot of the door comes before the shot of the wall in the film? Should we suppose that the events of Backstairs are happening tangential (horizontal!) to Williams’s trip? Surely not. But the tease is fun.
While Walter and Williams structure their films around abstract ideas of travel and other worlds, other filmmakers turned back to the medium itself. This might please a Greenbergian observer with “truthfulness to the ‘purity’ of the canvas” and all, but Neither God nor Santa Maria and Engram of Returning both point outside themselves as well. The former, a joint project of Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Girón, almost seems like a clever reconstruction of buzzy TIFF feature The Witch, only without any literal Anglican imagery. Instead, it’s full of grain and myths and could be read as the death of both. The latter, directed by Daïchi Saïto, is about even less, if it’s even about anything at all. It may briefly let a seaside or a roadway or the outline of a person through its waves of emulsion and grain and destruction, but the music is always there and the film keeps playing alongside it.
Set in Yé, Lanzarote of the Canary Islands, Neither God nor Santa Maria toys with the recent trend of experimental ethnography to dive into the local myths of the region. Audio clips of locals speak of witches living within the town – both their histories and their powers. They’re recorded by ethnographer Luis Diego Cuscoy in the 1960s, but the way they speak seems more reminiscent of Sumerian tablets that describe the gods before recorded culture. The witches, while present, are primal; while terrifying, they’re also familiar and familial. Since Cuscoy’s recordings show the witch myth as something intrinsic to the island and its history, Delgado and Girón shoot the seascapes and mountainous region of Lanzarote with a fragile 16mm film stock that looks like it may erupt into flames without warning. This makes certain borders, like the sea against the shore, blurred into a single muted palette as if a mournful scene from J.M.W. Turner. The human figures, including Delgado’s grandmother as a stand-in for the witch, are draped in low-key lighting as they laugh and talk as if two Edouard Manet portraits suddenly found each other. Neither God nor Santa Maria doesn’t just look like a series of impressionist paintings: since it latches onto dying film stock while more realist directors have moved to digital, it shares the same history with impressionism. As film stock becomes more and more rare, so too do the witches of Yé become harder and harder to find. Just the whispers remain.
Likewise, Engram of Returning uses the old format of spectacle and wonder, 35mm CinemaScope, to produce spectacle and wonder. That’s honestly about as concrete as it gets since the film only cares to show actual images once every visual “cycle.” These cycles are determined by the eerie audio feed of saxophonist Jason Sharp that sounds absolutely nothing like a traditional saxophone. It’s either a low-frequency howl or an enduring “Om,” depending on whether Engram seems more like a Francis Bacon travelogue or a meditation on landscape. Regardless, Saïto’s fever dream resounds all that is good in Greenberg’s “purity” of the canvas. As a film that can only be described in abstract retellings of color, light, movement, and overwhelming sound, it’s beautiful in that entirely subjective, religious way that’s somehow even more primal than Neither God nor Santa Maria. Sit down like a monk at a waterfall and let its torrents wash over you.
The next pair of films, if the dialectics going on here are consistent, should seek to combine “idea”-based filmmaking with the strictly beautiful. And, to some extent, they do that. They’re also both horror/hang-out films, notsomuch a genre as it is that particular feeling of something about to go wrong when out a little too long with friends. Isiah Medina’s 88:88 is beautiful in a late-Godardian way: superimposition, montage, themes of communication, dense texts being read aloud, and harsh photography all lead to a mysterious objet d’art that need not be solved. Nicolás Pereda’s Minotaur is the exact opposite: long takes prevail, characters hardly speak or interact, it is not immediately beautiful, and there’s something stirring underneath it all that begs to be found.
Medina’s film brims with stories. There are little subplots of friends being locked up, friends fighting other friends, and friends shooting the sun. They’re usually Medina’s friends who seem to communicate through solely through text messages, freestyles, and dense twentieth-century philosophy texts. By all accounts, this should not lead to a very good movie. Nonsensical conversations about what “infinity” means to one of the characters (one has lost their “trust” in it) is taken very seriously and interjected by other friends as if these little bits of “highlosophy” have not just Wittgensteinian meaning, but emotional meaning. It isn’t until the dense texts become overlapped on the soundtrack that their use begins to make sense. Indeed, the specific text doesn’t matter, but abstract language and rhythm of academic words just sound like yet another freestyle. And that’s it, one long freestyle of semi-rural Canada, its images and sound design fluttering to a rhythm all Medina’s own. There’s always so much to grapple: an intermittent DJ scratch, 4:3 images overlaid on 16:9 landscapes, glimpses of University of Winnipeg, overlapping voice-over, iPad games, and delirious animation of the recurring 88:88 (a blanking digital clock and probably a little in-joke for the all the “infinity” talk), all run together as if Linklater’s stoner characters have recorded and remixed the little details of their lives.
If 88:88 finds beauty by dropping any one idea and running with all of them at the same time, Nicolás Pereda’s Minotaur just sleeps all of its ideas off. Three young artist-types with enough wealth to afford a nice Mexico City apartment are shown lounging around their living quarters. They read, they sleep. They’re sometimes interrupted by a maid, who seems vaguely annoyed by their odd napping spot choices. Pizza arrives, as do drugs and some movies. But that’s it – no big inciting event, definitely no literal minotaur. Pereda may hold an idea or two here. There could be some discussion of class in that these three can sit and discuss text all day while the maid acts as visitor to their boring bohemia (N.B.: In Dante’s Inferno, the minotaur represents the three sins of violence. That’s a bit hard to ignore in a Mexican bohemian parable after the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping). There’s also an opportunity for ideas during the few readings: after the third one, done without a book, it turns out that they are not reading separate stories from separate books, but they are actually speaking to one another while staring at the pages. Replace the books with iPhone screens and there wouldn’t be a question about what was happening. However, even Minotaur works best with its ideas on the periphery. At its core, it’s a Warholian comedy with perfectly framed 1.85 shots, natural light, simple palettes of white and off-white. Characters succumb to narcolepsy in the most uncomfortable places, they climb on top of each other and moan without any hint of sexuality, and they stare out the window with a curiosity as if they couldn’t escape. When asked “Are you exhausted of relaxing too much?” another character responds “I don’t have a computer.” That’s Pereda’s humor, fully grasping the somnolent mind and producing the best film at the festival.
Finally, the great pranksters that reach far outside the dialectics show here. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson just outright fuck over Paul Gross’s Hyena Road by providing unnecessary “bonus features” in Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, presented as a loop on a television screen in the TIFF Bell Lightbox lobby, far away from actually drawing attention.
When asked for comment by The Globe and Mail, Paul Gross seemed pleased with Maddin and company’s mania, which may mean that Maddin’s antagonistic voiceover in Tim Horton may just be for laughs. Big-budget filmmaking is admittedly an easy target, and Maddin wouldn’t exactly be covering new ground by accusing it of soullessness or by noting war movies’ implicit calls for recruitment. Instead, Tim Horton’s biggest middle finger comes from the belittling of both behind-the-scenes videos and the jingoistic grandeur of men at war. The former comes from the laughably small portable green screen they insist on placing behind crew members’ heads, the cheap sound effects that erupt every time a scene is being described, the constant rebranding of Hyena Road as a straight-to-VHS action flick, and more shots of Gross calling for cut than actually filming. The latter comes from team Tim Horton attaching horrible scifi VFX to the soldiers during their battle scenes, making them appear as nothing more than boyish toys – no political significance, no real difference between the Canadians and Jordanians, no real stakes. Maddin reinvents himself as an extra on set, a Jordanian casualty despite his light complexion, with frequent shots of his face reminiscent of Denis Lavant’s portrait in Tsai’s Journey to the West (likely not an accident). He speaks of Tim Horton, Guy Lafleur, Canada’s cultural history, the existential role of an extra on set (“I might as well be garbage flapping in the wind.”), but never the war. The actual quality of Hyena Road is debatable, but at least it brought out Maddin and the Johnsons’ Star Wars by way of Howard Zinn.
Notice that there are no categories here. They’re not in this piece, and they’re not in the many other pieces covering the recent entries of avant-garde film. Structuralism, dada, and other little theory-based movements are nothing more than shorthands for description rather than strict schools of expression. Yet even the method of talking about the components (color, sound, movement) of Engram of Returning means submitting to Greenberg’s formalism. And, for a film comprised of just these elements, that may simply be the best way to talk about it. Ditto 88:88 and a Rosenberg approach of looking at the film for a victory in artistic expression rather than philosophical content. The dusty covers of Partisan Review and Art News may be brushed off in order to evoke bits of mid-century wisdom for the artworks that come from mid-century attitudes. However, these are obviously very new films with today’s politics, today’s ideas about art, and today’s technology. So, it’s worth throwing some Wolfe in there as well, making up little stories through the realism, such as the Iguala kidnapping as an undertone for Minotaur. Past the age of grand theory, everyone’s welcome to the conversation.
To say that the strength of these films is that they’re “art for art’s sake” isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s a dated expression. It also oversimplifies what even the most difficult or navel-gazing art can do: political unification (the Ashcan School of anarchist artists), acts of worship (Pietistic painting, sand mandalas), or just a diversionary means to stop thinking about our impending collective death. After each screening, the small house of worship at the Art Gallery of Ontario dispersed, usually to a nearby bar, to swill and laugh and bicker and share their experiences with those flashing moments of color and sound that hit them on some primal level. The most humble thing that art can do is provide a sense of community for its own sake, and the Wavelengths program continues to do exactly that.