Zurich held its 12th International Experimental Film and Video Festival on 22-30 May 2010, featuring new works by Jessie Mott, "creator of the most famous Flickr posting", and 80-year-old Canadian pioneer Michael Snow, as well as paying homage to the recently deceased Swiss descendant of Mélies, Klaus Lutz1. Peter Hulm reports:
An experimental film and video festival – unlike, say, Cannes – does not need masterpieces to justify itself. If anything, trashy efforts are almost obligatory to set off the pearls – and exploratory video these days, thanks to the democratic influence of the Internet, YouTube and Facebook, often has a trashy element, even in its upper reaches.
Nor does it need much of an audience. The first session I attended, on a Tuesday after the Whit Monday holiday, had perhaps ten people in the hall. And to judge from the clicking of ballpoint pens around me, many were fellow scribes. The next one, the main evening show, had 15 people and a dog in the screening room, a makeshift collection of foldout chairs and a screen in a brokendown building off Kanonenstrasse, a rather louche street near the main railway station. The rehabilitated military-looking collection of stone buildings has been turned into a relaxed and pleasant alternative-culture assembly point with a couple of interesting restaurants, dance music – and dancing, and cyclists swinging through the paths, while the filmgoers can sit, dream and talk at tables out in the open in the intervals between the showing of each collection of festival entries.
What such a festival needs – in lieu of masterpieces and large audiences – is excitement, oddities and obsessions that keep you guessing about what the next showing will produce, even if the current offering is not inspiring (or all of them, for that matter).
Zurich's 12th International Festival, which has a better reputation outside Switzerland's borders than in the city to judge by the difficulty of finding details and an accurate program2 has all these qualities in spades.
So you run into the second familiar dilemma in film festivals – too many works to take in and a sense of panic that you may miss the only film people will remember in 50 years as changing the future of video. Even worse, you will see it but, battered by the deluge of images, you completely miss its potential, like the guys who booed Henry James off the stage, a century before his plays became British West End successes.
Take the case of Michael Snow. The 80-year-old Canadian produced at least two seminal works in experimental video: Wavelength and La Région Centrale. Videoex devoted the 2002 festival to a retrospective of his work. This year he offered spectators Puccini Conservato, on first viewing a frequently out-of-focus visual hymn to his stereo unit that the Videox presenter admitted might be offputting to earlier admirers of his work, while containing an undertone of humor.
The film starts with a closeup of of the loudspeaker cone protective material as someone walks in the room unseen and launches the Puccini recording. Then the camera swings back and forth across the equipment for no discernible reason for 10 minutes, with a rare number of intercuts to unoriginal shots of a log fire, a field and the sea.
Not much there to keep your attention, except for the singing and the music. Perhaps it is a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of what and how you look at the world when your ears are taking in such sublime opera. But I don't think so.
The program notes indicates that Snow's interests are elsewhere. For this production he used a simple video camera with auto focus, we read. As a result the film has an amateurish quality we rarely encounter in the perfectionist Snow.
At this level, what the film shows is the inadequacies of video equipment to capture the outside world with any fidelity to experience, a limitation that the Brazilian-German philosopher Vilém Flusser documented with his thesis that technology determines our experience in ways we (and society) do not acknowledge. Point made, and retrospectively quite wittily, but I don't think I need to see the film again, even though I can't remember every scene and movement, until someone comes up with a better theory – which, I suppose, is the story of all critical (as distinct from artistic) movements.
As for the artistic products, I was struck by how much experimental video is trying to find creative ways to exploit the legacy of Robert Rauschenberg. One piece, Exotique by Seppo Renvall of Finland with sound by Zappe Leppänens, was uncannily similar to Rauschenberg's White Painting. Others struggled to find ways to move the real world closer to their artistic canvas (De Luce 1: Vegetare by Janis Crystal Lipzin of the USA, Halides by John Davis of the US, while Jessie Mott's Everybody allies her faux-naïve drawings of animals with a sript of inter-species sexual harassment (sound by Steve Reinke).
The disappointment is how few are able to incorporate, as Rauschenberg did, the wide range of visual materials the modern world offers. Stardust, for example, a meditation by Canada's Gerda Cammaer on the vulnerability of our cinematic heritage to chemical disintegration, was almost exclusively illustrated by references to Hollywood with soundbites from Gerstyn Hayward.
What else? you may ask with film star George Clooney, since we are in Nespressoland. But the threat of stardust afflicts the photographic records of all those who are not stars, ordinary people whose photos and images we want to preserve for historic reasons. French film-maker Cécile Ravel in her Carnet de Notes 2006-2007 approaches the pathos in this situation in trying to grasp what remains of her grandmother from the skimpy photographic record. Much of it, though, lives only in the shadow of Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman, whose long, meditative, formally intricate while superficially banal meditations on the irrecoverable past regularly seem to say the last word on the topic she is considering.
Given the arte povera (poor art) means used often to produce the visual effects, many experimental productions seem to foreground their sound track rather than what is appearing on screen. The sound editor often gets equal billing with the director. Exotique started with a fruitful juxtaposition: the title, then a white beam against a white wall (or so it appeared) and Varese-style music from the sound track (later transiting towards North African orchestrations). White suddenly appeared exotic, but it didn't stay that way, unfortunately.
Final question: wouldn't these works be better shown on the Internet, to potential audiences of millions rather than the handful who can see them in makeshift cinema halls?
Yes, and no. Unless you run your streaming video full-screen, nothing matches a large canvas. We don't seem yet to have developed a theory (or scientific record) of the difference in effects of watching images on the cinema screen, television (HD and standard) and computers (with or without headphones).
Many of these works, with the possible exception of Everybody and Strange Lights I don't think I would have given time to watch completely on my computer, particularly those that use video-8 and solarization (Halides and De Luce 1: Vegetare). Tony Conrad I would have given up on long before he finished his interminable opening dance, while Velvet Pants would have looked too much like someone's uploaded cellphone rant from a Caravaggio street creature (too painful to watch).
Time, now, for some triage among the films I saw:
Most accessible video: Strange Lights by Joe King and Rosie Pedlow of the UK, a time-lapse 8-min evocation of the lights around a camp-site at Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk, where 30 years ago military personnel saw strange lights, ascribed to UFOs, for two days in December 1980. At time lapse speeds, even the ordinary movement of stars in the sky looked magical.
Most artistic video: probably Contre-jour by Christoph Girardet of Hannover and Cologne professor of experimental film Matthias Müller. This 10 min 40 sec German film on irritating stimulation for the eye definitely recalls Chris Marker's La Jetée, without the plot, or Atrocity Exhibition, without the characters, but it has its own weird charm.
Most touching video:Calça de Veludo (Velvet Pants) from Brazil by Ana Moravi and Dellani Luna. A young Brazilian self-styled "actor" from Belo Horizonte (he is an actor but only on the street) "raps" through his intoxication with language and a mouthful of broken teeth. At one stage he describes himself as offering "gospel porn" and asked to respond to the word "art" replies "ego". Not bad, Velvet Pants, as we saw in the next film:
Most conventional video: Tony Conrad, DreaMinimalist by Marie Losier of the USA. The label is not a putdown. It only appeared conventional in this company, and could probably show on HYP or Al Gore's self-made TV channel currentTV. It is virtually a self-presentation by this self-confessed failed violin player, ex-puppeteer, Fluxus artist and flat-sharer at one time with Jack Smith (of Flaming Creatures) – note that they were both sharing someone else's flat (the girlfriend of LaMonte Young). I won't even try to describe what Tony Conrad gets up to, but he is evidently a person of irresistable charm and appallingly bad ideas, along with a few nice dismissive lines about Jack Smith.
I saw another set of videos on Wednesday, but I see no reason why this second group shouldn't have awards of their own. The session was entitled "Suburbs Psy", the craziness and monsters of daily life, "with American entries very strong in this category," the session presenter noted.
Most unnecessary film: SUGARfree by Seth Indigo Carnes of the USA. All art is useless, of course, but 9 min 46 seconds of watching David Sebastian Buus's return to sugar eating after a five-year hiatus was more than most people would want, and even he protested. While warning David of the risk involved, his health adviser encouraged him to continue: "Art is more important than life in many cases." David queried: "Art? Is this art?" and was told: "For some people it is."
Most colorful film: Terra (Earth) by Savio Leite of Brazil. Described as a Third World Western, this 5-min video animation offered a po-faced recitation of machismo in its various forms.
Most disturbing video: Vault of Vapors by George Kuchar (USA). The stubbornest US underground film-maker, now teaching at the Art Institute of San Francisco, Kuchar offered the latest in his "Weather Diary Series" made with his students matching weather events to autobiographical stories. In this case, we meet a man who deliberately installed himself in an Oklahoma motel with rotten food "in the middle of nowhere". He bikes to the nearest town, a one-street "ghost town" (his description) with one diner and a dog. Entertainment is evangelical TV. Through boredom, it seems, he has been driven to art: felt-marker cartoons of weird people with monsters outside the window. There's a lesson here, I'm sure. The clouds, though, are certainly magnificent.
Most imitative video: Breaking Glass: My David Bowie Movie by Michael Trigilio (USA). On reflection, David Bowie is the perfect artist to inspire bad imitators. In 8 min 30 secs Trigilio gives us Death-Metal cover versions of Bowie standards, while informing us that his Dad could not distinguish between Bowie and Dave Lee Roth, and as a result believed that DLR had confessed to being bisexual on television. P.S. 'bad' is not a term of abuse in experimental film: it is just a genre.
Most wish-fulfilling video: Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell by Jim Finn (USA). To update Noel Coward: amazing how potent bad movies are. While Judy Garland sings 'The Man who Got Away,' Finn offers us 2 min 40 secs of scenes from Damien I and II plus The Dead Zone culminating in the promised vision of the former Vice-President under ice. Scholars might want to look up Roland Barthes on narrative suspense (we'll accept any remotely credible scene that frees us from the tension of the story).
Least visual film: Sisainen Lahio (The Suburb Within) by Pekka Sassi (Finland). "A minimalist horror video" announced the program, and they don't get more minimalist than this. The screen offers us a cube seen through TV static while the sound track alternates between a man demanding to be let back into the home to get his mobile phone while the mother comes literally apart in front of her children when they refuse to change the TV channel. There is a second part and a third, equally enigmatic.
Darkest film: Suite of Summer Evenings by Robert Harris (USA). Harris, a teacher of communications media in Fitchburg State Collage and long-time devotee of lyrical film and video, contributes 22 min of atmospheric shots around dirt-track racing in Upper New York State. Most of it takes place at night without additional lighting. It does capture the tedium and obsessional pleasures in this aspect of baseball-cap culture.
So where could we find the legacy of Rauschenberg among these films? Perhaps by taking 5 secs of each, along with shots from the tango-dancing, women's choir practice on Wednesday night at the restaurants, the sausages grilling in the open air, the ramshackle interior of the cinema hall, the bikers sliding through the area at dusk, the chidren's workshop – mashed together without any attempt to make "atmospheric" filming out of the results, then we might have something worthy of Rauschenberg's artistic credo.
Be warned: finding your way around the programme, catalog or website is a major pain. There was a live audio-visual performance by Lee Ranaldo of the legendary post-punk group Sonic Youth on Thursday.
Friday (the 28th) scheduled a focus on the work of Clemens Klopfenstein, another long-time radical Swiss film-maker. Saturday slated its awards ceremony at 20.15 followed by a Dutch audiovisual night (Amsterdam and Rotterdam were two guest cities for the 2010 festival). Sunday promised a discussion from 15.00, another Klopfenstein evening with a series of shorts, and the Swiss premiere of Double Take by Belgium's Johan Grimonprez, whose Pompidou Center production of "DIAL H.I.S.T.O.RY" made him famous. The 80-min film seems to be about that master of the double take, Alfred Hitchcock, but you never know with experimental artists.
Operating between Zurich and New York, Lutz stood halfway between surrealism and art brut. An early graduate of the Monty Python Ministry of Funny Walks (plus Funny Strides and Funny Crawls), as some in the audience recognized, Lutz started low-budget experimental filming in the 1980s and received a stipendium from Zurich for his New York Atelier in 1993. His films are both incredibly intricate technically and amazingly simple, as if inventing film for the first time. On the evidence of Frank Matter's documentary, his New York life seemed to be that way, too. Lutz pull open a fridge and takes out a light bulb. He opens up a cupboard under the sink and extracts a turntable. His oven top is covered with film equipment. We rarely see him outside his studio where he wears some risible flowery long underpants and a white coverall that forms his standard film costume. The only time he is not doing something related to work is perched out of his window, smoking, smiling, with the street far below him in the sun.
The films themselves are like versions of Isaac Asimov's Fantastic Voyage without the science-fiction trappings. It's as if Lutz had transformed himself into a bug-sized explorer of the cosmos that every now and then turns into New York from the air or medical equipment. Sometimes the white clad figure in a white hood marches like a majorette, sometimes he rows a skeleton through the black and white scenery, sometimes he floats under a balloon. The one scene that got a universal chuckle from the audience was at the end of his performance of 'The Beauty of My Island', when he packed away his props in a suitcase and crept gingerly away from the scene in the dark.
You can find more about him at http://www.klaus-lutz.ch.
Created on 26 May 2010, updated 27 May 2010.