What do you call this stuff, anyhow? Avant-garde doesn’t really work: avant-gardes are historically defined, and this is mostly contemporary work. Artists’ Film and Video is good, though it privileges Art over filmmaking, and to hear some people tell it, artists only began to notice moving image in the 01970s. Will likes the term underground film which is good, but can refer to emerging conventional & commercial film-makers as well as artists. Overall, I prefer Experimental Cinema, emphasising both the medium (and excluding if anything, gallery pieces) and the practice of formal experimentation.
I’m treating myself to the LFF‘s Experimenta Avant-Garde Weekend (I guess that settles it), the festival’s regular & long-standing slot for new & archival experimental work. I’ve got the same seat booked in NFT3 for the whole weekend (in the only session for which I have a different seat, I have to make Anita Pallenberg get out of it first), and there’s the added pleasure of bumping into old friends and colleagues like Julia, and Lucy from the Lux, who are also here to stuff their eyes with goodies.
I say goodies… I saw The Ipcress File in NFT3 last year, and during the scene in which Caine’s Harry Palmer is being subjected to mental reprogramming in a white cube full of flashing lights and colours, I thought “I’ve paid good money to see films just like that in this very cinema,” and Ken Jacob‘s films are those films. Turning his Nervous System live projections into single prints, Jacobs conjures queasy movement out of alternation rather than progression, creating hypnotic strobe effects. With an intensely rhythmic soundtrack by Steve Reich, Let There Be Whistleblowers takes found footage of a train passing through a tunnel and vibrates it, inverts it, loops it, turns it upside down and violently flickers it: less a phantom ride than an epileptic rollercoaster. Krypton is Doomed is even more extreme: over thirty four minutes, the soundtrack of an early Superman radio play is broken up into segments buffered by silence, while a patch of light and colour constantly throbs, admitting at times the possibility, and only the possibility, of a recognisable image. The programme notes make it clear that it is we who are doomed.
There is more playful stuff: Shannon Plumb’s Olympics 2005 Track and Field is Riefenstahl re-performed as colour-saturated slapstick Sherman, and Ben Rivers’ This is My Land, shot on self-developed 16mm shows the continuing possibilities of non-sync sound. To create Blocking, Pablo Marin took a subtitled trailer for High Fidelity, submerged it in water, and then dried it in the sun (all the things you’re not supposed to do if you want to preserve film). The result is a glimpse of John Cusack’s face and a few words in Spanish amid a flurry of bubbles and pools, fields of bacteria, rods and cones: the patterns you see on the inside of your eyelids when you press your fingers against them. Faster, happier and less studied than Decasia.
It’s not all aestheticism: Bill Brown’s The Other Side combines stunningly gorgeous static landscape footage of the American southwest with faux-naif commentary on a voyage through the politics of US-Mexican border, taking in the border wall on which the Berlin Wall-style graffiti is on the ‘wrong’ (ie Mexican) side, and the efforts of people who maintain barrels of water in the desert to try to save the lives of the many ‘illegal’ migrants who die of thirst on their way across the border.
Sunday morning brings what Mark Webber calls the ‘very core of cinema’, some tough watching, beginning with an entirely silent Nathaniel Dorsky in which I can see only a few moments of beauty: jet beads suddenly reflect the light like holes in the film; a telegraph pole is somehow mesmerising. Mark LaPore‘s Kolkata, with the non-sync soundtrack of a babbling bazaar, consists of long tracking shots sideways through the marketplaces of Kolkata, and a few astonishing static moments: a child smiling as long as he can, a reflection in a store window that makes a smoker out of a mannequin.
But the highlight and delight of the weekend is two programmes of films by and about Kenneth Anger, and a personal appearance from the man himself. Before the first programme of 35mm preservations of Fireworks, Rabbit’s Moon, Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos, Anger appears onstage. At seventy-six, he’s wearing Cuban-heeled boots, PVC trousers and an outsize football shirt with the letters A-N-G-E-R emblazoned at an angle. He gives the audience a big thumbs-up and a broad grin. For a man who it’s rumoured will out a curse on you if you cross him, he’s unexpectedly charming and garrulous. I think I’d like him to be my granddad.
After the preservations (which are excellent, and though the sadomasochistic gents’ fantasy and rocket-cock of Fireworks don’t quite do it for me, I think that for about thirty seconds in the middle of Scorpio Rising I actually turn gay) we get a special treat in Mouse Heaven‘s delirious adoration of pre-Fantasia model Mickeys with their pacman eyes and genuine clockwork wanking action. I can’t get over the Proclaimers being on the soundtrack, and how well it works. Anger re-emerges to tell some stories (he was commissioned to make a cricket film with Jack Cardiff for Paul Getty just before he died), pass some judgements (Bruce Byron “was deluded, but he’s dead now”; Marianne Faithfull was “powdering her face with heroin”), and lay down the law on found footage (“we have a principle of fair use: it’s fair to me if I want to use it”). He even promises us that he has Hollywood Babylon 3 ready to go and is just waiting for the lawyers to finish with it.
The picture is completed with Elio Gelimini’s Anger Me, which after a short intro by Jonas Mekas consists of Anger’s talking head (on what’s visible of his torso he’s wearing a chunky-knit red sweater with ‘ANGER’ again subtly indented on the front) against a freeform background of clips and other scenes, reminiscing and telling stories. The motorbike death at the end of Scorpio Rising was real, captured by accident, and the religious film intercut with the party sequence was meant for a Sunday school nearby and delivered to Anger by mistake. Anger’s there for this screening too, still answering everybody’s questions. He tells us that 13 of his bipolar friends have died at their own hands, including Donald Cammell (the Pallenberg connection). He talks about preferring his representations of sexuality to be “in the shadows”.
Between the archive and the recent, it’s a very satisfying weekend. The four shorts programmes could have done with some more humour, and I miss Video Visions, but Anger in the flesh was a once in a lifetime.