Tag Archives: experimental-film

Five years of cinema

Les carabiniers, Dir Jean-Luc Godard, France 1963

Les carabiniers, Dir Jean-Luc Godard, France 1963

1977. We’ve just been to see Star Wars at the Enfield ABC. Ahead of us, unknown, lie fights over collectible toys, tauntauns, ewoks, and referential homage in Gen X comedies. Even further lie monstrous sequels, and the sharpness of their disappointment will remind us how far this mythos has burrowed into our minds, but right now we’re ignorant even of where George Lucas has borrowed his hidden fortress from. Seated in the family Hillman Avenger, my mum turns on the engine. ‘I’ll have to remember I’m just driving a car,’ she says, ‘and not flying an X-wing fighter.’

1989. The Screen on Baker Street runs a midnight Friday screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I go with my girlfriend. Baker Street is alien territory to us Zone 4 types, the land of Madame Tussaud’s  and Sherlock Holmes: a night bus home, and night buses are not that great in the 1980s. The screening involves an amateur performance troupe called the ‘Fabulous Underclothes’ who have learned by heart the call-and-response to the film that satirises the satire, seizes on the clunky moments in Richard O’Brien’s script. I loved it, and The Time Warp too, but that’s not something I’ll readily admit to now.

1993. Valentine’s night at the Duke of York’s in Brighton and I’m watching Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz and Bridget Fonda in Bodies, Rest and Motion with two single female friends. The Duke of York’s is my university arthouse education, the cinema that plays Hal Hartley double bills, its spot-colour fold-out posters as commonly found on student walls as Egon Schiele’s Artist’s Wife. It’s where we see what Heli calls ‘headfuck French movies’ when we don’t get them out on VHS from Video Box. But Bodies, Rest and Motion is a dreary indie tableau of needlessly emotionally tortured twenty-somethings, and I’m almost as annoyed at having wasted the evening watching it as I am at being alone on Valentine’s night.

2001. ‘All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun’. The NFT runs a Godard season, and I see as many of the films as I can, nearly twenty: the macho sci-fi detectivery of Alphaville, the political thrills of Le Petit Soldat, the simulcast translation of Un film com les autres. The pantomime war of Les carabiniers remains my favourite, and I still can’t see why anyone likes Pierrot le feu. A weekend devoted to the revolutionary work of the Dziga Vertov Group culminates in a panel discussion with Tariq Ali, Colin MacCabe and Laura Mulvey. I ask a naïve question about cinema trying to change the world. ‘We weren’t making agitprop,’ replies Mulvey, ‘we were addressing the contradiction in cinema itself.’ Through two months I pack my head and a small notebook with reminders, connections, observations and thoughts. It’s a notebook I’ve rarely opened since.

2005. Watching The Ipcress File in NFT3. At one point in Harry Palmer’s adventure of deception and torture he is put in a small box and subjected to a sequence of intensely flashing lights and bizarre sound. It occurs to me that I’ve paid good money to see quite similar films in this very cinema. Somehow, the most abstract moving image pushes buttons that paintings leave unpressed. The avant-garde cinema weekend in the London Film Festival has become an anchor around which revolve screenings in pubs and art galleries around the capital, Lux’s ‘Visionary Landscapes’ at Cecil Sharp House, shorts programmes at the ICA and salon screenings in Shacklewell. Trying to learn all over again what cinema is.

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Leftfield and Looping

The Lifesize Zoetrope, Dir Mark Simon Hewis

The Lifesize Zoetrope, Dir Mark Simon Hewis

The London Short Film Festival‘s Leftfield & Luscious programme of experimental shorts is a good halfway house between the ascetic contemplationism of the LFF’s Experimenta weekend, and the calling-card aesthetics of most other shorts programmes. With a small prize backed by Wallflower Press (the Lux in previous years), and unencumbered by any obvious curatorial baggage, it’s a light-on-its-feet sort of picture of the state-of-the-art.

In The Lifesize Zoetrope [watch] director Mark Simon Hewis creates selfsame out of white t-shirted extras in a fairground centrifuge. The camera zooms in on a book of sheets that each particpant holds, and each scene repeats a couple of times as a zoetrope would before the page turns and a new sequence begins. The technical dedication is admirable (imagine how easy it would be to create the effect of this happening rather than actually filming sheets of A4 paper on a moving fairground ride), and the sometimes-scratchy results reminiscent of early eyetoys, but beyond formal experimentation the story itself is a suitably circular and repetitious tale of life, procreation and death.

The Black Dog’s Progress [watch | essay by Karen Alexander] (Dir Stephen Irwin) starts with a similar lo-fi moving image technology: looping flickbooks are laid out one by one across the screen, building up the tableau of a dog’s life through rejection, hunger, perversion and death, ending with a howling inksplatter. Both films were funded by Animate Projects, (an ACE/C4 venture) laudably supporting artists’ ventures into the medium of animation.

Like a filmic camera toss, Christopher Steel’s Welcome to Southside takes a roll of film and exposes it to the lights of London’s South Bank 36 times. Lights become lines become stars: the shape of the London Eye is somehow there and somehow not. Nagisa Kinoshita’s Touched is a creepy series of meditations on womanhood, from the little girl holding hands with a monster in the park, through pregnancy as a tethered balloon and the emergence of dark tentacles from within (we watched this while waiting for news from the hospital of L’s sister’s baby); each vignette breaks and then recedes through the vertical surface of the screen like water.

Judith Poirier’s Dialogue appears to lay type directly onto clear leader with ink: elegant outlines filled in with telltale inky ripples. What’s printed on the frame appears to be applied to the soundtrack as well, an echo of the experimental tactic used by Mary Ellen Bute, and by Norman McLaren in Synchromy. Typographers’ dabblings in other visual forms are typically facile (and often hard to read), but Poirier plays a more entertaining game: while bold capitals only produce snaps and crackles, the most aurally pleasing examples are the lines of lower case repetitions: mmmmmmmmmmmm, ppppppppp and fffffffffffff together produce satisfyingly crunchy bliptop chords.

It’s not the only film in the programme that refers back to earlier works. Ava Lanche’s Silence [watch], like Eisenstein et al’s Everyday, works through a groundhog day of alarm clock ringing and feet clumsily hitting slippers on the floor, before deviating to a simple point: each morning a woman wakes to urinate and tell us of a recent newspaper article justifying further wars in the name of the struggle against terror, which is useful, as she’s just run out of toilet paper.

On a gentler, more personal tip, The Reason I Collect [watch] takes Paul Escott’s own account of his life as a collector and hoarder of almost everything (save christmas cards), and animates the objects themselves: toys at war, a svankmajerish taxidermy cabinet, other people’s family albums and a one-armed Luke Skywalker: everything once belonged to someone, and that gives everything meaning. New Madrid (winner of the Wallflower award, imho a duff choice) narrates John James Audubon’s account of the 1812 New Madrid earthquake which altered the flow of the Mississippi river, over footage of landscape and submerged trees: beautiful and meditative, but also somnolescent.

Jacob Cartwright & Nick Jordan’s Landing Lights (Wallflower’s special mention), a 3-dimensional model of a plane repeatedly flies through a 3-dimensional model of a residential building, shown from several different aspects. The immaterial intersection of imaginary forms, the intimation that the catastrophe of a plane flying through a towerblock can be averted through modelling software as each are perfected on the drawing board, is magnified through the eerie emptiness of both plane and building into an ethereal beauty, until at last an engine hits a glancing blow on a folding chair left carelessly in its path, and something is touched.

On the less formal side there are a couple of interesting performance-based films, one amusing and one tragic. Alan Chieh-Hung Liang’s Cul De Sac is the recursive adventure of a scriptwriter stuck in a storytelling dead end, unable to make anything happen to a couple on the run through a tunnel. He ends up getting on his bike and going for a pint. Rinat Kotler’s You’re Not Going Anywhere presents a split screen, juxtaposing children playing and a woman recounting in a jocular fashion a horrible tale in which a woman skins her lover, without comment.

The final film in the programme Better to Have Loved [watch] (Dir Karen Macey), gets a live-action/stop-motion effect from being constructed of photographs on cards animated and manipulated, overscrawled with spiders, matchstick men and fuzz. Climbing through a hole in a wall leads a lonely man back to the seaside, a lost love and the picture on his own bedroom wall.

More so than feature film festivals, the point of short film festivals and programmes often seems questionable. With world-domination outfits like Future Shorts making a serious fist of online distribution, and online channels continually hungry for this sort of content, you can see a lot of these films online, in most cases before they hit a big screen anywhere near you. Why bother to drag your arse down to a cinema on a January Sunday evening? The point of sitting down in the dark and seeing all these films together (and more importantly the skill of the programmers: a mighty tip of the hat to Kate and Philip) is not only the avoidance of buffering and distraction but to see the whole lot at once, to grasp similarities, differences and references. This year, it seems to be all about returns: films that return to the beginning, and return to experimental traditions.