SERIOUS GAMES: Film and video at play in Experimenta at the 2014 BFI London Film Festivalby Herb Shellenberger
This October, the 2014 BFI London Film Festival Experimenta showcased roughly 70 film and video works broadly defined as “experimental cinema and artists’ film and video.” As both Erika Balsom and Dan Kidner have noted in their reviews for Artforum and Frieze respectively, there was a noticeable confusion in this year’s L.F.F. programming between works that seemed overtly experimental appearing in the festival proper and some surprisingly more conventional narratives and documentaries shown in the Experimenta sidebar. That said, the Experimenta programming offered works both magnificent and maddening, and the nearly parallel festival provided much to consider on its own. Experimental works often get a bad rap as too serious or boring, sometimes more or less deservedly so. Using a variety of aesthetic strategies and genres—from structural film to personal documentary to musical-animation-comedy hybrid feature—the works discussed below stood out in a slate full of weighty ideas and images, as films and videos that engaged with their subjects in a lively, playful, and coy manner, quite distinct from some of the more self-consciously stoic and esoteric works.
Tomorrow is Always Too Long (2014) is very emphatically a feature film by British artist Phil Collins—a rich, infectious work that conjures themes similar to those in his gallery works. Collins is interested in youth culture, magical spaces, the cathartic and social power of popular music and television/media, and here he works through these themes in the form of an 82-minute city symphony of contemporary Glasgow. While there could very well be plenty of winks and nods that only locals could pick up on, there is a universality manifest in Collins’ portrait of the city and its sense of tenderness, beauty, language, pride in its music, fashion, culture, and especially the idea of “a night out.” Illustrated by Matthew Robins in silhouette animations, this mythical night on the town follows scruffy hipsters eating in a chip shop, loitering in the streets, dancing at a disco, snorting drugs while making out in the toilet, and even partaking in bleary-eyed sexual activity in the park. It’s a depiction at once sweet and semi-nostalgic, but also kind of monstrous, with the familiar Lotte Reiniger-style animated figures historicizing these common, contemporary actions.
But this is only one thread of Tomorrow is Always Too Long, which is a deceivingly complex work despite its easy watchability. These animated sequences are one of three interwoven threads, the second being portrait sequences that follow a few specific, everyday Glaswegians. In one of these lushly filmed scenes (a noticeable contrast to the handmade animated sequences) we see a couple with their newborn. Suddenly the opening guitar chords of “Duke” by Cate Le Bon ring out. Le Bon, a Welsh singer-songwriter with an incredible voice and simple-seeming songs, leads a scrappy, garage-y indie combo which sounds something like Nico fronting Pavement or Television. But the mid-tempo indie rock song heard in the film is not the same recording as the one from her late 2013 album Mug Museum. It’s an arrangement and performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with vocals by the actors, the lyrics narrating the sense of wonder and amazement their new child inspires. We never see them again after this early scene, but Collins stretches six songs from Mug Museum into a metaphor for the quotidian situations of the brief cameos of these characters. A young girl sitting disinterested on the sidelines of her gym class sings “No God.” A frumpy, middle-aged barmaid working at a senior disco breaks into “I Think I Knew,” Le Bon’s longing romantic duet with Mike Hadreas of the Seattle band Perfume Genius. The object of her affection, a chubby, balding man with glasses, joins her to deliver the stunning finale of the song on the bar’s karaoke stage. Whereas other works by Collins, most notably The World Won’t Listen (2005), depend on the subject/viewer’s relationship with well-known pop music (in that case The Smiths), it’s an interesting twist to take very recent, relatively little-known songs and concretize them in the context of narrative vignettes in a film. Mug Museum is not only a gem of an album but an ideal candidate for this type of reflection. With each new singer, the songs’ enigmatic lyrics greatly transform in meaning and solidify conceptually with Collins’s project.
The third technique used in the film is a disjointed flip through a host of imagined late-night Glaswegian cable-access television channels. There’s a quiz show of young, zombie-looking New Romantic teens who anxiously buzz in to respond to questions asking them to name three mobile phone companies but who pass on questions like “What year did the U.S. start the Iraq War?” An infomercial for “Search Me” describes a product the buyer can hide in his or her underwear, ensuring they get the proper pat-down action often denied them by airport security officers. A burlesque performer discusses militant vegetarianism. Geriatrics talk about what love means to them. These campy, borderline twee scenes aren’t exactly innovative, and might even appeal to those into Adult Swim-style humor, but they’re also elegantly reflective of the otherwise big, meaty ideas Collins engages with in Tomorrow is Always Too Long. The film feels like a very significant work, but with only a handful of screenings since its July 2014 premiere, it’s unclear at this time how it will be exhibited, distributed, and discovered by viewers.
Similarly playful and inventive while never outwardly silly, Penelope Spheeris’s I Don’t Know was surely a self-consciously provocative creation when the filmmaker made it as her UCLA thesis film in 1970. While Spheeris is primarily known for directing Wayne’s World (1992) and the Decline of Western Civilization (1981-1998) series of rock documentaries, her early independent short films, produced in Los Angeles and previously out of circulation, have been unearthed and restored by Academy Film Archive preservationist Mark Toscano, who sees in them an interesting mix of fiction and documentary, as well as important works taking on themes in the emerging queer underground film scene. Shown here alongside other Academy preservations by pivotal filmmakers like John Whitney, Morgan Fisher, and Chick Strand, I Don’t Know takes on a reinvigorated significance. The film follows Spheeris’s sister and her relationship with Jimmy/Mary, a transgender man who seems to self-identify as somewhere between a man and a woman. The semi-brutish characters, including Spheeris’s brother who repeatedly calls Jimmy a “faggot,” sit around the house, take baths together, and talk about menstruation and gender identity. Their words are always ironic and tongue-in-cheek, but they are working through serious issues of gender identity. The reaction to these then-taboo subjects—and perhaps also to the offhanded way they were incorporated into the film—was harsh in the culture of UCLA and subsequently the film not seen for many years. While it does portray these characters and its maker to some extent just shooting the shit, the film is carefully constructed to create this creeping feeling of dread that Jimmy, a druggie who has done some sex work, is the type of person that isn’t long for this world.
Continuing his Notes on Film series—a deconstruction and reconstruction of film historical images and theoretical ideas—Austrian filmmaker Norbert Pfaffenbichler debuted a new work titled Odessa Crash Test (2014), which focuses on the Odessa steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet classic Battleship Potemkin (1925). Here, Pfaffenbichler subjects the iconic pram and baby to a series of crash dummy tests. Utilizing Eisenstein’s rapid-fire montage, Odessa Crash Test is frequently hilarious, with footage being shown from different angles at different speeds and on different media, from Super 8 to HD video and everything in between. The realistic baby doll is hurled, launched, and crashed, shown inside and outside the pram, hurtling through the air or smashing down on the concrete. The six-minute video, while not necessarily engaging with Eisenstein’s radical sense of dialectic images, is satisfying as an examination and spoof of one of the most iconic scenes in film history.
David Leister, a London-based artist-filmmaker active since the 1980s, showed two new works that mixed serious subjects with humor and innovation. Blinder (2005) is a 16mm film that engages with the traditions of structural film in a “what you see is what you get” manner: the image of the film that Leister shot is not only what you see on the screen but also generates the sound of the film via the optical soundtrack produced by the image. Leister shoots Venetian blinds in front of a window and the actual shape of the lines, as the blinds are opened and closed, modulates the sound produced. It sounds like a crude, noisy 1950s analog synthesizer, transforming as light and shadow are cast over the blinds, or as the camera tilts up and down them. The Mission (2014) is a handmade film which Leister created as a photogram from a 35mm trailer for the 1996 film Mission: Impossible. Leister’s film recalls Peter Gidal’s writings on structural-materialist film as an “anti-illusionist” form: the “action” shown in the Tom Cruise trailer is no comparison to the twisting and bending of the visible film strip image, with audio gleefully sliding in and out of sync, the familiar theme awash in a cacophony of noise. These two small works by Leister, showing playful irreverence towards two opposite but very seriously entrenched camps of film (structural-materialism on the one hand and high Hollywood aesthetics on the other), signal that artists working in the “other cinema” should be critical of all cinematic convention—not just the dominant mainstream, but also the clichés of a studious and painfully earnest “artist film.”
Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer who recently moved to London to study in the MRes Art: Moving Image program run by Central Saint Martins and Lux. He has curated programs at International House Philadelphia, Light Industry, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.