The latest edition of San Francisco Cinematheque’s Crossroads Film Festival boasted an eclectic lineup of artist-made film and video that, at its best, pushed together the outer limits of narrative logic, experimental abstraction, and documentary record. Now in its sixth year, Crossroads has quickly become an essential festival for contemporary moving-image art, thanks in part to the capricious curatorial vision of Cinematheque Artistic Director Steve Polta who resolutely maintains the cacophonous spirit of the festival’s namesake (Bruce Conner’s 1976 film) in his programming. Discord remains a provocative tool, particularly at a time when certain avant-garde techniques and approaches have become commonplace enough that initially progressive or alternative practices have begun to function as fatuous genre exercises.
Fortunately, Crossroads seeks to productively befuddle our conception of what moving-image art can be rather than reaffirm ingrained perceptions of whatever it is we call artist’s cinema, experimental film, or media arts. This isn’t to say the films at Crossroads represent an inchoate group detached from tradition. Sure enough, most selections could fit somewhere within established (if slippery) categories typically associated with avant-garde film history. However, Polta’s well-crafted programs displayed such a strong sense of playful divergence among individual selections, and these singular works often reflected a similar incongruence within themselves, essentially foregrounding the collision of multiple internal schisms as a central mode of address. The works I found most exciting at Crossroads were the ones that implicitly confronted their jarring multiplicity and threatened to tear themselves apart at the seams.
Central among these is Ross Meckfessel’s The Golden Hour, an intricate, boisterous, and confident Super-8 film that stood out as a major discovery. Meckfessel transforms as a beautifully shot, quasi-observational view of nature’s perpetual erosion into a transfixed, proto-pop apocalyptic portrait of the chaos of time petrified in three dimensions. With sharp editing and inspired musical choices, including Alice DJ’s “Do You Think You’re Better Off Alone” and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends,” The Golden Hour wanders through the fragments of post-civilization and finds a spectral energy lurking beneath and emanating from the sonic and surface textures of natural and manmade environments, abandoned statues, and dance beats. Living and dead collide as the world falls apart.
Ostensibly a redux of Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 found footage exploitation classic Cannibal Holocaust, Basma Alsharif’s deeply unsettling A Field Guide to the Ferns shifts the dynamic away from tribes in the Amazon to two isolated souls in a New Hampshire forest. Alternatively flipping through a nature guide book and witnessing the extraordinary violence of Deodato’s film on a laptop, these individuals wander around in zombie-like fashion as they seemingly search to identify what is going on in the world around them, all the while looking on with a silent, apathetic gaze. Later, they peer again at the laptop as it moves away from the footage of exotic tribes captured by Alan Yates in Cannibal Holocaust and reveals, in reverse, an Israeli missile strike on a house in Gaza. As Cannibal Holocaust ends with a suggestion that the Western world burn film footage of the captured atrocities in order to deny their existence, A Field Guide to the Ferns locates an undeniable form of contemporary horror in the safety net of socio-political apathy, emotional isolation, and war at a distance.
Distanced observation turns into a form of psychological horror in Guillaume Cailleau’s terrifying Laborat, a distinctly analogue recording of experiments performed on mice by the Oncological Research Center in Berlin. As Cailleau and his team record the various experiments, Cailleau integrates a recognition of the film’s own documentation and recording process, deliberately announcing which shot and take is being edited into the film and shown to the audience. Here, the spectator becomes aware of a certain multiplicity not just in the filmmaking process but also in the animal testing. How many mice are undergoing these tests? And why don’t we recognize the difference between one and the other? Laborat transmutes the implications of observation and recognition onto the part of the viewer, thereby asking them to encounter their own role in this disquieting process.
The collective work of OJOBOCA, who were featured with five films in various programs across the festival, takes the concerns of human interaction, material experimentation, scientific history, and visual transformation in many unique directions. Most notably, in Now I Want To Laugh, they recreate a simulation of a “feeling machine” prototype envisioned by Dr. D. Forme in 1917 that sought “to replace the faulty mechanism of human emotion.” An undefined, flickering face stares at the viewer and occasionally transforms: the mouth slowly opens and warps. Are these repetitive, industrial noises a new form of machinic laughter? As the simulation becomes more and more exhausting, the human face more and more obscured, seemingly dissolving itself, the film begins to reach a level of abstract absurdity, culminating in a bizarre, decidedly inhuman cackle.
Anchored by scientific experiments, historical discovery, and human intervention, the impulses behind Cailleau’s and OJOBOCA’s work were found in other work throughout the festival. In Eric Stewart’s delicately rendered Wake, Stewart uses his father’s ashes as the material for a stunning cinematic photogram that documents distance and serves as an elegy for absence. Luis Macias’s The Kiss re-renders canonical film history through a variety of formats that push familiar imagery into increasingly unidentifiable forms. Pablo Mazzolo’s fascinating films, three of which screened, utilize photochemical processes to bring a striking cinematic materialism that remains deeply connected to histories of place. In The Quilpo Dreams Waterfalls, Mazzolo conceptualizes the enigmatic arrival of waterfalls at a sacred river that never had them through material interventions into celluloid. Balancing structural mechanics, chemical manipulation, and personal histories, Mazzolo is a dynamic voice in the contemporary avant-garde. Similarly, Karissa Hahn’s gorgeous films explore objects and spaces of domestic life that evoke the significance of small change. Scott Stark’s Traces/Legacy continues his exploration of three-dimensional and photographic capacities of cinematic space, using unique devices to explore the potentials of a sound-image relationship between 35mm film and digital imagery.
If there was a connective tissue among the films at Crossroads, it may have been their significant investment in analyzing the conflict between images, their construction, and the influence of the surrounding environment. Nowhere was this more prominent than in Ben Russell’s Greetings to the Ancestors. The final film in a remarkable trilogy that found Russell openly embracing critiques launched at his ethnographic practice, Greetings to the Ancestors boldly investigates the constructedness of mythical narratives, origin stories, dream logic, and cinematic images. Beginning in darkness, Greetings launches with an exotic sonic environment, an unfamiliar array of growling voices that open onto the space of religious ritual. No doubt, Russell triggers the trappings of this language and approach in order to interrogate it. Though the film opens onto an all-night prayer vigil at the Jericho Church in Swaziland, even more noticeable is its emphasis on the film shoot of the event. Lights, cameras, and stands are present, all as integral to the process as the voices and bodies of the figures. Like the memories and dreams recited by different characters in the latter half of the film, Greetings puts itself on equal footing, revealing itself as a cinematic character, cinema as a character, in a hypnagogic construction that embodies multiple states of being which ultimately align and dissolve categories of subject and maker, dream and reality, here and there. As red filters are flashed in front of the camera over images of zebras and giraffes moving across unmarked national borders, Russell makes clear that the space we can inhabit together is the multiple, bi-directional, conflicted, distorted, divine discord of cinema.
JAMES HANSEN is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Art Department at Ohio State University. He is currently completing his dissertation on the incorporation of domestic technologies in contemporary moving-image art.