Writers: Robert Longstreet, Onur Tukel, Michael Tully
Cast: Rachel Korine, Brian Kotzur, Robert Longstreet, Onur Tukel, Michael Tully
A highlight of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, Septien has its UK premiere on October 2 at Abandon Normal Devices festival in Liverpool.
A resolutely strange confection meshing Southern Gothic, black comedy and outsider art, the film tells the story of Cornelius Rawlings, an itinerant sports hustler, who returns to his family farm following an 18-year unexplained absence, disrupting the lives of his already unhinged brothers, Ezra, a neat freak with a thing for Jesus, and Amis, an artist fixated on the profane. The appearance of their high school football coach throws in further dark forces and pushes the possibility of redemption into a tight spot the film resolves with a refreshingly original flourish.
Funny, awash with a warm 80s glow and constantly confounding genre expectations, the film is assured a cult following, managing the rare feat of being both compassionate and hip. Kate Taylor caught up with Michael Tully, Septien‘s writer-director, who also stars as Cornelius in the film.
Kate Taylor: Let’s start with art and the Daniel Johnston-esque illustrations that fill the film and its poster. Where did they come from?
Michael Tully: Onur Tukel, who plays Amis, did the all the original artwork himself. For three months he went on a bender and he was sending me scans. He sent me the first eight and asked if I had any notes. ‘More sandwich on the dick?’ I didn’t know what comment I could give to him, so I was like, ‘different colours maybe, mix it up?’
He’s a writer, director and obviously a super-talented artist. I met him in 2001 with his movie Ding-a-ling-Less, which stars Robert Longstreet, who plays our other brother. I fell in love with Robert and wondered why this guy was not a star. Hanging out with Onur, he had this commanding presence at the Q&A. Both Onur and I had beards at the time and I thought we should play brothers on a farm in a movie, although neither of us were actors. It was one of those kernels that just stays in your Word document of ‘Movies I Wanna Make’. It was number 800.
How did it rise to the top?
Last winter, I saw Onur in a short he’d made where he’s in front of the camera and that kernel just popped. Then I had a brainstorm with David Gordon Green over an Irish coffee at Sundance. All the outlandish things and the crazier ideas came out of that brainstorm, and something happened. I have eight scripts that are lifelong projects, and I thought, are we gonna make this one?
For the next few months, Onur and Robert and I started bouncing the story around and created this skeleton, and then fleshed it out more and completed the casting. Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife, just has this presence that you can’t really train to have or teach. We needed a pretty girl in the movie to lighten the mood somewhat because it’s a bunch of repressed male weirdos.
Initially I wanted to keep it in a Word document as ‘things I wanna see in a movie’. Because if you shoot it, it could be boring and maybe not add up to a film. I wanted a Terrence Malick magic-hour vomit. But then Onur’s and my storyteller instincts came out. And at that point I finally opened Final Draft and tried to make a story out of it.
One of the pleasures of the film is how it sidesteps clichéd story patterns. Were you thinking about genre?
It was trying to defy genre. Lately at film festivals there’s been all these panels where filmmakers are told that they need to have a target, know their audience and know exactly what they’re making. And I thought, fuck that, let’s make something that we don’t know if it’s going to stick. So it was a kind of reaction against the system.
When our distributors in the States were putting it through Video On Demand on the television you have to check the genre box, and no one knew which box to check. Some people are calling it a horror film, some people are calling it a comedy.
In audience Q&As, the fact that the film doesn’t go far into a violent realm often comes up. I think that there’s enough negativity and violence in the world that to be able to create this sense of danger and violence without it ever getting graphic was a challenge. And it was important to try to do that. To have the sense of tension without going into ‘and now they cut his throat off.’ Who cares about that?
You mentioned the Malick magic-hour vomit. Was there a particular reason that you shot on film?
Aesthetically I wanted it to have this timelessness, to feel like time stopped on the Rawlings’ farm in 1986 when Cornelius left. When he shows up again they’re all back in 1986. It’s not a period piece per se but we don’t have cell phones and we tried to make that feel organic, where the audience isn’t just wondering where they’ve gone. It was important visually for it to feel like an 80s film. Or 90s. A late 20th-century movie.
The other thing is, when you’re shooting a movie and the film camera’s rolling the stakes are higher, no matter what. I was trying to make this trick shot that’s very hard to do [Tully performed all of the film’s sports stunts]. Even if you’re shooting in video the sun is still going to go down, you still have to make your day, so it’s still a battle. But when you’re told ‘we have five takes, try to make this Mike’, the stakes are way higher. So when that shot goes in and the crew looks at each other, there’s a sense of unity that doesn’t happen on video.
There is a lot about shit, toilets and the return of the repressed. Where is that coming from?
Honestly, not to be flippant, but I think part of the challenge to make this movie was how preposterous a premise can we start with and make a convincing movie that people take seriously? So it’s not like the joke’s on the viewer, we want people to be genuinely moved, but we were thinking of very elementary juvenile ludicrous elements. So when the preacher emerges from the porta potty, a valid question is, ‘is he the personification of shit?’ I think Robert was the one who was the most faeces-obsessed in his contributions to the script.
Throwing these things out there but also making it sincere was a real challenge and I thought it was fun to try to do that. To say this is like an eighth-grader was asked to write a mystery story and try to make it a sincere genuinely affecting film. In the final shot I wanted people to be thinking, ‘I feel a sense of resolution and I am emotionally affected but my brain is telling me I should not be feeling this. Why am I actually moved right now?’
The 65th edition was a year of transition for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Under a new directorial team, the festival had teething problems, including a dearth of international guests, an unambitious film selection, technical issues (wrong projection format, out-of-synch subtitles) and venues impractically spread out across the city. On the positive side, however, there was a dynamic attempt to open up and diversify the festival experience, and interesting efforts to look at film in relation to other areas, including music and science.
Among those initiatives, Project: New Cinephilia was a multi-platform venture aimed at stimulating debate around film criticism, curated by Kate Taylor and Damon Smith. It culminated on June 16 in day-long talks between critics, writers, bloggers and filmmakers. Electric Sheep took part in the panel discussion on new tools for film criticism, which involved comics, blogs and video essays. Thought-provoking talks and interaction with the audience made it a very energising and inspiring event. As part of the project, Mubi published a series of essays, including the video essay created especially for the event by Eric Hynes, Jeff Reichert, and Michael Koresky from Reverse Shot, on a special section of their website – a visit is highly recommended.
Improvising Live Music for Film was part of the Reel Science initiative. Norman McLaren’s hypnotic animations from the 1940s, 50s and 60s were given new soundtracks by members of the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra, who responded to abstract ‘dot’ and ‘line’ films as well as the anti-war parable Love Thy Neighbor and dance film Pas de Deux. Featuring impressive guitar from George Burt, the mini-orchestra’s improvisations were warm and accessible, with nods to the jazz styles of McLaren’s era. The promised discussion on film music’s neurological impact, while introduced well by Edinburgh University Reid Professor Nigel Osborne, didn’t have time to fully materialise – a shame, given the fascinating subject matter.
One of the unquestionable highlights of the festival was the presence of Hungarian master Béla Tarr, who was there to introduce his latest film, Turin Horse. An austere film, and a hard watch in some respects – it is very long, slow and deliberately repetitive – it is also extremely rewarding. The film is an oblique take on an anecdote about Nietzsche, which recounts how the philosopher protested at a man who was beating his horse in Turin. The story has inspired many interpretations; Tarr chooses to focus on the horse, the man who owns it and his daughter. Set in a bleak, constantly wind-swept landscape, it is a soberly apocalyptic tale, a sort of creation story in reverse, as the characters’ world is gradually diminished and restricted over the course of six days until total darkness engulfs them. Tarr has said that it was his last film, and the disappearance of light at the end makes it a particularly poignant farewell to cinema.
Béla Tarr was also one of the guest curators (together with Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant) asked by the festival to choose a small selection of films. He picked three black and white Hungarian films with an interest in film language, which had clear connections with his own work. The best known was Miklós Jancsó’s 1966 The Round-Up, about the detention of political dissidents in Austria under an authoritarian regime. Gábor Bódy’s American Torso (1975) was a wonderful film, centring on a Hungarian map-maker fighting in the American Civil War. Full of references to literature and history, playful and poetic at the same time, it is a spellbinding meandering that loosely connects war and revolution, the development of map-making, Hungarian exiles and a mysterious, death-defying devil of a man at its heart. György Feher’s Passion (1998) is a take on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, made to look like a 1930s film. Feher’s approach is both elliptical and drawn out, as if he had only kept the essential moments of the story, and extended and deepened them. It is a very evocative film, in which the contrast between darkness and light and the positioning of the characters in the frame are more important in conveying emotion and mood than dialogue or narrative.
This year, the festival had also decided to celebrate its historic interest in documentary. One highlight was Jarred Alterman’s Convento, a lyrical, beautifully shot film that shines an intimate light on an artistic family living in a restored convent and nature reserve in Portugal. It’s a gorgeous place, tenderly cared for by its inhabitants: Geraldine Zwanniken, a former dancer, now artist, and her two sons, the nature lover Louis, and Christiaan, who creates kinetic sculptures using found materials, often the bones of dead animals, reanimated in a sometimes eerie, sometimes humorous way. Alterman’s almost poetic visual style allows us a fleeting chance to share in the family’s extraordinary lives.
Stylistically, James Marsh’s new film, Project Nim, is a more classic documentary. Using interviews and archival footage, Marsh pieces together the remarkable and disturbing story behind Project Nim, the misguided experiment to teach sign language to the eponymous chimpanzee, raised from infancy by a human family in New York. It’s a heart-breaking story; Nim was a victim of unbelievable hubris, and while loved by the people who cared for him, he was also abandoned when he became less like a human child and more like a wild animal. It’s an intriguing film, but the people interviewed (Nim’s original family, the scientist who devised the experiment, other researchers), with one or two exceptions, are just so unlikeable, and some of their actions so unconscionable, that it’s impossible to identify with them.
The same can’t be said of the subject of Calvet, Dominic Allan’s engrossing documentary. While describing someone as larger than life may sound like a cliché, the phrase surely applies to Jean-Marc Calvet – runaway, legionnaire, vice cop, bodyguard, alcoholic, drug addict, and now painter. Allan lets Calvet do all the talking, the camera following him as he revisits locations from his tortuous past; the artist is a fascinating, charismatic character, given a near-miraculous opportunity for redemption when he decides, with Allan discreetly following, to find the son he abandoned years ago. It’s a remarkable film about a remarkable man, who, in his words, has been to hell and back.
One of the most enjoyable documentaries was Liz Garbus’s Bobby Fisher against the World, about the rise and fall of the American chess master who became caught up in Cold War politics when he was asked to compete against the Russian Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Championship match in Reykjavik. The film is worth watching for the meticulously detailed footage from the incredibly tense, nerve-wracking games leading up to Fisher’s victory, which ended 24 years of Soviet domination of world chess. It also provides an interesting insight into Fisher’s upbringing and troubled state of mind, exploring the fatal relationship between genius and insanity and asking whether the former can ever exist without the latter.
Life in Movement offered another well-crafted glimpse at what it takes to be a talented, ambitious and passionate individual. Its subject is Australian choreographer Tanya Liedke, who died in a car accident in 2007 at the age of 29, the night before taking up the position of Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Theatre. Like Bobby Fisher, this simple yet moving portrait by producer-director duo Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde would have benefited from slightly tighter scripting, but both documentaries managed to capture the charisma and unique personality of their central character, and remained compelling and informative throughout.
Screened on the last weekend of the festival, Hell and Back Again, by first-time director Danfung Dennis, will probably be discussed mostly for the impressive daring and visual beauty of its ’embedded journalism’ and its filming of troops in action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. But in fact, the film follows the slow recovery of a seriously wounded sergeant, with the combat footage relegated to flashbacks. Mainly free of political commentary, the film only lapses into sentiment and borderline propaganda with an ill-judged Willie Nelson song over the end credits.
It says a lot about this year’s edition of the EIFF that one of the most high-profile screenings was David MacKenzie’s Perfect Sense, starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green as a mismatched couple who, much to their own surprise, fall for each other as the world falls apart during an epidemic. The mysterious disease causes people to lose their senses, one at a time, which is followed by temporary and uncontrollable outbursts of sorrow, anger or hunger. Other than taking a more personal approach to the apocalyptic genre, the film does not have much to offer, and although it is largely sustained by the lead actors, the flaws in the script ultimately make it a tiresome watch.
An unnamed epidemic also hits in Nicolás Goldbart’s Phase 7: residents of one quarantined Buenos Aires apartment block are up against not only a killer virus, but also their neighbours in this witty, low-budget horror. Coco, a peaceable young dude trying to keep his pregnant wife safe and well-fed, forms an unlikely alliance with Horacio, the maté-drinking, gun-toting conspiracy theorist next door, when the intentions of the other residents – humorously drawn as both impeccably bourgeois and utterly ruthless – become clear. Phase 7 offsets the gore and tension with a sharp script and a cool John Carpenter-esque soundtrack by Guillermo Guareschi.
Latin America offered another futuristic tale with Alejandro Molina’s By Day and by Night, from Mexico. Tackling the timely theme of over-population, the film is set in a world where people have to live under a dome that protects them from the ‘exterior’; due to the limited space, half of the population has to live during the day, while the other half lives at night. The film follows a mother’s search for her daughter after the child’s ‘shift’ is inexplicably modified. Visually, it’s a cross between Star Trek and Solaris, and Molina’s nostalgic, minimalistic, slow-paced approach and sparse use of dialogue are a welcome change from recent slick, pompous 3D sci-fi blockbusters; but the result is mostly a joyless, soporific and sentimental cinematic experience that is not as deep as it pretends to be.
There was more dystopian science fiction on offer with Xavier Gens’s apocalyptic action thriller The Divide, which had generated some hype after screening at the Cannes film market earlier this year. After New York is destroyed by unidentified causes, a mismatched group of eight adults and a young girl are trapped inside a basement. As they try to survive not only the outside menace, but also one another, the film’s annoyingly stereotyped cast and unconvincing plot twists fail to maintain interest, despite fairly energetic directing from Gens.
A sprinkling of horror films included Troll Hunter, directed by André Øvredall, which follows in the mockumentary footsteps of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. Øvredall’s scenario isn’t exactly bursting with ideas, but it does play imaginatively with its single premise. The trolls themselves are rather splendid, and the film is very handsomely photographed amid spectacular Norwegian scenery, all looming mountains and misty meres. To its credit, the film never gets caught up in trying to make its absurd conceit plausible, and derives a lot of enjoyment from the bare-faced silliness of it all.
By contrast, The Caller was just a pile of derivative trash. After separating from a violent ex, Mary moves into a new apartment. But soon, she starts getting strange calls from a woman named Rose, and events from the past appear to influence the present. The premise seemed interesting; sadly, the realisation is entirely incoherent from a narrative and thematic point of view and chock-full of clichés.
Although not a straightforward horror film, Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus had elements of the genre. The Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship are treated with de la Iglesia’s customary outrageousness, the film starting with an army of clowns in full make-up roped in to fight against the General’s forces. One of them has a son, Javier, who decides to follow the family tradition after his father is caught by the Franquists. Silliness and quixotic heroism, outlandish humour and hideousness mix in this exuberant response to a dark period of Spanish history. But despite inspired moments (a particular highlight is Javier, treated like a dog by an officer during a hunting party, biting the hand of an ageing Franco), the film prefers to focus on an uninteresting, hackneyed romance between the sad clown and the beautiful trapeze artist, rather than really sinking its teeth into its historical context.
Among other films worthy of note, Pablo Lorrain’s Post Mortem particularly stood out. Mario (Alfredo Castro) is an emotionally stilted functionary at the city morgue, who becomes an inadvertent member of the military regime as the body count rises dramatically in the days surrounding the death of Salvador Allende. While the film starts slowly, tension builds as Mario falls pathetically in love with the troubled Nancy, a cabaret dancer who disappears when her father is arrested – although Lorrain refrains from showing much action. Instead, the sounds of a violent struggle are heard off-screen as Mario showers in his house across the street, oblivious to the brutal crackdown that is taking place around him. When he leaves for work, the streets are empty of people, cars bulldozed by the tanks that have swept through, crushing everything in their path. The film’s very deliberate, subtle pacing leads to a troubling climax, and while the surprising final scene is easily read as a metaphor for the oppressive, dehumanising regime imposed by Pinochet, it’s no less tragic.
Anyone who has seen the video for MIA’s ‘Born Free’ will be familiar with the basic set-up in Romain Gavras’s original debut feature, Our Day Will Come: red heads are second-class citizens, tormented and persecuted for their looks. In the bleak Nord-Pas de Calais region, Rémy (Olivier Barthelemy) is treated like a joke, ostracised by his family and football team, while his only ‘real’ relationship is conducted online in a gaming forum with someone he’s never met. But then, like a warped knight coming to his rescue, Patrick (a terrific Vincent Cassel), a psychologist and greying red head, decides to take Rémy under his wing and teach him a few life lessons. Over the next 48 hours, they buy a Porsche, get hammered in a supermarket after hours, check into a luxury hotel – where Gavras amusingly subverts the usual male-fantasy group-sex scene – and Rémy discovers that Ireland is the red heads’ spiritual homeland. The slightly absurd subject matter makes the film a bit of an oddity, but it’s confidently directed, entertaining and humorous, and laced with sinister undercurrents.
In Ryan Redford’s Oliver Sherman, a veteran (Garrett Dillahunt) from an unnamed war shows up unannounced at the remote home of the man who saved his life during a firefight (Franklin, played by Donal Logue). One man has a medal for bravery, the other a gaping scar across the back of his skull. The injury has left Sherman a bit slower, a bit dimmer, and certainly unable to cope with the social niceties demanded of him by Franklin’s wife. Redford, with the help of a chilling performance from the eerie Dillahunt, creates a palpable air of tension in the remote household, keeping the audience guessing what direction the volatile reunion between the two men, with their completely different lives, is going to take. It’s a bleak, disturbing and ultimately engrossing picture.
Yoon Sung-hyun’s debut feature Bleak Night was the only Korean entry in this year’s selection. It follows a grieving father as he investigates his son’s closest friends to piece together the events that led to the tragic accident in which the teenage boy has died. Although Yoon Sung-hyun’s assured directing style and the convincing performances from his young cast create a disquieting tension in the first half of the film, the atmosphere and mystery that initially sustain it dissipate gradually, and what remains feels like a plodding analysis of teenage discontent.
Overall, although there were a number of interesting films in the programme, they were too often films already scheduled to have a UK release in the near future. The desire of the directorial team to revitalise the Edinburgh festival is entirely laudable, and it is to be hoped that they will be able to propose a more original and daring film selection next year.
Festival report by Sarah Cronin, Pamela Jahn, Virginie Sélavy, Frances Morgan and David Cairns
An odd and frightening apparition, with the body of a football fan and the face of a gorilla, steps out of the shadows and into a young boy’s waking nightmare. The beast then starts to dance. Frenetically jerking from sharp elbows into monkey looseness and aggression, it’s a jumble of hooligan poses and simian swings. Partly comic, technically brilliant and distinctly creepy, Tom Browne’s short film Aston Gorilla may resolve in a place of sanctuary, where men can protect their children from the world, but the aftertaste is still discomfiting.
The film has already found acclaim at the 2010 edition of moves, a Liverpool-based film festival that fuses dance film with experimental moving image, screening as part of their Alternative Routes tour. But while the skillful choreography could see the film win fans on the screen dance circuit, the fictional elements and flashes of horror are also akin to the likes of filmmaker Robert Morgan and should find an audience at short film festivals interested in a more experimental approach to storytelling. It’s certainly unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year.
Filmmaker Tom Browne has mined dark territory before. His previous short Spunkbubble featured a grotesque mélange of violence and sexual brutality. Starring Aiden Gillen as a man whose encounter with hotel pornography is cruelly interrupted, it features a vengeful duo searching for La Freaque, a supernatural figure whose sexual magnetism leads men to lose their minds. A deeply uncomfortable watch, it marked Browne as a bold voice, with clear stylistic confidence, a strong crew of collaborators and a penchant for extremity.
In person he is disarmingly unguarded and frank about his ideas and increasing personal focus on filmmaking. The first striking thing about the process of production for Aston Gorilla is the velocity of its inception. It seems that a common thread in Browne’s films is the speed at which they are thrown together. ‘I hadn’t really imagined anything beyond making it,’ Browne starts. ‘The way it came about was very quick. The camera man from Spunkbubble called me up at short notice to say that he had the use of a Canon 5D for a weekend, and did I want to shoot something? I said yes without thinking what it might be. That night I went to see a dance performance from the Hofesh Shechter Company in Brighton. As I was coming back on the train I had the idea for Aston Gorilla. I literally thought you could do it like that. It would be very easy to make. I got hold of a hall very quickly, and we just shot it in a day.’
As to inspiration, the jumble of elements seems to be another hallmark. Browne explains, ‘I think you always know you’re on to a good thing when lots of disparate things in your head come together. That was one of my son George’s favourite jokes: “What team does King Kong support?” “Aston Gorilla”. And my brother-in-law supports Aston Villa so we had a team top. Then in the programme from that evening of dance was a picture of Hofesh in a gorilla mask. Further feeding into the mix, George was having terrible nightmares at that stage. So I was thinking about his nightmares and about how you see your father sometimes, as very strong but also very weak. All those things together in one. That was its genesis.’
The father/son dynamic is amplified by the fact that George stars as the son in the film. It’s a trick Browne’s repeating with his youngest, in a new film shot in Kew Gardens that has a similar punchline-driven narrative, regarding a slug that gets mugged by some snails. ‘Shooting People just held this competition where, if your treatment was selected, you got to shoot in Kew Gardens, which is a wonderful botanical garden. I had this joke in my head that I always thought would be good for a father to tell a son. It’s a sort of shaggy dog story, but the punchline is his mum saying, “Oh my darling, did you see what any of them looked like?” And he says, “No, it all happened so fast”.’
As well as making films Browne earns a living as an actor under the name Thomas Fisher, and has appeared in films such as The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing and Shanghai Knights. He has also collaborated in more experimental territory with director Ben Hopkins, notably on The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz, which he both acted in and co-wrote. It was an experience that involved some deep research for a character who was addicted to alcopops.
They seem to have completely gone from life now, Browne muses. ‘I found our tasting notes the other day. There was one called Strobe, which was really ferocious. It had a skull and crossbones on it and I think it was just sugar and caffeine and alcohol. You could get white, red and blue, but I can’t remember what they called the flavours. Then there was one called Barking Frog, and that was also extreme. They’re basically like Special Brew with caffeine, and even stronger alcohol. After a night of that you were completely in a terrible sugar-rush headache. You felt awful.’
This seems to illustrate Browne’s organic approach to collaboration and the drawing together of haphazard influences. ‘We didn’t watch a lot of films,’ Browne explains. ‘Ben’s seen more films than anyone I know. But we didn’t sit around watching films saying, “it should be like this, or it should be like this”. We did a lot of other stuff, which was only vaguely related to what might happen. I’m very bad at drawing things together in my head without the need to. So I don’t quite know what my inspirations are until they suddenly appear.’
For his next film, Browne is aiming at something technically complex: ‘It will be six minutes long and the camera will travel 360 degrees in 360 seconds.’ Meanwhile, Fisher can be seen in Jamie Thraves’s new feature Treacle Jr, which premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in October.
‘You can’t have a city without a library. You can’t have film culture without an archive.’ Craig Baldwin
A biennial beacon of eclectic audiovisual programming that spans Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, the 2010 AV Festival took up the timely theme of ‘energy’. This was channelled through the form of its Recycled Film programme, an exploration of artists’ use of found footage and archive materials. Including a series of contextual screenings, a day-long symposium and an evening of live performance, the strand opened up an increasingly significant area of moving image practice.
A maverick figure in this area, Rick Prelinger premiered his new film The Lives of Energy, plus a collage of thematic works from his collection. He also kicked off the symposium with a mind-bending keynote speech. As an archivist with a collection of mainly industrial and educational films, Prelinger has taken the radical move of putting over 2,000 films online at archive.org for people to access, download and use with a Creative Commons Public Domain license.
Prelinger isn’t pioneering simply in his embrace of new business models though. He also disseminates ideas, as crystallised in his manifesto ‘On the Virtues of Preexisting Material’. Acknowledging a US-centric position to his rhetoric, Prelinger explained in his speech that American archives are often the preserve of private entrepreneurs, rather than attached to larger bureaucracies, as in Europe. Copyright law is vastly different too. Prelinger estimates 500,000 films are out of copyright in the US, compared to a fraction of that amount in the UK.
Thereafter talk of copyright ceased for fear of leading the symposium down a rabbit hole, and it was only referred to as the C word by all save artist Vicki Bennett who stated: ‘It would cost me Â£200,000 to clear copyright within the clip of the film you are about to see.’
‘Fans will save the media.’ Rick Prelinger
Much of the appeal of Prelinger’s talk concerned the real-life nuances his experience with the archive provides. It’s handled around 50,000-60,000 downloads, but he said that while many people will download for free on a Creative Commons license, others want to pay for paper indemnification. Prelinger has felt the tangible effects of the gift economy, but reminded us that you need to encourage people to knock on the door.
In this context, he cited Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans theory (if an artist can encourage a thousand true fans to spend a small amount per year, they can earn a living). While it’s been proven flawed by many, including Kelly himself, extended to archives, it demonstrates an optimism and openness that doesn’t clash with Prelinger’s respect and enthusiasm for the people carrying out the core responsibility to preserve collections. ‘We need to applaud guardianship while criticising excessive deference to rights holders,’ he stated.
The keynote was a tough act to follow, and while it wasn’t a call to arms to place all collections online, it fell to Rebecca Cleman of Electronic Arts Intermix to express the nervousness many collections, gallerists and artists feel about opening up access, particularly when operating within the scarcity model of selling limited editions, or coveting particular types of exposure.
However, Cleman cited several contemporary artists in the EAI collection who are pushing things forward. Ryan Trecarthin, Cory Arcangel and Seth Price all have commercial galleries as well as a strong online presence, and Cleman suggested looking to such artists on strategies moving forward.
Drawing a distinction between the work of public archives and that of distributors’ collections, Mike Sperlinger of Lux put forward a critique of the levelling effect of the internet. ‘In contemporary art, context is a key element,’ he stated. ‘This is less charged for filmmakers. It’s not just about scarcity but cultural value and artists’ ways of framing their own work.’
Indeed, the contextual benefit that collections have when they place materials online can be found in the framing offered, with services such as Luxonline and CRAMI (Curatorial Resource for Artists Moving Image) contributing to moving image discourse and expanding the conversation around the works.
‘Found footage is a folk art.’ Craig Baldwin
An answer to another question raised by Prelinger – a danger of artists’ interactions with archives developing into a uniform aesthetic or style – was provided as several artists spoke about their experiences using found footage and archive material.
The best known UK proponent is Vicki Bennett (aka People Like Us), whose collage films have been making the most of online archives for over 10 years. Bennett is pragmatic about sustaining her practice and puts all her films online, making money from live AV sets, including her storming AV Festival premiere of Genre Collage.
Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead presented their new film A Short Film about War. This is a split-screen work that uses stills from Flickr and actors reading blog fragments as written by people in war zones – soldiers and civilians. With the exact source annotated in real time opposite the images, the film places the origin of the material with laser precision.
Meanwhile a presentation from David Lawson on the work of the Black Audio Collective in the 1980s and 1990s gave further evidence of the political agency archive material can engender. Lawson ended with a short clip from fellow BAC member John Akomfrah’s latest film Mnemosyne. A tone poem premiering at the Public in West Bromwich, it’s the result of a residency managed by another inspirational speaker at the symposium, Dr Paul Gerhardt of Archives for Creativity.
‘Are we enabling people to speak truth to powers?’ Craig Baldwin
‘There is a temptation to look at these films as psycho-cultural documents or as aesthetics kitsch. But these films contributed to filmmaking and the techniques of information-giving,’ Prelinger argued passionately. Dealing with this warning against cultural commodification was Craig Baldwin, artist, archivist, filmmaker and founder of the Other Cinema in San Francisco.
As well as speaking at the symposium and screening his latest feature Mock Up on Mu, Baldwin hauled a suitcase full of 16mm over to Newcastle to lead a workshop at the Star and Shadow for four days during the festival. ‘There’s no disposable film footage in Europe. Every time I run a workshop I have to ship stuff over from the US. For a lot of reasons; one, because there’s overproduction in the US; also we still have 16mm over there; thirdly, because of the war a lot of your archives were destroyed. So for a lot of reasons you can walk down the street in San Francisco, or any city, and find Super8 and 8 track tapes. So that’s my whole theory about overproduction or surfing the wave of obsolescence: in a way we have to recycle and redeem it – redeem the value of film that’s used for the worst kind of commercial purposes.’ And with this magpie-like tendency Baldwin constructs compelling counterculture narratives from the remnants of cinema history.
It’s an exciting time for the engagement of archives and artists, with plenty of opportunity for experimentation and new thinking. For example, there have been a slew of recent projects across the UK funded by the Digital Film Archive Fund (DFAF) in response to the screen heritage policy, which can be viewed alongside work by organisations such as Archives for Creativity.
The Recycled Film symposium provided a comprehensive and diverse introduction to the challenges faced, and suggested that if artists can continue to push the possibilities and institutions are open and entrepreneurial enough, then archive material will continue to offer revolutionary potential.
If the term ‘slacker revenge’ seem oxymoronic, tell that to Simon Rumley, director of festival discovery Red White and Blue, a film featuring some nifty genre-shifting and a killer soundtrack, which set the tone for a Rotterdam festival featuring many musical delights.
Set in Austin, Texas, Red White and Blue starts as a character study of the ravenously promiscuous Erica, whose existence consists of picking up random men in bars and trying to hold on to the cleaning job at the guest house where she stays. Despite her frosty attitude, a tentative friendship blossoms with fellow lodger Nate, who, as it’s quickly apparent, is both disapproving and slightly unhinged.
Cut back to punk hipster Franki, an earlier Erica conquest, trying to get his band a European tour, giving his boss grief at his burger-flipping job, and looking after his ailing mother. On her death, Franki and Erica’s paths become entwined again in a twist that would jump out as controversy-baiting, had the preceding scenes not treated the characters in such a non-judgmental way.
From then the film shifts gear, unleashing a vicious streak of inventive violence that will satisfy gore-seekers (death by gaffa tape – the ultimate indie way to go?) but still retain the less squeamish brand of cinephile. ‘I liked the idea of making a horror film that people would enjoy but wasn’t an out-and-out horror film; almost subverting the concept of what is scary and what makes people disturbed,’ Rumley says. ‘With Red, White and Blue, it was about how to make a film with a killer, who’s not a traditional killer in that they don’t go round with a knife. I thought the idea of a person who uses their body as their lethal weapon was an interesting place to start.’
To talk more about the plot would spoil the film’s unfolding, but we can say much of the charm lies in the snappy pacing, a certain austerity of tone and an impeccable sense of place. Authentic feel was an important factor for Brit Rumley: ‘New York, LA and London all have their scenes. They’re different and they’re punk in their own way. There’s an Austin look too. It’s very much earth mother punk – a lot of tattoos, a lot of long hair, a lot of big beards. Marc Senter (who played Franki), is from LA and I don’t think he’d ever been to Austin before. We were discussing how the character and the band in the script are basically punk. I was saying I maybe wanted him blonde, and he was saying, â€œI see him more as Iggy Popâ€, which I disagreed with. So I took him to Emo’s, the club in the opening scene. When I was filming there I saw the New York Dolls, Henry Rollins and Gallows play. It’s a very punky club. We went down the first evening he was in Austin, and he was like, “Oh my God, OK, now I totally understand what you mean”.’
The addition of Franki’s feather earrings, alongside a soundtrack of unknown Austin bands seals the film’s world. ‘While it’s not necessarily the look I would go for, I think a lot of people there look really cool. I was trying to recreate that,’ states Rumley.
Read Kate Taylor’s feature on Redmond Entwistle’s short film Monuments, which also screened at Rotterdam.
Further subversive slackers
This seam of music and a stylised discontented youth was highlighted most obviously in two other films with indie credentials and unlikely genres: Hiroshima (hyper-realist/surrealist slacker) and The Sentimental Engine Slayer (slacker incest fantasy).
In Hiroshima – Pablo Stoll’s Uruguayan paean to the joys of the discman – we follow unemployed Juan as he drifts through a day of encounters with friends, family and a life drawing class. There is very little dialogue, and what there is is delivered through witty use of intertitles, while the film plays with its post-punk audio to cracking effect. It’s a film that’s in no hurry, and occasionally drifts out of interest, yet it packs a surprising amount in. And the opening scene sets a stylish tone that will swell the heart of any music fan with a pair of headphones in their pocket.
The directorial debut of Omar Rodriguez Lopez (of At The Drive-In and Mars Volta fame), The Sentimental Engine Slayer is a psychedelic odyssey with an enviable score and an El Paso setting shot with dizzying urgency by Michael Rizzi. However, the scenario, of which has Barlam (played by Lopez) as an unlikely virgin geek with a crush on his drug-addicted sister, is way too pleased with its characters to fulfill its premise. Thus an exploration of the transgressions of grief and resulting sexual confusion falls lazily into a hateful machismo that regales us with the philosophy that ‘all that matters is pussy’, bolstered by a string of violent transactions with prostitutes, while the plot gets tangled in its own quasi-experimental flourishes.
Cinematic sound delights
Aural pleasures with post-rock flavour were to be found in the bursts of indie distortion from Thai musician The Photo Sticker Machine in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History. A Tiger award- winner, the film makes a choppy segue from a delicate relationship drama unfolding between an sick young man and his nurse into a full-on existentialist romp complete with journey into the sun and full birthing scene.
Bursts of ska, Spanish ballads and the Country & Western of a prison request radio show set a quirky tone that punctures the often brutal world of Samson & Delilah, an emotional punch in the face of a film about two Aboriginal petrol-sniffin’ misfits trying to get by. While momentarily undermined by the inclusion of a bombastic cover of David Gray’s ‘Nightblindness’, much of the score was composed and played by director Warwick Thornton and his children.
A beautiful moment of non-diegetic sound occurs in Ben Russell’s experimental FIPRESCI winner Let Each One Go Where He May. The film consists of 13 ten-minute takes, as a Steadycam follows brothers Benjen and Monie Pansa going about life in Suriname. Using the language of visual anthropology with a fine art sensibility, it becomes a work about ways of seeing and the viewer’s relationship with the observed. In one shot we are looking back at the crowded rows of passengers on a bus, when a woman takes the seat directly facing the lens. There is a palpable sense of the brothers trying not to smile or acknowledge the camera, and then some music starts (composed by Monie himself), and for a few minutes the bus bounces around in an upbeat rhythm and with a shy joy as Monie puts on his best poker -face and looks out the window; his expression that of a man in a film pretending to be a man who is in a film but doesn’t know it.
While festival scheduling meant that the Where Is Africa? focus at IFFR started as many delegates were heading home, it felt timely that several of the wider festival’s standouts were set on the continent including Claire Denis’s superb White Material and the Tiger award- winning short Atlantiques by Mati Diop (herself the star of Denis’s earlier 35 Shots of Rum).
Live performance and furniture humping
On the live front, the festival offered eclectic pleasures, including Lovid’s mind-warping circuit-bending AV performance Light from the Dark Ages, and the soul-nourishing experience of Luke Fowler’s 16mm accompaniment to Alasdair Roberts’s folk singing. Both occurred in the Break Even Store, a pop-up concept shop selling filmmakers’ books and DVDs and hosting talks and happenings throughout the festival.
Sonic experiments from Mike Cooper fused with Greg Pope’s projections in Cipher Screen, a slow build of dots and scratches: a tasty piece of expanded cinema that, while not ground-breaking, did the trick of talking to the brain with a language that only live projections can achieve. It was a fitting highlight in the closing programme of Kino Climates, a summit of independent cinemas from across Europe (including the UK’s Cube, Star and Shadow, Side and 7Inch Cinema), which discussed the future of alternative exhibition.
Finally there was Cameron Jamie’s short film Massage the History. ‘The single greatest dance film ever made!’ ‘Better than The Red Shoes!’ So proclaimed a hyperventilating Harmony Korine (in town pimping his own Trash Humpers with such oddball gusto that people were walking out during the introduction), taking time out to whip the crowd into a frenzy for Jamie’s premiere.
It’s a mind-boggling piece, based on a group of tattooed young black men in Montgomery, Alabama, that Jamie first encountered online. Bored and surrounded by soft furnishings, they make up little erotic dance routines, occasionally don white gloves, and basically hump the armchairs in a semi-balletic fashion. Jamie’s addition of a Sonic Youth soundtrack elevated the would-be YouTube curio to a warped state of grace.
As long as art is seen as creation, it will be the same old story. Here we go again, creating objects, creating systems, building a better tomorrow. I posit that there is no tomorrow, nothing but a gap, a yawning gap. That seems sort of tragic, but what immediately relieves it is irony, which gives you a sense of humour. It is that cosmic sense of humour that makes it all bearable. (Robert Smithson in Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object)
Robert Smithson (1938â€“1973) is looking into the half-distance. Resurrected, having emerged from an underground car park into a 2009 suburbia and wearing an exceptionally bad wig, he contemplates post-minimalist art with his equally glacial buddies Gordon Matta-Clark (1943â€“1978) and Dan Graham (b. 1942). In a landscape of greys and blues the trio slope around, deadpanning theory and journeying into a reverie of architecture and cinema.
A beguiling oddity, Redmond Entwistle’s short film Monuments stood out as a highlight at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. A thoughtful, funny, sad film. A film with a bibliography. A film about New Jersey. ‘New Jersey was where my grandparents settled and lived after moving from Poland,’ Entwistle explains. ‘It is the counterpart to the visible New York. New Jersey feeds the city with materials, construction and invisible labour. At first New Jersey was the working-class suburbs of the city, then it became the white-collar suburbs, and now it’s something else. It’s a new hinterland. It’s a corporate park.’
Overlapping in time spans, all three artists created seminal works in New Jersey: Graham’s Homes for America photographic series was largely shot there; Matta-Clark carved up suburban houses with a power saw in Splitting and Bingo; and NJ-born Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic essay was a journal of a trip he took there, creating a series of photographs along the way. ‘In it, he talks about the cinematised landscape,’ Entwistle explains. ‘The landscape in New Jersey for him is already a filmic landscape.’
Monuments echoes what Entwistle sees as an underlying structure within their work. ‘Even though it’s sculpture and exists in that kind of space, it felt like there was an underpinning of narrative to their work. The narrative I recognised was this movement out to the fringes to collect material that you bring into the centre, as a means of authenticating society again. The way they’re going out to these environments and using raw materials, I think to some level there’s a reiteration of that narrative, of modernism, where one goes and finds the authentic materials and brings them back to the centre again, and that relates to their interest in context as well.’
Formerly a projectionist at the ICA in London and currently based in New York, Entwistle cuts a serious but restless figure. He has been making moving image work for 10 years, often switching between cinema and gallery exhibition. Paterson – LÃ³dz (winner of Best International Film On-Screen at Images 2008) is an expanded sound piece for a seated audience in a cinema and Belfast Trio (also shown at Rotterdam) consists of three short films that were originally displayed in a gallery but also screened in three cinemas simultaneously in Belfast – each one a short staged scene that doesn’t necessarily relate to the dialogue on its soundtrack. ‘None of the pieces sit comfortably in a cinema or a gallery setting. They’re always between,’ he states. ‘I’d say neither space is adequate, so it’s partly a process of trying to provoke some sort of dialogue about the alternative ways of showing and making work. The cinematic experience has not always been a fixed one, it’s been one that’s open to new possibilities of screening. But I wouldn’t say that the works I’m making are defining what that should be. They are not just critical, but they do construct a certain way of viewing.’
For now though Entwistle has a pressing concern, how the very-much-still-alive Dan Graham will respond to the adventures of the zombie-esque photocopy of himself in the film. ‘I was concerned how he would react to it. I didn’t want to ridicule him. I think maybe it’s slightly unavoidable. He has his persona and I’m ridiculing that persona in some ways.’ Entwistle recalls the post-screening Q&A at the IFFR premiere: ‘I think a couple of people felt that I was mocking the artists’ work. But I really feel that if there is a humour in there it’s directed rather at the industry around the artists. Their mythic status isn’t of their own making, it’s something that’s happened as a process of a cultural industry around their work. I wanted to separate their work from this hagiography that developed around it.’
Max Hattler is refuting my observation that he’d like to transcend gravity. ‘Animation has become a sub-category of film, but I think film is a sub-category of animation.’ The intent in his work, he states, is not a matter of escaping the rules of physics, as in cartoons, but has more affinities with the beginnings of the cinematic form itself – origins he is keen to reclaim: ‘I don’t really like animation. People go in for the wrong reasons – because they like cartoons. I like abstraction and graphic design. I like early animation. Artists like Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger saw it as an extension of painting. Celluloid was a way of making paintings move, and that was the beginning of film. Then came narrative and Hollywood and telling stories with people in them. Now, animation is dominated by Disney and funny stuff – why do we have to live with that?’
If this talk of history seems irregular for such an avowed innovator, the confrontational stance does not. Hattler’s breakthrough film, his Royal College of Art graduation short film Collision, literally burst onto the scene in 2005, with a whirl of flags and a deft political kick. To date, Collision has notched up 209 international screenings, winning a clutch of awards and establishing Hattler as one of a wave of design-savvy digital moving image wunderkinds that include David OReilly and (sometime Hattler collaborator) Robert Seidel.
I speak to Hattler on the eve of his trip to the Fredrikstad Animation Festival in Norway where he will serve as a jury member, and perform a new live set with Japanese artist Noriko Okaku, cryptically titled /\/\/\. A curly-haired dynamo, Hattler is a regular presence on the festival circuit, his films constantly touring evocatively monikered events such as Optica, Cream, Exground and Encounters. Most recently, his short film Aanaatt has received special mention ‘for the art form’ at the No-Festival of Video Art and Animation in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
His latest work, Spin, is produced and distributed by edgy Parisian outfit Auteur de Minuit and extends the concerns of Collision. ‘With the mediatisation of war, you have embedded journalists, and it’s twisted. War is constructed as a narrative for news entertainment,’ Hattler explains. ‘Collision has a very specific take on conflict. It’s sexy and seductive and pretty to look at. It draws you in and halfway through you see horrible things.’
The development of Spin has led to Hattler researching political parades and mass rallies, alongside kaleidoscopic Hollywood dance routines: ‘I’ve been looking at work by Leni Riefenstahl, and the escapist vision of Busby Berkeley. I’ve also been considering Fordism and the division of labour, where individuals create a bigger pattern. I’m interested in the human as ornament. What happens when you replicate a figure a million times?’
With this correlation of dance troupes and military troops, Spin presents a constantly self-replenishing supply of plastic toy soldiers, whose uniform movements shift from dizzying eye-candy patterns into increasingly threatening displays, all to a soundtrack of 1940s big band music. This symbiosis of geometry and bodies is an emerging tendency in Hattler’s work, including currently touring live AV set Oh Yes, another collaboration with Noriko Okaku, featuring a YouTube-infected array of Olympian athletes and roller coasters. Contrasting with the painstaking and time-consuming nature of his film work, the live audiovisual performances offer a sense of catharsis: ‘It’s definitely a relief. An ad-hoc, random, uncontrollable adrenalin-based thing.’
Spin revels in its toys’ plastic shininess, mixing 2-D After Effects wizardry and 3-D scans, extending Hattler’s technical vocabulary and involving a small team of animators. While he regularly collaborates with other artists and musicians, Hattler confirms that his next work will be a solo piece: ‘It’s a luxury to get other people involved, but now I’m excited at just being able to tinker.’
In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Phantoms of Nabua, streetlamps flicker and lightning flashes in the soft dark of a playground at night. As boys kick around a burning football, the lightning is revealed to be a film itself, projected onto a screen that is set alight at the culmination of the game. Commissioned by Animate Projects, Phantoms is part of Primitive, a haunting, multilayered series of films that sees the Thai director exploring Nabua, in North-Eastern Thailand. The history of a brutal military occupation in the area sparked Weerasethakul’s imagination, leading him to cast Nabua as a place in which to examine the shifting nature of memory, illustrated via the overall theme of light and its properties. In the Primitive installation, which is the director’s first in the UK, ghosts and spaceships appear alongside footage of Nabua’s teens, as day turns to night on two parallel screens, encouraging the viewer to adopt a constantly shifting perspective.
This invitation to reconsider our viewpoints, and our ideas of what constitutes normality or truth, resurfaces throughout Abandon Normal Devices, a new festival of film and digital culture taking place in North-West England this September. While subsequent festivals will happen in Manchester, Lancaster and Cumbria, 2009’s is centred around Liverpool, a city that festival director Kate Taylor feels has a ‘strong collaborative network and spirit’. AND has, she explains, engaged with the city in a number of ways, supporting emerging filmmakers and artists, and making use of the city’s iconic Waterfront area, where DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation, a ‘remix’ of DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, will take place. Meanwhile, Centre of Attention’s Action Diana, which recreates cult 1960s film Darling shot by shot, using non-professional actors, is the culmination of a process of improvisatory filmmaking that began when Pierre Coinde and Gary O’Dwyer were artists in residence at Liverpool John Moores university earlier this year. ‘Half of Liverpool got filmed reading the dialogue from idiot boards, with that beautiful slight unease of being new to camera’, says Taylor. ‘Hopefully the premiere at the festival will be buzzing with everyone coming to see themselves.’
The festival’s hybrid nature – combining film, media art and ‘salon’ discussions involving people from science and sport as well as the arts – reflects the work of FACT, Cornerhouse and folly, the three main organisations that have come together to programme it. Screenings ranging from new Canadian horror film Pontypool to Lynn Helton’s comedy Humpday take place alongside exhibitions and installations, including the work of pioneering feminist filmmaker and performance artist Carolee Schneemann, who will give a performance lecture. While much of the programme displays strong social and political engagement, Taylor stresses that this is not her first priority when responding to film, and points out the variety of ways in which the artists demonstrate this engagement, from Krzysztof Wodiczko’s War Veteran Vehicle, in which he collaborated with local ex-servicemen and women to develop large-scale projections, to The Yes Men’s humorous critiques of capitalism, here the subject of their first UK solo exhibition. ‘Ultimately, they are all about people, but they communicate in indirect ways rather than laying out polemic.’
Two iconic figures of UK cinema – Nic Roeg and Ken Russell – will take part in Q&A sessions, and, most excitingly, reveal new work. As Taylor points out, Russell has ‘a unique insight into digital culture as someone who has taken to using a digital camera to make personal, un-funded films’. Developments in technology and the role of both film and art in the digital age crop up throughout AND, not only in conferences and workshops, but also in Dark Fibre, a part-fictional thriller, part-documentary film about a young technician working on Bangalore’s unregulated cable networks. In a logical progression from his 2006 work Steal This Film, director and producer Jamie King is to release the film both online and via India’s cable channels and pirate DVD industry. ‘We could either ignore this, condemn it, or choose to engage with the conversation’, says Taylor of these seismic shifts, and it’s clear that AND has chosen the latter option. ‘The models for filmmakers to make money and sustain themselves using these new distribution tools are still at early stages. The exciting thing is that filmmakers are engaging more directly with audiences, and the people who are coming up with cool new strategies are the filmmakers themselves.’
Read our article on Jamie King and Peter Mann’s Dark Fibre in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation, Raindance 09 and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!
Fifteen years ago the Spice Girls flogged the concept of Girl Power, or ‘feminism with a Wonderbra’, as they described it. Shortly before her death ten years ago Kathy Acker – the pro-sex feminist writer – interviewed the group for The Guardian. She was bewildered by their political naïveté but charmed by the positivity and bravery with which they took on the music industry without a thesis to their names.
So what would Acker think about the showcase of films either written, directed, produced or featuring women shown during the London Short Film Festival, a few miles away from the O2 Arena where the Spice Girls are playing one of their reunion shows? Certainly the films chosen by Sarah Wood and Selina Robertson of Club des Femmes would have received her thumbs up. After all, they included Fuses, the sexually incendiary film depicting Acker’s friend and ally Carolee Schneemann having graphic, loving sex with her then partner.
The amazing thing about Fuses is that it still has the power to shock, embarrass and delight. Not for any Nuts or Loaded wet dream could a woman look so content in a carnal setting. Not only that, but shots spliced into the sex scenes reveal she’s in a happy relationship which extends out of the bedroom. This woman has it all – both the feminism and the Wonderbra.
Moving forward in time, Acker’s own screenplay for Variety shows how, despite the ardent women’s movement of the previous two decades, the 1980s could still be an oppressive place for women. The female characters are forced to make a living as strippers and barmaids for lack of work, the photographer having to graft in a bar full of lecherous men while waiting for a sale, while lead character Christine is looking for a job that doesn’t list having a big bust as its main requirement.
Variety is beautifully shot as should be expected from a film starring cult photographer Nan Goldin. But while the supporting female characters are sharply drawn, in particular through their discussions of their lives and loves, the depiction of Christine remains blurred. She somnambulates through life, aimlessly smoking cigarettes in the foyer of the porn cinema in which she begins to work, having an answerphone relationship with her mother and a nonchalantly half-hearted relationship with a man who couldn’t care less about her personal development.
As she becomes more involved with her new job and the mysterious businessman who frequents the cinema, her feelings and desires become clearer but more problematic. She begins to follow him around the dark underworld of the city in which he works, watching him from afar. Stalking him as far as Staten Island, which he visits for a shady business trip, she takes the motel room next to his and goes through his things while he’s out. Rifling through his bag she finds a hardcore porn rag and is amazed by the pictures she sees.
In this way, Acker questions the male gaze of cinematic tradition: Christine is the woman looking at the man looking at the woman. In the same way, she begins to compose erotic prose which she recites to her distant boyfriend. But it isn’t until she trusses herself up in a sexy outfit and admires herself in the mirror that the gaze comes full circle and she controls both the gaze and the reflection. Or in other words, the feminism and the Wonderbra.
Go forward twenty years and the short films showcasing either female characters or females behind the camera show a drastically different world. Screened as part of Dazzle Short Film Label’s programme ‘Lipstick Cherry’, 100th of a Second depicts a front-line war photographer winning a prize for a shot showing the horrific killing of a child. It is a chilling look at the media’s representation of war zones and the conflict between the need to document and the temptation to exploit. Is it her female sensitivities that riddle her with guilt or the pure horror of the memories that haunt her? Things twenty years on are not so clear-cut.
In ‘Femmes Fantastique’ – a programme of new shorts depicting women with attitude, collected by Wood and Robertson – A Short Collection of Hilary Flamingo’s Dream Vocations shows a woman at work. She escapes the factory where she works by thinking of other jobs she would like to do. A wig designer, painter of men’s bare bottoms or showgirl are just some of the colourful ‘moving photos’ of Hilary’s imagination. Not anchored in the viewer’s mind by her marital status or sexual availability she is free to play out her fantasies without being judged as silly or childish. Hilary is a lovable, flamboyant character, proving LSFF organiser Kate Taylor’s belief that ‘interesting female characters on screen are as important as those behind the cameras’.
Similarly the character in When the Telescope Came – which won the Club des Femmes award – lets herself be taken away by her imagination in a beautifully rendered animation. Elsewhere, New Love depicts a world where beautiful women pay to court and have sex with beautiful men – a helpful set-up for the protagonist whose short memory makes it nearly impossible for her to form lasting relationships. The last couple of years have seen a growth in the number of artistic depictions of women who pay for sex and this was an interesting development of the trend as the woman in question was not fulfilling an emotional need but a practical one.
From a feminist point of view there is still more fighting to be done for and on behalf of women. It was disappointing not to see any films tackling things like sex trade trafficking, the appallingly low conviction rate for rape, and the disregard for women needing to work while bringing up children. But having said that, the overwhelming majority of films made by women shown during the festival were bold, thoughtful and entertaining. They showed that the emancipated women of today don’t have to choose between active feminism and Wonderbras. Now women can concentrate on what interests and excites them – be that astrology, sex, war or cupcakes. Acker certainly would be proud.
This year’s London Short Film Festival is the fifth organised by Halloween, but the first to run under that name. Halloween co-founder Philip Ilson explains: ‘When we started the festival four years ago we were actually going to call it the London Short Film Festival but we thought that by calling it Halloween – because we’d been using the name for a few years – it’d help to have that kind of ongoing connection with what we’d been doing. And also I think the pressure would have been on quite a lot at the beginning if we’d called it the LSFF, which has happened this year. I think there is a certain amount of pressure for us to deliver something that might be considered more mainstream than what we’ve done in the past. But it’s still us, and the only difference this year is that there are going to be more industry-based events because we’re linking up with people like the Film Council and Shooting People.’
Overall the programme follows the same template as in previous years, with shorts gathered into loosely themed selections – comedy, horror, love, experimental, and a Fortean Times-sponsored night of general weird stuff. Turntable Café will be organising a night of British-centric visuals while Darryl’s Hard Liquor & Porn Film Festival are coming all the way from Toronto to present work. In spite of the name, it’s not a porn festival, but rather a comedy event: Darryl’s co-director Jill Rosenberg’s entry at last year’s Halloween was Origasmi, an origami sex film.
Music is again an important feature of this year’s festival with events featuring XX Teens and The Young Knives. Says Ilson: ‘We link up with organisations that we like that are doing interesting things. Transgressive Records are an independent label, they’ve got lots of up-and-coming young bands like Foals, Jeremy Warmsley and The Young Knives. The Young Knives got a few filmmakers to make a video for each track of their new album. We’re going to premiere all the videos – which will be on the album released later that month – and the band will do a live set afterwards.’
As in previous years, there will be retrospectives of directors whose films have been regularly screened at Halloween events. This year, the focus is on Asif Kapadia, who presented his masterful second feature Far North at the London Film Festival in October, and Jes Benstock, who won the award for best film at the first Halloween festival. Benstock gained notoriety for his music videos, including one for Orbital, but over the years he has become more of a documentary filmmaker, though this is not a path he had deliberately chosen. ‘Creative life tends not to work in straight lines’, explains Benstock. ‘I started with a half-hour film called Poof, which wasn’t a documentary as such but was real-life filming in real time. But it wasn’t well received so I thought I’d do something else for a while. I did a lot of interactive art and art installations, and then made videos for live music shows. Then some people I knew were doing an audiovisual programme for ITV with VJs and DJs. I’d been VJ-ing for a while, but this was a chance to create a ten-minute audiovisual work with no editorial control. It was a chance for me to experiment. The first one I did was Baby Dreams, which was a conjecture of what my then three-month-old baby son would dream about. There was a lot of colour and animated toys as well as people and family gatherings. I found it really interesting so I did another called Phosphenes, which are what you see when you close your eyes. It was a ten-minute animation with the music of Professor Oz. I really liked the idea of combining the visual elements of animation with documentary so I moved in that direction.’
This year, the festival’s women’s award will be given by Club des Femmes. Sarah Wood, who won Halloween’s best film award last year with I Want To Be A Secretary, runs Club des Femmes with Selina Robertson, a former programmer at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Wood and Robertson started Club des Femmes to show experimental work by women filmmakers. ‘We use a lot of old artists’ films which we want to re-contextualise. We choose work that is innovative, pioneering and adventurous so we match up well with what Philip does with Halloween’, says Wood. ‘For the festival we wanted to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Kathy Acker. We love her and we thought it would be interesting to show films that pay tribute to her work and combine that with readings of her writings. She wrote about inappropriate and radical sex, so we’ve chosen films with the same kind of sex-positive ideas.’
The festival has always been an occasion to link up with organisations outside of London and to showcase their work. Last year, 7inchCinema came down from Birmingham and this year it’s the turn of Bristol Meth, a collective of artists led by David Hopkinson. ‘Bristol Meth is based around three films made in Bristol’, says Hopkinson. ‘One is my video art piece called Cutting Up My Friends, which is about the mix of people who are part of the Cube cinema. Then there’s a film called Get Good, an extended music video by FrÃÂ nÃÂ§ois and Rozi Plain, who are musicians and animators. It’s a very sweet love story about the start of a relationship but it’s also very experimental. The third, Don’t Do Tricks, is a skate film by Lady Lucy and James Canyon. It’s a day in the life of a feminist skateboarder. All the films are underground, self-funded indie films made in Bristol around the same time, featuring some of the same people and locations. I put them together as I thought they were interesting as a trilogy. They’re often shown accompanied by live music. They show the cross-fertilisation going on in the underground Bristol scene. It’s all based around the Cube cinema, which is a very important meeting point for creative people in Bristol.’
With such an array of juicy delights, it looks like the London Short Film Festival will live up to its bigger, bolder name: it’s good to see that, despite the influx of sponsoring money, the projector’s teeth are still as sharp as ever.
Lisa Williams and Virginie Sélavy
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews