The San Francisco Cinematheque, founded in 1961 by filmmaker Bruce Baillie, has long been a focal point for underground filmmaking in the Bay Area, retaining something of the vitality of San Francisco’s wooliest era. As experimental cinema has changed to accommodate the theory-heavy aspirations of contemporary art, the Cinematheque has embraced such work as well, keeping current with new forms that have emerged first out of intermedia and video art, and more recently by digital means.
The organization operates on a year-round agenda that includes theatrical screenings, gallery exhibitions, and publications, and each spring filmmakers from the international underground converge on San Francisco for the Cinematheque’s Crossroads Festival, a celebration of experimental cinema in its broadest sense. Some of those filmmakers can claim a direct inheritance of the radical spirit of the underground, but the diversity of Crossroads’ programming, from lyrical, romantic visions to mechanical, material confrontations, reflects a cinema of porous boundaries and flexible genres, not anchored in cinemas past but unmoored freely into the present. In other words, its diversity in itself bears a thriving utopian spirit.
But that’s not to say that Crossroads is unfocused, or all-accommodating, in the mode of the open screening. Rather, it is rigorously shaped by the Cinematheque’s staff to present brilliant corners of an international movement, one that is now larger and more diverse of forms than ever before. From works dealing with the legacies of corruption, racism, and inequality in American society, to cameraless videos that combine text with perfect digital geometries, to the more personal visions issuing, for the most part, from the commonplace fellowship of the Bolex, Crossroads ties thematic threads that bear joy, wit, and outrage.
Zachary Epcar’s Return to Forms begins with the filmmaker’s hand tapping and rubbing the surfaces of objects out of what can be presumed pleasures of resonance and touch. Like the ASMR video of a madman, Epcar extends from there into close-ups of toes on carpets, flowing water (both real and digital), and a gliding tour through an apartment that bears the overt markers of a real estate advertisement. Against these strange stagings, Return to Forms asserts images of beautiful textures, reflections, summoning up for us some of that same allure that guides the filmmaker’s hand to rap, rub, and grip against the objects of his fascination.
This holds together in a style that recalls the comic lunacy of Owen Land. The film reaches its apex in two extended sequences: one of rapid panning between windows and palm tree-trunks (with a real mastery and precision of focus), the other, of a series of objects placed upon a Lazy Susan, surrounded by mirrors, as again the film assumes the character of advertising. These displays reach a ludicrous comic punctuation, with a small plant smashed through an iPad, its roots on one side, its leaves on the other, a wry, blunt image of life failing to take root in the Cloud.
I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become, Sky Hopinka’s elegy to the Chemehuevi/Anishinaabe poet Diane Burns, is a film of complex form and power, alternating between Burns’ texts, often in the form of concrete poetry; mysterious landscapes cloaked in night, a returning theme from Hopinka’s earlier film, Jáaji Approx ; and scenes of ritual dancers in photo-negative, streaking pastel tones, accompanied by sacred harp singing. It would be tempting to compare this photo-negative dance to a vision of the afterlife, if not for Burns’s portentous warning that the road to perfection is a path to reincarnation, a return to earth; no, as a pantheistic spiritual vision, this dance suggests a more earthly scene, one where forms and colours are stripped of their names, defamiliarized, to an eye reborn into the world. The film furthers Hopinka’s growing reputation as a filmmaker of unique, individual force; and it also stands as a spellbinding illustration of Burns’s poetics and themes.
Paul Clipson’s Feeler continues the artist’s fascination with double-exposure, building a labyrinthine flow of images through truncated editing, repetition of gesture, and vibrant, kinetic photography. Feeler begins with monochromatic images of a woman seemingly asleep, layered with light passing through grates and reflections in puddles that manifest as a kind of inner vision. Clipson cuts to colour images of sun seen through trees and in watery reflections, a sepia tone that further gives way to rich orange and yellow, and eventually to the richest variety of colours, all arranged around analogies between the body, the arcs of bridges and pathways, and landscapes that have been made cosmic by the flashes of coloured light that cross them in layers.
Clipson, by his masterful photography, keeps alive within the underground the finger-skills of photo-mechanical craft, but he is not alone in this: Dianna Barrie’s Last Train is a film of remarkable lab engineering, made in multiple passes of reprinting, of a film reel going ‘off the rails’ by way of photogramming, in slowed rhythms that suggest a train. Barrie, who with her partner Richard Tuohy runs the Australian nanolab artists’ lab, has had an influence internationally thanks to their regular touring workshops. Barrie made Last Train from an Indonesian film, from which her own film takes its title, and its root images appear only briefly, barely registering, overwhelmed with bars of colour produced by printing and processing techniques. The familiar shapes of sprocket holes give that Bo-Diddley-esque engine-pumping rhythm to what without it would be the pure rhythm of chemical revelation.
It is much to the credit of Crossroads’ programming that each year, artistic director Steve Polta endeavours to spotlight the productivity of a few artists by showing multiple recent works by a single maker, either in concentration or through the course of several programs. This combats a false notion, one that has sadly taken root within the filmmaker community, that to make experimental films means to fashion one confectionary work each year for the sake of festival deadlines. This fraudulent ‘market’ sensibility has done much to injure the heritage of filmmaking as a daily act. Rejecting this, the Crossroads event makes such a gesture, supporting artists whose productivity exceeds the increasingly rationed expectations of this cinema’s festivals. This year Polta has cast attention on, among others, Mónica Savirón and Mary Helena Clark.
Since 2013, Mónica Savirón has been making films that fit within the tradition of ‘found footage’ filmmaking. Her first in this mode, Broken Tongue, was made out of rephotographed pages of more than a century and a half of New York Times’ New Years Day editions, forming a comment on migration, diaspora, and passing time, in a form of continuous, ecstatic disclosure, accompanied on the soundtrack by the poet Tracie Morris reading her poem Afrika. Broken Tongue developed from questions of origin, displacement, and belonging, while Answer Print focused on the estrangement and orphaning of images themselves, drawing its content from a variety of film prints that had gone magenta, arranging images by the degree of their fading, a long strip of gradation; further, all sound has been displaced by the film’s 26-frame cutting technique (the distance between the gate of a projector and the bulb that reads optical sound).
One of the more striking gestures in the presentation of Mónica Savirón’s films at Crossroads lies in the choice of works. While Broken Tongue (which showed at Crossroads in 2014) and Answer Print (screening this year) have been deservedly acclaimed and stand as two of the strongest found-footage films of the past decade, her Wedding Song has been little seen, a powerful work made to accompany Janel Leppin’s titular song. Indeed, it transcends the term ‘music video’ and its implications, allowing the lilt of the song to lead a consistent metric revelation of still images—of aged, amateur photography that assumes a glorious power in its translation to the moving image, in the rough marks of the film’s hand-processing and the slight fades that begin and end many of the images. It is a modest work but one that reminds of the energy held within images, and of the illusion of life that photography maintains against the ceaseless march of time.
Mary Helena Clark is represented this year by a survey of three of her films, bold work that deserves to be seen in such a concentration. Clark’s films deal with illusionism, mechanism, and the legacy of moving image forms. Orpheus (Outtakes), made using fragments of Cocteau’s Orphée, among other sources, is a peculiar retreading of that underworld, offering up as one of its central images a bizarre set of disembodied eyes atop the voice of silent comedy star Buster Keaton, interviewed on a game show. The film ends with photograms that summon up a self-awareness of the film strip, but the primary power of the film is in Clark’s sequencing, that she never summons back images, rather pressing forward through increasingly alien and abstract apparitions.
Palms carries on the earlier film’s firm sequential ordering, in four parts: a pair of hands displayed plainly, headlights on a road shot from a moving car, a tennis court floor rapidly followed from each end to the beat of a game, and a shifting black semi-circle against a solid white background. The deliberation in Clark’s sequencing suggests that these forms fit together not as a set of like things, or by thematic union, but in a curious rhythm that shifts from spontaneous and meditative to mechanized and insistent. The most recent of Clark’s films, Delphi Falls, named for a town in New York State (and by that, named for the Pythia), is also her most ambitious in scope, a confounding film that maintains Clark’s commitment to cryptic design, and emphasizes her fascination with narrative subversion and the defamiliarization of images.
Clark describes the film as “testing the limits of identification with the camera’s point of view,” and indeed, a viewer who looks upon it as a cipher might be surprised by the stymying of their expectations. The scene shifts from cows in a field, to a forest of trees marked for removal, to an elaborate sound-proof room, to an empty house. A group of youths appear as presumed protagonists, though their presence becomes as spare as any of the film’s environments. The alienation between viewer and image culminates in an extended zoom in on a monitor, upon which a woman runs her hands through her hair, sighs, twists her neck, rubs and contorts her face, and finally, in close up, yawns. The result is a film that has more palpable menace than Clark’s earlier work, but that extends her overarching project of subverting film form into new and promising territory.