Experimental film seems to occupy an increasingly marginal place in contemporary cinema. Even as microcinemas and local scenes and collaboratives continue to proliferate, what should be cinema’s most vital form remains, for most, the sideshow attraction to commercial cinema’s decaying mainstage. Running against this current, the Ann Arbor Film Festival is a distinct platform for experimental work in that it is its city’s main film festival, attracting big audiences and major business community support from the college town in which it has played for 52 years. Each year, for almost a week, downtown’s Michigan Theater is taken over by a wide range of new abstract, non-narrative, and otherwise unclassifiable work sourced from around the world, creating a space where the current strands of the avant-garde don’t seem totally marginalized, relegated to more peripheral venues and self-selecting audiences.
But just what is experimental cinema? These days, based on the selections of Ann Arbor and other festivals of its kind (such as Images, Crossroads, Migrating Forms, and Views from the Avant-Garde), it’s a combination of work that resembles “classic” avant-garde film, as in hand-processed, abstract, or structuralist 8 or 16mm film; irony-toned video art; works of editing from archive; or non-narrative nonfiction. Sometimes these types overlap, but they also don’t necessarily hang together in a cohesive way, either. What they do more or less all share is a general lack of commodifiability—and the artistry and dedication that attends this status—which is precisely why it’s crucial that those festivals, microcinemas, and local scenes continue to intervene.
One clear strand at Ann Arbor is its preference for optically challenging work. The flicker is alive and well, and moviegoers were treated to more than an eyeful in Dot Matrix, Richard Touhy’s blistering, mesmerizing live work for two projectors in which ben-day dots and moiré patterns swim together to create a throbbing chainlink-fence effect. This sort of work would be familiar to those who’ve seen the similar projection-performances of Bruce McClure and Gibson & Recoder, and yet Touhy’s double-projection, his mix of aleatoric liveness and artisanal precision, was nonetheless thrillingly visceral. Flicker can be hypnotic, and it can be abusive, but Prisoner’s Cinema by Joshua Gen Solondz achieves an unusual three-dimensionality and sense of movement with his quick-shimmering mandalas and a steady, binaural hum on the soundtrack. A 10-minute(!) work named for the phenomenon of hallucination experienced by inmates in solitary confinement, Solondz’s video uses monochrome simplicity to transport the viewer into an immersive ecstasy of phantom color.
Ann Arbor has emphatically juxtaposed abstraction with documentary for some time now, and this year’s nonfiction was especially rich, featuring a complete retrospective of the great essay filmmaker Thom Andersen, and local premieres of experimental non-fiction features like Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, the CAMP collective’s From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, and Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana. Among these was the world premiere of Brett Kashmere’s compendious, compulsively watchable basketball documentary From Deep. Part pop historiography, part AND1 mixtape, part film-essay in the Andersenian mode (albeit with a good deal more Kurtis Blow), Kashmere’s filmfollows the itinerant mythologies of the sport from the lonesome midwestern garage-side hoop to the brash asphalt stage of the urban playground. Drawing upon his own reflections as well as texts by John Edgar Wideman and Nelson George, Kashmere crafts a rich history of the sport, from its origins as a New England wintertime distraction through the Dunkadelic Era, the professionalization of college (and then high school) basketball, and beyond. Using highlight reels, archival ephemera, mainstream films (Style Wars, White Men Can’t Jump, American History X), advertising (Wheaties, Mars Blackmon), and video games (such as Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City), the film situates the sport amid histories of race, politics, and, of course, sneakers, but always with a sensitivity for the game’s vernacular appeal—as a site of camaraderie, collaboration, and inclusion.
As part of a sidebar devoted to the work of director Penelope Spheeris—that is, her documentary work, rather than the SNL vehicles—the festival held a rare screening of The Decline of Western Civilization III, the little-seen 1997 third part of the director’s punk-rock epic series, which covers the rather less epic L.A. crust-punk scene of the late ’90s, consisting of bands like Litmus Green, Final Conflict, and Naked Aggression. Unlike the previous two entries, which focus primarily (and sometimes unfortunately) on the musicians, Decline III spends most of its time with the fans, in this case the subculture of Hollywood gutterpunks who hang around the clubs, sneaking in or panhandling for enough cash to buy a ticket. With names like Squid, Filth, and Hamburger, they are a colorful crew: One girl has the words “TACO BELL” tattooed across her knuckles in the LOVE-HATE style of Night of the Hunter’s Reverend Harry Powell; most are teens or early twentysomethings, almost invariably homeless and unemployed, current or recovering addicts, alcoholics, victims of domestic abuse, and petty criminals. (“Spare a dime, prevent a crime,” Hamburger quips while begging for change on Hollywood Boulevard.) But through Spheeris’s camera, they’re also pretty charming, even as they detail the mutually thuggish antagonism between the neo-Nazis and the Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP), and respond colorfully and at length to the question, “How do you feel about the cops?” None of them expects to live much longer, and few express enthusiasm for anything other than beer and punk rock, but amid their nihilism Spheeris locates a kind of makeshift community, one rendered all the more tragic as its inevitable consequences begin to manifest.
Situated squarely in both the documentary and experimental fields, Sarah Christman’s short Gowanus Canal offers an almost otherworldly portrait of an otherwise familiar locale. The film begins with Kevin T. Allen’s intricately tinny submarine sound design over images from artist and environmental researcher Jenifer Wightman’s “Portrait of NYC” series, in which microörganisms sourced from the waterway become “mud paintings” of surprisingly psychedelic color and texture. This preface then gives way to Christman’s characteristically elegant observations of the canal by day: iridescent oilslicks on the water’s surface, bargeworkers going about their day’s work, and F trains and B.Q.E. traffic gliding above a landscape that seems less like an inert, post-industrial wastescape than an alien environment in a precipitous state of flux.
Ali Cherri’s The Disquiet studies the seismic history of Lebanon, tracing its deep fault lines and reciting the details of deaths and injuries from the many past moments when its ground erupted. Cherri draws out a sort of psychic national condition from that geography, an inversion of, or complement to, the notion that “there are no natural disasters.” The film starts out tightly in exposition, and slowly unravels in an unsteady exploration of landscape and tension, finally ending as opaquely as the lines and historical facts of its beginning seemed so definite. Tracking shots take us through a forest that lies along the faultline, pausing in a small area in which dead birds hang from trees in strange effigy, a moment of temporary quiet—either before, or after a rupture.
Cherri’s was among a number of surprising films in the festival that blurred, lampooned, or otherwise eluded the more recognizable genres of the avant-garde. In his curious digital work Suchy Pion (Dry Standpipe), Wojciech Bąkowski crafts what he calls “a video of videos”: interlaced videos composited and contorted into strange, CGI sculptures—tunnels, pipes, strings, blocks. But against Pixar’s prevailing model, these absurdist architectures serve not as vehicles for fantasy but as monuments to the filmmaker/narrator’s own bathos and inertia, delivered in monotone musings that hint back to the banalities of the experimental animator’s everyday life.
In a rather more fantastical form, Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy make abstruse, crepuscular films, and here they presented two of them, each with doubled titles and forked tongues. 2012’s The Handeye (Bone Ghosts) is a sinister, fractured stream of distressed black-and-white images—of objets trouvé, bell-jarred specimens, and fabricated found footage—that directly interpellate the viewer in the second-person, reminding you of your “ancient memories.” A broken, synthesized voice implores you, in a list of arcane instructions, to “listen closely” and, with maddening repetition, to “say hello” to various deceased family members. Goth, hypnotic, and even a little queasy, the film enacts a séance involving a monkey, a newborn mechanical insect, a murderous dummy “that looks just like you,” and the ghost of Franz Anton Mesmer himself. A world premiere and winner of the festival’s Founder’s Spirit Award, Gente Perra (Dog People) is apparently adapted from a story of the same name by Colombian writer Gomati D. Wahn, describing a New World exploration taking place thousands of years in the future. Images of jungle flora and fauna, history-book woodcuts, and disused buildings accompany a twisted voiceover narration that recounts a narrative of encounter, involving not only dogs and people, but gnomes, snakes, and a winged demigod, too.
The closest thing to a narrative film Ann Arbor has to offer (and, well, it did also play Sundance), Chema García Ibarra’s Misterio is an absorbing short featuring Nazis, house cleaning, the beach, and the unknown world beyond. Crafted around the movements of a dutiful, if aloof middle-aged Spanish woman, apparent mother and wife to a mild-mannered skinhead father and son, this strangely funny and beautifully shot tale maintains a surprising density and disquiet. The feeling it leaves is akin to a César Aira novella or Daniil Kharms story—that kind of placeless doom, or terminal absurdity, that results from super-observational sensitivity.
RACHAEL RAKES is co-editor of the Film Section of the Brooklyn Rail, a collaborator at Heliopolis Project Space, and an independent curator and programmer.Leo Goldsmith
LEO GOLDSMITH is a writer, curator, and teacher based between Brooklyn and Amsterdam. He is the former film editor of the Brooklyn Rail.