Encounters at the Ann Arbor Film Festival (Part 4) - Michael Sicinski

One of the most intriguing presentations at the Ann Arbor Film Festival was their inclusion of a late-in-the-festival panel response/screening titled "What the Hell Was That?" which attempted to address a few of the more puzzling, perhaps frustrating, entries from the festival's competition screenings.  Started in 1998 by film maker David Gatten (supposedly in response to an audience members' insistent and repeated response--"what the hell was that?!"--to one of the films that year), this small gathering of the curious was led by Michael Sicinski, who was joined by co-panelist Adam Hyman, Executive Director and Programmer for the Los Angeles Film Forum.  Sicinski's writings for Cinema Scope and Cineaste, as the festival director noted prior to the presentation, are second to none.  Particularly, Sicinski's dedication to writing about the most noteworthy of experimental film output each year is essential.  As with the three films in this presentation, much of the work he covers is not available for view online or available on DVD, and without critical attention passes under the radar all too often.   His reporting and analysis on the icons of the Avant-garde--from Michael Snow to Ben Rivers--in print, online, and on his website "The Academic Hack" has been an increasingly important body of work in translating the trajectory and impact of a diverse cinema co-culture, and his choice of films to address at the 50th AAFF reflected that expertise, as they were all startlingly unconventional and well worth everyone's time.  A testament to the quality of his eye, each film certainly lived up to the title of the panel, and when Sicinski ultimately attempted to provoke some discussion that might playfully instigate the spirit of that initial, instigating audience member's response, most were satisfied with the pictures as competent works of art.  Of course, I have considered that the presentation might have been less than successful if no one was moved to outrage...but, ultimately, the films were quite provocative and undeniably true to the spirit of experimentation, which the audience seemed to recognize.  No frauds here, but rather three films created waaay outside of any commercial cinema trappings;  aggressively personal, independent, and downright strange.

1.  In the Open (Im Freien) by Albert Sackl
Currently one of the highest rated films of the year on Sicinski's site (along with Guy Maddin's Keyhole and Jiang Wen's action comedy with Chow Yun-Fat, Let the Bullets Fly), this new Austrian film condenses 3 months into 23 minutes through a use of time lapse footage that creates a "flicker film" effect that may initially put some on edge, but ultimately creates less ocular exhaustion than it does a kind of pleasant, mesmeric state.  Although Hyman reported having heard feedback describing the film as "fascistic" in it's style, Sicinski found the film more playful, perhaps even subverting the expectations experimental film viewers might have of structurally rigid films from Austria and Germany.  In fact, the film does have a rather "open" structure, and although the visual quality of it suggests a certain mechanization, the film's perspective somewhat tied to a cold, robotic eye, the ultimate way in which the film plays with rhythm and duration, allowing the mind and eye to roam freely, is quite unexpected.  The film plays with contrasts of the natural and constructed world, re-authoring barren, dusty landscapes into an almost mythic birthplace that gradually gives rise to human, geometric, and chromatic forms.

2.  A Lax Riddle Unit by Laida Lertxundi
A passing wisp of fog...a nostalgic song lingering in the air...the hills glowing in the distance.  Laida Lertxundi's brief encounter of a film, A Lax Riddle Unit (actually an anagram of her name) is a film that barely gets one's attention before it's 6 minutes are played out, but ultimately leaves an indelible impression.  Like the one "close-up" of the film--a woman rolling over in bed to turn her head toward the camera, hair falling into her face--the overall emotional tone is obscured, relying more on intuition than certainty.  The ultimate effect is of something unedited, unplanned...shots falling as they will onto a role of film, captured in and around an L.A. apartment.  Lertxundi manages a rather great feat of tone and intimacy with this piece, displaying the remarkable ability to create something that seems offhanded in it's presentation, but increasingly worthy of reflection in it's aftermath.  Sicinski's description of the film as being constructed of "dollops" of character, place, and sound seemed the most apt term applied to the overall structural quality.  In the wake of the recent death of Adrienne Rich, A Lax Riddle Unit strikes me as much a piece of the tradition of the great female poets as the cannon of experimental cinema.

3.  By Foot-Candle Light by Mary Helena Clark
Maybe the most confounding of the lot, By Foot-Candle Light is a film that (unlike In the Open and A Lax Riddle Unit) cannot be suggested to you through a still image or two.  For instance, the forest image above is entirely unlike quite a few shots in the film, some of which appeared to be found footage, though it's difficult to tell what was what in the ultimate scheme of this rather disjointed collage of altered nature footage, glimpsed cave tours, dance team recital footage, and a rather giddy finale involving an elderly gentleman oddly mugging for the camera.  One audience member mustered a comparison to Lynch, which was true and insightful;  Sicinski suggested that the film is playing with the difference between screen and theatrical space, and the light unit of the title could work in both those contexts.  For me, this was a difficult film to dismantle, but no less satisfying for that...truly odd and a bit disconcerting.  As I began to get at in "Part 1" of my AAFF encounters, some films are best left unpacked, more felt than intellectualized.  By the end of the "What the Hell Was That?" panel, though only three brief films long, the question of an experimental short film "breaking point" was definitely acknowledged, as Sicinski and Hyman acknowledged that there is only so much one can process, and that these are films that might fall away depending on their placement in a festival program of great length;  all the more reason to be thankful to the programmers for pulling these bizarre selections out for second viewing.  Let's just say that By Foot-Candle Light took us admirably to the brink.

Special thanks to the directors, organizers, and staff of the Ann Arbor Film Festival.  The festival is a true model of progressive film culture in action, as well as being well organized and staffed all around (and so many great free events!).  My only regret is that I didn't see more (how did I miss Panahi's This is Not a Film, Ben River's Two Years at Sea and Phil Solomon's supposedly stunning installation American Falls?!).  Oh well...until next year!  

No comments: