Sunday, April 30


Do you like short films?

I'm not as loyal an attendee of SF Cinematheque's Sunday screenings at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as I wish I were, but I've at least become a loyal viewer of the 45-year-old institution's annual co-presentations of programs of "avant-garde" shorts with the SFIFF. I just returned from seeing the Fugitive Prayers program curated by the Cinematheque's Irina Leimbacher and Kathy Geritz of the PFA, where the program plays again on Tuesday, May 2. The nine selections included three 35mm prints, three on 16mm, and three video works, a heartening development for film purists after last year's Count Down program only included one non-video presentation, Jim Trainor's wryly disturbing upending of the "cartoon animal" trope Harmony. This year's program is perhaps a little more serious, a little less Playful. The most downbeat of the films was also the shortest at four minutes, and probably the most politically topical right now: Dolissa Medina's 19: Victoria, Texas, which puts its audience through a disorienting and assaulting video recreation of what has been called the "worst immigrant tragedy in American history." This is the second of Medina's films to play this year's festival, as her Cartography of Ashes launched the SFIFF's Satellite Venue series when it was projected onto a Frisco fire station training tower April 21.

Contrasting Medina's sorrowful tone was Nancy Andrews' 16mm tour-de-force of chalkboard animations, marionettes and shadow puppets, outdoor photography and "Black Maria"-style presentations, Haunted Camera. This 30-minute film sounds like it could be a too-eclectic shorts program unto itself, but remarkably it feels unified, largely by the presence of Andrews' character Ima Plume, P.I. (public illustrator). It's not an entirely light-hearted film as Plume is investigating her own death, but it's the only one in the program to have elicited substantial audience laughter. Other films induced elation through sheer technical brilliance, such as Tomonari Nishikawa's Market Street. I'd actually seen and liked this film before, at a Market Street-themed film event put on last September by the Exploratorium. But the outdoor projection at that event was not ideal for observing Nishikawa'a breathtaking organization of the hundreds (or was it thousands?) of photographs he took of Frisco's aorta. As he constructs his film frame-by-frame a constant attention to the lines, shapes and patterns defined by the underexposed and overexposed parts of each photo creates a fluid motion: squares moving in circles, diagonals working their way around a 360 degree axis, all built out of these familiar-looking stills. I can't think of a more visual satisfying tribute to a street I know so well.

I feel Nishikawa's film should be considered an example of animation, even though he used no hand-drawn images. In a way it's not so fundamentally different from the work of animator Stacey Steers, who used very little of her own drawing in her film Phantom Canyon. The latter falls into the genre of cut-out animation festgoers were exposed to a few evenings earlier when the great Deerhoof accompanied Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic at the Castro, variants of which also are found in the festival's Drawing Lines program of animated grotesqueries (in the Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello and Cosmetic Emergency). Other more well-known practitioners have included Terry Gilliam and even Steers' fellow Coloradoans Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Phantom Canyon is far more artful than "South Park", approaching the elegance of a Larry Jordan film like Our Lady of the Sphere but with more visually evident dexterity to the animation (whether this is a result of tools, talent, or tenaciousness or is simply an aesthetic choice, I have no basis to speculate). As Steers manipulates drawings from Edward Muybridge's studies of human and animal movement to simulate the motion Muybridge captured on camera at the dawn of cinema, Nishikawa manipulates the images captured by his camera to simulate an abstract motion of form. They are both a sort of collage artist, even if their materials, working methods, and finished products are vastly different.

Bill Morrison, whose feature Decasia was my favorite discovery of the 2002 SFIFF, is a collage artist known for working with the distressed images he finds in film archives. His latest, How to Pray, is part of a trilogy premiering in full at the current Tribeca Film Festival. In this 11-minute installment the grain-rich images of icebergs floating in the North Atlantic, sleek as a porpoise's skin, are actually less distressed than distressing, as they can't help but bring to mind the melting of polar caps and global warming brought on by increased petrochemical consumption (a development perhaps paralleled in the film industry when the kind of celluloid film stocks these icebergs were surely filmed with were replaced by the polyester Morrison's 35mm festival print is most likely made from). Or perhaps I was mostly distressed by composer David Lang's ominous alternating power chords.

The Cinematheque also co-presented the SFIFF's Circles of Confusion program, which had a few standouts as well. First among them was Peter Tscherkassky's Sergio Leone resculpt, Instructions For a Light and Sound Machine, which I'd seen earlier this year at the PFA, but Cathy Begien's split-screen collaborative diary Relative Distance and Amy Hicks' also split Suspended 2 (pictured) tickled my fancy too. And Jay Rosenblatt's Afraid So left me with lots more questions to ponder than a 2.5-minute film usually does, not the least of which is: was Garrison Keillor's participation in this project as consensual and involved as his participation in this Thursday's closing film a Prairie Home Companion, or did Rosenblatt just tape Keillor off of the Writer's Almanac, make the film, and ask questions later?

Love these stills, Brian, especially Phantom Canyon. All of this experimental cinema looks so intriguing!

Keeping it real. :)
Here's where I thank the film festival's publicity department for supplying the stills to me. There were others I wanted to put in too (like a gorgeous shot from Olivo Barbieri's site specific_SHANGHAI 04, which I didn't have time to mention) but I didn't want to overload. A picture per paragraph is more than unsual for me. But I just had an idea; maybe I should do an all-picture festival post...

PS how was your screening over the weekend, jen?
You know what? The film festival's publicity dept. should be thanking you! :)

Thanks for asking about the show. It was a very incredible experience. I feel kind of overwhelmed by the whole thing, but I will be back to writing again soon!
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