Thursday, 30 October 2008


Ben Rivers, (TOP:) Astika (UK-Denmark, 2007), 8 mins. (BELOW:) Ah Liberty! (UK 2008), 19mins. 

London Film Festival Experimenta Weekend, Day Two, curated by Mark Webber, BFI Southbank,  26 October 2008.

The second day of Experimenta weekend balanced attempts at understanding with states of unknowing. Sometimes this was a beautifully realised aim and effect of the work, sometimes it was an uncomfortable effect of a disjunction between the work's intensions and its actual effect on the BFI Southbank audience.

The day began with Nathaniel Dorsky, who presented two new films, Winter (2007) and Sarabande (2008), alongside Triste (1978-96). Dorsky was present and took questions between each film. Whilst revealing, this ran the risk of  confining the films within Dorsky's rather dogmatically held sense of "devotional cinema." Both Winter and Sarabande comprised sequences of images that were balanced between evoking a location in the everyday world, their presence within the technology of camera and film stock, and a sense of abstraction and mystery, often energised by changing patterns of light. 

In some ways all this was redolent of the "perception, material, memory" of Peter Gidal's recent Park Night. But whereas the films at the Serpentine held that triad together at the level of the film itself, Dorsky - and this was a consequence of the films as well as his words about them - seemed to have an unquenchable faith in the beauty of his images, and the spiritual value of watching his films. When someone in the audience said they didn't actually find them that beautiful, Dorsky, shocked, could only say "watch them again."

Nathaniel Dorsky, Sarabande (USA 2008), 15 mins.

A screening of Triste provided some context: an assemblage of moments from many unfinished films where this distinctive cinematic project first took shape. It posed the question about what happens when the quest for such moments shifts from accident or by-product to conscious intention. It highlighted, too, reasons for my growing irritation throughout this session: I experienced the delicacy and fragility of Dorsky's images not as definite instances of beauty but as constantly bordering on a failure of resonance, a risk of insignificance and non-communication. 

The same issues emerged in a very different form in the three hour video epic that was Michael Auder and Andrew Neel's The Feature (2007). Auder has kept video diaries since the 1960's, when he recorded his involvement in the world around Warhol's Factory, and his marriages to Viva and, later, Cindy Sherman. In this film - although the boundaries of truth and fiction were always uncertain - Auder, diagnosed with a brain tumour, is prompted to edit the vast stock of tapes into an autobiography. A narrative in the present in which new relationships unfold, a new film is planned, and Auder makes his will and otherwise plans or denies death - is intercut with this chronologically arranged autobiography, over which the 2008 Auder refers to his former self in the third person.

I suspect that if you couldn't identify various members of Warhol's circle, then it all might seem horrendously vague and egotistical - which may explain the steady hemorrhaging of an already small audience. If you could then The Feature functioned on one level as a very useful social history, being completely uninterested in the normal kind of 60's reminiscences of many recent documentaries. Instead, it often worked by simple juxtaposition. Footage of a young Taylor Mead is juxtaposed with recent shots of an angry poetry reading in which he rants about property tycoons destroying Manhattan, and says he hasn't had sex for 27 years because Gay Liberation and AIDS were a big turn off. Auder films himself watching Mead's performance - raising lots of thoughts about aging, and what has happened to these artists in forty years, but always remaining at the level of the look.

Michael Auder and Andrew Neel, The Feature (USA 2008), 177mins.

Large amounts of the film also chronicled Auder's very evident vast wealth, and a lifestyle of drifting around the world, seemingly doing little but eating very nice looking meals with various beautiful women in expensive hotel rooms. With a little editorial tweeking it could have been a great satire of artist-millionaires, and maybe it partly was. But actually this was a beautifully put together film, variously an essay on death, on the precariousness of the artistic life, and the ethics and meaning of an ongoing practice of video diarying. In contrast to the Dorsky, Auder's film fascinated through its lack of aspiration to a particular, carefully selected moment, and through his sheer desire to film everything, no matter how ethically problematic that might be. It's many casual moments added up to an absorbing, consistent whole.

"Whenever we have a problem, rather than talking about it, you film it" screamed a frustrated Viva on several occasions. But nothing was particularly revealed or known by all that videoing, or the films great length, other than a slightly perturbing sense of moments once lived become oddly alien in their video afterlife. The end result revealed Auder similarly to a Warhol Screen Test or Henry Geldzhaler, where a certain level of pose falls away in the camera's continued stare - here one lasting forty years and counting. 

Work in the two evening programmes dealt more consciously  with acts of world-making. In Remote Intimacy (2008), Sylvia Schedelbauer constructed her film from different categories of documentary footage, testing how such footage could be related to the seemingly personal narrative of the film's voice-over and intertitles. Brigid McCaffrey and Ben Russell's Tjúba Tén (The Wet Season) (2008) evoked the ethnographic film when it presented - subtitled over a black screen - extracts from sessions recording local songs and stories. But the film's assumptions about why and what one might document through field work differed radically from conventional ethnography.

Brigid  McCaffrey and Ben Russell, Tjúba Tén (The Wet Season) (USA-Suriname, 2008), 47 mins.

What kind of incidents and details add up to depict a particular place and society? What kind of totality does a depiction involve? Over its forty seven minutes McCaffrey and Russell's film was definitely in some way comprehensive. But it didn't attain this through the normal categories upon which such a portrait might focus, such as festivities or religious ceremonies. 

Even as I found them highly resonant, I struggled to articulate what was leading particular scenes to be filmed, and why they were filmed from particular camera angles and locations. A commitment to the everyday? To the inadvertent life alongside the formal activities of a community? Was this in some way a filming from the inside, where things were assumed rather than articulated? A desire for the incongruence of an experience to remain in the image? It was bits of all of these, and much else besides. A challenging and exciting film to watch, rebutting any conventionally formulated requests for information an audience might have.

Ben Rivers, (TOP:) Origin of the Species (UK 2008), 17mins. (BELOW:) Ah Liberty! (UK 2008), 19mins.

Something similar was at work in the four recent films by Ben Rivers that concluded the weekend, although Rivers' films also have a rich, theatrical sense of human personality that also engages viewers through storytelling and human interest. The films here focussed on individuals who have created distinctive lifestyles for themselves, often in rural locations, be it the Scottish Highlands of Ah Liberty! (2008), the Suffolk of A World Rattled of Habit (2008) or the Danish countryside of Astika (2007).  The films, in varying proportions, let the subjects act and speak about their lives, as well as trying to let the objects and landscapes, too, have their say. Indeed, what linked these films was how places and personalities become intertwined.

Rivers noted in the Q&A that when filming Ah! Liberty! (2008) he had immediately felt both a freedom and a danger in the lives of two children growing up in this  remote part of the Scottish highlands. The films documented their subjects lives in a tender, imagistic  way,  and it's really our own values as viewers that determine whether we see them as fulfilled and acting out a distinct sense of life's purpose,  or damaged and dysfunctional.  Viewing the films together suggests, too, how the individual lives are dissolved into ongoing themes around delicate combinations of utopia, dystopia and apocalypse. Indeed, different films offered different places and combinations on a spectrum ranging from social realism documentary to something more poetical and fantastical - think Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's Atomic Park

Sometimes - as in Ah Liberty! - the film itself had a fragile, flickering texture as if constantly negotiating with itself between representation and flare up (Rivers' noted that he processes the film himself in his kitchen). It was an apt image for the days and the weekend's most suggestive films, their mix of eager enquiry with a chronic uncertainty about the qualities and ethics of what was found.