Earthearthearth (2021 Daichi Saito)

Opens with sunrise/sunsets, light tentatively emerging then retreating, broken up with ugly digital artifacting and with one of those a-g drone tracks that says “I didn’t have any sound in mind but I want to act like it’s a sound film so the viewer doesn’t put on an Abraxas album.” But the drone gets bigger and more complex as the visuals turn into fullscreen desert landscapes, superimposed over different ones, infected by huge color tinting – purple-blues, blue-and-gold. The radiation-green with Argento-red section is incredible, as the drone starts to sound like a processed bowed string instrument. I went back and forth on digital/analogue and finally decided it’s scanned film run through a panel of analog video processing effects – am I right? (nope, chemical-processed 16mm). Just a half hour of looking at lights flicker over mountains, but it’s the most times I’ve said “whoa” out loud while watching any movie this year. Eventually I started daydreaming about putting on The Grandmaster, but the Grainy Cloud Explosions finale was worth sticking around for.


The Head That Killed Everyone (2014 Beatriz Santiago Muñoz)

Voice reads methodically, as if from a lesson plan, some lines about the energies that go into casting a proper spell. Then a woman does a long dance in medium close-up without music, just the sounds of the night and an approaching thunderstorm. Not as exciting as its title, which I took to be the opposite energy of that Flaming Lips song.


13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (2020 Ana Vaz)

Another woman reading, this time onscreen but out of sync, a crackly vinyl loop overlaid on the soundtrack, until it suddenly is not. To be uncharitable to the experimental shorts, they revel in adding and removing elements on a random timeline. Title card. Instead of seeing a scenario, we see someone with eyes closed, her voiceover telling us the scenario she’s envisioning. After a couple of those, the camera at least shows a scene that kinda represents what the person dreamed. I think each title card is a line from the opening monologue, so each chapter expands on a section of that. And they mention blackbirds pretty often, though any birds the camera or mic pick up seem pretty incidental to their “what are images, what is the meaning of anything” conversations. Forgot I wanted to save this movie to double-feature with There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse.


Glimpses from a Visit to Orkney in Summer 1995 (2020 Ute Aurand)

Silent defocused montage of extreme close-ups on colorful things – flowers, farm animals, gramma. A personal diary-travelogue short, a-g-style.


What Distinguishes The Past (2020 Ben Russell)

Long take of a fireworks display in reverse motion, neat. I’m glad I watched this, because it’s got a playful reversal on what I consider (based on Let Each One and A Spell to Ward) to be Russell’s signature: handheld cam following a person walking in real-time over terrain. This time the people are walking in reverse, shot from the front, composited into the terrain, and it’s all over in four minutes.


Kyiv Frescoes (1966 Sergei Parajanov)

After Pomegranates and Ancestors, it’s fun to see a Parajanov with modern costumes. This picks up the pace from Pomegranates, practically playing like a silent comedy, though one with impeccable compositions, prominently placed symbolic objects, and few (but some!) actual jokes. Besides being a playful compositional art object, it’s a choreographed dance film and I dunno, maybe a history lesson. I know I’m ridiculous for thinking this might have been about actual Kyiv frescoes, imagining a tour in the style of Varda’s Les Dites Cariatides.

This was to be his followup feature to Ancestors but was shut down during production, so these scenes are outtakes from that project – then he’d develop this new style into Pomegranates. Per The Calvert Journal:

Parajanov intended to set this loosely-structured metaphorical film on the day of the city’s liberation from Nazi troops — but wanted to centre it around a museum, praising beauty and art rather than heroism and patriotism. The production of the film was terminated by the state studio, who deemed Parajanov’s experiments inappropriate for the subject.


The Balloonatic (1923 Buster Keaton)

The most random of the shorts, moving from a haunted house to hot air balloon to canoe, with fishes and bulls and bears along the way. Buster is a ridiculous idiot here with moments of brilliance – and the girl he keeps bumping into is mostly capable with moments of incompetence, so they’re made for each other. Phyllis Haver is his lead actress – a Sennett and DeMille star in the silent era, before something went wrong 40 years on; she took a lot of pills and died.


The Blacksmith (1922 Buster Keaton)

I suppose he’s more capable here, but mostly oblivious. A blacksmith’s assistant, he ruins two cars and two horses, and gets the blacksmith (Big Joe Roberts, of course) arrested, ends up on a chase, hopping a train to elope with customer Virginia Fox. The casual use of hot metal and blowtorches produce some wincey stunts. Better use of a balloon in this short than in The Balloonatic.

Dawn: very sweet drone shots, then when we reach the ground, a Ben Russell follow-cam in reverse (literally, Ben is the cinematographer on this), music very droney. Woman walks through fruit trees then a large house, adjusting things here and there… I get the impression she doesn’t live in the house but works there. We recede from the grounds, then Sky Hopinka reads us some words about home and place and loss.

Noon: Inside a different house, a black man sings Dixie for the mostly-white others – ah, they’re all rehearsing something. Bald neck-tattoo guy casually walks in and out of houses and conversations, nobody seems to mind him.

Dusk: Much of the movie is in reverse. We see some ouroboros drawings to remind us what we’re watching. Bald guy seems oddly peaceful for someone with the word RIOT tattooed on his wrist.

Night, then Dusk, then Noon again. Fifty minutes in, our man asks “would you like to see a magic trick” – is this the first time he’s spoken? A phantom ping-pong match is unexpected, ghostly superimpositions, Metamorphosis of Birds leaf-play, a drone in a fancy sitting room that turns out to be diegetic. The movie ends quite wonderfully with a dance remix of itself!

Droneman:

The official description says it “turns the destruction of Gaza into a story of heartbreak,” and says our lead guy is Diego Marcon, an ontology-questioning visual artist whose latest short played Rotterdam.

Michael Sicinski:

We don’t know anything more about our traveler than we did when we began, but Alsharif has provided us with a utopian conception of lived space. In cinema, perhaps, begins responsibility.


Deep Sleep (2014, Basma Alsharif)

Trancefilm, again shot with Ben Russell in Palestine and elsewhere. Footsteps, and columns, and pointing. Like the feature, it slips between locations. Picture (and sometimes sound) will have full-color flicker freakouts.

Both Bens Rivers & Bussell are in Cinema Scope’s 50 Under 50, and I’ve checked them both out before – Russell with Let Each One Go Where He May and Rivers with Two Years at Sea and some shorts.

Spell opens and closes with Russell’s shaky follow-cam, the camera behind the head of a walking person. I can see a theoretical point to his relentless follow-cams: regular movies are always showing people leaving and arriving in scenes, while his movies show them traveling to the scene realistically. Theory or no, they still annoy me, and maybe he needs to find a new thing.

In between we’ve got Rivers’s “man living alone in the woods” motif and his long still shots of nothing much happening (man in a slowly drifting fishing boat – think I’ve seen that one before).

Three parts:

Estonia: bunch of foreigners in a commune, including one Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who is not the star of this section in any way but on whom I focus whenever he’s around, since I’ve seen his face in the promo photos.

Finland: just Rob Lowe alone, mountain climbing, fishing, cooking, hunting, slow-paced, no dialogue. Cutaways to the lake, a photograph of a lake, a magazine, etc. Then Rob is applying makeup, then his house burns down.

Norway: Long guitar intro over blackness, then we’re at a metal concert, interestingly shot up close by slow roving camera (this whole section is just a few long takes), with Rob as a guitarist and vocalist. They play a few songs, then he wastes no time getting backstage before the last one has ended, removing the makeup and walking into the night. I love the sound during this part, the club noise following him into the street and gradually getting louder.

M. Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Russell and Rivers share an engagement with the history of ethnographic film, but only inasmuch as the critiques of its shortcomings and power relations have been fully internalized … Russell’s films have often favoured group dynamics, or at least individuals losing their identities in tandem; Rivers has more often than not worked within a mode of solo portraiture. The resulting collaboration is a dialectical meld of these tendencies. … The resulting film is a triptych fully reflective of Rivers’ and Russell’s longtime concerns: how does one remain a part of society while carving out a space that is, in Heidegger’s terms, true to one’s ownmost possibility?

Russell:

One of the most important realizations that I had through the making of this film was that cinema was, in fact, one of our best vehicles for realizing utopia. During a conversation about his experience in the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, Tuomo (he’s the Finn who tells the asshole story in the film, also the subject of our next collaboration) proposed that utopia only exists in the present, that it can only be realized in the now. Cinema is a medium that is likewise always arriving (as the future) and receding (as the past) simultaneously. It is only alive when we are alive with it, when we share our time and allow our space to be occupied. It can only happen as experience in the present, and its capacity to produce worlds unto itself positions cinema as a very real site for utopia. For Thomas More, Utopia was a no-place, a construct; taken positively, this is cinema defined.

Sicinski again, but for Fandor:

Although the makers of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness have been most closely aligned with the avant-garde film world, they stake out a position somewhere between trance film, portraiture, and ethnography. Their films, then, identify and problematize certain dual aspects of realism that could be said to “haunt” both experimental film and anthropological documentary.

An obscure one from the decade lists. I read a write-up in Cinema Scope while standing in the airport and it sounded fascinating, but maybe it only seemed so in relation to my surroundings. Watching it was dullsville. I should’ve known – here’s the Toronto Film Fest’s writeup:

A film that both partakes in and dismantles traditional ethnography, opts for mystery and natural beauty over annotation and artifice, and employs unconventional storytelling as a means toward historical remembrance. A rigorous, exquisite work with a structure at once defined and winding, the film traces the extensive journey of two unidentified brothers who venture from the outskirts of Paramaribo, Suriname, on land and through rapids, past a Maroon village on the Upper Suriname River, in a rehearsal of the voyage undertaken by their ancestors, who escaped from slavery at the hands of the Dutch 300 years prior. A path still travelled to this day, its changing topography bespeaks a diverse history of forced migration.

See that word “rigorous”? I’ve seen it before, and it means “dullsville”. I’m betting that Reassemblage and Wavelength and Jeanne Dielman regularly get described as rigorous. Although, I like Hollis Frampton and he is pretty rigorous, so it’s hard to say.

Since the movie only has 13 shots over its 130 minutes, here’s a screenshot from each of them.

1. washing up, setting some plants on fire
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2. walking (rural)
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3. riding the bus listening to auto-tuned songs
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4. walking (urban)
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5. mining/wheelbarrow
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6. panning for gold
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7. loading the boat
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8. on the boat
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9. walking (town)/sitting by river
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10. walking through jungle – gunshot!
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11. more jungle: chainsaw and machete
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12. costume festival
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13. canoeing
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Katy says Suriname is in N.E. South America – good to know!