A crash course in recent experimental cinema, San Francisco Cinematheque’s annual CROSSROADS festival is equal parts scouting mission and showcase. Curator Steve Polta packs the May 19-21 weekend with 59 films and videos, many of them by newcomers. After several years at the Victoria Theater, this eighth iteration of CROSSROADS is set for SFMOMA’s freshly retrofitted, and oddly encaged, cinema space. The move should result in a more pristine viewing experience, certainly, but one also hopes it signals a more thoroughgoing commitment from the museum to integrate non-narrative cinema into its regular programming.
Out of the nearly five dozen films, here are five to look out for.
CROSSROADS starts out deep in the groove thanks to Cauleen Smith’s afrofuturist-tinged H-E-L-L-O. The camera traces a slow arc across the New Orleans skyline, drawing past a trombonist and sousaphonist’s bubbly interpretation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s (1977) musical greeting. Cut to a cellist bowing the same theme in front of a fenced-off Booker T. Washington Auditorium, a contrabassoonist sending ripples over the river, and so on, such that Smith’s montage draws a map at the same time that it assembles a band. Where Spielberg’s original scans the skies, H-E-L-L-O’s bass-heavy instruments go down to the roots.
Closer to home, but no less far out, Zachary Epcar’s Return to Forms is a city symphony fit for a place where a sleek skyscraper called the Millennium sinks into the ground. Subjecting our visual (and virtual) lexicon of luxury to a series of sculptural and kinetic interventions, the film evokes a crazed anthropologist’s observations of a bizarre cargo cult -- our own. The climactic vision of an uprooted plant bayoneting an iPad is typical of Epcar’s exuberant play with meaning: the commodity pulverized, reconstituted as a new order of objet d’art, and finally relinquished to the rude flow of cinema.
Return to Forms may be perplexing -- pointedly so -- but its rhythms and sharp turns are anything but uninviting. The same goes for Sky Hopinka’s richly embroidered elegy, I’ll Remember You as You Were, not as What You’ll Become. The video jets off on the heavily treated image of a powwow dance -- the still discernible figures appearing as vertical bands of colors -- set to cascading waves of sacred harp singing. An eclectic collage of icons and texts accompany the floating image of Native poet Diane Burns until this crummy performance video radiates the concentrated energy of a pendant. Hopinka’s fluid style treats cinema as a tool to traverse unbridgeable distances -- not so much to resurrect the past as to permit it to change forms.
The only feature at CROSSROADS is Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, and it’s a scorcher. Wilkerson is a reliable purveyor of radical critique and combustible montage, but Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?’s first-hand account of the country’s racist bequest is still a revelation. Propelled by street demonstrations following the killing of Trayvon Martin, Wilkerson investigates a long whispered-about family story that his great-grandfather murdered an unarmed black man without consequence.