Five Must-See Experimental Films at This Year's CROSSROADS

Cauleen Smith, Still from 'H-E-L-L-O,' 2014. (Courtesy of San Francisco Cinematheque)

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.

Zachary Epcar, Still from 'Return to Forms,' 2016.
Zachary Epcar, Still from 'Return to Forms,' 2016. (Courtesy of San Francisco Cinematheque)

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.

Sky Hopinka, Still from 'I'll Remember You As You Were, Not as What You'll Become,' 2016.
Sky Hopinka, Still from 'I'll Remember You As You Were, Not as What You'll Become,' 2016. (Courtesy of San Francisco Cinematheque)

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.

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Returning to the scene of the crime, the filmmaker aims not so much to unearth the past as to confront its persistence (one thinks of James Baldwin: “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime”). In place of the mainstream documentary’s assured appeals to the audience’s enlightened sympathies, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? deals in the raw stuff of anger and shame. Its goal is not resolution but reckoning, and that makes all the difference.

Travis Wilkerson, Still from 'Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?,' 2017. (Courtesy of San Francisco Cinematheque)

Wilkerson’s relentless, at times even masochistic, polemical drive is doubly provocative in the CROSSROADS context for bringing critical attention to several avant-garde commonplaces: the eyedropper application of Wikipedia-flavored bits of radical history (Emmanuel Piton’s Sleeping Waters), for instance, or the association of celluloid with a kind of prelapsarian innocence [Karly Stark’s 2076 (Elegy)].

Equally striking, though, is the way some of the festival’s postcard-sized films similarly manage to implicate the audience’s ethical imagination. Christopher Harris’s Distant Shores, to take one, models a necessary imaginative leap simply by juxtaposing footage of a Chicago River cruise with testimony of a migrant’s harrowing voyage at sea. A three-minute film edited in camera, it nevertheless offers several ways of thinking about displacement.

Similarly compacted pieces like Ephraim Asili’s Kindah, Pere Ginard’s This Bogeyman, and Mary Helena Clark’s Palms may not stand on their own -- but may yet stay in mind after this CROSSROADS recedes.

San Francisco Cinematheque's CROSSROADS screens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art May 19-21, 2017. For tickets and more information, click here.

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