Our Top 8 Experimental Film Picks at This Year’s CROSSROADS
Still from Ephraim Asili's 'Fluid Frontiers,' 2017. (Courtesy of San Francisco Cinematheque)
The numbers out of CROSSROADS, San Francisco Cinematheque’s annual festival of experimental film and video, are ever daunting: more than 80 works made by 72 artists showing across three busy days at SFMOMA. If that crush isn’t enough to make you cry uncle, this year’s festival expands to include two sidebar programs keyed to museum exhibitions (René Magritte: The Fifth Season and The Train: RFK’s Last Journey). As always, curator Steve Polta ministers to the Bay Area’s history as a bastion of expanded cinema, with local luminary Kerry Laitala’s Astro Trilogy (2017) and Simon Liu’s quad-projection Highview (2017) as good bets for photochemical thrills. Below are several more highlights to help navigate the weekend:
One of three silent pieces showing at CROSSROADS by this Austrian filmmaker, House and Universe is especially spellbinding. A dry landscape of brush and rock is recast as a still life of a coiled nude and open fan. The dreaming figure continues to appear in subsequent shots, always nestled in odd sections of the frame—hidden in plain sight. The film’s strong dreamlike quality finally owes as much to Zwirchmayr’s vivid cinematography as to the archetypal objects being pictured.
The flicker effect driving Sylvia Schedelbauer’s latest wonder demands the conditions of a darkened cinema, and so I hesitate to comment having only previewed it at home. Nevertheless, I’m amazed that Schedelbauer attempts to reconcile the flicker, long seen as the ne plus ultra of materialist cinema, with the narrative imagination. Perhaps it’s the forest setting or the recurring figure of a boy, but the film powerfully evokes the childhood feeling of falling into a story. I cannot fathom Schedelbauer’s skill in organizing so many competing flows of visual information such that they just edge comprehension, but suffice to say that she’s fashioned an immersive environment to rival the most extravagant IMAX fare.
The fifth installment of Ephraim Asili’s Diaspora Suite, a wonderful series of films traveling the edges and echoes of the African diaspora, Fluid Frontiers takes place on the border of Detroit and Windsor. Landscape shots set to Margaret Walker’s stirring reading of her poem, “Harriet Tubman,” are interposed with single takes of black residents reading poetry from original broadsides published by Broadside Press in the early 1970s (landmarks of the Black Arts Movement). These latter recitals double as portraits, and in this sense the long pause that Asili allows to elapse between the end of the poem and the end of the shot is just as telling as the text. I’m sometimes wary about films that withhold basic contextual information about settings and sources, but Fluid Frontiers is precisely about the difficulty—and necessity—of connecting the dots between the present moment and its many histories.
One of several impressive formal experiments staged by this Australian duo at CROSSROADS, Pancoran is worth singling out for the way it marries form and content. Using an optical printer, the filmmakers matte multiple images of Jakarta’s gridlock into vertical and horizontal bands, creating a composite image alternately suggesting window blinds, latticework, and a Sol LeWitt grid. The rhythmic patterning of these strips absorbs the jolts of urban life into a playful score, making music from noise and a film that’s fun to watch.
Kevin Jerome Everson and Claudrena N. Harold, 'How Can I Ever Be Late,' 2017
A utopian dream masquerading as biopic b-roll, Everson and Harold’s sketch pays homage to Sly and the Family Stone’s easygoing charm. The scene pictured is a homecoming, with two women waiting to pick up the rest of the group. Their reunion exudes a repose rarely granted to black characters in any kind of film, all the more affecting here for unfolding without dialogue. A lounging cover of “If You Want Me to Stay” splits the difference between promise and demand: “When you see me again / I hope that you have been / The kind of person you really are now.”
From the road sign that supplies its title card onwards, Reasonable Watchfulness travels light. The catch comes in the obvious care with which its diaristic scraps and found footage are articulated in the montage, such that all these loose ends are imbued with a sense of restless tenderness (or is it tender restlessness?). Sanders’ footage is shot by day, but her soundtrack is of the night. An evening’s insect orchestra snaps into autobiographical focus when her recording is interrupted by a sweet but stilted goodnight. Meanwhile, we watch the Pacific surf slamming silently into rocks. The image is overcome by light, the soundtrack with life, and the heart holds someplace between.
Michael Robinson does postmodern appropriation with such brio that it’s easy to forget he’s also a first-rate fabulist. Onward Lossless Follows’ source material is redolent of afternoon television and too many clicks on the internet—but rendered and assembled in such a way as to assume the explicatory power of myth. The centerpiece is a PSA spot warning against accepting rides from strangers. Robinson grabs at the weird ambiguities and excesses of this clip—its queerness—to offer an alternative reading in which the cautionary tale is a cover story. The abduction scenario is a fine metaphor for Robinson’s own filmmaking style, which entreats our imaginative involvement while demanding that we go without a guide. David Lynch fanatics would do well to check out this ominous yet strangely hopeful communiqué from the new weird America.
The F. Scott Fitzgerald essay that gives Jonathan Schwartz’s film its name uses a first-person narration to calmly examine that selfsame person going to pieces. Schwartz’s Crack-Up is less personal but if anything more direct in its clarified expressions of vulnerability and mortality. The Fitzgerald text, read aloud by a woman, is placed alongside Iceland’s cutting beauty; the tombstone of another Schwartz; a microphone assailed by wind; and, also on the soundtrack, a man struggling to speak and eventually offering his unguarded rendition of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind.” The ice floes put me in the mind of a shipwreck, but the associative links between the above-mentioned elements make the film’s structure seem just that: a structure, a shelter, a way of taking cover. The Crack-Up opens itself to difficulty while at the same time suggesting a sense of refuge, holding fast to Fitzgerald’s notion of intelligence as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
CROSSROADS 2018 plays at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 7–10. Details here.