San Francisco Cinematheque has presented, promoted and preserved the underappreciated art of experimental cinema on the local cultural landscape since 1961. Under the leadership of Steve Polta, Cinematheque elevated the bar nine years ago by initiating—in addition to its regular schedule of screenings at venues around town—an annual, crammed-to-the-gills, long-weekend festival, CROSSROADS, that collects the best new moving-image work by international artists and local filmmakers. This year’s edition, comprised of 10 programs of shorts and live projections with evocative titles such as “inside the machine (demolition of a wall)” and “edgeless things communicate,” unspools Thursday, June 7 through Sunday, June 10 in SFMOMA’s intimate theater.
Experimental film encompasses an almost-unimaginable range of non-narrative styles and techniques: Colectivo los ingrávidos’ The Sun Quartet, part 3: Conflagration (in Program 9: staring at the sun [we bite the shadow]) pairs faded, fleeting shots of landmark buildings with onscreen text of a powerhouse poetic rant (delivered aloud in Cantonese). Simon Liu’s mesmerizing quad projection Highview (in Program 6: endless nameless [chaos is the future]) assembles fragments of nocturnal images shaved and collaged into colored patterns of light and shape. Diana Barrie and Richard Tuohy’s wonderfully trance-inducing Blinding and Blending (in Program 8: no other [the universe has its ways]) conjures kaleidoscopic scrims from haunting shots of window screens and floor tile.
Avant-garde film is an experiential medium that engages the senses rather than the part of our brains that craves linear organization and stories. I sometimes feel compelled to interpret or “explain” an avant-garde film, but my most satisfying experience is when I allow the piece to stimulate sensations, ideas and, especially, a mysterious pleasure that isn’t typically available from other art forms.