Crossroads 2022 Celebrates Avant-Garde Film’s Pandemic Poets

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a vibrant pink and white and blue illustration with abstract elements and also a dog
A still from 'Squish!' by Tulapop Saenjaroen. (Courtesy San Francisco Cinematheque)

The first film in the first program of Crossroads, San Francisco Cinematheque’s annual festival of experimental film, wittily probes an animated character’s inner despair. Thai filmmaker Tulapop Saenjaroen employed a cadre of artists for his wildly creative and weirdly disturbing 18-minute marriage of live action, animation and digital manipulation, yet Squish! plays like a pastel shriek of isolation depression. And that's just the festival's Side 1, Track 1, as it were.

Organized across 10 programs this weekend (Aug. 26-28) at Gray Area in the Mission, Crossroads 2022 includes some 67 works, all carefully arranged by longtime Cinematheque director and curator par excellence Steve Polta. The majority were created over the last year—that is, post-lockdown. Yet many of them, crafted start to finish by a single filmmaker, exude a delicate feeling of introspective solitude. Maybe it’s the occasional whiff of obsessiveness that wafts through the lineup, or perhaps just my imagination that the 13th Crossroads festival is as much a reflection (and record) of the pandemic as last year’s edition.

a black and white abstract image
A still from 'Prometheus' by Dominic Angerame. (San Francisco Cinematheque)

Pensive portraits of states of mind, no matter how piercing or profound, may not comport with those hustling across town or around the globe to recapture lost social time and shed the pandemic mentality. But Crossroads’ return to in-person screenings, and the mysterious magic of strangers sharing tone- and mood-shifting experiences in the dark, should counteract the manic impulses of the present moment.

Given its dearth of images and reliance on sound, Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati’s feature-length Expedition Content (program 5) represents a unique act of mass conjuring. The filmmakers excavated the 1961 audio recordings made by one Michael Rockefeller (an heir to the Standard Oil family fortune) during a five-month Harvard Peabody expedition focused on the Hubula (or Dani) people in West Papua, then known as Netherlands New Guinea. Expedition Content exposes the fault lines in ethnography (fascinatingly), and colonialism (naturally), from a historical distance that shrinks as the work progresses.

a starry night sky with trees
A still from 'Curve the Night Sky' by Peggy Ahwesh. (Courtesy San Francisco Cinematheque)

Poetry and film are both web-spinning art forms, of course. Jodie Mack’s color 16mm marvel, Wasteland No. 3: Moons, Sons (in program 2, table of the elements) mesmerizes with time-lapse studies of flowered orbs that transport us from wherever we are to a strange yet familiar world. It is preceded by a pair of digital videos by Oregon artist Brandon Wilson: The Day Lives Briefly Unscented honors his late grandmother and the fleeting, ephemeral nature of life through vintage snapshots and images of water, fire, smoke and suburban life, while the monochrome, electrified Ghost is Hungry evokes an elemental, non-human force field hunting in the woods.

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This program also features the U.S. premiere of Canadian filmmaker Matthieu Hallé’s candle-lit (via video feed) 2017 work The Waterfall, accompanied by a live performance of the score by Unitions (Umesh Mallery & Marshall Trammell).

Because the viewer experiences Crossroads through an entire program, describing individual films risks taking them out of context. In addition, Polta has framed each collection with an enveloping yet open-ended, Ferlinghettian lower-case title: it takes the world to make a feather fall; before you witnessed this entropy; i remember those days (it could have been different); around her the shadows trembled.

a red background with the word 'us' in white
A still from 'Puncture' by Carleen Maur (Courtesy San Francisco Cinematheque)

But I can’t resist citing some of my favorites. In Carleen Maur’s cryptic off-road video Puncture (in program 4, before you witnessed this entropy), the word “us” is repeated over a montage of trees on fire, at first slowly and deliberately, then faster until the female speaker becomes orgasmic. Brooklyn master Peggy Ahwesh’s painterly Curve the Night Sky (in program 7, we have tasted planets), shot in her backyard in 2020, highlights the abundant beauty in nocturnal compositions. San Francisco stalwart Dominic Angerame returns with the brutally direct Prometheus (program 8, divisions of labor), a black-and-white experiment in abstract terror.

The aforementioned opening program, enticingly titled beauty can fool you, is dedicated to longtime S.F. video artist Dale Hoyt, who passed away earlier this year. Hoyt is represented with a rueful 2009 rumination on childhood naiveté and adult disillusionment that’s set to, and takes its title from, the sensuous, seductive strains of composer/singer Annette Peacock’s Young, (with comma). A powerful music video that serves as an ode to father-daughter connection as well as lingering loss, it’s suited to a period of reflection, regret and ravage—like the one from which we are presently emerging.

Crossroads Film Festival runs Aug. 26-28 at Gray Area in San Francisco. Tickets to individual programs are $12 and up; more details here