Takahiro Suzuki's 9214 begins calmly enough, with white clouds drifting across a lazy blue sky. Waving leaves on high branches draw our eyes to the edges of the frame, and birds call to each other on the soundtrack. Then warning bells start to ring, and all of a sudden a freight train clanks across our line of sight, blotting out the sky. Now we've got our bearings, and can identify the camera's point of view: On the tracks, looking straight up.
The seven-minute short leads off Voices For New Atlantis (Sunday, May 20 at 7:30pm), the eighht and final program in San Francisco Cinematheque's wonderfully curated annual survey of the best experimental films of the last year (augmented by a program or two revisiting great work of the past). 9214, like so many films in the program, shows us the world as we've never seen it and likely never even imagined it.
Perhaps you consider that job the domain of narrative features and documentaries. One key difference is that art and personal expression are not often the primary goals of filmmakers working in those genres -- their focus is typically on storytelling, entertainment and social action. Art comes first, however, in avant-garde cinema, whether the piece is exploring the effects of light on celluloid or digital video, the delicate tone of a favorite (and perhaps obscure) work of poetry or fiction, or the ominous mood summoned by the juxtaposition of aggressive visuals and electronic music.
That's precisely what Sylvia Schedelbauer conjures in Sound of Glass, 10 minutes of black-and-white intensity comprised primarily of still photographs animated and fueled by a spinal cord-jostling strobe effect. This mysterious, disturbing film evokes one man's state of mind, though the precise state is wide open to interpretation: is he a criminal on the run, or are we simply privy to the images lodged in his subconscious from a lifetime of watching movies, or is he revisiting the world (both personal and universal) that he's seen and experienced in his time on Earth?
This heightened imperative of active participation on the part of the viewer is one of the key qualities that sets experimental films apart. I readily admit it can be an acquired skill. My brain is perpetually churning while I watch any movie, and I have to make a concerted effort to cease making associations, deciphering clues and searching for meaning. Watching experimental films isn't about figuring them out so much as surrendering to the experience, which may be beautifully phantasmagoric or impenetrably obscure. Either way, the film speaks to you in a way that movies never do.
The centerpiece of the Voices For New Atlantis program, and arguably the major work in the entire festival, is Slow Action, the latest globe-trotting opus by acclaimed British filmmaker Ben Rivers. A fictional story constructed from nonfiction images shot on four islands, the 45-minute work transports us to faraway worlds and a not-so-distant future, carrying us along as if in a skiff we're paddling with a mix of joy, appreciation and gently nagging disorientation. You won't want Slow Action to end, which is perhaps the highest compliment I can offer.
Although I've focused on a single show, I looked at a lot of work from this year's Crossroads lineup and it was consistently of a high quality. That doesn't go far enough: In fact, practically every film was a revelation. Pick any program in the festival, and you're in for a first-class head-clearing.
Crossroads runs Friday, May 18 to Sunday, May 20, 2012 at the Victoria Theaterin San Francisco. For more information visit sfcinematheque.org.