Experiment will save the World:
Animation + Experimental + Avantgarde
short films at the 2019 NBFF


by Tom Kazas




If cinema was the memory of the 20th century, its hallucination, where does that leave us now? With visual culture captured by capital, what can be sought beyond libidinal entertainment? How might we even begin to watch experimental film in the age of streaming?

 

It’s fine to celebrate the power of stories, as long as we continue to interrogate the nature of power and ideology those stories reveal, whether those stories are aware of it or not. Nor can we refrain from understanding that narratives, in and of themselves, can foreclose so many other experiences available to us as 21st century thinking-desiring-gazing subjects. If we refuse this interrogation, and especially the function of the formal qualities of film, we risk simply entertaining ourselves into oblivion, we risk the continued submission of our desires to the cinema-libidinal complex. The storyfication of cinema traps us in a very specific mode, one that caters to the production of enjoyment in and for itself. Even if we grant that “that cinema was constituted as such by becoming narrative,” we clearly see that this constitution “rejected other possible directions” (1). It is these other possible directions that experimental and avantgarde films examine. Isn’t this where all the joy is, isn’t this what our compulsion should address, the need to keep exploring worlds? The challenge, more like a plea, is that experimental and avantgarde film can still be a site for social and psychic disruption.

 

Experimental and avantgarde film can still be a site for social and psychic disruption.

 

The Animation + Experimental + Avantgarde film program, part of the North Bellarine Film Festival (A/E/AG NBFF), boasts the honour of being the only program of experimental and avantgarde films to screen in a film festival outside a capital city anywhere in Australia, and it is an international film festival to boot. As an attendee, what is particularly enjoyable is catching the ferry from Melbourne across the bay to Portarlington; one already starts the journey from the familiar to the unexpected.

 



There were eighteen short films in the 2019 A/E/AG NBFF that, as the program details, were categorized as animation, experimental or avantgarde. David King, the curator of the festival, ascribes a distinction to experimental and avantgarde film: “experimental film can be exemplified by the likes of Stan Brakhage, it doesn't have to have any kind of story or meaning, although it can. It can be a pure visual and aural trip. Avantgarde, on the other hand, is to me more like Luis Buñuel. His films always had some kind of narrative and characters you could follow, even if they were upside down or sunnyside up." Of course, any distinction is problematic, and a way around this problem might be to use the term ‘exploratory film’, to bring together all the qualities as part of the same impulse, even if we suspect that there is a dialectic at play between ‘experimental’ and ‘avantgarde’. Nonetheless, what King’s distinction begins to address is a need to examine the formal qualities of the films in the program, and as we shall see below, form carries so much of the meaning of a film. However, there is a danger here, as what we start to discover are the emerging generic-formal qualities that begin to define exploratory films. We encounter precisely that which the film makers presumably sought to disregard in the first place. This is the challenge of experimentalism; it also means we haven’t reached the End of History (2), that we can try to avoid the situation that “robots know the future, they’ve seen the same movies you have” (3).

 

I will not be reviewing every film in the 2019 program for the sake of brevity, but will discuss those films whose formal qualities stood out. Let’s start with the international films.

 

Deeply Absurd Lucidity by Sammy Sayed (10mins, Egypt).

Perhaps a subtitle from the film is most telling of its predicament: “...language is an evil veil of incompleteness.” Not only are we confronted by a dizzying array of images, injunctions in Arabic and English scripts, confusing and discordant sound, and centrally, that the character see-hears all these as voice-images in his head, what we also confront is the tyranny of images itself. These phantasmagorical images present not only as a dazzling spectacle, nor as simple expressions of the unconscious, but as the often contradictory injunctions that confuse and capture the viewing subject. We might read this less as fiction and more as realism; a rather clear example of form as meaning. Perhaps the film is an indictment on filmic language itself, that it “sells fresh dead fish.”

 


Deeply Absurd Lucidity

 


Manic Landscapes by Mathew Wade (8mins, UK)

A simple premise beautifully rendered: flowers come to life amongst death. This hi-res video-art animation, set in a dark room with day-glow light filtering about, sees plant tendrils and flowers come to life. There is an ominous feel to the scenes as these growing flowers make their way around a human skeleton and finally up through the eye sockets of a human skull. The heightened contrast between death and life that the black interiors and the vibrant saturated colours display, seems to indicate a sharp distinction between these states, that there is division and even a choice to be made; it is a seeming reverie on the ephemeral nature of humanity.

 


Manic Landscapes

 

A Room by Chong Ming (15mins, Hong Kong).

This film posits an intriguing premise; a man discovers a mysterious room that appears when his work day finishes. Ultimately it’s a disturbing scene, where the male office workers sleep in a strange temple-like room at work instead of at home. Their female partners don’t want to sleep alone so they accompany their men to sleep in the room, only to remain awake, statue-like, unimpressed and frustrated while the men sleep. The protagonist’s partner packs to leave him, and ultimately the men sleep alone in the room. There is a comment here on gender roles, such as why the men abandon their women. But more powerfully, it can be read as the desire of the men to sleep where they work, possibly following some kind of unspoken corporate imperative. The hovering camera view on the room, the temple-like music, and the stillness of the sleepers creates an unease between the sexes and between the workers and their undefined employer.

 


A Room

 

Santa Teresa by Emanuele Dainotti (12mins, Italy).

This was for me the highlight of the program. It is a single take in black and white, with a fixed camera position in medium shot. This ultra minimalist setup dispenses with the formalist contrivances of modern film production. There is no need to load meaning into the film by different camera points of view, affective close ups, montage or spot lighting. No need for music and its prescriptive distractions, instead we hear only the diegetic sound from the camera’s fixed position. What we have is a voyeuristic demand in real-time, to notice the minimal action that unfolds, and it is a brutal scene. A forensics team arrives to examine a bound, face-down dead man. Some moments later a plain clothed woman arrives and the forensics team departs. The woman grabs the man’s head, and in a chilling moment, we see that the body is in fact alive. The woman grabs a suitable found object and anally rapes the man, smokes another cigarette, and walks off. Enticing as it is to ask what led to this situation, the scene is self-contained, our voyeurism satisfied given the distance we see it at. There’s even a twist in the closing frames as the forensics team reappear.

 


Santa Teresa

 

A Tomato Is Not A Tomato by Lingyun Zheng (5mins, China).

A touching exploration of displacement between New York and China. There is a wonderfully simple yet powerful association between a tomato and a balloon. This colour coding allows us to jump-cut between the tomato that represents her current life in NY, and the red balloon that was her other life in China. As the woman makes a tomato omelette by following a computer-spoken recipe, she ends up seeing a red balloon in its place, then sees one on the street, by the river, and in the sky that surrounds her New York apartment. We flash to the redness of China, to street scenes and memories of a young girl holding balloons. There is a comment here on simple daily details that have the power to trigger memories and the associated emotions. Details like the omelette recipe being spoken aloud by a computerised voice suggests the extent of the displacement, that all she has alone in her new city is an alienated voice instructing her.

 


A Tomato Is Not A Tomato

 

XCTRY by Bill Brown (7mins, USA).

This film is a view out of a travelling car that leaves one hometown en-route to another. The dazzling series of short rapid-fire scenes as the camera slowly pans across the windscreen is a powerful rendering of the journey’s progress. This refined technique is a dynamic way to reveal an endless and jarring trip across the American landscape that the traveller is on. The chopped up sound that accompanies the edits brings home the fracturing, and the looping pop song choruses gives one a feeling of, “haven’t I been here before?” There are no voice overs, only subtitles that intersect with the journey, and this ‘lack of voice’ might further hint at the traveller’s situation, that otherwise is flooded by images.  At the end of the film the text describes a stack of mattresses outside a hotel room that retain the imprints of the people who slept on them, “like a fingerprint or a DNA sample…that await analysis.”

 


XCTRY

 

Now to the Australian films.

 

The Cuttock Heads by Chris Windmill (6mins, Aus).

This ‘blast from the past’ (1990) is a whimsical absurdist delight. Its palpably ‘naive’ quality, aided no doubt by it being shot on super 8 and in 4:3, seems to only gain with the passage of time. A musical duo embarks on a ‘world tour’ of their own home. This duo perform on dinky percussion and a balloon squeezed for its toy-like sound. They move through the house performing in different rooms, even up to the roof at one point, and we see the discovery of little details about their ‘world’, which also says something sweet about the undiscovered minutia of domestic life. It might be tempting to read this as an inner journey, with the duo seeing other parts of themselves in their body-house. After all, they initially start outside their garage, until a neighbour suggests they tour the inside of their house. But we might also see this as a movement to go ‘outside’ of themselves, to find details ‘out there’ in the world. Then the moment of wonder: “hey look, some dust” and the camera cuts to an extreme closeup of dust, followed by a “wow.” This kind of absurdist realism might point to our own (lack of) ability to note the important details in our surroundings, and dust in any domestic and social context is surely important. A wonderful feature is the sub-titles, there is no voice over, whose text is hand painted on boards placed in the shot, and the duo sometimes have to move them out of the way so they can pass. I’d like to think this film exemplifies a type of Australian approach to independent cinema, that often elevates minutia to the level of screen worthiness, that such details are allowed to be projected in the hallowed space of a cinema frame. Seeing this film in the context of contemporary experimental shorts only seems to lift it above the sometimes complex and sophisticated offerings a program such as the A/E/AG NBFF invites.

 


The Cuttock Heads

 

Everything Sleeps But The Night by Marie Craven (2mins, Australia).

I am fond of cinema poems, not just those that are cinematographically ‘poetic’ as this one is with its collages and superimpositions, but those that employ moving image and spoken word in accompaniment, that do and don’t sync up in literal translations of each other. Of course we can free-associate and discover new meaning in the juxtapositions, but we are reminded that fixed narratives and ‘explication’ mostly take us further away, not closer to, the texture of experiencing oscillating truths. This visual poem also foregrounds a voice speaking delicate brooding lines, which remarks that “others howl as if there were no ocean.” A poem has the power to dismantle totality.

 


Everything Sleeps But The Night

 

Condenser by Tom Kazas (4mins, Aus).

Ok, this one is mine so I’ll keep it short. In some ways it’s all form, as is its subject matter. I describe it as part-travelogue, part-ghosted gaze, and part-response to architecture. Although the Moscow metros are famed for their interior design, they are embedded in the deeper avantgarde architectural idea of the ‘social condenser’. Like electrical condensers that transform the nature of electrical current, a social condenser attempts to catalyze and revolutionize a social way of life through architecture. The music is an integral part, with the rhythms and drones created by processing one segment of sound recorded at a Moscow Metro station in 2017.

 


Condenser

 

Untitled by Kim Miles (7mins, Aus).

This film is set in glowing rooms with glowing women and men. This highly stylised other-worldliness, with its slowly twisting corridors and stark lighting indicate that we are in an alternative space. Here we witness scenes of gender reversal; there is physical abuse, but it is the men that have bruises and cuts on their faces perpetrated by the women. There is a poignant moment when the male asks the female “how was your shift,” which earlier elicited a “fuck off.” This time we hear the male repeatedly ask, with ever changing inflections, seemingly in the hope of eliciting a gentler response. The hope is that language alone will save and placate, that the nuance of inflection might trick and distract, that it will alleviate the precarious position of the male who anticipates more physical violence. We of course know that this is the hope of so many women. It’s telling that the closing shot of the film is a piercing sinister glare that lights up the eyes of one woman, and it is this gaze that we must stay witnesses to.

 


Untitled


There is no experiment without risk, and it is risk that liberates.

There is no experiment without risk, and it is risk that liberates. It is less about how successful each film in the program was in executing its formal and narrative intentions, and much more about the praxis of creating new value, new views for the world; because the meaning of a film also, even mostly, lies outside the frame, in the cultural and unconscious contexts that we inhabit and that habituate us. Our seduction by the cinematic image, our rampant scopophilia, is unlikely to ever be satiated, and this compels us to either suffer the mainstream or to be exploratory utopians; utopia is not a place but the act. Montage is conflict long shots reunite time images are ammunition poetry detotalizes form stalks dysfunction (4).

 

Arguably, with cinema’s disappearance, private viewing on handheld devices in overloaded contexts is one thing, but the algorithmic curation of individual preferences by streaming services forecloses the very attempts at experimental discovery. We must insist on new expressions in exploratory film and maintain a culture that supports these attempts. This where a program, such as the Animation + Experimental + Avantgarde film program of the North Bellarine Film Festival, keeps this project-ion alive.

 


film critic John Flaus (left) with curator David King (right)

 


A special "Best of 2018 and 2019 Animation + Experimental + Avantgarde film program" session will be held at the Thornbury Picture House in Melbourne ... sometime ! It was due to be held on the evening of Tuesday, April 28, but that has now been scrubbed for safety around the COVID-19 virus.



Notes:


1. Cinema 2: The Time Image, Gilles Deleuze, 1989, Athlon Press. back


2. The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama, 1992, Free Press. back

3. 30,000 Years of Market Consolidation, Alienist Manifesto, Interior Ministry, 2017. back

4. ‘Form stalks dysfunction’, quoted from the Principles of an Anarchitecture, Alienist Manifesto, Interior Ministry. back

 


Tom Kazas is a composer and film maker living in Melbourne.



Published February 27, 2020. © Tom Kazas, 2020.