Festival Daily

By Neil Karassik

An energetic celebration of the medium of cinema, this year’s Wavelengths programme offers a remarkable collection of films devoted to formal rigour and sheer experimentation with the medium. This past June, however, Andréa Picard, the Festival’s astute Wavelengths curator, had a lot to be nervous about. Viewing over 500 experimental films can certainly make one’s head spin, and the intensely subjective nature of such works adds pressure to an already daunting position. But if anyone is capable of gracefully tackling the burden, it’s Picard, who recognizes the need to step back and let it all sink in before beginning her selection process. And the result couldn’t be better – this year’s lineup is hugely ambitious.

“It really creates this amazing dialogue between senior artists and young, emerging talent,” says Picard of the 2008 programme. 

For an example of well-honed invention, look no further than RR (short for “railroad”), a film Picard has already had the pleasure of viewing four times. Created by legendary American independent filmmaker James Benning, who hasn’t screened a film at the Festival since his 1986 work Landscape Suicide, this 115-minute, 16mm film about trains traversing the American landscape is a sight to behold. RR is equal parts meditation on American history and romantic nostalgia piece harking back to the earliest days of cinema. (The Lumière brothers’ 1896 film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat instantly springs to mind.)

Also exploring nostalgic sensibilities, Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin’s Lossless #2 is a mesmerizing assemblage of compressed digital images of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s 1943 masterpiece Meshes of the Afternoon. Baron and Goodwin play heavily with Teiji Ito’s 1959 soundtrack, making the film’s lyrical ambience feel more astonishing than ever before.

The latest revision of a reconstructive project that has spanned several years, Pat O’Neill’s hauntingly cryptic Horizontal Boundaries is one of the most epically transfixing experimental films in recent memory. It too contains allusions to earlier stylistic approaches, first and foremost the work of Bruce Baillie – namely his influential 1966 film Castro Street. O’Neill’s intentionally jarring aesthetic makes use of overlapping images of Los Angeles and a looping sound design (which also includes bits and pieces of film noir dialogue) to create something that is evocative yet entirely inventive.

Like the great majority of this year’s Wavelengths films, Horizontal Boundaries was shot on 35mm (only three of the programme’s 26 films are video works). Picard observes, “There have been worries about 16mm disappearing, and the unfortunate possibility for film to vanish altogether.”

Another groundbreaking work playing in this year’s programme is Chris Chong Chan Fui’s Block B, which consists of two single-take static shots (one during the day, the other at night) of 80 balconies seen from a distance. As we spot people beginning to appear in long-shot, their amplified voices sound much more proximate, creating a baffling auditory sensation. It becomes fascinating to locate who is saying what to whom in these elaborately choreographed mini-narratives. Picard mentions that it is also “a comment on the small Indian population who commonly live on this one block in Malaysia.”    

Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s Mosaik Méchanique creates a huge 35mm widescreen mosaic consisting of 98 images of three-second loops from the 1914 Charlie Chaplin film A Film Johnnie. After staring at this vast cinematic canvas for several minutes, one literally becomes spellbound by patterns of light and darkness, resulting in an altogether hypnotic experience. “There are so many ways to see the film,” says Picard. “The 94 sections of music are constantly changing.”

Olaf Nicolai’s Rodakis is a stunningly photographed essay film about the life of Alexis Rodakis. The footage mainly consists of lavishly detailed nature shots, as well as the exteriors and interiors of the picturesque house he built for himself, combining close-ups and long-shots to create an enchanting juxtaposition.

Picard maintains that this year there is a complementary union between nature and 16mm art. This can also be seen in When It Was Blue, an ambitious 65-minute film that calls to mind the work of the late Stan Brakhage, taking this aesthetic to new heights with its use of bleak, environmental magnificence. The film will be shown as a 16mm two-projector piece.

Finally, Eriko Sonoda’s Garden/ing is a deceptively low-concept Michael Snow-esque experimentation that captures a seemingly ordinary backyard setting seen through an interior window.

Of course, these are just a small sample of what is being offered in this year’s programme. Picard has been pleased to see the Wavelengths audience grow exponentially during the three years she has been curating, but she reminds us that there is no delimiting definition of a Wavelengths fan any more so than of a Wavelengths film. “What is the avant-garde?” she muses. “It’s Jean Marie Straub, but also Jean-Luc Godard.” 

WAVELENGTHS 2 (Lost and Found)
Sept. 6, 6:30pm, Jackman Hall (AGO)

WAVELENGTHS 3 (Horizontal Boundaries)
Sept. 6, 9:00pm, Jackman Hall (AGO)

Sept. 7, 6:30pm, Jackman Hall (AGO)

Sept. 7, 9:30pm, Jackman Hall (AGO)

WAVELENGTHS 6 (When It Was Blue)
Sept. 8, 9:00pm, Jackman Hall (AGO)