- ISSN 2039-800X
Trimestrale online di cultura cinematografica
Diretto e fondato da Luigi Abiusi
anno VIII | UZAK 28/29 | autunno 2017 / inverno 2018

Keeping It New: a Festival at the Crossroads

Michael Sicinski

No longer the young upstart, the San Francisco Crossroads festival has established itself as one of North America’s major showcases for avant-garde and experimental film, video, and multimedia work. This means that higher profile filmmakers are screening their work at Crossroads, sometimes even offering the festival world premieres of new work. (By contrast, just a few years ago there were films that screened in New York and Toronto, despite having been shown at Crossroads four months earlier. The big fests didn’t even notice.)

The solidifying of the festival’s identity and importance are good things, both for the San Francisco Bay Area and the avant-garde film world in general. Some relatively unknown artists or fringe-dwellers who were boldly championed by Steve Polta and the Crossroads team two or three years ago are now screening their films all over the place, a sure sign that Crossroads has “arrived.” But anyone who works in programming knows, this is a critical juncture. When your decisions about what to show suddenly take on that added weight of possibly affecting careers, it provokes a broader taking-stock of the project as a whole. Where are we going? Where have we been?

It is to Polta’s credit that, inasmuch as such matters are on his mind, he sports them lightly, at least as evidenced by the 2017 edition of Crossroads. It’s another eclectic winner, offering a mix of the stately and the edgy, the established and the up-and-coming. As is often the case, some of the best individual works came from long-time practitioners of the art, for whom each new film is both a new statement and at least partially a culmination of years’ worth of audiovisual thinking. Greta Snider’s Rendition, for example, expands well past the punk vocabulary of the films that made her name while retaining their rough-hewn, oppositional spirit. Snider plays with the idea of multiple “renditions” of the image—using dark spots in the image to coagulate around repeated base images, including a cut-out of an airplane. But the main idea is clearly “rendition” in the sense of a government spiriting a citizen away to an unseen location, the dark spots speaking to the obfuscation of a cover-up.

Another major filmmaker at midcareer, the prolific Robert Todd, premiered his latest film Restless at Crossroads ’17. Truth be told, I have not been a fan of Todd’s work in the past. But this film opened for me in completely unexpected ways. A landscape study of impeccable craftsmanship, Restless examines natural forms as vertically divided by various slats – park benches, fences, reeds, and trees. Too loose and intuitive to be a structuralist film, and yet much more committed to the shaping of an environment than Nathaniel Dorsky’s work (which Restless superficially resembles), Todd’s short work can best be described as tone poem, concerned as it is with spatial and volumetric counterpoint. While I am in no way an expert on Todd’s vast body of work, this is far and away the best film of his I have seen.

Part of the joy of a festival like Crossroads is the discovery of new talent, and several strong films put a few names on my radar for future alert. Chief among them is J.M. Martínez, whose film Cyclical Refractions took a couple of viewings to fully reveal itself to me. Shot in the woods, it primary captures the glint of light through trees, in particular the bright haze when morning light can make brown pine needles seem a greenish-gray, or an otherworldly red color seems to mar the otherwise pristine sky. But using a specially constructed lens, Martínez creates a kaleidoscopic effect wherein the forest floor is curling, convex and inverted, around the center image, which is slightly distorted and taking in the lion’s share of the sunlight. Combined with this are bumps and squeaks on the soundtrack as Martínez records the close-contact audio of his mic on the ground or inside of hollow logs. Lovely, original, and smart.

Another discovery came in the form of Le bulbe tragique, a bracingly aggressive film that also took a couple of viewings to win me over. Its maker, Guillaume Vallée, is someone with whom I was not familiar, but he certainly made an impression. A work that wouldn’t be possible without the later, hand-painted films of Stan Brakhage, Le bulbe tragique is in no way beholden to the ways of the master, to put it mildly. The film is based in the crystalline colored light of pure abstraction – although I cannot tell whether the work is hand-painted, chemically distressed, or some combination thereof. With jagged spikes and stripes of emulsion in icy blues, greens, and reds, cracked skeins of color pummel the screen.

However, Vallée in no way maintain’s Brakhage’s legendary silence. Instead, a rumbling soundtrack serves as the baseline for a reverb-heavy recording of a talk by Canadian filmmaker Al Razutis. He speaks about the visual process, how light exists in photons that do not care about the eyes they may or may not encounter along their physical journey. As we look more closely at Le bulbe tragique, we can see the found footage that Vallée has used for his own baseline. There are pictures of gardeners, and workers building a church, and they seem to be constructing and deconstructing the screen image from the inside. While Le bulbe tragique may not be a subtle film, it is a passionate one. Vallée is a filmmaker I am interested in watching as he develops.

A number of other films are worthy of mention. Elsewhere I have written about Erin Espelie’s A Net to Catch the Light, a stark, poetic departure for this filmmaker whose work often exists at the juncture between art and science. Cauleen Smith’s two contributions, particularly Cine at the Canyon Cine at the Sea by Kelly Gabron, were featured at the Whitney Biennial and represent the latest phase in her ever-expanding deep dive into Afro-Futurism. Smith is quietly becoming one of the most important filmmakers of our age, even if many critics lack the tools to unpack her films. Zachary Epcar’s Return to Forms solidifies his reputation as one of the most compelling younger filmmakers currently working. Return is elusive but seductive, like a materialist dream forged in the bowels of Ikea. And finally, there’s Peter Burr. His Pattern Language is an 8-bit experiment that evolves from Op Art to architectural surveillance, and I continue to be attracted and repelled by his films in equal measure. Frankly, I don’t get what Burr is about, but I am determined to keep at it. There’s clearly something going on.

Without a doubt, the best film I saw from the festival was originally a performance, and was presented as such at Crossroads. (I have only seen the film version.) Radical filmmaker Travis Wilkerson has produced a new feature whose poignancy is matched only by its timeliness. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is, like many of his other films, a freelance crime investigation. Wilkerson takes it upon himself to uncover the misdeeds that the dominant social order either cannot concern itself with (mass pollution and murder in An Injury to One), or has a vested interest in keeping quiet (rampant police terror in Los Angeles Red Squad). With Do You Wonder…? Wilkerson is doing both at the same time.

The film is about his great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, a bully and a bigot who, in 1946, murdered a black man named Bill Spann in cold blood. (Spann made the mistake of coming into the corner store Branch owned.) Initially charged with first-degree murder, the charges vanished and Branch never served a day in jail. In the town of Dothan, Alabama, where Wilkerson’s family came from, white supremacy was so ingrained that you could take the life of an African-American as though it were nothing. Wilkerson goes back to Dothan to investigate this crime. Is there a death certificate? Criminal records? A marked grave?

In investigating his own family’s past, and his place within that family, Wilkerson accomplishes something vital. He answers the question, “what should white allies do to support racial justice?” As Wilkerson says in his voiceover, “this is not a white savior story, it’s a white horror story.” Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is an act of racial self-interrogation and an examination of the deadly depths of white privilege, but it is also a work of radical listening. Wilkerson goes to Dothan and finds that many members of the black community there want to talk about the case and the times surrounding it, and seldom have the opportunity. If art cannot provide such an opportunity, what good is it? Wilkerson’s new film provides an object-lesson for our times.

Ho visto cose


Speciale Crossroads 2017

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