March 16th, 2005


Film Fest opening night

Opening night at the Ann Arbor Film Festival last night was the best all-'round set of films I've seen at the Fest in one sitting. Maybe it benefitted from a minimum of experimental animation concept pieces, but it wasn't just that factor.

The night started with a rousing screening of Buster Keaton's The Scarecrow with live accompaniment of original score by Blue Dahlia. Fun, and percussively creative. The second film into the entries proper, Luke [Bruce Conner, San Francisco, CA. DVD, 22 min. 2004; Experimental Documentary], lost a good number of folk from the audience, but they may have been on hand more for the reception than for the films. Luke takes some grainy on-the-set footage from one day of production of 1967's Cool Hand Luke---a day they were shooting the chain gang on the road---and metes it out to us, a frame at a time, with an evocative score calling up a mood of hazy reflection. The archival footage mostly shows tossed-off behind-the-scenes stuff, with an occasional glimpse of the players, many shots of the backs of people's heads and the big light reflectors, and a veritable motif of the camera, on its folded-up tripod, being carried about on someone's shoulder. The frame-by-frame pacing gives us plenty of time to ponder what fringe player, from the picaresque perspective, shot the footage, but the main aesthetic effect of the technique seems to be to suggest that small details of the scene merit close examination. For the sheer beauty of the abstraction of the light & color? Not so much. More because it's where a movie is being made? I think so. There's a fetishism about it.

The biggest cinematic echo in Luke, though, is another odd bit of documentary footage from the era: the Zapruder film. What else in our cultural experience would be so recalled by lengthy frame-by-frame examination of incidental, near-random footage of a crowd & a few key players, many crew-cutted, dressed in the attire of the early '60s, with cops and a motorcycle and never really a good enough look at what everybody's there for?

The closing film of the evening, Don't Call Me Crazy on the Fourth of July [Richard Pell, Ann Arbor, MI. DVD, 29 min. 2004. Documentary], was bound to be a crowd favorite, not just because of its local filmmaker, but because it addresses government conspiracy theory through the story of a colorful character. I enjoyed it, yes, as I liked Rolling Down Like Pele [Laura Margulies, New York, NY. 16mm, 5 min. 2004. Animation], which used several techniques of animation---all of them well---and a snippet of live action, too---to depict Hawaiian dance. It was visually rich, the kind of short you feel you could watch a dozen times without the first hint of boredom setting in. But two other films seem to be sticking with me most today.

Myaso [Slava Ross, Moscow, Russian Federation. 35mm, 14.5 min. 2002. Narrative], a gorgeous dusty black-and-white, fairly wordless narrative short, has a pretty heavy-handed central metaphor: the "meat" of the title a woman acquires in trade for sex (witnessed this time, apparently for the first time, by her young son) turns out to be a big heart, which she chops up at the end and, along with said son, puts through the ol' grinder. But visually the film is sophisticated, in details of shot selection and composition, as well as in qualities of cinematography I don't know enough about to discuss intelligently. The look and feel, and all the work of production design in the apartment setting, are carefully and well handled. And the way the film delineates the story of the son's coming to understand (and hate) what's going down---with his rejection of the cigarette box gifts from the male caller, though his most treasured toy had been the many horses he'd cut out from them---is just superb. The subtle storytelling timing there makes up for the MEAT and HEART business, fer sure. Having squirrelykat at my side to clarify what we were hearing on the radio & such was pretty nice, too.

Lisa's Best of Night, though, to Light Is Calling [Bill Morrison, New York, NY. 35mm, 8 min. 2004. Experimental]. Here's the official Fest description: "A deteriorating scene from James Young’s 'The Bells' (1926) was optically reprinted and edited to Michael Gordon’s 7 minute composition. A meditation on the fleeting nature of life and love, as seen through the roiling emulsion of an ancient film." Hey---that has the word "roiling" in it. I just rediscovered that word yesterday afternoon. But I digress. If you think I was going on about Luke, I could really say a word or two for this one. The music was so well set to the experience of squinting at the deterioration, trying to make out the bits of identifiable action, that I wasn't even consciously aware of the soundtrack until a good third of the way into the film. The first figure we see swirling & appearing in glimpses through the brown splotches and swirls of rotting film is a woman in long pigtails & a country dress, clearly of the period, possibly laying down but leaning toward the camera with the kind of extra-expressive face you got back in the silent days. It seems as if she's working to try to see us, as we're working to try to see her, through the fading, irreversable effect of time.

That sense of the ultimate doom, of the inevitable loss of what was in this bit of film, contrasts with the plot we eventually realize is going on: a young soldier, the leader of a group on horseback, appears in scenes alternating with those of the girl. For most of the sequence he's searching for her, riding through the mess of the surviving imagery, disappearing now and then, as all sign of the original action does. He and his horseback crowd eventually come across her, and he picks her up from ---what? not railroad tracks she's tied to, but some danger, no doubt--- and together at the end they peer out at us, through the burnt brown miasma and whited-out loss, as if they're ghosts who know their last recollections on this planet are about to die out for good. As if they are saying goodbye before they fade into complete nothingness.

It was one of the most moving movie-watching experiences I've had in a long time.