A preposterous idea, right?
How could anyone be so arrogant as to suppose that they have the best judgment on work that is intensely personal and open to a broad multiplicity of meanings and interpretations? Nevertheless, when I read Film Threat Weekly's (the self-proclaimed "Hollywood Independent Voice") list of the top 20 films of 1997 (Starship Troopers, Boogie Nights, Good Will Hunting... you get the picture) I fired off an email calling them Hollywood wannabees and saying if they ever saw a Michael Snow or Ernie Gehr film it would scare them to death. Film threat indeed!
To my surprise, they wrote back asking me to write a review of experimental work from 1997, which they published, slightly edited, online the week of Feb. 9, 1998. Below is the original unedited list, with my own caveats. I welcome your comments and additions.
[also see the 1998 list]
Caveat: Since experimental films and videos don't show every night of the week, and in fact usually show only once in a given showcase in a given year, it's difficult for anyone to have seen all of the dozens of works that were released last year. Also, works that are particularly rich and complex, like any good work of art, often require more than one viewing, something that was not always possible. This list, therefore, is not so much a "ten best" list of everything that was made in 1997 as "ten films and videos that I was able to see and made an impression on me in a single viewing."
Scott Stark, January 1998
"the vision machine" by Peggy Ahwesh (video,
color, sound, 20 minutes).
Peggy Ahwesh likes to have it both ways. Her films languish in the realm of the politically incorrect -- from pornography to drug abuse to child sexuality -- yet by playing under a set of broken rules she privileges us with a view of the incorrect from the inside out. In a culminating scene of "the vision machine," a group of young women crowds around a long table, last-supper-style, telling each other sexist jokes. More than just an I-can-say-bitch-and-you-can't bad girl rant, the subtle constructs of sexism's unacknowledged pleasure become alluring, yet noticeably dislodged. Ahwesh teaches us not to be afraid -- of sexism, for example -- but to recognize the things we fear about ourselves as complex manifestations of the human condition.
"Creosote" (video, black & white, sound,
42 minutes) by Eric
The lavish visual style of "Creosote" suggests that video, in its own way, can be as beautiful to look at as film. Richly varying textures, stop-action animation and multiple layering of diaphonous imagery and sound weave an elaborate tapestry of folklore, religious symbolism, toxic waste and personal transcendence. A loose narrative based on the true story of a young boy lost on a Boy Scout camping trip and never found is cross-referenced with the life of St. Francis. The narrative cascades between the contrived and the compelling, forging in the process an experience of the metaphysical in the midst of the ordinary of American culture.
"A Depression in the Bay of Bengal" by Mark LaPore
(16mm, color, sound, 28 minutes).
Mark LaPore's typically subtle observations of quotidian life in Sri Lanka are threatened by the brutal reality of ethnic war. As with his earlier work, LaPore allows each shot to develop its own identity, a private space upon which he carefully chooses not to intrude, but merely perceive. The bluntness of the socio-political resolution is both surprising and inescapably discomfiting.
"Flight" by Greta Snider (16mm, b/w, silent,
Greta Snider, perhaps best known for her raw, punk-inspired documentations of her life and the odd friends inhabiting it, took some of her late father's old photographic negatives and a few other of his objects into a darkroom and contact printed them onto raw 16mm black and white film stock. Not knowing what the result would be, and working in pitch darkness and total solitude, Snider has created her most surprisingly personal and poetic work to date. The result is a rhythmic and loving paean to the human desire to fly and to reach beyond the sky to heaven itself.
"For Daniel" by Ernie
Gehr (16mm, color, silent, 72 minutes).
In many ways "For Daniel" is like any home movie, a father's unabashed fascination for his first child and the compelling need to record each landmark movement of the child's life via the technology of the camera. Some may find it indulgent; yet when looked at in the context of Ernie Gehr's body of work spanning more than 30 years, the best elements are all there: a careful questioning of the perceptual process; the open-ended wonder of movement, light, color, texture and grain; and patient, non-intrusive attention to detail. Though perhaps not destined to be one of his most influential works, "For Daniel" is a beautiful and well-grounded piece of cinema, and its subtle innocence expands the boundaries of Gehr's field of vision.
"if you stand with your back to the slowing of the speed of
light in water" by Julie Murray (16mm, color, sound, 17 minutes).
Though found footage films have become bland and ubiquitous in the experimental film world, Julie Murray uses artful editing and inventive juxtapositions to make cliched images come alive with new possibilities. One has the sense that the ideas Murray explores could have been done more explicitly had Murray shot the images herself, yet she has somehow made images created by other people dance and twirl as if they were her own, discharging them by inference beyond the limits of her own personal will. Arcane and cerebral concepts such as "the influence of water touching water" and "[illuminating] a vital sense innate to perception" (J.M.) are executed with unexpected excerpts from almost familiar industrial, travel and educational films.
"Retrospectroscope" by Kerry Laitala (16mm, color,
silent, 4 minutes).
Kerry Laitala's love of the movie process gives rise to richly crafted and oddly unclassifiable imagery. Re-inventing an antique movie technology using a revolving glass disc, projected light and a sequence of early black and white images, and merging it with the later technology of 16mm film, "Retrospectroscope" pulls the moving image backward into a sense of wonder that is both nostalgic and strangely new.
"Textasy" (mixed media performance, 17 minutes)
and "Smoke" (super-8mm, color, sound, 24 minutes)
by Pelle Lowe.
Combining internet chat room sex with live commentary, excerpts from Greta Garbo and John Gilbert's romantic tete-a-tete in "Queen Christina," and video images of car headlights smoothly arcing across a darkened freeway, Pelle Lowe's "Textasy" reveals the nature of desire in the synthetic age as mysteriously rewarding and sadly frustrating. In Lowe's super-8 film "Smoke," seductively beautiful cloud formations turn out to be toxic factory emissions, while a series of intertitles with personal questions from employment applications locate the personal notion of individuality within the impersonal geography of the corporate sphere.
"Picture Window" by Steve Polta (Super 8mm ,
color, 2 channel sound, 12 minutes).
In the dying gasps of super-8 film technology's short life, Steve Polta's "Picture Window" is a rare and subtle affirmation of the purest of cinematic pleasures. Long sections of the film are in black, a grainy darkness surrounded by rich, ambient sounds in two-channel stereo, creating a mysterious cinematic space that is slowly, almost imperceptibly revealed. The images that the mind's eye creates during the process of revelation suggest the limitless power of the imagination.
"Trouble in the Image" by Pat O'Neill (35mm film,
color, sound, 38 minutes).
For many years Pat O'Neill has comfortably straddled the uncomfortable line between fine art film and commercial movie production. He's one of those rare individuals, perhaps the only individual, working within the film industry who has retained and nurtured his deep roots in experimental cinema. In recent years he has used professional-quality camera and optical printing equipment and his skills in special effects production to extrapolate metaphysical meaning from the ordinariness of industrialized culture. His previous film "Water and Power" was an odd special effects showpiece that stumbled admirably in its attempts to blend the worlds of art and commerce. In "Trouble in the Image," O'Neill brings it all together: sharp, glossy, perfectly rendered imagery with incongruous and imaginative juxtapositions of picture and sound, in playful, witty, sometimes provocative and always compelling ways.
"Lulu" by Lewis Klahr (16mm color, sound, 3 minutes), commissioned for a Danish opera, done in Klahr's signature style of cut-out animations with provocative metaphorical connotations.
"The Secret Story" by Janie Geiser (16mm, color, sound, 9 minutes), toy figures moving "through a landscape of domestic images and family illness... suggesting both the dark and the cathartic trajectories of the richest fairy tales." (JG)
"B/Side" by Abigail Child (16mm, b/w & color, sound, 38 minutes), a loose rendering of homelessness and intimacy.
"Yggdrasill Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind" by Stan Brakhage (16mm, color, silent, 18 minutes), a return to camera-made filmmaking by the master modernist.
"Pocket Cinema" by Gustav Dietsch; 100 miniature film devices containing 30 second super-8mm loops were passed through the audience for a period of one hour