Chicago Reader

Onion City Film Festival

The Fourth Watch

The Onion City Film Festival, an annual showcase of avant-garde films, began in the late 80s and continued through 1998. This weekend Chicago Filmmakers revives the festival with six programs of short films and videos, showing at Columbia College Ferguson Theater, 600 S. Michigan; Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark; and Cinema Borealis, 1550 N. Milwaukee, fourth floor. Tickets are $7, $3 for members of Chicago Filmmakers. For information call 773-293-1447.

Friday, September 14
Saturday 9/15 | Sunday 9/16

Program 1
Curators Patrick Friel and Rebecca Meyers compiled this program as a festival sampler, and its 12 films and videos range from the lyrical Photograph of Wind, in which filmmaker Lynne Sachs tries to suspend in time a single movement of her daughter, to the abstract light patterns of Maia Cybelle Carpenter's Sans Titre. Three works rank with the festival's best: Peggy Ahwesh's She Puppet uses images from the video game Tomb Raider, the fast-moving heroine swimming underwater and fleeing desert vultures; making the game a passive experience foregrounds the utterly mechanical yet strangely seductive digital animation. Harking back to John Cage with its focus on disregarded random patterns, Luis Recoder's Space consists entirely of white dots punctuating a black field, with static on the sound track; twinkling like stars, the dots are just as engaging as Tomb Raider in their way. Thomas Draschan and Ulrich Wiesner use found footage to construct Metropolis of Carelessness (2000), in which rapidly intercut images (sex, flying saucers, a projector being threaded) seem to collide or tear at each other in a way that suggests a world disintegrating. On the same program: work by Joe Gibbons, Pierre Yves Clouin, Takashi Ishida, S. Barber, Rebecca Reynolds, and Naomi Uman, as well as a film-performance piece by Recoder. 92 min. (Fred Camper) (Columbia College Ferguson Theater, 7:00)

Program 2
Anne Olson's Akin (2000) is a slightly creepy vignette in which a mother, sleeping in the same room as her daughter, sees her touching herself, her hand atop her bedsheet. In Dietmar Brehm's Blitze (1999) a man who appears to be dreaming conjures up images of lightning and a woman dressing. And in Julianne Flynn's exquisite and mysteriously evocative Nectar, suggestive single words ("tracks") are superimposed over images of tree branches set against an out-of-focus background of stained glass. The longest film, Steve Hawley's Love Under Mercury (2000), is only partly effective in its treatment of mercury poisoning; conceptually muddled, it relies too heavily on spoken texts, never marrying them to the images well enough to create the appropriate sense of revulsion. Also showing: work by John Smith, Keith Sanborn, and Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby. 74 min. (Fred Camper) (Columbia College Ferguson Theater, 9:15)

Saturday, September 15
Friday 9/14 | Sunday 9/16

Program 3
Snow falling on abandoned furniture in the street creates a forlorn landscape in Vincent Grenier's Winter Collection (2000), and in Gary Abugan and Matthew Didemus's equally bleak 8-Bit Motorway fuzzy images of lampposts and traffic are punctuated by vertical bands, fusing video dislocation with suburban sprawl. The best piece on the program is Catherine Webster's landscape of rural Scotland, Crofter's Red Coat (2000), in which glimpses of objects like a red rain bucket set between rocks are made all the more intense through their brevity. James Fotopoulos's more abstract The Circle I begins with white scratches on black; a superimposed gray rectangle refers to the film image, and when overexposed street scenes appear, the recurring quadrilateral reminds us that all imagery is conjured. Also showing: work by Julie Murray, Paul Chan, Sueoka Ichiro, Shiho Kano, Thomas Steiner, Robbie Land, Brian Frye, Yukio Matsuyama, and John Smith and Ian Bourn. 77 min. (Fred Camper) (Chicago Filmmakers, 7:00)

Program 4
All five of these films and videos are compelling in parts, though none has the sense of inevitability that characterizes a masterpiece. Barbara Sternberg's densely edited Like a Dream That Vanishes (2000) includes trees, a runner, and Niagara Falls, but most interesting are its scenes of a man talking about philosophy and "wonder" to suggest ways of understanding the film's diverse material. Peter Rose's The Darkening (2000) is distinguished by its striking, exaggerated noir lighting; Alfred Guzzetti's The Tower of Industrial Life (2000) is a dystopian ramble named for an office building seen at the end; and at one point in Andrea Leuteneker's The Bear Garden (2000), the screen erupts in abstracted flames. Also showing: Postcard to Oz, a video by Richard Koenig. 84 min. (Fred Camper) (Chicago Filmmakers, 9:30)

Sunday, September 16
Friday 9/14 | Saturday 9/15

Program 5
See Critic's Choice. (Cinema Borealis, 7:00)

Program 6
Meditative rather than slow, Shiho Kano's beautiful Rocking Chair (2000) is composed of long takes, such as one of a woman's feet as she sits in the title chair; minuscule movements of a curtain's edge have never seemed more compelling. In S. Barber's France vs. Spain a nude woman in a featureless white space performs kitchen tasks in pantomime, her repetitive, anonymous movements recalling Chantal Akerman's very different Jeanne Dielman. Sandra Gibson's Soundings (2000) progresses from abstract scratching on celluloid to representational imagery, implying that she views narrative filmmaking as more evolved than abstraction -- not the view of Steve Polta, whose Minnesota Landscape (2000) directs our attention to the tiniest variations of darkness. On the same program: films by Kerry Laitala, Michael Gitlin, Brian Frye, and Chris Gehman and Roberto Ariganello, as well as two film-performance pieces by Luis Recoder. 90 min. (Fred Camper) (Cinema Borealis, 9:15)

Critic's Choice
Program 5
The Fourth Watch (2000) is the finest movie to date by puppet artist and filmmaker Janie Geiser. Silent-movie actors filmed off a video monitor are superimposed on the interior of a dollhouse, their flickering images so expertly fused with the miniature rooms' bright, solid colors that their ominous presence in these fragile spaces evokes both the power of theater and the lost world of silent film. In Nadja, Brian Frye presents in color negative the image of a woman that film labs use as a test, unexpectedly humanizing the anonymous model so that she seems to speak to the viewer. The intensely hypnotic Angel Beach was created from stereoscopic photographs of people on the beach circa 1970. Filmmaker Scott Stark intercuts the stereo images so rapidly that objects appear to vibrate around a static point; in one scene a woman's breasts jiggle with a suggestiveness that trumps any porn film. On the same program: films by Louise Bourque, Diane Kitchen, Vanessa O'Neill, Ian Toews, Brandon Doherty, and Joost Rekveld. 92 min. Cinema Borealis, Sunday, September 16, 7:00. -- Fred Camper

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