Review: The Observers – Images 2012

The hauntingly desolate summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire is the main character of  this beautiful, near-silent portrait of a remote weather station where wind speeds and temperature have been recorded for decades. The two women who work as the station’s summer and winter observers go about their routines (which are similar, except that one does it in completely frozen conditions), silently taking readings and measurements, walking across a striking, barren landscape that seems to grudgingly tolerate their presence. The observatory’s own website bills it as the place with the “world’s worst weather”, if that’s any indication of the difficult conditions these observers must face daily. Their total alone-ness would almost feel claustrophobic if they weren’t in the vastest looking place on earth, complete with floor to ceiling windows overlooking an endless sky.When, at least halfway through the film, the silence is broken and we actually hear one of the women’s voices, it sounds almost like an intrusion into the idyllic solitude and total quiet of the location. Quiet except for the omnipresent sound of the wind, that is.

While the titular observers from The Observers undoubtedly don’t spend their stints at the weather station completely in isolation and without a single other human being present, but that is how they are shown in the film. Or perhaps they do go about their business totally alone (which makes it all the more incredible that they don’t go insane, especially during the long winter months). The film doesn’t explain the circumstances of their lives, only selectively shows moments – a woman doing sit-ups, walking across an icy hill, looking at computer readouts of the data they’re collecting, and so on.

There is an incredible sense of stillness and yes, even of nearly self-annihilating  boredom, in   The Observers , which director Jackie Goss somehow manages to make  seem alluring. At some point during the “summer” sequences, a scene that shows families visiting the summit makes the vacationers seem like they’re intruding, like rowdy kids racing through a monastic retreat.  There is a poignant futility to the job these weather observers do, a point that Goss makes while keeping her camera’s trained eye as unobtrusive as possible, always in the room, but never in anyone’s way. If you’ve ever wondered whether the hermit’s life was for you, how watching The Observers makes you feel might yield a true answer to the question.

The Observers screens as part of the Images Festival on April 14th 2012 at 7:00 pm at the AGO’s Jackman Hall. For more information, visit the Images website.

Review: Memorie Di Uno Smemorato – Images Festival 2012

Memorie Di Uno Smemorato is a film programme curated by Erik Martinson and plays as though the filmmakers were given only the title and went off on their own. Watching it requires a schism from your understanding of time and ignoring your desire to have everything explained in your language. Of the six productions, four contain verbal communication but instead of describing emotion or thought, they harmonize with the visuals.

The first in the series Laida Lertxundi’s   Llora Cuando Te Pase (Cry When It Happens)  opens the programme with a distant, emotional resonance. Is it about the fallout, the moving on, or the desolate space in between? A small television trapped in a constant loop of blue skies serves as the only constant. An accordion player, fumbles some chords before you realize the chords backup The Blue Rondos song “Little Baby” – playing as a longing theme to the impossible sky.

Insideout by Tonje Alice Madsen put together the most personal and disconnected YouTube diaries to form a single narrative. At first, they seem random. A woman taping surfers. A young man moving in with his grandmother to avoid homelessness in Canada. But what can easily and cynically put aside as irrelevant or pretentious begins to grow into something moving. These are the revelations of people reaching out.  A man contemplating his disconnection, assured it is not depression. A boy pleas for forgiveness. The truly moving final entry before the epilogue makes the journey worth it.

Mike Gibisser’s   Second Law: S. Leh Street commences with the word “entropy.” An elderly woman talks about how she lives day to day, looking up coupons in the newspaper. An automatic chair comes to live, lifting itself up, as if to push someone out of the seat. Heating elements on the stove turn a blistering red. The most terrifying aspect of solitude comes in the form of a test call to the Red Cross emergency line, in the waiting for a response.

Maki Satake’s Omokage (Remains) could have been the coolest commercial for Canon cameras, but stands as a labour of love from a photographer to her grandfather. She relives old photographs he had taken of her, revisiting the old sites, but stands in both his place and her own, with a small mirror capturing her.

The Forgetting of Proper Names by Agnieszka Polska pairs Freud’s lecture of the same name with incomplete images. Boots stomp in mud with no legs to guide them. Sheet music gets tangled in an inconsistent wind while the narrator muses on new, incorrect names forcing themselves into our minds in place of the forgotten ones.

The final piece,  Agatha by Beatrice Gibson, follows a narrator visiting a planet not dissimilar to our own. A poetic documentary, akin to what you would expect if David Attenborough spent a month living with the Magnetic Zeros and CocoRosie in the British Countryside, while the narrator interprets the communication of two of its members based on movement, expressive colour, and music.

By the end of the programme, Memorie Di Uno Smemorato  has taken you on a unexpected journey. Perhaps you don’t know why a television in the darkness can move you to tears, but it will. Once language is removed, our memories become primal, and things we’ve taken for granted we come to rely on.

Memorie Di Uno Smemorato  plays at 9:15pm Monday, April 16 at Jackman Hall as part of the Images Festival. Check their website for details, showtime and ticket prices.

Review: The Nine Muses – Images Festival 2012

The Nine Muses is epic – and I like that. Opening this year’s Images Festival, John Akomfrah’s visual ode to transatlantic migration buries itself deep in the psyche, probing and agitating. And that’s exactly the way a film festival should be opened.

As last year’s mega-art film The Tree of Life proved, the epic doesn’t need to be about massive, ridiculous battle scenes and generic english accents – it can be about a Texan family in the ’50s. Or, as Akomfrah demonstrates, it can express the experience and treatment of coloured citizens in the United Kingdom. After watching The Nine Muses , I felt a profound compassion for another person’s experience. Epic.

Continue reading Review: The Nine Muses – Images Festival 2012

Review: Breaking the Frame – Images Festival 2012

The Images Festival opens on Thursday April 12, but in the days and weeks preceding the fest, they’ve hosted some very interesting events, including a screening of Marielle Nitoslawska’s   Breaking the Frame , a documentary about mutli-disciplinary artist (and kick-ass feminist) Carolee Schneemann, whose work has been reshaping the discourse on gender, sexuality and the (female) body since the 1960s.

Carolee Schneeman uses her own body (as well as others’) to delve into issues of sexuality, eroticism, taboo, and her often explicit work has caused immense discomfort within the male-dominated art world she came of age in as an artist. A particular favourite of mine is her 1975 performance, Interior Scroll , in which she stood naked and muddy on a table, slowly extracting a paper scroll from her vagina and reading it to the audience.

Disarmingly funny, honest and sharp in her insights not only into her own work but into the wild, experimental (and often pretty sexist) ’60s art scene she was a part of, Carolee reflects on a lifetime of challenging art practice.

Director  Marielle Nitoslawska lets the narrative meander, lingering with her camera on individual artworks, letting Carolee tell a particularly interesting story about working with Stan Brakhage  (he was one of her best pals) or talk about staying with  Yves Klein‘s widow in Paris, or just talk about  her beloved cats. Chronology isn’t important, and the work and the personality of the artist make for an incredibly engaging viewing experience.

In the film’s opening moments, Carolee is shown with a decapitated chipmunk on a plate. She points out the (she thinks female) creature’s head, and kindly disposes of the body while making loving reference to the killer (her fluffy but deadly pet cat). In the film’s final scenes, Carolee prepares for an exhibition of Infinity Kisses , a series of self-shot photographs from 1981-88 that depict her sharing intimate kisses with a cat. The work is funny, disturbing, and much like everything Carolee Schneemann creates, difficult to stop thinking about – a perfect bookend to the documentary.

What’s great about Breaking the Frame is that it’s a profile of a living, working artist who is available not only to reflect and comment on a lifetime of work, but whose work is still incredibly relevant to the discourse of feminism, sexuality and identity, in some cases (as with the incredible Meat Joy , one of Schneemann’s “greatest hits”, a performance from 1964 in which a group of mostly naked bodies writhed with raw fish, chicken, sausages, paint, and miscellaneous debris) nearly  50 years after it was created. It’s  a great portrait of a woman whose work should be more widely known.

The Images Festival runs April 12 – 21. Check the website for more details.

Review: A Letter to the Living – Images Festival 2012

Leave it to the 25th edition of the esteemed cultural force that is the Images Festival to celebrate their birthday by turning morbid. On your anniversary, why celebrate life when you could highlight the myriad atrocities and sufferings of death? This, among many other reasons, is why Images remains a daring and entertainingly obstructionist annual event.

A Letter to the Living , one of Images’ shorts programs which screens on April 17th, is comprised of short films about — you guessed it — death. Implicit in the program’s very title is that some cryptic message from beyond the grave is being deciphered by these films. And while they may not offer final uncontested answers, they do provoke not only the conventions of life and being alive, but the conventions of filmmaking themselves.

S.T.T.L. (Elizabeth Smolnarz) is nothing short of an assault. The blunt vapidity of a public laundromat is contrasted with a raw personal account of death by cancer. Starting the program off this way cannot fail to capture the audience’s attention, and perhaps the next short, Evan Meaney’s The Well of Representation, serves to offset the jarring experience that precedes it. Meaney’s piece begins as a charming and strange 16-bit video game whose visuals begin to corrode as the winding narrative meditates on what happens to love after death. Soon, though, this quirky experiment surprises with a slowly-built momentum of powerful emotion; by the end, I could have cried, both for dead love and for dead media.

Travis Shilling’s Algonquin is narratively and emotionally surging, but visually unremarkable, and this may be a significant shortcoming in a festival called, well, “Images.” The ghostly portrait of a reincarnated wolf/man surrounded by trees changes little over the piece’s 4-minute running time. Sure, avant-gardists are known for conducting cruel “experiments in duration”, but this time, I just plain wasn’t up for it.

The next short, To Mark the Shape (JB Mabe), plays with our preconceived notions of “vintage” footage (all the more warped by Instagram et al ). A peaceful horse-dotted meadow is shot with expired film stock for that “old” look; suddenly, a car drives by in the background. What do we make of it?

Hoof, Tooth & Claw (Chu-Li Shewring, Adam Gutch) is what some call an “experimental documentary”: the piece follows 86-year-old farmer Betty French as she lives a hermetic and, at times, entirely disordered life until the ministry of agriculture intervenes. For brevity, I’d describe it as Grey Gardens meets Temple Grandin.

Finally, Lindsay McIntyre’s where she stood in the first place is an absolutely stunning and stark portrait of Baker Lake, Nunavut, the geographical centre of Canada. Shot in black and white 16mm, the footage is grainy yet sharp in that recognizable and soothing way that only black and white 16mm can be.

One cannot help but ruminate on the cultural and technological “death” of such media as Meaney’s 16-bit videogame and McIntyre’s 16mm film stock in parallel to the more conventional definition of death. In any case, as usual, the Images Festival provides much subject matter for lively discussion and critical thought.

The Images Festival runs April 12-21. For more information, check the  Festival website.

Review: A Place in the World – Images Festival 2012

A Place in the World   is a compilation of four short films each exploring the theme of environment. They are drastically different from one another, but each manages to capture the theme of this programme perfectly in its own unique way.

It begins with the dizzying Portrait De La Place Ville Marie . The longer you stare at large structures ““ especially modernist office towers ““ the more abstract they tend to become. The director gives movement to otherwise static structures, which allows them to be seen as something entirely new.

After this we move onto darker fare with East Hastings Pharmacy . We are shown the day-to-day operations of a methadone clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. At first we see the clinic through the perspective of the pharmacist who is separated from the clinic’s patrons by a plexiglass barrier. The viewer can sense her anxiety, which is barely there, but still palpable. It is obvious that the job has become routine for her, but it is obviously not without its daily challenges. It is fascinating to watch her dispense the brightly coloured liquid methadone (electric blue, orange and a cola brown) to each patient. After downing their prescribed dose each patient is handed two lollipops to take the bitter taste of the medicine away. This short could have been trite in the oeuvre of trashy reality TV therapy shows, but instead it is a subtle and elegantly shot portrait of a world seldom glimpsed by outsiders. Although it is at times painful to watch due to the staggering physical decay caused by heroin abuse, it nonetheless maintains the dignity of its subjects rather than exploiting them for shock value.

Third Law: N. Kedzie Blvd . is a meditation on the passage of time as demonstrated by the fluctuations in weather and change of season. It focuses on a house, which is the only thing that remains unchanged, seemingly abandoned with old photos on the walls of people long gone.

The Home and the World is the final film in this programme, and it looks at the lives of disabled adults who live in a long-term care facility in rural England. Their interactions with their environment, indoors and outdoors, are completely defined by the structure of routine. Because it is a care facility and not a private home, each day is meticulously planned to provide a variety of stimulating activities to its residents. We see them take sailing trips, go horseback riding, help plant a garden and engage in art lessons. This film is not about making statements, but rather quietly observing people and their interactions with their environment.

The Canadian premiere of A Place in the World screens Monday, April 16 at 7:00 pm as part of the 2012 Images Festival.

Review: The Strawberry Tree – Images 2012

Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s El árbol de las fresas ( The Strawberry Tree ), opens with four people laughing as they recount the complete destruction of their hometown of  Juan Antonio, by hurricane. There’s no punchline, and it’s not a joke. The remote village Cuba’s North Eastern coast really was completely wiped out only a few weeks after Rapisarda Casanova  completed filming on his documentary about the lives of its inhabitants. And yet, the four former neighbours are able to find some levity in the situation, as they talk about how life was better there. At the end of this scene, we’re transported back in time a few months, into the middle of an ordinary day in the peaceful village.

The camera remains low to the ground throughout the film, so that animals are in full frame, but people are often only visible from the waist down, unless they’re crouching (as they often are, while cutting the edible meat out of a conch, grinding coffee, or resourcefully fixing a flat tire with a condom). Goats are fed, and slaughtered. Nets are mended and fish are caught. The inhabitants of Juan Antonio are an incredibly jovial, smart bunch, casually making insightful observations and funny jokes as they go about their daily business, unaware as yet that their homes will soon disappear.

The subjects of the doc seem to be amused by Rapisarda Casanova, alternately teasing him (“Simone, it took you too long to set up” says a woman while cutting plantains, and tells him that she won’t cut more just for the camera, only to throw them away) or genially ignoring the camera and going about their lives. The grainy, bleached-out look of the film enhances the feeling of a hot, dry, windy place, and one can imagine a relatively unobtrusive digital camera lurking like one of the many dogs, pigs and goats that roam freely through the landscape.

An omnipresent windmill whirs manically in the background of many shots, increasingly ominous because we’ve already heard, in the film’s opening scenes, that the town is eventually wiped out by a massive hurricane. The high winds and approaching storm aren’t mentioned, because this isn’t a story about destruction.  While the inescapable reality of the hurricane is difficult to stop thinking about, the film’s tone is not one of pathos for what is eventually lost. Instead,  Rapisarda Casanova celebrates the idyllic simplicity and profound richness of village life, capturing it forever in his film.

The Strawberry Tree screens on April 20, 2012 at 7:00 pm at the AGO’s Jackman Hall. For more information, visit the Images Festival website.

Images Festival 2012 comes to town

North America’s largest festival for experimental film, Toronto’s Image Festival, is having its 25th anniversary this year! And they have 10 days, 88 films and videos, 26 installations, and 5 live performances with which to celebrate, beginning on Thursday, April 12. There’s lots of interesting and unique works on offer for viewers looking for something a little more thought-provoking than your usual cinema fare. Continue reading Images Festival 2012 comes to town

Review: Radical Recess: A Screening of Avant Garde Films for Children! – Images 2011

Radical Recess: A Screening of Avant Garde Films for Children! is screening Saturday, April 9th at noon, the NFB Mediatheque (150 John St. At Richmond St. W). A series of short films for children of all ages presented as part of the Images Festival. Continue reading Review: Radical Recess: A Screening of Avant Garde Films for Children! – Images 2011

Images Festival 2011 Line-Up Announced

Guys, I’m super bummed. The Images Festival‘s line-up looks amazing this year and I can’t go! I’ll be out of town. So, do me a favour and don’t miss it.

The Images Festival is North America’s largest experimental and avant-garde festival of moving images and the culture that surrounds them. This is the 24th annual iteration of the fest, and its even fuller than usual with amazing screenings, installations, artist talks, and live performances. You can look at the full calendar with dates, times, and descriptions here, and you can download a pdf of the calendar on their site too, but let me just give you a quick run-down of the highlights. It runs from March 31st to April 9th.

The festival’s opening night will screen Hamilton filmmaker Luo Li’s sophomore feature Rivers and My Father at The Royal. Li’s debut, I Went to the Zoo the Other Day , screened last year at Images to great critical and audience acclaim. During the festival’s ten days of programming, you can see a spotlight on Canadian artist James MacSwain , an east coast filmmaker who has been producing work for more than 30 years; a live performance by film archivist Andrew Lampert; a retrospective of alternative film and video in the San Francisco bay Area (“Radical Light”); a variety of artists talks with the likes of John Gianvito, James MacSwain and Steve Reinke, Deborah Stratman, Alexi Manis, and Malena Szlam (and there’s free pie at the artist talks, guys); and the usual thematically-compiled and thoughtfully-curated programs of short films and videos, such as “Reconsidering the New”, a program that meditates on the passing of time marked by technologies and ways of perceiving their effects, and features the work of Judy Fiskin, among others.

If you can believe it, I’ve only just listed like one one-hundredth or maybe even one-thousandth of the stuff going on at Images this year. Only a thorough (and guaranteed pleasurable) perusal of their catalogue can really give you an idea of the breadth and depth of the art being shown. Oh, and on more thing: the festival’s closing night features a live musical performance by Toronto punk / hardcore band Fucked Up, winners of the 2009 Polaris Music Prize, which will accompany a screening of the 1928 silent Lon Chaney film West of Zanzibar . I am seriously drooling just thinking about how fun and amazing this will be!

Hope you can make it.

2010 Images Festival Wraps Up With Awards

Not content with showcasing some of the finest examples of contemporary moving image culture, the Images Festival supports artists and their work with a post-festival distribution of awards, all with prizes sponsored both by Images and other generous community donors. Festival Executive Director Scott Miller Berry hosted the awards ceremony. What follows are just a few of the many talented and deserving winners.

Continue reading 2010 Images Festival Wraps Up With Awards

Review: Live Images 4 – Images Festival

So, my ten-day-long foray into the world of contemporary moving image culture has been nothing short of fascinating, both for the unusual and thought-provoking things I’ve seen, as well as for the tons of cool people I’ve met. The adventure continued last Wednesday night with a program of short films and videos curated by Oliver Husain and Kathleen M. Smith, titled curiously: Revenge of the Theory Persons, or Don’t Just Sit There, Gentle Presence. Continue reading Review: Live Images 4 – Images Festival

Review: “No Images” – Images 2010

The Images festival, renowned for its annual presentation of contemporary moving image culture, decided to go against its very name and nature by offering a sound performance presented in complete darkness last Tuesday night at the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall. The event, titled simply “No Images”, featured a variety of well-known interdisciplinary artists like Alex Snukal, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Alexis O’Hara, and Annie MacDonnel putting together sound-based performance pieces. The Innis Town Hall theatre was plunged into complete darkness (and I mean your eyes will never adjust because there’s absolutely no light to adjust to ) and ushers led audience members in with small flashlights on the aisle steps. The idea here is that the lack of a visual sense heightens and changes the experience of one’s auditory senses, and causes the brain to seek out cues which would normally pass unnoticed. What is aimed at is a whole new kind of sensory experience. Continue reading Review: “No Images” – Images 2010

Review: Untitled Seven – Images 2010

You know how kids ask “where do babies come from?” I always find myself asking “where do pictures come from?” Usually, tech-enthusiasts are the only ones drooling over image-making equipment, but have we ever really thought about the peculiar character of these strange little machines that bring us photos, slides, videos, and films? Who are they? What do they want? How do they feel? What do they think about when they fall asleep at night? Do they dream? If they could talk, what would they say? Continue reading Review: Untitled Seven – Images 2010

Review: An Evening With Ross McLaren at the 2010 Images Festival

If you’ve ever attended a screening or event at the Images Festival, you’ll know that its about so much more than just the films. The atmosphere and the people totally make the experience what it is. If you’ve never attended an Images event, you should start now (the festival began on April 1st this year and runs until the 10th).

This year’s Canadian Artist Spotlight is on experimental filmmaker Ross McLaren, who famously ditched Canada more than two decades ago, and currently resides in Brooklyn, where he makes films and teaches filmmaking practice. McLaren’s films are, in the notorious tradition of the avant-garde, anything but swallowable or easy to follow. Of course, you always hear that experimental films, if you give them enough time and patience, will somehow magically “reward” you. What follows is a breakdown of my Friday night with Ross McLaren and his films. Was I “rewarded”? Infinitely. Continue reading Review: An Evening With Ross McLaren at the 2010 Images Festival