Film

The Best Experimental Shorts at the Toronto International Film Festival

The festival’s vaunted Wavelengths section features films about different concepts of performance.

From John Torres’s We Still Have to Close Our Eyes (all images courtesy Toronto International Film Festival)

The Wavelengths section of the Toronto International Film Festival is a rare opportunity to catch the latest work from some of the most exciting experimental filmmakers working today, along with some restored gems. “Lives of Performers,” one of the four Wavelengths shorts programs, offers intensely personal pieces from both established and up-and-coming directors. All these films are performative in a loose sense. They are cued to the intensity of the personalities that power their stories — to their quirks, kaleidoscopic and/or diaristic visions, and in some ways to the inflections of genre in cinematic realism.

From Vever (for Barbara)

Deborah Stratman’s Vever (for Barbara) is a wistful tribute to Barbara Hammer, who passed away in March of this year. It consists of 12 minutes of footage that Hammer captured in Guatemala in the 1970s, mixed with a recording of a telephone conversation Stratman had with Hammer, in which she describes why she abandoned the film she was shooting. To this Stratman adds field recordings made by another experimental woman director, Maya Deren, who made films in Haiti in addition to the US. Hammer’s presence — the deep resonance of her rasp voice — is key to the film, as she throws in mentions of her impetuous decision to abandon California (and the woman she was with) to decamp for Guatemala. But she says the film she made there had neither a personal entry into the story nor a real political bite. Such a confession is not surprising, since Hammer was so passionately insistent on always starting with the self. Lines of text at times appear on the screen, either over the images or a black background, saying things like “What I Have Recorded … Reflects Not My Own Integrity … But That of the Reality That Mastered It.” Both Hammer and the notes interrogate the distinction between integrity and mastery — presenting the world versus questioning it. We learn the difference between looking for something (having preset intentions) and simply looking (being open to discovery and admitting failure).

The fact that Hammer shot the film in the “Third World” also comes into play. On the screen, Guatemalan women and men carry baskets and fruits and weave traditional fabrics, while small children play. What does it mean for a First World foreigner to claim any sort of truth about this world, and can it be done without imposing a framework? In Hammer and Stratman’s interrogation, integrity includes asking about the “I,” who presents whom, and whose entry point conduces us into a worldview. At the same time, Hammer’s quick train of thought and her wit keeps the conversation light. “I have to go! Bye!” she says at the end — a flash of impetuous energy, which here is also a poignant farewell.

From Book of Hours

Another intensely personal film in the program, Annie
MacDonell’s silent Book of Hours, is a delicately woven diary.
Fleeting domestic moments — such as caring for and changing a
baby — are interwoven with illustrations showing stars,
snowflake, rose-window and other ornamental patterns. The
roving camera at first takes in a home interior (a living room,
carpet, fireplace), as a female voice in the voiceover whispers
a poem, based on the book, Species of Space, by the French
writer George Perec, and playing on the word “space” (e.g
“interior space” “dead space” “space time continuum”).
Later these patterns mingle with images of a child’s naked
torso, children and adults’s hands at play, re-photographed clips
and images of dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s Lives
of Performers (1972), and more abstract images that playfully
shift between abstraction and artifacts of domesticity. In one
image, what looks like a geometric painting could also be a table;
in another, a line pattern on a bed sheet. A lithe choreography
emerges through these interconnections, an intimate communion
of bodies without words. In another moment, quickly flashing
patterns appear like a Big Bang of color, a powerful
combustion disrupting the intimate space continuum. In the
end, Book of Hours acts as a kind of spiritual guide through one’s day,
poised between harmony and chaos, and which expands
beyond the domestic space to include imaginary or intellectual
spaces. This is a kind of spirituality rooted in a physical sense of,
and delight in one’s surroundings, unlike the original medieval
breviaries (books of hours).

From Remembrance: A Portrait Study

Similarly delicate, although otherwise quite different, is Edward Owens’s recently restored 1967 short Remembrance: A Portrait Study. Owens, a queer Black filmmaker who was active in New American Cinema and a student of beloved experimental director Gregory Markopoulos, left behind a number of rarely screened 16mm films after his death in 2009. One of these was the quietly rapturous Remembrance. Owens superimposes the images of his mother, Mildred Owens, elegantly dressed with pearls and dramatic feathers around her neck, with those of her friends enjoying themselves at a bar. The imagery is steeped in darkness, and slowly yields its textures. Theatrical décor — a doll’s head with macabre splatters of blood on its face, like a Grand Guignol stage set, superimposed with drawings to look like a head of a Medusa — gives way to more familiar surroundings. We see a flash of an orange hoop earing, and then middle-aged women at a bar, smoking and laughing, their beer cans laid out before them. The film is steeped in the atmosphere of speakeasies, set to Arthur Harrington Gibbs’s “Runnin’ Wild, Lost Control!” and soul music. But there are also more cryptic personal flashes, such as an image of a young Black man (Owens himself?), his head in his hands, the hands dramatically amplified and the composition distorted by the proximity of the lens. The short melds intimacy and impenetrability with these portraits.

From Billy

Zachary Epcar’s Billy also plays with darkness and ambiguity, but to construct illusive scenarios that mesh reality and dreams. In the opening sequence, the 30-something Billy hears his parents’ voices as a flame flickers onscreen. “Nightmare?” Billy’s girlfriend asks him. It’s a mundane scene that’s undercut by her flatly delivered yet ominous assertion, “You know, they say if you hit the ground in your dream, you really die.” Tension builds with a loose stringing of events and fragmentary imagery: a mysterious package, a splash of paint (or blood?), a knife, but also coffee buds. It alternates between stark and banal. A woman’s deep voice saying “Billy, why are you doing this?” might be streaming in from a movie playing on TV. We never know exactly where we are in this deliberately loopy tale. Epcar revels in making prosaic settings strange. This is a home horror movie in which the true protagonist — a ghost, relentless stalker, and performer par excellence — is the camera.

Editor’s note, 9/6/19, 1:15 pm EST: This piece has been updated to reflect the most up-to-date information for “Book of Hours.” 

Wavelengths films will be playing throughout the Toronto International Film Festival, running 9/5-9/15. “Lives of Performers” will screen 9/9 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West, Toronto).

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