Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Images 2013: Reviews #2

Reviews of screenings from the The 26th Annual Images Festival, Toronto, Canada.

A Memory Lasts Forever: Althea Thauberger

The festival's 2013 Canadian Artist Spotlight featured the work of Vancouver-based Althea Thauberger, with this program presenting a retrospective of some of her film work. It's useful to know that Thauberger comes from a photography background, and though in the Q&A she was ambivalent about being associated with the "Vancouver School" (or, more particularly, perhaps ambivalent if there even was such a thing) it does provide context to think of her works as arising from a similar place as, say, Jeff Wall's large-format backlit photographs. In fact, most of the works in this retrospective were conceptualized as gallery installation pieces, and Thauberger's formal concerns tie in with the static nature of photography.

Primary among these is an intense interest in the cinematic idea of "the take", with most of the works subverting the traditional filmic grammar of compressing time by presenting it a linear/unedited fashion — several of these works were conceived as single-shots lasting for the length of a roll of film. Thauberger also subverts cinematic notions of authorship (or auteurship) in her insistence on collaborative practice, with the best of these works developed in tandem with their participants — which itself also challenges idea of "documentary" presentation.

That said, the first works here (conceived as student projects) didn't particularly engage me. Self-portraits not afraid to die (Dir: Althea Thauberger. Canada, 2001 Video, 6 min.) and Oh Canada (Dir: Althea Thauberger. Canada, 2001. Video, 4 min.) felt a little too slight without anything to hook them into the world outside the frame. For example the latter — showing Thauberger striding across a lecture hall, singing the national anthem, and exiting — doesn't particularly register as a commentary on post-9/11 xenophobia and colonialism unless you had some curator's notes to tell you so.

On the other hand, A Memory Lasts Forever (Dir: Althea Thauberger. Canada, 2004. Video, 31 min.), which gave the program its title, manages to create its own world to exist in. The source material here is an incident from Thauberger's own teenage years brought to life — four times — by a quartet of musical theatre students. It's the repetition that engages here, with each of the actors in the drunken, post-party group taking a turn at the lead in a telling of the story of an unexpected swimming pool discovery, and then breaking into song. The staged feeling of the visuals (again recalling those frozen-in-time too-real Vancouver School photographs) and the vacuousness of the songs gave this a heightened, stylized feeling — a hermetically-sealed moment clashing with the scene's sequential re-occurrence.

Northern (Dir: Althea Thauberger. Canada, 2005. Video, 8 min.) borrowed the most from the visual language of mainstream cinema, structured around an elaborate, continuous tracking shot. A row of collapsed bodies against the backdrop of a forest clearcut might be a metaphor for the environmental overreach of the forestry industry, but a deus ex machina provides a sense of rescue — or possibly of messianic intervention.

Zivildienst ≠ Kunstproject (Dir: Althea Thauberger. Germany, 2006. Video, 18 min.) again suggested a heightened, staged version on reality in an extended allegory. Created in collaboration with a group of conscientious objectors from compulsory military service, this hints at both modern dance (in the flowing movements) and silent film (in the use of intertitles) as the participants re-enact various outcomes of group dynamics under confinement. Set on a multi-level scaffolding in a large, ornate room, this is "abstracted" more from reality than the other pieces — and in worrying less about calling attention to its duration through that concern with "the take", felt perhaps to be the most watchable of the bunch.

Msaskok (Dir: Althea Thauberger. Canada, 2012. Video, 6 min.) is set in a theatre symbolically set on the frontier between Québec and Vermont — but the notion of the theatre's between-nations status lies uneasily with the fact that both straddle a much older contiguous territory. This piece observes a recitation in the Abenaki language by Monique Nolette-Ille, one of its last fluent speakers. She is perched on the balcony and the audience on the stage and they sit — impassive, fidgeting — as the untranslated words wash over them. This felt more like a work-in-progress, and afterwards Thauberger commented it may yet emerge as a two-screen installation work. Having these two solitudes facing each other in continuous shots would definitely heighten the feelings of spectatorship and alienation aroused here.

Curated Program: Sleight of Hand

From its outset, film was about wonderment as much as narrative, and this program featured the close observation of the mundane that the first film-makers employed — but also some amusing détourements of that reality. In that regard, Torque (Dir: Björn Kämmerer. Austria, 2013. 35mm, 7 min.) was an apt opener, feeling like both a distant descendant and the visual inversion of the arrival of the Lumières' train. A continuous shot set on a train turntable, we witness track after track extending in front of us — and a subtle tilt move means it never quite repeats as we circle round again.

The middle section could be summed up by the title of Ten Minutiae (Dir: Peter Miller. Austria, 2012. 35mm, 5 min.), each film giving us a closeup, this one to invest some beauty in the mundane. Early Figure (Dir: Brian Virostek. Canada, 2012. 35mm, 9 min.) does something similar, crashing chords adding drama to close-up shots of a piano's component parts, while Sugar Beach (Dir: Mark Loeser. Canada, 2011. 35mm, 4 min.) gave a deconstructed view of that Toronto landmark, multiple partial exposures overlapped to give the effect of a team of drunken telescope users trying to comprehend the whole of the scene that they can only see in fragments. Best of this stretch was Passage Upon the Plume (Dir: Fern Silva. USA, 2011. 16mm, 7 min.), a silent travelogue whose close-up decontextualization rendered the stately grace of passenger balloons as mysterious interlopers in the landscape.

After those, the jostling throng in Stone (Dir: Kevin Jerome Everson. USA, 2013. Video, 12 min.) felt like a welcome relief from abstraction. Situating the viewer right in the middle of a crowd, this slice of pure verité presented a quite literal sleight of hand in its observation of a hustler working a crowd with a variation of the age-old shell game. Bright, funky and energetic, this serves as a reminder that sometimes the best tricks are the simplest ones.

That did a nice job of setting up Maître-Vent (Dir: Simon Quéhiellard. France, 2012. Video, 22 min.), the longest (and best) piece in the program. An ode to wind, child-like experimentation, failure and entropy, the film presents us with a roadside figure in a Hulot-like hat setting up found-item assemblages as traffic zips by. The projects (made of cardboard boxes, tubes, plastic bags and the like) sometimes quickly collapse, leaving a sense of Wile E Coyote-ish frustration. But sometimes they work in unexpectedly elegant ways and provoke wonderment. Filled with genuine humour (and showing how simple it is to invest anthropomorphic qualities in even, say, plastic bags yearning to be free) this works as a tribute to classic silent-film slapstick. There are layers beyond this, too — the film is broken into sections named after various kinds of winds, for example, prompting us to think of a time when we were more closely tied to the various aspects of nature. Definitely worth seeking out.

After that, the brief addy CHOO (Dir: JB Mabe. USA, 2013. 16mm, 2 min.) a quick, abstract remembrance of a funeral, didn't register very strongly, but on the whole, this was a well-selected program.

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