A Blistering Light at Crossroads Film Festival


‘The Sea Seeks Its Own Level’

San Francisco’s Crossroads, now in its fifth year, seems to go from strength to strength. However, unlike longer-running and somewhat better established festivals of avant-garde and experimental media, Crossroads is not a festival with an immediately apparent specialty or (in today’s grim parlance) a “brand.” Some festivals are known for promoting this or that kind of experimental film and filmmaker. Crossroads, I’m pleased to say, is not only a marvelous and wide-ranging film and video festival; under the stewardship of Artistic Director Steve Polta, it has evolved into a vital one for those of us hoping to keep abreast of new directions in the field. It’s also a realm of improbable discovery and surprise. You are likely to find the films you love, as well as the films you have not yet learned to like.

Crossroads is neither a reserved, well-behaved showcase nor a willfully punkish, “underground” affair. The experimental film universe knows quite well how to accommodate one type of event or the other. By contrast, this is a festival that collides not only “worlds” but also stylistic ontologies. To further rock this particular boat, no real issue was made of the fact that Silent & Stately rubbed shoulders with Punked Up & Pixelated. This absence of proper brand awareness is something a bit more than just left-liberal sheepishness typical of my old Bay Area stomping grounds. Instead, it’s borne of a recognition that Crossroads isn’t a “brand;” it’s a bomb.

Here we have a festival in San Francisco whose name is not just advertising formal junctions (film/video, old/new, narrative/poetic, abstract/representational). Crossroads is the title of a 1976 film by Bay Area legend Bruce Conner. It’s Conner’s longest film, comprised of slo-mo images of nuclear test detonations at Bikini Atoll. Mushroom cloud after mushroom cloud, Crossroads represents not only the start of the nuclear age but the blowing away of all prior human epistemology. Seen in terms of the promises of avant-garde film, Crossroads presumably aims to eliminate the concept of “avant-garde” as a known quantity or genre, like the horror film or the rom-com. This was once an unthinkable proposition, but it’s a place where 21st-century film culture has indeed delivered us. (We know how to make an “experimental film,” in various idioms.)

This is a tall order—not to destabilize or deconstruct the structures that give shape to an area of inquiry, but to pull out the scaffolds in the hope that the rubble will fall into patterns appreciable, if not by those of us buried beneath, than perhaps by some distant future observer. This is the crux of the thing: we don’t know what we’re seeing right away. One of the benefits that I have discovered in recent years, and particularly this year (when I have had more of a luxury to dive headlong into Crossroads’ programming, rather than dabble) is that Polta’s curatorial vision has a logic to it that frequently confounds me until much later in the game. His programs and, in fact, the Crossroads festival as an enterprise, often appears as if it’s coming unglued. There are stunning works, masterpieces even, followed up by short, messy, discombobulated video gleets that contravene my basic sense of artistic propriety. Dirty, chewed-up whatsits butt up against promising but still-exploratory student work, and we bear witness as very young artists grab every last test tube in the lab, emptying them into one muddy reagent in hopes (or fear?) of producing some potent fume to melt the goggles.



And so, kicking it all off, Nathaniel Dorsky. Why not? (I have already written about the first two Dorsky films screening at the festival; his newest work, Summer, is a world premiere which I sadly have not seen. Several other films that screened at Crossroads were Bay Area premieres of relatively known quantities, such as Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s complex, symphonically organized A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (which the Bens are also world premiering as a three-channel installation); Deborah Stratman’s rigorous, righteous Hacked Circuit; and frighteningly gifted young Canadian John-Paul Kelly’s Service of the Goods, a study of the unseen mechanics and proxemics of Frederick Wiseman’s cinema. These are films that are not only remarkable. They are, as a mentor of mine used to say, “accomplished,” by any reasonable definition.

And as much as I appreciate them all—several of them are among my very favorite films of last year—none of them completely turns my entire concept of cinematic art inside out. That is not a criticism. To some extent, I doubt I would have embraced them as completely as I did if they had taken a battering ram to my own, rather well developed aesthetic. Like most people, I think I have pretty excellent taste. Among the Crossroads films I have only just caught up with, Jodie Mack’s Glistening Thrills and Erin Espelie’s The Sea Seeks Its Own Level have been particularly impressive. I have been a fan of Mack’s work for years, and I think her recent films have refined her early textile animation schemes while expanding her engagement with vernacular materials. Thrills employs rack focus and differential camera movement to film a blue iridescent-paper mobile in shifting light. The results are unexpectedly visceral, as wavering ghost-entities emerge and evaporate from such a modest corner of the world. (It was as if Shana Moulton remade The Text of Light.)

Espelie’s The Sea, by contrast, is a wide-ranging photographic work, encompassing landscape, oceanside imagery, and even momentary glimpses of livestock. “Look at the sea,” an onscreen text implores, even when there is no “sea” to be seen. Espelie is using lines from Ulysses, which speak of the indifference of water to human endeavor. “What in water did Bloom admire? Its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own levels.” And what is sought in Espelie’s highly democratic film, with its bounded yet unusually assembled purview? The filmmaker seems to be asking us to examine the natural world as a kind of materialist poem, from a standpoint inflected by but radically separate from human concern. The film uses improper gate registration as its aesthetic dominant. This technique results in land, sky, and water being subjected to a permanent flutter of instability, which, combined, with the ongoing surface flecks of the film itself, make distance into something tactile, a feeling that nevertheless entails no solicitation.

Both films are excellent. And again, they both fall well within my sense of what good filmmaking is. (I have admired Mack and Espelie for quite some time, and admire them still.) These works are crucial. As with those I describe above, I believe they represent the benchmark for contemporary experimental filmmaking. In the context of Crossroads, they are necessary not only as examples of the best that the field has to offer, but, we might say, as I kind of “control group.” This is because the power and wisdom of Polta’s programming is that the untested, unknown, misunderstandable and inscrutable is nestled alongside obvious mastery.

And the power of Crossroads is this: I am getting my ass kicked by films that make no immediate sense to me, “way homers” that only come together in retrospect, or works that demand that I accept that perhaps my taste isn’t so good after all. Some films are making me feel like a blinkered old man, with tired old aesthetic that ran out of gas in 1989 and is too slow on the uptake to fully get what “The Kids” are doing. Some of these works scare the shit out of me. I watch them and I don’t know who I am anymore, and I don’t feel authorized to render opinions. I feel like Michael Fried bumping his head on a Donald Judd, Arthur Danto confronting a Kenny Scharf funhouse installation, or Fred Camper watching an Alan Berliner film at the Whitney, packing up the tent and declaring “the end of the avant-garde.” Thank you, it’s been real!

It’s a beautiful thing to get your face blown off, aesthetically speaking. In terms of sheer pleasure, I could spend eternity watching new iterations of the kinds of films I love, of course. Who couldn’t? But it’s when something knocks the hell out of us that we understand that something new is afoot, that things are changing, and that new art forms are pounding our minds into interesting new shapes. (And of course, to bring a significant subtext forward, this question has important social and political ramifications as well. Everyone who cares about art, and the world, needs to be open to getting changed by the new. But I, and people like me—that is to say, cis white male North Americans in heterosexual relationships who enjoy a significant degree of cultural privilege—should be forcibly decentered about as often as the average driver gets her oil changed. Our “good taste” is neither individual nor innocent, and so it demands detonation, as a form of social hygiene. Moving on.)

In other words, I think something may be up with the younger makers, and it takes a whole lot of confusion and anxiety on the part of a viewer (in this case, me) to come to terms with it. Even still, I won’t get it as thoroughly and meaningfully as those for whom these new ways of assembling and comprehending sounds and images are second nature, simply “how we live now.” But the strength of Polta’s catholic approach and rhizomatic programming sensibility is that I am seeing things that not only challenge my ideas about avant-garde film and video. Some of this new work is retroactively clarifying some of the inklings and impulses in other films that either eluded me, or that I only half-understood. Crossroads is (sorry for the pun) helping bring things together in my mind in ways a less convulsive, explosive festival simply couldn’t.

What do I mean specifically? Several years ago, I identified what I considered to be a shift in some filmmaking in the nineties and the 2000s, or more properly speaking, a broader critical acceptance for certain filmmakers who had largely abjured the neo-formalism of that period in favor of direct emotional appeal, a combination of meticulous construction with the conscious orchestration of viewer affect. This has frequently been accompanied by an outsized, epic mode of address, in scale, tone, or both. (I have cited David Gatten, Lewis Klahr, Jeanne Liotta, Jennifer Todd Reeves and Phil Solomon as exemplary of this mode. Today I would add Luther Price and, in his own idiosyncratic manner, Bruce McClure.) This was work that took me years to understand on its own terms, and at times I can still bristle at its frankness. Almost every new Klahr film, for example, entails its own learning curve, and its own rewards.

By contrast, much of the new work featured in this year’s Crossroads festival, on first viewing, struck me as unintelligible, formless, or inadequately engaged with the medium’s history. But I began to see patterns, and this invited me to look more deeply. I was surprised and inspired by what I saw.

Let’s take a minute to remember our history. In the seventies and eighties, for example, there were questions of aesthetic and political allegiance that no longer make sense to us now. You were either a Brakhage/Baillie expressivist or a Snow/Frampton structuralist. (You either believed in a centered Self, or you believed in Theory, etc.) For bonus points, you might follow the Brits into Warhol and Godard. Who knows? Eventually artists moved through these dichotomies and achieved new syntheses. Similarly, newer generations were able to retrieve lost capacities, like narrativity, popular music, and collage, while applying them to new forms of “rigor.” And of course, for over a decade perhaps the single most productive mode in experimental cinema has been its hybridization with documentary, especially ethnography. (Time is proving the late Mark LaPore to have been one of the most influential filmmakers of the last 25 years.)

One of the things we are seeing now is that younger filmmakers are even less concerned about lines of purity than their immediate forebears. Part of this is a result of these recent developments in avant-garde (un)orthodoxy, wherein schools of thought and making (trance, mythopoeia, structural / materialist, punk, animation, “minor cinema,” etc.) and even genres of independent production (experimental, documentary, ethnography, diary, landscape, new narrative) are seen as potentials and capacities, not positions on a barricade. So long as makers are cognizant of the aesthetic and social inheritances and range of meanings marshaled when a particular approach is applied, and understands his or her responsibility to generate new forms even when drawing upon the old, there should be a sense of history as both burden and possibility.



So back to Crossroads 2014. How can we begin to think about a film like Margaret Rorison’s PULL/DRIFT? It is, by conventional definition, a dance film, although it does not document a dance performance per se. That is, a particular dance work (by choreographer Clarissa Stowell Gregory and the Effervescent company of Baltimore) is performed for the film, and it is a site-specific piece that Rorison’s film captures. But unlike, say, the Merce Cunningham tapes of Charles Atlas, PULL/DRIFT takes on an independent identity as a film work, even though we can clearly see that it is a filmed dance. This isn’t just because Rorison induces awareness of the filmic signifier (flash frames, scratches, slow motion, and cuts from black and white to color). Instead, Rorison’s film combines a close attention to moving bodies with a cinematic landscape study, so that we are observing a strange combination of collective trance film and handheld, aggressively artisanal nature film—the contemporary vernacular of avant-garde film being invaded by an eerie anachronism from the age of Maya Deren and Sidney Peterson.

Or consider Visual Pleasure by Catie Eller. This is a sumptuous and perplexing film, which makes its on-the-nose Laura Mulvey title all the more unfortunate. It’s not just that Eller reduces her rich optical exploration to a single meaning; she turns it into a one-liner. That gaffe aside, this is another film that seems to speak a language of the body to which I am not accustomed in contemporary filmmaking. As held within a yellowed, internal border of sprocket holes (that swerve into the frame on occasion, like an impatient lover), Visual Pleasure is a tumultuous overlay of film-skin textures and close, roving abstractions of nude subjects, sometimes in repose, often turning or flexing to generate ambiguous shapes. Eller alternates between male and female models imperceptibly, or so it seems. One or both of the subjects may have been trans*; such is the near-total disarticulation of torsos from genitalia, shadows from limbs. What Jack Smith staged as comedy in Flaming Creatures, Eller organizes as a kind of silent Edward Weston centrifuge.

And what can we make of two films by someone I had not yet heard of, a fellow in Lancaster, PA by the name of Jeremy Moss? Both of them, I would say, fall into the realm of mastery—no one ought to be confused at their inclusion in any experimental film festival, and in fact I’d say all such festivals should program Moss’s work posthaste. But both are so different that it’s tough to get a read on the guy. The first, That Dizzying Crest, is another dance film of sorts. It focuses on a short clip of a woman engaged in performative movement, repeating certain gestures within deep shadow. Soon, Moss subjects the image to all manner of extreme color reversals, tints, deep scratches, and hand-developer artifacts. The figure becomes a kind of semi-buried anchor point for motion in the frame, as cinematic action subsumes her. (The results recall Malcolm LeGrice but his surfaces were seldom this active.) On the other end of some undetermined spectrum, The Blue Record is a single unchanging view of a crumbling stone prison cell, its ceiling pierced by a lone 1×1 foot skylight. As the image is traversed—sliced, really—by scratch-lines of cobalt blue, a voice asks us to consider the prison cell as a camera, the tiny overhead window as its aperture. The Blue Record consists, ultimately, of an ongoing series of shots of this desolate cell at different times of day and night, penetrated by a roving shaft of light, or sometimes, like its occupant, abandoned to the darkness. Moss effectively treats this house of pain as a camera obscura; he records the absence of the disciplined body.

If I had more time, I would cite several more key films at length. Alexander Stewart’s remarkable Fort Morgan, for example, is something of a spiritual cousin to Ben Rivers’ work (especially Slow Action and A Spell…), but again places the performing body front and center, to raise philosophical questions about the (male) human desire, and the quixotic folly, of taming nature. Karen Yasinsky’s deeply mysterious The Lonely Life of Debby Adams hints at sinister goings-on in the home life of a young female protagonist, while also thematizing the registers of distance between the body, the video image, and seemingly ordinary TV. And Jesse Malmed’s La Conque, one of the most disturbing pieces I saw in Crossroads, takes the Ryan Trecartin media-collision style to its logical, lo-fi conclusion, with a kind of sketchbook-style rupture of all formal continuities. Cheap image dissolves, early Apple Paint scrawl, pre-Pong graphic motion, and a cameo from good ol’ Max Headroom are all just foreplay until we too get to see what it’s like to eat like a Seinfeld character.

What might we take from these unusual new approaches and attitudes, these little bombs that kept blowing up in my face? I’m still not sure, but I have some tentative guesses. Of all the earlier styles of experimental filmmaking that younger artists were able to dialectically resolve into new, hybridized forms, it was those body-centered movements like the trance film or the psychodrama that never seemed re-legitimated somehow. Perhaps it because the work of artists like Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, or Jack Smith seemed too based in their own charisma. Nevertheless, I think we are witnessing the emergence of a generation of filmmakers for whom bodies are once again thinkable as aesthetic and political objects, well outside the strictures of identity politics. Queerness is a given for them, not (just) as an identity but as an epistemology. Bodies are textual, phenomenological, a site of pleasure and risk but never naively “free.”

Again, I am not at all certain about what this all is or how it will go down, but I’m quite sure that I am seeing something new, confusing and resolutely alive. We’re at a Crossroads, indeed.

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