Credit: TIFF
by Paul Attard by Ryan Swen Featured Festival Coverage Film

TIFF 2021 — Dispatch 7: The Wavelengths Shorts

September 24, 2021

Dear Chantal

After something of a breakout with last year’s delightful meta feature Fauna, Nicolás Pereda returns with Dear Chantal, a short created as part of the “Las cartas que no fueron también son” project, an omnibus initiative by the Punto de Vista International Documentary Film Festival that commissioned eight well-known filmmakers, among them Deborah Stratman, Raya Martin, Lynne Sachs, Jessica Sarah Rinland, and Pereda, to make a “cinematic homage to a colleague they have never personally met.” As can be guessed, Pereda’s was the great Chantal Akerman, for whom he fashioned a curious, distinct tribute.

Running an exceptionally compact five minutes, it consists solely of supposed letters written to Akerman by Pereda concerning the temporary rental to her of his sister’s two-bedroom house in Mexico City. Her responses are never heard, only intimated, as this hushed voiceover plays out over images of Pereda’s sister Catalina slowly furnishing the bare house, sweeping leaves off the skylight, and placing books and a painting within the small abode, as the latter image, an abstract swirl of light blue and deep red, becomes a focal point.

With these stripped-down parameters, Dear Chantal emphasizes above all the emotions that operate beneath the formal stillness in a way both reminiscent of Akerman and starkly different: the consciously posed close-ups feel more akin to Bresson than the wide shots that typify the Belgian director’s work, although a brief still of her in Je, tu, il, elle is present at the beginning of the film. Amid the mundanity of water filters and converting the second bedroom into an office, Pereda mentions in passing that Catalina has had some difficulties in the past, and it’s certainly significant, and at least a little moving, that the last line and shot goes to her, consciously placing her in the lineage of Akerman’s own troubled, adrift women.

Writer: Ryan Swen

Credit: Six Pack Films

Train Again

As InRO contributor Brendan Nagle once observed, the image — 24 of them needed per second to produce the illusion of movement and also produce sound — of a charging train has certainly been linked to the birth of cinema with L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1896, but perhaps the legacy the Lumière brothers’ locomotive has become more known for is the historically inaccurate hoopla regarding audience members being absolute dumbasses for thinking they were about to be run over by a train. This myth’s endurance and popularity over the years isn’t surprising, considering the romantic notions such a fable provides: that of spectators being so instinctually moved and astonished by what they were witnessing that they wholesale believed the supposed fiction on screen. More importantly, it speaks to the general power of cinema’s instinctive nature to teach: these viewers had never seen moving images before in their lives, and had to thus become accustomed to how to actually watch them.

It’s from this pedagogical inception point in history that Peter Tscherkassky — surely the finest Austrian avant-garde moving image artist currently working; watch the haunting Outer Space and then try producing another name — has recaptured this feeling of ecstatic discovery with Train Again, albeit with more modern techniques and technological apparatuses. He’s still using celluloid film like the Lumières, but he hasn’t done any filming himself — instead, Tscherkassky exclusively assembles found footage from a variety of media sources and submits it to a meticulous re-exposure process in a darkroom, all before transferring his final project to digital. It’s been six years since his last short, 2015’s The Exquisite Corpus, and the attention to detail displayed in Train Again immediately makes one aware of its prolonged creative gestation period and materialist inclinations — one of many dazzling moments includes a sequence of multiple overlapping film strips that race over one another, swerving left and right on the screen to create a sequenced pattern comprised of kino — while also effectively structuring itself toward its own perpetual internal collision of sorts with a rapid editing style that initially suggests impulsiveness. Tscherkassky’s images here are what we’ve come to expect from him by this point in his over four-decade career as a master chemist of photochemical means: beautiful, aesthetically impressive, transcendental, and where the compact, overwhelming onslaught of montage is always commendable for just how stimulating the end results are. But it’s long-time collaborator Dirk Schaefer’s discordant score that intensifies the experience nearly past its breaking point, best experienced in the final movement which brings everything to a shrieking crash: looping one 10-second scene of flying wheat grain mixed with scraps of metal from Unstoppable (another fine flick about choo-choos) and visually and aurally layering as many versions of said scene on top of one another, the duo achieve harmony through shrill derangement. Even after all of that, things never actually fly off the rails: much like a well-oiled machine wherein the internal mechanics have been made transparent before our very eyes, we return to our starting image in cyclical fashion, not unlike the slow crawl to a final stop on an especially long railroad line.

Writer: Paul Attard

Inner Outer Space

Laida Lertxundi has cemented her reputation as one of the foremost active short filmmakers with films that maintain a certain relaxed California mood while suggesting a whole constellation of potential associations. With Inner Outer Space, that methodology is effectively made literal, as it consists of three fairly distinct shorts which together function as an elliptical, intriguing exploration of a new setting for Lertxundi: her native Basque. In truth, four parts might be a more accurate description, as the short begins with a series of miniature installations of images fastened to cardboard, with one piece resembling a television screen. Afterwards, a brief, fragmentary exchange between two women takes place via subtitles, followed by them looking at a series of stills printed on paper, which briefly take life as their own cutaway shots. Without a discernible transition, the second short seems to begin, as people are led blindfolded to a secluded cliff and asked to first describe their surroundings without looking at them, and then draw the area. Following an unexpected presentation of the credits in full, the final short unfurls in one shot, as two women in swimsuits sway with their backs to the camera in front of projected images of waves.

As might be gathered, the ultimate point of connection in “Inner Outer Space” lies in the processing and manifestation of mental images, and Lertxundi’s ability to evoke these connections so glancingly forms a key part of her work’s appeal. While the obvious fragmentation means that the typical fluidity of her films is somewhat muted here, a sense of unity ultimately prevails: in the warm 16mm, the skillful deployment of cut-ins, the mystery of the precise meanings of each individual section, adding up to a tantalizing whole.

Writer: Ryan Swen

Credit: TIFF / Michael Robinson

Polycephaly in D

The film and video work of Michael Robinson — an impressive oeuvre which stretches back two decades — could, on a strictly formal level, be best characterized as an amalgamation of copy-and-paste pastiche, ’80s semi-worship, and deconstructed YouTube Poop; which, on its surface, sounds like the stylings of any other internet shitpost (no pun intended) or gives off some strong James N. Kientz Wilkins energy. But it’s Robinson’s affectual end goals that separate him from any other artist mining nostalgia for purely irony related reasons: more specifically, it’s his ability to locate, isolate, and explicate a sense of underlying dread from the archival footage he employs that emotionally intensifies what should more or less be a big joke. Polycephaly in D, his latest solo piece in four years, is no different in that basic regard: you get his usual strong sense of rhythm within his stitched-together montage, with clips ranging from Truffant and Fellini films to Lil Nas X’s “Montero” and Cardi B’s “WAP”music videos (admittedly, those latter choices are sorta easy/obvious in terms of cultural juxtapositions) culminating in what has to be one of the more impressive sequences he’s produced where Katniss, King Kong, and Jack T. Colton (Micheal Douglas in Romancing the Stone) seemingly share the same diegetic space via offscreen eye-matching. You also get a robotic monkey dancing to Lastlings’ “Taking My Hand,” just for good measure.

But getting there requires sitting through a rather laborious frame set-up involving two men communicating with one another (both played by the same actor, James Andrew) from two distant worlds; they never verbalize their thoughts, as their dialogue appears at the bottom of the screen (a Robinson staple best utilized in Hold Me Now) that does the “speaking” for them, but the general gist is that they’re longing for a human connection at the seeming end of the world. This has to be the most literal-minded extension of what Robinson has accomplished before — which isn’t to suggest that Polycephaly is a narrative work; more, one is suggested upon but not strictly why we’re here — in a manner that feels accessible, but perhaps too approachable. These bookends feel like a lot of extra fat that attenuates the aforementioned “meat” of the work, which in and of itself is far more cute than creatively expressive — again, Robinson has done this before, and while the surface pleasures still remain in tact, everything else feels like a bit of a repetitive wash. 

Writer: Paul Attard

“The red filter is withdrawn”

Kim Min-jung’s “The red filter is withdrawn.” draws upon a host of spirits from the past despite its deceptively minimal construction. After a brief introduction with three strobing colored rectangles, the film settles on its main focus: various natural and man-made structures on Jeju Island in South Korea, including military bunkers and craggy caves. While the locale appears to be calm, the credits indicate a darker side: the island was inhabited by Imperial Japan, and acted as the site of the infamous April 3 Incident, in which thousands of Communist insurgents were killed in the lead-up to the Korean War.

While this history would be compelling by itself, and indeed does become more apparent toward the end of the short with images of graveyards and flags, Kim grafts on another fascinating element: Hollis Frampton’s performance piece A Lecture. Throughout “The red filter is withdrawn.”, Kim intersperses subtitles written in both Korean and English from the lecture, which posits that the white rectangle of light that forms the essence of the projected cinema image has existed long before and will continue long after any given person’s life. Correspondingly, the film finds intriguing correspondences within these landscapes, most clearly the bright sunlight shining through large square holes in the caves. Over these images, shot in what appears to be some mix of digital and 16mm, are laid certain effects, including, yes, a red filter, which casts the verdant grass in an entirely new light. “The red filter is withdrawn.” properly ends with Frampton’s exhortation to discuss films in darkness, but Kim’s use of numerous other sources suggests a more suitably ambiguous, complex, and ongoing discourse centered on elements hidden just below the surface.

Writer: Ryan Swen

Credit: IFFR


Of Stan Brakhage’s ephemeral Desert, Fred Camper once wrote that “large and small, and inner and outer, worlds dance about each other in a kind of equivalency,” which is high praise for a piece that wasn’t even shot in an actual desert, and was instead just a series of extreme close-ups of a motel room table. Daïchi Saïto’s earthearthearth attempts the same sort of mysticism, albeit not from a sense of abstraction, but from the sheer magnitude of malleable physicality on display. At least that’s where the piece ultimately builds toward; the short, at first, seems constructed around a series of quick edits that function in tandem with Jason Sharp’s swelling score. These opening frames capture a wide range of dim light gradients breaking free from the darkness, with daybreak erupting from the confines of night; these flashes happen so quickly that one’s left with the imprint of an image, even when nothing is on screen. Soon, Saïto begins to superimpose these scenes on top of one another, gently layering his images with careful ease. It’s after this transitory segment that we enter into a more aggressive domain, where we’re no longer shrouded in complete darkness — it should be noted that the work comes with a recommendation to “watch in a darkened room,” which would be the only way to properly detect the opening’s visual subtleties — and now have to contend with garish color pigments and harsher noise.

The footage that follows now consists of wide, sweeping landscape shots that have been color reversed and manipulated on a tangible level (Saïto shot earthearthearth with a 16mm Bolex camera in the Atacama desert during an artistic residency in northern Argentina). These materialist manipulations encourage a more granular conception of these towering mountains, as wave after wave of intense winds blows a seemingly endless amount of loose sediments from these land masses, a process made visible only through these post-processes. But it’s around here that things begin to lose steam — or, perhaps it might be more accurate to say the work plateaus into a long, sustained section that’s still impressive without becoming inert. The score becomes less erratic, but doesn’t abandon its heightened tenor or volume; it’s certainly loud, but in a way that just hovers over the images and subsumes viewer attention in the process. So the images march on, all majestic in their own right, but perfectly content with sustaining at the same visceral register for half-an-hour. Sierras are made of pebbles, pebbles are what form sierras; we enter and exit from these two worlds, and then the sun sets once again.

Writer: Paul Attard

The Capacity of Adequate Anger

Vika Kirchenbauer effectively established herself on the international experimental scene with her short Untitled Sequence of Gaps, from last year, an intriguing rumination on varieties of light and how they inform understanding of societal traditions. With The Capacity for Adequate Anger, that sensibility has been noticeably sharpened, pairing a distinctive set of stills with more directly personal narration. One cornerstone of her style is narration: though she is German, Kirchenbauer narrates her films in English with a tremulous accent that connotes a certain fragility and uncertainty, which strongly influences the effect of her words on the viewer.

Here, the words concern her upbringing and her anxieties over her art practice, perspective, and her interpersonal relationships, including with her father and grandmother. The connections that she draws are frequently startling: a throughline about AIDS connects her childhood adoration of Freddie Mercury, Magic Johnson’s temporary retirement from basketball, and a dental inspection. These musings are augmented by a wide variety of still images, including of childhood drawings, mass media photos, and posed-art pictures, along with the sole, unusual source of moving images: a childhood fantasy cartoon of unknown provenance. While loosely sectioned, as signaled by a recurring ambient music cue, The Capacity for Adequate Anger maintains a certain flowing train of thought, which ensures a spontaneity to the subjects broached. More than a conceptual boldness, it is in Kirchenbauer’s paradoxical assuredness that the disparate elements will connect together: the title phrase is uttered twice, once in relation to the AIDS epidemic and once regarding her uneasy relationship with her father. Such a stark yet elusive phrase provides a useful, fitting summary of the fascinating elements of this ambitious work, full of information without ever succumbing to density.

Writer: Ryan Swen