Answering the Sun
We’ve all been told not to look at the sun before. We’ll go blind, they said; they told us in explicit detail the permanent damage UV rays would inflict on our corneas and even scolded us for daring to glance upward in the first place. But we still did it anyway; like a lot of things that now seem obviously ridiculous in older age, we once acted out of childish curiosity and a certain lack of awareness — not of the world around us, but exactly how to look at the world around us. That, along with many other truths one perceives about the world at a young age, was a social faux pas: we looked where we obviously shouldn’t have and didn’t follow directions. This is perhaps why Rainer Kohlberger’s first feature-length visual work — appropriately titled Answering the Sun — is so stimulating on a purely visual level: he asks us to keep staring where we probably shouldn’t be, primarily at a giant circular ball made up of blinking luminous flares. What and where we’re gazing at will — and at several moments, does — hurt us; but it’s through this pain that we learn how to properly see again. This discomfort ends up being a useful learning tool of sorts: After a single viewing (the hour-long runtime truly does zip by) our perceptual abilities have been reset; our stolen autonomy has been returned. Conceptually speaking, this should draw anyone in and keep them seated the whole round through. Who doesn’t want to be a kid again and see the world at its most base, its most radical in immediate presentation?
Kohlberger also makes it rather difficult to look away once things get going; no nagging adults can spoil the experience, nor should they. Once you stare directly into the pulsating digital light of his work, you’d be hard-pressed to ever look away. The flickering bands of light and color produced by his algorithmically generated graphics are so rhythmically hypnotic that you become quickly subdued and overwhelmed — yet, even as there’s a clear progression and structure to the piece that allows each new segment to seamlessly pass by unnoticed, it feels simultaneous in its decision-making, the (nowadays) uncommon experiential film that actually has the conceptual rigor and open trial-and-error analysis of an experiment. Which isn’t to say this is the most original piece of avant-garde cinema out there, as there’s certainly a lineage to the type of work Kohlberger is attempting here: Bill Brand’s Rate of Change, shot on film and released some 50 years prior, is equally as “imageless” as it shifts and changes from one color to the next — the opening ten minutes of Answering the Sun feel like a modern-day equivalent — while flooding viewers’ retinas in the process. It, along with Kohlberger’s work, doesn’t signal toward any particular motion, or try to suggest that cinema is an artform based on motion; there’s no moving forward, no moving backward — it’s just there, in the present, displaying an eye-altering event and riding that euphoric sensation to its natural conclusion. This, instead, suggests that ingenuity isn’t the best means by which to measure if Answering the Sun is a successful endeavor or not. In fact, a far more fruitful process would take into consideration the actuality of the situation: exactly what do Kohlberger’s efforts ask of us, as viewers and as people? He urges us to stare directly into the sun and not look away. Just try your hardest not to blink.
Writer: Paul Attard
A fascinating thesis and accompanying history lesson that never quite makes sense as a feature-length film, Travis Wilkerson & Erin Wilkerson new documentary Nuclear Family is trying to do a lot of things all at once. Wilkerson, best known for the deeply personal and highly accomplished Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? continues to excavate his familial history while also interrogating the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the nuclear arms race, tying all of them together into a larger statement about the violence at the heart of the American mythos. It’s potent stuff, and persuasive. He begins his film with the recounting of a childhood memory, that of his mother’s profound fear of impending nuclear holocaust. There’s archival home movie footage of young Wilkerson and his parents visiting nuclear missile silos across the US, where his mother rants at the camera with a seething disdain for her government’s ludicrous Cold War theatrics. Wilkerson says that the road trip helped end his own nightmares about annihilation but now, following the 2016 elections, they have returned. As if to exorcise these demons once and for all, Wilkerson packs up his own family — wife Erin, co-director here, and their young daughters — to embark on another nuclear journey. The family traverses the southwest as Wilkerson’s constant voiceover narration relays information about the various types of missiles found at each site, their yields, and other facts and figures, making allowances for all manner of discursive tangents (some more interesting than others). Along the way, he also finds himself fascinated by the plight of Indigenous peoples during America’s violent western expansion. While visiting Colorado, Wilkerson is reminded of a film he made some years past, 2011’s Sand Creek Equation, detailing the brutal Sand Creek Massacre. In 1864, Colonel John Chivington led a brigade of men in slaughtering hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho along the banks of Sand Creek in the Colorado territory, and it’s here that Wilkerson declares that the “destruction of Native America and the threatened destruction of the world are the fingers of two hands, intertwined.” He intones a kind of poetic koan that will become a recurring mantra throughout the film: “seize the land with a gun. Turn the land into a gun. Point the gun at everyone’s head.”
This is clearly very personal stuff for Wilkerson, who’s trying to make sense of the world around him and his own neurosis in the only way he can think of: by turning it into art. But it’s a chore wading through 90 minutes of this. Wilkerson makes his points early and often, leading to endless repetitions despite the film’s relatively brief runtime. Wilkerson’s family never become characters in their own right, which is fine as far as it goes. But why then intersperse so many scenes of them amongst the more straightforward documentary style footage? It becomes padding. There’s also far too much stock footage of nuclear bombs exploding, and far too many edits juxtaposing his children’s cherubic faces with said footage. Long tangents seek to inform the audience about the dangers of our armed forces’ lax standards in operating and maintaining these various launch sites, but many of the stories he reports are well known and overly familiar. In fact, large swaths of Nuclear Family seem like they’d have been better served being presented as PowerPoint slides or a well-researched, long-form article. In other words, there’s not much here that’s formally interesting, nothing that really demands to be seen rather than simply be informed of. He tries to jazz up the proceedings, but there’s no way to make this particularly engaging outside of an academic curiosity, no matter how many cutesy-ironic songs Wilkerson plasters on the film’s soundtrack. There are strong ideas here, certainly, and Wilkerson’s righteous anger is both well-founded and appreciated. But too much of Nuclear Family feels like a disorganized mess of footage mashed together with only the vaguest organizational principle (whittling this down to half the length would be a step in the right direction). Here’s hoping that at least the process of making the film was cathartic.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
In the billowing night
Fatherly guardedness is what defines Jean-René Etangsalé in the memory of his daughter, filmmaker and documentarian Erika Etangsalé. His being tight-lipped, however, was more a product of circumstance, and thus, the two’s respective memories are somewhat in contrast with one another. “I don’t think I was the silent type,” offers Jean-René. “Anyways, what matters is that we are talking now.”
That “now” is the present setting of Etangsalé’s documentary, In the Billowing Night, which in utilizing interviews with her father — as well as evocative landscape interstitials and archival family material — reconstructs his experience in being displaced under the auspices of the cruel and exploitive BUMIDOM as a teenager from the island of Réunion to France, which his own ancestors had been brought to as slaves in the not-so-distant past. With all this history that comes to bear, Jean-René retains a pragmatic and even self-effacing aura: his answers are measured, one gets the impression that these are testimonies he’s been mulling over for years now. “When you’re young, you never think about returning,” he states, his eyes looking away from the camera as he continues to outline the universal obliviousness of youth he experienced.
With what looks like 16mm filmstock, Etangsalé augments her father’s word with almost pedestrian, everyday images of their Parisian suburb, which buttresses this prevailing sensation of perpetual alienation, that immigrants are expelled and ostracized from even the most mundane of spaces. Streetlights at dusk, parents paying bills — all retain a portent that a more histrionic documentary would didactically proffer. In the Billowing Night maintains its quietude, and its tragedy resounds all the louder.
Writer: Patrick Preziosi
Watching Joële Walinga’s new experimental found-footage documentary Self-Portrait, one is reminded of Abbas Kiarostami’s thoughts upon the Cannes premiere of his 2002 film Ten: “If anyone were to ask me what I did as a director on the film, I’d say, ‘Nothing and yet if I didn’t exist, this film wouldn’t have existed.’’’ Here, Walinga has amassed a trove of footage from unlocked security cameras from around the world and carefully edited them into a rhythmic approximation of the seasons. Instead of “directing” the film in any traditional sense, she is instead acting as a kind of digital curator, creating meaning through careful shot selection and a keen eye for visually precise juxtapositions. It’s a remarkable work, not just for the sheer breadth of imagery on display, but also because of Walinga’s thoughtful construction.
While Kiarostami seems like an obvious touchstone here, there are also evocations of James Benning, as well as the digital textures of Mann’s Miami Vice and Lynch’s Inland Empire. The low-fi security cameras that Walinga is utilizing all share a few common traits, regardless of where they are located; low resolution, wide-angle lenses, and fixed, stationary positions. In this sense, each shot becomes a tableau, gazing out upon a field or an ocean or a cityscape. Self-Portrait isn’t a structuralist film: scenes don’t seem to follow any kind of mathematical pattern or set duration. There are far too many shots here to do a detailed breakdown of each, a la Erika Balsom’s monograph on Ten Skies. The rhythm here is more akin to breathing, the editing compressing and expanding scenes in varying ways. The first shot is a suspension bridge of some sort that recedes into the background of a misty mountainscape. There follows in quick succession shots of beaches with crashing waves, windmills emerging from the ocean like totemic monuments, solitary roads winding through flat plains, and skyscrapers bathed in fluorescent lighting. Some images hint at a story; a dilapidated, boarded-up building covered in snow still has a rainbow-colored sign that reads “Tropical.” Another shot finds a dog laying down in the middle of a road. Is it sleeping or dead? We’ll never know, as the film continues on unabated. (Call it Shrödinger’s dog.)
It takes a few minutes to get acclimated to the constant stream of images; some suggest liminal spaces devoid of human figures, while others are teeming with people. Lush landscapes are paired with extreme close-ups of claustrophobic interiors. Some images are almost purely abstract, as the digital cameras struggle to record raindrops or snow flurries and instead register them as pixelated flecks of light. There’s also the progression of Walinga’s approximation of color grading; the film begins in winter, and accordingly each scene features snow or ice and cool tones. As we move into spring, and then summer, the images become warmer, each scene bathed in natural light. Eventually, the movement into fall brings with it browns and grays, as fewer and fewer shots contain people. In this way, Self-Portrait suggests not only Walinga’s specific POV, but also the general movements of humanity in general — emerging in the spring, frolicking in the summer, then retreating back indoors in the fall and winter.
Of course, these kinds of found images bring with them certain preconceived notions. We tend to relate them to security cameras, autonomous and impersonal or even ominous. Theorist Shane Denson has dubbed them “discorrelated images,” post-cinematic digital artifacts that disrupt the traditional phenomenological relationship between viewer and image. But with her film, Walinga has in effect brought a personal touch back to these otherwise impersonal images — the mediating hand of the artist. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Writer: Daniel Gorman