Lake Forest Park
The official synopsis for Kersti Jan Werdal‘s Lake Forest Park reads that “a group of teenagers have to come to terms with the violent death of a classmate.” Viewers might be forgiven for missing this pertinent bit of information, which is relayed via a news radio report emanating from a car stereo at the beginning of the film and then never explicitly mentioned again. Indeed, there is virtually no narrative or proper dialogue in the entire 60-minute film, only a sparse score, a naturalistic soundtrack, and occasional incidental speaking that is drowned out by music or muffled by distance. Instead, Werdal has constructed a film that is entirely structured around the idea of absence — even if one isn’t aware of the inciting incident, there’s a palpable sense of loss that permeates the proceedings.
An early sequence of shots show the marked influence of James Benning (also credited as a “creative consultant”) without being entirely beholden to the master’s methods; static master shots are edited together like slowly turning pages in a photo album, each held a beat or two too long, like an eerie series of remembrances. Empty parking lots, dilapidated storefronts, and a rundown movie theater mark this environment as an accumulation of liminal spaces. Eventually the film’s title appears along with a wide shot of figures in the distance playing a game of Marco Polo. What follows is a series of discrete events that occasionally suggest a multitude of potential stories without ever fully committing to one. Teenagers lounge on a couch, apply makeup in the school bathroom, and walk around campus. A ferry trip from this suburban enclave to nearby Seattle becomes a major event, Werdal’s camera taking in the enormity of the water and the loud mechanical apparatus that allows the ship to dock at port. A trip to a club to see a hardcore punk band exhibits a distinct Bressonian vibe, with one long scene showing hands in closeup exchanging money for a hand-stamp while guitars wail away in the background. It’s simultaneously very straightforward while still quietly profound; to borrow from Erika Balsom, writing on Benning’s Ten Skies, “there are films that appear simple but harbour great complexity,” that are “literal and obvious in the best way, an elemental experience.” Werdal isn’t interested in a cataloging of what happens after a traumatic event, but instead in creating a space to lose oneself in, to wander around and absorb the actual absence of something. The constant pitter-patter of rain is the only constant, as life slowly moves on. We see two young men kiss, then a fleeting moment of connection as a young couple grasp hands and walk toward the schoolyard.
Working with cinematographer Gillian Garcia, Lake Forest Park was photographed on 16mm film, giving it the patina of an aged object (the lovely grain patterns and warm tone here are a far cry from the flat, hard edges and cool colors of much current digital photography). Quite simply, it’s a beautiful object to look at. But one wishes Werdal didn’t feel compelled to show her group of teens attending a screening of Benning’s Landscape Suicide; it feels academic, too far removed from the casual naturalism of the rest of the film. Still, for those familiar with Benning’s experimental treatise on the history of American violence, it supplies a kind of conceptual underpinning to Werdal’s film that is otherwise (smartly) left unspoken. The final result is a very fine film from an exciting young filmmaker.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Acts of Love
There’s something irresistible about the romantic self-obsessive. If asked, most people would probably not rank their love lives as the most interesting facet of their existence, and yet art that focuses on nothing but romance endures. It’s why we indulge in tabloid gossip and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and it’s at least part of why Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World has had mainstream success as well as being a critical darling. We just can’t look away from a romantic car crash. The filmmaker Isidore Bethel opens his experimental film (co-directed with Francis Leplay) with a blunt confession — he had always wondered at which birthday his older boyfriend would first consider leaving him for a younger lover. Bethel details the ways he contorted to fit his boyfriend’s ideals, knowing that a split was inevitable. But when that split comes, he is left inconsolable, and looking to creativity for solace. That heartbreak coalesces into Acts of Love, a messy, raw piece of autofiction that casts men found on Grindr as versions of Bethel’s lover, interspersed with Bethel’s interviews with his “cast,” a series of stills narrated by Bethel, and phone conversations about the film between Bethel and his mother.
As an interviewer, Bethel navigates an unsettled space between straightforward and something altogether more abstract. His interviewees vary in what they expect from the project, be it an artistic collaboration or a hook-up or just a conversation, an approach that leads Bethel to inevitably murky places. Bethel draws a subtle but convincing connection between the casting process and dating apps, but casting scenes from his own life with men he actually takes as lovers is what sets Acts of Love apart from other works of autofiction. There’s a very real unpredictability to Acts of Love, because by Bethel’s own admission, the project is formless and the emotions still raw, and as each develops, the other must adapt. The project is full of blindspots (many of which are pointed out to Bethel on-camera, but never really tackled) such as the ethical concerns of using real people in such an intimate film and whether anyone will actually care about the intricacies of his romantic and sexual life, but it’s actually precisely that shortsightedness that feels so vital and new about Acts of Love. The combination of witnessing Bethel’s emotional turbulence in real-time and his camera’s shameless voyeurism is undoubtedly a self-involved one, granted, but it’s hard not to be intoxicated by a work so disarmingly vulnerable.
Bethel’s subjects are equally intriguing — one, so open and unapologetic in his desire that it’s both magnetic and repulsive to watch, and another, who flits between honesty and evasiveness, are of particular interest, though watching Bethel’s attempts to fit them into a particular mold as his ex-lover did to him is perhaps less interesting than their testimonies of their experiences as gay men. At a particularly fraught moment in his creative process, Bethel tries to justify his work to his wary mother, suggesting that the artistic image-making process can be a betrayal, but that it can also be a gift. Exhausted and genuinely puzzled, and having called the project narcissistic only a moment ago, she asks him, “A gift to whom?” That myopic tension at the heart of Acts of Love, of whether a project like this is entirely masturbatory or whether there is some legitimate collective value to it, is equally frustrating and enthralling. Ultimately, Bethel’s mother isn’t wrong — the project is a study in a frustratingly relatable kind of self-indulgent introspection, an experiment into just how much any audience will actually care about a portrait of an artist entirely divorced from anything but his obsession with his own romantic and sexual life. But however limited the scope of that portrait is, Bethel refuses to hold anything back, and the result is, if nothing else, an authentic, magnetic representation of one man’s wound.
Writer: Molly Adams
Home When You Return
Director Carl Elsaesser was teaching at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota when he learned of Joan Thurber Baldwin (1927-1990). She was a poet, amateur architect, and filmmaker whose scrappy 1950s melodramas were low-budget affairs. One can view digitized reels of her works online, but Elseasser isn’t interested in telling us much about Baldwin, or showcasing her artistic chops. In fact, he spends most of his quietly ambitious 30-minute film Home When You Return obfuscating details, even blurring out faces in the archival footage we see, which comes from a 1957 film titled A Change of Scene. Evocatively, he couples all this with shots of a home, one belonging to his late grandmother, Mary Patricia Wuest (1932-2020). Shooting on film, the images have a grainy quality that renders both sets of film as belonging to a bygone era. What Elsaesser accomplishes is a slick two-fold trick: In juxtaposing these two women who never knew each other, and documenting the people and spaces around them, he captures the strangeness and comforts of memory and home.
Home When You Return is largely memorable because of little decisions that go a long way. The aforementioned blurring is one: in preventing viewers from fully seeing the faces of these women and obscuring names (even “granny,” when written out as text), he constantly conjures up a spectral quality. This is not a somber or haunted film, though; Elseaesser’s footage and typed-up letters, which slowly scroll across the screen for viewers to patiently read, are more about capturing the way people and places can turn from flesh and blood into something less corporeal.
When his grandmother had to move out of her house and into a nursing home, Elseasser helped do some cleaning, and there’s a peculiarity with which one can sense the spirit of a person even through their belongings. Most striking is when he focuses on the imprints of furniture that are left on carpet: a mark of one’s long-term presence in a particular locale. Even more, the decision to strip Baldwin’s footage of its original audio and instead use hushed, non-diegetic field recordings has the semblance of stepping into a territory that one knows is far different from before. This idea is especially potent when we watch as a silhouette is placed atop footage of rooms in Wuest’s house, like a final tour of this place before saying goodbye. It’s touching and strange and beguiling. And really, that confluence is often the biggest impression that emanates after a loved one dies. They’re still there in some way, but not. Their impact on your life is felt, but in a different way. Elsaesser knows how to make absence feel like presence.
Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim
Color Without Colour
Phyllis Baldino’s Color Without Colour implores us to imagine a world where we don’t consider chromaticity within our day-to-day activities. Seems simple enough, right? Think again — or, at least consider a different perspective, preferably one that can’t see any color at all, before making such brash claims. To some, color has a literal taste or can suggest if a particular food might be tasty; we assign value judgments based on particular colors — are calmed by some, angered and stressed by others — and form associations with certain words in relation to different colors. The former of these conditions qualifies as synesthesia; the opposite end of the spectrum would be achromatopsia, which is defined as a visual disorder largely characterized by the absence of color vision. You get black, white, and infinite shades of gray; so while it’s technically a “black-and-white” view of the world, all that gradation means it actually fundamentally isn’t — the binary is exploded. Anyway, Color Without Colour primarily concerns itself with this condition and those who suffer it — more importantly, however, it doesn’t plead for sympathy or make a broad call for human empathy. No, its aims are more cursory than anything along those lines, and smartly refuses to get bogged down in cheap, cumbersome humanism; there’s a small request for decency, but that’s a given considering the subject matter. The primary objectives, rather, are pedagogical in scope: disrupting assumptions regarding cognition by bringing to light the ways color informs how we form even the most basic components of language.
The piece’s audio track consists of Baldino interviewing a diverse selection of achromatopsia patients — ranging from the ages of seven to 74 — where her opening questions are removed entirely. Only the participant’s responses are heard over the work’s 20-minute runtime: there’s the always reliable, equally playful quip regarding the condition (all the interviewees have a rather wry sense of humor about the whole thing) like eating a lot of “green bananas” when most could obviously see they weren’t ripe; the probing inquiries regarding not being able to “see” what others see; and the occasional admittance to having a leg-up in the world by not being concerned with how things look on a surface-level. The visuals, accordingly, evoke the general spirit of what’s being said: the recorded monochrome footage of household objects moves so fast that we can’t tangibly make out many of the captured images, reducing their legibility to a largely pixelated blur. The interviews themselves are sequenced in accordance with a specific color discussed, with said color written on the screen — in essence, all the colors of the rainbow end up looking the same for these participants — to further evoke personal connotations between written and spoken language throughout. This, as a brief experiment, is perfectly fine. At 20 minutes, however, Color Without Colour circles the drain with little formal variance — though the piece also functions as a 15-channel installation, which could help alleviate this issue — which might have helped bolster any of these ideas.
Writer: Paul Attard