Credit: First Look
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Illuminations Program: Elsewhere/Here [First Look ’24 Review]

March 19, 2024

Even in New York, there often seem to be more experimental films and videos out there than any single venue could ever hope to showcase. Luckily, there is an increasing number of festivals highlighting non-narrative, short-form work. First Look, however, has been presenting experimental programs for many years, and this year’s program, curated by Edo Choi and David Schwartz, finds Illuminations in fine fettle. This two-part, thirteen-film program hangs together quite well, with the programming bringing forward common stylistic undertones that might not be as apparent within a less thoughtfully assembled show.

After a few years where the long take seemed to predominate in experimental circles, it’s safe to say that montage is back in style. That’s not to say that editing went anywhere, exactly. Two of the most accomplished avant-gardists of the past 20  years, Jodie Mack and Michael Robinson, both rely on meticulous, conceptual editing in their works. But starting with Bram Ruiter’s Here & Elsewhere, we see a turn toward a careful accretion of images and objects, often taking different forms from shot to shot. Here & Elsewhere is a consideration of water, starting out in a brightly colored staged environment and gradually working its way toward on-location material. Shot in several different formats, Ruiter’s film relies on the subtle shifts in color and clarity among the shots, at one point even disrupting a luxurious celluloid image with a VLC window, throwing us from the ocean back to the desktop.

Although there is more textural coherence in Erica Sheu’s It follows It passes on, it too generates palpable meaning from formal disruption. Organized around seemingly autobiographical written fragments, It follows alternates between glistening close-ups of ornamental objects and a black, bifurcated screen that seems to be split apart by a piercing white light. Sheu’s film is followed by two recent works by Kevin Jerome Everson. While West Lounge participates in Everson’s ongoing project of combining Black portraiture and anecdotal documentary, Banging on Their Bars in Rhythm is another in Everson’s recent suite of films made in the now-decommissioned State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. These films are potent works, not just because of the physical history of the prison, which of course reflects the misery of inmates from across several eras. Everson keeps finding different ways to represent the prison space, resulting in provocative variations on the theme. Banging on Their Bars is maybe the most shocking of these films; in it, Everson moves his camera at different angles to turn the prison bars into an abstract set of black lines on a white field. The soundtrack, meanwhile, mirrors this formal approach, since it is composed of the images of the bars traveling along the projector head. With its graceful, handheld spatial disorientations, Banging feels like a distant cousin to Ernie Gehr’s Side / Walk / Shuttle, while the minimalist striping resembles Tony Conrad or Lis Rhodes. There is something genuinely disturbing about Everson’s use of the Reformatory to generate such formalist images, and this frisson makes Banging one of Everson’s most impressive films.

The next two films return us to the primacy of montage, albeit in different ways. Stone, Hat, Ribbon & Rose by Eva Giolo is a kind of object suite, with various implements (a map, a tape measure, an umbrella, a small painting) being used by silent performers as props, all within a flat background of dark sky blue. These shots alternate with various scenes around Brussels, showing mostly empty streets, the movement of subway trains, an after-hours swimming pool, and the inside of the Royal Museum. With her precise cuts on shape and motion, Giolo creates a conceptual mosaic. The film is also an homage to Chantal Akerman, and certain shots echo the depopulated spaces of News From Home and the sturdy fixed frames of her later documentaries. How to Run a Trotline, by contrast, is a triptych that assays the various ways in which figuration can produce material effects. In the first section, Elsaesser shows us men catching a fish which is left to gasp on the deck of the boat. By the end, it has been taxidermized and hangs as a trophy on the wall. The second movement is comprised of footage shot by the Mansfield, Ohio Police in 1962, as part of a sting operation to catch men having sex in a public bathroom. (William E. Jones used this material as the basis of his 2007 multimedia project Tearoom.) Finally, Elsaesser presents what appear to be prehistoric hieroglyphs, but are actually painted symbols designating a bike lane, all of them worn away to different degrees. Trotline seems to use fishing as an overriding metaphor, since people are caught or misled because of the distance between actual human beings and their institutional representations.

Illuminations is to be commended for shining a spotlight on the work of Maximilien Luc Proctor, whose recent experiments with 16mm have produced subtle, poetic results. His Seasonal Concerns displays flickers and dissolves between images of a forest clearing at different times of year. But Proctor also trains his camera on several outdoor statues that seem to be fading into the natural landscape. He shoots one particular statue of two people standing together, sometimes only showing the heads, which he uses as an upside-down visual backbeat, gently playing against the forest material. In another coup, the program presented the world premiere of Five Days Till Tomorrow, a new film from master animator Lewis Klahr. While many of Klahr’s works have tapped into a vein of melancholy, Five Days is outright chilly. Trading his usual popular music for a sparse and quiet orchestral work, Klahr presents a number of his signature images — comic book figures, small objects like caps and buttons, representations of ambiguous architectural spaces. But the movement is much slower than usual, and there is a stark emptiness to many of the scenes, similar to the lonely echo of a de Chirico painting. While Klahr no doubt has many films still ahead of him, Five Days perfectly exemplifies a “late work,” the filmmaker’s essential method stripped bare and unapologetic before the viewer.

One of the very best films of the program, Mike Stoltz’s Holographic Will, is a wild, pulsating movement through a domestic space. Stoltz puts his whole camera in and shakes it all about, resulting in a swishing, painterly flicker, impressing the architectural forms onto the screen while we catch slight glimpses of the details of living: a sofa, a picture on the wall, a lamp. The light through the back windows of the rooms essentially “draws” Holographic Will, producing bright, colorful smears which periodically coalesce into a legible cinematic space. In his description of the film, Stoltz calls the film a “kaleidoscopic portrait of destabilization during the struggle to stay in a rent-controlled apartment amidst an affordable housing crisis.” In a way, Holographic Will exhibits unexpected echoes with Everson’s prison film. We experience the tension between cinematic abstraction and a concrete social condition, in this case the tyranny of investment capital.

Hey Sweet Pea by Alee Peoples is largely constructed around voicemail messages from the filmmaker’s mom. They capture the universal experience of dealing with elderly parents, from the detailed shopping list of items she needs from Walmart to the conversational reportage of various ailments and doctors’ visits. Peoples intercuts this material with performance readings from the script to The Never Ending Story, and although one can surmise the connection in terms of Peoples’ memories of seeing the film as a child, it’s hard to grasp the work as a whole. Nevertheless, her sunlit depictions of Los Angeles remain as funky as ever. Another film that at times felt a bit fragmentary was Labores en curso, the latest from Spanish filmmaker Bruno Delgado Ramo. The new film has certain commonalities with the director’s previous films, which are defined by sharp, graphically motivated editing and the gradual accumulation of object-images like books, bottles, and bricks. But Labores was shot in Super-8, and so the underlying formal theme seems to be the conflict between Ramo’s method and this different medium. We see Constructivist images like buildings silhouetted against the sky, or scenes meticulously framed by windows, and yet these hard-edged compositions are inevitably softened by the hazy, aquatint texture of Super-8. Over time, Labores turns its attention to various acts of labor (painting walls, laying brick, working at a sewing machine), and one senses an underlying comparison between these endeavors and Ramo’s own filming and editing processes. With its crisp pans and tilts providing a strong formal armature, Labores reminds of Robert Beavers’ Work Done, with Ramo’s appreciation of the ordinary replacing Beavers’ timeless classicism.

The final film in the program, Single File by Simon Liu, marks a shift from his recent atonal city symphonies of contemporary Hong Kong. While Single File is also largely composed of Hong Kong footage (including shots recognizable from Liu’s Devil’s Peak and Let’s Talk), they flash by in a kaleidoscopic widescreen pulse. One has to try to observe objects and locations within Single File, since the overriding sensation is one of pushing and pulling, stretching and coming apart. Given the current situation in Hong Kong, it’s hard not to consider Liu’s formal approach here as a kind of cryptographic datamosh, in which concrete information becomes so maximal that it eludes automatic perception. Liu seems to imply that art, in its avoidance of immediately legible surfaces, just might save us all.