Laying down his cards in his opening shot – a wide-screen image, mostly black, with a half-circle on the far left side, a rivulet of water dancing below, held and held, until finally one notices the small lump at the mouth of the sewage outlet, a boy’s still body; the shot holds on and on, leaving room to ponder this figure, ( is it dead?), until after many minutes the figure moves, and then slowly backs further into the tunnel. I didn’t clock this shot, but it could easily have been 10 minutes.
With this opening gambit Sherad Anthony Sanchez, lays down the gauntlet for his audience, announcing in no uncertain terms, “take it or leave it.” Imburnal (Sewer), proceeds apace, in frequently very long shots, for three and a half hours, slowly sketching in the lives of a small community – one which in most places would be characterized as “a slum” – in Davao, Philippines. The atmosphere is ripe with sexuality, with children and adults openly discussing matters such as cunnilingus, blow-jobs, pregnancy, as well as being seen engaged in sexual acts. In one sequence, in the slatted light of a sewage outlet, 2 men “sandwich” a willing and desirous woman. The tropical heat is more than meteorological.
Primarily focused upon several young boys, this film declines to “tell a story” but rather languidly – as appropriate in the equatorial torpor – sketches out the lives of these street urchins who live in the sewage tunnels and outlets opening onto a river. In the same moment a broader portrait is given of the immediate community, centered on a large golden statue, with prominent balls and penis, which stands at the center of a small public park and gathering space. Young girls talk of sex with one another; boys masturbate; games are played, and adults seem banished for the most part to the periphery of life. While the sexuality is open and clear, the film is anything but prurient. Rather it opens out as an anthropological study, an observation of lives seldom given a glance, or if so, then subjected to melodramatic sentimentality in which poverty is romanticized. Here it is merely a given, a part of everyday life.
The imagery is a mix of static long – sometimes very long – takes, intermixed with sometimes jangly hand-held work, done with a fast shutter speed, as in a long sequence from a motorbike. Occasionally images are slightly out of focus, or camera movements are jerky and unsure. (Camera: Sanchez, Jose Bagane Fiola, Joel, Geolamen, Mark Limbaga, John Torres). On the track the sound sometimes cuts out abruptly a second or so before a shot concludes, and jarringly resumes on the next image, sometimes with an audible click. Other “flaws” recur often enough that over the time of the film they become clear signs of an intentionality, not the seeming errors that they initially bring to mind. Somehow the clash of styles and the meandering narrative meld together and hold the viewer’s attention, at least those willing to let go of conventional expectations and “go with the flow.”
For a film which seems so “realistic” there are some things left unsaid, explicitly or implicitly: that some of the characters are actors (Jelieta Ruca, Lawrence Garrido, Brian Monterola), or just what the real background is which finds the children living in the sewage pipes. It’s not just the tropical heat, but another kind: the boys are considered to be members of gangs, and vigilante groups of the area seek them out and kill them. None of this is shown on screen, or talked about – this unhappy element lurks in the background, unexplained.
Also unsaid, but to me very evident, was the preparatory time which Sanchez had to take to elicit such closeness and intimacy to his subjects. In this respect – and in some other aesthetic ones, though their styles are quite different – I was reminded of Pedro Costa’s work. In both cases there is a deep anthropological element which requires patience and time in order to excavate the essentials, and in both a clear respect and love on the part of the filmmaker for his subjects.
In the post-screening Q&A, which seemed to me pregnant with discomfort on the part of most the audience, which I think didn’t quite know what to make of this mixture and duration, I asked, after saying I had found the film beautiful and powerful, about this. He confirmed that he’d spent a year being with/around, learning and looking, and another half year shooting. I also asked about the matter of those “technical” things such as the sound-dropouts, and other seemingly ragged aspects. Anthony replied they were indeed willful and deliberate and had to do with a “personal” struggle inside him, presumably about film aesthetics, or artistic choices, and maybe a resistance to “professional” values – “slickness.” I am very sympathetic to such conflicts, having had my fair share in my own work (in which I used, deliberately, stumbling voice-overs, actors who friends said were no good, and other violations of film-world conventions), so I understand. Though in this case I felt some of the choices made damaged the final result, pulling attention in the wrong way to seemingly technical glitches in ways that did not function to make one aware of the artifice of the process, or to de-glamorize the reality, but rather simply stood out as seeming carelessness – something which the totality of the film certainly denied. Bottom-line, I didn’t think the tensions which these things introduced enhanced the film, but took away from it. In my mind I itched for having this most personal film handed to a sympathetic but not-involved editor, to cut out maybe 30 minutes, and delete the technical bumps. My bet is it would become a more powerful and effective film, able to reach a much wider audience. However, Anthony, as in his opening shot, made clear in his response he’d not buy such a re-do, and held his ground. Which I respect completely. I imagine in his own process, he’ll find ways to wrestle with these things in a way that works for him, and for the audience. He’s 26 and has ample time, and certainly the innate talents. I look forward to the next work he’ll do. Meanwhile there’s this film, which will be hard to find, but if you have a chance, see it. Imburnal picked up 2 prizes at the Jeonju festival.
Patti Smith in Jem Cohen’s music video Smells Like Teen Spirit
The remaining program I managed to see was a selection of short films, offered under the rubric of Stranger Than Cinema. The program I saw started off with current fest and avant-garde darling, Jem Cohen. In this case teamed with long ago hip darling Patti Smith. A music video in what I guess is Cohen’s allegedly avant-garde manner, to say a compendium of the obligatory cliches of the so-called A/G experimental world – 8mm, light flares, scratches, splices, all expertly crafted, a sub-language presumed to signify “hip.” As if this were not enough, the song is a cover of Cobain’s Smells Like Teen Spirit (and over-the-hill Sam Shepard, a Smith pal of decades gone, does some banjo licks for good measure). Once again, the A/G, posturing as some vanguard is to be found wallowing in nostalgia, trafficking in the very worn out tropes of the 1950’s, dredging up the hipsters of the 60’s, and otherwise being about as antithetical to the avant as one can be. Tired, and to these eyes tiresome, not to mention hypocritical – a fall-out of the institutionalisation of “film as art.”
Then came another current hotty of the fest circuit, Thailand’s Apichitpong Weerasethekul, whose films are swooned over though I frankly find them slapdash and loose beyond any visible talent. The critical verbiage lathered on his work suggests something lurking within which utterly escapes my perceptions, though I am told this is owing to my non-developing world white-man’s colonial whatever. My cynical side says this man’s fame is an indication of the value of bedding Tony Rayns, ricequeen supreme. The film shown here, titled Meteorites, is 15 minutes of camera-waving home-film style shooting which if it were done by a not-developing world person of Weerasethkul’s age (39) would be dismissed for what it is – a mess of inept useless amateur footage. I find the acceptance of this stuff as “art” to be a kind of patronizing form of culturalism, as if to say, “gee, the native could make it run” and all critical faculties are left at the door, or theory is mounted to explicate how this informal camera-waving signifies blah blah blah. Given that there are some so-called “developing world” filmmakers who can really make films (see some reviews preceding this one), I find it appalling that Apichitpong is so excitedly regarded in the supposedly serious film world. [I saw Syndromes and the Century, and I think I saw another, and both were similarly forgettable to my mind.]
Easter Morning, Bruce Conner
Next was Bruce Conner, deceased just a bit ago, with his final, Easter Morning. This one resurrects some 8mm footage from long ago, something titled Easter Morning Raga (1966), and re-works on an optical printer, changing the pacing, layering, and shifting the original to something meditative and nostalgic. The track is Terry Riley piece, In C, as played on Chinese instruments by the Shanghai Symphony. To the film’s detriment, they also screened A Movie as well, which to my mind showed the distinct weakness of this swan song. Without Riley’s rhythms supporting and pushing these so-so images, there wouldn’t be much of anything there – a critique I would level at some other Conner pieces, which I have always found quite hit and miss, though there’s a few I haven’t seen (Crossroads). His frequent over-reliance on music to support his imagery is a direct causal relation to MTV style, which he had always lamented saying “don’t blame me”, though Conner had a mind, and his imagery and cutting were cinematically related, which MTV is usually not. A Movie next to Easter Morning is muscular and far richer in emotional content; the latter film is more meditative, but much too dependent on Riley.
A Movie, Bruce Conner
And then another master of yore, Pat O’Neill, whose second film I recall seeing at the Ann Arbor film festival, probably in 1968 – it’s title was the number of a film stock, 7362, and its form was very close to another film shown that year, Off/On by Scott Bartlett (a much weaker film to my view, and hence of course much more popular at the time). Since then Pat has kept up a steady pace of these complex and difficult works done on an optical printer, with much overlaying. In this newest piece, Horizontal Boundaries, he seems to have attained a more constrained control over his material, and produces a richness of effect to me reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg – both in the graphic sense and in the handling of culturally loaded imagery being played off against itself, resulting in a symbiotic enhancement of emotional power. That said, there is still a kind of weakness in the sense of time, as if one could stop at any time – a weakness often found in those whose visual sensibilities dominate the temporal. (And which Conner overcomes by letting music dictate the pace.) Nevertheless, this is an engaging and intriguing work, ripe with visual tonalities which prompt our subconscious and delight the eye. Lovely work.
Horizontal Boundaries, Pat O’Neill
Lastly they screened a brief and inconsequential one minute item by JLG done on commission for the Vienna film festival – Godardisms in brief. Like the visual crutches of the avant garde, Godard has worn out his bagful of tricks, leaving them now as empty icons of his past existence.
To wrap up, two final items.
The first, the obit of Sid Laverents (of whom I’ve never heard), who lived near San Diego the last 50 years or so, where, at age 50, he began filmmaking. He died recently at age 100.
Sid Laverents, b. Cheyenne Wyo., died Chula Vista, Ca. R.I.P.
And then this, sent by my friend Bill Fech, formerly of Cody, Wyo., now of Lincoln, Ne. and soon to be residing in Glasgow, Scotland. A little feast of YouTube collaborative smarts that makes for nice music. Thank you, Bill!
[Oh, and Jeonju screened our little short, Mr Right (I directed and shot, Marcella mostly edited). To a pretty full house on next to last day of festival, audience seemed to like, and we had a lively Q&A despite the film being shown second on a program of 5 or so shorts. For me Mr Right was a casual little throw-away work, something I enjoyed making and which seems to accurately capture some things peculiarly Korean, and it was nice to get feedback from a dominantly Korean audience confirming it.]