Last night Marcella and I attended the closing night of the EX-is festival, an “experimental/avant garde” affair in its 5th year here. I was on jury 3 years ago, and know the folks who run it. Saw two programs of the competition films this year, and several of Abigail Child’s who was on jury this year (along with Jay Rosenblatt, Jeanne Liotta – all of them American – and a Korean filmmaker-critic, Park Chan-Kyong). The closing night was an anarchic little affair of mikes not working, a casualness of handling things that was comic, and perhaps indicative of the overall “avant garde” attitude that things need not be taken very seriously or carefully. So the prizes were announced and the plentiful handful of filmmakers who’d flown in from around the world sat expectant and hopeful and came up empty handed. One could see the anxiety and then disappointment written on their faces and their body gestures. Later Abigail said they all fled the jury people, not wanting to talk with them. From what I saw of some of their work, and the prize winners (which received $1K, $2K, $3K and $5K – not insubstantial money), I can understand their sense of aggrievement. Several Korean filmmakers did win more modest prizes, and were present to get the goodies.
The winners ranged from a Korean film, The Breath, I’d passed on giving anything in Jeon Ju, a celluloid film of shots of bamboo – shots of no particular quality except shakiness, in/out of focus for no discernable reason, and “editing” that didn’t seem to exist: one shot after the next of bamboo for 10 minutes that seemed longer. Silent. After the screening a tepid round of clapping occurred and one could feel the other filmmakers thinking “what the fuck?!” Can’t say I’d blame them.
Fix, Ysuto Yura. This one had to do with a voice-over and images of the man’s hand, a few scars on it. The imagery was vaguely clinical but pedestrian, the VO doing all the explaining that the cinema did not. Some slick zappy graphics. Again, a tepid bit of applause.
Looking for Him, Jung Yoon-suk. A guy in wheel-chair waiting for lift down into Seoul Metro. Other shots, surveillance images in the metro, a fuzzy image of a guy harrassing a woman, and then stealthily sneaking up behind her and pushing her onto the tracks. Clouds and sky and Ed Ruscha looking graphic letters superimposed. This film was rather a mess, again relying on voice over to carry whatever meaning it had, vaguely perhaps ironic and maybe the “him” in heavily Christian Korea was meant to be “Him” but it wasn’t very clear. Again, rather a messy film, and again a tepid bit of handclapping at its end.
Eden, Kim Hye-won. A cut-out animation, graphically dense and elegant, with a simple story trajectory of “man the disruptor of Eden, man the killer.” Very nicely done work, very effective little narrative. Nothing particularly “experimental” or AG about it, just a very well done animation work. Got solid applause as it deserved.
Folk Songs, LeAnn Erickson. A cleanly done academic exercise of a kind I have seen 100 times: voice over explains everything, partially home-movie, partially shot by filmmaker, explaining how Bulgarian grandma came over and subsequent family stuff on immigration to the fabled America. This was well done, better than most, but for me it is cookie-cutter academic filmmaking, which it seems most nearly all American experimental-oriented filmmakers feel compelled to do. The usual crippling factor is the voice-over that reduces it all to a kind of slide-show presentation, and deletes the “cinema”. It got second prize and tepid noises.
Ah Liberty, Ben Rivers. Filmmaker from UK, and I’ve heard of him but never seen. This film is 19 minutes of hand-processed anamorphic extreme wide-screen 16mm b&w footage, apparently from some kind of Scottish commune – banged up trucks, kids, animals, a raucous soundtrack of noises. The imagery was basically shot well, in a dark moody mode, ever so slightly Tarkovskian in tone, though the content was more Gummo with the kids in masks goofing for camera. Full of chemical spottings, light flareouts and other cliches of the DIY processing alleged-AG filmmaking aesthetic. Frankly I think if it hadn’t been for the extreme Cinemascope-looking wide-screen you’d just get bored, but seeing this kind of stuff with the oomph of a Hwd-scale big screen seemed (falsely) to transform it into hoch kunst. At least it did for the unanimous jury decision. It begot a faint round of wrap-up applause and all went off to the post-ceremony free beer and food at a cafe nearby, where the present filmmakers clustered together to commiserate with each other, and studiously avoided contact with the damned jurors.
Marcella and I had a chat with Abigail and Jay, who were perhaps non-plussed by my summary of the part of the festival I saw, which was consistent with most other so-called experimental festivals: that the so-called AG in fact wallows in nostalgia, whether in content or form (using old footage, regurgitating once-AG tropes like leader countdown numbers, punched numbers in filmstock, flareouts, and otherwise fetishizing on celluloidisms like scratches, dirt, etc.) or else goes for equally cliched “modernist” things like screeching electronic tracks, zappy flicker things and wham-bam shock editing, or, of course that old old standby, sex. Of the films I saw none really seemed to try to do anything new, rather they ran over well-grooved turf for the umpteenth time, usually not as well as Bruce Conner or others did 50-80 years ago. Nothing avant at all. I told them I didn’t think one can teach “avant garde” filmmaking, but when one did it was to make a bunch of rubber-stamp copy-cats who make derriere garde imitations. I think both Abigail and Jay make their living teaching this, so of course they said I was rather harsh in my estimations. I compounded it by saying film and filmmaking wasn’t really very important anyway. Which it isn’t. However they didn’t kill me…
All jurying is kind of unfair, though in this case, with Jay and Abigail doing similar kinds of work (montage using old footage is a major part, if not all), I felt it tilted the judging a bit to that way of working, a kind of didactic voice-over reliant manner of working, and for the most part not so interested in visual or, for my money, “cinematic” qualities. Sez me.
om their films, respectively Abigail and Jay: