02 May 2016

The Films of Experimental Film Society

This is an extract from a larger text about the three part Collectivism programme as a whole. To read the text on the first chapter in the programme please click here and to read the text on the second chapter click here

an “imperfect cinema must above all show the process which generates the problems. It is thus the opposite of a cinema principally dedicated to celebrating results, the opposite of a self-sufficient and contemplative cinema, the opposite of a cinema which “beautifully illustrates” ideas or concepts which we already possess.” – Espinosa, 1969.

“the cinema will gradually break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language. This art, although blessed with an enormous potential, is an easy prey to prejudice; it cannot go on for ever ploughing the same field of realism and social fantasy which has been bequeathed to it by the popular novel. It can tackle any subject, any genre. The most philosophical meditations on human production, psychology, metaphysics, ideas, and passions lie well within its province. I will even go so far as to say that contemporary ideas and philosophies of life are such that only the cinema can do justice to them.” – Astruc, 1948

The realms of possibility and pluralism Alexander Astruc and Julio García Espinosa once sought out in cinema are fully evident in a group of recent works by members of the Experimental Film Society, which make up the third and final part of the ‘Collectivism’ programme. Generally speaking, each EFS work is produced as part of a collective of like-minded artists but attributed to a single figure. In most if not all cases the filmmaker controls every aspect of production from concept through to post-production. However, it is impossible to ignore the collaborative aspect of EFS, a feature that becomes discernible in the way in which members frequently appear in each other’s work, an expression of unequivocal support in each other’s practices. In practice this goes beyond support to become something else entirely, an internal process of shared provocation in which each filmmaker pushes the other to delve deeper, to look beyond. Each of the works shown in the third Collectivism programme demonstrates a shared, reciprocal interest in provocation, using the cinema to dauntlessly probe at what others routinely and systematically avoid, to wonder about the very nature of cinema, our peculiar drive to generate images as well as the meanings they imbue for an audience.

What we encounter here is a cinema of enquiry, a cinema which is discovered in the process of its becoming. This rules out any pre-formed objective or agenda but it also helps account for the group’s intimidating prolificacy (in a two year period Rouzbeh Rashidi produced fourteen feature-length or close to feature-length works, to say nothing of the ongoing series of shorter ‘Homo Sapiens Project’ works which he has taken to numbering). Through the works of EFS, cinema remains in a state of productive instability. Here, cinema can function as a sketchbook- a way of exploring some of the possible lives of an idea. This is what we encounter for example in Rashidi’s visceral and abrasive Homo Sapiens Project (161-170) in which he takes apart and reassembles a 35mm trailer for Brain De Palma’s little-loved The Black Dahlia (2006). This interaction with a seemingly alien Hollywood film culture also surfaces in Michael Higgins’ Funnel Web Family, a foreboding and sinister inspection of domesticity in which music and soundbites from Jack Arnold’s Tarantula (1955) make a fitting albeit unexpected coda.

The avant-garde has always described both a mode of practice and a realm of speculative philosophy and the works of EFS find a shared sensibility with the realm of science-fiction, an ever-present aspect of many of the films included here. In Funnel Web Family Higgins shoots using baby monitors and by doing so grants us access to queasy scenes of everyday domesticity which are both familiar and otherworldly. The highly creative uses of technology we see here and in Jann Clavadetscher’s use of CCTV in Controle No 6 remind us of some of the more mundane uses to which the moving-image is put, but the concerns driving a work like Funnel Web Family are more deeply felt and personal, the unsettling power of the film rooted not in the ways in which it makes us voyeurs but in the way it seems to tap into an acutely felt fear of familial responsibility. It is ultimately more Eraserhead than 1984.

While Funnel Web Family reminds us of the staggering invasion of privacy made possible by surveillance cameras, Controle No.6 uses similar technology to create something curiously reminiscent of a silent era comedy. In this way, both filmmakers find distinct means of subverting the way in which the camera has so rampantly been co-opted as an instrument for scrutiny and control. Shot entirely on CCTV cameras over a period working at a suburban chain cinema Clavadetscher’s Controle No 6 is no budget filmmaking in the truest sense (we arguably also have to factor in all the work Clavadetcher was not doing while he was doing this). Shot over a period of many weeks, Jann surreptitiously and gradually performed his film, at first for nobody in empty car parks and lifts, only later going back to comb through these tapes in an attempt to retrieve the material that makes up the film. With movie star looks and an affection for body comedy, Jann could be situated as the Harold Lloyd of the group, as unlikely as that sounds. Lloyd serves as a model here for a naturally physical performer, but also for the ways in which Clavadetscher gracefully skips over what would otherwise be impossibly restrictive conditions in which to make a film.

The works produced by EFS have a raw immediacy that is a product of the charged, instinctive way in which the group functions, certainly the case with Dean Kavanagh’s Friends with Johnny Kline, a fearless work made up entirely of archive material in which innocuous, familiar images of public or communal life are set in opposition to illicit sequences that delve into the realm of the private, the sexual, the calamitous, and the criminal. In every instance there appears to be a degree of heightened performance for the camera, as though appearing to be human is nearly always an act, regardless of context. Kavanagh’s is the angriest of the works included in the programme, its emotional register sits close to the surface. It is impossible to shake off the history of institutional abuse in the film’s use of archival material but what the film really seems to be kick against however is the notion that sexual desire, whatever shape it takes, is something shameful, something that needs to be hidden.

Dean frequently obscures his images or has objects pass in front of them so it comes to feel like we are looking through a keyhole, or peering from inside Dorothy Vallens’ closet1. As with each of the works in this programme, he seems to be feeling around in the darkest recesses of what cinema can be. Cinema is rediscovered here as a more fully heterogeneous space, a space which “can contain all galaxies and forms of life, even ones we can sense but can’t fully comprehend” and the works shown here continue to make visible and engage cinema’s plastic nature, its wider worlds of possibility. Nothing is fixed or stable here and many of the works take a variety of forms, with aspects of HSP (161-170) likely to resurface again in Rashidi’s upcoming feature Trailers. Rashidi’s film feels like a form of archaeology, he returns to 35mm material as artefact, and what he uncovers there is a great realm of projected possibility, not only what the artefact is but the furthest realms of what the artefact could have been. Foregrounding discarded, depreciated or flea market-sourced media, collected and re-used without any sense of mawkishness or nostalgia, Rashidi produces a structuralism which transcends any impassive or non-emotive qualities associated with the genre.

Maximilian Le Cain and Vicky Langan’s collaboratively made Brine Twice Daily (which reads like a productive misunderstanding of Niall O’Flaherty’s ‘bathe twice daily’)2 feels like another work that was discovered rather than conceived, its final shape as much of a surprise to the filmmakers as it is for the viewer. The film appears to announce itself as an exercise in transgression, but slowly reveals itself as a form of portraiture, a warmly felt love story – a platonic love story but a love story nonetheless- and like all great love stories, its joys are tempered by frustration and self-doubt, love as an act of self-immolation.

Moving beyond a purely conceptual realm, these films are what happens when experience is allowed to overtake expectation. This also rules out the possibility of failure as each film exists in an indeterminate state of becoming. They also retain their capacity to upset the continuum, to disrupt the seeming stability of our current condition and perhaps no film in the programme better captures that state of fragility than Atoosa Pour Hosseini’s Clandestine, in which the porous nature of analogue film is used to play with different moods, states and temporalities. Along with Rouzbeh’s work, Clandestine is the film that is perhaps most at one with existing in what seems to be some forgotten aspect of cinema’s projected futures. The onscreen space of Pour Hosseini’s film suggests a space-time that is continuous with our own but also altogether foreign. It directly evokes the many worlds of possibility cinema suggests, and through it the apparent solidity of our own existence is rendered fractious and plastic.

 

  1. The closet that held Kyle Mc Lachlan in Blue Velvet
  2. O’Flaherty was the front man for Sultans of Ping which is already a very purposeful bastardisation of Dire Straits ‘Sultans of Swing’.

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