The 14th annual Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, presented by Chicago Filmmakers, runs Friday through Sunday, November 15 through 17, at Columbia College Ferguson Theater, 600 S. Michigan, and Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark. Tickets are $7; for more information call 773-293-1447.


Program 1

Mapmaking is a theme linking several of the videos on this program. In There There Square, Jacqueline Goss travels across a blue-and-white map of the United States, arriving at wry texts about the history of cartography and concluding the tour at her father’s property line. In the delicate Snowdrift (2001) veteran avant-gardist Gunvor Nelson charts patterns of windblown flurries and makes visual puns on the video distortion we call snow. White flecks of splattered insects turn a windshield into a macabre abstraction in GT Granturismo (2001), by Austrian artists Gunther and Loredana Selichar, and in Alfred Guzzetti’s Down From the Mountains images of motionless drivers punctuate a poetic notebook of nature shots. The most original entry is Liliana Porter’s Drum Solo (Solo de Tambor) (2000), in which figurines against a white backdrop–Minnie Mouse, a wedding-cake couple, a pair of windup pigs that bang on drums–enact inventively staged vignettes, each with its own musical score by Sylvia Meyer. Also on the program: videos by Shiho Kano and Jennifer Reeder and a film by Kerry Laitala. 78 min. (Bill Stamets) (Columbia College, 7:00)

Program 2

For better and for worse, the nine films and videos I previewed from this program of twelve, most of them in black and white, qualify as “studies,” though an earlier and artier generation of visual artists might have called them “etudes.” With the exception of Gregg Biermann’s video The Waters of Casablanca–which creates a visual and aural collage out of a famous dialogue exchange from Casablanca, heard at various speeds and seen mainly in a speedy jumble of abstract clusters–they work with things like ocean waves, trees, vegetation, still bodies of water, and moving trains. My favorite in the bunch, Gunvor Nelson’s Swedish video Tree-line (1999), produces a highly original kind of audiovisual music out of trains passing a particular tree. Guy Sherwin’s English film Da Capo: Variations on a Train With Anna (2000) juxtaposes multiple versions of a single shot with various performances of the same Bach piece, while Vincent Grenier’s video Material Incidents (2001) does interesting things with water and the color yellow. Also on the program: work by Madison Brookshire, Mahine Rouhi, Minyong Jang, Robert Mead, Julie Murray, Michael Robinson, and Peter Rose. 88 min. (JR) (Columbia College, 9:00)


Program 3

Michele Smith’s video Regarding Penelope’s Wake is her first completed work and runs for a full two hours, which may explain why it’s both intractable and fascinating. Painstakingly handcrafted over 15 months and teeming with ministructures, it’s a silent montage and collage of diverse junk items, and though her found footage includes stag reels, home movies, and various educational films (including Themes From the Odyssey, which occasions her Joycean title), she never allows one to linger on anything long enough to become absorbed in it. Usually her rapid crosscutting and intercutting begins rather mechanically before taking off into delirium, and there are fleeting visual rhymes that keep recurring. (I especially enjoyed the gestural links between sea creatures, which are deftly used in musical patterns, and Homeric characters.) Inevitably one drifts in and out of Smith’s intricate arabesques; as she herself puts it, “Form becomes amorphous as time is spun within the individual viewer’s attentions.” (JR) (Chicago Filmmakers, 5:00)

Program 4

Short and visually witty, Shizuko Tabata’s Japanese video Childhood (2001) begins with a sheet of white paper crumpled into a ball on a yellow background. After live hands reach in to spread it flat, crowd noise floods the sound track, causing the crinkled sheet to vibrate. Then a girl appears within the sheet as if peering through a window, and the voices are silenced as she smooths out the paper’s creases with her palm. Only two other entries on this program rival Tabata’s, both experimental documentaries: In Bessie Cohen (2000) video maker Hope Tucker uses archival photos and ink drawings to tell the horrifying story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York, which killed 146 people; her eerie narrative is scored with ambient factory noise and a pulse of tiny bells. Hostage: The Bachar Tapes (2001) is drawn from 53 videotapes made in 1999 by Souheil Bachar, who was held hostage in Beirut from 1983 to 1993, part of the time with Terry Anderson and four other Western hostages. Director Walid Ra’ad uses various optical effects to enhance the crude video image of Bachar as he talks about his captors’ psychology of control and the Westerners’ panic at their own homosexual impulses (he alleges that one man approached him in the dark, rubbed his buttocks against Bachar’s crotch, and, after he felt Bachar’s penis becoming erect, punched him in the groin). Also on the program: work by Pierre Yves Clouin, David Gatten, Janie Geiser, Meesoo Lee, Jeanne Liotta, Ben Russell, John Smith, and Liu Wei. 78 min. (JJ) (Chicago Filmmakers, 7:30)

Program 5

Six months after his mother’s death, Neil Goldberg pointed a video camera at his elderly father, Elliott, and asked him to describe one of the more mundane episodes of the grieving process: A System for Writing Thank You Notes (2001) is both funny and touching as the old man haltingly reads off the 17 interchangeable sentences he methodically used to write 97 cards to friends, relatives, hospice workers, and the like. “I’m an engineer,” he reveals at one point, as if we couldn’t have guessed. In Snow Flukes filmmaker Courtney Hoskins creates an ever shifting background of marbled pink and green and superimposes a blue silhouette of a cartoon cat as it captures a snowflake, places it under a microscope for inspection, and discovers it’s the silhouette of a tiny ice skater. And in Seoungho Cho’s mostly black-and-white video 1/1, hands turn a VHS cassette over and over, lift off the tape guard, and rub the tape; the rubbery sound conjures up a grainy color image of a butterfly, and when the tape finally snaps, the butterfly image becomes perfectly sharp, as if it’s escaped. Also on the program: work by Stephanie Barber, Sabine Gruffat, John Marriott, James Otis, Jim Trainor, Thomas Draschan and Ulrich Wiesner, and Cooper Battersby and Emily Vey Duke. 92 min. (JJ) (Chicago Filmmakers, 9:30)


Program 6

Many of these films are by recent graduates, and even the best of them seem like learning exercises, more beholden to the classical avant-garde (read: Stan Brakhage) than to the artists’ individual impulses. Diane Kitchen’s autumn contemplation Wot the Ancient Sod (2001) juxtaposes details of fall foliage (dead leaves clinging to branches, leaf-wrapped larvae) with shots of sunlight filtered through trees, repetitive images that grew on me after a while. Mahine Rouhi and Olivier Fouchard’s French film Didam (2000) also casts a spell with its play of light and shadow (grainy shots of a hooded figure walking through the woods, a giant shadow cast menacingly over a hillside). In Two if by Sea (2001), Brian Dean Richmond and George F. Davis imagine a boat’s forlorn journey using a variety of techniques (eerie nautical sounds, pixilated shots of the hull and oars). And Japanese filmmaker Ichiro Sueoka strikes a droll note in Le Premier Amour de Bambi (2001), whose overexposed images of deer (live and drawn) are looped to music that sounds like a broken record. Also on the program: work by Jason Britski, Madison Brookshire, Kerstin Cmelka, Courtney Hoskins, Saul Levine, and Matt McCormick. 73 min. (TS) (Chicago Filmmakers, 7:00)

Program 7

Digging around a Manhattan thrift store, veteran avant-gardist Lewis Klahr found some old photo contact sheets of three young women in 12 poses each, and his film The Aperture of Ghostings (2001) uses the images to create a trio of breezy, 60s-inspired collages. Each of the segments–“Elsa Kirk,” “Catherine Street,” and “Creased Robe Smile”–is a variation on the use of cutouts, though all three flash the women’s poses while rows of objects suggestive of 60s iconography (knives, plastic flowers) glide over them. Two other films use optical manipulation to pay homage to late parents: in Carpenter (2001), Michael Robinson superimposes old photos of his father in family settings, and in Whole Note (2001), Saul Levine punctuates images of his aged father in a nursing home with blurred and shifting vertical bars that suggest the passage of time. Also on the program: short films by Pete Bianco, Madison Brookshire, Jennifer Fieber, Eve Heller, Casey Koehler, Yuiko Matsuyama, Bernhard Schreiner, Robert Todd, and Catherine Webster. 96 min. (TS) (Chicago Filmmakers, 9:15)