For more than three decades, the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival has brought much of the best current, mostly short avant-garde work to Chicago, and this year’s edition is no different, with four installations and nine shorts programs screening through Sunday at Defibrillator Gallery. The best examples of this type of cinema confound expectation, elude fixed categories, and challenge and provoke viewers. “What the hell was that?” might be an apt response to Jake Barningham’s Pink Horses, Blue Oceans I (Saturday March 5, 4 PM), a work of haunting fragility in which the outline of a horse hovers before us in different forms, seeming at times like a cave painting and at times like a video illusion. An image of a sheet of paper combined with pixilated grids of light patterns gets at the peculiarly divided aspect of digital video, that it can represent fragments of the world but in a highly artificial and impermanent manner.
The “what was that” effect is a sign of a filmmaker trading in new visual organizations, asking the mind to find new ways of coping with imagery. Karissa Hahn and Andrew Kim’s (I) Frame (Thursday March 3, 7 PM) juxtaposes colored grids, an opening door, rapidly flickering images, bare hands, prosthetic arms and legs, turning gears, and moments of blackness to evoke a mechanized, video-dominated, somewhat out-of-control world, characterized by automatic ways of thinking that seem not fully, or not conventionally, human.
Contradiction is another tool filmmakers use to avoid easy resolution and thematic reduction. Jason Halprin goofs on the collagelike nature of his film with the title In Which There Appears Trains, a Carousel, and Rain (Sunday March 6, 2 PM). Inside a train car, the landscape seen through one window moves in the opposite direction from the landscape seen through the other; the image offers an early clue to Halprin’s embrace of diverse and even conflicting images. A band performing becomes a mute downtown building, then a sunset; toys whose arms seem to move robotically become a dense grid of video images (another version of the world-out-of-control theme that recurs in the festival). Zach Iannazzi’s Old Hat (Sunday March 6, 2 PM) presents very brief fragments of images in a way that intensifies perception of each fragment, until that flux becomes a series of long takes of an ugly glass office building, which seems to have materialized like a monster out of what once seemed a changeable world.
Objects also take over in Jodie Mack’s Something Between Us (Thursday March 3, 7 PM). Known as an animator, Mack takes an artist’s approach to photographed objects in this “choreographed motion study” of costume jewelry. One has to admire the nuttiness of a film that shows baubles cavorting on a lawn, or rotating in darkness, or that revels in the prismatic patterns they generate—as if we were viewing some alternate universe in which fake jewels have the intentionality to become performers, creating forests of rhythmically vibrating light.
Some artists still use celluloid as their image source, but as film processing becomes more and more difficult, many have turned to hand-processing, necessarily embracing the many defects that can result. Charlotte Pryce’s Prima Materia (Sunday March 6, 4 PM) offers biomorphic forms and fields of light specks, which gather together, transforming themselves, and come apart; the imagery suggests microscopic worlds coalescing and then dissolving, with specks and splotches from the hand processing adding a filmic element that blends well. Mont Tesprateep’s weird and intriguing Endless Nameless (Saturday March 5, 2 PM), presented on video but originally hand-processed Super-8, shows Thai soldiers working in an army officer’s elaborate private garden. There’s a pompous quality to the setting, but the fuzzy imagery and roughness of the processing defuse any power the scene might have. A snake slithers through grass; the soldiers fool around and then appear to be abusing each other. The effect is one of slow-motion surrealism.
Avant-garde work sometimes engages commercial filmmaking, often as critique and sometimes as homage. Gina Telaroli’s Silk Tatters (Saturday March 5, 7 PM) references Vincente Minnelli’s Brigadoon (1954) and Some Came Running (1958). Minnelli forged a cinematic style in which flat, crowded images (the bar at the beginning of Brigadoon, for example) yielded to images with dynamic depth effects, the latter signaling a kind of freedom; Telaroli’s film, though much more abstract, also uses this kind of layering—close fields of foliage with distant spaces visible behind—to create the sense of a “beyond” that is outside simple materiality. Kerstin Schroedinger’s Fugue (Saturday March 5, 4 PM) reproduces the white streaks recorded a century ago in motion studies of laborers, lights attached to moving hands for example. One wishes Schroedinger had done more with these lines (the film’s structure falls short of its title), but the patterns themselves are graphically fascinating, perhaps because they were random.
Nazli Dincel’s Solitary Acts #4-#6 (Saturday March 5, 9 PM) is the feminist sexual autobiography of a Muslim woman, beginning with her childhood explorations. It’s nicely leavened with some wry humor; a voice-over explains that “she loses her virginity to a carrot,” which makes an understatement of her grandmother’s contention “You will not make a good Muslim.” Dincel uses extreme close-ups of female and male genitalia with flickering, scratched-on titles, which are a bit hard to read at times. This engages the viewer in thinking actively about the filmmaker’s life and physical self, but the work fails tonally near the end when it turns accusatory and self-pitying.
Perhaps I just didn’t get Dan Paz’s Lunch Poems (Fri 3/4, 9 PM). A woman tries to operate a flight simulator a few times but at first steers her plane off the runway; there’s a long imageless section with sounds of military training on the soundtrack; onscreen titles such as so you’re white and I’m blue seem more random than poetic; and there are repeated references to RuPaul, queerness, and drag balls. A festival like this is a minefield for any critic, or any viewer for that matter, because work that tries new things can be hard to evaluate. If a piece makes no sense at all, you may just be looking at it from the wrong angle. But learning there may be another angle is what it’s all about. v