This Thursday marks the first night of the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, the largest annual showcase of experimental moving-image work in Chicago. Running through Sunday, the festival contains work by a number of notable artists (among them local filmmakers Melika Bass and Deborah Stratman, who are represented in Thursday’s program) as well as up-and-coming figures from the experimental community. Onion City is a welcome reminder of what a great city Chicago is to see avant-garde films and videos. Between the Nightingale, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Siskel Center’s ongoing Conversations at the Edge series, Doc Films and the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago, and Block Cinema at Northwestern University, local moviegoers can expect to find at least one valuable experimental program every week.
The Reader has long played an important role in fostering the city’s experimental film scene. Indeed, one thing I admired about the paper well before I started writing for it was how the film section reported on avant-garde cinema with the same depth and seriousness that it brought to narrative features and documentaries. (I ought to make special mention of the contributions of Fred Camper, a highly regarded experimental film scholar who brought his expertise to the Reader for decades.) Below are six capsule reviews from our archives on work by luminaries of the North American avant-garde. For these columns I normally feature just five capsules, but I decided to include an extra one this week to honor pioneering queer filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 79. Hammer’s work reminds us that avant-garde cinema has always been an outlet for alternative perspectives—and how the challenges posed by experimental film work aren’t always formal in nature. I miss her already.
Films by Joseph Cornell One of America’s greatest visual artists, Joseph Cornell also made a number of films, the best of which recall the otherworldliness of his boxes and collages (a superb collection of which is on view at the Art Institute). The films, most dating from the 50s, are hard to pin down, as he often revised them during his lifetime; several were discovered in his estate and were judged by scholar P. Adams Sitney to be Cornell works even though there’s no record of the artist’s ever having screened them. In one of these, Bookstalls, Cornell considers the transportive power of books, cutting from photographs in books to a disjointed journey through exotic locales (Cornell himself never traveled overseas). In another, Vaudeville Deluxe, he assembles footage of performers, like a man who balances in his mouth a frame that supports a seated woman; the film recalls the fascination with the stage that characterizes Cornell’s boxes. In this program’s print of Angel the colors have faded to pale pastels, yet the statue of an angel in a park fountain and the debris creeping across its waters create a palpable sense of enchantment. The fading of Centuries of June is more damaging, leaving ugly orange browns, but a young Stan Brakhage, who shot the film for Cornell, shows evidence of his later style in his dynamic filming of an old wooden house’s interior and exterior. In Mulberry Street, Cornell’s editing mirrors the fragmented attention of children playing on a New York street: a bust of Mozart in a shop window, a framed picture of a woman, and even a cat become mysterious, sentient presences. The magic, as in most of his films, lies in the way ordinary objects take on extraordinary evocative powers. On the same program, Cornell’s best-known film, Rose Hobart; Children; The Aviary; Cloches a Travers les Feuilles; Joanne, Union Square; By Night, With Torch and Spear; Nymphlight; and Capuccino. —Fred Camper
Notebook: Films by Marie Menken Marie Menken’s rhythmic, sometimes frenetic films influenced Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and others, and are too little seen today. Menken’s Notebook (1963), with its brief sections that lyrically treat subjects like water droplets and Christmas tree lights, seems to have inspired Brakhage’s Sketches (1976). The speeded-up views of Manhattan and of ships traversing New York Harbor in Go Go Go (1964) are engaging, and I especially liked the mysterious image of flames superimposed over moving cell-like shapes in Hurry! Hurry! (1957). Menken’s transformation of the seen world into movement can sometimes seem reductive, though, and some of the other films on this program are weaker. —Fred Camper
Films by Joyce Wieland Nine short works by the Canadian avant-garde filmmaker Joyce Wieland, most of them completed in New York between 1963 and ’68. At once fancifully humorous and quietly poetic, her work uses imagery to build a loose, open sense of space: in Catfood (1967) a cat consumes several dead fish while “natural” wave sounds suggest the fishes’ former habitat and ironically parallel the cat’s rhythmic munching, and Hand Tinting (1967) shows a group of women seen mostly against bare walls, the editing and tinting transforming them into larger-than-life figures. Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968) is one of the oddest and most moving films of the avant-garde: it shows rats being kept captive by cats, then escaping to Canada, where they take up organic gardening. An allegory about Vietnam-era draft resisters, it ultimately becomes a meditation on freedom, but what makes it affecting are the free-floating relationships between images—and images and text. —Fred Camper
23rd Psalm Branch At first it might seem hermetic, but this silent 1967 film poem on war and violence is one of the most staggering masterpieces of film history. Responding to TV images of the Vietnam war, Stan Brakhage mined World War II newsreels and personal footage of home and travels to explore the inner roots of violence; as a letter he writes on-screen suggests, “The checkerboards and zig-zags of Man” make an “eye’s hell.” Intercutting shots with the frame line in different positions (viewers often wrongly assume there’s a problem with the projector) produces a jarring perceptual violence as well as a meditation on the horror of crowds, which is counterposed with the loneliness and doubt of the artist-traveler. —Fred Camper
One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later Titled after Piet Mondrian’s painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, James Benning’s experimental masterpiece One Way Boogie Woogie (1977) consists of 60 one-minute takes shot with a stationary camera in an industrial valley near his native Milwaukee. The film strikes a graceful balance between abstraction (either found or created) and personal history, with ingenious uses of on- and offscreen sound, and it plays like a portfolio of 60 miniature films, each a suspenseful puzzle and a beautifully composed mechanism. A few years ago Benning returned to his hometown to fashion this shot-for-shot remake (2005), planting his camera in the same places and, whenever possible, using the same people. Though it’s not on the same level, it’s a poignant and fascinating companion piece. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
History Lessons The final installment of a trilogy that began with Nitrate Kisses (1992) and Tender Fictions (1995), this 2000 experimental feature by Barbara Hammer completes a well-researched, loosely chronological study of how lesbianism has been codified by the mainstream and embraced by the fringe. The images and sounds excavated, most of them pre-1960s, are impressively vast and obscure (found footage, vintage photos, educational shorts, tabloid headlines, pulp fiction covers), and Hammer juxtaposes them with technical finesse and subversive humor, often noting their homoerotic subtext (clips from a 50s bra commercial are intercut with women disrobing for sex, newsreel footage of army training is inserted into a montage with porn loops, a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt is tweaked into an endorsement of lesbian love). Devoid of voice-over commentary but still remarkably lucid, her gleeful reconstruction of the past also serves to celebrate the more progressive climate today. —Ted Shen v