The latest big-name event to drop its payload online is the 66th edition of the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, an annual mixed bag of experimental debuts, distributor showcases, international calling cards, and undefinable whatsits. Even with the abbreviated running times, there was too much to take in, so I gravitated toward known entities and intriguing descriptions, same as I would have had I been doing the festival "on the ground." Here's the first group of viewings.
A Month of Single Frames (Lynne Sachs, 2019)
This is a posthumously collaborative work in which Sachs' friend Barbara Hammer entrusted her with a selection of unfinished material from a 1998 residency and offered her the opportunity to complete the film as she saw fit. The resulting work incorporates Hammer's highly formalized attention to seaside landscapes -- sand dunes, expansive horizons -- in what amounts to a retroactive diary film. The soundtrack mostly consists of audio recordings of Hammer describing her relationship to the space and how it affected her work and her thinking. The result, as you might expect, is a kind of sidelong contribution to Hammer's filmography: we see her muscular lyricism as organized through Sachs' somewhat more linear compositional tendencies. It's far too alive and present-tense to be a eulogy. Just a lovely, hard-to-position hybrid object.
The Initiation Well (Chris Kennedy, 2020)
Kennedy's last film, the rather magisterial Watching the Detectives, would be a tough act for any artist to follow. Perhaps wisely, he has decided to make something deliberately small, operating in a wholly different idiom than much of his previous work. As such, The Initiation Well displays a few growing pains of trying on a newer language, but it also shows significant promise. Shot in Super-8, the film takes us down into an "initiation well" at the Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, Portugal -- an inverted tower into which religious initiates were expected to circle down as part of their process of enlightenment. (The very concept is fascinating, since this anabasis flies in the face of nearly all Western symbology, spiritual attainment being equated with skyward movement.) The film is essentially gestural, with Kennedy using the camera to describe disrupted arc segments around the inside of the well. Samuel La France's soundtrack glissandi serve to reinforce the spiraling of the image track. While The Initiation Well satisfies as a spatial sketch, it seems to end a bit too soon. Its rapturous subject matter would invite a more operatic approach. But of course Kennedy, devoted to the medium as he is, shot a three-minute cartridge and adhered to that limitation, and I can't begrudge him that.
Atomic Bomb Loading Pit (Lukas Marxt, 2019)
Marxt's work, in my opinion, keeps getting more interesting. This is in part because, much like the land art and earthworks that clearly inspired him (Smithson, Heiser, de Maria, Matta-Clark), his films have moved through a high formalist phase and have taken those lessons into a more explicit engagement with politics. Following his recent work on water movement, Imperial Valley (cultivated runoff), his new work is even more explicit in its aims. Marxt trains his camera on a concrete bunker, a literal hole in the ground. Through onscreen text and multiple electronic voices reading declassified military documents, we learn that this is (as the title indicates) an atomic bomb loading pit. A truck lowers the bomb into the pit, which is then hoisted into the bomb bay of the airplane (say, the Enola Gay) which is maneuvered over the pit. The fact that this particular hole, just off the runway of a nondescript military runway, itself looks like an earthwork from the 1960s, only squares the circle with respect to minimalism, its preference for industrial materials, and the mass destruction of military-industrial complex.
Berzah (Deren Ercenk, 2020)
I hate calling cards. Narrative short films almost always leave me cold, because a) they are usually just sketches for the feature film that the director actually wants to make; and b) because it is very difficult to tell a satisfying story within less than 70 minutes. But every so often a film comes along that breaks those rules. Berzah, in a mere 25 minutes, offers a tight triptych of unrelated stories about urban discomfort during a sweltering Turkish summer. A woman on vacation is trying to cool off but the power keeps going out in the hotel room at her resort. A retired professor and his daughter are waylaid on the highway by an old student of his who has no sense of boundaries. And a mover has to get an armoire up to a very inconvenient location. And that's pretty much it. Ercenk's editing, framing, use of pacing and slow burn -- her ability to ratchet up the awkwardness in various social situations until someone is forced against their better nature to be brusque or condescending -- more than once made the think of Asghar Farhadi. Mark my words. We'll be hearing from this woman.
Semiotics of the City (Daniel Burkhardt, 2020)
We might call this one a "programmer," a perfectly inoffensive avant-doodle that could round out a collection of shorts without doing any serious damage to the whole. A sort of Martha Rosler meets Peter Greenaway exercise, Semiotics consists of dozens of meticulously framed urban images which are grouped according to an alphabetical series of one-word categories. ("Animals," "Balconies," "Barriers," "Bells," etc.) What one finds is for all the extensive apparent taxonomy, the images mostly look the same. Is that the point? In the end, it's the sort of film you could imagine an extremely advanced student producing, in that it demonstrates facility with the tools of the trade without staking out any new territory whatsoever.
Labor of Love (Sylvia Schedelbauer, 2020)
Schedelbauer perfected her unique Vorticist style -- multiple images toggling back and forth while expanding and receding, creating a disorienting tranche of visual material -- using black and white found footage. With her last film, Wishing Well, she began to experiment with color, with (in my minority opinion) mixed results. But perhaps she was just gearing up for the tour de force that is her newest film. Labor of Love is an organic outgrowth of Schedelbauer's previous work, but takes her career into entirely new terrain.
Inspired by the film Love's Refrain by the late Paul Clipson, Labor of Love uses some of the conventional trappings of New Age culture -- soft astral synthesizer music, a woman's voice speaking about the spiritual limits of bodily perception -- and turns them against themselves, blasting at them with a visual scheme that bypasses rational thought and caresses the mind's eye. Clearly in dialogue with the "mandala" films of John and James Whitney and (especially) Jordan Belson, Labor of Love connects those meditative gestures to the pummeling psychotronic flicker-mandalas of Paul Sharits. That's to say, Schedelbauer has produced a film fully aware of its history, and yet somehow non-discursive and transcendent, an organized field of color that oozes between hypnosis and aggression.
Representational images float to the surface now and again, only to be sucked back into the eye-vacuum. A landscape, a butterfly, a woman in ecstasy. But these are like drifting flecks that rush past our heads as we go under, gasping for breath, beneath wave after wave of haptic light. Why Schedelbauer chooses to end Labor of Love with concentric diamond shapes -- a sudden bit of Frank Stella to rescue us from the Frankenthaler undertow? -- I cannot say. It's my only reservation regarding this body-blow of a film.