FESTIVALS Spotlights

TIFF 2018 Dispatch #2: Earth, Wind & Fire

FilmEra is at TIFF from September 6th to 16th. In this dispatch, we dive into experimental films in the Wavelengths program.

Curated by Andréa Picard, the Wavelengths program at TIFF is an annual survey of the avant-garde, the latest from the world of experimental, underground and DIY filmmaking. Picard selects the films and organizes them into groups, typically programming a handful of screenings comprised of half a dozen or so films each. The program has expanded in recent years to include medium length films and a selection of features, absorbing the now defunct Vanguard program. The first selection, “Wavelengths 1: Earth, Wind & Fire,” was at the top of my list because it featured the world premiere of a new film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who goes by Joe), one of the best filmmakers working today (I previously raved about Tropical Malady in my Top 5 article).

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Jenjira Pongpas Widner, sound asleep, in Blue.

Blue stars Joe’s regular collaborator, Jenjira Pongpas Widner. Following from their previous feature, Cemetery of Splendour, in which soldiers succumb to sleeping sickness, Blue finds Jenjira asleep, or at least tossing and turning, wrapped in a blue blanket. A passerby lights a fire, reflected through a pane of glass so that Jenjira’s blue blanket appears to ignite and become engulfed in flames. Blue is twelve minutes long, but contains everything you would expect from Joe, images that shift and transform with their own internal rhythm, that reflect and haunt, serene landscapes and a peaceful, sleeping populace, containing echoes of deeper turmoil. The soundscapes of Joe’s films are intoxicating; the persistent sounds of the natural world, buzzing insects and barking dogs, create an aural blanket that envelops and even comforts. I knew immediately, without a title card, that Blue was starting—it was the second film in the series—because of the audio. I’ve never been to Thailand, but when I’m in a cinema watching Joe’s films, I feel like I’m home, the soundscapes wrapping me in a warm (blue) blanket.

The first film in the series was Polly One, in which Kevin Jerome Everson ignores all warnings and stares directly at a solar eclipse. The result is a tranquil and mesmerizing 16mm film, largely silent and devoid of context. It’s dedicated to his grandmother, who passed away the day before he shot this (Polly was her nickname). I’ve struggled with experimental cinema in the past because I often feel I have no frame of reference. Wavelengths provides an opportunity to talk about the films during Q&As, which help provide context but also insight into the process. A common theme in the Q&A for this series was process and spontaneity; many of the filmmakers had no idea what the footage was going to look like until it was developed, or if they would even have a film at all. Polly One resulted in some beautiful images; it wasn’t my favorite short in the program, but it made for a nice, meditative opening.

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The solar eclipse of 2017 as seen in Polly One.

The other advantage of Wavelengths is that it puts the films in a new context, so that I’m not merely appreciating something like Polly One on its own, but as the first piece of a larger movement in a curated, global cinematic landscape. This makes Picard something of a DJ, mixing shorts like she’s developing a music set, and “Earth, Wind & Fire” is one of the most successful sets I’ve seen from her. Polly One is the quiet intro, before someone comes along and starts a fire in Blue, which leads directly into images of burning fires on a television set in Sky Hopinka’s Fainting Spells. It’s cheeky, but it’s also impressive how well the development of both images and sounds work here. From Everson’s silence, to Joe’s soundscapes, to Hopinka’s musical soundtrack, there’s an invigorating rhythm that slowly develops. Alas, I struggled with Fainting Spells more than any of the other shorts. Conceptually interesting, visually dynamic and musically engaging, I’d still say I liked it, but felt there were too many layers overlapping. Text routinely scrolls across the screen, and I ultimately found the effect a little too scattershot.

Prologue to the Tarot: Glenna isn’t nearly as interesting or ambitious as some of the other shorts in the series, but its simplicity is the key to its success. A portrait of a woman, Glenna, the film’s superimposed images, wonderful music and penchant for gaudy esoterica—the filmmakers, Brittany Gravely and Ken Linehan, describe the film as a cinematic tarot card—is my kind of aesthetic. It’s nothing new, but it’s charming and spellbinding, and a delightful bridge into the following film, the playfully animated Hoarders Without Borders, by Jodie Mack. The film catalogues the collection of mineralogist Mary Johnson, and Mack’s playful sense of humor made this one of my favorites.

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One of the specimens seen in the phantasmagoric catalogue of Hoarders Without Borders.

Mack is more obviously aware of her audience than in some of the other shorts, playing deliberately with expectations. Introduced as a stop-motion animation, Hoarders Without Borders starts out that way briefly before Mack just shows footage of her setting up each shot, immediately collapsing the film into a behind-the-scenes documentary of its own making. She eventually shows us the results of her process, a rapid-fire montage of photos of rocks and gems and minerals that keeps going, and going, and going, until you realize she’s literally cataloguing the entire collection, and the collection is how massive exactly? And how long did this take and is she possibly mad? Mack describes the process as therapeutic; the result is a blistering, bewildering, phantasmagoric collage of… rocks. Am I mad to think this is sincerely funny? In retrospect, even the title is wryly amusing.

Also having their world premieres were ante mis ojos, by Lina Rodriguez, and ALTIPLANO, by Malena Szlam. If there is one flaw in Picard’s set, it’s that ante mis ojos, as the penultimate film in the series, is immediately overshadowed by the thunderous arrival of Szlam’s overwhelming and staggering capper. Each film flows so well into each other, but Rodriguez almost vanishes in the mix; both ante mis ojos and ALTIPLANO survey landscapes familiar to each artist, so that the former sort of functions as a spiritual introduction for the latter. Looking back, I barely remember anything about ante mis ojos, and I suspect it’s the one film that might have been easier to appreciate on its own—although, like Everson’s opening piece, I also felt I wasn’t fully able to appreciate it until the Q&A provided some more context. These pieces would certainly be worth another look.

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Szlam’s superimpositions cause landscapes to overlap and rupture in ALTIPLANO.

On the other hand, I still don’t feel like I’ve escaped from ALTIPLANO. This is where Picard drops the mic. Szlam’s film is a 35mm survey of the Altiplano region of South America. Wavelengths offers a different pace from the rest of TIFF, a quiet space for reflection in the midst of festival mania, and the first series for 2018 offers meditative, atmospheric, and musical rhythms that enchant—until Szlam arrives to make sure we’re all still awake. ALTIPLANO begins like the other shorts, but quickly interrupts and disturbs the spell with a pulsating, unsettling soundscape like something out of a David Lynch film, and landscape images that suddenly rupture, overlap, and transform into something more violent. At one point, Szlam’s superimpositions make a river literally run red, as if with blood. The camera gets closer and closer to the earth, throwing the spectator face first into the dirt.

There’s a clear trajectory to “Earth, Wind & Fire” that Szlam punctuates. Images of the moon drifting across the screen at one point recall the solar eclipse of Polly One, bringing the experience full circle. More than that, it’s the logical conclusion. Polly One shows us the sun, and Blue starts the fire as we move through landscapes, through forests and trees, to the rock collection of Hoarders Without Borders and finally into the earth itself, into the dark, cacophonous world of ALTIPLANO. Like a mystical incantation, Szlam’s film sees the earth opening up, plunging us into the primordial, into communion with something a prioi, like one of Jessup’s visions from Altered States. I felt this one in my bones. As I left the theatre, I was still shaking. And returning to the Festival Street outside the Lightbox, where the films were screened, I felt more attuned to the rhythms of the world around me, my soul nourished.

In the next dispatch, I’ll cover the other activities going on here during opening weekend, including the Share Her Journey initiative, and take a look at world premiere films from female filmmakers around the world, specifically China (Bai Xue, The Crossing) and France (Claire Denis, High Life).

The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to 16th, 2018.

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1 comment on “TIFF 2018 Dispatch #2: Earth, Wind & Fire

  1. Pingback: TIFF 2018 Dispatch #3: Share Her Journey – FilmEra

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