Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sweet (16)mm at Northern Exposure

Kevin Obsatz has a Bolex 16mm camera. It records 24 still pictures every second (or more or less, depending on where you set the frame rate), but it records no sound. The camera creates its own soundtrack, a steadily rotating clicking sound that means that it is exposing frames to light, and Kevin explains that in this age of silent cell phone cameras, the soundtrack that his camera produces sparks conversations about the nature of the device. Kevin has recorded these conversations with that device, but we see these talks in image only, images of hands moving, or mouths ending a sentence and smiling. Instead of the words of conversation we have films of the nonverbal parts of talking, the parts that we are told carry the majority of the information in a conversation. As we watch his images of the hands and bodies of people talking, we have no idea of the topics of these conversations, but we know the passions of these people, their sense of humor, their warmth toward each other, their reservations.

In late December, Obsatz screened four of his 16mm films as part of the Northern Exposure film series at the Trylon Microcinema. Northern Exposure is a local filmmakers showcase curated by Adam Loomis and Kate Rogers. The world outside the Trylon was turning white even after sunset as Minneapolis had its first big snowfall of the season, and inside the theater, Obsatz's images privileged the brighter end of the black and white spectrum by reaching to the sun and to the fingers and blowing hair of the people he films.

Obsatz hand processes 16mm, transferring the strands of film from bucket to bucket with his own hands and fingers to process, wash and fix it. The act of processing his films this way fills his movie skies with strange dancing lines that distract and bind you to the image, and specks of dust far too large to ignore, a constant snowfall even on the sunniest of black and white days.

His films are journeys through time and space. Three of the films took us on very specific journeys from one place to another and then back again. The earliest film, "Empire Builder," recorded only a few minutes but almost everything of the short train journey a friend of his took to Milwaukee to visit his dying father. The film that we saw at the Trylon was every frame that Obsatz filmed on the trip, some short bursts of the train ride but mostly the weave of superhighways that choke downtown Milwaukee. Those weaving elevated freeways were reflected in the weave of tubes in the hospital room that led from one medical device or another to the sheets of the bed where his friend's immobile father was dying.

The film that opened the screening was a journey through time, a Bolex diary of the year 2012 as seen by Obsatz, from the snows to summer and back again, with conversations and dinners and a trip to the everglades and a friend's wedding and those hands and smiles and mostly the babies and young children of his south Minneapolis community. Obsatz explained after the screening that many times he set the camera on a table during a conversation so that he could record film without blocking his face with the camera, so that he could stay engaged with the moment and still film it, and this low table angle makes many of his shots seem to come from the viewpoint of a newborn, a low angle that fixes our attention on movement, as if we were looking up from our spot in the crib, as if we were learning how to use our eyes.

His film is about seeing things in your home as if you were on vacation, seeing everything for the first time, the reflections of trees in the puddles of the street, the pattern of clothespins holding up nothing but themselves on a short clothesline that connects one yard with another, cabbages that open their leaves to us only to show the shadows at their core. This film journey of the year 2012 ends with the image of a baby crawling toward the camera and to us as the end of the film strip, exposed to light, pulses with white, beating and expanding into pure sun.

In the third film of the evening, "Aberdeen," Obsatz took himself and his camera along with the band The Brass Messengers, to Aberdeen, South Dakota. The performance the band played there occupies a shot or two of the film, Aberdeen couples dancing to rhythms that couldn't possibly come from a brass band - this is not the usual band on the road documentary. Most of the film is about the faces of the band members. One sequence of the film might have been a full 100 foot spool of 16mm film, with the roll divided evenly into one long held shot of the face of each member. The sequence begins with the unfogging of the film from white and ends with it pulsing back into white fog. It is three minutes of faces, of faces with interesting hair and wrinkles and expressions that challenge and come to a sense of peace with the fierceness of that three-eyed camera and its clicking, faces that act and try not to act. The film ends with the band standing in a cramped space beneath a sidewalk with a strange skylight showing the shadows of people walking by above. The light from the glass bricks of the sidewalk is so clear and old, and the faces of the band members are both puzzled and amazed.

The second film of the evening, "Crazy Horse," is a work of fiction that is also a home movie, a story of a trip of a man and his teen daughter to the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is a small story but also as big as tensions that bend and break the continent, the network of bombs buried in the ground and in our relationships to each other, how we learn nothing about ourselves through the landscapes that we colonize with tourism and travel brochure explanation, a dance to try to make sense of gigantic faces.

"Empire Builder" is also about these things. In Milwaukee, Obsatz, his camera, and the son of the dying man visit a natural history museum of dioramas purporting to show this continent before the domination of Europeans, the magical movie world of wild shirtless native people, spears always at the ready. These dioramas, decades old, are just as motionless as the dying man, but they are full of pat explanations while the dying man is full of the mystery of any living thing, the shadows between the cabbage leaves. The diorama figures will always be so well explained that they will lead us nowhere while the dying man takes us to the light, the light of the fogging film that returns us to the snow-filled night, to our lives as fogged and nicked and dusty as hand-processed 16mm film.