Thursday, November 30, 2017

Silence with Sound: Sam Hoolihan

"Silence with Sound" was the name of the program of films by Sam Hoolihan at the Trylon Theater last night, part of the quarterly Northern Exposure series. The program featured 45 minutes of films of which the only soundtrack was the sewing machine hum of the super 8 and 16mm projector, as well as any audience sound in the packed theater. The last part of the program was a multi-projector piece with live music performed by Crystal Myslajek and John Marks.

Hoolihan's show began on super 8, with what he called, "diary films." They mostly presented sunsets filmed one frame at a time, so that the trees shiver as the sky darkens, and clouds try to cross the sky before they bleed to darkness. Sometimes he would mount the camera vertically, so that the clouds would spill like marbles dropped down a slope or rise up like escaped balloons.

In a longer super 8 piece, filmed at an art residency, he cuts between single framing the passage of the sun and shadow over paintings of landscapes with showing the changes of light over actual landscapes. All these super 8 films were in blazing sunset color, which contrasted radically with his next film, made on 16mm in Black and White.

His "City of Lakes" is  a quiet meditation on the city of Minneapolis and its movement and stillness. Often filmed through a telephoto lens that flattens space, the images have the character of classic reportage still photography, but with slightly slowed-down movement that gives it all the feel of a waking dream. Most of the filming happened in 2015, but the images almost seem to want to overlap all of the city's years one on top of the other, so you can see the trails and trees that came before the streets and buildings, and even into the space age city that expands the city into the sky and stars. You can almost feel yourself as the disembodied observer standing a mile or two away from some scene but able to witness it with complete clarity, a time traveler in a world of life and presence that might also have happened before or yet, or never actually did or will happen.

The title of the film refers to the lakes of Minneapolis, but the film is really about the city's river, and the horizontal and vertical river movement that influences all motion there, plant, vehicle and human. When the people do make their first appearances in the film, after some time, they come in a river, one face after another, one bit of movement or action or expression after another, like waves and rolls on water. The city is full of people, and then it is empty again, or just single figures, bent wearily over a bench or framing themselves beneath a bridge while the river plays on.

The film ends with both a July 4th fireworks show and a snowstorm, the farthest extremities of the Minneapolis atmosphere, and in the night sky as millions of snowflakes defy all expectations of assumed motion and all we see are white dots on velvet black making swirls and streaks of pure beautiful chaos.

The river motion and the chaos also frame the last piece in the program, "Stasis and Motion," a collaboration between the two musicians and the filmmaker, though from the Q and A after the show it was clear that all three makers' roles were anything but firm. Most of the visuals were created based on musical ideas from Myslajek, and Marks, who distorted and looped Myslajek's piano and vocals through an analog synthesizer, shared filming duties with Hoolihan. Sometimes one would re-shoot the same roll of film that that the other had already exposed to create blind collaborative double exposures.

The double exposed film projected dually multiplied the play of light and dark, and expanded by the music, the effect was many times euphoric. Images of trees and water, abstracted into patterns of white and black through the hand-processed high contrast black and white film, tugged you in all directions. A rock in water was the setting for a final exploration of the dance of sun on water, a dance like that of the snowflakes in "City of Lakes," an orgy of forest spirits singing in circles of light and Myslajek's haunting echoed vocals.

Hoolihan's "Kenilworth Sketch," the last of the silent films to play, used double exposure in vivid color to turn the screen into a painting made on waving grass. One image, of a blooming white bush against a field of fading grass that suddenly turns into a gently waving lake through superimposition, is one that particularly holds to my retina and brain.

Hoolihan explained that his films were not so much about telling stories but making you look at things. He compared his filmmaking to music, and his role running the percussive projectors in back of the house as being part of the band with Myslajek and Marks, playing their keyboard and synthesizer up front beneath the light. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Three Nights in a CAVE

For many years, the middle months of winter, January and February, meant experimental films to me. That's because the Walker Art Center always seemed to show programs of experimental films during those months, and I would go as much as I could to the Walker Theater and sit with some people and also many empty seats to expand my mind and also hear in person from many of the makers who had come from far away to share with us the zero degrees outside.

That all seemed to disappear at some point - one recent year I realized that I wasn't going to experimental films in the year's first months, but it seems like that tradition may have returned with something called the CAVE Festival, which Festival guy Kevin Obsatz kept referring to as the "first annual."

Is it Plato's Cave, where we can't see the real world but only shadows cast by fire on the wall, or is it the cave we all want to climb into when we really think about who is going to be our next president? No, CAVE stands for Cinematic, Audio, Video Experimentation. There were three very cold nights in three very warm places with visitors from even colder and much warmer places to present films projected on film and video, some with sound and some without.

Limited evening bus service and nights so cold that I didn't want to stand outside too long waiting for transfers meant that I missed some of the films when I had to exit in the darkness, images still flickering, to catch a bus. But I saw and heard far more than I can digest and process, and many of the images are still torturing and delighting me. It was three nights of layers and nylon coat scrapings and snow pack scrunching and industrial rat-a-tatting and microphones rubbed upon flesh.

The first night featured films from Winnipeg and the Twin Cities. Visitor Aaron Zeghers said hello from his belly with a "Hello, How Are You" Daniel Johnston t-shirt that took us completely into the world of his northern city, that and a program that included an absurd and hilarious documentary about what happens when beer bottles strike famous heads in Winnipeg, to his own piece of snowy crystal cinema, "Everything Turns..." featuring super 8 film of geography and geometry and numbers and then bursting into a projection through a crystal that turned the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater into a cathedral of colored light.

I had to leave midway through the local films to catch my bus, but I was so honored to have my own little video about an operation I had as part of it.

The second night filled to more than capacity the Mediatheque room of the Walker Art Center, which probably had the most high tech projection facilities but also the most technical issues. But I will never forgot the third shot of Nashville's Jonathan Rattner's film "The Interior," an extended image that put me as completely as I could ever imagine into the mind of a dog. Rattner's films, made during a four week stay in a remote part of Alaska, documented the life of dog mushers and their dogs.

After a couple images that both oriented and disoriented us to where we were, we kept on the expressive face of one dog as others began to howl in the snow. We were so close and intimate to this dog in image that I began to think, do I howl yet? And then, when it was time to howl, I howled too, or at least the dog that I was seeing so closely howled. With the movement of that dog's face and eyes and fur I was sharing some kind of thought with it.

This wasn't the kind of anthropomorphizing you do in a fairy tale or Disney film, it was a direct connection with a being very different from you, but still an intimacy of dinner and morning and night and speed and snores and the moon.

We shared a more remote intimacy with the humans in the film. It may even have been as cold in Minneapolis as it was in the places of these films, but this wasn't a cold of skyscrapers and bus stops, it was a cold of headlamps and constant overcoats and snow. Life was completely covered in ice and white, and had retreated completely into steam and breath.

The second program of the second night, curated by Hannah Piper Burns of Portland, I also only saw part of, but I remember a young woman defiantly defining herself against the monochrome men and the polychrome media that engulf her, a flea and servant allegory around a smoky fire, the hats and glasses of internet psychics.

The third night was at The White Page Gallery, in two storefront spaces. The white interior walls were a perfect setting for the winter films of Robert Todd of Boston. While we seek out eyes and smiles and facial clues from the dogs and people we see on screen, he denies us these to give us the most intimate, mundane and eternal details of the physical things around him. His film "Threshold," which he described as a piece about not wanting to walk out his door, begins and ends on Greek columns but mostly revels in water drops on a window that explode into a machine gun of splintered and sliced images that combine the negative with the positive.

The third night's second program, presented by Ariel Teal representing the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles, presented us sunny images of swingset leg-shaving, Griffith's elephants blasted by Mountain Dew, and that bright summer sun burning through paper messages to us.

In the Gallery next door to the screenings was Colby Richardson's Inner Vision, an exhibit that sent a video feedback TV signal to three other TV screens in the room. Because the signal was actually broadcast from the room and traveled to the other TV's through their antennas and not through a cable, the images on those other TV sets changed as you walked between them and you interrupted the broadcast signal. By walking around these TVs playing, appropriately, TV snow, I could affect the image, I could create the technical difficulties that broke it all up and made it strange or interesting, I could dance my quick exit between the antennas before I rushed out into the dark and extreme cold to catch my bus.

Thanks to the Cellular Cinema crew, I have many many images and sounds that have broadened my own horizons, that can brew inside me and inspire me to brave some new trails of my own to illumine the rest of these cold dark days.