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. 

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