MIFF 2008: lo-tech brilliance

simon sellars: guy sherwin, ben russell, ben rivers

Daumë, Ben Russell

Daumë, Ben Russell

ONE OF THE INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT THE MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL IS THE ‘PARALLEL WORLD’ EFFECT. THE FESTIVAL YOU EXPERIENCE MAY WELL BE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FROM ANYONE ELSE’S, SO MUCH SO YOU MAY SOMETIMES WONDER IF YOU WERE AT THE SAME EVENT AT ALL. THIS YEAR, A FRIEND WAS TELLING ME ABOUT THE ENGLISH COMING-OF-AGE DRAMAS, THE IRANIAN RITES-OF-PASSAGE FILMS AND THE IRISH HUNGER STRIKE RE-ENACTMENT THAT PROVIDED HER WITH HER MOST VIVID FESTIVAL MOMENTS. I WAS TELLING HER I FELT LIKE I’D BEEN AT FILM SCHOOL, WATCHING AND LEARNING ABOUT THE ART OF GUERRILLA FILMMAKING AND HOW TO WORK ‘RIGHT OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM.’ FOR MY FESTIVAL WAS FILLED WITH GEORGE ROMERO ZOMBIE FLICKS (ROMERO BEING THE ULTIMATE MAVERICK), THE ADMIRABLE PROGRAM OF OZPLOITATION FARE (EXCAVATING IGNORED STRATA OF AUSTRALIAN FILM HISTORY), AND THE WONDERFUL ‘EXPANDED CINEMA’ WORLDS OF GUY SHERWIN, BEN RUSSELL AND BEN RIVERS.

Sherwin’s films were shown in a dedicated program at ACMI, while the two Bens shared a program; Sherwin and Russell also performed at Who is Miss Roder?, a subsidiary festival event at 45downstairs, a gallery and performance space in an old city warehouse. Over three performances, it featured the two internationals plus Australian artists in a mix of experimental cinema, performance art, sound design and video mixing. This was a great idea, enabling Sherwin and Russell to present a different side to their work, and it really added to the sense that, this year, MIFF was something different.

ben rivers

At ACMI, the best of the Ben Rivers material was Ah, Liberty!, shot on 16mm black-and-white stock, an exercise in faux ethnographic, mockumentary weirdness: feral kids in sea monster masks scavenge in rusting machinery dumps while odd scenarios play out around them—a car with no doors, for example, being driven in circles on a muddy field. Rivers projects surreal horror vibes, radiating 10 shades of uncanny, with moments of hilarity jolting you into the realm of the simply deranged. Most of his work is like this: unsettling, weird, but nonetheless conforming to its own internal logic. The overall effect is surprisingly ‘narrative’, given the lack of dialogue, the ultra-rapid editing and the warped tableaux. Another highlight was This is My Land, Rivers’ portrait of the Scottish hermit Jake Williams. Rivers’ scratchy träume style is totally suited to Williams’ self-contained, eccentric lifestyle. As he tinkers with the compost, builds bird feeders and tends his ramshackle house, Williams, in his lilting Scottish voiceover, says whatever comes into his head: an internal world that, like Rivers’ films, conforms to its own weirdly centred chronology.

guy sherwin

Sherwin has been making his miniature masterpieces since the early 1970s, building and unpeeling layers of tone, texture and grain, above all with acuity to create a shifting world of perception. A camera is affixed to the back of a bicycle wheel, simply recording the shadows from the bike as it meanders under the sun, then through a puddle of water, calmly recording the wet tyre marks which look like unravelling DNA. A cat sleeps on a roof. The film is slightly sped up. The creature is dreaming, twitching and kicking its paws into the air. Suddenly, it wakes with a start, looks around and wanders off. An elderly couple stand around laughing and joking. Between them is a mirror, which reflects Sherwin winding the crank of the box camera recording this poetic little piece. The film is silent. We watch Sherwin watching the couple who watch us watching Sherwin. These films were all shown at ACMI, where Sherwin introduced them, expressing surprise that his work was being displayed via state-of-the-art equipment. Normally, he said, his films are screened in a small bar or café type environment, where an element of performance comes into play.

Who is Miss Roder? provided that environment. Here, Sherwin presented his work in partnership with Lynn Loo. Vowels and Consonants was a piece for six projectors that screened variations on a simple, flickering font printed from computer onto acetate and then transferred to film. O’s and N’s fly into frame like amoeba under a microscope, vibrating and oscillating in response, seemingly, to the treated voices that announce their arrival; I’m sure the letters were triggering sound somehow. Sherwin and Loo manipulate the projectors to introduce fades, cuts and cross-fades matching the overlapping effect of the voice. The letters fold and bounce off each other. The overall effect is synaesthetic, like you’re actually watching sound take shape (and in fact the sound design was really something too—an ominous, post-industrial hum).

Man with Mirror was amazing, but it’s complicated to explain, let me try. Sherwin stands in the middle of the space, holding a mirror, which is painted white on the reverse side. Onto the board, the projector beams film of a younger Sherwin (from 1976) doing exactly the same. With a twist of the board, young Sherwin morphs into the older version. He turns the mirror to the reflective side, while young Sherwin turns the board over to the white side, which the real-life Sherwin is doing also. The latter then turns his board over to reveal himself, and then flips back to the mirror, which is now reflecting back to us young Sherwin in profile, the board outstretched in front of him. He turns to face us, flips the board over to the white side and we see the older Sherwin now standing in profile, holding the board in front of him. And on and on in endless variations. It’s like a form of time travel: a man disappearing into light and shadow and reappearing as a younger version of himself. It elicited ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the audience, and rightly so: the choreography was mind-bending.

ben russell

At ACMI, Ben Russell’s films included one from a static camera fixed on a wildly stuttering neon sign and another recording workers leaving a factory in Dubai: field recordings, the unblinking eye of the lens inducing subtle changes in people’s behaviour just by being there. Then there was Black and White Trypps Number Four. Russell takes a strip of 35mm film from a Richard Pryor performance and treats, warps and re-projects it, so that it folds in on itself, as does Pryor’s spiel, which pokes fun at white people and their paranoia about black people. Pryor trips on stage, the image stutters, then burns away as if caught in the projector, melting, reforming, white gaps in the film becoming black, black becoming white, until Pryor ends up leached away to a white screen, his voice slowed to a scratchy burr, and we are left to interpret the meaning: is Pryor a reverse racist? Or is Russell just having loads of fun (artistically and philosophically) with ‘black’ and ‘white’, gaining maximum mileage from minimal materials?

At Miss Roder, Russell upstaged Sherwin, screening a loop from his fake ethnographic film, Daumë, which screened in full at ACMI and is a brilliant piece of work in its own right. Again, how to describe? Young men dressed as ‘natives’ engage in strange rituals, throwing chairs at each other, punching each other randomly. The events are seen from many different angles. Black and white, flickering film. Bizarre masks and a heightened sense of surreality. It’s no wonder Russell and Rivers feel simpatico. At the performance, wearing nothing but underpants and a Church of the Subgenius mask, Russell manipulated the loop with two projectors, blurring the films together, flying by the seat of his (under)pants, improvising a pure performance of analogue dexterity (also manipulating sound via a mixing board, spewing forth granulated sheets of noise). Here, the aesthetic and philosophy of filmmaking becomes a raging, malleable, shapeshifting beast.

more magic

All the Miss Roder acts were excellent. Other highlights included Jon Pak’s performance piece The Feast, in which a small restaurant is actually set up in the space. Two actors, a man and a woman, enter. They sit down to eat, served by an impudent waiter. Their every movement is wired for ultra-amplified sound. There is a video screen upon which their images are projected, electronically treated so that they appear to be underwater. They are nervous with each other and every gesture, burp and nervous laugh is magnified painfully and uncomfortably. Steven Ball’s Personal Electronics was an absorbing study of paranoia, surveillance and the thoroughly fruity modern day phenomenon of ‘gang stalking’ (Google it, you won’t believe it), with pixelated video footage snaking around a suburb, recording people, cars, houses, neighbours, while an unhinged woman in voiceover tries to make sense of a world she thinks is out to get her. Later, Ball did a spoken word reading from similar case studies in his detached tones, while the insane pixels continued to unfurl.

I left these performances feeling divided: half inspired that so much amazing work is being done with scant resources, old media and boundless imagination, half annoyed with myself for wasting so much time watching crap film over the last few years when there’s all this to explore.

The Guy Sherwin, Ben Russell and Ben Rivers expanded cinema program
tour to the Melbourne and Brisbane International Film Festivals was curated and organised by Danni Zuvela, Joel
Stern and Sally Golding (OtherFilm).

Guy Sherwin, Ben Russell, Ben Rivers, Melbourne International Film Festival, Otherfilm, ACMI, July 30; Who is Miss Roder?, presented by MIFF, Greyspace, Otherfilm, Arts House; 45 downstairs, Melbourne, Aug 1-2

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 23

© Simon Sellars; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2008
Close

Join our e-dition list

Sign up for free online e-ditions offering occasional reviews and commentary and curated selections from and response to the RealTime archive 1994-2017.