female experimental film magic

sally golding & joel stern at madcat, san francisco

Vladimir's Vladmasters at MadCat

Vladimir's Vladmasters at MadCat

MADCAT WOMEN’S INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL CONSCIOUSLY SETS OUT WITH SAVVY AND INNOVATIVE CURATORIAL PROWESS TO “EXPAND THE TRADITIONALLY ANAESTHETIsED NOTIONS OF WOMEN’S ISSUES AND ATTEMPT TO BURST THROUGH THE CONFINES THAT CAN ENCASE GENRES.”

The curatorial premise then is simple enough—seek out and showcase all the varieties of innovative and challenging film work from around the world that are directed, produced or otherwise created by women.

Transplanted New Yorker Ariella Ben-Dov is the driving force behind the festival. This is the 10th year of MadCat, and founder Ben-Dov never imagined it would evolve into such a major event, with over 1300 submissions, 12 separate programs running over three weeks, and five venues in the San Francisco Bay area.She recognises that audience endurance is a factor and pleads with the crowd to absorb ‘as much as your ass can take.’ The cheering response suggests that she needn’t worry too much.

The creative atmosphere and energy of San Francisco’s experimental film scene is fundamental to MadCat’s durability and positive reception. Long recognised as a global hotspot for avant-garde film (and in American terms, the counterpoint to NYC’s equally vibrant experimental film culture) San Francisco is home to myriad symbiotic film collectives that share audiences, filmmakers, curators, resources and spaces. Some notable examples include established events like Craig Baldwin and Noel Lawrence’s outsider-friendly Other Cinema series, the excellently curated San Francisco Cinematheque, and the incredibly well resourced film programs put together by Pacific Film Archive. And bubbling ebulliently alongside these are underground artist run collectives including New Nothing Cinema, Oddball Cinema and Studio27, which utilise unconventional spaces and draw heavily on expanded cinema and intermedia traditions. Women filmmakers and curators are strongly represented in all of these groups, and MadCat is in the privileged position of being able to draw creatively from this constantly evolving milieu of female film artists toiling away in darkrooms and studios throughout the city.

kerry laitala

MadCat’s strong fascination with the medium specificity of film also sets it apart from other women oriented festivals. Indeed, much of the most striking work displays a technical wizardry (or witchery) with hand-manipulated celluloid, optical printing processes and photo-chemical and mechanical treatments. Local film artist Kerry Laitala is a prime example, her work arising from a chaotic, almost alchemical process involving single-frame Bolex constructions which are layered, painted, scaled and radically re-worked through the use of an optical printer. Laitala’s recent films Terra Firma, Orbit and Transfixed were shown across various festival programs. Terra Firma (2005) incorporates an original decaying nitrate print of a 1905 San Francisco film, Trip Down Market Street (shot four days before the 1906 earthquake and fire), and reconceptualises it through direct filmmaking techniques such as hand contact printing and visual explorations of the technologies that punctuate both the history of the city and, more obscurely, the history of film. Orbit (2006) is another work that hinges on the collision of indeterminate technical processes (“mis-registered images made when a lab accidentally split the film from 16mm to Regular 8”) with beautifully captured source material (the pulsating and flickering lights of a spinning ‘gravitron’ funfair ride). Transfixed (2005), augmented by a typically lush David Shea soundtrack, enigmatically blurs between hazy liquid abstractions and a paganistic children’s costume parade, contriving a strangely frightening experience full of handmade effects and trick imagery.

zoe beloff

New York film artist Zoe Beloff is a special guest of MadCat 2006, gracing the festival with two programs of her beguiling and obsessional work. Beloff challenges cinematic and pre-cinematic history in a highly idiosyncratic manner, freely re-imagining the technological evolution of moving image media to create an unusual form of pseudo-documentary that is speculative both technically and conceptually. The child of two psychologists, Beloff deals not only with the beginnings of cinema, but the beginnings of psychoanalysis in her films. The two concerns are of course indelibly linked; the ‘phantom’ quality of projected images often struck early film audiences as deeply supernatural, a kind of materialisation or conjuring of objects both there and not there. Cinematic illusionism has always been a perfect form for the representation of unconscious desire.

Beloff heightens the sense of illusion and hallucination with her implementation of 3D techniques. Her work here draws primarily not from 1950s gimmick cinema but rather pre-cinematic spectacles such as phantasmagorias, modified magic lantern devices used to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke or semi-transparent screens. Beloff’s 3D is not the familiar red and green anaglyphic system, but a far more sophisticated technique based on the manipulation of polarised light from stereoscopic black and white images that converge and morph as they hit the silver screen.

In Charming Augustine (2005), Beloff speculates through the use of 3D “on what cinema may have been had it been invented a decade earlier.” A fictionalised depiction of Augustine, the iconic young ‘hysteric’ photographed and written about while captive in France’s Salpêtrière Asylum in the 1880s, the film explores the ‘performative’ aspect of hysterical behaviour—a pathology that is ‘acted’ out—and the way in which Augustine’s ‘symptoms’ captivated her doctors with their theatricality and photogenic qualities. We are invited to view Augustine as both mentally disturbed and as a kind of charismatic ‘star’ of the asylum.

Beloff’s Claire and Don in Slumberland (2002) uses real sound recordings of a 1949 psychoanalytic session of a male and female under hypnosis as the narrative basis for a densely constructed mixed-media collage piece utilising 16mm film projectors and coloured stereo slide projections. The manipulative voice of the invisible narrator-psychiatrist prompts and probes the hypnotised Claire and Don, depicted visually as real floating heads attached to ragged doll bodies, their subconscious roaming in a “free floating fever-dream of the Cold War era.” The dialogue is lucid, confessional and somewhat absurd; bodies and voices swap randomly; distant moans, groans and whimpers add to the sense of dislocation. Beloff also treats festival audiences to a selection of early films on psychiatric practices (some acquired fortuitously on eBay and of significant historical importance) and a classic early Betty Boop cartoon featuring a phantasmal creature called “mysterious mouse.” These films help contextualise Beloff’s work and demonstrate the breadth and imagination of her research.

vladimir’s vladmasters

One of MadCat’s most anticipated events is the performance by Vladimir, the Portland based artist who handcrafts her own unique Viewmaster reels, packaging and marketing them in small editions known as Vladmasters. Unless your childhood was cruelly bereft of stimulation you’ll remember the Viewmaster; images are inserted into circular cardboard frames and viewed as 3D projections by holding the plastic viewer up to the light. In 2004, Vladimir was crowned World Champion of Experimental Film by Portland Experimental Film Festival and although that title may be open to some conjecture, there’s little doubt that her work is beautifully formed and hugely enjoyable. Vlad travels with hundreds of Viewmasters and unique reels, enough for each audience member to experience the event in a kind of collective subjectivity. What unifies the experience is the fantastic use of sound, with narration, music and instructional bleeps and dings (for clicking to the next image or changing the reel) keeping the audience in sync and transforming a potentially isolationist technology into something gloriously communal. Indeed, the sound of the enthused crowd clicking their Viewmaster triggers in unison and panic as the pace rapidly increases functions both as a comic and a structural device emphasising the rhythmic playfulness and fluidity of the form. The images themselves construct charming narratives derived from sources including unexplained real-life phenomena, ancient Greek myths and surrealist dinner parties. Vladimir’s work is emblematic of the broad scope of MadCat, where many of the events challenge the way audiences participate and interpret cinema, something of an eternal pre-occupation for avant-garde film.

Over its first decade, MadCat has developed a reputation that stretches far beyond its locality and its program of over 80 films and performances mark it out as an event of international significance. However, as Ariella Ben-Dov accepts and then shares a massive 10th birthday cake with the festival audience, it’s clear that the long-term durability of the festival has its basis in the vitality, camaraderie and imagination of San Francisco’s flourishing film art community.

10th MadCat Women's International Film Festival, San Francisco September 12-27; www.madcatfilmfestival.org; www.othercinema.com/klaitala; www.zoebeloff.com; www.vladmaster.com

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 21

© Sally Golding & Joel Stern; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2006