BFI screened an evening of artist and experimental film – HAUNTED BY CINEMA – as part of their regular EXPERIMENTA strand conjoined with STEPHEN KING ON SCREEN – THU 14 SEP 2017.
We love artist and experimental film. We love both mainstream and (much) more marginal horror. This should have been our night, but it almost wasn’t (well, not quite).
BFI programmer Helen de Witt gave good introduction, jangling our nerves with talk of film itself becoming the aggressor. Although much derided, she reminded us all (well, the 25 of us that turned up…) that genre is where moving images started with early pioneers using chemical formats to create fantastical effects. More contemporary pioneers have been “merging the medium with the monstrous content” forging films that have become “preying entities seeking to destroy us”.
These are bold (tongue in cheek?) claims and weaponised celluloid was missing from parts of the programme. As committed horror hounds, maybe this hype balloon was always going to pop? Horror cinema itself can be wildly experimental and transgressive in the right hands, giving these disparate filmmakers a lot to live up to.
There’s another itch we need to scratch which is the extent to which such experimental films are intended to be seen in a straightforward cinema setup. Despite experimental film having its founding in the cinema – and often poorly shown in gallery settings where the come and go environment crowds out the content – it can feel slightly awkward watching this stuff when sat in popcorn seating. Our survival strategy is to leave expectation of narrative (either documentary or fiction) at the door. Then, settle into the dark and let the images assault you. Which brings us to the films.
David Leister, 2016, 8min.
David Leister’s opening salvos mashed up a gothic horror favourite. If you can’t guess which 1935 film got the 16mm remix treatment, then we won’t be picking you for the next pub quiz… Rejigged, remixed and reverbed, this was an effective amuse-bouche for the rest of the programme but left us hungering for the haunting original. It looks like Leister has done something similar with another classic with his entry in this year’s London Film Festival, PHANTOM (part of SURFACE TENSIONS, 14 OCT 15:45).
A WOMAN RETURNS FROM A JOURNEY
Ruth Novaczek, 2016, 11min.
This is one where our shark got a little jumpy… Described by de Witt as more of a film noir than a horror show, Novaczek’s collage of story fragments – both found and filmed – sputters through an episodic narrative that flirts with horror – “I’m not kidding: there are zombies everywhere” – but remains someplace else. As a last minute replacement in the programme due to technical difficulties, we can be forgiving.
Eric Baudelaire, 2009, 27min.
At first glance, THE MAKES didn’t appear to get the genre memo at all and our shark is beyond fidgety. Declaring its intent early – “the most beautiful films are the ones we haven’t seen” – this faux DVD special feature evolves into something rather unsettling. Real French flm critic Phillipe Azoury presents an unreliable thesis about Michelangelo Antonioni’s movies as he thumbs through a collection of archival photographs that may or may not have anything to do with the maestro’s abandoned Japanese films. “A remake of a film that was never made”, de Witt makes play on the word ‘medium’ to conjure the spirits from this one. The ghostly does indeed take form as unseeable moving images are summoned from beyond our reach.
Peter Tscherkassky, 1999, 10min.
OUTER SPACE was the real nightmare writ large where “the film is the monster” (de Witt). A filmic mashup of THE ENTITY (as if the original wasn’t intense enough), we seem to be watching Barbara Hershey through the blurring and disintergrating film which then eschews our participation before becoming fully sentient in its assault. Bleeding into pure abstraction, the powerful strobing lights should surely have come with a health warning and the intensity of sound asserts a sweaty stranglehold. Unlike BoF, this took an existing horror film and made something entirely raw, new and aggressive with it. If you like your horror full throated, this was the money shot.
“Any semblance of a cinematic narrative is overwhelmed and assaulted, leaving it scattered in a thousand shards amid an entirely unique cinematic language.” Rhys Graham, Senses of Cinema, 2001.
Paul Bartel, 1968, 28min.
Last up was “paranoid fantasy” SECRET CINEMA by Paul Bartel. A proto TRUMAN SHOW – with a dash of CECIL B. DEMENTED – this is the tale of an everyday Jane who discovers that her life is being secretly recorded for a series of wildly popular film comedies. As realisation of her stardom tips her into insanity, Bartel’s tale has the broad brush of CREEPSHOW and would surely have made a very decent journey into THE TWILIGHT ZONE. The final sequences where Jane is assaulted by a camera-wielding director wearing an ape mask take us full circle to the point where cinema itself has become the aggressor.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- BFI’s EXPERIMENTA strand is dedicated to “artist film and alternative moving image culture” and is always on at the Southbank mothership. Check their regular programme for details.
- There is a dedicated EXPERIMENTA strand as well as a number of short film screenings as part of the BFI London Film Festival (04 to 15 OCT) – read our preview here.
- STEPHEN KING ON SCREEN continues at BFI until 01 OCT 2017.
Featured image: THE MAKES (2009).