Preview: “Revolutions Per Minute Festival 2020”
Jan 31–Feb 2, 2020, University Hall 2300 and 4400 at UMass Boston.
Full schedule at revolutionsperminutefest.org. Free admission (donations suggested).
Despite this next iteration being only the second hosted in the Boston area, the Revolutions Per Minute Festival already represents the single most expansive public offering of noncommercial cinema happening in the city on a yearly basis. And while it’s true that January is quite early to be characterizing specific events as offering the “most” of anything in the year to come, the numbers behind RPM Fest 2020 will indeed be hard to best: Per the introductory notes from curator and festival co-director Yangqiao Lu, this year’s lineup “featur[es] 107 short films, 5 audio-visual live performances, a documentary feature film, and 9 installations… drawing [from] a wide range of techniques and modes of filmmaking ranging from avant-garde poetics, non-fiction, experimental animations and narratives to dance films, performances, and contemporary art practices.”
RPM Fest 2020 brings those films and artworks together at Umass Boston, carefully grouped into 15 individual programs all playing over the course of a single weekend. And while a good number of the artists featured in those programs will be familiar to those who follow the “experimental sidebars” of the “international festival circuit,” the sheer breadth of this festival nonetheless ensures that for most attendees—myself included—the vast majority of individual films will instead represent a first encounter with the artist who made them. In that, RPM 2020 is a survey in the truest sense of the word: an exhaustively researched examination into a wide variety of filmmaking modes as they’re being practiced in the present tense.
This year’s program begins on Friday, Jan. 31, with the opening of the “Codes and Archives” exhibit (11am at University Hall 4400) and the screening of the festival’s only feature-length inclusion, Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM (dir. Zhang Mengqi, China, 2018, 94 min., 3 pm at University Hall 2300). Ahead of the festival, I was able to a significant portion of the short-form works (around half of them, I think, although I wasn’t keeping count); and brief notes on some personal highlights from that batch are included below (they are listed alphabetically by filmmaker, with screening information below each title).
By Dianna Barrie and Richard Tuohy. Australia, 2019, 9 min.
Playing in Program 6: “Slice the Eye!” Feb 1, 3:30 pm, University Hall 2300.
Films by Dianna Barrie and Richard Tuohy have screened in the Boston area before, and I already regretted missing those shows, but never more so than after seeing Valpi; which I now, in turn, greatly anticipate seeing in a proper theatrical setting. A mesmerizing interpretation of how images necessarily transform real spaces into something unfamiliar and perhaps even unreal, Valpi depicts the port city of Valparaíso in Chile, but dissected into horizontal strips: Beginning with black screen, the film reveals panning images of the locale’s streets from the bottom up, one-by-one, until the frame seems to have been sliced into 12 distinct pieces (see above). And the continuity of the images within the frame become pointedly jumbled in the process; so that, for instance, a car passing by in one of the bottom strips might be seen passing by the same spot in a higher strip a few seconds later, now a ghost of itself. It’s an overarching effect that, given the beautifully vague lines separating the “strips”, seems to have been accomplished with purely analog film processes—further solidifying the central idea that it’s the materiality of film itself, perhaps even moreso than any individual artist, that actually reshapes a place. Like a puzzle film without any solution to work toward, Valpi engages one’s desire to put all the pieces together, then pushes that impulse somewhere far beyond simple fulfillment.
By Andrew Busti. 2017, US, 4 min.
Playing in Program 9: “Expanded Cinema II” Feb 1, 9 pm, University Hall 2300 and 4400.
A bombastic widescreen lightshow that utilizes various filmic techniques to warp and transform landscape imagery into a shape that’s almost planetary (see image at top); then flickers and spins these makeshift globes at a speed that quite pleasurably defies full comprehension. Despite viewing it at home, presumably reduced from its full power, the film still achieved for this writer a certain physiological effect—specifically, the exhilaration of motion at high speed.
Story of the Dreaming Water – Chapter One
By Brittany Gravely. US, 2 min.
Playing in Program 14: “Only the Buried Left Alive”. Feb 2, 7 pm, University Hall 2300.
Made by “rephotographing and double-exposing found footage on [an] optical printer”, Gravely’s first Story of the Dreaming Water seems to depict research images of small animals swimming or being moved around in water, and then a human baby doing the same. The frame, in which there appears edges, dirt particles, etc. (h/t Owen Land), is monochromatic (the film was hand processed); and via that palette the animals seem pure black against the washy, grey expanse of the water, which covers the whole image and grants it an overriding consistency even despite the deliberately arrhythmic form of the edit (cuts and splices interrupt regularly, including frames of explanatory text, which are washed off screen much faster than they can be read). Eventually the opacity of the image seems to shift, revealing a landscape beyond the first subject. That revelation does not define or shape the film, though, or at least not so much as the erratic movement of the swimming bodies do beforehand. When combined with the scratches and sparkles of the film material itself, those aquatic images become eerie, shadowy, and almost nightmarish in their motion. And in that, for me, Story of the Dreaming Water brings to mind early cinema experiments, or at least the current state of extent ones—more specifically, Gravely’s film reminds me of Monkeyshines No. 1 and No. 2 (1890), a pair of camera tests that similarly depict jittery movement within damaged, rattling frames. For their uncanny, nightmarish motion, for the random, unrepeatable nature of their creation, and for so many other, more personal reasons, those Edison pictures are, for me, among the scariest films ever made. And even just in Chapter One, Story of the Dreaming Water captures something of their indelible energy.
Program 7: “Saul Levine”
Six films (1984-2013), appx. 54 min. Feb 1, 5 pm, University Hall 2300.
Featuring six works that span a wide range of different artistic modes, this program of films by Saul Levine is exemplary of the vitality and liveliness that characterizes his larger body of work; an oeuvre of moving images that very often reach a contemplative state conducive to reflection on the inner life of the artist and viewer alike despite also focusing in, with great rigor and immediacy, on the physicality and texture of the ostensibly ephemeral moments they document (and on the materials being used to document them, too).
The first film in the program, Notes After Long Silence (1989), illustrates those very qualities, in all their seemingly counterintuitive glory. And it also exemplifies one of the personal filmmaking languages that Levine developed throughout his career, and honed with great craft into poetics: Like a number of other films by the artist, the Super 8-shot Notes After Long Silence rapidly edits between a large number of different semi-continuous “scenes” (some of the specific images here represent television, nature, family, industrialism, war, and sex, among other signifiers), often with elements of the film apparatus visible in the frame, altogether creating a rhythm driven less by the individual shots or scenes than by their suggested interrelation to one another. Writing about a different film in Levine’s ongoing Notes series, P. Adams Sitney wrote for Artforum that “[it] asserts that filmmaking, at least as Levine practices it, is a relational more than a representational art.” And Manohla Dargis, writing about Long Silence for the Village Voice, astutely labeled it “blitzkrieg montage.” But so long as we’re citing quotes, it also calls back to the great David Pendleton’s writing about Levine’s work, in particular one statement that also wasn’t specific to Long Silence, but does seem to describe it as well as it does any other film: “Almost all of Levine’s work is based in montage, and the splice becomes a recurring visual event, especially in the films shot on 8mm and Super 81,” Pendleton wrote in the notes for a Harvard Film Archive program in 2015. “While the splice—the joining of two pieces of film by tape or glue—is typically invisible by the time a film is projected, Levine foregrounds his splices, partly by necessity but also as a gesture that brings together the body of the film and the mind of the filmmaker, as well as the hand of the filmmaker and the spirit of cinema.”
Following Long Silence is Crescent (1993), a Super 8 film made in collaboration with Pelle Lowe, which stages a tender but sneakily devastating conversation under images of night sky and the lights that shine through it, both natural and otherwise; with every shift in the image, and every intrusion of unnatural light, adding onto a disquiet lightly suggested in the dialogue. Crescent will serve as something of a come-down from the audiovisual sensationalism of Long Silence before the program transitions into literal silence via Whole Note (2000), which features richly composed moving portraits of Levine’s father seen close-up and in black-and-white (to be clear, Whole Note features no audio track whatsoever, a quality it shares with the remaining three films in the program).
“Saul’s long-standing career as a filmmaker and programmer has been an inspiration to RPM Fest,” Yangqiao Lu wrote to me in an email about the event, before specifically referencing the filmmaker’s deep roots in Boston’s film culture. “As a young film festival, we are proud to have a strong tie to the local filmmaking community. For the very first single-artist program, we want to honor the history of experimental filmmaking in Boston and we think it is appropriate to dedicate the first program to Saul Levine.” The last film in the Levine program, Falling Notes Unleaving (2013), indirectly touches upon this very impulse; depicting, to some extent, the history and tradition of noncommercial filmmaking in the United States, and the possibility of its continuance and inevitable reinterpretation by generations that follow. Primarily filmed amidst the burial of filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robertson (1949-2012), the film constantly shifts between images of Robertson’s mourners (some of whom may be familiar to those in the community aforementioned), nearby animals, small children (suggesting those left to inherit what their forebears must someday leave behind), and nature or plant life seen at various stages of life and decay2. Conjuring and illustrating the necessarily transformative nature of time upon both people and the artistic traditions they foster, Falling Notes Unleaving seems an ideal cornerstone, if an unofficial one, for a festival that looks steadfastly toward the new, the future, and the unknown.
1. Writing about Levine’s lifelong dedication to various 8mm formats, Sitney also noted that as “a figure of the perennial Left, Levine has identified with and championed the small gauges as if they were marginalized citizens of the republic of cinema.”
2. It’s worth noting that in this implicit connection between the lifespans of plants or flowers and those of human beings, Falling Notes Unleaving looks ahead to Nathanial Dorsky’s Arboretum Cycle (2017), another major work of contemporary American “experimental” cinema directed by one of its truly veteran practitioners.
By Tomonari Nishikawa. 2019, Japan, 6 min.
Playing in Program 6: “Slice the Eye!” Feb 1, 3:30 pm, University Hall 2300.
Amusement Ride depicts one in particular—the film was “shot with a telephoto lens from inside a cabin of Cosmo Clock 21, a Ferris wheel at an amusement park in Yokohama, Japan”, per the brief description provided by the artist. The focus is on architecture, then, of both the literal and cinematic variety: The foreground of the frame is taken up fully by the interlocking white bars of the Ferris wheel, which are seen moving in a downward motion for the entirety of the short film; with cuts used throughout to keep that motion fairly continuous, therefore creating a visual rhythm that on some level reflects the actual movement of a film print through a projector (a constant downward passage that’s almost thread-like). Of course on a certain level that’s just a damn funny joke—the old cliche that “modern cinema is a theme-park ride” made literal and intellectualized. But Amusement Ride justifies itself on the surface as well—the geometric motion of the wheel’s complex machinery, flanked in the background of the frame by light blue skies and snatches of human life just barely visible beyond the contours of the moving bars, proves a legitimately arresting film subject of its own. With Nishikawa’s film, the “cinema of attractions” rides again; now more knowing and self-referential, but thankfully no less direct.