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Adam Pugh on Palácios de Pena

From the outset, Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt’s Palácios de Pena establishes for itself a sense of veiled purpose, effecting a curious disjuncture in both narrative and form. Sumptuously, meticulously photographed; cinematic; yet curiously at odds with its conventional mantle, it dances between feature film and long-form artist’s work, never quite allowing itself to be pinned by either trope.

The film’s protagonists, a group of teenage girls, maintain a louche, cool, strangely distant relationship with one another, and with the narrative itself, somehow at once within and beyond the world which is constructed for us – for them – as if reluctant to submit entirely to the fiction. The effect of distanciation that this produces, whether intentional or merely an artefact of the artists wielding the tools of the feature film director (that is, at something of a remove himself), or of the loss of a layer of linguistic codes in translation and subtitling, is one of an ‘othering’: as with the actresses themselves, the dialogue is aware of itself, and becomes to an extent self-reflexive, its words ‘othered’. It is almost as if the girls are speaking lines from another film. Their words fall heavy.

Providing the framework for this sparse dialogue, in the film’s opening scene, is a richly symbolic space; a large, empty sports stadium. It is an arena for spectatorship, for contest, for competition. The girls navigate the space at first, it seems, without any of the usual components of a game we might expect to see in such a stadium. Ball, racquets, sticks, crowd are absent, and the girls instead run and dive together, awkwardly denuded of the bald accroutements of sport – those instruments which would complete the loop of meaning suggested by the stadium location – playful yet aggressive, strangely balletic. And the film’s other spaces, as they appear, are similarly symbolic: a high concrete enclosure, a dam, a stone tower, a rock escarpment overlooking the sea.

The interdeterminacy of space, it seems, is a theme that Abrantes & Schmidt use throughout the film – the withholding of meaning; the free interchange of signification – to great effect, given (indeed, because of) the conventional format he has chosen. Where we might expect to see closed sets of meanings presented within a taut, linear narrative, the artists play, presenting a multiplicity of meanings, momentarily, before closing the loop.

Framed entirely by women, aside, surely pointedly, from a dream about men, and the errors of men, in the cast of amoral ‘chorus’, troubled moral individual, wild seer, and sage-like figure (‘Little Grandma’, the dreamer) presiding over all, Palácios de Pena follows a fabulous (in the strict sense of the word) narrative which recalls – not only, ineluctably, for their association with Portugal, for the fado drifting across the frame – the magic realism of Eugène Green’s A Portuguese Nun or John Berger’s Here is Where we Meet; also the utopian spaces of Tarkovsky; the cruelty of Haneke. It examines a similar liminality: of the space between wakefulness and sleep, reality and dream, morality and amorality, life and death. It is no surprise, perhaps, that its main protagonists are teenagers, navigating that dangerous time between the amoral and moral, child and adult: a time for and of cruelty. It lives in the interval, in the black space, at death itself, perhaps. But it exists on its own, too, in a state of magical suspension.

Beyond the draw of its narrative, though, Palácios de Pena – indeed Abrantes’ other work – is interesting in the context of the recuperation of narrative in artists’ moving image after the ascetic purges of Structuralism. Its very length, too, at an hour, consigns it to an indeterminate, uneasy category – something almost subversive for a work with so ostensibly straightforward a method.

It is emblematic, perhaps, of a new fluidity in artists’ moving image practice and, beyond the recuperation of narrative, which is after all well-established, suggests – as Ben Rivers and certain others move towards longer-form work –  a challenge to the commercial, conventional form of feature film itself which goes beyond the assimilative strategies of Steve McQueen, Gillian Wearing and others. That is, it demands to use those most conventional of the tropes of commercial feature film yet remain outside of the (arguably decayed) industrial model of production and mainstream distribution network.

Adam Pugh

Palácios de Pena will be screened alongside two other collaborative works by Abrantes.

Link to more info on GABRIEL ABRANTES here

GABRIEL ABRANTES screenings :-

Saturday 22 October 2011, at 9pm, BFI Southbank NFT3
Tuesday 25 October 2011, at 1:15pm, BFI Southbank NFT2

Link to book tickets for GABRIEL ABRANTES here

Preview: Two Years at Sea

The unique and evocative figure-in-a-landscape piece Two Years At Sea follows the life of its solitary protagonist, Jake Williams, in a wooded corner of remotest Scotland. As the seasons drift onwards, Jake pursues his own eccentric and occasionally fantastical pursuits, isolated from other human existence.

Wood is carefully harvested, a raft is painstakingly built to go fishing, a caravan floats up into the tree canopy as Jake sleeps within. The viewer sees Jake in his entirety – as he eats, sleeps, showers, living out a life completely on his own terms; one which he spent two years working at sea to realise. Snippets of Jake’s implied past linger at the film’s margins in old photographs. Snatches of song create mesmerising interludes and mingle with the sounds of the woods.

Monochrome and near wordless, Ben Rivers’ beautiful, meditative feature exists somewhere as bracingly free as its protagonist. Subtly radical, and patiently exploring the curious hinterlands between documentary and fiction, it is a journey not to be missed.

Oliver Marchant

Link to more info on TWO YEARS AT SEA here

TWO YEARS AT SEA screenings :-

Friday 21 October 2011, at 9pm, BFI Southbank NFT1
Monday 24 October 2011, at 1:30pm, BFI Southbank NFT1

Link to book tickets for TWO YEARS AT SEA here

Ian White on The Pips

All That Melts is Solid
Ian White on “The Pips” by Emily Wardill

Take the ribbon from my hair, shake it loose and let it fall. Layin’ soft against your skin, like the shadow on the wall … sings Gladys Knight and reading this is as if we can hear her clearly. But we cannot hear her. Not as such. Her imagined song becomes Emily Wardill’s film as it becomes her words. As if in a silent karaoke, transformed into the film’s title, her backing group The Pips have been replaced. Their silence, that of this work, is also hers, as if better to describe the song, or to replace that song with description itself, one that has no sound in order to be of the body, of flesh, as well as of the line drawn in time and space into which description also dissolves.

The ribbon from her hair is in the gymnast’s hands. It carves out volumes, passageways, spirals that do not exist but that are as tangible as a body. It extends the body, its movements and the tiny flick of a wrist. Arcs and swift ripples. The body occupies the space it draws like another matter, runs to catch up to something that is immediately not there or has already collapsed to turn into something else. A chain of transitions from disarray to graphic shapes, as if to intimate articulation. The ribbon whips through time like a line, rips time up by slowing it down, almost floating in the air while the body moves quickly, arabesqued, curled, unfurled to catch it from a different world. Framed, the gymnast’s body divides the picture, slowly, defies common physicality, is affected by its recording and the aftermath. The ribbon conjures, a psychotic and serene echo of the body’s own contortion, two materials moving in two others – time and space – via perception and in the material of this work that also plays its tricks. And the gymnast’s face betrays no strain, no lack of breath. Everything is plastic. A liquid-material drawing that leaves no mark, a sublime dismembering. Limbs remain and slip away. Falling apart is also becoming.

The Pips is a description for all descriptions, like the way a line becomes a shape that becomes a thing, or a word a mental picture like a projected object that is sometimes shared. It proposes that a line, a shape, a thing, a word or maybe just an image might also, always be about to collapse. That these are something temporal, actually elusive, conjured and gone, or become, dissolving, but also, still, form. Shaped, even. Of time, space, the mind and flesh interchangeably.

The ribbon is in the hands of the gymnast. She, and it, and their picture are both the object, the emblem and the very stuff of language and ideas. She melts in the name of everything we want to say. She melts for and because of herself, and for us and is also at rest, now, like a shadow on the wall.

Ian White

The Pips by Emily Wardill will be screened in the mixed programme ALTERED STATES alongside works by Neil Beloufa, Mary Helena Clark, Michael Robinson, Ben Russell and Deborah Stratman.

Link to more info on ALTERED STATES here

ALTERED STATES screenings :-

Saturday 22 October 2011, at 2pm, BFI Southbank NFT3
Tuesday 27 October 2011, at 3:45pm, BFI Southbank NFT3

Link to book tickets for ALTERED STATES here

Phil Solomon on American Falls

American Falls is a single-channel triptych adaptation of an hour long, six-channel, 5.1-Surround installation commissioned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It was inspired by a trip that I took to the capital at the invitation of the Corcoran in 1999, where I first encountered Frederick Church’s great painting “Niagara”; took note of a multichannel video installation by Jennifer Steinkamp, projected onto the walls of the Corcoran rotunda; and went on walking tours of various monuments to the fallen throughout the DC area.

The architecture of the rotunda in the vicinity of “Niagara” invited me to muse on creating an all-enveloping, manmade “falls.” I imagined my commission as something akin to a widescreen version of a WPA/Diego Rivera project at century’s end, where the mediated images of the American Dream that I had been absorbing since childhood would flow together into the river with the roaring turbulence of America’s failures to sustain the myths and ideals so deeply embedded in the received iconography. Emerging historical currents continuously break down and revert to their molten, primal forms and amber waves of pageantry, all eventually converging over the falls (in every sense of the term) as the great Unanswered Question posed by Charles Ives at the dawn of the last century echoes: Whither America?

American Falls is dedicated to Annie Edson Taylor and Jean Francois Gravelet (The Great Blondin). The first went over, the second walked above …

Phil Solomon

Link to more info on PHIL SOLOMON’S AMERICAN FALLS here

AMERICAN FALLS screenings :-

Sunday 23 October 2011, at 4pm, BFI Southbank NFT3
Tuesday 25 October 2011, at 4pm, BFI Southbank NFT3

Link to book tickets for PHIL SOLOMON’S AMERICAN FALLS here

American Falls (Opening Section) from Phil Solomon on Vimeo.

On his first ever visit to London, Phil Solomon will also present two screenings of his earlier 16mm films at Tate Modern on 24 & 27 October 2011.  Link to more info here.

Preview: Olympia I & II

Gabriel Abrantes early film Olympia I & II will follow the screening of two ambitious new works – Liberdade and Palacios de Pena – in his solo programme on 22 & 25 October. The artist will be present to introduce and take questions on these works, which were made in collaboration with Katie Widlowski, Benjamin Crotty and Daniel Schmidt.

To accompany two new films by Gabriel Abrantes, Olympia I & II (2008) is revisited to delve deeper into the way this artists treats his characters’ attitudes towards sex, sexuality and power. Abrantes and Katie Widlowski explicitly reference Manet’s painting Olympia (1863) through the title and the visual composition of the frame. Their use of 16mm film heightens the painterly qualities of the work: the saturated colours, the grainy make-up, the smoothness of the porcelain skin of Olympia and the velvet cushions and feathery flowers caressing her body.

Despite the art historical context, the work does not get lost in aesthetics. The twisted and verbally aggressive interaction of Olympia I contrasts with the sickly sweet homoerotic conversation that leads to intercourse between transvestite Olympia and his maid in Olympia II. Both films evoke the characters’ sadness and bitterness towards life and their psychological cracks hit the viewer emotionally.

Marina Ribera

Palacios de Pena (Palaces of Pity) received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival 2011. Here’s the trailer :-

Link to more info on GABRIEL ABRANTES here

GABRIEL ABRANTES screenings :-

Saturday 22 October 2011, at 9pm, BFI Southbank NFT3
Tuesday 25 October 2011, at 1:15pm, BFI Southbank NFT2

Link to book tickets for GABRIEL ABRANTES here

Chick Strand on Mosori Monika

In this brief excerpt of an interview I did with Chick Strand in 2008, the filmmaker discusses the making of her early film Mosori Monika. It was a pleasure to spend a few hours in her company, and I’ve been wanting to present a programme of Chick’s films in London for many years. It’s finally happening now thanks to the preservation project undertaken by Pacific Film Archive in collaboration with Academy Film Archive. Chick died in 2009 and it’s a great shame that this screening couldn’t take place during her lifetime – she was a wonderful filmmaker and her work is deserving of far more attention than it has received so far.

“I had a Degree in Anthropology. I was going to San Francisco State to get my MFA and then my PhD and I thought, “Oh man, I’m 30 fucking years old and now I’ve got two kids … I don’t want to listen to these old farts ever again!” So I came down to Los Angeles to go to film school at UCLA.

“I’ve only made one which I would call ‘ethnographic’ and it’s Mosori Monika, although that statement has slipped from my lips because I believe it, but everything’s ethnographic. The fact we’re sitting here drinking out of blue cups – somebody could make a big deal of it, right? It’s all ethnographic – the artefacts we leave behind. I went there with the idea in mind that it was going to be an ethnographic film, using that methodology more or less. I never believed that an ethnographic film would ever take the place of the written word, but that it would sort of introduce people who’d watch the films and then studied the culture to actually seeing the people move around, you know? I was so sick of the black and white photographs of guys with spears and all that stuff … But you cannot be objective, totally objective, I couldn’t help myself juxtaposing what was actually being said by an Indian woman – translated – over a picture, over an image …

“Even though I shoot documentary style, it isn’t, because I don’t set out to do that and I don’t weigh it out in any certain way, although I’m so nosey – “Tell me about your life?” – but I couldn’t understand this Warao Indian woman I was filming one bit. There was a guy who spoke Spanish and English that was part of the trio of us that went down to Venezuela, totally paid for by UCLA, then he had a translator that spoke Spanish and the Indian language, and then there was the Indian woman. I said, “Tell me about your life,” and then he left her talking for about 20 minutes. I’d say, “Jorge, is she telling about the life?” and he asked and the guy says, “Yeah, yeah!” I had no idea what she was talking about, no idea at all, but we translated it immediately so I could somehow get some images that went along with it. Of course it’s a lie because if she’s talking about when she was young you can’t really show it, you have to be symbolic about it in a way.

“Margaret Mead hated it. The Flaherty Seminar was going on and she was still alive, and it was just at that time when I was seeing ethnographic films a lot. That was very interesting because one of the things that sort of influenced me to be a little more humane about what I was doing, a little more digging in, was her film called Trance and Dance in Bali, where the guys are flaying themselves. You never got the feeling of what it was like to be one of those guys, never, it was just like going to the zoo … It was absolutely wonderful that these people went out there with cameras and filmed all this stuff and tried to preserve the cultures, at least on paper and then film, it was really remarkable. In a sense, that film and many others like Nanook of the North influenced me with ethnography and all my work.”

This interview with Chick Strand was conducted on 15 March 2008 for the forthcoming book “Critical Mass: An Oral History of Avant-Garde Film, The New American Cinema and Beyond”. Initial research for this project was funded by the British Academy.

Thanks to Mark Toscano and May Haduong (Academy Film Archive), Mona Nagai (Pacific Film Archive), Dominic Angerame (Canyon Cinema) and Charlie Bligh (BFI) for making the LFF screening possible. Thanks also to David James for the images.

Link to more info on CHICK STRAND here


Sunday 23 October 2011, at 2pm, BFI Southbank NFT3
Thursday 27 October 2011, at 9pm, BFI Southbank NFT3

Link to book tickets for CHICK STRAND here

Two Years at Sea: Production Stills

Ben Rivers has kindly captioned these production stills from TWO YEARS AT SEA, which was filmed at the house of Jake Williams in Aberdeenshire. The photographs were taken by Eva Vermandel. Go to the bottom of the page for the film’s trailer & screening schedule.

1. Jake’s house, an ever-changing facade. The living part is on the left, bookmarked by the two chimneys – the rest of the building are barns filled with wood, lots of wood, workshops and tools, useful and not so useful things, the generator, an old Land Rover (seen in This Is My Land spewing black smoke), bikes, stuff. To the right of the picture hidden under shrubs on the side of the building you can just make out the back end of a car, transformed into a greenhouse – the full bags from the toilet go in there to grow tomatoes.


2. Filming Jake cutting up a tyre for the fire – I have my trusty Bolex in hand, Chu in foreground ready to record sound.


3. Jake, front room, preparing for shooting a crucial scene involving him coming in with a box of photos, which he then looks through – this is one of the last shots of the film and in some way explains the photos the audience sees throughout the film.


4. Directing: Unlike what the London Film Festival catalogue suggests, this film is in many ways a fiction – and Jake’s is fully aware of the camera, but does a very good job at seeming like he is not.


5. Team meeting / tea break, deciding what to film next, perhaps. The crew – me and Chu, who recorded sound aswell as made porridge every morning amongst many other jobs. Gizmo the cat, not really interested in the conversation, is the other star of the film.


6. Taking a break in the caravan up in the tree. A bit wobbly when we first went up there, but now it has survived a winter and several storms it feels pretty safe. Last time I was up at Jake’s, I slept up there very soundly.


7. I filmed this particular shot in the autumn, but then filmed it again in the winter and it was the wintery one that ended up in the film.


8. One of four attempts at filming Jake’s face lit by the fire. I had a very definite idea of how this should look, and had to make multiple takes to make sure I got it right – unnerving because each take was ten minutes of film. I first filmed it in winter and it looked good but I only shot 3 minutes and that didn’t seem long enough. So the next trip we took a long time setting up the shot exactly the same as the one we did in winter – I then shot it twice and thought I probably had it. Then we sat around the fire drinking whiskey for a while, all dropping off tired and a bit drunk. Just as I was leaving the conscious world behind something woke me and I realised I needed to film the shot again – it was around 2am by this time. I’m not sure why I thought I needed to do it again but it was this last take that eventually made it into the film.


9. Between takes. Getting sleepy by the fire.


10. Jake and me.


Link to more info on TWO YEARS AT SEA here

TWO YEARS AT SEA screenings :-

Friday 21 October 2011, at 9pm, BFI Southbank NFT1
Monday 24 October 2011, at 1:30pm, BFI Southbank NFT1

Link to book tickets for TWO YEARS AT SEA here

Bruce Jenkins on The Sole of the Foot

Filmed in three countries over the course of a year, The Sole of the Foot is a deceptively simple travel film. Initiated by Robert Fenz to chronicle African immigrant experiences in France, the work expanded in scale over the course of its production to include sequences filmed in Israel and Cuba, and in its final form offers several explanatory registers to account for its deeply resonant mix of landscapes, street scenes, portraits, and still lifes.

The first of these involves the autobiographical: the story of the maker, whose bodily presence is sensed behind every image in the work and whose previous oeuvre creates a sort of moving-image database of the personal and the political traced into the complex texture of images, people, and places it captures. Complementing these references to the maker and his own cinematic past, however, is an external history, or what the filmmaker Hollis Frampton called a “metahistory” of the medium.

It is primarily from this perspective that we can approach that other tale in this story of the “other,” what might be called the “soul of the foot(age)”: a parallel rendering of the medium’s own evolution, from its roots in early film actualities to its radical reinvention half a century later by a cinematic avant-garde, to the emergence in diverse places of a revolutionary “third cinema.”

Bruce Jenkins

The above text is excerpted from Bruce Jenkins’ essay “Creative Geographies: Robert Fenz’s The Sole of the Foot“, which appears in “The Soul of the Foot”, published in 2011 by Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD on the occasion of Robert Fenz’s exhibition at daadgallerie, Berlin.

Link to more info on THE SOUL OF THE FOOT here

THE SOUL OF THE FOOT screenings :-

Sunday 23 October 2011, at 9pm, BFI Southbank NFT3
Monday 24 October 2011, at 2pm, BFI Southbank NFT3

Link to book tickets for THE SOLE OF THE FOOT here


Free Radicals: Images & Trailer

Pip Chodorov talks us through a bunch of stills from his documentary FREE RADICALS. Go to the bottom of the page for the film’s trailer & screening schedule.

1. We decided to use a typewriter font which brings to mind handmade work. In order to preserve a double-meaning from the French title, we called the film “a history of experimental film” but then “history” becomes “story.”


2. This is my mom and myself in 1966. What I say in the voice-over is true: the chemical alteration visible in the image was created by our dog who pissed on a box of home movies about ten years later.


3. Hans Richter, the Dada artist and one of the first makers of abstract film. He was a neighbor, and my dad interviewed him for CBS television in 1973. I was there – I was 8 years old. Richter wanted to draw my portrait but I wriggled away. He did give us one of the hats from Ghosts Before Breakfast and I used it in some early Super-8 films.


4. Peter Kubelka explains how he made Adebar to me and Jonas Mekas. This was shot at the FIAC art fair in 2007, on the film’s 50th anniversary.


5. Kubelka claps for the sync sound 16mm camera. He and Jonas were very excited to be filmed on film, even though Jonas captures everything on his DV-Cam now. In the background is Richter’s 1976 silkscreen of his Rythmus 21 scroll painting.


6. Maurice Lemaître, the French letterist artist, telling us that experimental filmmakers are like the chefs of highly refined dishes.


7. Stan Brakhage shows us his 2003 work in progress The Chinese Series. He was very sick with cancer and told us it should be considered finished whenever he stopped work on it. He died two months later.


8. Nam June Paik, from a film made in 1984 in support of the Anthology Film Archives. When Paik first came to America, Jonas Mekas was his financial sponsor although he didn’t have a penny in the bank. Luckily the authorities never checked his bank account, so Paik was able to sneak in.


9. Jonas Mekas munches corn on the cob at the Greenpoint subway stop in New York. Jonas moved to Greenpoint after living for 30 years in a Soho loft. His videos Farewell to Soho and Letter to Greenpoint document the move.


10. Here I am developing film at L’Abominable, the Paris do-it-yourself non-profit artist-run film lab. When you hand-develop 16mm color negative, you have to rub off an anti-halo “rem jet” backing or else the film will be permanently stained. It isn’t easy.


… and here is the trailer for FREE RADICALS …


Link to more info on FREE RADICALS here

FREE RADICALS screenings :-

Friday 21 October 2011, at 6:30pm, BFI Southbank NFT3
Monday 24 October 2011, at 4:15pm, BFI Southbank NFT3
Monday 24 October 2011, at 7pm, BFI Southbank STUDIO

Link to book tickets for FREE RADICALS here

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