A sense of magic pervades the main exhibition of this year's Venice Biennale. In the Central Pavilion, curator Massimiliano Gioni has chosen to present a number of artists whose working methodology comes through esoteric influences, spirituality, private mysticism and personal fetishism. So the title of Jeremy Deller’s British Pavilion, 'English Magic', was fitting. If Gioni’s dextrous presentation often looks to historical inspiration, Deller’s anthropological take on all things English is rooted firmly in the present.
The curated programme of the 57th edition of the Oberhausen Short Film Festival seemed caught between two weirdly anomalous points of reference: on the one hand, the scientific and historical (‘Shooting Animals: A Brief History of Animal Film’) and, on the other, an eyebrow-raising profile on William E. Jones. As well as the numerous competition selections – international, national, regional – and the screenings of a host of invited experimental and art film distribution companies, visitors to Oberhausen were faced with the impossible dilemma of choosing which programmes to watch from the four-daily screenings over four screens, a talks programme and related collateral events. A quirk of scheduling meant that I saw none of the winning films in the various categories which was dominated by artists: Neïl Beloufa collecting two awards for Sans Titre (2010), Laure Provost for The Artist (2010), Roee Rosen with TSE (OUT) (2010), Tessa Knapp (_99 Beautiful_, 2010) and Phil Collins for marxism today (prologue) (2010) – read a review in our current issue of the BFI’s presentation of the latter film here.
Phil Collins marxism today (prologue), 2010
I arrived on the Friday evening, the second night of the six-day festival, just in time to see the first presentation by William E. Jones – this year’s selected artist who presented a showcase of his work as well as three curated programmes of titles that have influenced his filmmaking career. Jones is a filmmaker, artist, teacher, curator (read about the films that have most influenced him here) as well as a writer (his book on influential LA filmmaker Fred Halsted, Halsted Plays Himself, is due to be published later this year). He also has a close affiliation with the gay porn industry in his adopted home of LA, having worked as a editor (using the pseudonym Hudson Wilcox) for a number of years, editing gay porn compilations.
Jones made The Fall of Communism As Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), which comprises footage from gay porn films from the former Soviet Union, using the footage from films he rented from a local video shop. Unusually for porn films, the young men paid to have sex stare defiantly at the camera. Careful editing follows the lingering camera to the boys’ faces, the director’s finger rubbing the lips of one of the performers. Similar Tearoom (1962/2007) – which consists of police footage shot in a public toilet through a two-way mirror as part of a 1962 crackdown on public sex in Ohio – Jones’ interest in pornography stems from the political and economic power relations at play more so than the sex acts themselves that are inferred and out of shot. As he said during the Q&A that punctuated the first screening: ‘I’m interested in the bits of porno that most people fast-forward through.’
William E. Jones, The Fall of Communism As Seen in Gay Pornography, 1998
For the opening presentation Jones also invited along his friend Margie Schnibbe, an artist and art director of straight porn films (going under the pseudonym Vena Virago). She showed a 20-minute clip of a hardcore scene which she had art-directed, wall pieces and visuals framing the actors in a bare set that she told the audience also functions as a gallery. Schnibbe also showed footage of herself interviewing a man who had gatecrashed a house party she was at, found a dark room and started masturbating (_Tweak_, 2002). The creepiness of the scene is punctured by the audio sped up to chipmunk-esque frequency and speed – the weird guy also seemed to have stage fright.
William E. Jones, More British Sounds, 2006
Jones also showed two brilliant feats of editing, Film Montages (For Peter Roehr) and More British Sounds (both 2006), which use images from the late-‘80s porn film The British are Coming with some snarling audio from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1969 film See You at Mao. ‘Workers have come to expect too much,’ the clipped accent intones as a tough-looking lad is fondled by a man dressed in the regimental uniform of a horseguard from the British military, forced to lick his boots before turning on his superior.
William Jones, Film Montages (For Peter Roehr), 2006
The next day’s screening by Jones focused on seminal experimental films that had influenced him, such as fascinating documentary footage of Curt McDowell seducing men in his LA apartment (_Loads_, 1980) and Fred Halsted’s beautifully shot, horrifically violent L.A. Plays Itself (1972). At 55 minutes long (Jones himself edited the film to be as close to the original as possible) it was a pretty harrowing but worthwhile experience.
Oliver Laric, Versions, 2010
Elsewhere I focused my attention on the programmes presented by distribution companies The Netherlands Media Archive, Lightcone from France and Austria’s sixpackfilm. A mixture of formats, styles, references and quality, perhaps the most successful programme was that of The Netherlands Media Art Institute, which included Oliver Laric’s Versions (2010). Using footage from a myriad of sources, the film explores the mutability of images, interpretation and the build up and dispersion of meaning – a scene from The Jungle Book plays next to Winnie the Pooh, the movements the same.
Mastering Bambi (2010) by Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukásc also used a Disney classic as source material, examining the curiously wild and foreboding depictions of nature in the eponymous film. Removing the loveable characters to leave dark, panning shots recognisable from the film and overlaying with an ominous soundtrack reconstructed from themes of the original score, like with the simplicity of Versions, the result was curiously compelling. (It reminded of London-based filmmaker James Richards’ reworked shot of Bambi’s father, looped over and over so that the falling snow becomes the focus in his Untitled [Cinema Programme], 2006.)
Nathaniel Dorsky, Aubade, 2010
French distributor Lightcone’s selection of short films showed more interest in structural concerns with the materiality of film and the filmmaking process. I found much of it a little self-indulgent and derivative, but it was good to see veteran LA filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky’s poetic ode to the Kodachrome film stock and his first venture in shooting in colour negative (_Aubade_, 2010).
Daniel Zimmerman, Stick Climbing, 2010
One of the most memorable films I saw was also one of the last. Stick Climbing (2010) by Daniel Zimmerman takes the eye-view perspective of a walk through a quaint Austrian village, nestled in a verdant valley and surrounded by towering mountains. A picture postcard scene – children performing Alpine folk dances in traditional costume, people going about their daily chores – ends abruptly as the walker veers off through the forest to to the foot of a huge cliff face marked with the strangely sculptural intervention of two tracks of thin strips of wood nailed into the rock. Following the path of this twisting ladder up the cliff (seemingly without any guide ropes or safety equipment), the exertions of the climber are clear, his breathing heavy, his movements more and more laboured. He looks down and your stomach does backflips. Eventually he reaches the summit and surveys the tranquil scene of the village below – weirdly impossible, pointless and impressive feat.