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Onion City gives experimental film and video the spotlight

The 23rd Annual Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival opens Thursday in Chicago. The four-day fest features an array of experimental works from around the world. For WBEZ, Film Critic Jonathan Miller provided a preview of the opening program.

The American twin-brother filmmakers, the Brothers Quay are master animators. They have a long career using stop motion puppetry techniques. In their newest film, Mask, they have incorporated digital effects. Mask is an adaptation of a novel by Stanislaw Lem. It’s a retro-futuristic intrigue set in a feudal royal court. The story commences with a character named Duenna who tells of finding herself come to life. She’s been created for a purpose, but one that unfolds for her as both mystery and destiny. The Quay’s hallmark creepy decadent ambience imbues the tale with a compelling emotional tone that artfully meshes with the philosophical threads weaving through Lem’s narrative.

Like Duenna, experimental artists are constantly questioning — inquiring into what the media they work with can do. Now in the waning decades of photochemical methods, experimental filmmakers can invent unique hybrids that work the overlaps and interstices of digital and analog. Jurgen Reble’s Zagreb Tram Station is an example. In this film, cinematographic imagery of moving vehicles and commuters stretch and shift in slow motion, as the frames of film morph one into another. The effect is mesmerizing and disorienting; an everyday slice of life unfolds with a combination of restless ephemerality and stately timelessness.

Reble’s commuters are on-screen kin to the creatures in Toads, a film whose title aptly sums up its subject. Filmmaker Milena Gierke turned the lens of her super8 camera on the amphibians living in the rippling shallow waters of a river. The water’s flow creates optical distortions that endow the toads with extraordinary elasticity as they move about in their sub-aquatic habitat.  The toads oscillate between blending in with their environment and standing out from it. Blowing up her original super8 footage to 35mm makes this less of a zoological document than an essay in pattern recognition. Rocks, toads and moving water create a rapidly shifting visual field.  But that’s not the whole of it: Gierke’s film brings us the pure crystalline pleasure of looking, exactly as we might have indulged when gazing in fascination at water’s edge at something moving that, surprisingly, turned out to be a humble toad.

We don’t often attend to the more humble side of our world, as filmmaker Thom Andersen makes evident in his new film.  A few years ago, Andersen presented the urban epic Los Angeles Plays Itself. That film detailed the way city has been represented in the cinema.  Anderson has now made his own city film about film city, entitled Get out of the Car. Shot on 16-millimeter film, it focuses on the signage, facades and details of the city. Andersen guides us on a tour of the overlooked textures and corners of the Los Angeles. He directs our attention to the peeling, fading signs, the billboards, murals and mashed-up urbanscapes that create the locale’s distinctive identity.  He also gives us the sounds of the city, including some of its musical history, with trips to spots where the action was, but is no more. There’s an understated emotional current flowing through the film — not quite nostalgic, not quite haunted, but ripe with riffs of poetry from the dusty romantic margin and gusts of hot Southern California breezes from a lost world.

In a suite of films that provide such qualities — the pure pleasure of looking, cutting-edge technique, enigmatic narrative and emotional subtlety — the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival once again clears the eye, refreshes the mind, and sets summer reeling off the beaten path.

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