The Vienna International Film Festival successfully completed its 58th edition on November 1. The following evening a terrorist attack struck the city’s inner district with one shooter killing four people and wounding several dozen more at multiple locations. Several hours later Austria entered its second lockdown due to spiking Covid-19 cases and enacted an 8:00 pm curfew. In light of these events that have hushed the typically active capital, and given way to a funeral mood that lingers over the old town, now heavily populated by police, it feels somewhat unreal or like a dream to have just finished attending a film festival. Yet with little else to do right now other than stay home and watch the news for updates on the attack and the pandemic, remembering and writing about some of the films I saw seems, for the moment at least, a healthy distraction.
Despite its occurrence in the fall, when it was correctly predicted that coronavirus cases would surge at a frightening rate, the Viennale decided, contrary to other film festivals that were forced to relocate their programs online, to move forward as a physical event. They operated the cinemas at half their capacity and implemented strict social distancing measures including a compulsory mask wearing policy. The ongoing pandemic also guaranteed the almost total absence of international press and a significantly reduced number of visiting filmmakers, thus making the Viennale a rather lonely affair this year.
When cinemas around the world first closed in March, watching movies became relegated to home viewing on DVD or the virtual realm of online streaming, thus stripping moviegoing of the particular aura of being in a site-specific theater, an experience whose full package can include: familiar exchanges with the staff; the chance gathering of a motley crew of solitary strangers; the comfort or discomfort of the seat you’re sitting in; the soothing whirr of the projector; the sonorous snores of dozing elderly patrons; the continuous rumble of the underground subway penetrating the darkened interior of the black box—anything that salvages it from getting lost in the drudge of everydayness, that imbues it with a tactile sense of time and place. That the Viennale soldiered on to provide a bounty of such experiences in circumstances a far cry from perfect, and with the majority of films I saw projected on film, is both commendable and indicative of its spirit as a festival.
Indeed, given the fragility of existing structures of exhibition, a state of affairs both exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic, having been able to sit back, upwards of five times a day, in a movie house like the Austrian Filmmuseum to watch, say, the only existing 35mm print of Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshyan’s found footage masterpiece Our Century (1983) bordered on the utopic. The film was screened as part of the Viennale’s retrospective—a major component of the festival—on found footage or "recycled" cinema as they chose to call it, organized in a three-way partnership between the festival’s regular collaborator, the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Vienna-based distributor sixpackfilms.
Dedicating a retrospective to "films begotten by films" is befitting the current moment when productions the world over have been ground to a halt, providing a space to explore how filmmakers have turned to the vertiginous source pool of already existing images to create new works of art. With the amount of visual material being literally endless, akin to a Borgesian image-labyrinth without a center and whose circuitous paths lead into every possible chamber of image making, from Hollywood flicks to Super 8 home movies, the retrospective revealed the sheer diversity of practice within this particular form of filmmaking by underscoring it as a fecund mode of production that bypasses the stringencies imposed by working with large crews and exorbitant amounts of capital. Instead, one retains the image of the lone filmmaker secluded, much like a painter, in his or her studio quietly bent over a filmstrip, a flatbed editor (or a desktop computer), and with thoughtful care assembling, manipulating and suturing together second-hand discarded materials retrieved from the dustbins of the past.
This image of the single artist at work comes to mind when I think of French filmmaker Cécile Fontaine, whose films, along with so many other filmmakers in the retrospective, I was hearing of for the first time. Armed with a lo-fi DIY punk aesthetic, one that is explicitly handmade and defiantly marginal, Fontaine’s method of radically manipulating found footage by physically attacking the film’s surface pushes the material to its very limits, elevating the celluloid object to a new level of plasticity. Through her direct interventions on the filmstrip itself, which includes scratching, crumpling, gluing, dyeing, and the removal and rearranging of emulsion layers, Fontaine complicates the image’s indexical relationship to reality by either altering or severing it entirely. Using Super 8 home movies, commercials, educational and travel films, Fontaine’s methodology is more that of a collage or a cut-up artist in the vein of William Burroughs or a Dadaist than a filmmaker; her filmic disruptions are like tears in the fabric and order of things that reveal new subversive meanings that were not inherent in the original.
In Cruises (1989) Fontaine deflates the bourgeoisie fantasy of travel by sea as signifying a joie de vivre lifestyle by colliding various nautical themed genres. 1970s commercials for Caribbean cruises, stock footage of sailors and smiling families indulging in weekend pleasures on summer lakes, navy soldiers and refugees huddled in boats, tourist shots of harbors and cities as seen from the water are jumbled up with a whole panoply of audiovisual disturbances, rendering the footage almost beyond the point of legibility. Discordant drone sounds and the empty ingratiating voice of a man advertising cruise vacations is repeated ad nauseam. With a penknife, Fontaine inflicts violent scratches onto the film causing discolorations to bleed across images of merry vacationers. She also glues disparate sourced materials on top of each other, causing beautifully strange encrustations to form on the film’s surface. The image flow is so rapid and confusing that you begin to feel your head spinning as you attempt to orientate yourself in a world so profoundly disassembled. In Home Movie (1986), Fontaine takes footage of a middle-class family from the 1950s and heavily distorts its scenes of childhood idyll and leisure. Drained silent images of children frolicking in a garden are transformed, under Fontaine’s clinical operations, into pale apparitions flickering in and out of focus, their gestures of play frozen, accelerated and repeated in haphazard rhythms that rob them of their spontaneity and lend them a creepy marionette-like quality. Bands of saturated colors, enlarged sprockets, foamy ripples and fissures erupt over images of what is possibly a wedding or a Sunday excursion, resulting in a kind of visual dismemberment. She literally assaults the preciousness of dearly held childhood memories, grafting onto these images of bourgeoisie comfort and prosperity the taste of something darker, more mysterious; or perhaps it’s nothing less than the sad transience of time itself, which makes ghosts out of all of us.
In "recycling" already existing footage, filmmakers not only liberate it from the strictures of history through re-contextualization, but also reveal how a piece of film, far from being a petrified fossil or like an insect entombed in amber, is a living breathing object existing in time and open to malleability, a vital artifact in an infinite archive, whose story is the story of all of us “echoing in the cupped hands of human memory”, to quote Borges. Two examples that poignantly reflected this in the retrospective were Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2003) and his lesser-screened short, The Film of Her (1996), both assembled out of footage from the days of cinema’s infancy.
A tender paean to cinema’s origins and its forgotten heroes toiling away at the fringes, The Film of Her revolves around an anonymous clerk at the Library of Congress who, obsessed with a pornographic image of a woman he saw as a boy, is driven to save from incineration vaults of paper reels from the institution’s Paper Print Collection in the hopes of rescuing not just the eponymous “film of her,” but also “the first of everything, the whole beginning of cinema,” as the first-person narrator tells us. The clerk’s personal memories are paralleled with a second third-person narrator that situates the clerk’s recollections into a wider historical context, detailing the origin of paper printing as a means for securing copyright before 1912. End credits reveal that the clerk in question was in fact Howard Walls, clerk turned curator of film at the Library of Congress, whose efforts to save “all cinema of a bygone era” from being reduced to ashes had fallen into obscurity. Morrison’s choice to frame this true story within the fictional contrivance of a neurotic quest for the image of a nude establishes the inherent linkages between cinema and fetishism; the clerk’s fever-dreamed desire to vicariously possess this early image of erotica consigned to oblivion is both a declaration of love for the medium and a manifestation of sexual longing. Documentary footage pertaining to libraries, archives, paper and film processing is juxtaposed with highly compromised nitrate footage of mnemonic imagery detailing in oneiric flashes the clerk’s memories, the vulnerable texture of the imagery a metaphor for the slow deterioration of film material and the perishability of our collective memory lest it is saved from the flames.
Decasia shows Morrison creating an elegiac collage out of century old nitrate-based footage suffering from various stages of distress to an original score by Michael Gordon, resulting in a rapturous audiovisual symphony dedicated both to the mortality of film and its tenacious will to survive despite the ravages of time. Divested entirely of its initial context, the footage assumes a new level of pathos that speaks directly to our in-built knowledge of our own inevitable demise. The opening shot of a whirling dervish sets in motion a host of visual resonances that reflect time’s circular nature of decay and rebirth – the eternal merry-go-round that entraps us all—but also our ability to physically and spiritually transcend that very entrapment. Beautiful to behold globules and boils of decay sear the images to varying degrees of readability, creating internal micro narratives within the individual shots themselves; a boxer, rather than jabbing a punching bag, is defending himself against a monstrously thick conflagration of decomposing celluloid that threatens to literally engulf him; a woman’s dance partner is slowly mutating into a bubbling liquid glob, as if she were dancing with death itself. One of the most haunting moments is a sequence of shots of children on a school bus, their faces bursting with filigree-like embellishments and curlicues, their eyes staring right at us across the yawning canyon of the time, their gaze telling us: we too have lived. Every face in the film belonging to someone long gone is like a face encountered in a dream, on the verge of dissolving into nothing. It is a wonder to see such poetry of destruction, to see time’s hard work; it’s multiple layers collapsing in a single heap onto these images, which, were it not for Morrison’s diligent archeological digging into cinema’s detritus, would have undoubtedly been ground to dust by now.
If Morrison’s film teeters on the edge of the abyss, Artavazd Peleshyan’s already mentioned Our Century shows us fervently grasping for it in an ecstatic fugue made up of hundreds of pieces of archival material documenting our failures and successes in our hubristic efforts to conquer gravity and take flight. Employing his own system of editing called “distance montage” based on the variation and repetition of audiovisual motifs, Peleshyan runs through the whole gamut of civilization’s attempts to ascend into the heavens: catastrophic Soviet and US spaceship launches; flying cars hopping frantically like malfunctioning pogo sticks; hot air balloons and giant zeppelins combusting majestically into flames; the first airplanes of various ridiculous designs careening wildly across the firmament. At the center of these technological follies are tiny human figures; the cramped cavities of the cockpits enveloping them like a second skin, every one of them an Icarus of the twentieth century. Whether these winged mortals leap off cliffs or are blasted into outer space, it is impossible not to feel a sense of kinship with them, to be in awe of humanity’s staggering perseverance and stupidity in the face of the void. A gleeful, farcical celebration of human progress, every cut brings forth a new pulsating unit of sound and image revealing the unbelievable; you sit back and allow yourself to be swept away, lost in a whirl of astonishment. (For those interested, this film is available on YouTube.)
Spending as much time as I did in the retrospective, with so many of the films striving towards the aggressive dismantling of the world, films that pound you into your seat and where emphasis was overtly placed on ephemerality, it was a relief to also encounter works where you could hear the wind in the branches of trees, the call of birds at dusk, the distant tolling of bells, and the faraway echo of a train; in short, the world as it is. I was able to hear these things, and much more, in the films I saw by emerging French filmmaker Isabel Pagliai, one of the subjects of the festival’s “Monographs”—a newer section of the Viennale dedicated to mining the poetics of a filmmaker through an extensive engagement with their work.
Pagliai’s films are songs to childhood, or rather the feeling of timelessness that defines the state of being a child. Like the unmoving surface of the large pond around which the teenagers and children in Tendre (2020) earnestly act out their games of longing and love, time in her films stands still, is boiled down into an all-consuming present. (As Borges writes: “…everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now.”) Much of this has to do with her choice of framing, with the camera always being anchored down in fixed positions capturing her subjects (though that word feels misplaced here) in direct frontal shots, the backgrounds, whether it be the bleak housing façade in her debut short Isabella Morra (2015) or the pond and its wooded environs in Tendre, seemingly condensed into two-dimensional abstractions, cut-off from the surrounding environment. But through attentive looking and listening, you notice how Paglaia always suggests, through off-screen sound and space, the wider world stretching forth towards an invisible horizon.
Tendre is a story of thresholds: between being a teenager and an adult, between light and dark, day and night, silence and speech, documentary and artifice. Fifteen-year old Hugo tells his younger friend and confidante, Mia, the story of his relationship with his now ex-girlfriend, Chaïnes. The camera frames Mia as she sits on the ground of a wooded area, a gentle wind in the wisps of her blonde hair, weak spots of sunlight here and there as it filters down through the trees. Hugo remains off camera; his presence is reduced to his baritone voice and the cigarette smoke that curls into the shot. From this opening follows a succession of fragments and moments dipped in the magical half-light of dusk that detail this brief affair as it unfolded along the scruffy banks of the pond that has the mythical aura of a place far removed from the land of adults and authority. Unburdened by the weight of a plot, or by the need to organize each shot into a coherent narrative, each scene becomes an undifferentiated chunk of time, as peaceful and soothing to look at as the night owls we hear calling to each other across the dark or the reflection of stars mirrored in the pacific surface of the water.
Central also is the element of language with Mia, Hugo and Chaïnes relying on an unmatched verbal arsenal of vulgarities they affectionately hurl at each other. Their passionate exchanges often devolve into a litany of foul epithets and curse words, the rhythm and flow of their speech sounding like music you can feel coursing through them. Yet it is a part of being young, to speak from the heart, even if it means denying proper syntax and the niceties of good behavior.
Other children begin to populate the area, which Paglaia films with the same frontal technique; they fish in the pond, play fight in the mud, set fire to branches, dot their bodies in pen ink or silently sit by the water watching the day disappear. In some shots the darkness has progressed to the point of diminishing Hugo and the others to mere silhouettes, as if all it would take is a slight gust of wind to make them evaporate completely. Paglaia, filming exclusively in natural light that looks so tranquil and serene you long to reach out and touch it, transforms this area where water meets lands into an undefined realm between the real and fantasy. Occasional sounds of highway traffic, the faraway blaring of an ambulance siren, the tolling of a village church bell or the faint whooshing of a train suggest the presence of nearby civilization, and suddenly you remember that this piece of no man’s land is just as much a part of the outside world as the dark cinema your sitting in watching this.
And then you step out of the theater into the night, which is strangely aglow with the images that are still flickering on the underside of your eyelids, but will eventually be lost in the deep cataract of memory.