Presence and Pastness: Three Films in Tribeca Film Festival 2009

Roberta Friedman

Experimental filmmakers have a tradition of creatively and deliberately manipulating time. This is an aspect of the genre that I love to see…and feel. It’s a visceral experience for me. I find it both thought-provoking and engaging to experience the elasticity of time – the speeding up, and the slowing down, the exploration and the exploitation, the repetition of events from different perspectives, the combination of past with present, and present with imaginary futures. Experimental filmmakers treat time in every possible filmic way: from Bruce Connor’s repetitive Marilyn Times Five to David Rimmer’s slowly passing ships in Surfacing on the Thames; to Gary Beydler’s single-framed stills that animate in Pasadena Freeway Stills to Hollis Frampton’s simultaneous blending of the past and the present with his film Nostalgia.

So it’s not surprising that the feature films I chose to review from the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, while very different, exploit time in a different way. They are both narrative features, but they borrow heavily from other genres: art film, documentary, suspense, and musical. Both are experimental in the sense that they combine genres to work with time. Each is a cross-over movie that has an experimental look and feel, making use of filmic techniques that are frequently utilized in experimental films, and that encourage the viewer to connect with the material.

Dazzle, directed by Cyrus Frisch, Netherlands and All About Actresses, directed by Maïwenn, France

Dazzle (the title is an anomaly to me- probably lost in translation), is the exact opposite of dazzling. It is very minimal with the barest of narratives, beginning with a black screen as we hear a young woman’s voice tentatively answer a ringing phone. A man responds. A fragile relationship develops. The entire film takes place in a series of phone conversations. We are forced to visualize the characters from the sound and texture of their voices, as there are no images on the screen. Finally snippets of the girl’s face appear after a 20-minute eternity (what a relief). In a soft breathy voice, she describes what she sees (and the viewer sees) out of her window: a world of violence, masturbation and ugliness shot in documentary style, activities that seems to be happening right before us. The girl, hiding from an abusive boyfriend, afraid to leave the respite of this apartment she has borrowed, is stuck in the present. The man (who we never see) contemplates ending his life, weighted down by an agonizing past.

As in Agnes Varda’s film Cleo From 5 to 7, where we anxiously sit in real time with the protagonist as she waits for the results of a cancer test, we painfully, for the running time of the film, do the same thing in Dazzle. Will the girl leave the apartment at the end of the call and enter the world she describes outside her window? Will the man give in to his memories, loneliness and past regrets and kill himself?

His past and her present dance with each other in this lengthy, sometimes tedious and strangely compelling set of conversations that take place in a perpetual present. We are with them in real time, in their present, and our present, waiting for something to happen.

There was no title confusion with director Maïwenn’s charming French feature All About Actresses.

Where Dazzle’s structure is minimal, All About Actresses is flamboyant. It’s spread out, complicated, layered with various camera angles, tons of characters, musical fantasies, and revealing raw interviews.

Maïwenn – a former actress, now a wife and mother – searches for her identity as she documents several famous actresses of varying ages with a hand-held video camera. Through her lens, we see each woman talking candidly to the camera, opening their hearts to her. The director uses semi-scripted dialogue, setting up scenes and encouraging her actresses to improvise. Similar to Frish, Maïwenn uses documentary style shooting to give a real time feel to her film. So real in fact that we wonder if the actresses are being themselves or acting; if the director is playing herself or just a role.

The actresses believe that the film is about them, and are furious when they realize that it isn’t. In fact, it is a film about Maïwenn as she looks at each woman as someone she might be now or might become in the future. All of the characters telescope into one: they are all Maïwenn, and yet none of them are. Maïwenn seems to try on each role as she confronts each actress. We see the women from many perspectives: they cry, they audition, they break into wild whimsical musical numbers where each plays out her fantasies of an imaginary future. Layered stories in different formats are cleverly edited together: Maïwenn’s video, Maïwenn as seen by another camera, at home as wife, mother, and the obsessed documentary filmmaker who nearly misses her son’s 8th birthday party, the 35mm camera view of one of her actresses starring in a feature film inter-cut with the crew surrounding her as shot by Maiwenn.

The film looks at the many sides of obsession and its repercussions. All About Actresses also offers a cross-section of female attitudes and responses to the pain of aging and diminished beauty in an unusual and original way.

The Bather by George Griffin

Human Landscapes,” was an evening of short experimental films curated by Jon Gartenberg. The films loosely dealt with the relationship of the individual to the environmental space he or she inhabits. Although I felt that this was a particularly coherent group of films, one of them especially resonated with me, and with my other choices.

My favorite film was The Bather, a new work by George Griffin that layers the present and the past in a lovely visual haiku.

A running text on screen describes what we’re seeing and hearing, beginning with: “We observe a woman showering behind a semi-transparent vinyl curtain with a layer of mercurial water droplets.” Our attention shifts from the bather to a flip book with an animated line drawing of a dancing nude woman, while provocative words like intoxicating, desire, nakedness, privacy, performance, anonymity, the human figure in motion scroll across the screen – describing the subject of the film to the music of Bach.

As the last line scrolls by, the past and the present are powerfully fused for the viewer, along with the filmmaker: “A man re-views and re-animates drawings he made 36 years before when he was intoxicated by the heat of love.” Suddenly it all snaps into focus: then and now, together in memory, together on the screen. “The heat of love” simply radiates.

This film does exactly what I love about experimental film and time in a most perfect and delicate way: the present as informed by the past, the past as it is informed by the present.