Bright Lights Film Journal

All Shook Up: Australian International Experimental Film Festival 2012

“Despite this titillated vision, we experience a slight distance as a result of the period fashions and bodies — the women appear relatively natural and unsculpted by today’s standards.”

Founded by artist sue.k in 2009, AIEFF is one of the most adventurously programmed festivals in Australia, showing formally experimental works on 16mm, video, and Super 8. This year’s opening night theme was particularly suited to experimental concerns: the idea of looking as a form of cartography and compulsion. Two of the most arresting films portrayed the lens as a terrorizing force moving over a confined field. In Adam Dewhirst’s fig 1 c, the camera frantically whips through space, as if asking, “Where is it, where is it?” The ground and sky are repeatedly scanned for some lost object, while everything else is dashed out of the frame. Domestic Disturbance, by US artist Nicolas Brynolfson, is filmed from the point of view of a robotic cleaning machine, which manically zooms around the house in search of dirt. The machine casts a grid-like eye on space: it is sniper-like in both focus and impersonality, so that each frame seems caught in the crosshairs. Psycho cleaner or haunted housewife? Even though we know that the machine’s purpose is housework, this film somehow becomes terrifying. The camera and its roaring suction device probe every corner looking for something to destroy. Space is slashed through so quickly that we feel as if we are watching a crazed killing, a massacre with unseen victims. The sterile eye of the camera and the loud buzzing place the image under intense pressure; the atmosphere is as charged as the murder scenes in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Wolf Creek (2005). As in those films, there is a sense of nightmare entrapment with a machine that can’t be thwarted. The psycho camera is bent on performing one function, whether or not a spectator exists.

A calmer documentary mapping of space is seen in Benjamin R. Taylor’s Las Vegas | The Meadows. By focusing on the signs of desertion — fluoro light on cheap carpet, tawdry porn, a misspelled motel sign — Taylor depicts Vegas as a weary, resigned city. This deadening effect is so consistent that it is close to a state of grace: a romance of bleakness that carries its own mystique and fullness. It is an attractive concept, albeit one which feels very familiar, especially in American cinema. Atlantic City (1980), Paris, Texas (1984), The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) and Somewhere (2010) are films set in a similar key, in which glitz is tempered by shabbiness, blinding light and sound contrasted with a soft haze. In each film a sordid, artificial landscape is transformed into a soulful meadow.

Australian Mark La Rosa’s Rough Stuff records a hiking trip by presenting two views of the environment in split-screen: one gnarly, one smooth; one homogenous, the other detailed; a vista versus a close-up. There is the added prompt of a soundtrack which partially overrides what we see: it gives us the illusion of grinding rocks beneath our feet. Like the work of the sculptor Lee Ufan, this film invites us to reconcile contradictions in texture: the viewer needs to digest rocky and glassy surfaces as part of one image, thus confusing the properties of different materials. In particular, the score encourages us to savour the chomping noise of each step: we can admire a landscape while happily crushing it underfoot.

If many of this year’s films were austere formal compositions, Scott Stark’s Angel Beach was the most excitable and lewd work in the bunch. Stark shakes up footage of ’70s beach bodies: he quivers the taut flesh so that it appears to wobble like panna cotta. He uses rhythmic effects to make whole bodies gyrate: each woman possesses a bobble-head and jiggle-boobs. The women are given more than a once-over; there is an up/down/up tracking which divides their bodies into tanned parts and milk jelly legs. Despite this titillated vision, we experience a slight distance as a result of the period fashions and bodies — the women appear relatively natural and unsculpted by today’s standards. The shuddering footage seems precarious enough to blow away in the wind, if not anchored by the central figures in each frame. In addition, the bikini bodies are more uncanny than arousing. These women wear permanent vacation expressions, always tanning and smiling, and when Stark shakes their bodies like maracas, we get the effect of an eerie, sampled sexuality. All that quivering comes across as a symptom: a sign of our unsettling desire for these bodies and those times.