Toronto Film Festival 2023 Dispatch:
Tiny Fractures
By Lawrence Garcia

Despite some post-pandemic uncertainty, the Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths program has held strong. Although neither the largest nor most robust selection in its history, its 2023 slate comprised ten features, one short-feature pairing, and three shorts programs—a promising uptick in size after the contractions of recent years. That the section’s feature-film selections have an unusual amount of overlap with titles in this year’s New York Film Festival may point to broader institutional pressures, perhaps necessitating the inclusion of films which, in a more aesthetically adventurous environment, may have found a place in the festival outside of a program named after the late Michael Snow. Whatever the case, it’s the section’s thematically organized shorts programs, which lead curator Andréa Picard described as the “beating heart” of Wavelengths, where viewers are best able to take the pulse of the goings-on in contemporary experimental cinema, and where new generations of artists brush shoulders with established names.

Firmly in the latter category is French-Peruvian artist Rose Lowder, who has been active for roughly five decades, and who presented Bouquets 31-40, the latest set of her minute-long Bouquets series started in 1994. As in the rest of this ongoing project, Lowder here trains her camera on mostly natural subjects—flowers, insects, animals—and works frame by frame, rapidly alternating between static, discontinuous views to create thrilling cadences of reconstructed motion. This method, honed over years, and elaborated in the manner of a musical score, creates in each “bouquet” a unique interplay between motion and stasis. Depending on what objects or creatures are in view, Lowder’s editing patterns engender entirely different relations between how in-frame “movements” relate to the passage of time. For instance, when we see pollinating bees flitting between flowers or the rotations of a sprinkler system, the film’s staccato rhythms make it impossible to know whether we are moving forward in time or entering a continuous loop. The cycles of repetition involved in these occurrences are completely in sync with the film’s construction. The moment a cat or human comes into view, however, introducing cycles of movement which extend beyond the rhythms of Lowder’s rapid montage, the effect is entirely different, and an inexorable sense of temporal passage becomes unavoidable. The cumulative result is a precise rumination on the principles of recurrence which structure our ordinary experience of time—a meditation on the way we use the cycles of nature to mark and measure our works and days.

Although it played in a different program, Viktoria Schmid’s NYC RGB would have made for an ideal pairing with Lowder’s film, concerned as it is with similar themes of stability and change, but this time centered on strictly urban environments. The film comprises static compositions of New York, surveying the city’s skylines and rooftops, its thrum of street-level activity, as well as movements of sky, cloud, and smoke. The twist is that Schmid first reprinted her footage using three different color filters, and then reprinted the results back together, creating in each ordered composition intersecting planes of ghostly red, green, and blue: psychedelic fields of iridescent clouds, an opalescent blur of traffic, colored plumes of smoke billowing in three different directions, and so on. This use of color serves to highlight the relative instability of certain in-frame elements, juxtaposing the unchanging brick and concrete facades of the buildings against the inconstancy of the surrounding environment. The result is a kind of color map rendering of various New York vistas, distinguishing between what changes and what stays the same.

If Schmid’s film represents a modest but accomplished update on the city symphony, Tomonari Nishikawa’s Light, Noise, Smoke, and Light, Noise, Smoke struck me as working in the tradition of early abstract films like Rhythmus 21 (1921) and Rhythm of Light (1935). Although the film is nominally a study of fireworks, Nishikawa’s ordered editing reconfigures our usual perceptual engagement with them. For one thing, Light, Noise, Smoke is much gentler and quieter than one might expect, with the usual bursts of noise replaced by a reflexive play with the 16mm soundtrack. For another, Nishikawa’s decision to alternate between sections from different rolls of footage breaks up the usual cycles of anticipation and satisfaction involved in a typical fireworks viewing. Rather than place the emphasis on one particularly dazzling moment, the film accords equal weight to each stage in the overall trajectory. By breaking up the spectacle into its constituent parts, Nishikawa allows us to appreciate an entire series of individual spatial (and aural) abstractions which would otherwise go unnoticed.

In Slow Shift, Shambhavi Kaul also reconfigures our engagement with seemingly ordinary sights. Shot in Hampi, India, among the ruins of an ancient city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a landscape film of sorts. Static shots of massive boulders alternate with smaller rockslides. Hordes of langurs amble about the depopulated region. There is not a soul in sight. The interest of the film, however, lies not in steady, Benning-esque observation, but in how it raises the problem of conveying epochal change beyond the timescales of human life. Once, humans made something here; now it is gone. How does one represent this change without recourse to anthropological markers of progress? Kaul’s precise, playful orchestrations of scale, perspective, and off-screen sound create the expectation that something big is about to happen, and the disjunction between this mounting anticipation and the minute, all but imperceptible changes that we actually see points up to the difficulty, if not the impossibility of this task. In the end, Slow Shift resembles nothing so much as the “Dawn of Man” section of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) stripped of any sense of prehuman advancement.

Likewise concerned with themes of progress and change, albeit in a starkly different context, was Let’s Talk, filmed by New York–based artist Simon Liu in his native Hong Kong during the 25th anniversary of the handover. As in previous films like Signal 8 (2019) and Happy Valley (2020), Liu here maintains a resolutely on-the-ground perspective, his street-level documentation of commonplace sights and sounds immersing the viewer into a mood of ambient unease. Like Nathaniel Dorsky, Liu has continued to hone his control of his medium, shooting in 16mm and using precise in-camera effects and editing to transform everyday occurrences into perceptual events. But, especially given the charged political context he is working in, Liu is also acutely aware that his images are laden with meaning and import—that no frame or shot can ever be “just” a perceptual event. Indeed, the impact of his films derives from his ability to control the myriad valences of significance that emerge from every image, and which are fully present without being strictly visible. Across 11 minutes, Liu transforms the streets of Hong Kong into a veritable palimpsest of image and sound, offering a sense of place and history as a dialogue between the seen and the unseen.

If Let’s Talk is any indication, Liu, who continues to find fresh perspectives on recurring subjects, is in no danger of repeating himself. The same might be said of Texas-born, Toronto-based 3-D artist Blake Williams, here with Laberint Sequences, his latest experiment in the polarized format, following his 2017 feature PROTOTYPE and 2008 (2019). As its title suggests, the film builds repetition into its very structure, presenting an iterative set of passages through a garden maze. Mainly shot in the Parque del Laberint d’Horta, an impressive hedge maze in Barcelona’s Horta-Guinardó district, the film opens with a series of static views: an archival stereoscopic view of the garden, an isolated tree, a canal, a marble statue, a fountain. Following this, the film then traverses the maze itself—only instead of tracking through the space, Williams positions the camera at various junctures of the labyrinth, where he executes a steady pan, leaping forward to a different location after the completion of each left-right (or right-left) movement. Just as modernist painters reconfigured how we perceive relations between figure and ground, Williams here reverses the usual relations of space and movement: rather than present a stable space in which movement takes place, the film transforms the space itself to produce movement. This creates the sensation not so much that we are moving through the maze as that the maze is moving around us—a dazzling, literally dizzying effect that’s only accentuated by the employment of 3-D. But just as we start to lose our bearings, the film “restarts,” presenting another passage through the maze, with variations major and minor. Lest one get accustomed to these structural variations, Williams changes things up one final time. At the end of the fourth cycle, it’s as if the film itself loses its bearings, segueing into a sensorially overwhelming passage featuring footage from William Cameron Menzies’s 1953 film The Maze, in which two women try to make their way back to the center of a garden labyrinth, the spatial instability and heady lostness of the sequence recalling nothing less than Mulholland Drive (2001). The official website of the Parque del Laberint d’Horta describes it as a combination of a Neoclassical and a Romantic garden, a characterization that could well describe Laberint Sequences, too, a film whose precise patterning eventually gives way to a lyrical burst of image and sound.

So often in writing on experimental cinema (to say nothing of art in general) one is confronted with polarities of intuition and concept, emotion and intellect, feeling and form. Williams’s film demonstrates that while such distinctions may be legitimate, they need not be reified into strict dualisms. Like the best of what Wavelengths has to offer, it finds unity in such oppositions.