Text of Light No. 2:

The Year in Experimental Film
By Jordan Cronk

Last month, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded its Douglas Edwards Experimental Film and Video prize to Youth (Spring), Chinese director Wang Bing’s acclaimed portrait of young migrant laborers working and living in an industrial garment district near Shanghai. As a member of the committee that votes for this award, I was involved in the evergreen conversation about what qualifies as “experimental,” a somewhat tiresome but not impertinent question, at least for this particular film, which, while not a conventional work by any means, would by most people’s standards simply be considered a documentary, before the addition of any descriptor (say, “epic” or “observational”) that might betray its more challenging traits. Indeed, at 212 minutes, Youth (Spring)’s most trying aspect is probably its length, despite offering something like a master class in editing, rhythm, and pacing. (Wang constructed the film, the first of a trilogy, from more than 2,600 hours footage.) That we ultimately decided the film was eligible for the prize speaks to one of the fundamental contradictions of categorizing movies and awarding them based on those categorizations. (Wang’s film, some of us argued, had little to no shot at gaining traction in the group’s Best Documentary category, so why punish it for not being experimental enough when it’s already facing the challenge of being watched by a less than adventurous voting body?). But the decision also reflects, as I outlined in the inaugural edition of this column, the increasingly porous boundaries separating once distinct schools of filmmaking.

I realize that, as a critic advocating for Youth (Spring)’s eligibility, my own stance on the matter—otherwise rooted in an admittedly antiquated definition of the avant-garde—could be considered contradictory. But in a year like 2023, it feels to me like an almost necessary concession (or at least a matter worth acknowledging), as many of the best and most radical films came from major auteurs experimenting with new forms, whether that’s Hong Sang-soo shooting almost an entire feature out of focus with in water; Pedro Costa mounting a triple split screen mini-musical with The Daughters of Fire; or, indeed, Wang Bing, who, in addition to Youth (Spring), also premiered Man in Black, a bracing portrait of 86-year-old modern classical composer Wang Xilin that the director, working for the first time outside China, made for a Parisian art gallery. (That it has thus far mostly screened theatrically only reinforces how blurry these distinctions have become.) Even Jean-Luc Godard, 16 months dead at the time of this writing, managed, with Trailer of the Film That Will Never Exist: ‘Phony Wars,’ to reinvent the essay film from beyond the grave. But even as old binaries collapse and traditions evolve, there were still plenty of recognizably experimental works presented in 2023.

It started early in the year, at Sundance of all places. Citing a need to “evaluate the shifting media landscape,” the festival first scrapped and then reimagined its New Frontier program for experimental work (which in recent years has mostly meant VR experiences and emerging technology showcases) by including just three titles: Deborah Stratman’s Last Things, Fox Maxy’s Gush, and Mike Gibisser and Mary Helena Clark’s A Common Sequence. All three films are uniquely provocative, but where A Common Sequence, about the relationship between rural conservation practices and evolutionary advancements in science and technology, finds Clark and Gibisser working in an essayistic mode quite different than anything in their respective solo careers, both Last Things and Gush see Stratman and Maxy pushing the formal limits of their established styles: the former into a relatively compact but densely detailed (both sonically and informationally) meditation on geologic time and azoic history, and the latter into a feature-length expansion of the Native American filmmaker’s signature montage aesthetic and longstanding interest in themes of identity and indigeneity. If it all seemed too good to be true, it was: last month, when Sundance announced its 2024 lineup, a mere two titles comprised the New Frontier section, one a “participatory experience” involving AI and the other a “generative documentary” about musician Brian Eno that will unfold in different configurations each time it’s shown.

If the Berlin and Rotterdam film festivals, by contrast, turned up less riches in this realm than usual, that’s only allowed certain works to resonate more strongly in the intervening months. This has proven true in the cases of Lois Patiño’s Samsara and James Benning’s Allensworth, as my initial reaction to each of these Berlinale selections—the former a multipart reflection on death and reincarnation set between Laos and Tanzania, the latter an unassuming portrait of the first town in California to be established by African-Americans—was deferential, if not at a level of enthusiasm with which I meet these filmmakers’ best, or even most recent, work. As the year wore on, though, Patiño’s serene and reverential depiction of a soul passing from one life to the next—and his remarkable rendering of a trip through the bardo as an interactive audience experience—lingered in the mind more powerfully than anticipated considering the (not entirely inaccurate) charges of tourism that initially greeted the Galician artist’s film. Allensworth, too, has quietly seeped into the recesses of my mind, though less for any of its twelve static images of this since reconstructed and memorialized community—which thrived following its founding in 1908 before slowly falling into economic and environmental disrepair in the years surrounding WWI—than for its deft use of sound, song, and, in one particularly moving sequence, performance.

Each of these elements was also central to Rotterdam’s unequivocal highlight, Steve McQueen’s Sunshine State, a two-channel installation commissioned by the festival and presented at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. On two adjoining screens, a pair of split image tracks unfold as the British filmmaker narrates a story about a racist confrontation experienced by his father in 1950s Florida: on one side, footage from the infamous blackface scene in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, manipulated so that actor Al Jolson’s painted features variously invert, intensify, or disappear completely against contrasting voids of black and white; and, on the other, fiery color images of an approaching sun that slowly overtake the frame and overwhelm the eye. As someone who prefers McQueen’s video art to his dramatic features, Sunshine State—which, criminally, has yet to travel much outside the Netherlands—offers something personal and poetic (“Sunshine State, shine on me,” goes the heartrending final refrain) that channels the sociopolitical fury that the director often seeks to harness and thematize in his narrative work to occasionally pat ends.

Of the year’s remaining highlights, most were presented in either TIFF’s Wavelengths program or the Currents sidebar at NYFF. Three of my favorites made the cut at both, and, taken together, they point—in scope, vision, and ingenuity—to what’s lacking in contemporary artists’ cinema. Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge 3, which the Argentine filmmaker shot with a 360-degree camera and edited with the use of a VR headset, was one of the fall festival circuit’s most talked about works. The long-awaited follow-up to Williams’s 2016 feature debut The Human Surge, this quasi-sequel (there is no part two) furthers the earlier film’s focus on shiftless young people while expanding on its daisy chain structure as the characters move elliptically between Peru, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan—locations that take on the open world feel of an RPG as the director allows each sequence, captured by the spherical camera’s eight lenses, to unfold in synchronicity with the surrounding environment. In Blake Williams’s latest 3D short, Laberint Sequences, the bounds of space and perception are similarly tested as the Toronto-based artist surveys the gardens of Barcelona’s Laberint d’Horta. Adopting a recursive montage built around a statue of Eros located at the park’s center, the film begins by briskly weaving through the carefully sculpted hedges, opening upon fountains and figures hidden in the mazelike sprawl, before rephotographed excerpts from an old B-movie playing on a monitor take us from this peaceful idyll to a moment of dramatic intrigue that hints at a form of narrative storytelling new for Williams.

If Laberint Sequences and The Human Surge 3 sit at the cutting edge of digital technology, then Joshua Gen Solondz’s We Don’t Talk Like We Used To (pictured above) speaks to what can still be done with analogue tools. Shot on 35mm and filmed between Hong Kong, Japan, and the U.S., Solondz’s medium-length travelogue—expertly programmed at Wavelengths alongside new and equally notable celluloid works by Viktoria Schmid (NYC RGB), Simon Lui (Let’s Talk), Shambhavi Kaul (Slow Shift), and Tomonari Nishikawa (Light, Noise, Smoke, and Light, Noise, Smoke)—reflects on ideas of domesticity and physical affection in the COVID era. No stranger to visceral depictions of the human body, Solondz here ritualizes the ongoing hazards of intimacy through repetition and abstraction, turning familiar actions into fragments of agitation and distress. Throughout, distorted footage of hooded figures in the home alternates with variegated montages of city life and travel, accompanied by scrawls of superimposed text—“The air is thick with poison;” “It feels like you’re on fire you say?”—that suggest the presence of an outside threat. At one point, a clipped image of a shrouded figure applying an N95 mask is looped for over six minutes, before the scene shifts to Solondz himself in the same position, wrapping a piece of plastic around his head.

With its kinetic editing and discordant sound mix, few would mistake We Don’t Talk for anything but a work operating in a very specific lineage of moving image art. But in the same way that Youth (Spring) transcends classification, Solondz’s film defies description. Until language allows for a word beyond “experimental,” it may be more accurate to simply refer to it as one of the key documents of—and about—our time.