Text of Light No. 3

Staying Vertical
by Jordan Cronk

Last month I visited the Academy Museum’s exhibition “Shifting Perspectives: Celebrating Vertical Cinema,” for which a trio of Southern Californian artists were commissioned to make short works to be projected onto a 20-foot-tall screen in the 9:16 aspect ratio—essentially a lengthwise inversion of the standard widescreen frame. Inspired by a concept by Sonic Acts, an interdisciplinary arts organization in Amsterdam that’s been presenting programs of vertically formatted films for more than a decade, “Shifting Perspectives” arrives at a time when social media apps like Instagram and TikTok have made vertical imagery (i.e., portrait mode) the norm for everyone with a smartphone. But while it’s now customary to view most online content in this manner, it’s still surreal to see vertical images in a cinematic context, despite being, as “Shifting Perspectives” demonstrates, one of the initial ways moving images were conceived in the late 19th century.

Preceding the three commissions in the exhibition’s 38-minute loop of films (which also includes works by Joost Rekveld and HC Gilje from the original Sonic Arts program) is a quintet of chronophotographic miniatures by Étienne-Jules Marey, a French scientist whose advances in photography in the late-1800s are as integral to the development of motion pictures as those of his more well-known contemporary Eadweard Muybridge. Like Muybridge, Marey created the illusion of movement through single frames captured and projected at a high rate of speed. At about twelve seconds each, Marey’s “Shifting Perspectives” pieces resemble your average TikTok video not only in length but also in subject matter: birds, cats, and semi-nude figures freely performing for the camera.

As charming as the Marey films were, the reason I drove across town to view the exhibition was for the commissioned work by Fox Maxy, a Native American (Payómkawish and Iipay, Mesa Grande Band of Mission Indians) filmmaker whose Gush was one of 2023’s best experimental features. A kind of contemplative postscript to that fearlessly kinetic work, the five-minute Dusty Tapes finds Maxy parlaying the curators’ somewhat open-ended prompt—“to explore the topography of a region [Southern California] that is generally perceived to be horizontal—much like cinema itself”—into a typically personal account of climate change, urban development, and intergenerational dynamics. Matching images of industrial Los Angeles and Payómkawichum land in Southern California to the sounds of construction, flowing water, and fits of nondiegetic beat music, Maxy uses the vertical frame in a somewhat counterintuitive way, largely avoiding trees, buildings, or any other phenomena that might stick out against the open sky in favor of the dirt, streams, and shrubs that dot the landscape below. Humorously, on the few occasions when Maxy does opt for a full-scale shot of a tree or mountain range, she allows the horizontal image to sit sideways in the vertical frame, not unlike when a photo suddenly switches orientations when you open your phone. Meanwhile, in voiceover, stray musings on the misunderstandings between young people and their elders take shape into a wider reflection on the discrepancies between cultural memory and lived experience—a subject that frequently animates Maxy’s work, just framed in a way we haven’t seen before.


If the relationship between form and content has been on my mind lately, it’s because of Direct Action, a remarkable feature co-directed by Ben Russell and Guillaume Cailleau that premiered at this year’s Berlinale, where it won the top prize in the Encounters section. Known for his mobile 16mm camera work and trance-inducing aesthetics, Russell adopts a new strategy for this uniquely conceived project, which, in 41 mostly static shots totaling 216 minutes, patiently portrays one of the most high-profile Zone to Defend (ZAD) communities in France. Shot in the Notre-Dame-des-Landes commune, where this 150-plus person eco-activist collective once shut down an airport expansion project and established an autonomous zone for a number of years in the 2010s, the film unfolds with uncommon restraint, quietly observing members of the community as they cook, farm, parent, and eventually congregate to plan a march opposing the construction of a nearby reservoir.

Radical in its simplicity yet rich in scope, it’s a work that trades the bravura stylistic maneuvers of prior Russell films like Good Luck (2017), which Cailleau produced (this is their second time co-directing), for something far more intimate and, well, direct. As its title suggests, Direct Action doubles as both a work of immersive nonfiction and a rejoinder to the idea that direct cinema—or, indeed, any form of documentary—might act as a conduit of objective truth. To their credit, Russell and Cailleau don’t attempt to create a holistic portrait of this community, let alone the entirety of the ZAD movement; instead, they capture a way of life, a sense of being, and a specific place with startling poise and clarity. Not unlike the British filmmaker Ben Rivers, a frequent collaborator of Russell who’s often spoke about the impossibility of the nonfiction form to fully depict a subject (“All documentary, just by its nature, is going to be inadequate,” he’s said), Russell and Cailleau find inspiration in that impossibility, and through that inspiration find new ways to frame reality.


After the Berlinale I caught up with a handful of films that I missed in 2023, including Dane Komljen’s latest short, Projekt. Despite the belated viewing, Komljen is a filmmaker I’ve been eagerly following for a number of years, having brought him and his sublime first feature All the Cities of the North (2016) to Los Angeles in 2017 for a festival I was running at the time, and soon after that having served on a jury that awarded his mesmerizing short film, Fantasy Sentences (2017), at the Locarno Film Festival. Like a lot of contemporary art cinema, the 38-year-old Serbian’s work is difficult to categorize. Writing about All the Cities for Cinema Scope, Robert Koehler described the film as “a radical innovation in open cinema,” an appropriately nebulous term that may explain why Komljen’s work is just as likely to screen in experimental film showcases as documentary festivals. Like Direct Action, both Projekt and its recent feature-length follow-up The Garden Cadences can be broadly classified as a documentaries—though it’s not long before each quickly reveals additional dimensions. Projeckt, the more modest of the two, was shot in Lagos and centers on the former site of the International Trade Fair Complex, which, today, almost a half-century after it was built, survives as a shell of its former self. Once a modernist epicenter for global commerce and cultural exchange, the facility is now partially flooded, overgrown with vegetation, and occupied by a variety of consumer goods traders. In a subtle temporal sleight of hand, Komljen pairs reflections from the workers with archival clips of the complex in its heyday and standard-definition video footage of how it looks and operates today, bringing a slippery sense of time, space, and collective consciousness to bear on an all-too-familiar symbol of civic neglect.

The Garden Cadences, which premiered last month at Cinéma du réel, further expands on the notion of open cinema. It even begins like All the Cities, with a serene shot of two figures in repose. Except here, Komljen imbues the languid pace and ambiguous characterizations of the earlier film with real world stakes. Set over the course of one summer in an old industrial area in Berlin’s Ostkreuz neighborhood, the film follows a queer-feminist community called the Mollies who lived there for a period of years before being evicted to make way for a new aquarium. Intimate moments abound: in addition to the couple sleeping in each other’s arms, there are tender scenes of people bathing, reading, and roller-skating through the verdant passageways of this self-made oasis. Only the occasional glimpse of cranes above the tree line hint at the disruption to come.

Ultimately, it’s that feeling of inevitability, and the tangible sense that time is passing before our eyes, that sets The Garden Cadences apart from Komljen’s prior films, which by and large have taken a transhistorical look at once-utopian settings. Not so in this achingly delicate work, which is so attuned to its surroundings that it can’t help but surrender at one point to the all-consuming beauty of the environment: in a spellbinding ten-minute interlude, Komljen’s camera retreats from his subjects to explore the garden’s foliage in impressionistic close-up, moving methodically through sun-dappled thickets of flowers and fronds. It’s a sequence that immediately put me in mind of Betzy Bromberg’s Glide of Transparency (2016), a similarly meditative study of color and light, form and abstraction. For a few fleeting moments, the frame all but falls away, offering up a vision of cinema in its purest form.