Elders and Sons
Hannah Bonner on How to Run a Trotline and Illuminations: Elsewhere/Here

Illuminations: Elsewhere/Here screened Saturday, March 16, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2024.

“Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies, and emergences. They’re things that happen. They happen in impulses, sensations, expectations, daydreams, encounters, and habits of relating…and in publics and social words of all kinds that catch people up in something that feels like something.” —Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects

In his book Movie Journal, Jonas Mekas writes, “Some American filmmakers have freed motion. The camera movement can now go anywhere—from a clear idyllic peacefulness of the image to a frenetic and feverish ecstasy of motion. The full scale of our emotions can be registered, reflected, clarified—for ourselves, if for nobody else.” Mekas’s words are remarkably apposite to First Look’s Illuminations Program: Elsewhere/Here, which runs the gamut from formalist studies in sound, color, and light to observational documentaries featuring unreliable narrators. The full scale of our emotions is cinematically clarified throughout these 13 films, chronicling a continuous transmutation of feeling into thought.

Carl Elsaesser’s How to Run a Trotline (2024), having its world premiere at the festival, typifies the absolute best of First Look’s programming, which exalts in film’s materiality, elliptical, but prescient storytelling, and innovative experiments in form. At its most basic, How to Run a Trotline is a film about fathers and sons and the landscapes and films that shape us. Elsaesser collages images and sounds from older films with his own 16mm footage to paint a portrait of queer and paternal legacies. But the film also engages with nuanced formal gestures that spark, per Mekas, “the full scale of” affective responses within its viewer.

Over a black screen, How to Run a Trotline opens with birds trilling amidst the susurrus of a stream—no wind, no footsteps, just warbles and water. Already the film aurally summons an idyllic, scenic calm. Elsasser’s soundscape evokes images from pastoral, 19th-century New England painters who captured natural landscapes right before white settler colonialism demolished them in toto. Just because we cannot hear or see a human presence in these paintings, or at the start of Elsaesser’s film, does not mean a surveilling eye and ear doesn’t lie just beyond the frame. How to Run a Trotline subsequently cuts from black to a bright woodland scene. Sunlight and shadows freckle lichen stones and bluestem. The camera pans slowly across the sylvan landscape before tilting down and creeping towards a fox asleep under a birch tree, its body burnt crimson and very much alive.

As the camera shakily holds on the sleeping animal, the screen is gauzy, luminous. Elsaesser achieves this hue in the opening shot by projecting the woodland image on sand-blown glass. On the surface of the glass is the fox, behind that image is a flame. Offscreen, we hear a match strike as an ember appears to float over the fox like a spectral presence, or an externalized heart. A hand tentatively reaches into the frame to pet the creature’s flank and strokes the hide. The animal stretches, starts, then darts out of sight into a rim of trees. While the imagery and sounds in this opening sequence are anachronistic and painterly, the footage is from a cell phone, introducing tensions between past versus present, observation versus surveillance, and physical touch as transgressive as well as an ordinary affect.

The touch of the fox foregrounds the motif of physical exchanges between bodies. How to Run a Trotline is in many ways in memoriam of paternal and gay legacies in life and in art. The film borrows sonically from Michael Snow’s Presents (1981) and incorporates clips from William E. Jones’s silent, archival film Tearoom (2007), which consists of police surveillance footage of a public restroom in Mansfield, Ohio, where police secretly taped men’s trysts to charge and convict them of sodomy. In using these images, Elsaesser pays tribute to his father and creative predecessors, as well as to gay men who have historically risked imprisonment for fucking. Elsaesser also at times inserts his own hand, formally or corporeally, into Tearoom’s footage to empathetically observe, and touch, these heretofore surveilled bodies.

As we see a “Gentleman” sign for the Mansfield restroom in a long shot, the ember from the opening sequence reappears. The visual effect at the restroom entrance beckons the viewer closer. Is this ember meant to be a ghost? One of the men from Tearoom returned to us beyond the grave? Or is it a symbol of mourning, a torch in remembrance of those no longer with us? When we again see the bathroom door, this time darkened, as though at night, we hear newly recorded footsteps, recalling the bodies that once walked through this space. Again, Elsaesser strikes a match and holds it in front of the projected figures from actual footage of Tearoom. The gesture is at once protective (occluding the men’s faces and thus protecting their anonymity) and reverent. Elsaesser is shining a light on his elders, men whose physical touches were once regarded as transgressive and criminal. But the flame cannot burn forever. Like life—or desire—it too will be snuffed out.

Elsaesser's projection effects create a sense of layering, two moments both separated and conjoined. So too does Elsaesser separate and suture How to Run a Trotline into two (or three) parts, just like Snow’s Presents. Both Elsaesser and Snow’s opening sequences involve human interaction, (minimal) dialogue, and the faintest suggestion of narrative. The latter half of Snow’s film devolves into an extended montage of disparate images sonically fused by a percussive tempo. Elsaesser borrows Snow’s gesture two-thirds of the way through his own film where a montage of painted bike lanes accompanies Snow’s soundtrack. Though Snow’s sequence risks extending into discomfort for its audience, Elsaesser mercifully returns to the ember after four minutes of incorporating the formidable filmmaker’s snare soundtrack.

Besides the bodies in the archival footage, Elsaesser’s and his father’s body are the only other figures to appear throughout How to Run a Trotline. Later, as the camera fixes on flying geese, Carl’s father lets loose a barrage of different gun sounds as Carl softly laughs. This playful exchange undercuts hunting’s violence, rather than celebrating it. As father and son talk off-screen, the footage we have just seen begins to rewind. Elsaesser formally takes the viewer back in time, just as his father has recalled a shared moment from their past. The camera rewinds until we see a lone figure in the distance, an ember hovering over his frame. The ember is not just a symbol of life and death, yearning and suppression, but also an “ordinary affect” that can, as Kathleen Stewart says, “catch people up in something that feels like something.” The ember is multivalent throughout How to Run a Trotline, thus evoking myriad possibilities in how its viewers might be touched or affected by Elseasser’s associations.

Derek Jarman once wrote, “When I was young the absence of the past was a terror. That’s why I wrote autobiography.” While Jarman wrote into an absence, the past is always already with Carl Elsaesser throughout his deeply personal, archival, and collaged film. It is not the lack of a past, but the past’s potency which sparks Elsaesser’s cinematic engagement with sexuality, lineage, and masculine inheritance. In Elsaesser’s first film, Vague Images at the Beginning and End of the Day (2015), a man shows the camera a photograph of his erect penis, “dripping with pre-cum.” This seminal image, which once would be cause for criminalization or pathologization is now one of play and flirtation, proudly displayed for all to see. As in Elsaesser’s entire oeuvre, How to Run a Trotline is a film about bodies, misbehaving or otherwise, bodies that cum, shed, sing off key, and tell jokes without a punchline. No matter what they do or say, the bodies in Elsaesser’s work make us feel something. Like the glowing ember, they ignite within us, ongoing and alive.


Elsewhere in the program, Bram Ruiter’s film Here & Elsewhere (2023) deftly foregrounds First Look’s themes of longing, place, artificial and natural landscapes, the passage of time, and the various media used in contemporary moving image work. Filmed on Super8, MiniDV, and 4K digital, Ruiter’s short is a lush exploration of the pathways that guide us toward connection, including romantic poetry, water, and trains. In a breathtaking sequence utilizing a dolly zoom, black-and-white footage shot from the back of a train makes the continuous representation of space contract as if a muscle. “I like to see it lap the miles,” Emily Dickinson wrote of the Industrial Revolution’s most lucrative technical innovation. Swap miles for minutes and she could be writing about the camera, too.

The motif of travel, literal or figurative, also occurs in Eva Giolo’s Stone, Hat, Ribbon, and Rose (2023), which offers an audiovisual tour of Brussels while paying homage to Chantal Akerman. Giolo’s film opens with the unfolding of a map, before cutting to an empty city street. A montage of shots follows, showing public pools, metros, libraries, and public spaces, evoking the beautiful, albeit lonely, tableaus of New York City in News from Home (1976). Giolo intersperses her own impersonal city shots with ludic sequences of herself on camera: stacking video tapes like a Jenga tower or erotically embracing a potted plant. While Giolo’s actions are not tonally similar to Akerman’s in, say, La paresse (1986), where Akerman espouses the desire to make a film about laziness, the impulse to perform for the camera remains the same between the two women, whether out of inertia or play.

Giolo’s choice to shoot long shots of static city scenes signals the cinematic influence of Akerman, while Alee Peoples’s Hey Sweet Pea (2023) engages the content of the 1984 fantasy feature The NeverEnding Story, similar to Elsaesser’s reappropriation of Tearoom’s footage and Present’s sounds. In Hey Sweet Pea, actors recite dialogue from The NeverEnding Story about the encroachment of that film’s invisible existential threat, “the nothing.” For any millennial audience member, The NeverEnding Story is an apt vehicle for nostalgia. “The past is always with us,” Peoples’s film seems to say. We cannot escape the things we inherit, whether family or cultural references. Giolo, Peoples, and Elsaesser are all in conversation with their cinematic predecessors, reaching back in time to speak to our present moment. And in his hallucinatory Single File (2023), the final film in the selection, Simon Liu moves from past or present into a future where footage has been manipulated by video processing techniques that rework legible images into pulsing flickers and grids of color and pastiche. As images flash by in psychedelic primary colors, Liu’s palette and images expand our consciousness and perception of time.

In each of the thirteen films in this program, the camera concentrates not just on freedom of movement, as described by Mekas, but also on affective, sonic, and/or material touch, whether it’s the kaleidoscopic kineticism of Mike Stoltz’s Holographic Will (2023) or the painterly triple exposure on out-of-print film stock in Maximilien Luc Proctor’s Seasonal Concerns (2024). Even in Banging on Their Bars in Rhythm (2024), director Kevin Jerome Everson’s soundtrack judders as the contact between the high-contrast black-and-white footage and the projector’s optical sound head generate the audio. The film strip’s visuals create the sounds we hear. The Illuminations program allows the full scale of our sensations to be touched visually and aurally on and offscreen, elsewhere and here, right in this moment.