SIFF 2010: Visionaries ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)

An old pal of mine dismissed “experimental” films as “movies that hurt your eyes”. As I was watching this documentary about avant-garde movie critic, filmmaker and curator Jonas Mekas, directed by legendary editing whiz Chuck Workman, I began to chuckle to myself. Viewing the parade of clips from the likes of movement pioneers like Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Luis Bunuel and Kenneth Anger, I began to see what my old pal was driving at. Because, when viewed strictly as non-contextualized clip montage, it does strike one as a jumbled confusion of nonsensical jump cutting, herky-jerky camera movements, images that are under-exposed, over-exposed, fluctuating wildly in and out of focus…in short, a headache-inducing experience that kind of hurts your eyes.

But it was precisely this kind of “visionary” and free-form style of filmmaking that informed and inspired the work of more familiar contemporary directors like David Lynch (who appears in the film) and Guy Maddin (who, rather puzzlingly, does not). Now, just because a film might be labeled as “visionary”, does not necessarily equate that it is, in fact, “watchable”. Consider Andy Warhol’s infamous stationary camera epics, Sleep (5 hours, 20 minutes of real-time footage depicting a man catching his Zs) and Empire (8 hours observing the ever-static Empire State Building). Do you know anyone who has actually sat through them (while remaining completely awake and alert)?

I stayed awake and alert through Workman’s film; it’s certainly a startling assemblage of images (if anything). But it neglects to address the most important question (which was the impetus behind the excellent documentary My Kid Could Paint That)-Is it truly Art?

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