Annually slotted in January’s frigid tail-end, when film professionals are still skiing in Utah or packing for Berlin, the International Film Festival Rotterdam has gained a well-deserved rep as Europe’s anti-Sundance: an international potluck, typically low on American indies and studio fare, high on the visionary, auteurist, and outré. This year, while Park City hosted Mandy Moore, Justin Theroux, and Queen Latifah, Rotterdam 2007 celebrated their Bizarro World counterparts—Hong Kong action stylist Johnnie To, Norwegian video artist Knut and Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako (whose Bamako comes to Film Forum February 14).
Rotterdam’s curatorial purview reaches well beyond the art house: This cineast’s Dutch treat fosters the only sustainable ecosystem among the major festivals for that mutant cinematic subspecies: experimental film. Though Sundance, Berlin, and Toronto have all notably upgraded their avant-garde sidebars in recent editions, Rotterdam’s well-stocked offerings mean that the hardcore devotees who flock here must decide between tickets for such uncommon delights as a retrospective of Slovenian Super-8 shorts, a master class with Austrian optical-printing thaumaturge Peter Tscherkassky, or the resurrection of Anthony McCall and Andre Tyndall’s Argument, a wry and witty 1978 text-and-image essay film that deconstructs a single issue of The New York Times as a means to critique the radical aspirations of its cinematic contemporaries.
As perennial guest curator Mark McElhatten noted in one of his introduc
tions, Rotterdam provides a “festival within a festival” for experimental film; this year’s mini-fest encapsulated some of the form’s past and future pathways. The popular imagination confuses the avant-garde with a technological cutting edge, but in practice an opposite stance more often remains the rule. Thus, as Hollywood becomes ever more deeply digital, Rotterdam offered multiple programs devoted to contemporary 16mm filmmaking. No longer the cheap workhorse of indie feature directors and documentarians, 16mm has lately become the near exclusive province of artists who continue to cherish its rich grain, handmade textures, and gemlike colors, transmuting the technical limitations of the past into a new generation’s poetic possibilities (though this footage-fetishism has long encouraged its own host of formal clichés). Some of the best younger filmmakers showcased synthesize past and present: Chicago-based Michael Robinson draws equally from ’70s Christian propaganda, enigmatic Sega Genesis videogame images, and a haunting karaoke rendition of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” while Bristol Brit Ben Rivers shoots preemptively superannuated documents of forest hermits and mountain journeys.
A tribute to the Electric Cinema, an underground Amsterdam venue of the early 1970s, reassembled work screened during that era of tactile materialism and heady political theory, including live restagings of expanded cinema by Jos Schoffelen and Valie Export—integrations of theatrical performance and light manipulation that plumb the definitional limits of cinema. British éminence grise Malcolm Le Grice brought back his Horror Film 1, first performed in 1972, and it remains a stunning spectacle: The artist, stripped to the waist and back to the crowd, acted out a slow dance of shadows within shadows against flickering color-fields.
Also present were a new generation of cinema expanders. Bruce McClure, operating a bank of 16mm projectors customized with guitar pedals and electrical transformers, conjured a one-man, multi-hour symphony of psychoactive strobes, geometric light patterns, and mind-blasting machine music. Duo Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder used similar equipment to very different ends, evoking minimalist configurations of dancing vertical lines or creating a choreographed shadow play with subtly mystical overtones. These American artists have been notables within the avant-garde circuit for years, but all three reach new heights in real-time format, turning 16mm projectors into formidable audio-visual instruments. Such a transformation was succinctly captured by U.K. artists Emma Hunt and Benedict Drew, who threaded a long 16mm reel of black and white leader through an electric guitar, each splice creating its own robotic kerrang. With nods to both Fluxus conceptualism and punk-rock punch, the untitled performance distilled the essence of 16mm’s late-life artistic explorations.