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At the 25th annual Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, every picture tells a story

From multilayered mysteries to a Warholian take on Grand Theft Auto IV, narrative cinema and the avant-garde overlap.

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Film critics rarely refer to narrative movies when writing about experimental cinema—or vice versa—and this might create the impression that the two are entirely separate forms. Yet they've overlapped for as long as movies have existed. For instance, the innovative editing of Sergei Eisenstein's 1920s features owes much to the experiments in montage that other Soviet filmmakers were constructing around the same time. More recently, well-known narrative filmmakers like David Fincher (in Seven) and Gus Van Sant (in his "death trilogy" of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days) have shown the influence of experimental cinema in their films' textures and atmospheres. On the other end of the spectrum, American experimental filmmakers ranging from Joseph Cornell to George Kuchar have made certain aspects of narrative movies (acting, the manipulation of suspense) the central subjects of their work.

In this year's Onion City Festival of Experimental Film and Video, several of my favorite pieces blur altogether the distinction between narrative and experimental movies. Tellingly, two of these—Morning of Saint Anthony's Day and As the Flames Rose—were written or cowritten by João Pedro Rodrigues, a Portuguese filmmaker who divides his time between narrative features and experimental shorts. (They screen back-to-back in the program "The Way of All Flesh," which plays Saturday at 3:15 PM at Columbia College's Ferguson Theater.) I'm still catching up with Rodrigues, whose first three features—O Fantasma (2000), Two Drifters (2005), and To Die Like a Man (2009)—were well received when they played in Chicago. But the works I've seen have made it clear that he's an artist with a distinct way of seeing the world. Both his 2012 feature The Last Time I Saw Macao (which he wrote and directed with his partner, João Rui Guerra da Mata) and Saint Anthony's Day transpire in static, isolated shots divided by hard, disjunctive edits. Their narratives are presented to us as a collection of puzzle pieces, conveying a sense of mystery even when little happens onscreen.

Macao's slender plot was inspired by detective fiction; the plot of Saint Anthony's Day is a mystery in itself. An opening card introduces the title holiday as a Lisbon tradition where "lovers must offer small vases of basil with paper carnations and flags . . . as a token of their love" for the city's patron saint. What follows is a series of vaguely connected shots in which young people walk slowly and silently through Lisbon, first in groups and then individually, performing strange, sometimes self-destructive acts as if in a trance. Do these behaviors represent modern-day love offerings, or are we watching some high-art remake of Night of the Living Dead? Either way, the images are consistently gorgeous and classical in their compositional sensibility, as if the director himself were under some archaic love spell.

Rodrigues is the star of As the Flames Rose, a one-person drama reminiscent of Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice. Set against the backdrop of a citywide fire that ravaged Lisbon in 1988, it shows a man breaking up over the phone with his longtime lover (whose name, age, and gender are never identified). Guerra da Mata directed this one alone, employing a more expressionistic style than Rodrigues. As the narrative progresses, the hero's apartment gradually transforms into an abstract zone, with walls and windows replaced by movie screens showing unexpected bits of film. The device effectively conveys the hero's emotional displacement, making Flames one of the most poignant works in this year's festival.

Less emotional but even more tantalizing as narrative is Ben Rivers's Phantoms of a Libertine, which screens in the opening night program at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Thursday at 8:15 PM. After Mike Leigh and Terence Davies, Rivers (Slow Action, Two Years at Sea) may be England's greatest living filmmaker, which makes any new film of his is a must-see. His small body of work looks like nothing else past or present—indeed one of the most extraordinary things about his films is that they don't seem to come from any particular time. Rivers shoots much of his work on grainy 16-millimeter film; while his images have an artisanal, rough-hewn quality, they never seem amateurish or "old." They suggest some lost chapter of cinema history that may exist solely in Rivers's imagination. This fake nostalgia is at once inviting and eerie, like half-remembered fragments of stories not read since childhood.

Libertine documents what appears to be one person's collection of photographs that were taken across the globe between the 1940s and '60s. The handwritten captions are brief ("Haifa, 1946"; "1963: I was convalescing") and in some cases illegible, yet they conjure up stories of adventure and romance. It's also possible that these narrative fragments come from an uneventful life distinguished only by occasional vacations. In that case, the film's title would be ironic and the life it considers one of wishful thinking and latter-day regret. It's a reflection of Rivers's mastery that he manages to convey both possibilities at once.

I would love to see Rivers shoot a narrative feature some day. Considering how many potential narratives Libertine evokes in just ten minutes—and without any spoken dialogue—I'd imagine that any number of narrative filmmakers would love to work with him. I'm not sure, though, if Rivers would pursue such a path, as he tends toward documentary rather than fictional subjects. True to form, his next feature, codirected by former Chicagoan Ben Russell, is a self-described "participatory ethnography" about various transcendental belief systems.

The experimental documentary seems to be undergoing a renaissance in Anglo-American cinema, as evidenced by recent breakthroughs by such diverse filmmakers as Russell (Let Each One Go Where He May), Sabine Gruffat (I Have Always Been a Dreamer), Stephen Graves (A Body Without Organs), and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (Leviathan). Not surprisingly, some of the best work in this year's Onion City festival belongs to this subgenre. Also screening in the opening night program, I Am Micro profiles the overlooked Indian experimental filmmaker Kamal Swaroop, who's been making movies since the mid-1970s. Swaroop never appears onscreen in Micro, yet his narration—which touches on his professional goals and disappointments—brings an air of melancholy to the various images we see. What emerges is a quirky but moving history of the Indian avant-garde, in which the subject's struggle to influence the material evokes the challenge faced by all of the country's experimental filmmakers. (For a point of comparison, check out Gabe Klinger's documentary Double Play, in which noted American experimentalist James Benning discusses filmmaking with Richard Linklater. It's the closing night film, screening at the Music Box on Sunday at 7:30 PM.)

All three shorts in Friday's program "Portraits, Queerly" (screening at the Ferguson Theater at 7 PM) employ similar devices to represent episodes in queer history. In Encounters I May or May Not Have Had With Peter Berlin, neither filmmaker Mariah Garnett nor the title subject appears onscreen during any of their interviews; rather, Garnett runs the recorded dialogue over images of Berlin's home. This elusive design, in which the most compelling images play out in the viewer's imagination, encourages us to meditate on how erotic art like Berlin's conjures a sense of desire. On the other hand, both Mike Hoolboom's Buffalo Death Mask and Matt Wolf's I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard deny us images of their subjects in order to convey a sense of loss. Much of the soundtrack of Death Mask consists of two middle-aged men talking about lovers who have died of AIDS. Coupling their candid conversation with abstract imagery, Hoolboom evokes the experience of being dissociated from one's own body—the results are deeply moving. In Joe Brainard, Wolf cuts between commentary from the title subject and his friend Ron Padgett (both leading members of the New York School) and a montage whose images roughly correspond to the eras being discussed. Like I Am Micro, the film memorializes a chapter of avant-garde art in a manner its practitioners might have devised.

The other programs screening at the Ferguson Theater on Friday and Saturday—as well as the three screening at the Music Box on Sunday—spotlight more abstract traditions in experimental filmmaking. Of these, I'm most fond of "Wandering, Pausing," which screens Saturday at 1 PM, and "Illuminations," which screens Saturday at 5:45 PM. Many of the works in these programs evoke painting and poetry more than photography and prose, creating specific, ineffable moods. Vincent Grenier's Watercolor (Fall Creek) and former Chicagoan Jake Barningham's Pták básně I a II (playing in "Wandering, Pausing") present dialogue-free images of landscapes, employing various cinematic devices (filters, dissolves, etc) to disrupt our sense of temporal flow. These short works encourage a sense of contemplation, only to throw it out of balance—they are far less comforting than they first seem. (The same might be said of Phil Solomon's Empire, screening at the Music Box on Sunday at 2 PM, which is a "remake" of Andy Warhol's experimental classic created with images from Grand Theft Auto IV.) Conversely, JB Mabe's To the Change Assigned and Lewis Klahr's Kiss the Rain (playing in "Illuminations") organize their visual elements erratically, even vertiginously, privileging subjective experience over onscreen content.

It's worth noting that aspects of narrative filmmaking enter into both of these programs. Aula Magna (playing in "Wandering") and Living in an Ant Hill (playing in "Illuminations") were shot in their respective filmmakers' homes, and both feel carefully structured in that they seem to re-create particular lines of thought. Ant Hill, in which director Manuel Barenboim wryly recalls an ant infestation in his southern California home, is the more narrative-driven of the two, yet Magna, which Argentine filmmaker Andres Denegri shot frame by frame over the course of a year, is no less grounded. This vibrant seven-minute work presents the director's relationship with his apartment of many years. It's the sort of relationship that few narrative movies would consider directly, even though it plays a central role in so many adult lives.

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