Curated by Patrick Friel and presented by Chicago Filmmakers, the 24th Onion City festival begins Thursday, June 21, with an opening-night program at Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, and continues Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23, in two screening rooms at Columbia College, 1104 S. Wabash, fifth floor. For more information and a complete schedule see chicagofilmmakers.org.
The rediscovery of history is a recurring theme of this year's selections, and no work expresses it more potently than Seeking the Monkey King (Sat 6/23, 6 PM), a digital video by legendary director Ken Jacobs (Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son). A meditation on how financial and military elites have shaped U.S. history, the video alternates angry texts with strobing images of a craggy, golden surface that suggest both concentrated wealth and a postapocalyptic landscape. J.G. Thirwell's terrifying score adds to the visceral impact.
Less contentious but no less sophisticated in form, Ben Rivers's Sack Barrow (Fri 6/22, 6:45 PM) and Matt McCormick's Future So Bright (Sat 6/23, 2 PM) exploit the textures of 16-millimeter photography to evoke nostalgia for forgotten people and places. Barrow documents a small London factory in the month before it shuts down, decontextualizing archaic industrial practices and images of chemical waste so they appear strange and beautiful. Future presents dozens of abandoned spaces in the American west (failed farming communities, munitions plants established during World War II, tourist attractions now closed), mapping a lost country inside the borders of our own.
A more personal form of nostalgia dominates Lewis Klahr's The Pettifogger (Fri 6/22, 8:30 PM, and Sat 6/23, 12:15 PM), a characteristic collage animation that uses cut-outs from old comic strips, magazines, and advertisements (along with sound clips from old movies) to illustrate how cultural history gets recombined in our imaginations. Klahr starts out playfully, then gradually introduces a more melancholy tone: in the most expressive section, he abandons music and dialogue entirely, pairing the images with sounds of a thunderstorm. The effect is poignant, suggesting the haunted memories of a lonely individual.
In several shorts the artists deliberately walk a fine line between nostalgia and kitsch. Bobby Abate's A Party Record Packed With Sex and Sadness and Shana Moulton's Decorations of the Mind II (both Fri 6/22, 8:45 PM) repurpose old videocassette recordings, tacky 80s pop songs, and images of ugly old fabrics. Joshua Thorson's Horizon (Sat 6/23, 7:45 PM) constructs a sci-fi story from home movies of a discontinued Epcot Center exhibit. And in three short videos Canadian artist Clint Enns manipulates to psychedelic effect images that appear to have been shot on a camcorder (Sat 6/23, 6 PM).
Other works exploit the immediacy of digital video to create a vivid sense of the here and now. John Torres's Mapang-Akit, screening with Across & Down by local artist Lori Felker (Sat 6/23, 3:45), documents daily life in a Philippine village, using long takes to heighten one's awareness of time passing. In Nocturne #2 (Sat 6/23, 6 PM), by Belgian filmmaker Pieter Geenen, nighttime shots of a depopulated Tehran create a heavy feeling of urban loneliness reminiscent of Edward Hopper's paintings. In a series of shorts by local artist Jake Barningham, screening with works by fellow Chicagoan JB Mabe (Sat 6/23, 8 PM), crude video imagery (mainly of residential neighborhoods) is manipulated to achieve bursts of stunning, fauvist color; each concludes with a few minutes of improvised piano over a black screen, as if to highlight the process by which experience transforms into memory.
If there's one work in the lineup that stands alone, it's The Colors That Combine to Make White Are Important (Sat 6/23, 3:30 PM), a thoroughly bizarre computer animation feature by Vancouver-based artist Barry Doupé. Set mainly in a Japanese glass factory, it begins as a tale of corporate intrigue, then mutates into a series of aimless conversations that mix philosophical musings and jokey non sequiturs. Doupé's animation evokes mid-90s computer games, his dialogue the stuff of epic acid trips. It's alternately hilarious and irritating; I can safely say I've never seen anything like it.