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Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival

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Opening night was June 16, but seven programs remain in this excellent festival, now in its 17th year and running through Sunday, June 19, at Chicago Filmmakers.

The festival is surprisingly somber this year: some of the best pieces document self-entrapment, many are haunted by terrorism and war. In Program 2 (Fri 6/17, 7 PM, 69 min.) Leslie Thornton's Let Me Count the Ways Minus 10, 9, 8, 7... (2004) pairs a long voice-over interview with a Hiroshima survivor and aerial footage of New York, hinting at a horrific future. Lynn Marie Kirby dances along the border between film and video in Golden Gate Bridge: Poised for Parabolas (2004), combining filmlike textures and dense geometric patterns in unpredictable ways. Christopher Becks's Pan of the Landscape uses gorgeous Brakhage-like painting on film to un-Brakhage-like ends: spectacular skies combine with the slow, mechanical movement of a silhouetted form to produce a biting melancholy, as if Becks is mourning the film's removal from the world it glimpses.

The centerpiece of Program 3 (Fri 6/17, 9 PM, 75 min.) is Spine Face by the prolific young Chicagoan James Fotopoulos; it offers a bleak postapocalyptic vision in which a computer-generated voice reads the Bible and creepy phrases ("the secrets of her anus") over images of figures such as armed masked men. In Erik Saks's Come to See 'Ya (2003) a gratingly repetitive voice-over of unanswered phone messages suggests the end of a friendship, while images of clouds add an elegiac mood. Three playful abstract videos by Jesse Bellon are cheerier: Infra Study 4 (2004) cuts between arrows pointing in different directions to create enticing spatial illusions.

The longest film on Program 4 (Sat 6/18, 6 PM, 84 min.) is David Gatten's The Great Art of Knowing (2004), an evocation of knowledge and its limits in which elegant images of books, texts, and nature are presented as mysteries we can't quite fathom. Ben Russell's Black and White Trypps Number One produces a similar effect using a seemingly even pattern of blotches that keeps rupturing.

George Kuchar and John Smith show hotel rooms as prisons in Program 5 (Sat 6/18, 8:15 PM, 94 min.). In Supercell (2004) Kuchar responds to a local TV report of a nearby tornado's "doughnut hole" by eating a doughnut. In Throwing Stones (2004) Smith notices a poster of Chicago in his Swiss hotel room, reflects that he was here on 9/11, but seems powerless to do much more. Marie Losier's quirky documentary on the great playwright-director Richard Foreman, The Ontological Cowboy, captures the hysteria of his "Ontological-Hysteric Theater," if not the ontology.

The best piece on Program 6 (Sun 6/19, 5 PM, 87 min.) is another unusual documentary, Jason Livingston's Under Foot and Overstory; the sound track recording of a "friends of the park" committee trying to draft its mission statement combines with fragmented images to remind us that parks are works in progress. Places, mostly Asian and European, are also subjects in Program 7 (Sun 6/19, 7 PM, 71 min.). Abigail Child's The Future Is Behind You (2004) is based on fascinating European home movies from the 30s, and the added titles, music, and dialogue create a labyrinthine narrative.

Program 8 (Sun 6/19, 8:45 PM, 77 min.) includes several meditations on the act of image making. In Fred Worden's mordant parody Amongst the Persuaded (2004) a voice protests the poor quality of a small digital white spot, which leads to a freshman-level debate on whether there's time in heaven. Harun Farocki's Eye/Machine III (2003) shows how images are used to identify bomb targets, its frames within frames suggesting that all image making is aggressive. But the real gem is Andrew Fagan's short trilogy A Fly, A Worm, A Slug (2004), in which single takes of the small movements of each creature demonstrate a larger faith in nature.

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