Water and Power | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Water and Power


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Pat O'Neill makes a living doing special effects for the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but he's also been making his own independent 16-millimeter films since 1963. Most use optical printing (a kind of image manipulation through frame-by-frame rephotography) to produce unusual imagery, a process O'Neill once described as attempting to represent paradoxical visions--for example, the misperceptions that sometimes appear on waking. In the early 80s he began working improvisationally on a longer work, filming with a computer-controlled time-lapse camera and incorporating footage from his other projects and old movies. The result, the 35-millimeter, 57-minute Water and Power (1989), never got even the limited commercial release he'd hoped for--this is only its second Chicago showing--but it's a masterpiece: a moving meditation on Los Angeles, where O'Neill lives, and on the relationship of humans to technology, water, and land. O'Neill's subtle combinations of nature and city time-lapse sequences place the frenetic, apparently random bustling of city crowds in the context of the smooth, almost balletic movements of clouds and sunlight. He never makes the simple judgments (city bad, nature good) that characterized the superficially similar Koyaanisqatsi, but instead depicts our dependence on nature through complex visual poetry. Superimposing a room containing a blank easel and an artist's nude model on fast-motion city images, he puts art making in the context of the rectilinear bustle of city life. A forest of bright lights, moving like living beings, emerges from the opening of an old mine, which the sound track suggests is radioactive; soon we see stars in the night sky, also points of light, but more fixed, eternal. The film becomes an ecstatic skein of contradictions, at once a joyous and mournful symphony on the differences between nature and us. Shown with Susan Pitt's animated Asparagus. Kino-eye Cinema at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division, Friday, September 15, 8:00, 384-5533.

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