Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Pattern For Survival (2015)

A scene from Kelly Sears' A PATTERN FOR SURVIVAL, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Kelly Sears made this.

WHAT: Sears is an animator who admits she's "not actually interested in learning how to draw" and therefore has embraced the cut-out animation tradition as a method of creating moving image work. I think I've seen nine of her completed short video works in about that many years; she's made double that in this time, so I know I'm operating half-blind when I make generalizations about her oeuvre. But from what I've seen, Sears is an excellent summoner of moods, plucking seemingly-ephemeral images out from still and motion-picture wastepiles and placing them in haunted dreamscapes invoking feelings like dread or dismay. But when I think back to the movies she's presented over the years, I tend to recall their image compositions first, their sonic environments second, and their actual motion component a distant third. Her most memorable animated moments have often been very subtle, as with Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise, or slow, as with The Drift.

With A Pattern For Survival, Sears has created her first (that I've seen) truly indelible movement study, putting an ingenious twist on her usual techniques of animating frozen moments from the flat and lifeless pages of periodicals, or of extracting frames from non-fiction films and reconfiguring them for her own narrative purposes. Here she takes photographs and drawings from old catalogs and how-to-manuals and overlays them into simple trembles resembling certain .gif art or even the chronophotographes of Étienne-Jules Marey. These images were always intended to be juxtaposed in space and not time, but are natural graphical matches, and thus feel as if they've been reunited by Sears like long lost sisters or brothers who never knew their siblings existed. They are joined with decontextualized quotes from what appears to be a 23-year-old edition of a U.S. Army wilderness survival manual, reflecting their thematic content (e.g. exercise, food preparation, weapon usage, and, as seen in the above image, first aid.) Without the voice-over found in many of Sears' prior works, the resulting narrative is relatively ambiguous, and I found myself imagining little narratives about each image's own original creation. Was the artist who drew each of three sportswear models tracing from the same original image? Was the photographer who shot a wound dressing documenting two close-to-consecutive points in a real-time motion, or was there a restaging involved? These images appear to be survivors from the site of some past trauma, but are they really?

WHERE/WHEN: Screens as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF)'s animated shorts program at the Kabuki tonight at 9:30 and May 3rd at 1:30.

WHY: The tradition of animated films playing the SFIFF goes back to the festival's very first iteration in 1957, when John Halas's fun History of the Cinema and Bill Justice and Wolfgang Reitherman's soon-to-be-Oscar-nominated The Truth About Mother Goose screened amidst a program better remembered for its collection of art-cinema classics: Pather Panchali, Throne of Blood, Death of a Cyclist, etc. Over the years I've attended the festival, I've been fortunate to see screenings of great animations of both the feature-length (Spirited Away) and short form (Das Rad, Tyger, Verses) variety. This year I believe the only feature film prominently featuring animation is the live-action hybrid Luna, but there are several short film programs featuring animated work, including the Youth Works program, with the South Korean Godong's Party, the Family Films program, which is 80% kid-friendly animation (the other 20% being kid-friendly live action), and the Cibo Matto New Scene program, in which unnamed "animation by Calvin Frederick, Una Lorenzen, Miwa Matreyek and Grace Nayoon Rhee" and a 35mm print of Marcel Duchamp's Anemic Cinema are part of an eclectic set of films (also including Yoko Ono's Fly) getting new live soundtracks thanks to the Japanese-expatriate alt-pop duo.

The only 100% animated screening in the 2015 SFIFF, however, is the Shorts 3 program playing tonight and a week from Sunday. Unlike previous years this program doesn't appear to be available for advance press viewing, but I'm such an admirer of a few of the animators involved that I'm almost willing to vouch for their works unseen. Don Hertzfeldt's newest, The World of Tomorrow, for instance, is one of my most highly-anticipated local premieres in the festival. The reliable Bill Plympton (whose feature-length Cheatin' still has a few more scheduled shows at the Roxie this weekend) is represented by a new work called Footprints. I was able to get an advance look at A Pattern For Survival because it was part of last Saturday's Other Cinema program at the Mission's somehow-still-surviving Artists' Television Access. It was the highlight of a very strong pre-intermission set of new work (after the intermission we were treated to classics from animators Lillian Schwartz and Mary Ellen Bute, as well as a terrific dual-projector performance from Other Cinema honcho Craig Baldwin himself!)

HOW: A Pattern For Survival, like the rest of the Shorts 3 program, will screen digitally.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: I'm not missing the 35mm Castro screening of Barbara Loden's Wanda this afternoon for the world; it's the sole SFIFF showing of this rarely-viewed film made 45 years ago. Today is also the only SFIFF screening of Guy Maddin's latest, The Forbidden Room, at the Kabuki, which unfortunately conflicts with Guillermo Del Toro's award presentation at the Castro and (digital) screening of The Devil's Backbone, which happens to be the first foreign-language film screening alongside a SFIFF Director's Award presentation since Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us back in 2000.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Tonight Other Cinema features another animation-heavy program; one focusing on animated documentary selected by local academic Jeffrey Skoller. It includes one brilliant piece I saw at a prior SFIFF edition, Ken Jacobs' Capitalism: Child Labor. I can't resist noting that this glasses-free 3D animation is also part of a big Brooklyn retrospective of 21st Century stereoscopic cinema that also includes a Chromadepth 3D video by local filmmaker (my girlfriend) Kerry Laitala. Tell your New York friends!

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