Wednesday, April 29, 2015

layover (2014)

A scene from Vanessa Renwick's LAYOVER, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Vanessa Renwick made this.

WHAT: I've only seen a handful of items from Renwick's extensive filmography; essentially only the ones collected on this DVD (I plan to place an order for this one soon). What I've seen reveals her accomplishment in many filmmaking tools and techniques, but the film that has stuck with me most over the years is Britton, South Dakota, a found footage piece that apparently involved minimal intervention on her part. Yet those few strokes: selecting a particular nine minutes of images from two and a half hours of footage shot by one man in one town back in 1938, and finding music to go with it, turned the footage into a particularly haunting form of contemporary art.

Her latest short piece, a 6-minute work called layover, is a stunningly beautiful cine-poem documenting the swirling flight patterns of a group of Vaux's swifts (a West Coast relative to the more famous chimney swift of the Eastern U.S.) as they make their annual stop at a Portland school building (which looks like a repurposed factory smokestack) on the way down their migratory path toward Central America. In this case Renwick's interventions are not nearly as apparently minimal as those in Britton, South Dakota, although I do not know whether or not the footage, shot in HD by perennial collaborator Eric Edwards (also director of photography for many Gus van Sant films), was captured with Renwick present. I have no reason to think she wasn't on hand, directing Edwards and his assistants to shoot the material she knew she'd need for the edit, but it's possible that, like Ivan Besse's footage in Britton, South Dakota, these images were something Edwards had caught without Renwick's involvement, and that she instead instigated their formation into a work unto itself.

Either way, there is an element of the swifts' abstract patterning that foreground's the camera's role in preserving fleeting, unstaged moments. Their spirals and funnels sometimes resemble the animated motions found in a Jordan Belson film, but were not choreographed by any animator besides the instinct and social behavior of Mother Nature. This is a film that invites particular reflections on the role of humans and their inventions in relation to the fabric of organic matter we're surrounded by and indeed part of, whether we're present to that fact or not. Max Goldberg recently put it more succinctly: "each time the awed camera bucks or racks focus to keep up with the flock, it’s a reminder of our human weakness for wanting to hold what will not be held."

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 9:30 PM tonight at the Kabuki Theatre, and 6:30 PM this Sunday, May 3rd at the Pacific Film Archive, both courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: Max Goldberg's article, linked above, is from his wrap-up on SF Cinematheque's Crossroads Festival, which occurred earlier this month. He doesn't mention that layover in fact kicked off the very first program of the entire weekend-long festival, its uplift making an ideal opening to a weekend full of flights into unknown spaces. If the order of films in the Nothing But a Dream: Experimental Shorts program at SFIFF this year is the order of showing, then layover will again provide the first images of the program, and for those who may have missed out on Crossroads, an ideal opening of a month of SF Cinematheque co-presentations and presentations.

The "Nothing But a Dream" program is the annual SFIFF show programmed not by festival staff but by Kathy Gertiz of the Pacific Film Archive and Vanessa O'Neill of Cinematheque; it includes works by artists frequently showcased by those institutions, like Janie Geiser and T. Marie, as well as relative newcomers like local Zachary Epcar, whose terrific short Under the Heat Lamp an Opening is the first of his pieces screened at any of these three partnering organizations (its slightly-earlier showing at Crossroads shouldn't take away from the prestige of this premiere; this time Epcar is expected to be on hand for audience questions after the showings).

SF Cinematheque has also joined as a co-presenter for Jenni Olson's latest feature The Royal Road, but also presents a couple of programs during SFIFF that have nothing to do with the festival: an Andrew Puls performance occurs (quite unfortunately) during the second screening of layover and its "Nothing But a Dream" kin this Sunday. And small-gauge film legend Saul Levine makes a rare visit from New England to Oakland next Tuesday, May 5th. Later in the month, after SFIFF is over, two more artists present work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Kevin Jerome Everson on the 19th & 20th and Tommy Becker on the 29th. Further into the future, SF Cinematheque promises screenings of work by Zach Iannazzi & Margaret Rorison in August, Sandra Gibson & Luis Recoder in October, and Nathaniel Dorsky in November.

HOW: According to the PFA listing, all but three of the pieces in the "Nothing But A Dream" program screen digitally. Those three are 16mm prints: Ryan Marino's Old Growth, Jennifer Reeves's Color Neutral and Mike Gibisser's Blue Loop, July. Of course layover will be shown digitally, its native format.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the final festival screenings of Andrei Konchalovsky's The Postman's White Nights, Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders, Sergei Loznitza's Maidan, and the Chinese noir I wrote about on Monday, Diao Yinan's Black Coal, Thin Ice.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Castro Theatre (which incidentally has just revealed its May calendar) is screening a 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope with a digital version of the Wachowskis' Bound.

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