Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Edge Of Cinema: Experimental Cinema Log #2 - Sidewinder's Delta


[20 mins]

This film is nestled within a rich vein of work that O’Neill pumped out throughout the 1970’s. A master of the optical printer, O’Neill’s overarching aesthetic, via re-photographing, re-colouring and shading images, has been to overlay images to create an unusually palpable version of dream logic. It’s not so much that we’re presented with a series of un-related images, as would usually befit the ‘dreamlike imagery’ tag – it’s more that we see a series of discrete aesthetic events, without any obvious relationship.

In Sidewinder’s Delta, the film starts with a flow of bubbling swathes of colour –pastel hues of blue, green, yellow, and white. Redolent of the movement of a river, or the curvaceous rippling of a snake, this start to the film is an embodiment of its title. But as these washes of colour are superseded by a layer of broken blackness, this event ceases, and is replaced by grass-like scratches drawn over a grey-blue image that is never fully seen. After two minutes of jerky angular greenish scratches, this event abruptly stops and is replaced with a shot of palm-trees overlaid on to an image of a hand, giving the hand the appearance of a mobile mountain. And then this is replaced with shots of coloured squares lying on a desert floor, a patch of grass, and a flower-rich meadow. As these squares move in the wind, the colours change. And so it goes, the film moving from time-lapse footage of the desert, to a hand-trowel jutting out of the desert like a monument, to fruit being manipulated by tuning forks to the tune of static-filled, between-channels radio, to a pendulum swinging around a house set in a barren landscape, to a cactus changing colour in harmony with colour changes from an adjacent light bulb, and so on.

As the late great writer on experimental cinema, Paul Arthur, has pointed out, O’Neill is constantly engaging in the texture and tectonics of the surface of the image. In Lines of Sight, Paul Arthur refers to “the notion of “surface” as a site of intense transactions, a realm where themes of regulation and disruption, the everyday and the fantastic, are intertwined in comic and menacing articulations.” Sidewinder’s Delta is replete with these surfaces, always combining quotidian objects and transforming them into something more fantastic. There are frames within frames (the paper squares in natural environments) and a tactility to the layering of images (stones, cacti, desert dirt, grass).

O’Neill is based in Los Angeles, and Sidewinder’s Delta is a paean of sorts to the environs that have become part of the mythical landscapes of his homebase. The desert landscape becomes a commonly-used backdrop through the entire film, and O’Neill appears to be pre-occupied with both acknowledging these iconic spaces as well as transforming them into abstract vistas. In fact, it seems that Sidewinder’s Delta was initially intended as an ‘indirect Western’, “a meditation on the myth of wilderness” (to quote Paul Arthur again).

O’Neill presents these fragments of odd aesthetic events with a great deal of playfulness, and humour is a crucial component to this film. It is the incongruous and inventive use of sound that often adds an extra layer to the already-multi-layered images. A serene time-lapse image of a desert is soundtracked with the sound of someone blowing into a mic, emulating the sound of wind. A block-shaped building layered on top of a hilly landscape is serenaded by the swamp-pop song “Breakin’ Up is Hard to Do”. It soon becomes clear that the song has an echoey resonance, as if played from a haunted ballroom, and as the scene progresses, sounds that appear to be squeaky doors and then gun-shots can be heard. Somehow O’Neill simultaneously conjures up amusement, nostalgia (swamp-pop was already a bygone musical genre by 1976, and the images and sounds also conjure up Westerns and radio culture), melancholy, and a slightly sinister tone, with unexplained creaks and blasts occurring while a large pendulum marks time across the frame. It is the ability to sustain all of these associations via the welding of seemingly incongruous objects and landscapes that makes O’Neill’s film a complex yet mesmeric experience.

Thursday, 26 January 2012


ALI ZAOUA, PRINCE OF THE STREETS (Nabil Ayouch; Morocco/ Tunisia/ France/ Belgium; 2000)
[deleted after the 4th edition]
The “1001 Movies” guide states that this film, about three street children who are trying to bury a dead friend in a manner befitting his fantasy of being a sailor, is “powerful” due to the “deft juggling of [the] character’s harsh lives with both humour and unabashed sentimentality.” In fact, it seems the director, Nabil Ayouch, “wants to break your heart, is determined to do so, and succeeds.”
If heart-break is to occur, it would not be due to a harsh depiction of pre-teen homelessness in Morocco. It’s not completely sanitised, there’s still a layer of grime involved – sniffing glue to fend off hunger, suggestions of child prostitution and rape – but it’s easy to forget the dire world these characters are supposed to inhabit. Somehow, poverty and the struggle to survive seem to melt away from the story, leaving a more romantic residue based around the bonds of friendship forged between these boys. And perhaps that is where this heart-break is supposed to come from – the resilience and tenacity of friendship, all tied up neatly at the end of the film when the three boys all sing together in memory of their deceased comrade.
But why such a near-dirtless, ‘unabashed sentimental’ vision of homelessness in Casablanca? Was the potential for truly harsh ‘realities’ subdued because of funding from European sources, thus shaping a ‘cleaner’ story for fear of losing important financial backing? Compared to the bleakness and violence of Pixote, a Brazilian street-child film made 19 years earlier, this film has a remarkably saccharine flavour. It’s well-lit and brightly coloured, replete with big primary-coloured childlike animations of Ali’s dreams to cunningly tug at susceptible hearts. It’s interesting that animation was chosen as the vehicle for depicting a street child’s dream of escape – it provides a simplistic short-cut to convey the yearning for other places. Ayouch here has chosen to opt for a more pedestrian path to depicting the inner world of fantasies, blatantly painting these dreams of escape directly into the film, rather than relying on a potentially more complex approach where the desire to escape remains an inner world. Animation appears to be the only solution Ayouch could come up with to show the dreams of the deceased Ali entering into the minds of his friends. 
In the same year, and not too far geographically, Pedro Costa was making In Vanda’s Room in Portugal. This film is a near-total interior film, compared with the bright streets of Casablanca, and the sense of poverty strikes a markedly different chord. However, for some odd reason, I can’t help wondering what Ali Zaoua might have been like if it had been shot with a rhythm and visual style similar to Costa’s. Hmmm.  

Sunday, 22 January 2012


Hokay, let's skip the film stuff for a moment. As I'm also intensely addicted to music, I felt like jotting down some of my fave sounds of 2011. This is in rough order of preference, and the emphasis here is rough - this is no definitive Top 50, by any stretch of the imagination, simply 50 albums that floated my boat last year. It's late in coming, I've faffed around for ages getting this sorted, but who cares. Hit the title, they should all have a link to a little morsel from each album. If you're disgruntled at the lack of film content, then just imagine some of the tracks, if you can, in a cinematic framework - some of this stuff could work as part of a film soundtrack. Maybe.