Optic Nerve IX. Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.

altThe judges for this year’s Optic Nerve festival were Patrick de Bokay, new director of the Miami International Film Festival, Miami artist slash art critic Gean Moreno, and MOCA’s Director slash Chief Curator Bonnie Clearwater. These three individuals bravely subjected themselves to viewing seventy short film and video submissions and then whittled them down to seventeen. The works ranged from pseudo-documentary to performance art, from slick animation to quirky lo-tech effects and hand-drawn efforts. The voices were accomplished, or neophyte, or somewhere in between. In fact, the inclusion of several student works from local artist factories, such as MIU, and recent grads from FIU, was truly welcome.

The judges for this year’s Optic Nerve festival were Patrick de Bokay, new director of the Miami International Film Festival, Miami artist slash art critic Gean Moreno, and MOCA’s Director slash Chief Curator Bonnie Clearwater. These three individuals bravely subjected themselves to viewing seventy short film and video submissions and then whittled them down to seventeen. The works ranged from pseudo-documentary to performance art, from slick animation to quirky lo-tech effects and hand-drawn efforts. The voices were accomplished, or neophyte, or somewhere in between. In fact, the inclusion of several student works from local artist factories, such as MIU, and recent grads from FIU, was truly welcome.

It is the rare student film program that can avoid producing the familiar horror flick, filmed on campus, by “real” student actors. The conventions of this genre are so stable, that the only tension troubling the mind of the viewer is “when does the fake blood appear?” Footsteps, directed by Robert Dionne, did not leave us hanging. The Source, by Javier Gonzales, was so heavily influenced by highly visible South African artist William Kentridge’s signature stop-motion charcoal drawing technique that it was difficult to focus away from that fact. Even the content and imagery for The Source was so tainted by Kentridge, conjuring the ravages of industry on the environment and the water cycle, it has to be classified as homage. Gonzales’ other work, Trike, which manipulates a child’s tricycle through Dr.Caligari-like hallways only to be swallowed by a yawning doorway, was way more original. Hello my name is Bob, Kenneth Greenbaum, began like a sentimental documentary, with a twangy soundtrack and poignant mumbling from a forlorn character, then morphed into an utter mystery.

MOCA purchases a work at each Optic Nerve fest, financed agreeably by Starbucks, that purveyor of caffeine and communal, quasi-public space, both café and internet. This year, with a smidgeon siphoned off from their colossal coffee coffers, MOCA acquired Philip Estlund’s Crossing the Equator, a flick that kept me wondering whether or not the footage was lifted from an episode of mass torture visited on prisoners of war, or a gay male S&M picnic, or an elaborate fraternity/military hazing ritual. What with the gantlet of whipping, in and out of coffins, and baptismal dunkings, it whipped up emotion and left the mind reeling. Estlund otherwise makes photo collages which have a detached, precise quality. In his hands, the moving image can clearly cause greater psychic discomfort than the delicate two-dimensional surprise of a collage.

Discomfort leads us naturally to the entry from artist Susan Lee-Chun, Will You Tell Me All Your Ancient Chinese Secrets?, Which was as grueling as it was comical, and a fascinating turnaround from an artist known in the Miami art scene for her mute public manifestations swathed in camouflage. Will You Tell Me reversed that trend, exposing the artist’s vulnerability and individuality in a visceral way. While restrained and subjected to some sort of physical torture (off screen, but implying sadistic foot tickling) she is interrogated by a voice-over demanding her to confess to the most ridiculous, stereotypical “facts” based solely on her Asian features. The duration of this short work was timed to transfer the sensation of unbearable torture to the audience, and as such, it was clearly a success.
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Another short that featured vulnerability in a monologue was Richard Walker’s Successive Inconceivable Events. The main character faces a pastoral mountain landscape, which is filmed so beautifully in its stillness that it resembles a painting, and, after plopping down a tinny boombox which plays a tune, he whines to the majestic view that she is “too distant”, that there is a “lack of connection”, like a man discussing his troubled relationship with a lover. This is all very charming, but a cautionary note to film and video artists: it’s astounding what is too long in time-based media.

There were two technically ambitious films by artists which combined elements of live action footage with animated graphics. Camilo Palomeq’s Croquis at first seemed to be driven by that studentish hubris which imagines that his own sketchbook is the portal to hell or some other grandiose crossroads, but the work eventually seduced as it transitioned between digital to analog drawing styles, from harsh black and white to warmer sepia. The du’oh acting style of our student is kind of soulful and the effects were not heavy handed. Inspired by the cyber paranoia of our time which birthed the Matrix and before that, HAL, Croquis told a serious tale of drawing as a physics-bending activity – which it is – that invites a visit from the muse, even if she does resemble the Silver Surfer. In a similar vein, Jane Hsu’s People Were Made to Disappear mashes up scratchy found animation footage with a stab at early Buñuel/Dali collaborations. The illogical poetic phrases and cutout figures that wiggle across the screen mumble a fragmented story. It’s great to see young filmmakers taking on so much, and both Hsu and Palomeq have a lot of technical and imaginative skill to work with.

Sweet Robbery is a computer animated submission crafted by a talented group of students from MIU called Selective Seven. It got a lot of laughs, and deservedly so. It was genuinely funny, as well as expertly directed, with the ease of a team that might have been working together professionally for years. However, the story was cliché, a gentle Granny who is at first duped by a villain, and then delivers an unexpected wallop. It was disturbing to me that the criminal character/cat was so clearly a black man. It all seemed so dated, and perhaps the audience laughed because it was familiar, and therefore induced the familiar response. I’m sure it was all intentional, and less original for that reason.

Venessa Monokian’s Draw is a short sweet pas de deux between a light bulb and a rotary pencil sharpener. Draw works on many levels, as a courtship between the feminine and the masculine (figure it out) and the elusive idea and its execution. Juiced, by Los Guerrilleros, on the other hand, was played broadly for laughs, and lasted an eternity. Oranges, Barbies, and a hybrid juicebox/iPod jiggled a lot, without enriching much. Agustina Woodgate’s obsession with hair as a sculptural material is not ready for its crossover into film. All these animators with props could learn a lot from master Jan Svankmajer.

Nicholas Raftis III’s Internal Reflections was technically competent, ambient, random digital stuff that was screaming for some other interaction, like the live performance elements with which his work has been paired in the past. Invisible Sights, by Gustavo Oviedo also was more suited to a club atmosphere where the moving image could connect with the pulse of dancers in a trance. It was tiresome in the traditional screening. Both these works share an affinity with minimalist art forms that favor the grammar of their medium, instead of org
anizing that grammar into the shape of a story.

Kyle Trowbridge’s The Wishing Well traversed a dark place, which felt familiar in the way a nightmare can, the dreamer trapped in an innocent moment gone bad, and then doomed to repetition. An ambiguous childhood scenario is looped, each time adding a new element that subtly alters the outcome of the event. Trowbridge is a painter who also clearly understands the plasticity of time-based media. The Wishing Well is shadowy and troubling, with a psychological import that provokes reflection over time.

It was no surprise that Clifton Childree’s She Sank on Shallow Bank was the most riveting entry in the festival. Childree exhibits such control over the cinematic paintbox of lighting, film stocks, and the slippery element of time. Thoroughly in the grip of the magic of early silent cinema, Childree weaves his own manias for nautical kitsch, Victoriana, and scatological and sexual references into an awesome, taut collaboration between dancer/performer Nikki Rollason and his own consummate film artistry. The work is a little bit of poetry come to life, in which metaphors are physically demonstrated via props directed like actors. The puppetmaster/filmmaker animates the inert and infuses it with yearning, while he flips and twists the living actor like a rag doll at his command. Truly the high point of a provocative evening.

By Michelle Weinberg

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