Is the purpose of an anniversary to lose oneself in nostalgia for the numbered years gone by, or to prepare a new vision for the unnumbered ones to come? Both, of course… but it’s easier to talk about the past than the future. The past can be counted and recorded and filed; the future is a little more slippery. So when LIFT celebrated its 20th Anniversary in 2001, screening a retrospective of its members’ two decades of filmmaking (”Celluloid: Past & Present”) was the natural thing to do. But how to look in the other direction—that is, how to compile a program of films that have not yet been made? The obvious answer (obvious in retrospect, at least) is to make those films. So LIFT gave cash and equipment to eight selected applicants and seven invited film & video artists, setting them loose to create short works that would be personal responses to the theme “Self & Celluloid: The Future.”

Coherence may be in the eye of the perceiver, but it seems to me that the two programs, Past & Present and Future, have a discernible through-line: the notion of history. Not history just in the sense of things dead and done, but in the sense of a living continuum in which the present is one link in a narrative chain. Explicitly or implicitly, stylistically or content-wise, the films featured in the Anniversary programs express themselves as moments in this continuum.

The Old…

It’s already old hat to dichotomize film and video in terms of tradition vs. progress, but habits die hard, and the “film=old, video=new” contrast is a useful shorthand — not to mention a historical fact. So we can apply it with care, remaining open to instances where a particular work turns it inside out and reveals its oversimplification.

Take, for example, the heavily scratched and flickering presence of the celluloid in Christopher Chong’s Minus. The filmmaker’s naked dancing body, tripled through multiple exposure, remains veiled by the film’s hand processed texture; the medium’s unmissable physicality, by association,  is as eroticized as the dancer’s. Such (literal) fetishization of film is a loud call for preservation its hands-on sexiness. Wrik Mead’s Cupid is a close companion of Minus; it too is a succinct shot of homo-/auto-eroticism, and it too revels in its own grainy nature. Cupid’s willing imprisonment by his own libido, viewed through a dirty (glory?) hole in the film frame, presents celluloid as the happily seedy side of town.

Both Minus and Cupid are from the Past & Present program, but have kin in the Future: Michele Stanley’s Fix offers its hand scratched and painted texture as one in a series of landscapes : natural, industrial, bodily, and filmic. Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof’s Light Magic goes even farther back historically, to the early 19th century’s photogram technique, in order to create a Brakhagian barrage of colour and shapes. These two irony-free films gain a point of view by simple virtue of their presence in The Future : the abstract isn’t ready to die yet, nor are the old-school techniques of abstraction.

… + The New

But is LIFT an exclusive club of filmic fuddy-duddies, lamenting the impending demise of their beloved medium? Apparently not; even in the Past & Present programme, video begins to rear its pixeled head. Granted, it’s just a single shot in Christopher McKay’s Fries With That, and its context in this sensitive stop-motion film carries quite the Egoyanesque denotation of loss. But Kristiina Szabo’s Dragonfly, though as optical-printing-centric as any film in the two programmes, is stylistically MTV through and through — music-video impressionism without the corporate co-opting.

Futureward: Instead of trying to surmount CGI’s synthetic quality, Mike Hoolboom’s Secret flaunts it, providing a too-smoothly rendered foetus as a nightmare vision of cultural and genetic homogenization. Secret’s 2.5 minutes would provide more than enough videophobia to go around… if only its images weren’t so seductive. Midi Onodera’s Slightseer, in its exhortation for the preservation of painful history, embraces video more fully insofar as it proves that film does not have a monopoly on memory. The “splitscreen didacticism” of Kika Thorne’s The Up + The Down contrasts political activism with angsty teen boredom, and from its camcorder documentation of both milieus, one can extrapolate the potential virtues and pitfalls of video’s ease. Certainly the medium allows for more, and more potent, activist imagemaking than film ever did; on the other hand, it also allows for more, and more aimless, documentation of one’s own aimlessness than ever before.

The Traditionalists

“You’ve seen this movie hundreds of times… Doesn’t matter who wrote it… It’s all the same play anyway.” So says David Roche in Jeremy Podeswa’s film adaptation of his monologue, David Roche Talks To You About Love. Roche is bitter about everything — that is, movies and romance — but in that Woody Allenishly endearing mode. Sure, he’s peeved at Hollywood’s romantic ideals and genre tropes… but, as with his boyfriends, he loves that which he hates. David Roche Talks To You About Love is itself bound up in tradition, belonging to that most unjustly maligned of genres, “theatrical cinema.” In bravely aligning itself with old-fashioned theatricality, it (more than most films) lives or dies on the strength of its audience’s willingness to participate. Its death on TV & VCR for a single spectator is nigh-absolute… but its potential for success with an open audience is well worth the risk.

Other Past & Present films incorporate the idea of tradition more explicitly. Mike Hoolboom’s Letters From Home poetically renders the reconfiguration of individual and collective personality in the wake of AIDS, positing change not as a victimizing force but as a tool to be seized and wielded. “Remember that one day the AIDS crisis will be over, and when that day has come and gone, there will be people alive on this earth who hear that once, there was a terrible disease, and a brave group of people stood up and fought — and, in some cases, died — so that others might live and be free.” Defiantly hopeful, Letters From Home writes itself and its time as a living piece of future history.

Elida Schogt’s Zyklon Portrait has a similar agenda but with its eyes set on the past. Superficially belonging to the subgenre of “diaristic Holocaust film,” it explodes that tradition (to which we have by now, unfortunately, become inured) by mingling it with a variety of other genres and viewpoints: the “educational science film” genre forms Zyklon Portrait’s framework; its omniscient narrator suddenly takes on the identity of Rudolph Hoss; death by gas chamber is rendered subjectively by the film’s total breakdown and abstraction. The result is a hybrid film, which, by initially distancing us (who would have thought to scrutinize Nazism at the molecular level?), ultimately breaks through our desensitization.

But if you want an essay on film tradition and genre, you can skip reading the rest of this and just watch John Greyson’s Nunca. As unflaggingly punning and campy as you’d expect from the man who made UnCut, its semiotic analysis of pop lyrics, gender identity, and cinematic grammar culminates in a manifesto, which itself culminates in a big purposeful _______. Whether this is a pessimistic or hopeful Future vision depends on what you fill in the blank with.

Optimism is more clear-cut in some of the other Future films: Ali Kazimi with I Drop… and Tobi Lampard with My Beautiful Ugly Sweater present themselves, their ancestors, and their children as conduits for both filmmaking and familial tradition. Helen Lee’s Star gives us the child only, but through something as simple as a song implies that video is still in its infancy, and thus as full of potential — and maybe even innocence! — as its youthful performer.

The Exhibitionists

While David Roche Talks To You About Love is dependent on its screening atmosphere for success, some films in The Future take exhibition itself as their subject matter. Alexi Manis’s Luminous is a love letter to film projection, a document of the mini-movies that occur on the walls of the projection booth due to the booth glass’s reflection of the beam. Wrik Mead’s Hand Job looks and feels like a silent movie about a man watching silent movies — and bursts into a wash of gay porn, climaxing in a shot that suggests the uber-masturbatory nature of film-going.

And, returning to the film/video dichotomy topic for a moment: I must reveal my complicity in that mental framework. As one of the Future filmmakers, I created my piece The Other Shoe solely in dismayed response to my discovery that the commissioned works would be streamed on the internet. That may be fine for some people, I thought — without (much) prejudice — but not for those of us who still relish the surrender of darkened-theatre viewing. So I created the only loophole I could think of: I made a double projection of 16mm and video. The video portion was designed to be streamed on the internet, but the film portion (that is, the film I initially wanted to make) could only be seen by those who physically attended its screening. If that isn’t simplistic film fetishism, I don’t know what is.


Unfortunately for me and my biases, The Other Shoe ended up being as much of an ode to hypertext and multitasking as it was to camera obscura contemplation. If I learned anything from making that film/video, it was the humbling joy to be derived from the knowledge that a work created with the most simple-minded of intentions can, in failing to fully make its point, become a more engagingly conflicted and complex piece of work than the obstinate brain from whence it sprung. The same, I hope, can be said of this essay.

Old hats and habits die hard. I offer these old/new video/film past/future left/right up/down split-screens as rectilinear prisms purposefully designed to be incapable of holding all instances and arguments. You could probably already see them cracking; The Other Shoe is by no means the only work cited here with too many facets to squish into a bisected box.

On which side of any of those halved rectangles, for example, do we place something like Primiti Too Taa (Ed Ackerman & Colin Morton)? Prehistoric vocal poetry means “the past”; is its typewritten animated counterpart then “the future”? Or is the typewriter too much “the past” now, relegated as it is to analog nostalgia? And what of Machine Machine Machine Machine (Sara MacLean), the most “narrative” film of The Future, unassumingly witty and without a shred of self-referential speculation? Or Self: [Portrait/Fulfillment] A Film by the Blob Thing (Brian Stockton), which through its collision of Bolex CinemaScope and Bergmanesque claymation seeks to obliterate tradition and meaning in a gale of self-deprecating laughter? Dichotomies and split-screens are meant to be exploded, if only so we have pieces to pick up, inspect, and recombine.

Let us close, or open, with Jeff Sterne’s Technical Drunk, the third split-screen of The Future (fourth, if you count Slightseer’s binocularism). Like The Other Shoe, it situates film on the left and video on the right… but no judgement is on display, merely acceleration. Film loops and alcohol in a grungy toilet stall. The beer is drunk, the bottle smashed. The film threatens to break. Video pulses with cyclical fire. The shots get shorter. Destruction or elation. On either side. The future of the moving image is either so dire that there’s nothing to do but get hammered, or so promising that we should all get celebratorily sloshed. Get drunk. Pick up the pieces. Repeat.

Daniel Cockburn
October 2001