Finding an alternative cinematic conception at PFA

Pacific Film Archive/Courtesy

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When one thinks of an animated film, it probably involves fantastic Hollywood stories of a personified jungle animal or childhood toy defeating impossible odds to achieve his or her dreams. But most people aren’t familiar with experimental cinema. To give these more daring, avant-garde exercises of animation exposure to a larger audience, the Pacific Film Archive screened “Lost and Found: Recent Experimental Animation” Wednesday night as the second installment in its “Alternative Visions” series.

Appropriate to the experimental genre, the selection was a diverse mixture of films exploring the possibilities of narrative and the nature of materiality. One film, referred to simply as “Bits of Intricate Lace,” was composed of hundreds of individual close-up shots of patterned lace played in rapid succession. The artist seemed to be exposing the phenomenon of the whole representing more than the sum of its parts. When the samples of lace material were viewed in this fashion, complex patterns in the fibers emerged as they related to those that appeared before and after, creating one large and living portrait.

A similar effect was established in the short film “Verses,” directed by James Sansing. Using the pages of decaying ledgers salvaged from an abandoned juvenile hall, Sansing compiled a fluttering sequence of changing pages from the open books. The blurred blue handwriting acted as paint on a canvas, and the water damage morphed into breathing Rorschach ink blots, creating a stunning illusion of life leaping from the pages.

But not all of the films shown were devoid of a narrative. “Ceibas: Epilogue — The Well of Representation” presented a story via the platform of a simulated 8-bit video game. The audience followed the main character (an everyday man killed by chance on his wedding day) into the afterlife. The existential punch line comes when the “player” opts to try the level again, and the character awakes at his own funeral, sending his loved ones into terrified chaos. This provides a unique meditation on the impermanence of life and the impossibility of simply “playing again.”

The film with the most cohesive and linear story was Stacey Steers’ “Night Hunter.” An example of collage stop-motion, every frame was carefully crafted in real space by the dedicated artist and filmed individually. Within the film, the viewer is transported to an off-kilter world composed of a lonely cottage, a giant snake and dark overtones. The most intriguing aspect of “Night Hunter” is its main star, Lillian Gish.  If the name doesn’t sound familiar, it might be because this particular starlet had her prime years during the long-forgotten silent-film era. By repurposing scenes from her various hypertheatrical performances to transplant her into the collages created for the film, Gish suddenly becomes the terrified damsel in distress in Steers’ nightmarish world.

The aesthetics were developed through an immense amount of time and effort. Steers said during the question-and-answer session after the program that the whole process took her four years, a usual time frame for completing her films.

While the messages of the individual pieces may have been hard to decipher due to their somewhat dense and abstract style, the commitment of the artists and their belief in what they do was clear as day. PFA’s tradition of offering question-and-answer segments with artists helped clear some of the confusion the films may have left members of the audience with. Seeing the creators in person ended the night on a refreshing human note after an hour and a half of 2-D exploration.