Selections from Prismatic Ground: Small Films in a Large World

by Michael Sicinski

A global pandemic demands innovation, and over the past year-and-change, we have observed a massive shift in the very idea of what a film festival can be. Major festivals have adopted a hybrid model, providing online screenings with a side of drive-in experiences. A few festivals have gone completely online, at least for the time being. And perhaps most interestingly, a handful of smaller, independent festivals have emerged, ones with no in-person component whatsoever.

Even introverts and shut-ins like me can appreciate the desire for film festivals to resume full in-person, onscreen operations. The festival experience is often characterized by post-screening discussions and arguments, quick coffees or bites to eat between closely scheduled films, and a general ambiance of excitement and discovery. This, combined with the incomparable pleasures of seeing films projected on a big public screen, ensures that the typical festival format will endure. But the online model offers expanded access, as well as low-overhead opportunities for the programming and exhibition of films that, under normal circumstances, would be difficult if not impossible to build a festival around. No organization can afford to lose money year after year, which tends to produce a risk-averse atmosphere.

This is why Prismatic Ground was so inspiring. Produced with the cooperation of Screen Slate and the Maysles Documentary Center, Prismatic Ground offers a model for other burgeoning fests to follow. All streaming (either on a dedicated website or through a Twitch channel), this festival was able to be both diverse in its film selections, and incredibly focused on a particular aesthetic orientation. Programmed by founder Inney Prakash, Prismatic Ground zeroed in on a particular emerging trend in independent film production: the continued interaction between experimental and documentary film modes. This included feature films, such as Anthony Banua-Simon’s Cane Fire and Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke’s A Machine to Live In, as well as dozens of shorter films from around the world.

Among the many discoveries to be found in Prismatic Ground were works that I would categorize as “small.” By this I mean that the films in question refrain from trying to produce grand, generalized aesthetic statements. Instead, these films are deceptively casual, concentrating on a very specific cultural or geographic situation. Likewise, they explore the compressed power of seemingly innocuous gestures and casual ways of being. They organize and record a set of performative conditions, as if to appear to the viewer like nearly incidental documents of actions or ideas that would have emanated from the subject whether or not an artwork would result.

Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about can be found in the films of Paige Taul. Taul, who studied with Kevin Jerome Everson at the University of Virginia, has made a series of very short portrait-films, each depicting a Black subject or group of Black subjects in a particular emotive state. The films are slyly playful, drawing attention to their own status as projected representations of the individuals we’re looking at, while also conveying a spontaneity that may or may not actually characterize the conditions of their making.  2017’s It makes me wanna, for example, consists of extreme close-ups of Black women dancing and singing. Taul’s film provides a small catalogue of pleasurable gestures, as the women respond to the music they’re enjoying. (As Taul’s program notes remark, this is what it looks like “when the music is just that good.”) However, It makes me wanna is a completely silent film. For two minutes, we watch Black joy with the referent removed. That is, we cannot share the pleasure the film’s subjects are experiencing. We can only vicariously enjoy their exalted state of freedom. 

7-7-94 For my babe

By contrast, 7-7-94 For my babe is a 3 ½ minute portrait of the problem of portraiture. Based on a photograph Taul’s father sent to her mother before he entered federal prison, 7-7-94 consists of a young Black man standing in front of a brick wall. He fidgets and fusses, constantly repositioning himself, adjusting his stance, taking off his ball cap and putting it back on. A film about posing, 7-7-94 is simultaneously about the performance and the image of Black masculinity, but it is so much more than that. We are watching a subject who is not simply trying to decide on how to project himself. We’re watching one’s rumination over a “last image,” a document that is intended to keep his memory alive in the mind of his lover. So the struggle exceeds the simple vanity of posing. It is a deliberate act of inscription that is intimately tied to a very culturally specific crisis, that of the mass incarceration of Black men. 7-7-94 is about the image one creates to substitute for his absent being.

As I hope is clear, Taul’s films are potent miniatures, films that narrow their purview in order to fixate on the human subject’s innermost physical actions. And while it is tempting to claim that Taul’s films are about photography’s fabled “decisive moment,” in which some form of authenticity is revealed, the films move in multiple directions, indicating a desire for the body’s unaltered truth while recognizing that this truth-image can only be produced through conscious semiotic mediation. There is a similar project at work in the Messages series, a collection of three films resulting from a collaboration between two veteran filmmakers, Pat O’Neill and Martha Colburn. 

O’Neill is best known for films such as Water and Power (1989) and The Decay of Fiction (2002), works characterized by expansive imagery and complex layering, all of which envelop the viewer in a state of bombarded contemplation. One watches these films with a constant awareness that these highly processed image-events are the handiwork of O’Neill’s synthetic intelligence. Colburn’s films are similarly overt in their image manipulation, but they are as lo-fi in their approach as O’Neill’s are technologically intensive. She made her mark as the creator of cut-out animation films, many of which displayed an immediate sense of whimsy that soon gave way to darker emotional resonances. 

In the Messages series, Colburn has produced filmstrips depicting a set of O’Neill’s own still photographs. Her editing then serves as a kind of prompt for O’Neill’s narration. He sees the photos, recalls when and where he took them, and offers some quick, offhanded commentary on their apparent meaning. The project explicitly recalls certain key historical works of the avant-garde, such as Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971) and Morgan Fisher’s Standard Gauge (1984). Like those films, Messages confronts the artist with his own previous work, which serves as a kind of informal autobiography. The distance between the image’s earlier creation and the artist’s present-day attitude toward them (and the person he was when he made them) becomes the activating drama at the heart of the project.

Almost all of the photographs contain some sort of text. (E.g., “see the native girls,” “we don’t smoke here,” “steak & chops.”) These words often send O’Neill along an unusual train of thought, since they are divorced from their original historical context. In one image of a used car lot, two rows of cars face each other, with the logo “OK” situated between them. (OK used to be the General Motors’ house brand for all of their pre-owned vehicles.) O’Neill then suggests that the “ok” might be a prompt for the two groups of cars to suddenly smash into one another. A billboard for a funeral service becomes “a little drama” in O’Neill’s reckoning. Each isolated moment leads to the possibility of narrative time, some untold story that reaches beyond the bounds of the photograph.

Messages 3

O’Neill’s films are usually defined by complicated soundscapes, serving as an analog for the multi-layered visual fields he composes. By contrast, Messages is almost awkwardly simple, just the man spontaneously conjecturing on what he might have intended when shooting these images. The filmmaker’s slow, raspy vocal register recalls that of Negativland’s David Wills (aka The Weatherman), and it shares Wills’ folksy informality. At one point on the soundtrack, it seems that O’Neill knocks the audio deck off the desk, and we hear him shout “goddamnit! Sorry, that was my fault…” 

The Messages films are relatively simple in approach, and the Colburn/O’Neill collaboration was almost certainly motivated by the Covid quarantine. Still, these are some of the most enlightening moving image works made so far this year. The fact that Prakash could appreciate the micro-cinematic qualities of the Messages, and of Taul’s suite of film portraits, suggests that he is uniquely attuned to the phenomenological trappings of the small screen. These are works that might get lost in a larger group program, but Prismatic Ground provides them with breathing room. By all accounts, this festival was a critical success, and I hope that whatever theatrical / festival circumstances emerge as vaccination expands, we are treated to another iteration of Prismatic Ground in 2022.

Michael Sicinski is a writer and teacher based in Houston, Texas.

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