The Chicago Underground Film Festival Part 2: Observers


If the first screening of short films that I saw at the Chicago Underground Film Festival last weekend was all about media, representation and the image, then the second program I attended, The Observers, was all about duration, meditation and place. In The Observers, three short film works screened before a longer 70 minute piece.

So, if you’re interested in knowing more about these tranquil, thoughtful pieces, let’s hit that jump! (Don’t worry, I’ll be holding your hand the whole time – I wouldn’t leave you here without any directions!)

Imum Coeli

imum coeli

Mirka Morales, 6 min, 16mm on video, 2011, USA

Imum Coeli is Latin for “bottom of the sky” and is the traditional astrological point where the sun crosses the Meridian line (longitude) in the Northern Hemisphere. This intersection is said to be related to “our roots and also the least conscious part of ourselves.” It also traditionally symbolizes foundations, beginnings in life, or homeland influences.

Through Imum Coeli, we see a portrait painted through time-lapses of Vieques, Puerto Rico, which Morales describes as a “former U.S. military base where the horses roam free”. The portrait that comes across of the island is delicate and beloved with a tinge of sadness or perhaps abandonment. It becomes an unconscious yearning for the homeland at the bottom of the sky.

Everything is Everyday

everything is everyday

Patrick Tarrant, 10 min, video, 2011, UK

Everything is Everyday shows us the life of the humble, urban window-washer as he dutifully does his job. Described as a “montage of duration”, this video as well becomes a portrait, a portrait of a man, of a class, of a singular action – the washing of the windows.

It gives us time to reflect on the reflection while blurring our vision by use of soap bubbles meant to make our vision clearer. The video is visually playful at times, with the window-washer abstracting the scenes behind the glass with his various cleaning instruments, and at other times it becomes a bit lonely, as we silently watch this man doing these monotonous actions with little interactions with other people.

The duration of the piece (10 minutes, though it feels like longer because the action is so low-key) reflects the duration that it took to film this piece, which according to Tarrant was “54 shots [each] recorded on a different day, over the course of a year.” Everything is Everyday becomes a meditation on the passing of time and what we feel as time passes slowly.

Trypps # 7 (Badlands)

trypps 7

Ben Russell, 10 min, 16mm on video, 2010, USA

Trypps #7 begins with the viewer staring into the eyes of a woman in an “intimate long-take” which allows us to watch the outside of her body and facial expressions as she experiences an LSD trip before us. The visuals are accompanied by the clanging of gongs, encouraging us to meditate on what we see.

The film then evolves into a formal, semi-abstract spectacle caused by the revolution of a mirror – a fact that we eventually are allowed to realize because of a fracture in one side of the mirror. The resulting phenomenon is a transcendental experience of the landscape of the Badlands, an experience of pure color and movement, warm browns and cool blues in revolution to each other. Earth and sky, forever interdependent opposites.

Russell’s Trypps #7 will surprise you with it’s level of romance, spirituality and magic. #7‘s meditation is at once about the place and how we experience that place. Again, the reflection plays a large role in how we experience the landscape that’s being depicted. Through this, Russell seems to assert that by realizing the magic of the image and its use in the cinematic experience, we can begin to understand the possibility for transcendental elements in cinema. Sign me up for the next transcendence retreat, Russell.

The Observers

the observers sunset

Jacqueline Goss, 70 min, 16mm on video, 2010, USA

The Observers sets the viewer in a very particular place and the very particular people who live there; the weather observatory on the  summit of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire and its meteorologists. The landscape is unbelievably stark, with every inch covered in ice in the winter, and in the summer the presence of rocks is added to our view, though little else seems to thrive atop the windiest mountain in the world. The sparseness of the setting gives it a very surreal feeling, one which is echoed in the actions the female scientists preform. As the film progresses and time goes on, their duties seem more and more abstract and alien, and we eventually sink into these puddles of singularity with the weather observers as they try to keep themselves occupied throughout the seasons.

The film is incredibly monotonous, which serves two purposes. It slows the viewer down from the probable hubbub of their lives into this Limbo-like place of repetition where we watch the observers do the same thing over and over, living this stagnation with them. But it also forces the viewer to learn to pay attention to the smallest of on-screen details and it gives us time to draw connections between the characters and create our own minimalist storyline, even though the only words spoken to us are the stuff of weather reports.

the observers tower

The Observers also has some dryly humorous aspects, like the fact that when the weather warms up and sight-seers start taking the train to the summit of the mountain, they are treated as background noise and are essentially ignored by both the observer and the camera.

The Observers is a great film for people who are ready and willing to observe – and observe alongside – the characters and allow a setting to be described for them through very minimalist implications that you are required to unpack for yourself.

The thing that I have noticed in thinking about all of the films in this program individually is that they have something noteworthy in common. Each is describing some kind of portrait to the viewer, whether of a place, a person, a history, or a state of mind. In this sense, they are all inviting you to join into an intellectual space that they are setting up for you to experience and meditate in. Seeing The Observers program filled me with a sense of peace that is brought on by such slow contemplation. I have a feeling these sorts of feelings happen often at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, which is replaying some of its programs from earlier in the festival tonight and tomorrow, click here for a full schedule, it’s worth every minute.