This week in tactile cinema: Miyazaki, Gitlin, Rivers | Bleader

Thursday, June 21, 2012

This week in tactile cinema: Miyazaki, Gitlin, Rivers

Posted By on 06.21.12 at 05:03 PM

One lovely chemical process of Ben Riverss Sack Barrow
  • One lovely chemical process of Ben Rivers's Sack Barrow
Whenever I watch Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro—which I finally saw on 35-millimeter at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week—I'm astonished by how vividly the film conjures memories of early childhood that I seldom recall on my own. The memories start materializing in the first few minutes, as the young heroines are exploring their new home. Miyazaki and his animators devote such nuance to plants, shadows, and planks of wood—things I'd probably take for granted today, if I encountered them in real life—that I feel as though I'm sharing in the girls' discovery. Yes, I always think, this is how the world looked when I was four or five or six years old. Small things were still new to me, and they possessed a commanding power. If I studied them closely enough, I could imagine stories in the patterns of carpets or wrought iron.

Michael Gitlin's Dust Studies, a nine-minute short that screens tomorrow night at the Onion City Film Festival at 6:45 PM, also evokes these formative experiences. The work is a series of extreme close-ups of dust bunnies, captured under different lighting sources and accompanied by the sounds of birdsong and toddlers sounding out words. Gitlin makes the most of HD video here, achieving a crystal-clear focus that gives presence to every contour of his subjects. He describes the work as a "domestic portrait rendered at miniature scale," a clever turn of phrase that applies to both the portrait and the implied portraitist, someone too small to realize that the banal items in his purview are in fact banal.

You can watch Dust Studies for free on your computer, but I'd recommend seeing it at Onion City, where it plays on a program with Ben Rivers's Sack Barrow and several other stellar works. (Also, the screen will be a lot bigger.) A masterpiece by one of England's most inventive working filmmakers, Sack Barrow is no less of a sensory experience than Dust. Rivers shot this 20-minute film in a London factory during the month before it shut down. The movie doesn't reveal what the factory produced (though in his program notes, Rivers mentions it was "set up in 1931 to provide work for limbless and disabled ex-servicemen"), but rather presents equipment, chemical processes, and industrial waste sites as the stuff of a self-contained world. The 16-millimeter photography is extraordinary, creating richly textured images that seem at once immediate and otherworldly: at times, it seems as though Rivers has stumbled upon unused sets from Tarkovsky's Stalker.

Rivers's work, like Gitlin's, captures the feeling of seeing something for the first time—in part because the processes depicted by Sack Barrow are so arcane that most viewers probably haven't seen them. Yet Rivers isn't out to make working-class labor seem alien. The timeless quality of 16-millimeter suggests a particular type of abstraction, the kind that comes from looking at the same things every day across an entire career. Rivers exults this perspective and the skilled labor that makes it possible.

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