In one corner: the Brothers Quay, whose stop-motion creepshows have sent chills down spines since the late ’70s. In the other: Thom Andersen, cantankerous essay filmmaker, whose sprawling Los Angeles Plays Itself stands as one of the last decade’s cinematic treasures. Seemingly beamed in from different dimensions, these two artistic forces couldn’t be more different, yet they share marquee billing in the opening-night program of the 2011 Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival.
Both of their titles are triumphs. Based on a story by Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), the Quays’ “Mask” is a ghoulish fable of creation and destruction, with spindly marionettes leering out from eerily human-looking peepers. Andersen’s “Get Out of the Car” is a funky spiritual cousin to Los Angeles Plays Itself; it crafts another scrapbook valentine to the director’s much-maligned hometown. “Mask” and “Car” have virtually nothing in common, beyond a useful function: dispelling the myth that avant-garde cinema is fundamentally difficult or inaccessible.
Adventurousness—visual, conceptual or otherwise—is the uniting principle at the festival (programmed by occasional Time Out contributor Patrick Friel). The bustle of the daily commute provides the subject of “Zagreb Tram Station” (Opening Night Program, Thursday 23) and “Tokyo–Ebisu” (Shorts Program 6, Sunday 26). The former swallows a packed train car in a haze of chemical manipulation, while the latter uses 29 mattes—one for every subway station in Tokyo—to create multiple planes of overlapping human traffic.
Elsewhere, artists salute their influences. “Morning Glory” (Shorts Program 1, Friday 24) plays like an homage to the sun-kissed pastorals of experimental figurehead Nathaniel Dorsky. And without Phil Solomon’s “Last Days in a Lonely Place,” which boldly transformed the video-game landscapes of Grand Theft Auto into the dreamspace of a mourning friend (and showed at Onion City in 2008), Evan Meaney’s “Ceibas: Epilogue: The Well of Representation” (Shorts Program 2, Friday 24) might not have been possible. This poignant 16-bit eulogy imagines a malfunctioning game console infected by a virus of despair.
There are shades of Stan Brakhage in Jake Barningham’s digital daydreams, several of which screen in Shorts Program 3 (Saturday 25). This is the Chicago-based filmmaker’s fourth consecutive appearance at Onion City, and one can see an evolution in his work, from the playful reconfiguration of classic cinema in his earlier films to the more sophisticated symphonies of light and color that now constitute his best efforts. In love with the textures of video, Barningham’s shorts transform the mundane into the gorgeously abstract, drowning signposts of daily life—houses, trees—in a churning ocean of digital noise. None dazzles quite like “night, day,” which dices time-lapse found footage into a feverish succession of sunrises and sunsets.
The festival closes Sunday 26 with James Fotopoulos’s Alice of Wonderland. It outclasses Tim Burton’s normalized version, but one can see a more fitting capper in Ben Rivers’s astonishing “Slow Action” (Shorts Program 5, Sunday 26, and just shown in the Chicago Underground Film Festival). Beginning like “La Jetée,” with a rush of still images, this hybrid of documentary and dystopian fantasy casts real locations—including an abandoned island city off the coast of Nagasaki—as the last remaining kingdoms of a postapocalyptic planet. Gorgeous and transporting, the film reclaims science fiction, a genre hijacked by Hollywood money minters, for poets and adventurers. At Chicago’s bravest and most rewarding film festival, it feels right at home.
The Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival runs Thursday 23 through Sunday 26.