by Joel Schlemowitz
RE-PRINTED FROM Issue 99 of BOOG CITY
What often fascinates me about the alternative documentary—any number of diverse approaches that assertively reject or subtly sidestep the traditional concerns of documentary form—is the interrelationship of technique and subject. That is to say, where the form is not just a generic information delivery system into which whatever subject matter may be plugged in, but where the form itself has a more sophisticated interaction with the subject, where the form may bend in innovative directions the subject of the film takes it.
Likewise, the subject of the alternative documentary can be seen anew due to the unexpected path taken by an experimental work as it meanders away from the predictable route of traditional documentary structure.
An opportunity to have this experience comes to us this spring when filmmaker Lili White presents her feature-length experimental video Fool’s Gold: California Roadtrip in an Election Year at Millennium Film Workshop in Bushwick, Brooklyn on Thursday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m.
The work’s ostensible subject matter principally concerns the southwest and its history viewed through interviews and travelogue footage. But this becomes the ground from which springs oblique topics as we descend from Zabriskie Point to downtown Los Angeles where festivities in celebration of the anniversary of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” takes place by some curious happenstance before White’s camera.
The film begins with the desert landscape around Death Valley greeting us as majestic classical music swells up. It is a jagged row of crags, lined up along the horizon like the teeth of a broken comb. The camera reveals pastel hues of beige-colored stone tipped in sunlight and flowing down into shadow, under a robin’s egg blue sky. But a glitch-like doubling of the image disrupts the pure scenic pleasure of the vista. It is reminiscent of a desert mirage, reflecting the image of the landscape while at the same time beguiling us with an illusion.
White’s Fool’s Gold is built
upon discovering curious
correspondences through the
diverse subjects encountered
in the California road trip, but
it is the moments when the
juxtapositions seem to be
uncanny and enigmatic that
the work engages our attention.
Through interviews we learn about the region’s history of borax mining taking place in the briny, mineral-rich desert lakes around Searles Valley and the Coso Mountains, the boom and bust of the company towns that came about in such unlikely and inhospitable places. All of this could have been the material from which to construct a traditional documentary on the borax mines of Southern California. Yet White has done more than this, for as we view the area around Death Valley the Biblical story of Cain and Abel is heard narrated by a rich, deep-toned male voice inflected with a hard-to-place European accent. A muscular black man—a dancer, perhaps—filmed under the lights of a studio set enacts the dual roles of the two rival siblings, his image seen in superimposition over the desert and mountains the camera visits. Arriving in Los Angeles another accented voice, now female, provides a critique of consumer capitalism in general and the Reagan era in particular.
The work modulates between these elements, returning to the mineral-infused lake, watching the re- enactment of “Thriller” by eager participants in zombie makeup, Cain becoming jealous of his brother, the interviewees’ story of the change and evolution of the mines and their settlements unfurls in bits and pieces. Native American rock carvings float before the camera lens while we are told by a guide off-screen that a spiral pattern indicates water from a spring. At times the images do not alternate, but jostle together at the same time, competing for our attention,layered and ebbing in and out through chroma-key and super-impositions. White’s Fool’s Gold is built upon discovering curious correspondences through the diverse subjects encountered in the California road trip, but it is the moments when the juxtapositions seem to be uncanny and enigmatic that the work engages our attention. This is what makes the non-traditional documentary a form ripe with intriguing possibility. The tonal discords that are played off one another between zombies, and deserts, and Michael Jackson, and borax serve to create a portrait of the landscape of the place itself and its disparate agendas and interpretations.
Lili White (http://liliwhite.com) made experimental films since the 1980s, while studying Academic painting in the Pennsylvania Academy’s four-year painting program. Her films serve as “impressions” that contemplate relationships of power and repression. After graduating the University of Pennsylvania, she curated shows of experimental media and fine art. In 2010, she founded Another Experiment by Women Film Festival (http://anotherexperimentbywomenfilmfestival.com), presenting screenings in the New York area. AXW’s on-line site (http://axwonline.com) streams curated shows that act as an archive of women’s expression. Fool’s Gold: California Roadtrip in an Election Year, received a NYSCA Finishing Funds Award.
Joel Schlemowitz (http://www.joelschlemowitz.com) a Park Slope, Brooklyn-based filmmaker who makes short cine-poems and experimental documentaries. His most recent project, “78rpm,” is in the final stages of post-production. He has taught filmmaking at The New School for the past 15 years.
Another Experiment by Women Film Festival promotes and screens moving images in any media, made by women, that encourage critical thinking and dialogue.
News & Screenings:
- Berger Nissen (Expanded Cinema Performance) June 13
- Olivia Ciummo & Tara Merenda Nelson in PSYCHIC PANIC
- underground film journal (dot) com
- Issue #2 NON/FICTIONS ISSUE of CANYON CINEMAGAZINE, featurCANYON CINEMAGAZINE’s article on AXW Panel Discussion by COURTNEY FELLON
- CLAUDIA SIEFEN’s film – BEEN WAITING FOR YOU SO LONG- at M°BA CENTRAAL from June 9 – July 21, 2013
- 12/7/12 – AMERICAN DREAMS / NIGHTMARES curated by Noe Kidder
- 12/ 8 /12- JOEY HUERTAS AKA JANE PUBLIC AND SUZANA STANKOVIC at Mono No Aware
- 12/13, 14,15 – Lynne Sachs’ “Your Day is My Night”