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The Persistence of Experimentalism 

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
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The choice of Johan van der Keuken to receive this year's Persistence of Vision Award is a welcome one, but also an unfortunate reminder of how marginalized experimental film has always been. The Amsterdam-based filmmaker/photographer has toiled quietly for 40-odd years in the netherworld of "direct" documentary cinema, and his work is little-known outside museums and film festivals, despite its freshness and immediacy.

A generous sampling of this work at the SFIFF -- a program of van der Keuken's early shorts, a featurette, and a feature -- shows what a determined filmmaker can do with a camera he always operates himself. In the four shorts, van der Keuken extrapolates vivid inner worlds from the prosaic exterior life of a jazz musician (Big Ben: Ben Webster in Europe, 1967), a blind teenager (Herman Slobbe: Blind Child 2), a 10-year-old girl (Beppie, 1965), and even a city (A Moment of Silence, 1963).

With characteristic modesty, van der Keuken called his longer works "poor man's features," but they are among his most seductive. His fascination with music and with a kind of ethnography of the everyday dovetail in Brass Unbound (1993), a charming look at how formerly colonized cultures expropriated musical styles introduced by their colonists. His most recent work is Last Words -- My Sister Yoka (1935-1997). Here he uses his most direct tool yet, the digital camera, to make a touching tribute to his sister shortly before she died of cancer.

Canadian experimentalist Mike Hoolboom is less "persistent" than van der Keuken by about 20 years, but his career is also full of treasures. Among these is Panic Bodies (1998), a six-part study of the beauty of the body and its tragic temporality. Hoolboom has turned his own experience as an HIV-positive man into art, drawing on such disparate elements as home movies, microscopy, found footage from a 1930s "naturist" film, and a whimsical miniature melodrama about a man in search of his lost penis. In a voiceover to the last segment, Hoolboom talks about the "conspiracy of chromosomes" that make up the human being, but the phrase is ironic; for him, nothing is more real or human or felt than what that conspiracy has created.

-- Gary Morris

Johan van der Keuken: Early Shorts:Thursday, April 22, 7 p.m., PFA; Friday, April 23, 7:30 p.m., Kabuki

Brass Unbound: Friday, April 30, 12:30 & 7 p.m., Kabuki
Last Words -- My Sister Yoka (1935-1997): Wednesday, April 28, 7:20 p.m., Kabuki

Panic Bodies: Sunday, April 25, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki; Monday, April 26, 10 p.m., Kabuki

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Gary Morris

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