Last Friday marked my only chance to attend a screening at Rooftop Cinema this summer. The avant-garde and experimental film series held in the rooftop gardens at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art runs four weeks over the course of June, providing one of the few opportunities in town to catch a movie under the stars. Or clouds, perhaps.
This was not to be, though. The third week of this summer series was held indoors, the lecture hall on the main floor of the downtown art museum serving as the go-to location in the case of inclement weather. No, it didn't actually rain that night, but the threatening clouds of that afternoon and the need for MMoCA to make a choice as early as possible to utilize the alternate location combined to bring the films indoors.
Though not as enchanting as the sculpture garden that sports a fine view of the State Street skyline, the downstairs auditorium served its purpose well. One of the few venues in which I did not get the chance to attend a screening during the 2007 Wisconsin Film Festival, the lecture hall boasts comfortable seats, ample leg room, and a large clear screen. It certainly worked well enough for the screening on Friday.
The theme for the third week of the series was "Film as/on a Battlefield," showcasing a quintet of shorts that ran between seven and twelve minutes in length.
The first film to screen was simply breathtaking -- in the literal sense of the word -- as twelve minutes of real-time suspense unfolded in a clinical vision of death and destruction. Anaconda Targets by Dominic Angerame simply features the night-vision footage and radio-communication soundtrack of an aerial attack as seen from the targeting camera of a U.S. gunship helicopter. Named for Operation Anaconda, an offensive against Taliban and al Qaeda in the Shai Kot Valley of northeast Afghanistan, the footage dates from March 4, 2002 but instantly felt live moments after hitting the screen at MMoCA.
Viewers are eyewitness to the targeting and subsequent firing upon a sequence of buildings, vehicles -- and for the most part, individual persons -- with guided munitions that obliterate their targets in a plume of flames and concussion. Running, hiding, and visibly wounded persons come under the gunner's eye in this attack, the only visible survivor taking asylum in a mosque off-limits to the attack, a striking juxtaposition of this contemporary method of distant warfare and the religious concept of sanctuary in a medieval context.
"It's fascinating," says Rooftop Cinema curator Tom Yoshikami of the battlefield footage. "You know it's happening every day, and you hear about it all the time, but you never actually see it."
The second film was Cosmetic Emergency by Martha Colburn, an eight minute musing upon the concept of beauty in this era of cosmetic surgery and obsessive aspirations of perfection. The short released in 2005 featured mashed-up found images and footage with layers of animation, an engaging example of the audio-visual collage culture that's thriving as a method of social criticism.
More familiar in format were the next two shorts of the evening. Though created more than 35 years apart, both Diploteratology: Bardo Follies by Owen Land (1967) and Friendly Fire by Thorston Fleish (2003) feature abstract imagery of melting and burning film stock set to, respectively, silence and looping industrial beats. They were easily the most challenging entries of the evening, both as exemplars of one common stereotype of experimental film. In the case of the former, visually disorienting due to persistent strobe lighting. Only a few minutes into the first short, the audience got restless, with a cycle of conversations, sniggering, and shushing continuing through the end of the second.
"I do expect the restlessness a little bit," says Yoshikami about the reaction to these films. "I'm glad if someone says 'shh...' if it gets out of hand, but I think it is to be expected. This series draws a wide variety of people, some of whom aren't familiar with all the types of films that will be screening. Some of them will be more challenging, so I can imagine that it can get a little tedious for some people."
The audience was fully engaged with the final film of the evening, though. Neighbours, the best known work by the Scottish-Canadaian filmmaker Norman McLaren, was the oldest selection. Originally released in 1952 and produced by the National Film Board of Canada, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film in 1953.
It's hardly a documentary, though, as it utilizes pixilation (stop-motion animation of live-action footage) to tell the story of two men engaged in a battle royale over possession of a single flower growing on the line between their own patches of lawn and cut-out houses. The fight grows increasingly violent, culminating in wanton murder and destruction, an explicit commentary by McLaren on the Korean War. The bleepy soundtrack, meanwhile, is clearly echoed in the sound of the Scottish electronic duo that takes its names from the Canadian filmmaking organization.
The classic short was a fitting end for the screening off the rooftop, which was seen by a comparatively small crowd compared to the first half of the series. "We had a fantastic turnout our first two nights," notes Yoshikami, with about 250 people attending the Friday night films atop the museum. "Because there was a threat of rain and it was indoors, not as many people showed up for this one, but that's to be expected."
Rooftop Cinema's second year ends this Friday, June 29, with the four shorts organized around the theme of "W.O.R.D. G.A.M.E.S." The centerpiece for the screening is the 1970 film Bleu Shut by Robert Nelson, which Yoshikami identifies as his favorite of the summer. Prepare to laugh, he warns, during this final chance to catch a film on top of MMoCA this summer. Current weather forecasts call for pleasant conditions.