Juan Carlos Zaldivar, "Shift" (Film Still)

Optic Nerve 14: Wall Portals, Eerie Puppets, and Winning Hound Dogs

The 14th installment of Optic Nerve at the

Museum of Contemporary Art

proved an artist can achieve some mighty moments in the moving picture

with less than five minutes to work with. The hour-long series of short

films included 16 works by video artists from across the US.


series maintained a dynamic diversity, as whittled down from 271

entries by a committee of five panelists, including the museum's

executive director and last year's winner of the festival, Brain Bress,

among others. The mix of shorts included witty concepts, social

commentary, minimalist explorations of the medium itself and occasional

narrative moments.

The winner of the festival, as chosen by the panel, was a local artist whose work had shown at Optic Nerve twice before. Miami Beach resident Juan Carlos Zaldivar offered one of the neater narrative moments: "Shift," a surreal experience with heart. The film had a stop motion feel, as it was composed of a series of still images. The technique worked well, as it incorporated what appeared to be hounds and pieces of hounds made of papier-mâché that ran through a wooded area by a seashore in a pack. As the dogs-- and pieces of dog-- lope about, the film intercuts a wandering person with a face seemingly made of similar material. This humanoid form wore an elaborate dress that looked like a hoopskirt made of mother of pearl. It appeared to be a freshly borne creature, as blue and red veins were still visible on its waxy arms. Costume and design added visual splendor to the film, whose climax arrives when the paths of these dogs, with their frozen growls, cross paths with the figure.

Stories are one thing, but the ability to activate and awaken the mind to a higher level was also on display. The one film that got the most laughs Dough Garth Williams' "Back and Forth" where a spray can was used by a character to reveal the other side of a wall to find himself and vice versa. Hillerbrand + Magsamen also revealed a new way to penetrate walls, as a family saws, hammers and tears through doors and walls to get around a home. It offered one of the more professionally lit and high-definition moments with a dramatic orchestral film score to boot.

A couple of personal favorites appeared early on, including Lee Hunter's perceived mystery "Last Night," only composed of a distant shot outside a row of apartments at night. A creepy factor is added as the outdoor lights flicker to strobe-like effect, giving the viewer an anxiety-filled look as light tries to penetrate the dark. At one point a figure opens a door, stands for a moment and goes back inside. The shot is from such a distance that the viewer is not sure what just happened. The 1:14 film oozes atmosphere and mystery in the most minimal way.

"Acoustical Visions of the Golden Gate Bridge" by Bill Fontana followed. With a stationary camera placed somewhere below the bridge, looking at only the bridge's expansion joints, sound and light become the star of this piece. The only dynamic images are the shadows that flicker from the unseen activity above. The whoosh, hums and clangs of the bridge's response to vehicle using it, coupled with the regular honks of what sound like passing ships, create an industrial symphony of found sounds. It recalls what John Cage said of the random music one can hear by pausing to listen out one's window.

Carmen Tiffany of Hollywood, Florida, offered the busy short "the Accident," an overwhelmingly grotesque selection with ugly puppets and toys painted in garish colors, all arguing about who's at fault in a car accident while standing against an unkempt wooded area. There were cutaways to laugh tracks and twirling plastic animals against a TV screen covered in static, between the arguments. The punch lines were unclear or too buried for much of a message to resonate. Also, the misshapen images and puppets probably distracted from any substance in the dialog.

There were several other films where the grotesque seemed to overwhelm the message, like Deidra Sargent's lo-fi critique of human interaction facilitated by technology. Liz Rodda's "Cut" followed with primitive computer-generated animations of women who blow up to muscle-bound freaks, as a constantly rotating diamond twirled in a split screen while a synthesized version of what sounded like a Pink Floyd jam session provided a soundtrack. It felt oddly fetishistic. Still, the degree of abstraction on display by these films, not to mention the brief run times below five minutes, kept things interesting.

But mostly new perspectives abound at the festival, including one that might induce seizures in some viewers called "The End." The film presents a split second series of title cards that closed older movies with "The End," The short has no sound, save for the murmur of occasional amused laughter from the audience at the dense if brief short that pays tribute to a lost, if dated, character of cinema.

At the end of the screenings audience members were encouraged to submit a ballot with noting their own favorite of the program. The MOCA will reveal the winner sometime this week on its website. The program will be re-screened at the de la Cruz Collection in Miami's Design District, 23 NE 41st St., on October 13, beginning at 7 p.m. It will also screen at the Big Screen Plaza in New York City at a date TBA.


Hans Morgenstern on Twitter at indieethos.

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