Those wise enough to get an early start to the second last day of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival were treated to eleven works of art crafted over a ten-year span in Super 8, 35mm and video as demanded by the material. As a bonus, Maria Marshall was on hand to introduce each piece in a helpful manner that seldom pontificated and left the joy of discovery to the audience.
Those new to her work were provided both the attention-grabbing first (When I Grow up I Want to Be a Cooker, where a very young boy puffs away on a cigarette, creating smoke rings that eventually gather enough steam to render the entire screen white, and repeat, repeat …) and chilling most recent (I Saw You Crying) productions. In the latter, Marshall’s 13-year-old son (her two boys are frequent subjects, adding their obvious devotion to the artist and glowing eyes behind which are already a wealth of worldly experience) comes on screen in a lengthy head-shot before raising a revolver and shooting a bullet for the first time. Morphing from the innocent, cherubic visage to the sorrowful, genuine reaction, this piece speaks louder than its silent track (much of Marshall’s finest work leaves the viewer truly alone with the images). The thousands of boys (many much younger still) firing their weapons in anger worldwide gives even more impact to the message.
Of course, most of these brief films were conceived as installations in a variety of museums and galleries around the globe. Accordingly, the use of loops is widespread. In Searman 41 (her response to 9/11) the destructive jets are replaced with one vintage biplane. After takeoff, the sky is magically painted with the word “kill” then—reversing the footage—the awful word is erased, as if the pilot wanted to take back death and let the carefully cued-up birds, continue their happy calls.
When Are We There is a masterpiece. Here, the subject matter is a beautiful edifice, replete with a spoked, high-ceiling skylight and well-appointed hallways. A sudden turn into a room reveals Marshall. Standing tall and staring straight ahead, the camera visits her body, revealing through her skin and dress that there is something eerily underneath. A quick pan to the window yields blinding white light and the journey begins and is complete again. This could go on forever. Fascinating to see is the similarity between identical loops and the repeat of the exposition in sonata form (too frequently abandoned in our time-conscious society). But in both cases even though the material returns, it can never be exactly the same because, necessarily, the context has changed. That Marshall can achieve in silence what composers do in sound is just another example of the artist as filmmaker rather than the converse.
Compacting a week away to Disney world in just a few minutes, gives 10,000 Frames a frantic air that just doesn’t quit. Anyone who’s been through that particular rite of passage with their brood will appreciate the feeling that after all the time and money spent, the hours did just seem to vanish.
Playground is another richly layered study of belief. A solitary boy is honing his football skills, kicking his ball continuously against the side of a modest church (the unintentional echo of another boy going about the same activity just prior to witnessing his brother’s execution is an amazing coincidence that can only happen at a film festival—cross-reference below) is especially remarkable because the ball is never seen. Does it really exist (choose your own substitute for “it”)? Marvellously, the shadow of the absent ball is apparent, adding another degree of puzzlement as to the truth of what is being witnessed.
Another biblical reference is found in Matthew 14: 22-33. Like Peter the Apostle, a tall, lanky surfer walks on water across the screen, disappears then returns to traverse the same path over and over and over. Unlike Peter, he shows no fear, his faith seems solid. Far away, near the horizon, a lone surfer catches a huge wave only to vanish, then return to catch another and another …. Unfriendly helicopters are heard but never glimpsed. Whispered voices speak out from time to time, notably “Where’s my daddy?”—another timeless question.
Kudos to Sundance for bringing Marshall into this predominantly narrative-driven arena of “What’s next.” More’s the pity the room wasn’t jammed with those who work with the same basic materials. No one would have left this experience without a treasure trove of creativity, inspiring new ways of looking at how they might better show what they’re trying to tell. JWR