Rooftop Cinema’s 2018 calendar finds an inspiring balance between shorts and features

MMOCA’s annual experimental film series returns in June under a new programmer, James Kreul.

MMOCA’s annual experimental film series returns in June under a new programmer, James Kreul.


“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” screens at Rooftop Cinema’s June 15 installment.

Partly in keeping with last year’s shift toward more feature-length films, June 2018’s Rooftop Cinema series in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s outdoor sculpture garden above State Street attempts to capture the spirit of an ambitious film festival. Assuming duties from the longtime Madison film programmer Tom Yoshikami (who selected films remotely last summer after moving to Vancouver), succeeding programmer James Kreul (of Isthmus and Madison Film Forum) has also preserved that spirit in the 13th annual edition of the series. The five Friday nights in June embrace markedly challenging and visionary avant-garde shorts, some in an all-shorts program and some paired with features. While there are no films presented on celluloid, in a break from a tradition of the outdoor series, the digital format promises a more reliably wide-ranging and inclusive lineup if this year’s schedule is any indication.

The series kicks off at sundown (approximately 9:30 p.m.) on June 1 with a crowd-pleasing documentary on the golden age of tap dancing, George T. Nierenberg’s No Maps On My Taps (1979). Recently restored and released by Milestone Films, the film is a career portrait triptych of Bunny Briggs, Chuck Green, and Harold “Sandman” Sims, documenting their reunion immediately prior to a performance with legendary jazz percussionist Lionel Hampton. It’s also a grand and warm tribute to the art form, which saw an American revival of sorts at the time of the film’s original release. Suitably, the brisk 58-minute feature will be prefaced by a new five-minute short, Elemental, featuring the modern dance/performance art of Solomon Roller. Its significance is compounded by the talents of local cinematographers, Aaron Granat and Elizabeth Wadium, whose film was the first shown at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival during the opening night celebration in the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The following Friday is dedicated to six shorts directed by women this decade with particular emphasis on found-footage essays and experimental collage animation. Kate Laine’s She Collage (2015) is simultaneously dedicated to and a response to collage artist hero Terry Braunstein as well as a reflection on the craft itself. Also included in the program are shorts by Hannah Piper Burns (Outer Darkness), Karen Yasinsky (Marie), Caryn Cline (Notes From The Farm), Kelly Gallagher (More Dangerous Than A Thousand Rioters), and Jesse McLean (Magic For Beginners). Cline’s Notes From The Farm (2014) particularly impresses with its uniquely coined “bonticollage” technique in which she fuses organic matter like flowers and plants directly onto the film stock. The eye-popping rhythm of her alternating slideshow and footage is augmented by the soundtrack of field-recorded nature sounds layered with a lively jazz composition, “Floating,” from trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt’s sextet.

The June 15 program syncs up with the boomer-centric Madison Reunion conference weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of two films released in 1968, the first being the Youth International Party’s collective counter-cultural and political effort, Yippie!, concerning the protests and resulting violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The main 75-minute event of the night is William Greaves’ influential metacinema entry, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. Although WUD Film screened the feature as part of its Thursday Starlight Cinema program in March, its presentation here in a more spacious and sociable setting will allow audiences to openly deliberate its subversion of both narrative and documentary aesthetic, just as Greaves facilitates the hybrid and conversation between the two forms within his own work. Beginning with a heated quarrel (and some controversial, scripted dialogue) between two actors in Central Park, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm takes on new meaning and resonance in behind-the-scenes-style scenes involving the director’s own crew candidly questioning his ultimate intentions.

The lineup on June 22 is dedicated to another 50th anniversary, that of distributor Canyon Cinema based in San Francisco. In conjunction with a national film tour, they’ve created new high-definition transfers of many of their original 16mm shorts to celebrate the occasion. While the official program has not been disclosed, the officially teaser announcement that lists curator David Dinnell of the California Institute of the Arts suggests it is the 73-minute digital program two, which begins with Bruce Baillie’s Mr. Hayashi (1961). His succinct and unconventional film is as much a portrayal of a Japanese gardener as much as an abstract meditation on the symmetry between motion and repose. The night concludes with the lengthiest short, Chick Strand’s historically significant Fake Fruit Factory (1986). At 22 minutes, it intriguingly examines the economic and sexual politics of Mexican female factory workers who make decorative papier-mâché fruits and vegetables.

Finally, the series wraps up on June 29 with an experimental feature, INAATE/SE/: it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./ (2016), by Adam and Zack Khalil, which was part of Milwaukee’s MicroLights Cinema last autumn. In the tradition of William Greaves’ hybrid cinema, their 75-minute kaleidoscopic endeavor amalgamates documentary, narrative, and the avant-garde to establish a new enriching film grammar. INAATE/SE/ non-linearly re-imagines an ancient story of the Ojibway (or Ojibwe) people indigenous to North America, riffing on the Seven Fires Prophecy, which predated and predicted contact with Europeans. The Khalils’ sensorial memory of geography and history is employed to inspiring effect, exploring the reverberations of the prophecy within Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In their own words, the co-directors devote their attention to the invisible line “between the sacred and the profane to pry open the construction of contemporary indigenous identity.”

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