The subject matter of Penelope Buitenhuis' films is obvious enough -- an urban no-place where people are either emotional ciphers or hyperactive ganglia on a string.
What isn't so obvious in these six short films, shown Monday night as part of Hallwalls' four-night "Berlin: Images in Progress," is their sense of time. With Buitenhuis time is unreliable, indefinite. It shades off into a vague past and hints at an uneasy future.
The present is there, certainly. Set in major cities throughout the world (New York, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo and San Francisco, among them), the films show a depressing string of images of decayed buildings, graffiti, bleak alleys and litter-strewn streets. Still these cities are stripped of their identities. They seem like cities that once existed but are now barely memories.
But memory is a problem too. A character in "Disposable" asks at the end of the film, "What's so important to remember?" All the plotted films have characters who can't, or refuse to, remember. The woman in "Indifference" finds that the very shape of her daily life is staged and under surveillance. Her solution? Forget that momentous fact and assume indifference.
And in "Framed" all human action -- romance, murder, desire -- is dictated by characters who, like slightly crazed movie directors, hold up signs relaying what's about to happen, while two bewitched "TV watchers" dissolve whole scenes by flicking channels.
In Buitenhuis' bleak world the only saving grace is the accumulated absurdity of it all. Sometimes she tries to spell out this absurdity with the camera.
"Combat Not Conform," for example, is a rapid-fire compendium of revolutionary activity in major western cities. Like its subject the film purports to be formless and chaotic, to enthusiastically tilt toward anarchy. And with its frenetic jump-cutting it seems on the verge of tearing itself apart.
The exaggerated parallel between real-life violence and film violence makes its absurdist point: all the head-banging and angry crowds are hopeless cliches, simply more media snapshots for the scrapbook of the 20th century.
Yet something seems too easy about "Combat Not Conform." "Disposable" is better. The form is fast-moving but taut and strangely refined. Buitenhuis' camera can zip up a facade and then slowly sink downward toward a street scene like a bird hovering in curiosity. Only the stilted acting and script -- which never quite shakes the "realist" modes it parodies -- and a hammy brand of fake surrealism mars this fine little film.
"They Shoot Pigs Don't They" solves both acting and form problems by bringing the absurdity to the surface. At the screening the Canadian-Born filmmaker described it as an expression of "my hatred for the police...nostalgia for outmoded revolution."
But it is much more than that. It precisely and comically marks out the absurd "unreality" of modern life. Television is set up as a ludicrous kind of reality check. The W.A.P -- Women against Police -- takes over a TV station and go about killing innocuous policemen with slapstick abandon (Perhaps John Waters lurks behind some of the extended deadpanness here). There are no film tricks and it is a better work for it. It is a loony-bin display, but a caustic and full-dimensioned social commentary all the same.
The series will conclude tonight at 8 with a screening of Michael Krause's films.