Experimental Reviews

Walkscape (2019) – 4 stars

Director: Vasco Diogo

Writer: Vasco Diogo

Running time: 6mins

For more information on Vasco Diogo’s films, visit his website.

As I have mentioned before in my reviews of abstract cinema, experimental films often struggles to escape the genre’s reputation for being an arduous, and abrasively conceited slog. Detractors of avant-garde cinema will hastily label it as elitist, supposedly designed for port-swilling ivory-tower film-connoisseurs to chuckle about – because they are in on the joke, and the rest of the swinish multitude are not. Of course this caricature is in itself elitist – the idea ‘ordinary people’ cannot enjoy experimental film because nobody without a liberal arts degree has an imagination is a snobbish fantasy.

The world as it exists has always required imagination to get any kind of ‘meaning’ from the sheer chaos that surrounds us. From birth we spend our lives learning how to trace shapes in the stars, searching for dancing figures in the embers of a dying fire, and quickly finding ourselves lost in thought – wandering through strange abstract worlds of our own making. Experimental cinema is no great mystery to audiences then; all it requires is an open mind and patience, and the journey can begin.

Like Joanna Priestley’s North of Blue (which also takes audiences on an abstract journey), Vasco Diogo’s Walkscape summarises experimental film’s potential for sparking a non-conformist voyage rather wonderfully. Initially this comparison seems a little unfavourable, especially as Priestley’s feature-length ramble features some stunning animation and peerless sound-design. Walkscape’s more simplistic approach does pale a little in comparison to Priestley’s more polished piece – however it has other strengths it can play to.

Rushing by at under six minutes, Diogo’s film manages to touch on a similar magic in less time – making it something new audiences may be more inclined to give a chance, before taking a deeper dive into abstract films of greater length. What might not help this is that Diogo’s visuals are accompanied by some rather hellish free-form jazz-meanderings by Welcome to Silkeborg. While technically the disjointed soundtrack is a fit for the strange, non-linear expedition we are about to embark upon; it will also make this a much more strenuous excursion than it needs to be, particularly for audiences prone to headaches… but I digress.

In terms of its visual themes; the film depicts a fluctuating photographic journey through the winding streets of a busy city, but at our initial point of departure, it is unclear what is going on at all. Heavily edited images which have been fed through a black-and-white filter flash at us too rapidly to make a coherent sequence, so while we can often make out outlines of objects and entities, we cannot understand what they are or mean.

Fortunately, we rapidly progress out of this cinematic infancy – gradually the rate at which the images appear slows, and the level of their editing becomes more naturalistic. Soon, we are able to enjoy a cartoon-style procession of people and places, though we are still unable to see them from a more grounded, ‘realistic’ perspective. That comes next, as we progress into a more stable – if dull – world-view. My reading of this (though, of course, it is open to interpretation), is that as the lens comes to depict the shapes and figures we are used to in adult life, we have used these cartoonish ‘fictions’ to structure our understanding of the material world, and so exit the initial confusion of our lives. This is the process through which most of our understanding of the world matures.

Here, though, the really interesting part of the journey begins. A more conservative film might take a very literal route with this depiction of a mind’s ‘life-cycle’; following a lengthy period of this ‘realism’, the camera filter would then deteriorate rapidly into a second infancy, and then oblivion. Diogo’s work, however, takes another route altogether – as the still-clear images begin to appear as negatives. We can still see the world and its natural shapes, but now the colours are inverted – we can look at ‘reality’, the every-day norms we usually take at face value, and using the same tools we initially used to see and contextualise them, we can examine them in new ways.

For me, this is almost the perfect distillation of the power experimental film has – it is the same essence that North of Blue has at its heart – and also exactly why some of its critics have a vested interest in belittling it as an art-form. It is not the case most of us lack the tools to ‘understand’ avant-garde works that many of its detractors are bothered by, rather that if we approach it with an open mind and patience; experimental film is capable of prompting us to think more subversively about our wider society – and the assumptions about it we usually take for granted. Frankly, the current economic/political status-quo and its loyal commentariat would rather you didn’t do that.

Simplicity can emphasise a core theme or central ingredient in anything – and this can be a blessing or a curse. Do this well, and there is a kind of sublime clarity which you can use to carry an audience with you – do it badly, and there is nowhere to hide your shortcomings. While Walkscape might not have the originality or stunning visuals of similar films, its simplicity allows for an elevated yet accessible journey into your subconscious – a wonderful, bite-sized experience which could serve as a gateway into more experimental viewing.

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