"La Ultima Pelicula."
"La Ultima Pelicula."

Wavelengths, the expanding home for experimental film at the Toronto International Film Festival, is not just a sampling of new films. It's an attempt to take the temperature, on the extremes, of cinema -- or moving pictures, as we should call them. Film, except for rare holdouts in Wavelengths and elsewhere, is something you should look for in an antique store, or a museum.

Mark Peranson, one of those holdouts, said as much before showing his own contribution to Wavelengths (co-directed with the Filipino auteur Raya Martin), "La Ultima Pelicula" ("The Last Movie"). 

"This is a 35-millimeter print," he said defiantly, "It's the only 35 millimeter print of a new film showing at this film festival."

Peranson offered some context with three quotes. The first was from the poet and theorist Isidore Isou: "All forms, aesthetic and social, move from a stage of amplification to one of decomposition…In the stage of decomposition, forms turn inward upon themselves and become self-referential. Forms fall from grace and from history. As a form decomposes, so does the life to which it once gave shape." 

He cited Guy Debord, more briefly: "Boring is always counter-revolutionary, always."

Then came a line from the opening of Dennis Hopper's "The American Dreamer" -- which, along with Hopper's "The Last Movie," was the inspiration for the appropriately named "La Ultima Pelicula": "A creative act is to say, 'Hey, I'm not going to hide in the closet any more – at least I'm going to be a witness to myself.'"

It seemed that there were as many manifestos as there were films in Wavelengths. But Peranson summarized the key tenets well enough.

For Wavelengths programmer Andrea Picard, to whom Peranson dedicated that screening of "La Ultima Pelicula," the section this year had broadened its mandate, which grew out of its expansion into a bigger tent. "We’re still representing the best in avant-garde cinema -- that includes the best in 16 mm cinema, exercises and studies, tactile experiences," she said, "but also with room for auteurist experiments."

Another dimension to Wavelengths, she added, was the range of filmmakers, from veterans like Tsai Ming Liang and Wang Bing (both of whom were at TIFF with co-productions) to newcomers like Stephen Broomer, the Wavelengths publicist last year, who premiered his 19-minute "Pepper's Ghost."

The range was extensive, so extensive that I missed "Stray Dogs" by Tsai-Ming Liang, "Three Interpretation Exercises" by Crisit Puiu, and "The Strange Little Cat" by Roman Zurcher. Chances are that critics and public will catch up to these on the festival circuit soon.

If film is already in the rear-view mirror, moving pictures are still on the rise in the world of exhibition beyond the theatrical feature, where much of the work in Wavelengths will be seen.

Some 70% of the works in this year's Venice Biennale, by my fallible estimation, were video, perhaps even more. Many of those found their way to Wavelengths at TIFF, like "Letter to a Refusing Pilot," Akram Zataari's musing on an Israel pilot's refusal to bomb a school in southern Lebanon. The video was at the official Lebanese pavilion in Venice, a gesture of common humanity from a region where there are few right now. Lebanon won't show Israeli films, with exceptions that can be fund mostly on the black market, and Lebanese distributors won't let their films be shown in Israel. Here's hoping a pirated version of "Letter to a Refusing Pilot" finds its way to Syria.

History was a recurrent theme in Wavelengths, and not just in "La Ultima Pellicula," the self-referential retelling of the enterprise of making a western in the Yucatan. Film as film may be decomposing, but Martin and Peranson prove that it will die with its sense of humor intact.

Next: Portuguese bodybuilders and a Chinese mental asylum.