Delirious Chaos: The Early Films of Aaron Zeghers

“Delirious Chaos: The Films of Aaron Zeghers.” Unpublished (2014).

Aaron Zeghers and I met while he was interning at the Winnipeg Film Group’s Cinematheque for Kier-La Janisse, one of the Film Group’s former programmers. Our friendship grew while working on one of his earliest films, an unfinished short film called Tenderloins (2009, co-directed by Ryan Simmons). This Maddin-esque black & white short stars a young girl, played by Jade Tetrault, trapped in a meat factory, held captive by a butcher with sausages for fingers, played by a Zeghers’ regular Steed Crandell. Despite being straight out of the prairie post-modernist handbook, the film was extremely ambitious and provided everyone involved with opportunities to develop their craft. Since that time, Zeghers has developed his own unique voice as a filmmaker. His most recent works push the boundaries of the filmic medium by experimenting with a form of animation that spacialize light, in essence, lifting the image from the screen. In addition to making films, Zeghers is heavily involved in the Winnipeg film community, collaboratively running Open City Cinema and Winnipeg Underground Film Festival.

Chaos Theory (2010), a super 8 film made for the One Take Super 8 Event,1 is an ambitious film that consists of four scenes – a couple doing household chores, a man at the office, a family having a holiday meal and two teens falling in love – all of which slowly break down into total chaos. By the end of the film, the man in the office (played by Sunny Sidhu) has transformed into a gorilla that is destroying the office as the hand-made set falls apart around him.  Although the concept presents a slightly naive worldview, the set construction and the technical craftsmanship demonstrate Zeghers’ early filmmaking potential. The chaos induced in the film mimics its own production given that the film is literally shot in one take. That is, the tension on set is directly proportional to the amount of time the camera is running since one small mistake could ruin the entire shoot.

Zeghers’ next super 8 film It’s a Tough Job  (But Someone’s Gotta Do It) (2011), explores an allegorical space seemingly intended as a surreal, physical embodiment of the internet. Like in Chaos Theory, the hand-made set is particularly well suited for super 8 (shot in beautiful Ektachrome).  The film makes use of a McLuhanesque, bricolage soundtrack including a computerized voice as the consciousness of the internet, which corresponds to the onscreen image of an animated woman on a television connected to the rest of the space by string lighting.  This form of sound collage appears in other films by Zeghers. For instance, I See A Light (2012) uses a similar form of sound collage to explore what one might feel the moment before death. Conspiracy (2014) uses sounds and images from glitched out SelectaVision discs2 mingled with footage from lunar landing conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel’s Astronauts Gone Wild to create a work that is critical, yet as delirious as Sibrel himself.

The delirious nature of Conspiracy is found in other pseudo-documentaries made by Zeghers.  For instance, consider The Story of Thomas Edison (2011) and Triumph of a City (2014). In The Story of Thomas Edison, various first hand testimonials and recollections of how people have been let down by their childhood hereos are mingled with heavily manipulated, optically printed images from Edison films. The manipulated images transform the original content, for instance, the man sneezing in Edison’s Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (Jan. 7, 1894) now looks as though he is snorting cocaine. This re-imaging of Edison’s films evokes both sentiments of the silly and serious. Was Edison actually a cocaine fiend?3 The film ends with a sequence of a man being electrocuted in an electric chair, which might be considered poetic justice for the man responsible for its invention4

Triumph of a City, a self-proclaimed propaganda film heavily influenced by Matthew Rankin’s masterpiece Hydro-Lévesque (2008), Soda_Jerk’s Hollywood Burn (2006) and the found footage work of lunatic filmmaker Craig Baldwin, attempts to construct an imaginary counter-history through combined found footage and reenactments of a history that never happened.  Much of the found footage for the film comes from Frank Capra’s Why We Fight (1942-5) series; a propaganda film commissioned by the United States government directed at both soldiers and the general public in an effort to justify America’s involvement in World War II.  Of course, the astute viewer will also recognize other sources like John Paizs’ Crime Wave (1985).  It is worth noting that Capra’s original film is also, for the most part, a found footage film. In Zeghers’ film, the world is in chaos, on the brink of revolution, however, apathy, shortsightedness and the refusal to change ensures that the status quo will prevail.  One might assume that this film is an allegory for Winnipeg itself.

Given Winnipeg’s long, cold winters, Blue Film I5 & Blue Film II6 (2012) are two 16mm films that provide a much needed comfort and solace to those collectively suffering from seasonal depression. Blue Film I, a hand-manipulated 16mm film, offers the viewer warmth, while Blue Film II, a 16mm film made using artist Andrew Milne’s DIY LED contact printer, provides a cathartic release through empathy.

Don’t Look Back (2012), is a collaborative film made with Winnipeg visual artist Rhayne Vermette and marks a distinct change in Zeghers’ work. Although it would be impossible for an outsider to describe the inner-workings of their collaborations (or perhaps even an insider), the positive effect that Zeghers and Vermette have had on each others films is undeniable. Both of them became artists in their own right in a short period of time, and brought out the best aspects of their individual practices. The film they made together is an abstract animation, made as an homage to experimental animations Oskar Fischinger and Hans Richter.  It skillfully combines both of their aesthetics, Zeghers newly developed ability to spacialize light and Vermette’s own emerging brand of collage aesthetic. Zeghers’ 2012 One Take Super 8, Living on the Edge, further develops these techniques to transform taxidermied animals into living creatures that radiate from the screen.

Finally, Zegher’s Fall 1 [spring forward] & Fall 2 [fall back] (2013) and 11 Parking Lots and One Gradual Sunset (2013, co-directed by Nigel Webber) are works that re-imagine seminal avant-garde films using a contemporary lens. Zegher’s Fall 1 & 2, are direct homages to Bas Jan Ader’s Fall I [Los Angeles] & Fall II [Amsterdam] (1970), both which feature Ader purposely falling off a roof and then off a bike into a canal (respectively) in slow motion. The films are quite humorous due to their absurdist nature, however, the fact that they end abruptly after the fall leaves the viewer to question the fate of the performer.  In Zeghers’ films, the camera captures the artist falling from a snow-covered roof into a pile of snow.  Given the regional nature of the originals, Zeghers’ films are the perfect Winnipeg remakes. Similarly, 11 Parking Lots and One Gradual Sunset (2013) is an indirect homage to the recent works of experimental filmmaker James Benning. The film took its inspiration from a satirical artist statement I wrote for my video Ten Skies (2012):

Since when has the avant-garde begun looking towards postcards for inspiration. Was Benning secretly commissioned by the tourism council of Southern California? What’s next, twenty-five sunsets or eleven parking lots?

Zeghers’ film is not simply an attempt to realize my cheeky statement, it is also a commentary on Winnipeg’s attempt to transform every available piece of land into a surface level parking lot. It is perhaps, without irony, that Bas Jan Ader also made postcards.

On a personal note, it has been a sincere privilege (and incredibly insightful) to watch Zeghers and his work mature over the years.  His practice is based on risk, experimentation, and hard work. His love of cinema and dedication to the community is to be admired.

  1. The One-Take Super 8 Event run by Alex Rogalski, involves filmmakers shooting one role of super 8 and then premiering it to an audience without the filmmakers seeing their work beforehand. The  films are shown as they were shot, with no additional editing. The One-Take Super 8 Event has been a part of WNDX: Festival of Moving Image, an experimental film festival in Winnipeg, since 2006. []
  2. SelectaVision was a video player that played analog video discs, the video equivalent of phonograph records. []
  3. Apparently, Thomas Edison was known to regularly consume the cocaine-laced elixir known as Vin Mariani, a Bordeaux wine that contained cocaine. []
  4. Harold Pitney Brown was hired by Thomas Edison to help develop the chair in order to promote the idea that AC was deadlier than DC. []
  5. missing you []
  6. in stasis []