Light moving in time . . . all the time! It's the

 

2004 New York Film Festival 's VIEWS FROM THE AVANT-GARDE "sidebar"

All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)

 

Hey! You can skip the verbiage and hit the reviews by clicking here.

 

AN INTRODUCTORY NOTE: This was the first time that I attended Views, which has become one of, if not the, premiere international showcase for experimental cinema. This is largely due to the efforts of Mark McElhatten, a curator and programmer of penetrating and idiosyncratic taste. (I recall seeing a traveling selection from his 2001 Views line-up at the PFA, pleased to see a programmer sticking his neck out by placing Godard and Maddin shoulder-to-shoulder with LaPore and Klahr. We need more of this.) As the comments below will indicate, I found much to appreciate in this year's selection -- in fact, my mind shut down on occasion from aesthetic overload, and hopefully the following reconstruction of my reactions won't be completely tainted by distance, exhaustion, and chicken-scratch notes scrawled in the dark.

 

Overall, McElhatten and co-programmer Gavin Smith acquitted themselves quite well. At the same time, I did find certain trends wending their way through the selection, and some of them left me in a state of befuddlement. For instance, why are stalwart filmmakers included after turning to video (sometimes with uneven results), while long-time video artists are excluded? What have Bill Viola, Gary Hill, Gillian Wearing, or Pierre Huyghe been up to? This gives the probably unintended impression that master filmmakers' struggles with the new digital media should always compel our ontological interest, whereas being a "master videographer" is akin to placing third-runner-up in a regional beauty pageant. Also, as strong as many of the included works are, I had the opportunity to see even stronger works from the West Coast over the past year. While McElhatten's stewardship is invaluable and I have no desire whatsoever to see him displaced, I wonder if a rotating third panel member for selection might productively mix things up a bit. Many names immediately come to mind, Brian Frye and Astria Suparak most prominently.

 

One of the constant themes over the festival weekend, echoed by filmmaker after filmmaker, was the vital role that Views plays in the experimental film community. One artists thanked Mark and Gavin for "our annual reunion," and even though I am always sheepish and non-outgoing at these types of events (to the detriment of my "career," lord knows), it was indeed wonderful to encounter old friends and acquaintances, catch up with some of my favorite artists, and drink in a rare vibe of support, camaraderie, and celebration of a vital and too-often ignored part of film culture. In fact, this general spirit brought an issue to the forefront of my thinking, something that had been nagging at me for quite some time.

 

It is often a tricky balancing act to try to be a critic of experimental film. It's a small world, and fortunately over the years several of my favorite filmmakers have also become friends of mine. This close-knit community can make critical objectivity a difficult dance indeed. For better and worse, I have found that this aspect of the experimental film world has often resulted in critical writing that comes across as uncritical boosterism. The overriding ethic seems to be that experimental filmmakers are fiercely committed, scrimping and saving and foregoing significant economic recompense in order to bring their personal visions to the screen. As such, this sacrifice should be supported. When so little attention is paid to experimental work, by even the most rarefied of cinephiles in the public sphere, we tend not to want to focus any negative attention on films (or filmmakers) whose work we find disappointing, underdeveloped, or otherwise lacking. A code of silence reigns, or more properly, a self-censorship along the lines of Mom's Dictum. "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

 

As much as I empathize with this position, and have agonized over it privately, I also see another side, one that is not so much about serving filmmakers exclusively, but is about serving Film, and Film History as a larger, farther-reaching collective effort. It seems to me that we all have a responsibility to point others toward the very best, and to have an open dialogue about what is the best in cinema, experimental and otherwise. What do we each want cinema to be? How to we want to send it into its uncertain future? Ultimately, these are questions of personal evaluation. In my own writing on avant-garde film, I have (with a fair degree of discomfort) tried to experiment with staking out evaluative positions. This means making my own stand with respect to what I think are the most important issues and procedures available to media artists, and being frank about efforts that I see as less fruitful or even wrongheaded. And, as is sometimes the case, a less-than-stellar effort by a major film artist can be instructive in the overall trajectory of their careers, but this does not automatically imbue the individual work with its own aesthetic success.

 

Naturally, a term like "success" in the arts is so vague as to be meaningless. But argumentation, verbal articulation, criticism is about making the case for what's important, what works and what doesn't work as well. And the more voices we have taking part in this conversation, the less power will be concentrated in the hands of this critic or that programmer. Contestation, likewise, is the only way that I or any other film lover will be forced to reconsider our responses to films. Often I'm wrong. I try to give a film a certain amount of breathing-space after a bad bout, on the assumption that there may not yet be room in my viewing for the film, that I still have work to do in becoming that film's proper spectator. But in a world of ever increasing media productivity, there has to be some spur (at least for me) to keep trying, to figure out what I'm missing. That's why it's vital to keep the conversation going, and to keep it as frank and open as possible.

 

For me, probably the most difficult part of evaluative criticism, and the aspect that at times strikes me as the most silly and capricious, is grading. How can you really grade a film? It's preposterous. In fact, it's worse than that. It's a holdover from certain outmoded Enlightenment ideals of knowledge. It's part of the Western fantasy that eventually, we can categorize, empiricize, and archivally slot all knowledge away, handing a nifty little Rolodex of the mind down to future generations. Because of this inheritance, my time in the academy taught me that no one would be caught dead awarding numerical or star ratings to films. (That's the Tool of the Man!) Evaluation, if it entered onto the scene at all, was accomplished by selection. By simply choosing to focus on one aesthetic object over another, you were casting the light of judgment onto that object. But at the same time, I found that this method tended to result in a conservatism in academic film studies. Who would go out on a limb and intervene into the film culture of the present, boldly declaring (as my friend Ryan recently did) that I [Heart] Huckabees is a modern masterpiece? Much safer to generate new knowledges around pre-established canons.

 

With this in mind, I undertook the ultimate folly. I started my website, and set myself the task of concretizing my reactions to present-day cinema, of all kinds. And, in order to see what it did to my thinking, I organized these reactions according to a 1-10 scale. I couldn't really say that rating films was a silly, fruitless enterprise until I'd tried it myself. And while it has proven to be an imprecise pseudo-science to say the least (repeat viewings often result in changed grades, and sometimes the grades feel more arbitrary than systematic), I have found it valuable. It serves to clarify what I think is important in cinema, how a given work hits me on both an analytical and a gut level. It's still an experiment, but one whose results have been personally very positive. It makes my proclivities very public, so that instead of a reader (assuming there were one) having to suss out who I am when I see a given film, he or she can take a long view of how my thinking works, what sorts of responses I am capable of having within a given aesthetic encounter. For good or ill, it lets the reader consider the source ("Who is this asshole and why does he love Béla Tarr?!"), and proceed from there.

 

Most likely I've been more worried about the numbers than the comments I write, and this has certainly been the case with respect to experimental film. And in the midst of such a celebration of the avant-garde community as Views (a community that I flatter myself into believing that I'm some tiny part of), the specter of evaluation and codification shot down my neck like a malevolent whisper. Am I going about all this the wrong way? Have far more mature and experienced minds than my own already faced this specter down and, with their accumulated wisdom, arrived at the best possible solution -- the tendency to err on the side of support and generosity? For that matter, even most of my critic friends, some of whom are very comfortable with ratings systems and subjective quantification, have refrained from judging short films and / or experimental work, claiming that the grounds for judgment are so specific as to make comparison with narrative features impossible, or idiotic, or both. I've adopted an all-or-nothing approach, thinking that segregating the finest experimental work from the larger, "official" film world makes as little sense as, well, letting Jonathan Caouette into the main NYFF selection while leaving other feature-length experiments in Views. I'm not prepared to abandon my own experiment, trying to see what kind of place there is in the avant-garde for straightforward, subjective value judgments. (That's not to say I'm unprepared to discover that, in fact, this type of effort simply has no positive function.) But since this essay, and the capsule reviews below, comprise my coverage of Views from the Avant-Garde 2004 -- my responses in all their ambivalence and indeterminacy --, I have decided not to post grades on this page. I have graded the films and videos, and those grades are available elsewhere on this site, for those who care to seek them out. But I don't want to run the risk of a set of digits occluding the larger, more important issue that each of these works, in its own way, generates -- the unique, somewhat private, somewhat collective event of a strand of light unfurling for a finite moment in time, registering itself on my eager consciousness.

 

seen prior to the festival

 

Mirror (Matthias Müller / Christoph Girardet, Germany) [s]

See review here.

 

Phantom (Matthias Müller, Germany) [v/s]

See review here.

 

Play (Matthias Müller / Christoph Girardet, Germany) [v/s]

See review here.

 

seen at the festival

 

10/16

 

Terrace 49 (Janie Geiser) [s]

A beautiful elaboration and expansion of Geiser's signature style, Terrace 49 is most notable for a macabre musique concrete soundtrack. Its industrial timbres serve as jarring counterpoint to the animated imagery and moving physical objects. (A toy truck moving in reverse seemed like a sly visual joke, recalling Ernie Gehr's Shift.) As with Geiser's The Fourth Watch -- a film that appeared to signal a new direction for her work --, images are projected onto surfaces and backdrops with video, so that her trademark scrims and textures, grids and meshes, collide with the dotted video raster. And like so much of her work, Terrace 49 hovers uncomfortably between mood-evocation and storytelling. (I was left wondering whether the woman to whom the film is dedicated might have been a fallen firewoman, or someone whose life may have ended behind those elevator doors, slamming shut so definitively.)

 

Orchard (Julie Murray, U.S. / Ireland) [s]

This film opens with a startling ugliness, peering at the world from behind a smeared windshield at a gray, rainy wooded landscape. Lights from oncoming cars form squinty diagonal slashes bisecting the frame. We eventually travel into a glen of washed-out greens, as the soundtrack goes haywire. Screechy glitch-techno envelops the images, saturating the banal sights of "nature" with an overpowering dread. A close-up of a moth flapping its wings coincides with DJ scratching, as if all that we're witnessing is controlled by some unknowable, vaguely unfriendly insect subjectivity. And then it hit me: I've seen so many bucolic landscape films from the avant-garde, and Orchard, intentional or not, serves as a welcome rejoinder. This is a nature study from the point of view of a city-dweller, someone who'd rather be at the Steenbeck working on her cement-splices than out in the boonies contending with poison oak. And if I'm reading too much of myself into this film, well, so be it.

 

Let Me Count the Ways Minus 10, 9, 8, 7 . . . (Leslie Thornton) [s]

A fragmented experimental documentary on the legacy of World War II, and the language codes with which we cognize its image bank. (Footage that seems to have been shot by soldiers in the field is labeled with explanatory legends -- "Dad," for example. We hear an audiotape of an interview conducted with a woman living in Hiroshima describing the effects of the atomic bomb on (as the Army interviewers frame it) "white people" as opposed to the Japanese. The video concludes with an essay by a Japanese botanist, K. Yasui, describing the impact of atomic radiation on the native flora (altogether more salubrious than its human toll). It's difficult to evaluate this piece, since it appears to be a work in progress. Nevertheless, the intellectual frisson provided by the artifacts Thornton re-presents is not entirely matched by her manipulation and assemblage of those artifacts. It's a question begged even more insistently by the next piece in the program . . .

 

Anaconda Targets (Dominic Angerame) [s]

Other than appending a a title card and a quotation by media theorist Paul Virilio at the beginning, Angerame's latest videowork is a complete found-object: military footage of an offensive operation on a mosque in Afghanistan. It's a cliché for me to point out that for the first few minutes of the running time, I honestly couldn't tell if I was watching actual military surveillance imaging or a videogame, but the ineluctable appositeness of the cliché seems to be one of Angerame's major points. After CNN and Baudrillard and, in fact, Virilio, we still have the same problem -- X-Box Warriors of eighteen and nineteen going off to execute our ordnance. Some viewers I spoke with were rankled by Angerame's bald, untreated presentation of the material, feeling like not enough "art" had been performed. But this viewpoint overlooks context, the resistant act of dropping this horrendous material into the rarefied aesthetic domain of an experimental film screening. (As Americans, our tax dollars spent millions in the production of this lo-tech snuff film.) In the end, nothing else in the Views program jolted me so far out of my contemplative state of mind; sitting and watching the next film, as opposed to leading the entire audience out into the street for some uncivil disobedience, felt vaguely obscene. And yet . . . And yet . . . we know it's never that simple. Right?

 

The Future is Behind You (Abigail Child) [s]

My ears pricked up when I heard that Child was back with a new piece cut to an original John Zorn score, since 2000's Surface Noise was a scritch-scratchy, rigorous little found-footage funk workout. Sadly, the new work is a rather conventional essay-film, focusing on the process of familial self-inscription inherent in amateur home movies. As with Peter Forgács' work, Child is excavating Jewish family history from private footage shot before and during the Holocaust. But Child's overlaid texts always point us to an unambiguous meaning, leaving us with little to do but follow the cues. Gender, heteronormativity, and the construction of Jewish identity are layered on as theoretical frameworks, but never emanate organically from the piece itself. The result is that text swallows image, and Child's usual facility in the handling of materialist film history is supplanted by awkward demonstration.

 

Isahn (Soon-mi Yoo, South Korea / U.S.) [s]

In general, I make it my policy to avoid reading program notes until after seeing the film or video in question (and sometimes I avoid them even afterward). Isahn is sufficiently befuddling as to prompt me to delve into Yoo's remarks for some solid footing, but instead what came to the fore was the significant distance between her intent and her achievement. The video begins with stereoscopic views of old films -- trains, landscapes, transit -- seen through dual peepholes. The doubling is a video effect, and so once again a Views selection confronts us with the disjuncture between two media without ever really interrogating it. Interviews and videotaped passages through rural Asian villages deliver piecemeal information about geographically displaced peoples (one man either stranded in or longing to return to Pyongyang, another living a life bisected by the Thailand / Burma border). But the piece is too tied to common reportage to register as an abstract meditation, and too diffuse to communicate as poetic documentary.

 

Paradise Crushed (Leslie Thornton) [s]

With the all-over texture of wet sand, Thornton's video provides roiling liquid glimpses of abstract motion struggling to become solid form, as raised letters emboss themselves across the surface in the form of a crawling narration. It's a truncated history of civilization trying to form itself, somewhat humorous in its clipped hurtling from cataclysmic event to event. ("From this hot-wetness, flesh was withdrawn.") As the image recedes, we see human forms walking across the screen, and suddenly Paradise resembles a video approximation of Phil Solomon's magma-like treatment of found footage. It's said to be the "last" episode (Thornton's quotes) of the Peggy and Fred cycle, although 2001's Have a Nice Day Alone was similarly announced. To my view, the cycle hasn't made the transition from film to video all that well; the scraped-up physicality of a celluloid archive, the sifting through tangible flotsam, always struck me as integral to this project. Now it's about less image-recovery and more about image-processing, and the guiding metaphor of children managing their own isolated education has, I suppose, moved from analysis to synthesis. But Peggy and Fred working all this out on video means that they're no longer separate from our culture, gawking at it with a critical distance. They're subject to the same budgetary constraints as the rest of us. (Is that growing up?)

 

End in New World (Leslie Thornton) [s]

"Peggy" tells a story about the Hungry Heart (presumably not Springsteen's) that ate Ethiopia, African, and America. On the image track, a liquid globe rotates. This is the first of the Peggy and Fred pieces that actually feels like it's trading on the doe-eyed cuteness of kids, who, as we know, say the darnedest things.

 

The Two Minutes to Zero Trilogy (Lewis Klahr) [m]

Far and away the most electrifying piece I've ever seen from Klahr, and partly because it's integrative instead of dispersive. Whereas most of his films are comprised of animated cut-outs, moving through semi-diegetic worlds and hinting ever so slightly at narrative, the three films that comprise Two Minutes to Zero delve headlong into storytelling and its limits. In description, it sounds simple enough. Klahr moves images from a noirish 1950s comic book in front of a fixed camera, taking us sequentially through the comic with jarring whip-pans, subtle zooms-in, and instant reverse-shots. That is, he's introducing cinematic grammar into the linear format of the comics. But this act tends to disorient more than it clarifies. Sometimes we're uncomfortably close to the Ben-Day dots of the images, and sometimes the movement of the page against the lens results in the drawings devolving into abstraction and reasserting their form in a matter of seconds. It probably cheapens Klahr's achievement to remark that it's like having a nervous breakdown in a Lichtenstein exhibition, but the relentless activity of these still images draws the viewer into a primitive, automatic mode of meaning-making akin to the fight-or-flight impulse. Further complicating matters is Klahr's use of contrapuntal sound. The first film, Two Days to Zero, is the longest, and is set to full-length late-60s rock songs by the band Love. The second film, Two Hours to Zero, employs a Rhys Chatham guitar riff so funkily insistent it was all I could do not to get up and dance. Finally, the one-minute conclusion compresses image and sound to pure vibrating presence. Glenn Branca's soundtrack is a pealing chime that hits its mark and evaporates. Much like Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, The Two Minutes to Zero Trilogy demonstrates how formal changes completely reconfigure the same basic material. But again, that probably makes the film sound overly clever or gimmicky, when in fact Klahr's deft construction radiates effortless mastery. A creative breakthrough.

 

Daylight Moon (A Quartet) (Lewis Klahr) [m]

These four films by Klahr struck me as indicating the movement towards abstraction evinced by The Two Minutes to Zero Trilogy, but still beholden to the cut-out assemblage of his earlier works. I should confess, I've never quite "gotten" Klahr's animations, and have felt a little isolated in that response. Even cinephiles who tend to shy away from avant-garde film seem to groove on his trancelike rhythms and tendency to gesture towards oblique storytelling. And although the Daylight Moon films do represent a transition into another mode of operation, they crystallized my ambivalence. Klahr's images of damaged, attenuated nostalgia and inchoate desire partake of a poetic interrogation of masculinity, one that for whatever reason I've felt disconnected from. Here, baseball becomes a touchstone (an audio track of a ballgame in one of the films is juxtaposed with images of trading cards in another), certainly not in an unproblematically affirmative way -- the creepy ambiance implies critique without forcing the issue -- but in a manner that, ultimately, broaches deep-seated questions that I myself do not share. On the other hand, the gradual shedding of these touchstones in favor of purer explorations of color and texture coincides with my increased access to the work. The second film, Hard Green, seems to imply a baseball field but in fact resolves into a flat avocado green evocative of a 1950s kitchen. (Another film actually depicts such a kitchen, again suggesting the careful separation of the literal and the merely evoked.) The interpenetration of these moments of pure color with Klahr's more customary imagery (a crudely locomotive miniature diver; photo-realist drawings from The Saturday Evening Post) certainly provokes a far more complicated reaction to these films than I have had with Klahr's previous work. Still, they leave me wavering between access and exclusion, which of course may well be the point. [NOTE: Thanks to Chris Stults for noticing and correcting errors in my original write-up.]

 

Red Shift (Emily Richardson, U.K.) [s]

Mostly composed of time-lapse shots of heavenly bodies moving in the night sky, Red Shift's most notably formal feature is its soundtrack, a computer composition derived from recordings of the aurora borealis. (I didn't know about the source material at the time, but the music did convey some sort of concrete provenance. It sounded too clicky and dissonant not to have a basis in the real world.) Other than the musical accompaniment, which could stand alone, the film is rather conventional and goes down easily. Not unlike the semi-experimental, post-McLaren animations that get funded by the National Film Board of Canada and show up between features on IFC. In other words, pleasant enough but hardly revelatory.

 

Behind This Soft Eclipse (Eve Heller) [s]

The first film I've seen by Heller, one of those figures on the experimental scene of whose existence I've been vaguely aware for years. Its grainy, sensuous black-and-white images imply the abstraction of musicality even as they clearly maintain their pictorial character. We see a soft, rounded white body easing through water, a solid black field. We see the motion and displacement of the water itself, as well as close-up glimpses of plant life. Formally, it reminded me of Su Friedrich's early work, with its sensual surfaces and insistent use of the physicality of film images. Like Friedrich, Heller here uses that physical world to weave an indeterminate, dreamlike tapestry. But unlike Friedrich, none of Heller's images in and of themselves are striking enough to linger in consciousness. Instead, they seem to exist solely in relation to one another, and only in their own time. Like the sound of running water, Behind This Soft Eclipse enveloped my visual field with a satisfying, all-over sensation, and then it evaporated.

 

Deliquium (Julie Murray) [s]

Like Bruce Conner, Craig Baldwin, and Martin Arnold, Murray can consistently take possession of found footage and make it her own. Her films completely subsume the individual character of her appropriated shots and generate a context in which they come to make only the rhythmic sense she wants, instead of sending our cognition shuttling between the film and the larger cultural image bank. Here, generic science films (what could be a more overused object for detournement?) turn the blunt, unthinking processes of the natural world -- seed pods blooming, insects moving indistinct organic objects across the ground -- into a frightening theatre of the unconscious. (It could perhaps be thought of as an extended footnote to the under-the-lawn sequence in Blue Velvet, except that there is no pretense of the nature Murray displays having been subdued by suburbia.) Like Orchard, Deliquium is about nature understood from within the frame of culture, wherein it can only be perceived as a threat to our dominion and our human self-importance. (In this regard it's worth noting that "deliquium" has two different meanings -- a natural process whereby a solid melts in air, and a spontaneous loss of consciousness due to insufficient blood to the brain.)

 

Luke (Bruce Conner, 1967/2004) [v/s]

A film (completed on video) at first surprising, then somewhat disappointing, and finally rather overwhelming. An assemblage of footage Conner shot while visiting the location shoot for Cool Hand Luke, we see slow-motion treatment of 35mm cinematographers, boom mics, gaffers and key grips, extras, and in the midst of it, Paul Newman. Patrick Gleeson's electronic score, striving for an epic quality, instead seemed precious and grandiloquent. But over the course of the running time, a different reaction welled up in me. While there's no way of knowing whether or not this will be Conner's final film project, there is an overpowering sense of valediction in Luke. It's a collage work assembled from unused, incomplete scraps, themselves taken from the sidelines of the industrial production process. It's a work from the margins of the margins, and this strikes me as an altogether fitting summary of Conner's career. So even the music can be forgiven, I think, for working a little too hard to invest these images with majesty, despite the fact that they would have accomplished their task much more capably in silence.

 

Tabula Rasa (Vincent Grenier) [v/s]

Many works in this year's selection began life on film but were completed as videos, but most of them, sadly, evinced no cognizance of this formal hybridity. Grenier's tape is the exception, and as such was one of the absolute standouts of Views 04. A stark, observational portrait of a public school, Tabula Rasa begins by exploring the empty halls of the building and setting those images off against a fragment of voiceover. A man, at this point apparently insane, explains that the wall is staring at him and threatening his safety. Later, we hear the interview fragment again, this time in its entirety. (A teacher is actually describing a technique he uses to disrupt potential aggression between students.) This example encapsulates Grenier's strategy throughout the piece. Portions of audio-visual material are layered to form quizzical, disjunctive poetic moments, whose basis in documentary reality are clarified only later. On the purely visual level, this is largely accomplished through his graphlike, vaguely De Stijl spatial compositions and his subtle video blending of color and tone, creating articulations between spaces that reveal otherwise unobservable experiential facts. In this way, Grenier proffers the truth value of his work only after it has been refracted through his gentle, exacting lyricism. In its transformative, non-doctrinaire representation of the mundane, Tabula Rasa recalls the work of Bruce Baillie, films like Tung and Valentin de las Sierras, work that I had previous considered without equal.

 

#6 Okkyung (Andrew Lampert) [s]

A brief, lovely, unassuming little portrait film featuring a cellist performing solo. The close camerawork combined with its total silence reduces music to pure gesture. Well-crafted, if overly familiar.

 

Michelangelo Eye to Eye (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy) [s]

I knew we were in trouble when an introductory title card explained that despite his incapacitating stroke, Mr. Antonioni would be traveling to Rome to examine some Michelangelo sculptures "through the magic of cinema." This magic consists of little more than some false reaction shots and an Antonioni stunt-double walking through museum corridors in long-shot. Intended to convey the humanistic power of art, this short film only emphasized how little is left of this once-great film artist. It's perhaps unfair to compare the infirm Antonioni to the still-active Manoel de Oliveira, but MdO's late work has consistently examined aesthetic classicism and the weight of tradition. But unlike Antonioni, he has generated critical contexts for this examination, rather than just plangent, wide-eyed gawking. Still, it was a brave inclusion for McElhatten. Even though I didn't care for the film at all, I found it a bit unfair for avant-garde purists to snicker at the very sight of the Warner Bros. logo. The end-credit where Mr. Antonioni thanks Giorgio Armani, however, was fair game.

 

Sylvia's Promise (George Kuchar, 1962) [s]

It's never nice to call a woman a cetacean. Otherwise, high marks all around.

 

Born of the Wind (Mike Kuchar, 1962) [s]

Great to see Mike's oddball sense of humor on display, since it differs slightly from George's. The savage, horny Egyptologist must have bloooood to keep his thousand-year-old princess alive, sexy, and in one piece! The plasticine-and-clay decay sequence is a marvel, as well as the plot twist that's, um, not of this world! The exacting compositional skill that Mike has shown in his teleplay videos is well-established even here. The slapdash surfaces are just a self-effacing front. These guys are modern masters.

 

The Thief and the Stripper (George Kuchar, 1959) [s]

A multi-layered confinement narrative, and an incisive look at the seductive appeal of thuggery over well-intentioned liberalism. A cautionary tale for our troubled times.

 

A Town Called Tempest (George Kuchar, 1963) [m]

The best of the four early films presented here in stunning restoration from their original 8mm materials. They all laughed at his obsession with the storm cellar . . . until it was too late! The nylon cyclone in the aquarium, complete with cars lodged in trees and felled power-lines, is simply the greatest low-budget special effect I've ever seen. A small miracle. One final note: the Kuchar brothers' Q&A with John Waters was one of the most inspiring film-related moments I've been privileged enough to witness. Highlights: George noting that since most of his performers never got paid for their work in his films, he'd feel wrong making money from them himself ("I don't want to be some Mr. Moneybags."), and Mike describing his horror at Rosa von Praunheim's on-set behavior, saying that there's no point in making art if it means you can't have fun and be nice to people. Modern masters? These guys are national treasures.

 

10/17

 

The Orientalist (Michele Smith) [v]

Let's get this out of the way: Smith is the most interesting and original practitioner of experimental media to emerge onto the scene in quite some time. Her editing scheme is rigorous and compelling, able to process found footage into a dense, flickering tapestry, a seemingly endless, all-over pattern like a crazy-quilt. And while I have not yet seen her two pieces from last year (They Say and Like All Bad Men He Looks Attractive), I will say that The Orientalist represents a significant conceptual development from the formally-assured but ideationally scattershot Regarding Penelope's Wake. Over the course of The Orientalist's five-hour running time (split over two days), I was electrified, confounded, lost, lost again, jarred by Aha! moments, irritated, bored, re-energized, re-bored, re-lost, and eventually re-irritated, but in what I finally decided was an overall productive way. (Confused? So am I.) Smith's rhythmic editing operates like a function-machine, a system into which she can insert nearly any form of filmic material and make it work for her. She typically interjects an argyle pattern, or red or blue video-raster shots, into the mix, as spatial breakers. The screen re-asserts its flatness, the filmic textures are played off against the video somewhat, and commonplace televisual imagery becomes impenetrable, problematic. Much more than Penelope's Wake, I took The Orientalist to be primarily about television, and a strategy for disrupting the "flow" that Raymond Williams so accurately claimed to be characteristic of the medium. Images constantly play off other images, generating dialectical thought patterns for us, but we are consciously trained to see all these flowing images (dishwashing liquid / swarthy turbaned terrorist / white man delivering information rationally / canned dog food / woman applying lipstick / etc.) as separate. Smith's rhythmic process is a means for both accentuating the images' separation and autonomy -- of really allowing us to see them for what they are -- and stitching them together so that new, deliberate relationships can emerge. Smith mentioned that the piece was influenced by Edward Said's critique of orientalism, and the proliferation of images of the Middle East on American network news. Many such images wind up in The Orientalist. A recurring motif is a scene from what appears to be a dumb action movie or some sort of adventure show -- a large turbaned man in a castle, walking toward the camera and looking menacing in a vaguely cartoonish way. We also see exoticist images from the Miss Universe pageant, women from Korea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and other Asian nations decked out in skimpy "ethnic" garb for the delectation of the camera gaze. Elsewhere in the expanse of the videowork, we see perfume ads and other more typical uses of the female image, white as well as non-white women turning into animals, or slowly walking by and causing groups of leering men to melt. Although not all the material functions in this way, Smith's selection of images so frequently returns to the objectification of women that she seems to be mounting an argument here. "The orientalist," whoever he may be, has a universally colonizing attitude toward the world of images. It's not restricted to an Asian fetish, anti-Arab paranoia or some other form of "yellow peril." It's a way of looking and owning, of selecting and fixating on elements of the visual world. And in its constant procession of allegedly autonomous, decontextualized pictures, TV, Smith seems to say, is itself orientalist, on a deep structural level. My difficulty with The Orientalist is certainly not on the level of philosophy or even formal strategy. It has to do with Smith's management of the temporal dimension. Part of the experience of a five-hour piece that, while not abstract exactly, entails a level of abstraction (silence, non-narrative rearrangement) is that attention can wax and wane, and this is often a positive attribute of The Orientalist. Long portions of it (usually in hour-long sequences) are absolutely riveting. But at other points, the work seems to lose focus. The image selection strays from any discernable thematic framework, and this dampens the potency of Smith's best passages. At the start of the first screening, Smith remarked that she considered the work linear in its development, but it strikes me as hovering uncomfortably between linearity and modularity. Smith's procedure is tight and automatic; it could conceivably go on forever. But in shorter bursts, its formal power drives home wholly original cultural critique. So, in all seriousness, I think Smith should move in one direction or the other. Either she needs to edit The Orientalist down, to liberate the three or four shorter masterpieces held within it, or she should start her own 24-hour cable channel.

 

Precarious Garden (Ernie Gehr) [s]

The first of two new (to me) Gehr films, and certainly the most powerful. A single-projector film with double-images throughout, Garden juxtaposes separate but formally related views of a very suburban-looking backyard -- white deck, wooden fence, green lawn, brightly colored flowers. Gehr has typically been an urban filmmaker, examining the structural and perceptual undercurrents of the experience of city living. Here, he discovers geometrical patterns and visual dissonances within the domestic arena, for surprising, gentle effects. Portions of the fence or the deck, with their regular slats of wood photographed at diagonals, produced backyard-cookout versions of early Stella paintings and Sol Lewitt installations. Near the end, we see a boy (Gehr's son Daniel, I believe) meandering through the yard, popping up in the corners of the compositions. I was struck by Gehr's filmic articulation of this space, a gaze that conveys distance as well as great love and care. That is to say, attending to the visual world with an eye for unexpected moments of formal rigor does not remove one from that world, as so many people often think about "abstract" art. It's a way of being even more closely and intensely where you are.

 

The Astronomer's Dream (Ernie Gehr) [v/s]

Now that I've seen more of Gehr's video output (these two, along with City, Glider, and the longer Cotton Candy), it seems clearer that he's using the new technology to focus almost exclusively on the pre-cinematic and early-film heritage of the 19th century (penny arcades, stereoscopes, camera obscuras, urban flâneurie). It's an interesting gambit, since it threatens to demonstrate the relative poverty of the video image when compared to its analogue forebears. This distance seems to be Gehr's primary point, and it could also be taken as a metaphor for his own grappling with the strangeness of the new medium after a career devoted to filmic specificity. The Astronomer's Dream consists of a white field in which, across the second horizontal quarter of the screen, a hovering curtain-like mass of black flutters and blurs. Periodically it stops jumping and expands, resolving into a video image from an early film. Gehr acknowledged it as a Méliès clip, although it looked far more uncluttered and classically composed to immediately register as such; it seemed more like an Alf Sjöberg interior or the like. The overriding reference in the work struck me as being the whizzing, all-upward-motion sequence of Jacobs' Tom, Tom the Piper's Son, where the film is being pulled through the projector without engaging with the sprockets. There is something striking in itself when such distortion shows up in video, a medium industrially fashioned for maximum transparency of the image. But something is lost, as well -- a material engagement, the solicitation of a tactile form of vision. The Astronomer's Dream successfully pushes us away from the original life of the image; the video veneer imposes aesthetic distance like a rib-spreader. I wanted to move in closer, but the ghosts were already elsewhere.

 

The Collector (Ernie Gehr) [v/s]

The Collector is even more straightforward in its use of video to engage with pre-cinematic materials. A series of mid- to late-19th century photographs are presented, one after the other, with a toy train sound providing the only accompaniment. The effect is rather flat; someone is showing us his images, one after the other. Rather than looking at someone else's personal photos -- often an awkward situation for the viewer -- here, we are looking at someone looking at someone else's personal photos. In the Q&A, Gehr explained the piece as his way of coping with the loss of his own extended family, by generating an imaginary family across time through photography. A worthwhile aim, but one that cannot successfully be conveyed by the piece itself, at least in its present form. The photos themselves are too readily slotted into our conventional image-bank ("the 19th century") to attain fresh emotional valence. I could imagine other contexts in which the piece could be more successful, perhaps with a poetic, essay-film voiceover that could illuminate the personal relationship to the photos as collected material. Or, actually, as part of a double-feature with Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo, Gehr's frank exploration of the private meaning of photography set into dialogue with a more conventionally narrative examination of the same theme, the two films problematizing and deepening one another.

 

Passage (Ernie Gehr) [s]

Another return, of sorts, to early cinema, this time the Lumières' original tracking shots, filmed from moving trains. Like those early films, the power of Passage derives from the play of flatness and depth, the way a face of a building will dominate the screen only to give way to the recessed city space just beyond it. But of course, Gehr's editing is far more complex than early cinema allowed, and so we move back and forth, left and right, with open space undulating against the foregrounds of facades, train stations, and trackside trees. The experience that anyone ever has while riding a train is simply re-presented here, except that it's composed, arranged musically instead of tied to the physical imperatives of actual space. Passage is a bit like Side / Walk / Shuttle turned on its side. A deliberately small film (cf. untitled (1977), Rear Window, This Side of Paradise), one whose impact sneaks up on you.

 

Poetry and Truth (Peter Kubelka, Austria) [s]

Kubelka's accidental comeback, a set of commercial outtakes originally edited together as a visual demonstration for a lecture and then completed by popular demand. The repetition of gestures and expressions demonstrates the objective capacity of the camera to permanently inscribe the failure of the human body to ever be successfully mechanized. A hand always twitches in the wrong way, someone in the background laughs at the sexual ridiculousness of force-fed chocolate, or a dog responds to cues that its human trainer didn't mean to make. The title, vaguely reminiscent of Heidegger or Gadamer, seems to be wholly unironic. The attempt of commercial producers to create a micromanaged description of the world, a visual implantation of desires, goes awry and generates unintended interstitial communication. Poetry and Truth reveals the possible influence of Harun Farocki, whose documentaries frequently examine the labor involved in cutting the world down to the size of capitalism. The spaces between the words and poses and forced bonhomie show how to make a living in Austria in the early 21st century, how our bodies work overtime to approximate their own images. Poetry and Truth is a sharp, bracing new dispatch from a modern master.

 

Mosaic im Vertrauen (Peter Kubelka, Austria, 1955) [s]

Kubelka's first film, apparently an abstract salvage-job performed on an abortive narrative featurette. (The very idea of a diegetic Kubelka story film, I confess, boggles my mind.) The footage has a crisp yet grimy aspect, its black-and-white images trained on postwar decay and desolation. You could possibly reassemble it the "right" way and pass it off as, say, Béla Tarr's senior thesis. But at the moment of reassembly, Kubelka's metrical wizardry is already in evidence, slicing sound from image and remarrying them in complex, disjunctive ways. As a piece of auteurist archeology, it was interesting to see that Kubelka's skewed leftism was also there from the start, and so, following the structural-Webernian trio of films that made his reputation, it's no surprise that Kubelka the social critic returns with a vengeance in Unsere Afrikareise.