October in Manhattan. Too cold for shorts? It's the

 

2006 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)

 

I'm all TIFFed out and have nothing in the way of an introductory essay. I'll be submitting something for GreenCine Daily at some point, and when I do I'll link it here. For now, as with the last time, no grades posted here. Why let a few lousy digits come between friends? (If you really want to score along at home, you can check my Films Seen page. But that's strictly your decision.) Also, on the retro / restoration front, I have seen three of the four Angers, two of the three Brakhages, and the two older Gehr films. I'll write on them during the festival only if something unique and original pops into my head about them. Otherwise, just understand that I love all those films, especially the Gehrs. So let's begin.

 

Oh, one note: my flight back to Syracuse leaves JFK at 10:50, so I'll probably have to duck out of the final screening about an hour in. No lack of interest in the final portions of the presentation should be inferred from my early exit.

 

POST-FEST UPDATE: Due to the sheer volume of writing I need to do on this year's festival, I'm no longer writing comments here on the older works. I've written a long wrap-up for GreenCine on the restorations (a separate one will deal with the new films), and that will have to serve. Otherwise I'd never catch up.

 

And here's my second GreenCine piece, where I discuss what I considered to be the best and/or most interesting of the new films and videos. Below I've adapted excerpts from the original piece so as to approximate my usual format.

 

seen prior to the festival (including non-Views NYFF shorts by noted filmmakers)

 

-Alice Sees the Light (Ariana Gerstein) [s]

This experimental documentary short was selected by the NYFF to play before Iosseliani's Gardens of Autumn, and although I suspect there might've been some thematic echoes between the two films (nature vs. technology?), I haven't seen Gardens so I don't know for sure. But Gerstein's film would most likely have been able to slip into the "Views" program without much cognitive dissonance, since a great deal of what the filmmaker is doing pertains to close work performed upon the image, particularly with respect to light quality. [Full disclosure: Gerstein is a former colleague of mine at Binghamton University, as is Vincent Grenier. Small world, etc.] Organized around interview material from Alice, a woman whose rural neighborhood was assailed by the construction of what appears to be a UPS depot, flooding the area with harsh artificial light, Alice (the film) is comprised of distinct visual movements. The first shows color-copies of hands and metal spikes in halting animation. We then begin to see the altered landscape, followed by spiky, abstract white-on-black forms in quick succession, apparently the negative imprint of objects placed directly on photosensitive material for exposure. (The effect recalls Man Ray's Rayographs, but the spare, forceful calligraphy of the marks recalls the hand-painted skeins of Stan Brakhage.) Factual texts are introduced twice, once hand-written and once, at the end, as typography. What's truly odd about Alice is that it undergoes so many abrupt tonal and textural shifts over the course of a running time just under seven minutes. While this gives the impression of a free-associative compositional process, it also makes it difficult to perceive the logic underlying the film as a whole. I found that even after repeat viewings, I was cherry-picking through the film, my attention captured by certain passages (especially the landscape material and the linear abstractions) while uncertain about the function of other components. Although the visual track seems disjointed, the Alice narration holds the film together. This makes the piece successful as open-form documentary (and, to an extent, portraiture). Formally, however, it results in a slight disconnection between sound and image track, as though they move alongside each other with as many points of divergence as of intersection. Given the brevity of the film, negotiating so many stylistic shifts is tricky business, and this probably puts an undue structural burden on the soundtrack. Still, when Alice zeroes in on the "spoiled" nighttime environs of the warehouse, it really comes to life. Ironically, the piercing glow that so irritates Alice (and that, according to Gerstein's interpolated text, is altering the capacities of our very own sense organs, and not for the better) helps to generate the film's most gorgeous images. I suppose you could say that Alice Sees The Light is a film that is beautiful when it's angry.

 

Brand upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, Canada / U.S.) [v/p]

See review here.

 

-The Caretakers (Elisabeth Subrin) [s]

Despite watching Subrin's new film online, I don't think I missed all that much in the way of visual nuance. As with her previous film The Fancy, a smart, compelling experimental documentary about photographer Francesca Woodman, The Caretakers is set in a small corner of the art world (in this case, New Hampshire's MacDowell Colony, a major artists' retreat), and Subrin is adept at paying attention to the sterile textures of the white-box gallery or in this case the writer's cabin -- the fundamental conflict between creativity and the chilly spaces often allotted to it. But unlike The Fancy, which treated emptiness as a kind of disorderly Zen minimalism, examining the flaking paint on walls or the as-yet-uncatalogued sprawl of a historical archive, The Caretakers is just a semi-narrative doodle that uses the Colony as a backdrop. (This was commissioned by the MacDowell group to mark their 100th anniversary.) A struggling writer finds herself negotiating what may or may not be a lovers' tryst interrupted fifty years ago. Subrin casts C-list talent such as Cara Seymour and Mary Beth Peil (yes, Grams from "Dawson's Creek") and strands them in a film that is both antiseptic and underdeveloped. Indecision and truncation are meant to pass for ambiguity, but the project (what we see of it, anyway) is so pedestrian that the only impact The Caretakers can generate is that of a momentary confusion ("That's it?"), followed by indifference. Subrin is a talent, and The Caretakers warns of a regretable hairpin turn in her promising career. [You can judge for yourself: The Caretakers is available online at New York Magazine's site. Click here.]

 

-Liberté et patrie (Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, Switzerland, 2002) [v/s]

A kind of painterly landscape study of the Swiss canton of Vaud, Liberté et patrie takes the form of a rather straightforward (for JLG and AMM) poetic document on the life of the painter Aimé Pache. As it happens, things are a bit more complex, since Pache is the title character in a 1910 novel by Chrales Ferdinand Remuz. Borrowing the novel's paternal advice, Godard and Miéville disguise their message by "sticking as closely to the truth as possible." In conceptual and textual approach, L et p is a kind of distant cousin to the work of Straub and Huillet, given that it tackles the problem of literary adaptation by employing radical compression. But the image track, of course, could hardly be more diametrically opposed to S&H's stock-still tableaux. As usual, Godard and Miéville use video's blending and mixing capabilities to the fullest, often superimposing three or more images in the frame. No image is allowed to stand on its own for long, since the filmmakers believe in generating analysis through dialectical relationships. In this case, one of the visual dominants is the sumptuous Vaud landscape, continually sliced by a high-speed passenger train. (This 19th century invention, souped up for 21st century demands, haunts the video image like an image out of Walter Benjamin, representing both the present and the past.) Moreover, Godard and Miéville uses close-ups of paintings, and the application of paint, to reconfigure their images of the Swiss countryside, themselves color-processed for maximum painterly saturation. The story of the fictional Pache is placed in the real landscape that inspired it, allowing for a vacillation between physical and imaginitive histories. Overall, however, this set of issues provides a concrete lesson in the meaning of borders. Vaud is on just the other side of the Haute-Savoie lake from France, and as the two filmmakers and their careers have staked out this border, so the border itself -- a geographical fact -- serves to define a set of cultural and political practices from Napoleon onward. Not as complex on the surface as some of the couple's other video works (Origin of the 21st Century, or Histoire(s) du cinéma). Liberté et patrie is a provocative work that unfolds in the mind like a dispatch from some future, as-yet-unwritten world history.Or, really smart video piece, but I think it went over my head. Hence, my gassy abstractions and some vague $10 words. You're welcome.

 

Silk Ties (Jim Jennings) [s]

See review here.

 

site specific_ROMA 04 (Olivo Barbieri, Italy) [s]

See review here.

 

Song and Solitude (Nathaniel Dorsky) [s]

See review here.

 

seen at the festival

 

10/7

 

Mirror World (Abigail Child) [v/s]

In one of those wrongheaded cultural-exchange projects that dips into exoticism under the guise of critiquing it, Child's new video (just as artless as the last few) displays clips from Bollywood films from (I'm guessing by the costumes and film stocks) the 60s and 70s, using the center axis as a symmetry gutter, the left side mirroring the right and producing blobby Hindi women who are all limbs and no head. (It's like Prince's "When Doves Cry" video, only with saris and sequins.) Mirror World attempts to mine culture-clash comedy (and, one assumes, social commentary) by showing poorly translated English subtitles whose meaning is either oblique verging on the poetic, or blatantly missing the nuances of the values transmitted by the original films. What's interesting about a piece like Mirror World is the way it revels in material that, in the ultra-sensitive 80s and 90s, might've been off-limits for a white artist. Sadly, Child does next to nothing with it, and the very citation of these films -- their anachronism lapsing into irony, broken English serving to display the arrogance of trying to grasp another cultural formation -- shows why they were considered dangerous sailing for political progressives. Still, Child injects so little comment into the work that, one might well imagine, claims of smug imperialism would be dismissable as the biases of the viewer laid bare. Neat trick, I guess, but let's not forget to parse that title. (The "other" world in the mirror isn't just a reflection of our own. It's backwards.)

 

More Than Meets the Eye: Remaking Jane Fonda (Scott Stark) [v/s]

Finally among the image-reprocessors, we find Scott Stark, remaking his own earlier version of a remake of Jane Fonda’s best-selling workout tape (now available in its original form for $1 at Salvation Army stores coast to coast). Stark’s More Than Meets the Eye: Remaking Jane Fonda was, by the artist’s own admission, something of an indictment of Fonda in its previous form, an interrogation of how a vocal feminist and anti-war activist takes on a second life as a fitness guru. But, as Stark explains in his "Letter to Jane" (calling to mind, of course, Godard and Gorin’s cinematic excoriation of Fonda the Hollywood Radical), upon reading Fonda’s autobiography his viewpoint changed, seeing the later Fonda not necessarily as a “remake” or a betrayal but as a personal evolution, a way to understand female embodiment as a significant site for issues of patriarchal power and control of the sort that, in slightly different guises, carpet-bombs Hanoi, not to mention Kabul and Baghdad. Like the first More Than Meets the Eye, Stark tapes himself doing the Jane Fonda Workout in various public and private locations, a shrewd enough gender-reversal in itself. But in the new version, Stark includes Fonda’s own words as superimposed text, forming a running dialogue between multiple “Janes” that perhaps turn out to be more or less integrated and fully empowered. At first I wasn’t sure that these texts improved on Stark’s first edition, but MTMTE2 won me over to the cause. Stark is to be commended not only for his satirical acumen (the piece is hilarious) but also his willingness to revise himself, to make his own socialist-feminist retraction a matter of public record.

 

Dangerous Supplement (Soon-Mi Yoo, Souh Korea / U.S.) [v/s]

Soon-Mi Yoo is a relative newcomer to the experimental film and video world [she's been making vides since 1994, so she's not as much of a newcomer as I thought, but still, she's well under Views 2006's median age], and while her 2004 Views entry Isahn showed some promise, her contribution to this year’s program, Dangerous Supplement, demonstrates Yoo’s remarkable growth as an artist in a relatively short time. Working with footage of Korea shot by members of the U.S. military during the Korean War, Yoo presents these images, saturated with power relations though they may be, and allows them room to breathe, to assert themselves as counter-narratives to their own creation. Slow camera movements (further slowed by Yoo) around mist-covered mountains and waterways take on the sturdy, luminous quality of Cézanne, while daily images from Korean life in the 1950s belies any possible surveillance aim. The passages are too quotidian and poetically observant to serve any obvious tactical function, but clearly they did, and that is the discrepancy Yoo explores. This lyrical content is presumably the “dangerous supplement” of her title, a plangent excess that creeps into the margins of a one-way military operation.

 

The General Returns from One Place to Another (Michael Robinson) [v/s]

An admission. One of the great joys of any film festival, but especially an avant-garde showcase such as Views, is the discovery of new talent. Without question, this year’s major discovery was the work of Chicago’s Michael Robinson. Although his two films were absolute highlights of the weekend, I must confess that I did not entirely understand them. Apart from the usual hazards of festival fatigue – so many films, so little time, etc. – I think that Robinson’s work has left resonances in my mind, as opposed to concrete details or firm ideas, because he really appears to have hit upon something new. Whereas even the best of recent experimental cinema and video works with and against the burden of history, sussing out the available moves and finding a new approach to those problematics, Robinson’s work struck me as sui generis, unlike anything else I’d seen.  His video work The General Returns from One Place to Another alternates excerpts from Frank O’Hara’s titular play (about a thinly-veiled Douglas MacArthur  whom history has forgotten) with extreme close-ups of vibrant flowers against a hazy green background, and slow-motion pans around a mysterious woman in a dress. His sound design uses looping, extended cadences to heighten the tension until Robinson allows the chorus to break through – The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe.” There are several remarkable aspects to the piece, one of them being Robinson’s masterful deployment of disparate informational fragments. Too often, text in experimental film explains too much, and even more commonly (and anyone who’s slogged through student work knows this all too well), a popular song is a cop-out, a way not to think about composing the audio track. Robinson’s success may in fact lie in the fact that he plunges into these danger zones, even flirting with outright melodrama, and manages to pull it all together into a remarkably satisfying, original whole.

 

Mohave Sahara (Leslie Thornton) [v/s]

How awkward -- Thornton and Child essentially showed up to the party with the same film. Child's video, however ill-conceived, has the courage of its convictions, adhering to a single set of formal procedures. But Thornton's display of third-world booty (specifically, topless photos of Algerian women sent among European "gentlemen" during the colonial era -- consult Malek Alloula's book The Colonial Harem for an actual analysis), juxtaposing these power-saturated images with a trip through various Universal Studios rides, is desultory and clumsy. What's especially odd is that Mohave Sahara 's failure to significantly rework the material at hand would seem to imply a frankly pedagogical or political aim. But Thornton's intent, apart from the conjunction of two moments from the society of the spectacle and the subsequent collapse of their specific histories, is utterly unclear. Unless everything is equal under the male gaze (yawn -- could we historicize, please?), Mohave Sahara communicates little in the way of cultural analysis. Sadly, its visual aspects do little to compensate.

 

You Don't Bring Me Flowers (Michael Robinson) [s]

You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, Robinson's 16mm black-and-white film, turns an examination of National Geographic Magazine images into a landscape study at a third-degree of remove, the gutter of the two-page spreads serving as a kind of vortex, turning the spaces of the world into objects to acquire. While The General weaves fragments into an aesthetic totality, Flowers takes a single procedure and slowly spins it out of control. Or so I think. Robinson’s works demand close attention, and I hope to be able to see them again. In the meantime, they offered the most exciting experience of Views 2006 – the chance to get completely lost. [It's worth noting that Robinson's two entries are very different, and although I "liked" Flowers' more conventional, comprehensible rigor, it falls a bit more into available neo-structural frameworks. Not as WTF as The General, but both films are captivating. More, please.]

 

Between Two Deaths (Wago Kreider) [v/s]

Some of the best ideas in experimental cinema are the simplest. Not the case here. Kreider reshoots some key locales from Vertigo, shifting his image track back and forth between Hitchcock and the present-day footage. So, um, San Francisco has changed a bit. What's particularly annoying about Between Two Deaths is the fact that, as a video and not a very visually rich one at that, Kreider lowers Hitchcock's images instead of elevating his own to clear Vertigo's high bar. More so that any other piece in this year's Views program, BTD recalls the avant-garde-lite work that typically finds its place between features on IFC. As such, it was well outside of its proper weight class.

 

My Person in the Water (Leighton Pierce) [v/s]

I've never been a fan of Pierce's approach to video art. Whereas the films of his I've seen tended to be attuned to subtle nuances of domestic light and shadow, the qualities of sunlight through ranch-house windows and onto tabletop still lives. (A film such as Glass, my favorite of the three I've seen, recalls the quirky, refracted realism of Alice Neel's paintings.) But Pierce's strategy when it comes to his videos is to slow the image down and smear it, leading to an over-processed muddying of forms that achieves "medium specificity" in the blandest way possible. While My Person doesn't go all that far in changing my mind (the overall fuzziness is there, another stab at painterliness that is just too reminiscent of factory specs to gain much resonance), it does actually find a visual subject (a woman swimming in a pool) somewhat more appropriate to the method. The amber sunlight and the motion of water around the swimmer get processed, resulting is a multi-layered evocation of summer hues. Sadly, as with some of Pierce's other videos, the sound design is rather redimentary and the image track eventually tends toward a jumbled, indistinct color bleed. Still, My Person does seem like a step in the right direction.

 

This, and This (Vincent Grenier) [v/s]

Vincent Grenier, another mid-career a-g veteran, is an artist whose shift to digital filmmaking has consistently been characterized by a rigorous investigation of the specific aesthetics and formal parameters of his adopted medium. This, and This is no exception. Thematically, Grenier’s piece is a conversation with nature in both its raw and culturally mediated forms – for example, the rushing waters from Ithaca Falls juxtaposed with the spray of a rain puddle traversed by a steel belted radial. The piece is in many ways a meditation on the power of the straight cut, as opposed to the fades and image-alternations one often finds in recent video work. As the video progresses, Grenier implies that non-mediation doesn’t exist. But on an even more basic level, This, and This pits vertical against horizontal movement, as well as pushing digital video to the limits of its comfort zones, as swirling forms begin to pixilate or produce visual feedback. Grenier’s medium is indeed the lion’s share of his message. [It's also worth noting that This, and This marks an interesting new direction in Grenier's recent work. Tabula Rasa explored video's ability to shift back and forth between images, North Southernly was about the slow evolving fade, and the new one brings back a more traditional montage style in order to let the specific textures in the image come forth.]

 

Clear Blue Sky (Tomonari Nishikawa) [v/s]

I was mightily impressed with Nishikawa's earlier film Apollo, and I'll still be sure to seek out whatever he makes next. But Clear Blue Sky is the sort of piece that is "experimental" in the sense that it finds the artist seeing what will happen if . . . (Some a-g filmmakers reject the "experimental" tag for just this reason; it makes the films sound unfinished, or like laboratory tests.) In this case, Nishikawa has replaced the lens function on a DV recorder with a slit placed directly over the sensor chip. It's a worthwhile experiment, and it doesn't "fail," exactly (the results are conventionally beautiful), but neither does it result in a compellingly organized video work. It's not just that Nishikawa's prismatic, downwardly spread imagery (daytime scenes from a San Francisco park) resembles several earlier works by Ernie Gehr (notably his recent Glider, but some earlier films as well). Clear Blue Sky has extended passages that don't necessarily join together in a visually logical way, so it feels more like a series of rushes than a finished work. Intelligent in conception, easy on the eye, but perhaps this technique is better suited to another, more structured type of project.

 

0778 man.road.river (Marcellvs I, Brazil) [v/s]

One of these things is not like the others, part one: 0778 is a single-shot, black-and-white video with its focus set at a point halfway between midfield and the furthest plane, processed and washed-out so that the image hovers on the edge of digital legibility. It's a man walking across a somewhat shallow river, water coming up to his midsection. It's pretty anthropological in content, since the observation of people (not just the main figure, but others milling around the shore) anchors the piece and the land/waterscape is more hinted at than visually explored. It's definitely not of a piece with North American or European a-g modes, which is interesting in theory, but given that it has more in common tonally with stuff like Kiarostami's recent non-narrative videos (which, to me, scan as little more than avant-garde-lite), I found it substituting a simplistic DV Bazinianism for rigor, or even close observation.

 

Film for Invisible Ink case no. 71: Base-Plus-Fog (David Gatten) [s]

Gatten’s placid, comically lyrical new Film for Invisible Ink case no. 71: Base-Plus-Fog calls to mind the self-referential hijinks and bone-dry textual wit of Owen Land. But Gatten’s approach is in some ways more classically minimalist than Land’s. Invisible Ink is largely composed  of a series of sprocket-hole outlines that seem to materialize from the white screen, the “image” consisting of clear leader and its dust granules until one of the rounded rectangles dips down and floats forward into the frame of reference. They each occupy pretty much the same position, and although they are mostly identical, the ongoing procession gives us time to notice their differences – a smudged lower boundary, say, or an unstable corner. In between, Gatten silently presents texts from a Kodak manual, detailing what I can only assume to be film-developer hazard that we’re observing – problems in base-plus-fog density. (Don’t ask me. For all I know this could refer to a soundcheck crisis at a Kiss concert.) Gatten has been working for years now with the particular juncture at which text and image become indistinguishable, but Film for Invisible Ink displays an impressive recommitment to the less-is-more aesthetic that lent such subtlety and refinement to his earlier What the Water Said series. The new work is muscular yet delicate, like an Agnes Martin canvas or a Fred Sandback string sculpture.

 

Mouse Heaven (Kenneth Anger) [v/s]

A surprise addendum to the thoroughly enjoyable show of Anger restorations, Mouse Heaven is crude, frequently ugly, and adopts an almost completely uncritical stance toward its subject, Mickey Mouse. This is both shocking and disappointing, since Anger's best work is sophisticated, almost always beautiful, and tinged with a subtle social commentary, wrapped in a package of pop pleasures that, like Anger's scorpion emblem in Scorpio Rising, hits you with a sudden sting. Part of the problem is digital video. When Anger isolated an object or an image against a piercing monochromatic background in his earlier work (say, the baby blues of Kustom Kar Kommandos), the technique regally draped the screen, paradoxically spare and lavish -- a Baroque minimalism. Here, Anger uses video-generated color fields to accomplish the same task, and they just look shabby, as though the fire-engine reds or midnight blues could be replaced any minute by a national weather map. As for the treatment of Herr Maus, I suppose I'd been led to believe by various write-ups on the film that it would incorporate more, and more outlandish, Disney paraphernalia. (I expected something more like Spike Lee's "ethnic notions" montage at the end of Bamboozled, which is an unfair expectation to have of Anger, but if anything I figured he'd handle his material a tad more adroitly.) There really isn't all that much, indicating that the grant from "Sir" Paul Getty wasn't spent on research. But apart from the fact that the Mickey Mouse objects themselves are kind of nasty to look at (although probably not as much of an eyesore as the Tales of the Rat Fink stuff, but whatever), what should have been Anger's strong suit -- the union of music and image -- falls flat. It's utterly banal, using edits on the beat and quick movements in time with glissandi in the songs. Basically, MTV hackery. (And why -- why?! -- that horrid song by The Proclaimers?) Anyhow, what's interesting about Mouse Heaven is the reactions it draws. Some folks really think it's the return of a master, picking right where he left off. Bizarre.

 

10/8

 

 

Crossings (Robert Fenz) [s]

Crossings originated in response to the filmmaker’s involvement in the production of Chantal Akerman’s experimental documentary on the U.S. / Mexico border, From the Other Side. Akerman’s film shows life and culture on both sides of the border, emphasizing the viewer’s inability to tell just by looking which side of the border we’re on. Fenz takes this principle and runs with it, constructing a cinematic interweaving of the two nations at the site of their artificial separation. Shooting film down both sides of walls along the border, Fenz uses opposing 45-degree angles and rapid-fire alternating views to create a series of whizzing, bowtie-shaped hyperforms, melding the once-firm frontier into a kinetic, dialectical event.  Crossings heightens the vertigo by introducing panning near the end, a move that recalls Michael Snow’s <--> while putting that film’s perceptual challenges to radically different ends. A deceptively simple, exceedingly smart film. I look forward to seeing more from Fenz as soon as possible.

 

Views from Home (Guy Sherwin, U.K.) [v/s]

Guy Sherwin as an intriguing filmmaker whose work I've seen a fair amount of, always appreciated, but never quite knew what to do with. While I'm sure this is largely due to obtuseness on my part, I think it also has to do with Sherwin's style of filmmaking, one which presents isolated images one at a time, emphasizes their singularity, and moves onto the next camera set-up. (His Filter Beds is something of an exception.) Views from Home is a lovely film, but one that seems determined to exist in the viewer's mind only as tenuously connected fragments. (Again, maybe it's just me.) I think back, for example, to a shot of a window pane, midday sun streaming in and casting shadows that seem to ripple and waver as leaves blow outside. (Or at least I think that's what I saw, but it's certainly what I remember when I think back.) This image stands alone in my mind, even though it wasn't "alone." It had shots following and preceding it. But each Sherwin image has its own casual integrity. As a poet of the domestic / bodily immediate, Sherwin creates passages of temporal light that aren't as richly textured as Dorsky's, or as deeply embossed on the celluloid as Jennings'. But they more perfectly capture a daydreaming haze, the lazy afternoon where you find yourself patiently observing the fleeting shape of light through your blinds. In a way, I think if I made films they'd be a lot like Sherwin's. At the same time, I think I'd worry that they lacked the shift in structural and observational register that would transform jotted notes into stanzas, and stanzas into transmissible poetry. Also, this is delicate work that suffers from being transferred from film to video. Not a lot, but definitely some.

 

Block (Emily Richardson, U.K.) [s]

Sometimes the experimental short form lets artists to explore spaces and activities that offer suggestions of narrative without lapsing into over-explanation, allowing mood and timbre to affect the viewer outside of a goal-oriented context.  This is certainly the case with Block, the most interesting of the international contributions to Views 2006. Britain’s Emily Richardson is one of the more evocative new filmmakers to emerge in recent years, and her new film Block was a standout. An 11-minute examination of a London apartment building, Block uses fixed-frame tableaux and the disembodied point-of-view of surveillance cameras to take this brutalist domestic space and make it strange. Low-angle exteriors and harshly-lit fluorescent elevators provoke that quality Walter Benjamin found in the photographs of Atget; Block looks like the scene of a crime. This is partly because Richardson’s visual vocabulary recalls architectural ghost stories like The Shining and Dark Water, but also because her commitment to casing the environment with the camera’s impassive eye – an “establishing shot” establishing nothing – provokes a primal dread. As with Richardson's two previous films, Aspect and Redshift, Block successfully invests time-honored a-g techniques with intriguing new possibilities.

 

site specific_LAS VEGAS 05 (Olivo Barbieri, Italy / Canada) [s]

Sitting down to write about Barbieri's film, I'm reminded of Phranc's song, "Everywhere I Go (I Hear the Go-Go's)," and not only because is Barbieri white-hot at the moment and programmed virtually everywhere fine a-g cinema is sold. It's also that I just don't think his shtick is all that interesting. LAS VEGAS 05 is far and away the strongest of the three films of his I've seen, partly because it's a perfect fit for his telescopic toy-town style. His standard helicopter spins around the large casino-hotels actually lend them a kind of architectural poignancy, as though each is an actor in some kind of Restoration comedy, simultaneously revelling in bawdiness and claiming for itself some form of dented modernity. Everything is beautiful in its own way, Ray Stevens reminded us, and LAS VEGAS nullifies any lingering distinction between avant-garde and kitsch. Good thing, bad thing. But the main point is, one could best explain what's seductive and correct about Barbieri's film by noting that Las Vegas might well have been built with the future presence of his camera in mind. The city forms just his kind of picture. I still don't think it's all that miraculous what he does, but at least now I get the (cheap?) thrill.

 

Pushcarts of Eternity Street (Ken Jacobs) [v/s]

In his brief comments before the screening, Jacobs (tongue presumably in cheek) noted that since "everything is futile," he had given up on grand endeavors and was (temporarily?) restricting himself to "small gestures." I suppose this makes a lot of sense after spending decades completing Star Spangled to Death, a film so trenchant and anarchically righteous that should have brought about instant regime change. Working in an entirely different vein, Pushcarts is in every way a deliberately minor work, and although it is quiet and lovely, it is the sort of piece that might function more successfully as a gallery installation. Jacobs extends an early actualité of street vendors and their clientele milling about a city street, using video to introduce a periodic stutter into the footage. Naturally this allows us to see isolated gestures and fragments of the original film that, if it were moving at normal speed, we'd never notice. But Jacobs has been working with these strategies for quite some time, and Pushcarts is the first piece of his that seems limited in the spectatorial possibilities it could generate. From Tom, Tom through the Nervous System pieces, to say nothing of Jacobs' infamous pedagogical work with the analytical projector, there has been a trajectory of increased dispersal, "cinema" as an ever-expanding galaxy. Pushcarts, despite its beauty and built-in nostalgia, feels comparatively small -- not reductive, exactly, but certainly bounded tightly on all sides. The imagery flickers but doesn't lose its forms in abstraction. The stuttering advancement of the film is measured out, but no clear impact results from this structure. Jacobs asks us to see this short film with new eyes, but it would require a more expansive framework, or Jacobs himself at the podium, to really let the original film mutate into something new.

 

This Is my Heart (Edson Barrus, Brazil / France) [v/s]

One of these things is not like the others, part two: A one-minute short video whose inclusion in this year's Views line-up is nothing short of baffling, the bluntly titled This Is my Heart captures a woman's angry rant to her lover on a subway train, while even the camera mostly looks away. The woman sounds unbalanced, and eavesdropping on her frantic pleading was not something I was prepared to do, especially not under the auspices of watching avant-garde film. Barrus's tape has no formal properties to speak of, and is really rather pornographic. And not in a good way. At the screening, folks just sort of looked around at one another, as if silently asking each other, "what was that?" And not in a good way. This Is my Heart has one virtue, and that's its brevity. And to be honest, that is a virtue, since it means that the video exists almost entirely as a memory of itself.

 

His Eye on the Sparrow (Bruce Conner) [v/s]

Much more so than Conner's previous video Luke, His Eye on the Sparrow really does fall right in line with the filmmaker's signature style, and it's gratifying to see. Sparrow sets the title song to rich, resonant black-and-white images of the African-American South, resulting in a piece situated somewhere between the music-video style of Mongoloid and America is Waiting and the relaxed pace and melancholic tone of Take the 5:10 to Dreamland and Valse Triste. If it has any flaw at all -- and calling it a "flaw" seems churlish, really -- it's that sound and image meld so well. There's no critical edge or sly commentary; it's just Bruce Conner, In a Gospel Mood. It's a lovely but minor work, intended to be part of a longer project although it's hard to imagine where else it could go. It just seems utterly complete.

 

The Dike of Transience (Gulya Nemes, Hungary) [s]

Hungary’s Gulya Nemes has created a fragmentary documentary of a space under erasure, its inhabitants holding out and making an existence at the margins of society look pastoral, almost desirable. The Dike of Transience is composed of shots around the Kopaszi Dam, an area slated for demolition. As a bit of reportage from a post-socialist “modernization” effort and its human toll, The Dike of Transience bears comparison with the latest Jia Zhang-ke films, but Nemes’ visual style is deliberately far grottier. We see elderly inhabitants in dilapidated lean-tos and hovels, cooking out and sleeping rough in the thick blanket of the surrounding woods. Nemes also plays with sound/image relationships, cutting these images to the sound of an orchestra rehearsal trying to get its Beethoven together. Occasionally image and sound will match perfectly – a man’s ax swinging down and spitting a log, against a sharply triumphant orchestral flair. But mostly we are privy to two seemingly incompatible cultural projects (creating art and eking out a living) in a mutually complicating dialogue.

 

Drive-Thru (Gretchen Skogerson) [v/s]

This video compiles a series of fixed-frame long takes of fluorescent lights in the dark of night, all from electric street signs whose plastic outer shells are missing. So where you once had, say, the familiar red, white and green 7-Eleven logo, you instead have piercing fluorescents. These images are rather unpleasant; fluorescent light hitting video is a bit like staring into the cruel, searing abyss of cinema's death. (Only Dan Flavin can make fluorescent light beautiful, and he does this with very strategic spatial deployment, along with the fact that his sculptures penetrate the even neutrality of a museum / gallery architecture. They are allowed to display their unforgiving optical force until they round a corner into unlikely beauty, even placidity.) The arrangement of these shots -- one thing after another after another -- generates no discernible context for making sense of these shots as a total artwork.

 

The Morse Code Operator (Or The Monkey Wrench) (Ernie Gehr) [v/s]

One of two new digital works in the all-Gehr program, Morse Code is not only clever; it's unexpectedly funny. Having now spent several years exploring the possibilities of DV, one senses that Gehr has attained a new level of comfort and flexibility with the new medium. The Morse Code Operator is a glitch-turntablist remix of a segment of Griffith's 1911 short The Lonedale Operator, or more accurately, of the National Film Preservation Foundation's DVD of that film. There's something tentative about the piece, but in an exploratory way, as if Gehr were encountering "home video" as something deeply strange, in the manner one might step outside and find an asteroid in the front yard. Working with the specific problems and properties of watching a film (particularly a "distant early movie") in the DVD format, Gehr not only jumps, skips and pauses around the blurred microseconds of the film, he also treats the NFPF disc's piano accompaniment as a tactile material to manipulate, resulting in a fractured, clanking soundtrack not unlike Steve Reich playing a toy piano. Although the video bears more than a passing resemblance to the stutter films of Martin Arnold, Gehr's exploration of digitized cinema as a moving-image epistemology sets the new work apart.

 

Before the Olympics (Ernie Gehr) [v/s]

In the Q&A after his program, I mentioned to Ernie Gehr that he had been mining early cinema for unexplored formal avenues. My main point was that his work had altered how early film itself is regarded. Gehr took umbrage at my choice of words, saying he hadn't "mined" early cinema (I guess that made it sound too much like he'd been working Ken Jacobs' side of the street), and it wasn't the finest possible phrasing on my part. But even works which do not directly employ material from old films, and certainly the majority of Gehr's video works, often have some very concrete relationship to pre-cinema and/or film before 1907. Cotton Candy examined arcade toys, Glider was made with a camera obscura, and even The Astonomer's Dream placed Méliès in a blurry context that was as much like a phenakistoscope or a hand-cranked Kinetoscope as was like a film on a viewing table (which seemed to be its primary reference point). So in this context, Before the Olympics seems to have a concrete relationship to the thaumatrope, an extremely basic pre-cinematic device that spins, melding two images into one in the mind's eye. Here, Gehr has used rapid-fire video editing to generate this effect within the framework of an urban study of Torino (or Turin, if you persist), in the area that was in the process of becoming Olympic Village. Gehr shoots pedestrians in motion, often with one on the sidewalk and one in the street, but occupying the same patch of space. He then turbo-charges these scenes, flipping back and forth between the two figures. As with his earlier film Shift, the spatial incongruity yields wry comedy, as volumes become flat and figures melt into semi-abstraction. But the overall impact is a sense of solid bodies becoming temporary locales of energy, a sort of particle-physics of street life. If there is any flaw in the piece, it's that it tends to strike one single note over and over, as though its a work still searching for its own overall form. It isn't as tight as The Morse Code Operator, although maybe it wasn't meant to be. Nevertheless, watching Gehr tackle the life forces of another global metropolis is a worthwhile use of fifteen minutes, to say the least.

 

Reel 4 (Fountains with Black Sculptures, Heavenly Curtains, Airplanes II, Daffodils in the River, St. Jacob's Tower, Water, Swings, Bulrushes) (Helga Fanderl, France, 2000-03) [s]

These films are technically "oldies," so I haven't got a lot to say about them. One of my great personal frustrations on the experimental film front is just how much there is going on in Europe, Asia, and South America, and how little of that work I have the opportunity to see. Even major figures like Malcolm Le Grice, John Smith, Cecile Fontaine, and Klaus Wyborny seldom turn up in North American shows. So it's nice to be exposed to the work of Helga Fanderl, even if it's ultimately very minor. Part of the problem may be presentation; her single-reel display of eight short films doesn't allow much room for digestion, much less separating wheat from chaff. But overall I got a sense of Fanderl as a maker with an eye for small moments within the quotidian fabric, but little editorial or organizational skill. The final two films, Swings and Bulrushes were the most accomplished, but the rest were only slightly more sophsitcated than student work.

 

Turbulant Blue (Luther Price) [s]

Employing a much more aggressive, propulsive approach than his earlier Run and Sodom, Price adapts mass media material to his own skull-rattling ends. His Turbulant Blue [sic] is a throbbing formal study in midnight blue and shadow black, as well as the staging of an embattled tension between total abstraction and recognizable content. I could not discern the exact source of Price’s material, but it looked like segments from Die Hard (exploding buildings and cat-and-mouse shoot-‘em-ups) or possibly an episode of The Shield. What’s indisputable is that the footage carves out certain formal and graphic commonplaces of the action / cop-drama idiom – a lurking, bald-headed white man striking medium-range, gun-toting poses against an icy environment filled with the alienated dread of architectural modernism – here, as if cutting out the middleman, done up in blueprint blue.  Price frequently presents the images upside down but consistently segments them horizontally, resulting in a stuttered frame divided into thirds, these fraught masculinized spaces reduced to interpenetrating surfaces. (In fact, Turbulant Blue clarified for me a possible connection between Price’s work and that of Michele Smith. What she does to mass-cult images horizontally and temporally, Price does vertically and spatially.)