BLIND DATE 2007: Roberta Smith? Meet Damon Packard. It's the


2007 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)


[If I find I have an intro essay somewhere within me, I'll post it here. Otherwise, it's just the films. Also, I forgot at first, but as per custom, no ratings on this page. Interested parties can find them elsewhere in the site.]


seen prior to the festival



-Black and White Trypps Number Three (Ben Russell) [s]

See review here.


-Energie! (Thorsten Fleisch, Germany) [v/s]

See review here.


Light Is Waiting (Michael Robinson) [v/s]

See review here.


-Untitled (for David Gatten) (Phil Solomon and Mark LaPore) [v/s]

-Rehearsals For Retirement (Phil Solomon) [v/s]

See article here.



previewed just prior to the festival


Armoire (Vincent Grenier) [v/s]

Grenier's latest video is a modest, delicate work which paradoxically is about the imposition of sturdiness on fleeting, transitory images. In its brief three minutes, Armoire invites us to gaze as a bird perched on a barren winter branch, its negative space ambiguously anchored by a shimmering pool of water. It's unclear whether we're watching a reflection, or looking directly at an event whose spatial parameters are uncertain. But the flicker of organic motion is one component of Grenier's dialectic. The image is contained within a series of moving rectangular frames which cut the image out as a thin slice, surrounded by a field of blackened video-void. At first it seems as though this mobile letterboxing (which actually tends to be more vertical than horizontal -- "windowboxing"?) is a somewhat random graphic intervention, setting the bird's twitchiness against the smooth, regular flotation of the inner frames of reference. But actually the motion of these frames is largely dictated by that of the bird. When it flies or jerks up, the rectangle drifts or expands upward. When its movement butts up against a corner, the frame readjusts. So, what Grenier has done is to provide a subtle motion study; the bird's activity is contained visually by the boundaries of the image, but kinetically these framings are at the mercy of the unwitting subject. The title, then, calls to mind the wood and glass shadowboxes and display case sculptures of Joseph Cornell, an artist who took the random, free-floating detritus of the world (often printed images of birds, actually -- discarded rubbish on the wind that mocked the dream of true flight) and ceased its motion, embalmed it in time. Grenier, on the other hand, alludes to this arrestation of time while at the same time insisting that the natural world, with its unpredictability, will always undermine attempts at containment. By the end of its three minutes, Armoire's small, sketchlike quality belies the fact that the film poses vital questions about our relationship to time, and the image as a space between life and a sort of death. The weight of the thing sneaks up on you.


-Respite (Harun Farocki, Germany / South Korea) [v/m]

Farocki's contribution to the three-work digital omnibus Memories (this year's commission by the Jeonju International Film Festival) is a silent film- and photo-essay that revisits key themes in his body of work, particularly the visual technologies of the Holocaust and their specific role in ratifying the Final Solution for a world that didn't want to really know what was happening. Respite consists mostly of footage filmed in the Westerbork "transit camp" in the Netherlands, film that was shot by a camp inmate in 1944 under orders from camp commandant Albert Gemmeker. (In this respect alone, Farocki is to be commended, since a gesture such as this -- taking a commission to make a film about a film that was "commissioned" by force from a Jew by his Nazi jailer -- is a searing irony worthy of Straub / Huillet.) Unlike related works by Farocki, such as Videograms of a Revolution and especially Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Respite is extremely direct, its intertitles guiding us through Farocki's analysis of the material and the single strand of subject matter never being woven into dialectical interplay with any other line of inquiry. As a result, Respite has an emotional punch compared to the earlier works, since the visceral impact of similar material is sometimes mitigated by the formal fragmentation employed by those films. However, Respite lacks the intellectual complexity of those earlier works. As Farocki guides us through the original film's attempt to put a happy face on Jewish deportation (scenes of calisthenics, soccer matches, harmonious manual and scientific labor), he directs us to the marginalia -- a gaunt face, a waving child soon to be gassed in Auschwitz, a last-minute change in the passenger count on the trains from Westerbork to certain death -- that betray what's really going on in this film. And, as a work of visual analysis, Respite is admirably stark. Other filmmakers working in a similar vein -- Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, for instance, or Péter Forgács -- tend to aestheticize with moody soundtracks of colored tinting. Farocki keeps his pedagogical aims front and center, and eschews any needless trappings of "cinema." As a result, Respite is an ideal teaching tool, and a moving work of social memory, but its transparency of style and address implies that the film reveals its secrets quite adequately on first pass.


Observando El Cielo (Jeanne Liotta) [s]

Liotta's new film represents a highly complex organization of a particular class of imagery that, on the face of it, might seem quite simple. For 17 minutes, we are treated to a dense phalanx of fast-motion sequences from various night skies, presented in rapid-fire succession. The movement of the stars at night has been a subject for avant-garde filmmaking almost since its inception, no doubt because it provides one of the most basic opportunities to consider pure light in motion, abstracted against the deep color field of the screen-sky. A certain mystical strain of filmmaking, from Deren and Anger to Brakhage and Belson, would be unthinkable without this visual trope, but more recent work has adopted a leaner, more objective approach, one most likely influenced by structural film and its semi-scientific approach to the apparatus. (As Liotta remarks in her program notes, "This work is neither a metaphor nor a symbol.") Observando recalls recent films by Emily Richardson, and certain colors and gestures in the films of Kerry Laitala. But Liotta's film is significantly different in that no spatial orientation or "creative geography," intentional or inadvertent, is allowed to poke through from shot to shot. We see wide long shots of constellations moving across a clear, open sky, followed by frames ballasted by the cornered eaves of a house, or a set of jutting branches. Liotta's jagged, funky rhythms play sky against sky, plucking offbeat juxtapositions from the apparent sameness. These compositions not only bring the heavens "back down to earth," as it were. They often provide a shock of glowing orange or greenish-white light, and the result is that both between the shots and within the frames, collision montage is the rule. And by extension, this alters our perception of Liotta's skies. Their velocity can be mentally slowed by thinking of the whizzing of the heavenly bodies as a God's eye view of some sort; Liotta's skill and intelligence redeems the kind of hyper-temporal cosmic vision that films like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka turned into clichés. When these images are consciously set against other material, in editing and in composition, Observando reinscribes the highly mechanized shots of the heavens within the realm of human observation and deliberate effort. The soundtrack, a radio-heavy tape piece by Peggy Ahwesh, emphasizes this aspect, since it implicitly turns the sky not into the domain of deities, but into the cluttered highway of waves and signals, air and space travel, a tableau of human endeavor against a celestial backdrop with its own, radically different temporal agenda.


[AFTER VIEWING A 16MM PRINT, TWICE] This time around the masterful connections between sound and image, the stunning cinematographic rendering of non-sky objects -- that red plantarium interior! the upside-down house facade! -- and the orchestration of motion through the frame (typically slow arc-like movement at one diagonal, crossed by faster motion -- a shooting star, or stratus clouds -- moving at the opposite 45° angle, all were completely legible to me. What's more, I could more fully grasp just how perfectly these elements all came together, with an inital adaggio movement, a soft-focus lento, and a conclusion in which Liotta breaks her own rules, throwing in space shots of the sky from above, or a superimposed Little Dipper in motion over a separate sky. My general point above still stands, that Liotta's approach to the material aims to rid it of any lingering metaphoric weight or cosmic claptrap. Observando El Cielo is commited, like Vertov was, to using cinema as a tool for seeing what the naked eye cannot. But the fast-motion sky sequences themselves, along with the radio broadcasts and the buildings on the ground, all give pride of place to human achievement, and this now strikes me less like a strictly intellectual decision, and more as a kind of left-hook for rationalism in a frighteningly irrational, anti-science / anti-art cultural moment. Quite possibly a masterpiece.


Surging Sea of Humanity (Ken Jacobs) [v/s]

Much of Jacobs' recent post-Star Spangled to Death output has consisted of his finding new and unique ways of employing video to create permanent versions of the 2D / 3D pulse-and-flicker film-performances known as the Nervous System. Although the rate of flicker is different, and Jacobs has a slightly altered set of tricks at his disposal when sitting down to the editing console, video has served him well. The hypnotic, deeply physical character of the Nervous System has carried over, even if the specific quality of light and shadow is less tangible. However in many if not most of these new works, Jacobs is examining a concrete artifact of visual culture -- an early movie, a stereoscope card, a set of photos -- and this lends significant optical weight to the pieces in question. Surging Sea of Humanity is a fine example of this work. In it, Jacobs uses digital superimpositions, kaleidoscopic reverb and flange, and differential focus to take us around an image of a late 19th century crowd gathered at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893. Jacobs shatters the picture but always brings it back together with a tunnel-like focus on a single individual from the crowd, as though both the orthogonals of the image and the crowd itself were organizing and reorganizing itself around a single body. In time, figures becomes paneled excerpts which strobe and flicker, and the two parallax views of the stereoscope are presented in rapid succession, giving the visual field a 3D, hologrammatic feel. But Jacobs' continual realignment of "the mass" around shifting individual souls hints at a social theory, a radical democracy of both the image and the public sphere. Surging Sea provides a glimpse of how we might act collectively without sacrificing our subjectivities to the mob.


North Shore (Fred Worden) [v/s]

[SPOILERS] Worden's latest might be a sort of semi-homage to Jacobs, since it uses many of the techniques (strobing, left / right oscillation, rotating forms) that characterize the Nervous System, particularly in its video incarnation. But Worden has been working for years now at exploring the tension between surface and depth in the abstract image, the cognitive zone where the push and pull of masses and voids across the screen prompts discrete phenomena to coagulate into an all-over activation of the picture plane. North Shore takes this approach in a bizarre new direction, since (as was the case with Worden's last Views entry, Everyday Bad Dream) it is nearly impossible to discern just what one is looking at until the very last. (And even then, I'm not 100% sure.) We begin with two alternating left and right forms, kidney-shaped and white against a penetrating darkness. Soon, spots and slashes cut away at the vast black expanse, and eventually Worden is hitting us with a full-tilt barrage of viscous semi-forms, some horizontal like liquid spills across an eye-level coffee table, some vertical and pendulous, like motor oil pooling around an elongated, amber-colored disc. These forms mutate and flow, always flickering by so quickly as to prevent any actually visible motion. Tiny shifts of light glinting across the black field are the only hints that objects are there. Incomplete concentric circle-slashes, like the stains left by the bottom of a coffee pot, swirl and evaporate as well. Is Worden taunting us, seeing just how little solidity is necessary for the human brain to perceive an on-screen form? And what of the radiant slices out of the black -- pure white but also beige, rusty orange, and greenish brown? Eventually, either by dint of forced exposure or perhaps Worden tipping his hand, a hypothesis emerges. We've been seeing light glinting off a pitch black body of water at night, photographed and presented in radically fragmented patterns. The title makes sense all of a sudden, but Worden's atomic fission of one of cinema's favorite abstract tropes (from the Nouvelle Vague to post-Brakhage romanticism) has an unusual impact. When you try to look at North Shore with "objective knowledge," the film becomes more confusing, not less. This means Worden has successfully found new, eye-rattling promise in a grand old idea


-Time's Arrow (Fred Worden) [v/s]

[Technically not a part of Views, Worden's other new video debuted at Anthology Film Archives as part of the Walking Picture Palace series, Mark McElhatten's "sidebar to the sidebar," as it were.] This nearly 12-minute video has velocity on its mind, which makes it all the more unnerving when it slows down to consider the past. The opening moments are probably the most masterful I've seen all year, with Worden seamlessly blending varied footage of right-to-left horizontal bands. It's immediately evident we're seeing parts of the visual friction around a car trip -- the whizzing abstraction of the guardrail, the bumping of the attenuated yellow line against the asphalt, part of other cars' paint jobs. Initially Worden's editing comprises an unbroken line, as if this variety of phenomena all comprised a single forward propulsion. Soon, however, the texture is varied, as we see whole cars and their drivers, little bits of blurred landscape, and other less abstracted bits of the highway environment. At about minute three, Worden starts to intersperse a very different kind of imagery: slow zooms in and out on what appears to be a mass produced replica of a Greek statue, perhaps for a garden or fountain. With the boy's naked torso, upraised elbow and thrown-back head, he may be St. Sebastian, receiving the puncture wounds of those arrows of the title. And in fact, Time's Arrow reveals itself to be a sly riff on mortality; the continued footage of single motorists in close-up, combined with an unexpected interjection on the soundtrack, implies the randomness and ever-present specter of death, making the video a sort of commuters' corollary to Standish Lawder's classic Necrology. I'm just not sure about that statue, though. It's a good joke, and from a compositional standpoint I understand the need to introduce contrapuntal imagery so it isn't just zip-zip-zip. But that boy's posture and somewhat fey nakedness (how hard it is to retrieve the Classical from the Romanticists' hijacking of it!) just stops everything in its tracks. Exactly the point, yes, but still, vexing. I am deeply vexed.


10/6 -- My plane was three hours late (thanks, JetBlue!), so I missed the third group of films (Solomon, Gatten, Ravett) as well as the first two that I knew I'd be missing. I'm still trying to track down as many of those films as I can, though, so look for some late reviews trickling in.


Capitalism: Child Labor (Ken Jacobs) [v/s]

Probably the best single film or video I saw at Views 07 and certainly the biggest surprise, Jacobs' "Nervous" examination / explosion of a single stereoscope slide manages to surpass its overt political content to achieve an emotional tenor I can only describe as devastating. In the images, we see the faces of young boys -- probably no more than twelve years old -- stationed around cotton-thread spinning machines, their expressions deadened beyond all pain or fear. These are blank gazes into hopelessness. Near the center of the image stands a foreman, his visage evincing complete self-possession and mastery. He is a slavedriver, of course, but his expression belies any sense of the unnatural in this scenario, as one finds in the bizarrely sexualized racist power slavedrivers typically exercised over slaves. Here, the foreman's demeanor is just an extension of the hard patriarchal prerogative that the boys' own fathers would lord over them in a different context. So in a way, Capitalism: Child Labor is a portrait of paternal cruelty and the horrors already implicit in childhood, harnessed in the service of capital. Jacobs vibrates the scene, forcing it to life and also calling forth the ghostliness of these lost boys. As in the photographs of Christian Boltanski, Jacobs displays the haunted corridors of the American past and its echoes in the present, but the use of Nervous System animation -- binocular vibration, looped partial rotations, details in the image folding inward against the larger photographic ground -- makes the image itself into a kind of factory, a space for the production of a frightening counternarrative. In conjunction with Rick Reed's skull-rattling machine-thump soundtrack, Jacobs gathers up the human toll of American progress and vicariously shifts the agony onto the viewer. Powerful stuff.


Dreams That Money Can't Buy (Ken Jacobs w/ Rick Reed) [p/m]

In all fairness, this is the sixth Nervous System-derived performance work I've seen, and while every single one of them entails dazzling effects and visceral thrills you will never find anywhere -- Jacobs is an American master in every meaningful sense of the word --, Dreams was the first that struck me as uneven and rather murky in its overall structure. One way through the piece, a productive one that offers some concepts without minimizing the pure phenomenology of the work itself, is to recall that Jacobs has dedicated Dreams to Phil Solomon. The performance has concrete correspondence to Solomon's work, particularly the thick, hovering tactility of his work in celluloid. Jacobs' work here produced fewer individual forms across time, instead opting for craggy sheets of visual material that allude to the surfaces of Solomon's films while also momentarily solidifying into semi-objects. Dreams is the most purely abstract Magic Lantern work I've seen from Jacobs, and it makes perfect sense here -- Jacobs is performing (no firm object or residue) and producing effects, not forms (nothing much to "apprehend" in an acquisitive, vicarious-ownership kind of way). As one might expect, the results are somewhat inconsistent across time, and Reed's soundtrack reflects this. It's more a series of musical snippets that a symphonic work, per se. All in all, Dreams is usually lovely, and often a dark, shimmering world in which it's a pleasure to lose oneself.


Warm Objects (Peggy Ahwesh) [v/s]

An artwork that promulgates one (admittedly smart) idea across the three-minute running time, Warm Objects finds Ahwesh employing heat-sensitive thermal photography to look at ordinary things -- an apartment building, a cup of tea, a street scene -- using banded color-abstraction to display the temperature disparities. A few things result. First, an attentive viewer notices odd discrepancies. (Could a whole building really be all warm and red?) This implies some post-production adjustments by Ahwesh. Second, the military provenance of this technology inevitably impresses itself on the viewer, and the mundane material viewed through this lens reminds us of all the ordinary events being spied and measured and eventually blown up halfway around the world using the same equipment. Thing is, Ahwesh gives little shape to the material, providing a series of clips that don't build or coalesced into clusters of formal or thematic meaning. This may be quite intentional, since Ahwesh's other recent works also seem to prefer seriality over organization, but here, it has the (perhaps unintended) effect of throwing "hot" material in our laps and just sort of leaving it there.


Notes from A Bastard Child (Fern Silva, U.S. / Portugal) [s]

Parked somewhere between the poetic and the anthropological, Silva's film displays considerable wit and a casual structure. We drop in on fragments of conversations and small dollops of ambiance, but I must admit, this approach results in a film that leaves a warm overall impression but evaporates from memory (or at least mine). Nevertheless, Silva's film seems to imply that he's an "impure" filmmaker, a bastard child who draws on available traditions (Bruce Baillie and Chick Strand's films come to mind) but weaves them into unexpected realms of experience.


The Mongrel Sister (Luther Price) [s]

She is a woman. She is afraid of frogs. K-zupzupzup. The frog stares. The film stares back at us through the frog. Back to her. A 70's room in beige. The pond in the rain. A blunt ugly splice maybe sealed with spit. She looks away. Thapthapthap. Glistening green. Too much rouge, bruised by light on the left cheek. Zukzukzukpfft. Hairspray and yellowing walls on overexposed stock. The humming against the sound head. Tape through the gate or just some crud on the image. It licks its eyeball. The dirt particles sting the projector beam. Clackclackbdumdumffft. The lilypad ducks under the surface. Again she turns away. Exposed, warts and all. In the near future, perhaps "a Luther Price film" will consist of getting a speck of dust in your eye in some dark alley. Late at night. Far from home. That's a compliment.


Victory Over the Sun (Michael Robinson) [s]

Robinson's latest completed film (he already has a new one, The Snow Queen, in the works) solidifies his standing as the most important new voice to emerge in experimental cinema in the last ten, possibly fifteen years. Victory is a summative work, and strangely enough it is both more concrete and more elusive than earlier efforts. By description, the film sounds (and at time it in fact looks) like the poetic-documentary version of Robinson's chief concerns. In a series of still shots, we see fragments of structures that were once part of the grounds of World's Fairs -- a geodesic dome, an abstract metal sculpture, concrete slab dotted with park benches -- all in deep decay, barely peeking out of the grassy overgrowth now reclaiming the sites. Robinson is showing us the remains of very time-bound, now-incomprehensible stabs at imagining utopia, lunges at bold, conscious living which now stand as monuments to their own failure. Naturally, it is impossible to read these images without seeing them as allegories of themselves, marks of the now larger problem that our society cannot even fathom such a thing as utopian thinking. Robinson is showing us dead dreams, and the death not only the awkward, funky future they postulated but of any bold new future whatsoever. Into the sound mix, Robinson adds muffled collective chanting, fragments of which can be made out; there is discussion of bringing about a great event and making an appropriate sacrifice. The voices conjure the ambiance of cultlike devotion, and with good reason. Now, the aspirations of Communism or Buckminster Fuller's eco-modernism seem quaint and even a bit scary, like ideas only a brainwashed true-believer could ever take seriously. But only present-day cult followers -- Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven's Gate, or for that matter Christian or Islamic fundamentalists -- are allowed to envision a grand future subject to deliberate human reshaping. (The rest of us are condemned to postmodern realism and the end of metanarrative.) There is something so alien about these areas that they recall The Planet of the Apes. The Knoxville, Tennessee of 1982, for example, is hardly remote, but to our way of thinking and living, it may as well be another world. Robinson emphasizes this distance in a brilliant gesture, twice in the film mottling out the image with computer effects (a sort of purple tunnel of light) that recall a low-rent version of the "Stargate Corridor" from 2001, or the films of Jordan Belson. ("Low-rent" as in, it looks like the opening sequence of chintzy Ford-Administration TV like "Space: 1999" or mid-period "Doctor Who.") In either case, we are seeing a degraded form of imagination, falling ever further into incomprehensibility. And as usual, Robinson concludes with a pitch-perfect appropriation of a pop-culture artifact, in this case a heavy metal power ballad that, like those now-forgotten engineers of the one-world society, had the balls to swing for the fences, reach out for straight-faced epic pathos and, for a brief window of time, convinced others to come along for the ride. As Regina Spektor says, that solo's awful long. But it's a good refrain.


Stranger Comes to Town (Jacqueline Goss) [v/s]

Along with Ken Jacobs and Harun Farocki (and arguably Damon Packard -- more on that below), Jacqueline Goss turns in the most straightforwardly political work of Views 07, but it's definitely a hit-and-miss affair. Whereas Jacobs puts his trust in the emotive power of convulsive form, and Farocki restricts himself to the more conventional reading strategies of the essay-film, Goss opts to take specific interview material and create a highly mediated context for its presentation. Stranger is about the post-9/11 excesses of border patrol and the Department of Homeland Security's unprecedented capacity for harassing and abusing foreign nationals entering the U.S. The documentary material is rich and thoroughly damning of our government's frequently irrational compulsion to control the flow of human beings across national borders, always relying on racial and religious profiling and a general distrust of anyone articulate enough to question official practice. (It must be noted that as people have a harder and harder time crossing borders, global trade policies make it easier and easier for goods to circulate internationally. We may be moving toward a future in which coyotes stop loading false-bottom vans with human cargo and begin disguising would-be immigrants as crankshafts and vacuum cleaners.) Goss has a creative obstruction to clear, one which ultimately gives Stranger its shape. These individuals providing testimony must maintain their anonymity. There are lots of ways Goss might have solved this problem, but she chooses to combine Homeland Security training and demo animations with environments from the World of Warcraft videogame. Each interviewee is disguised as an avatar from the game, so we have the odd sight of hairy electronic cavemen and warlocky looking humanoids casually delivering their testimony. But why Warcraft? Just because it's a battle game? The discrepancy provides easy laughs, but ultimately it's bizarrely offputting, since it seems to undercut the video as a whole. After all, the choice to use the videogame avatars is the single biggest creative decision Goss makes, and after one-and-a-half viewings of Stranger, I'm still at a loss as to why she chose to do this. One audience member likened Stranger to Nick Park's short Creature Comforts, a spot-on comparison that encapsulates the video's complex but rather tin-eared approach. The Warcraft stuff just feels wrongheaded, not so much in the sense of being in questionable taste (I'm sure some will feel this way, but I didn't) as for the fact that one finds oneself puzzling over this decision to the exclusion of nearly every other consideration.


SpaceDisco One (Damon Packard) [v/m]

Hopefully the scattered walkouts and bevy of nonplussed expressions throughout the Walter Reade Theatre didn't lead you to the wrong conclusion. Damon Packard absolutely belongs in Views from the Avant-Garde, and hats off to Mark and Gavin for having the guts. If you've wondered where Packard could possibly go after Reflections of Evil, what else he could possibly have left to say (and I must confess, I have only seen excerpts of that alleged underground masterpiece), perhaps you shouldn't wonder, since the country has gotten considerably more screwed up in the intervening years. This means more paranoia from Packard, and of course, a deep retreat into the guiding myths of our time -- Logan's Run, Battlestar Galactica, and oh, 1984, I guess -- for any shred of hope. SD1 is cheap yet regal, hyperactive like a nic fit but, once you submit to its cockeyed first principles, elegantly argued. Universal Studios theme park is Big Brother's home office. Reality TV ("Big Brother," natch, but especially "Dateline: To Catch a Predator") is the right-wing techno-dystopia's surveillance arm. And the past and future (or, if you prefer, craggy old Winston Smith and raygun-packing galaxybabes) are colliding, and not much is getting done. But is Packard an avant-garde filmmaker? Well, considering that his themes and attack are like Craig Baldwin baptized in VHS; that his comic worship and on-the-cheap approximation of big budget Hollywood position him as the true heir to George and Mike Kuchar; that his fixation on glinting light's hypnotic power (and its connection to the dark side of human experience) links his aesthetic project to that of Kenneth Anger; and that his explosive disgust at the vulgar stupidity of contemporary culture prompted him to make his own looking-glass version of Ken Jacobs' Star Spangled to Death; and that you can get it all via mail-order; I think the man earns his spot in the bin behind the divider in question. Better just strap on your kneepads and roll with it.



10/7 -- As full a day as you could hope for, and all over the map.



Old Dark House (Ben Rivers, U.K., 2004) [s]

One of several films in this year's program by relative newcomer Rivers (a discovery from Rotterdam, it seems), Old Dark House has much in common with his later film entitled simply House (also in the program), and could perhaps even be interpreted as a sketch for the later work. As it happens, the similarities bring out noteworthy differences, and even if House is a more complex film overall (more on that below), Old Dark House benefits from its simplicity and its willingness to play the game clean. By description, Rivers' film will sound terribly easy, so much so that you'd think someone would have made films like this before, but I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone else who has. Rivers enters a decaying house and shoots while he lights small selected areas with a flashlight; multiple passes through the Bolex result in numerous floating lighted areas, flitting around each other and sometimes intersecting. The resulting visual effect is like a highly deliberate swarm of fireflies, or frantic little spotlights describing pathways through the rubble. What's particularly noteworthy, though, is Rivers' filmic inscription of the interior. Even falling down and mostly pitch black, it has an echt-British character, its spindled banister rods and peeling rounded-plaid wallpaper recalling the council flats one often sees in Mike Leigh or Ken Loach films. So the overall impression is that Rivers has found a way to tap into a unique vein of British cinematic language, but amplifies mood and spatiality over storytelling.


We the People (Ben Rivers, U.K., 2003) [s]

The earliest Rivers film on the program and certainly the least interesting, We the People is a audio-visual one-liner dressed up as a mood piece. Using the blown-out, grainy black and white imagery that seems to be his trademark, Rivers provides us with low-angle shots of a small rural village, deserted and utterly still. The soundtrack contradicts this image, giving the impression of a mass demonstration. It's cute, I suppose, and one could even argue that it has a certain political undercurrent, calling into question the way dominant practices of the media and the state tend to erase the populace as such, promoting us to ourselves as atomized citizens. But clocking in at one minute, the film is obviously a trifle and just doesn't stand up to Rivers' other fine work on display here.


Detroit Block (Julie Murray) [v/s]

Like Abigail Child and Leslie Thornton, Julie Murray has been a film artist whose primary means of expression is the edit, employing image syntax and a semi-private semiotics to thoroughly recode found footage. In most instances, her films have functioned on at least two levels, possessing a jarring, offbeat formal rhythm as well as dropping vague but palpable hints of dark places, undefined threat, and inner turmoil. So, what's this? It's disturbing enough to find that Murray has turned to video -- another one bites the dust! -- but certainly predictable these days, and hardly damning in itself. Although the move to digital would necessitate a rather different spectrum of imagery and an appropriately adjusted editing scheme, one that could find either an analogue or an alternative to the brusque muscularity of her montage work in celluloid, Murray could have made the transition. Instead, Detroit Block barely feels like a finished work, and in this regard I wonder whether the immediacy of video overtook the challenges of form and composition. Murray is essentially driving around the destroyed buildings on a single city block following a massive fire, and taping her passes, and that's it. Could it be that, like Child and Thornton before her, Murray has felt the need to be overtly political, and her mastery over abstraction has suffered? Or is Detroit Block some sort of ill-conceived metaphor, wherein Murray's consideration of tragic destruction leads her to raze her own aesthetic, urban real estate and creative skill set both unceremoniously reduced to zero? Aside from some accidentally compelling metal jutting from the heaps (an Anthony Caro here, a Mark di Suvero there), Detroit Block looks like a dead end street.


Frontier Step (Gretchen Skogerson) [v/s]

Although I have a relatively high degree of faith in my abilities as a viewer of experimental film and video, I, like any sentient being, do begin to have doubts when nearly everyone around me has an opinion diametrically opposed to mine. Doesn't mean I'm wrong, of course, just that I feel a certain need to get some distance and have a second look. This has been the case with Skogerson's last video, Drive-Thru, which I saw at Views 06 and pretty much dismissed as a relatively good idea undone by poor follow-through. As it happens, Drive-Thru has slowly become one of the most highly-regarded experimental works of the past few years, and so even though I remain unconvinced, I do welcome the opportunity to see it again since there's always a chance I just missed the boat. And in fact, Skogerson's latest work Frontier Step adds to that desire for a rematch. In a way, Frontier Step represents a significant step forward from Drive-Thru, since it adopts a firm, nearly unchanging compositional approach (the curved roof of the New Orleans Superdome cutting against the sky) and allows time and observation to shift the contents of that composition. We're watching workers on the roof as they repair damage from Katrina and clear away detritus, and their slow, careful motions make them into minor astronauts, dressed for the heat but walking in the heavens. The piece recalls Dominic Angerame's films shot in the aftermath of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, just watching as large manmade structures are leveled or repaired by dwarfed laborers. Visually, Frontier Step is striking, if a bit unvaried. Skogerson's choice of soundtrack, however, is regrettable and nearly tanks the piece. It's awkward, quiet avant-jazz / post-rock resembling The Red Krayola but not as aggressive or well-organized, and it's sorely out of place. In fact, I'm not sure any soundtrack could really stand up to Skogerson's subtle, formal-political Chocolate City moonwalk, but this one certainly can't.


Dedication (Peggy Ahwesh) [v/s]

The strongest of Ahwesh's contributions this year (I'll admit to being a long-time fan who's more than a bit confused by some of the recent work), it's also the one with no axe to grind. Ahwesh takes her camera to the roof of a building (presumably hers) on September 11th, 2005, the day Mark LaPore died. She absorbs the available light, the beacons in the sky where the Twin Towers once stood, but also smaller, more private illumination -- distant windows, brakelights, the edge of the horizon at dusk. As you would expect, all of these textures and intensities are equated, none more or less poignant or piercing regardless of how public or private it may be. Ahwesh's camera is tremulous but graceful, registering the anxious need to take in the fading lights around her while they mattered, while they perhaps still felt like the remainder of a soul just leaving the world. Dedication is gentle, calm, yet piercing, and even if maybe it was intended as, or could be nothing other than, a record of something and someone exiting our shared realm, it is ultimately a residue, marking what was undeniably there.


House (Ben Rivers, U.K.) [s] [single-screen version]

Very much like Old Dark House, of course, but also more overtly comic. Maybe it can be thus because by this point Rivers has figured out what he's doing. It's not just that this house has more leftover dusty furnishings and artifacts, although this does add to the sense that we're witnessing a resurrection of a very specific, time- and class-bound segment of British life. Rivers tends to use a single, broader beam of light here, lending the space greater coherence but also making us viewers more aware of what we don't see, the phenomenological limits of our vision. The illuminated spaces end up less as random darting patterns and more as sweeping swaths of information, slowly traversing the walls as well as the screen. Then, Rivers gives us a hovering, disembodied candle moving across the room, or a weird knapsack-looking blob dangling in the corner. The picturesque decay turns in on itself, no longer being "stately" and bearing witness to the past. Instead, it turns into a droll, highly atmospheric "Scooby-Doo" episode, which is nice. One final note: I had occasion to see Rivers' two-screen version of House, and the single-screen organization works better. In a diptych format it's hard not to look for concrete formal correspondences between the images, and Rivers' connections are more like open-ended serving suggestions. One-screen House hangs together much more powerfully.


Footnotes to a House of Love (Laida Lertxundi, U.S. / Spain) [s]

"Footnotes" is right, since it's unlikely too many people will be walking away from Views 07 extolling the virtues of this film, especially amidst such august company. Which is a shame, because it's actually a daft, funky little miniature, one that suggests Lertxundi may more fully find her voice in long-form feature filmmaking. In a semi-solid desert outpost, a trio (if memory serves) of sullen, hangdog figures has a series of missed-signal interactions and spatial-ambiguity love-disconnections, often involving a discrepancy between sound and image. It's all very Jarmusch / Kaurismäki, but with a sunbaked, two-weeks-after-Burning-Man flavor. (That is, the taste of sand in your tempeh.) If I'm making Footnotes sound like a calling-card, I'm remiss, because the film has a self-contained integrity that belies any look over the horizon. In the end, even if Views may not be the best showcase for this sort of filmmaking, I'm grateful to Mark and Gavin for going out on a limb for something so defiantly minor. It's hardly great, but I'll seek out Lertxundi's next project for sure.


Office Suite (Robert Todd) [s]

Todd states that his 14-minute film is broken into three distinct movements, "InnerClose with Shadow and Steam (Adante Up, Down, and Sidelong);" "Exterior Fantasy from Dawn to Break (Allegro in growing colors);" and "Hallway (the End of that World-of-Day)." That's funny, because while watching Office Suite, I did perceive three distinct movements, but in my mind I called them "the literal-minded but reasonably okay Leighton Pierce section," "oh look, it's downtown," and "oh my God, he really is going to turn Serene Velocity into a sputteringly obtuse piece of sub-undergraduate twaddle." The only film whose inclusion in this year's program was downright flabbergasting, Office Suite begins innocently enough as an undistinguished but inoffensive study in the textures of shallow focus. We're in an office, and the camera glides along desk edges and jots down the bluish-white whiteness of copier paper. The hazy window light is an indistinct, dawnish blue-gray. The overall feeling is one of striving to extract little truffles of beauty from a sterile environment. (Perhaps Todd could have looked in the ashtray. . .) The middle section is slightly brighter, its city-symphony gestures rote but diverting in their own time. But the conclusion of Office Suite starts out gazing down The Hallway, squaring itself off against Ernie Gehr's minimalist masterwork like a gunfighter itching to take down an elder statesman. (If it was intended as homage, it certainly didn't come off that way.) Todd soon begins the pulsing, but that's not all. Superimpositions, camera whips, crisscrossing fluorescents and a chugging soundtrack seemingly derived from the sound of an office copier, all essentially deface Serene Velocity, slathering the earlier work's elegance with an unbecoming bombast. As the final act gets more and more propulsive, the sound-thumps quickening and the layered, kinetic energy recalling Snow's <--> gone berserk, it becomes clear that the film is going to have its own little orgasm, running and jumping and pumping and pumping and then stop. Never mind the fact that Ernie Gehr was in the audience. We all were, and that's cause enough for deeply awkward embarrassment, the sort you'd usually have to roam the corridors of Dunder Mifflin to experience firsthand.


Prague Winter (Jim Jennings) [s]

Jennings is best known for his portraits of New York City street life, and with good reason; his patient eye and deft camera-stylo approach represent one of the key contributions to the "city symphony" genre since its heyday in the 1940s. Jennings, along with Ernie Gehr and Ken Jacobs, is one of the preeminent urban film-poets. He does regularly stray beyond this mien, sometimes exploring the domestic interior (as in his 2004 masterpiece Close Quarters) but also packing up the Bolex and filming urban doings abroad. These films are inevitably compared to the Manhattan works, and it's often difficult not to register them as films of overwhelming discovery or even dislocation. Jennings' intimate knowledge of New York is precisely what allows him to continually renew his vision, staking out unconventional ways of looking at the deeply familiar. On the other hand, his Venice film, 2001's Impossible Love, struck me as customarily lovely but a tad awkward, as though Jennings is using the film to organize unexpected sensations but without the templates that can provide order and shape to such immediacy. (Think of it as jazz improv, with vs. without a chart.) So part of what's so surprising about Prague Winter is that it feels so lived in, so thoroughly grounded. It's not so much that Jennings makes Prague look like Manhattan (although there are commonalities in terms of architecture and the gaps of light between it). But the film restricts itself to sights on and around the tram, which provides an uncharacteristic linearity to the film. What's more, Jennings' status as a guest observer seems to bring out a humanism in his work, as he fixates on the elderly and, implicitly, the history to which they've been subjected. The post-Communist malaise hardens into grim acceptance, and this, along with the physical traces of Prague's history as manifested in the built environment, is what fascinates Jennings here. His camera is tender and unobtrusive, as you would expect from a filmmaker of his sensitivity. But I did come away feeling like this was the first of Jennings' films that kind of explained itself very clearly on first pass, rather like an impressionistic documentary.


Electricity (Henry Hills) [v/s]

Then again, maybe Jennings' film was edged into a more explicit humanism because his colleague's film so thoroughly eschews such considerations, as well as virtually all things human. I don't know whether or not Hills and Jennings considered their films to be mutual "answer pieces," but they certainly work like gangbusters back to back. Hills, who like Abigail Child is affiliated with the so-called "language poetry" scene as well as being an experimental filmmaker, has, like (early) Child, favored a dense, highly Constructivist montage style, one which treats images as both interlocking shapes and as tiny little bombs of signification. (His two Porter Springs films are among my favorite images of "nature" cinema has ever produced.) Electricity focuses on the Prague transit lines, but unlike Jennings, who steals empathetic glimpses at the riders themselves, Hills looks at the lines, the shallow sky just above the city that is traversed by them, and jams these highly spacious geometrical forms together in rapid-fire Legoland succession. Periodically, Hills breaks his own rhythm with a long shot of the landscape, fixing in particular on the Zizkov Television Tower, a Soviet-imposed device for jamming Western TV signals. So in one respect, Hills' semiotic is just as manifest as Jennings'. We're looking at the transmissions and dis-transmissions, energies and invisible waves of communication and isolation. (Call is Signal: Prague on the Air.) In zeroing in on that which we can't see but know is there, Hills reminds us of Prague's history, still lingering in its aftereffects. And, as befitting a film entitled Electricity, the work just sizzles, its percussive editing and musique concrete soundtrack providing a jolt that belies any preconceptions about "the old country." It's hard not to think that perhaps this is how the original Prague Spring felt, and I could easily see bookending a rep screening of Vera Chytilóva's Daisies with these films, Hills at the front and Jennings at the back. Or maybe vice versa.


Recordando El Ayer (Alexandra Cuesta, U.S. / Ecuador) [s]

Cuesta's film is the very definition of "minor cinema," as Tom Gunning (controversially) outlined it way back when. Recordando El Ayer (which translates as "remembering yesterday") is predominantly a portraiture film, wherein Cuesta trains her camera on various residents of a Latino community in Jackson Heights. The film is environmental, just observing the street life, interspersing these passages with a semi-long take of an individual in medium close-up, casually staring at the camera. I was reminded of John Ahearn's (also controversial) plaster portraits of minority residents in lower-income areas of New York, but unlike his work, Cuesta's film aims for and achieves the transitory. There is little in the way of governing structure, one that would serve as an aide memoire to keep these specific images in mind. Instead, their very presence onscreen is already like fragmentary memory, appearing in glimpses and impressions, a shadow on the sidewalk or a face that hangs in the back of your mind but can't quite place. Cuesta's film is a memory piece, a miniature and a small excerpt from a life it makes no attempt to contain. It's quite lovely, even if it tends to evaporate on contact.


Tahousse (Olivier Fouchard and Mahine Rohue, France) [m]

Tahousse is a tough film to assess, largely because my estimation of it went from one extreme to the other while watching it. The film consists of long individual passages of film material -- a tree, a swirling sky -- subjected to single-color tinting and hand-processing, resulting in a washed-out, antiquated quality. Every shot has a considerable amount of movement in it despite its one unchanging subject, and as these passages unfolded one after the other, I was very certain that formal and / or metaphorical and / or metonymic connections should be slowly emanating from the film. That's to say, I felt sure that a hermeneutic of some sort was gradually emerging but I couldn't quite grasp it. Tahousse looked to me like a dense, philosophically allusive mini-epic along the lines of The Hart of London or the longer films of Larry Gottheim. Nature was unfolding in time, in a highly mediated state. But what was it trying to tell me? But as Tahousse unfurled unto conclusion, I began to realize there wasn't really any grand cosmology sailing over my head. Instead, Fouchard and Rohue are really, really into hand-processing and tinting. Nature is just nature, but presented through a scrim of human manipulation. Tahousse started out by intimidating me but I finally decided it's actually sort of silly.


Shadow (Ernie Gehr) [v/s]

The simplest of four new video works by Ernie Gehr also turned out to be the best by far, a graceful wisp of images captured and faded that almost completely bypasses linear organization. It's more like an installation for a small room, however its appearance on a large single screen actually suits it, providing counterpoint to the absolute modesty of means. Gehr observes shafts of light and the shadows they produce along spare white walls. The video is fragile, like a light pencil sketch on thick-toothed drawing paper, partly because of the way in which it activates perceptual paradoxes but holds them in unresolved suspension. In an emblematic sequence from Shadow, Gehr watches as sunlight pokes through cracks in a curtain, marking diagonal designs of the facing wall. The foliage outside forms multiple layers of flat, intersecting information, shadows bobbing and blending and slowly moving down into the room's dusk. What's most remarkable about Shadow is how it makes a demand of our time which cannot be hurried along. We keep watch with Gehr as a single shadow drifts into nothingness, the lights ever so slowly going out. Although Gehr's comments at the Views Q&A were uncharacteristically direct with regard to the piece's meaning, perhaps this was because what Shadow provides is so there, so irrefutable. This is a work that directly engages the question of mortality. It's like trying to hold on to wet sand or mercury, fixing something as it's already slipping away.


Cinematic Fertilizer 1 and 2 (Ernie Gehr) [v/s]

Two related videotapes in which Gehr articulates formal connections between organic and geometrical forms, CF1 and 2 adopt the thaumatope structure characteristic of certain other Gehr's videotapes (Before the Olympics, The Morse Code Operator), rapidly flipping between two separate images. Here, several series of trees (some bare, others with sparse foliage) alternate with the entryways of buildings, arches and shafts lining up with flickering, imperfect registration. The results are uneven. The videos' most complex moments recall the film work of Rose Lowder with their stop-motion activation of natural forms, and there are a few individual shots that frame a barren, exquisitely formed tree about as perfectly as you could possibly want. But Fertilizer (the title, I assume, refers to film's artificial ability to make forms "grow") strikes me as a preliminary sketch for a more resolved work. Or, it's possible that Fertilizer (perhaps with a 3 and 4) could find fuller resolution and greater visceral impact as part of a multi-channel gallery work. As a pair of stand-alone videos, they demonstrate one continuous idea that may need some antithesis to brush up against.


10th Avenue (aka Work In Progress) (Ernie Gehr) [v/m]

The longest and most complex of Gehr's new works is also the most perplexing. 10th Avenue is an urban work, with moments and a general approach that call to mind isolated images from like minded films in the classic Gehr mold -- a dab of Shift and Still here, a bit of Signal or Side / Walk / Shuttle there. But unlike those films 10th Avenue never quite states its purpose, resulting in a somewhat off putting, disconcertingly passive piece of digital cinema. Gehr employs a stationary camera to compile nearly every conceivable street-level viewpoint on the titular avenue, usually at long shot but over time sliding in for the occasional medium shot. As with Signal, the arrangement of shots is intended not to clarify the topography but to scramble it, confounding easy cognitive mapping. However, one would expect that over the course of the running time, patterns would emerge and a hypothetical spatial orientation would present itself. I found quite the opposite to be true; space became less and less grounded, and in fact each and every successive view seemed designed to exist in a kind of hermetic singularity. This, along with the hazy, low-grade quality of the video image, resulted in a work that seems to actively resist formal coherence. Instead, each view slides onto the screen like a module and slides back out again. It's entirely possible there is a schema or at least a set of motifs that I simply failed to pick up on, but for now I find 10th Avenue reads, indeed, like a work in progress, even though it is pretty clearly finished. Perhaps I'm the one with more work to do.


Antigenic Drift (Lewis Klahr) [v/s]

The first video work I've seen by Klahr (not certain whether it's his first overall) pretty much picks up where his film work left off, without missing so much as half a beat. In fact, Antigenic Drift is so thoroughly saturated, imbibed, baptized in the classic Klahr mode that the hot-white glow of video projection seemed out of place, like an irritating piece of Saran Wrap I wanted to reach up and peel out of my way. This isn't to say I didn't like Drift, because in fact I liked it quite a lot; as usual, figures undergo transformations within the partially-flattened world of the copystand, ever so slightly hinting at narrative motivations or tiny dollops of psychology. But mostly it's a study in textures, in particular an almost 2D Joseph Cornell propensity for pinning mobile objects down, sealing them under translucent blankets of rubber and plastic, giving hints of imminent travel but curtailing free movement at most every turn. If anything aside from the use of video was distracting, it was Klahr's use of embossed title inserts, drawing undue (conscious) attention to the themes of mutation and virulence. I will say, however, that choosing this subject for one of his first major works in video -- forcing us to consider how his own artistic practice has adapted to the changes we can no longer avoid -- is a self-reflexive touch that reflects Klahr's singular creative intelligence.


Hide (Matthias Müller & Christophe Giradet) [v/s]

Wow, well, this is the first work by MM & CG in quite some time that I've actually liked. Most of their recent efforts have struck me as well-appointed glamour objects that maintained their high-art cachet by hinting at some vague criticism of their own opulence. In addition to this sense of wanting to have it both ways, their works have typically struck me as rather fashion-spready, sub-Lynchian exercises in art direction. Hide is a definite step in the right direction. In it, the duo take hyper-real looking 1970s television ads featuring pancake-make-upped, Aqua-Netted Euro-babes selling this and that with a doe-eyed, vacant look that, to me at least, characterizes the era's almost-unconscious reaction-formation against burgeoning feminism. Call it Stepford Marketing. This found footage is strung together and either presented in a state of natural decay or subjected to vigorous hand-processing and acid-like decay, resulting in a collision between too-perfect human skin and craggy, pockmarked film skin. What's actually quite brilliant about Hide, and what takes a while to dawn on you, is that the beautifully agitated surfaces of the film, all earthtones and picturesque abrasion, represents a different and more "enlightened" form of fetishism. Müller and Giradet don't hector us by any means, but they do prompt us to wonder whether a fixation on the physical presence of celluloid might be a kind of semi-sexual objectification. Well played, gentlemen.


The Counter Girl Trilogy (Courtney Hoskins) [s]

Hoskins once worked at a makeup counter and got the idea to use some of the tricks of that trade, crystallizing lip gloss in particular, a paint for more aesthetic purposes. The impression of the film I received by looking at it as closely as I could was that Hoskins was painting on glass, not unlike Fischinger's Motion Painting No. 1, and capturing the results in stop-motion photography. I detected periwinkles and electric blues, as well as a somewhat sloppy diagonal brushstroke, providing the film's predominant features. But here's the bottom line: by this point the Walter Reade's 16mm projector bulb was failing, so much so that the Robert Beavers screening was delayed by over an hour. Hoskins' film looked dark and muddy, but I now realize this is almost entirely due to the fact that the projector effectively choked the life out of it. So sadly, I cannot evaluate Hoskins' film in any meaningful way. [Ditto For A Winter (Jonathan Schwartz) [s], which was also seriously underlit in comparison to available stills.]


Volto Sorpresso al buio (Face Caught in the Dark) (Paolo Gioli, Italy, 1995) [s]

Face caught in the dark? I'll say. Although this older film from Gioli was another victim of the fading projector bulb, I do think I got a reasonable sense of what it's like. A series of images of faces has been processed, or perhaps just drawn over, leaving a deep, high-contrast black and white charcoal look, eye sockets receding, teeth seeming to jut a little. The faces run through at a breakneck clip, several a second, and the result is a tension between the faces blending and maintaining their individual integrity. It's a bit like Kurt Kren's 2/60: 48 Heads from the Szondi Test, but not quite as obviously controlled by an external system. Although I would need to see more of Gioli's films to be absolutely certain, the filmmaker seems more indebted to Surrealist / Dadaist precursors than the usual mythopoetic and/or structural (in other words, North American) sources. A subject for further research.


Beirut Outtakes (Peggy Ahwesh) [v/s]

It's hard to say why this piece by Ahwesh (in collaboration with Jayce Salloum, who is credited but not as co-author, for some reason) bothered me. In it, Ahwesh compiles faded scraps of 35mm film retrieved from a Beirut movie theatre, one which, as the program notes explain, has particular cultural significance. It has just reopened days before the 2006 war began, but screenings continued intermittently even as the space was used as a shelter for evacuated residents and even a temporary hospital. The video itself offers few hints of this significance, however. Instead we see faded, disintegrating Technicolor strips of 1940s and 50s epics, from both Hollywood and the Arab film industry. Stentorian English voiceover clashes with lilting yellow Arabic subtitles. There's an underlying tone of campiness here, these frivolous strips of escapism lined up one after another, often with exaggerated Arabian stereotypes -- sheiks, sultans, Ali Baba. In actual fact, as a film unto itself Beirut Outtakes (nice double meaning) isn't all that different from Ahwesh's earlier film The Color of Love, also an act of media-archeology. So why this nagging feeling that this film is a one-liner, nudging us to snicker at clueless Western fantasies of exotic Arabs, then move forward with that enlightened feeling? Maybe it's because I'm still struggling to get similar pieces by Abigail Child and Leslie Thornton out of my head from last year. In any case, Beirut Outtakes is a subtler work than those, and certainly open to multiple readings. In fact, maybe it's open to any reading whatsoever.


I must admit, I have next to no specific memory of the films of Jonathan Schwartz, certainly not enough to compose fair, objective reviews. The most distinctive one, For A Winter (Jonathan Schwartz) [s], consisted of purely photographic imagery, a fixed gaze at ice skaters describing an arc across a rink and through the rounded center of the frame of reference. But as I note above, it was too dark to really see due to projection problems. As a general impression, I would say Schwartz's films "show promise" (sorry, a very phys-ed report card thing to say), but lack a distinctive vision as yet. "Minor cinema" even as compared to that quasi-subgenre -- meaning they are small of scope, delicate, handmade, and often point to interior preoccupations -- they seem to fall too heavily under the shadow of Lewis Klahr's early films, relying as they do on cut-out animation, 1950s color schemes, and a willingness to tentatively propose micro-narratives with "protagonists" whose movements promulgate mood rather than action. If anything, Schwartz's films are too direct. One, Sunbeam Hunter (Jonathan Schwartz) [s], I think, culls material from the Boy Scout Manual in order to construct none-too-ambiguous gay scenarios in the perpetual 1950s woods of the imagination. Another film, which oddly enough is both overly specific and yet too muddled, is 40 years (Jonathan Schwartz) [s], a film that lights upon certain motifs from the Middle East conflicts but has so little of substance to say about the topic that it feels a tad self-serving even in bringing it up. It's as though the film aims to glean residual seriousness for itself by flitting around (or, more generously, poetically meditating upon) one of the defining political and religious conundrums of the modern era. In short, Schwartz has facility and a sensibility appropriately tuned in to the little things, but these films strike me as the those of an artist still finding his voice.


The Film of A Thousand and One Nights and A Night (Volume 2) (Scott Puccio) [s]

Let's make an experimental film! Cool! First of all, it should be really, really fun to do, probably even more fun to make than it is to watch! Okay, so let's photograph some collage material. It could be anything! But experimental films should have a high degree of structural integrity. That means that each individual bit should contain images that are related to each other, either by shape or theme. Can't make it all out when you run it through the projector? Don't worry! Folks who are really interested can hold it up to the light, and besides, eventually your film will train viewers' eyes to work faster. Awesome, huh? Okay, so second, how many of these should we make? There are a few things to remember. The most important is, if you're working small, you have to have a bunch of the things. An isolated fragment is just some random crap, but when you've got a series, each component lends credibility to the others. Better yet, make sure they all have the same number of frames, or flicker at the same rate, and that way it's like all the different images that come into your head are being processed by a predetermined set of criteria. That's sort of like John Cage, and that's really pretty avant-garde. Like your unconscious is speaking through the film! Without you getting in the way! In fact, here's a third thing to do. Make a "container" for your little bits and pieces of film, preferably something of literary significance. Better still, give each of the little buggers a snarky title. Why? Because this shows the viewer that you're serious about these odds and ends. Also, when you use grand verbiage to anoint stuff that might otherwise seem negligible, it plays into a form of irony that can totally disavow itself. Like, "What do you mean I'm not serious? Every little idea is nurtured to its own fruition. My titles express this commitment." So then, if anyone is like, "Dude, that was, like, the fifteenth run past comic book Ben-Day dots at super close range. Are you for real?" you can be like, "Whatever, man. Every one is different, and my titles reflect this." And remember, you put so much more up there on the screen than they could ever possibly see. You're awesome, and it's possible your audience is lame. Screw them if they can't take a joke.




Hanky Panky January 1902 (Ken Jacobs) [v/s]

A tiny little one-minute dynamo that explodes well past one's ability to apprehend it in the time allotted, Hanky Panky January 1902 shows another of Jacobs' stereoscope images, this time a gentleman kneeling at a proper young lady's feet. Under the microscope of Jacobs' Nervous System procedures, what was probably intended as a courtly gesture becomes the hysterical (in both senses of the word) explosion of a foot fetish. The vibrating bodily postures convey the sense of a vital split-second being acted out, the pivotal moment when repression's dam is about to burst. In this regard, it makes sense that Jacobs' notes claim that "this film marks the invention of human sexuality." Pace Michel Foucault, there's every reason to believe that invention was experienced, at least, as a synchronic event rather than a longue durée, a spasm instead of a story.


SECOND VIEWING: Further inspection really demonstrates how subtle this piece is, far too subtle in fact to grasp its procedures in the blip that it is. But on the other hand, its brevity means you could squeeze dozens of repeat viewings in here and there throughout the day and always find new stuff to seize upon. Jacobs begins in the background, with the face of a young girl in the mirror sitting at what looks like a makeup counter or luncheonette. We pull back to the lovers' entwined limbs as they pivot and graphic-match into some climbing ivy in the side of the frame. Only then do we get a sense of the dalliance before us. So basically, the women's role in this scenario is as support, as backdrop, even as potted plant, but never exactly as a desiring subject. This is one smart little piece.



films I missed during the weekend but caught up with after the fact



-The Hyrcynium Wood (Ben Rivers, U.K., 2005) [s]

The sole widescreen film among the several Rivers works included in the program, Hyrcynium Wood is a sumptuous landscape study in luminous balck and white. Although all of the Rivers works (with the possible exception of We the People) are notable for their exacting use of light, this is the film that captures Rivers' painterly qualities most exactingly. Among filmmakers working today, only Peter Hutton stands as a point of comparison. Rivers transforms the rolling hills of rural England into a set of deeply resonant shadow-forms, but the land always retains its specificity. Again, we have to reach back for the proper cinematic antecedents -- the Archers of I Know Where I'm Going! and the Flaherty of Man of Aran. But unlike those mythmakers, Rivers remains earthbound and plainspoken.


How to Conduct a Love Affair (David Gatten) [s]

This is an extremely lovely film and an interesting one, in that it bears traces of a shift in Gatten's filmmaking. Only time will tell whether it's a one-off of a transitional work, but one of the things that is particularly impressive about it is its ability to enfold new types of content and significantly different formal procedures within Gatten's overall working style (particularly as seen in the Byrd project films). The film begins with a text composed of plaintive instructions to a would-be lover ("be patient," for example); we soon discover, rather surprisingly, that the text is taken from an early conduct book, bearing the same title as the film itself. Throughout the film, Gatten alters the text through deletions and additions, eventually generating what appears to be direct statements in his own voice, patterned after and / or taking off from the conduct book's tone. What one finds here is a rather heartbreaking tension -- our innermost feelings are, in the end, not that different from those of other people and, as such, subject to schematic treatment. Of course, an actual love affair exceeds these strictures, but not entirely, perhaps the way a river laps against its banks. Against these conceptual matters, Gatten provides exquisite images, the dominant one being of a heavy, wrinkled piece of canvas, hanging like a curtain but appearing to be flat against the wall. Gatten lights and frames the material to highlight shadow and texture, and the result is rather like a Warhol film-portrait of a Richard Tuttle painting. In counterpoint to this image, we see dusty, antiquarian close-ups of window panes, encrusted bottlenecks, and eventually superimpositions, ghostings, and painterly, near-monochrome intrusions of color. Some of these brief passages call those of Nathaniel Dorsky to mind, but Gatten's approach is more synthetic and willing to transform the image for mood and effect. In the end, the overall impression of Love Affair is one of constant surprise, a framework in which there is not only continually renewed promise in that which we know well, but the likelihood of something utterly unexpected just in the offing. Not bad guidelines for courtship if you ask me.


What the Water Said, nos. 4-6 (David Gatten) [s]

Gatten's Water project has been brilliant from the start, and as more and more filmmakers turn to digital media it only seems more so. Take unexposed film stock, submerge it in crab traps off the coast of South Carolina and, as the water batters and pockmarks the film with more or less turbulence, greater or lesser concentration of rocks, sand, and other emulsion-scratching items, the film will provide a hard material record -- a chemical-to-chemical transcription -- of an aspect of the natural world. Parts 1-3 were characterized by lovely colorfields and yarnlike scratches, often building in density but usually, if memory serves, returning to a placid state, at least on the movie screen. Nothing prepared me for the full-body jolt, or the conceptual exactitude, of 4-6. Gatten breaks up the passages of film with date titles, providing a diary-cum-filing system throughout the course of the film. This helps to orient us as we marvel at the palpable difference a mere 24 hours can make in the life of even a relatively small pocket of ecosystem.


Number 4 documents early January 2006, and the images begin as wiry white lines amidst a base of rust-colored emulsion. Over the course of three days, the white bulks up, at first becoming an aggressive skein against the rust (rather like a late Brice Marden canvas), then eventually becoming pulsating blotches, resulting in two flat fields grinding against one another in the picture plane, vaguely Adolph Gottlieb or Clyfford Still but not exactly either.


Number 5, in September, provides a black field, with thick, jagged white lines carved out of it, first one or two and eventually a torrent. This section recalls Brakhage's work but, due to the relative randomness Gatten's procedure insures, Number 5's lines and forms never describe space in the careful, even classical ways that Brakhage did. Instead, the screen is a lighted field of perpetually shifting spatial relationships, a dark void traversed by crackling energies, as though we've entered the atom.


Number 6, in the final days of 2006, begins as Number 5 did, but instead of lines, we have rounded chunks of white, as though large pebbles knocked the emulsion out bit by bit. These rounded areas increase in number, and soon you notice something startling. Each of these spaces has a red and blue penumbra, alluding to 3D film imagery and even beginning to round the forms out into spheres but always remaining securely on the surface. These multicolored forms eventually take over the screen in a gorgeous cataclysm. Water, it should be noted, is a sound film, and the soundtrack, like the image, is comprised of the physical remnants and residue on the film's sound strip. So we get a thumping buzz that acts not as accompaniment to the images but as indexical correspondence. (There is even the brief lag between sound and image due to the disparity between the two tracks on every filmstrip.) And so, by the time of Number 6's conclusion, the ocean is giving us metaphors we know aren't fair. The screen is bursting with popcorn! The bursting colors and aural pops bring us to the end of our fireworks display! But of course, these aren't "pictures."


And this brings me to Gatten's final intervention. At the start of the film, between each section and at the end, Gatten inserts a substantial text from the Western canon which addressed the awesome power of the sea -- an excerpt from Moby Dick, Fernando Pessoa's "Maritime Ode," a near-drowning scene from Robinson Crusoe, and a description of the blackest of seas from Edgar Allen Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom." To me, at least, the point is clear. However beautiful and exquisitely wrought these passages may be, they will always fail to capture the elemental character of the ocean. What the water "says" is never verbal, and bears only the slightest relationship to human life. Gatten's films transcribe this non-subjective, impossible-to-psychologize voice, and even if these films will also prove incapable of harnessing these natural events, they will bring us quite a bit closer. Nearly 150 years ago, humans began inventing photography, and they marveled as they took pictures of themselves and their own historical doings. Now, humans are abandoning photochemistry by and large. But perhaps the earth might reclaim it in order to give us a more accurate picture of itself.


Nymph (Ken Jacobs) [v/s]

In its own way Nymph is even more harrowing that Capitalism: Child Labor and, on a purely technical level, far and away the most impressive of Jacobs' recent video works. Based around a stereoscope image showing a group of would-be suitors surrounding a young lass, as a less conventionally attractive girl is eased out of the picture and toward the edge of the frame, Nymph is a multidimensional ravishment scenario captured at one pivotal moment. The men on either side have legs outstretched as if they're about to pounce, or set off running at a track meet. The parallax images swivel this untoward event, with the victim dead-center as if on a turntable or some sort of auction-house dais. (In this regard, Nymph rhymes fairly directly with Capitalism: Slavery.) Although Jacobs makes the point a bit too obvious when he combines the woman's figure with that of a nude table statue near the swarm -- the nymph of the title, basically making it clear that the bachelors are about the strip their bride bare, or have at least undressed her with their stereoscopic eyes -- the sheer danger Jacobs accurately excavates from this seemingly innocent genre scene will make you shudder. It's not only one of the most horrific rape scenes the movies have ever produced; it is without a doubt one of the most piercingly critical. All those folks who bashed Ken at the Flaherty Seminar over the "male gaze" in XCXHXEXRXRIXEXSX back in the day should certainly be satisfied now.


Last Days In A Lonely Place (Phil Solomon) [v/s]

In many respects Solomon's third panel in the In Memoriam -- Mark LaPore triptych (which may eventually be the second when all is said and done) is a work unto itself and requires consideration on its own terms, although it also resonates quite deeply against the other two works in the series. Whereas untitled (for David Gatten) (made with LaPore himself, just prior to his death) and Rehearsals For Retirement foreground the journey and travails of the solitary male avatar-figure Solomon derived from the Grand Theft Auto source material, that man is largely relegated to the margins in Last Days. Even as I express that description, accurate as it may be, part of me wants to immediately retract it, because in fact what Solomon has done is to generate an all-enveloping environment which does in fact retain figure / ground relationships -- the individual can still be discerned, standing on a rooftop or sitting on a beach -- while at the same time allowing the figure to merge with his surroundings. In some absolute way, the anxious running man from the first two films, the man in the hearse, has found his home, his heaven, where he is a part of all things.


And what is this place? It would appear to be a potentially hostile corner of the Hollywood hills, or some hypothetical nightmare Malibu out of the darkest corners of James M. Cain. But even Solomon's most overwhelmingly vertiginous images -- a musical crash accompanying a digitized gaze straight up into a torrential rainstorm, or a full 360‘ loop up and off a suspension bridge -- possess an eerie placidity, as if they were scenes from a crime that had already happened, been solved, and its trauma worked through. Images, if you will, from the other side. In this way, Solomon seems to be transfiguring fragments of a human narrative into a fully present, atemporal space of Being, a domicile for a soul outside of time. Although I may well be projecting (and how can a viewer not?), it seems as though Solomon has given us this postulate: we can only come to terms with unfathomable horror by plunging into it so fully, so heedlessly, that in risking emotional annihilation we become transformed. We cannot domesticate it, or it us, but we and it change one another, and the very idea of what "home" means, of what it can mean to belong in and to the world ever again.


To take only the two clearest examples from Last Days, we have Solomon's recoding of film noir tropes and his complete transubstantiation of the digital medium. The film alludes to In a Lonely Place, including both audio from Bogart's testimony as hyper-violent Dix Steele and the winding hills of southern California, its darkened, isolated architecture. The dense stereo mix veers from appropriated noir dialogue and musical score through other, less apparent collage elements and, just as often, a thick envelope of pure electronic sound-sheeting. Solomon moves us inside and out of the shadowy noir world, up rainy driveways, gazing up at jagged eaves silhouetted against turbulent skies, through abandoned living rooms encrusted with heavy darkness and dust. He moves us through adjacent woods which become increasing incoherent, trees eventually jutting out at the screen like twisted girders following some terrorist blast. But within this realm Solomon has done what had seemed impossible. There is a remarkable warmth to these ultra-noir landscapes, a sense that the shadows could offer protection instead of hiding danger, or that the density of wood, foliage, rain, and gravel could connect us in some tangible way to an earth in jeopardy of evaporating. That is to say, film noir space, once the ne plus ultra of modernist alienation, has been transvalued by Solomon into something else entirely, a spiritual haven and a last gasp of solidity in a pixelated universe. Artists from Alfred Stieglitz to Richard Prince have facetiously asked about the existence of "Spiritual America," and lo and behold, Solomon has found it. Time and distance, as well as an exponential sense of loss, have revealed Nicholas Ray and Robert Aldrich to be our Tarkovsky, our Bresson.


On the formal level, Solomon transforms not only Grand Theft Auto, which in itself is replete with noir inclinations, but the entire digital medium in what is truly a groundbreaking, revolutionary work. Not only does Solomon drain the material of all color; he manipulates chiaroscuro to effectively turn the somewhat degraded visual information into surrogate film grain, a swirling texture that generates internal fields of differential densities. But simply mimicking film would be too easy (and a sign that Solomon was more concerned with bending Last Days to fit with his earlier style than with moving forward), and once this admittedly phenomenal magic trick dissolves from your eyes, it hits you just what is really going on. Solomon has revealed the basis of digial art as drawing. Last Days does not look like a digital video is supposed to look, because more often that not it evokes the haptic caress of handwork, a set of active vortices which compel belief in ways the digital isn't supposed to. It's more of a piece with the physical inscription of pencil on paper, the manner in which old masters rendered light as language. It's a world, and yet it cannot exist on our plane. It is formed from solid walls and hard ground, but you can slip into the crack between two atoms and become one with it all. As if to lay his cards on the table and pony up once and for all, Solomon provides us with a recurring anchor image of a blank, lighted movie theatre marquee. Depending on where you are in Last Days In A Lonely Place, the cinema is part of the world of the film, or it houses the projected images we and the man are seeing. Everything else is confusion, doubt, waiting, but this theatre is consciousness watching itself. It can't last, of course. But it doesn't need to. In the end, Solomon's avatar has found the eventual peace of accepting the non-knowing, a waiting that cannot be answered, because of course the question was prematurely curtailed. Phil Solomon loved his friend Mark so much he created a perfect film as his hypothetical resting place, and I can think of no higher achievement.