October 11, 2006

New York Dispatch. 8.

In his first dispatch from the NTFF's Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar, Michael Sicinski focuses on the archival restorations.

NYFF 44 Some longtime New York cinephiles have told me that the New York Film Festival's ten-year-old Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar was originally conceived so that lovers of experimental cinema (including those who make it) wouldn't be subject to abuse from festival-going "movie buffs" who couldn't abide the stuff. Before the inauguration of this annual weekend jamboree in the Lincoln Center's well-appointed Walter Reade Theater, unsuspecting patrons heading to Alice Tully Hall to sample the latest from Claude Chabrol or the Taviani brothers might be treated to a pre-feature short from modernist masters like Robert Breer or Stan Brakhage. Apparently, some people didn't appreciate these thoughtful lagniappes from the Film Society. (A popular story among NYFF veterans describes near-riots during 1983's screening of Ericka Beckman's You the Better. If the stories are true, I humbly request a 25th anniversary revival at Views 2008, as a marker of how far cine-civilization has come.)

So now we find Views from the Avant-Garde in its tenth year, and although it's always all about the screenings (I'll get to those in just a second), one thing that becomes clearer with each new edition is that Views serves an invaluable social function for the experimental film community. There are festivals and screenings throughout the calendar year (although formally edgy cinema could always use more screening opportunities), but in terms of taking the temperature of the experimental media scene(s), bringing 30- and 40-year master filmmakers into dialogue with fresh new voices, and as an excuse to see most of your friends from around the world all gathered in one spot for a single hectic weekend, Views serves as a vital yearly punctuation mark for the a-g field. And whether or not it's true that Views came into being in order to keep seemingly incompatible cine-worlds (and their partisans) safe from one another (and I suspect this is just a story certain New Yorkers like to tell just because it sounds good), Views itself is catholic and capacious, just as open to new work by Godard and Guy Maddin as new work by Stephanie Barber or George Kuchar. Calling this jam-packed two-day film orgy a "sidebar" hardly makes sense anymore. Under the stewardship of Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith, there can be no doubt that Views has, as they say, "arrived." It is, at the very least, the premiere showcase for experimental film and video in North America. So, ten years on, the question becomes, how do you keep it fresh and exciting once you're an "institution"?

Anger: Kustom Kar Kommandos The answer in 2006 was rather simple: history and context. Although previous editions of Views have highlighted older works by established filmmakers, usually in conjunction with the films' archival restoration and preservation, Views 2004 and 2005 have provided increased screening time to freshly restored and/or underseen avant-garde masterworks, affording them pride of place and allowing them to implicitly set the terms for understanding the newer work on display. And lest this sound like some dutiful kowtow before the canon ("to know where we are going, we must look at where we have been, yadda yadda yadda"), let it be said that this year's restorations provided the most exciting, revelatory, and all-round mind-expanding cinematic experiences in this year's festival. An evening devoted to UCLA's 35mm archival prints of four key films by Kenneth Anger was a rousing, crowd-pleasing experience. Anger, wearing a New York Rangers jersey with the R and the S removed (think about it), was a consummate showman, but the films were the real stars. Scorpio Rising (1963) and Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) have never looked or sounded better, but the true revelation was Rabbit's Moon (1971), restored and reprinted from the original, seldom-seen 35mm nitrate master. With its icy clarity, its deep blacks and midnight blues, it seemed less like a film than emanation from another world. If you've seen this film in the available 16mm prints only, you truly haven't seen it.

Saul Levine Restored Even more inspiring for me were the Super-8-to-16mm blow-ups of five key films by under-acknowledged master Saul Levine. Levine's work marries the camera-stylo intimacy of Super-8 with a busy, meticulous editing style, resulting in gently throbbing, fragmentary images that treat the movie screen like a bi- and trifurcated expressionist canvas. This dialectic is the source of the perceptual and emotional power of Levine's work, the tension between the jewel-like and the expansively rough-hewn. Several films in the program, such as Note to Pati (1969) and Note to Poli (1982-83), are small cine-letters whose energy implies an opening outward, connecting the personal and the social. This is nowhere more evident than in Levine's medium-length New Left Note (1968-1982), a deeply personal document not just of the various liberation movements of the late 60s and early 70s, but of the struggle to find a new representational language adequate to the utopian desires those movements articulated. Levine, a leading member of SDS at the time, uses cinema to literally articulate the various social-justice struggles of the day (Democratic Socialist, anti-war, Black Power, Women's Liberation, AIM), to connect them through editing to display not only the necessity of their political solidarity but also the shared gestures, the common comportment, how bodies resisting their subaltern position move through the world in similar ways. As Levine's introduction made clear, New Left Note and all of his films have continued relevance. If power functions in part by keeping people and ideas isolated and apart, Levine's pulsating cement splices serve as a bracing rejoinder.

Brakhage: Cat's Cradle Other classic works and rediscovered gems were sprinkled throughout the group shows, often resonating with the contemporary films and videos in surprising, revelatory ways. This past weekend audiences were treated to three new preservation prints of films by Stan Brakhage, part of an ongoing film-by-film restoration project at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (And you thought their only function was handing out Oscars to simple-minded treatises on race relations!) Two of the films on display are among Brakhage's thirty or so best-known films. 1959's Cat's Cradle exemplifies Brakhage's first major phase, with its rhythmic, lyrically fragmented group portraiture (it features Stan and Jane Brakhage, Carolee Schneemann and the late James Tenney), its glow of domestic intimacy, and its searing reds and oranges. The Riddle of Lumen from 1972 represents a somewhat expanded palette, as well as a seemingly free-form montage structure that is itself the riddle. Over the course of viewing Lumen, its complex rhymes, counterpoints and gentle collisions reveal the web of associations Brakhage has constructed. Calling to mind the later films of Warren Sonbert (on which the film was no doubt an influence), Lumen is a compendium of all manner of luminosity, from the faintest, most transient shadows across a wall, to the densest nighttime blacks pierced by a lone headlight or a distant star. As such, it's a film we're lucky to have preserved, since it would barely register on video. Finally, Brakhage's 1981 Nodes is a hand-painted work that reveals the early gestures and tonalities that would evolve into the final phase of his career. Light pastels collide and maintain relative transparency; instead of the thick impastos of his later painted films, Nodes weaves a delicate skein not unlike stained glass or a series of abstract watercolor works.

Paolo Gioli: The Perforated Operator If the "revivals and rediscoveries" segment of Views 2006 had a low point, it would be program six, a collection of films by Italy's Paolo Gioli. Having seen three of the five films presented, I think I can safely say that, while Gioli is a figure of interest, his presentation here does not represent the discovery of an unknown master. While his film The Perforated Operator (1979) evinces an engagement with the materiality of the filmstrip (in particular, the sprocket holes that punctuate the now-obsolete 9.5mm film gauge when it is introduced into 16mm), Gioli is no cousin to Owen Land or even Austria's Sixpack crew. The closest relative to this film would be the media-excavations of fellow Italians Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, although Gioli's hodgepodge imagery has more in common with the Surrealists. His 1989 film Quando l'occhio trema [When the eye trembles] is an explicit homage to Luis Bu˝uel's masterpiece Un Chien Andalou, but while that earlier film trades in nightmare logic and gender anxiety, Gioli's work tediously fixates on the human eye in distress, resulting in a film that is both overly literal and inadequately rigorous. The most recent Gioli film on the program, 1992's Filmarilyn, appropriates images from one of Marilyn Monroe's final photo sessions and animates them with staccato montage. While the film could have served to temporarily bring the tragic icon back to life, Gioli's actual approach is flippant and even sadistic, emphasizing Monroe's cheesecake poses as a kind of cheap flirtation. Perhaps Gioli wants to say something about how images of sex symbols serve to objectify rather than empower them, and wants to critique Monroe's complicity in this objectification. But Filmarilyn seems hypocritical, trading on Monroe's sex appeal to infuse Gioli's work with interest value while mocking her "dumb blonde" posing. (Compare with Bruce Conner's melancholy Marilyn Times Five, a complex meditation on a woman trapped by her own image.) Clumsy, undisciplined, and really quite ugly, these three Gioli films didn't entice me to stay for the remaining two, although consensus seems to be that the program's longest film, 1970's Images Disturbed by an Intense Parasite, was in fact the best.

Sharits Among the other revivals and restorations of note, the final program in Views 2006 showcased one preservation print each by Paul and Greg Sharits. Anthology Film Archives preserved these films, and although Paul Sharits's standing as one of avant-garde film's all-stars should need no further defense, his brother's work remains little-known. In his introduction to the final program, McElhatten noted that Paul was a tireless champion of his brother's work, and based on Greg's Untitled #9, this was for good reason. This deceptively lyrical handheld Super-8 film treats abstraction as a kind of willed event, a deliberate use of the camera as an active tool for preventing objects from optically resolving into their familiar forms. This, of course, is the dictionary definition of "abstraction," as true in painting as in cinema. But Greg Sharits's film uses the camera as a kind of microscope, getting way too close to its intimate surroundings in order to break up our understanding of them. Many filmmakers use personal cinema to release the pure color and texture of the everyday world, but Sharits's Untitled #9 somehow seems to dramatize this process as a kind of struggle, one we are a part of over the course of the ten-minute running time and not a predigested, aestheticist fait accompli. Greg Sharits is without a doubt a "subject for future research," to borrow Sarris's nomenclature and, thanks to Anthology's efforts, that research can be conducted. (Unfortunately, I had to catch my flight home, so I was unable to see 1975's Apparent Motion, the Paul Sharits film in the last Views program.)

Ernie Gehr: Serene Velocity Finally, the Museum of Modern Art offered Views the New York debut of its 35mm blow-up of Ernie Gehr's masterpiece Serene Velocity (1970), whose rich colors and increased depth of field (particularly the back end of the hallway, with the sunrise through the Binghamton University windows now, well, clear as day) further belie the film's reputation as "austere." It is a feast for the senses and, paired with Gehr's criminally underseen 1976 masterwork Table, reaffirmed the purely aesthetic pleasures to be gleaned from Gehr's so-called structuralism of the 70s.

The Gehr program also featured two new digital works. 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 (or, The Monkey Wrench) is a slyly comic, arguably 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. 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 "home video" as a moving-image epistemology sets the new work apart. And while individual film preservationists certainly deserve to be singled out for their contributions to Views 2006 - UCLA's Ross Lipman for the Angers, Bill Brand for his work on the Levines, Mark Toscano of AMPAS for his painstaking work on Brakhage's films, and Anthology Film Archives' Andy Lampert for the Sharits brothers' films - Gehr's appropriation of the Treasures from America's Film Archives disc reminds us of someone whose unwavering commitment has resulted in so many preservation projects in the experimental film world, and whose contributions to Views 2006, while not readily apparent, were in fact paramount. Of course, I refer to Jeff Lambert of the NFPF, whose yeoman efforts on behalf of avant-garde film preservation will mean future generations will have the opportunity to marvel at these astonishing, consciousness-altering achievements. With all apologies to Wong Kar-wai, I eagerly await Views' 50th anniversary in 2046.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 11, 2006 1:23 PM