October 15, 2006

New York Dispatch. 11.

Following up on last week's dispatch focusing on the archival restorations in the NYFF's Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar, Michael Sicinski turns his attention to the new experimental work.


The 10th annual Views from the Avant-Garde presentation of the New York Film Festival succeeds year after year in cutting a wide swath through the experimental film and video world, and not just because its typical two-day screening schedule allows for a quick, intensive fix of new, often hard-to-see material. (Although this short, sharp shock, weekend-retreat approach does have its advantages - notably for those of us tied to the academic calendar - it's also sometimes difficult to get a proper sit-down meal in there.) The main attraction is an abiding faith in the event's curators, avant-garde programmer Mark McElhatten and Film Comment editor Gavin Smith, to assemble an instructive, impressive cross-section of experimental filmmaking now, not only a representative sample but also a complex, multi-layered art event. In this regard, Views 2006 didn't disappoint. As my reviews below will attest, it wasn't difficult to find stark beauty, conceptual rigor, and/or vibrant challenges to conventional perception in this year's programs.

For sheer visual sumptuousness and emotional power, no film in Views 2006 could compare with Nathaniel Dorsky's Song and Solitude, a film that world premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival but had its US debut at the NYFF. I wrote about Dorsky's film - a near-masterpiece and a significant breakthrough in his oeuvre - in my Toronto wrap-up. But several new works by established avant-garde filmmakers solidified their standing as major artists of our time, figures whose work should be much better known even in the rarefied realm of cinephilia.

Silk Ties New York's Jim Jennings has produced some of the loveliest, most sensually acute films of the past decade, and his latest, Silk Ties, expands on his visual vocabulary. The film's staccato editing lends his city-symphony a jaggedness that recalls abstract animation. Street scenes, thick and dark and shot with the f-stop way down low, alternate with shots of skyscrapers and the negative space between them. The pulses in editing seem to make the buildings dance, and create little jumps in the life of the streets, strangely enough lending this activity a kind of stately poise rather than heightening its implicit kinetics.

Vincent Grenier, another mid-career a-g veteran, is an artist whose shift to digital filmmaking has consistently been characterized by a rigorous investigation of the specific aesthetics and formal parameters of his adopted medium. This, and This is no exception. Thematically, Grenier's piece is a conversation with nature in both its raw and culturally mediated forms - for example, the rushing waters from Ithaca Falls juxtaposed with the spray of a rain puddle traversed by a steel belted radial. The piece is in many ways a meditation on the power of the straight cut, as opposed to the fades and image-alternations so common in recent video work. As the video progresses, Grenier implies that non-mediation doesn't exist. But on an even more basic level, This, and This pits vertical against horizontal movement, as well as pushing digital video to the limits of its comfort zones, as swirling forms begin to pixilate or produce visual feedback. Grenier's medium is indeed the lion's share of his message.

Two neo-structural works in this year's program were highly inventive and original even as they harked back to earlier styles and procedures from the 60s and 70s. Robert Fenz's Crossings originated in response to the filmmaker's involvement in the production of Chantal Akerman's experimental documentary on the US/Mexico border, From the Other Side. Akerman's film shows life and culture on both sides of the border, emphasizing the viewer's inability to tell just by looking which side of the border we're on. Fenz takes this principle and runs with it, constructing a cinematic interweaving of the two nations at the site of their artificial separation. Shooting film down both sides of walls along the border, Fenz uses opposing 45-degree angles and rapid-fire alternating views to create a series of whizzing, bowtie-shaped hyperforms, melding the firm boundary into a kinetic, dialectical event. Crossings heightens the vertigo by introducing panning near the end, a move that recalls Michael Snow's <--> while putting that film's perceptual challenges to radically different ends.

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

Isahn Several of the most vibrant films in Views 2006 involved the manipulation of found footage, another time-honored avant-garde technique that continues to be put to provocative new ends. Soon-Mi Yoo is a relative newcomer to the experimental film and video world and, while her 2004 Views entry Isahn showed some promise, her contribution to this year's program, Dangerous Supplement, demonstrates Yoo's remarkable growth as an artist in a relatively short time. Working with footage of Korea shot by members of the US military during the Korean War, Yoo presents these images, saturated with power relations though they may be, and allows them room to breathe, to assert themselves as counter-narratives to their own creation. Slow camera movements (further slowed by Yoo) around mist-covered mountains and waterways take on the sturdy, luminous quality of CÚzanne, while daily images from Korean life in the 1950s bely any possible surveillance aim. The passages are too quotidian and poetically observant to serve any obvious tactical function, but clearly they did, and that is the discrepancy Yoo explores. This lyrical content is presumably the "dangerous supplement" of her title, a plangent excess that creeps into the margins of a one-way military operation.

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

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

Block Sometimes the experimental short form allows artists to explore spaces and activities that offer suggestions of narrative without lapsing into over-explanation, freeing mood and timbre to affect the viewer outside of a goal-oriented context. (Ariana Gerstein's film Alice Sees the Light, a short that played in the NYFF main program, is a fine example of such work, and might have been nestled into one of the Views group shows to strong effect.) This was the case with two of the most interesting international contributions to Views 2006. Britain's Emily Richardson is one of the more evocative new filmmakers to emerge in recent years, and her new film Block was a standout. An eleven-minute examination of a London apartment building, Block uses fixed-frame tableaux and the disembodied point-of-view of surveillance cameras to take this brutalist domestic space and make it strange. Low-angle exteriors and harshly lit fluorescent elevators provoke that quality Walter Benjamin found in the photographs of Atget; Block looks like the scene of a crime. This is partly because Richardson's visual vocabulary recalls architectural ghost stories like The Shining and Dark Water, but also because her commitment to casing the environment with the camera's impassive eye - an "establishing shot" establishing nothing - provokes a primal dread.

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

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

Likewise, his 16mm film You Don't Bring Me Flowers, turns an examination of National Geographic magazine images into a landscape study at a third-degree of remove, the gutter of the two-page spreads serving as a kind of vortex, turning the spaces of the world into objects to acquire. While The General weaves fragments into an aesthetic totality, Flowers takes a single procedure and slowly spins it out of control. Or so I think. Robinson's works demand close attention, and I hope to be able to see them again. In the meantime, they offered the most exciting experience of Views 2006 - the chance to get completely lost.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 15, 2006 2:17 PM


Thank you for reviewing Views from the Avant-Garde, Michael!

Thanks to you too, David!

Posted by: jmac at October 16, 2006 8:34 AM

Thanks for reading, jmac.

Oh, and two corrections -- the program notes on the Price film (which I somehow missed) identify the source material as a Charles Bronson film, with Bronson excised. And the title is spelled "Turbulant Blue." I seem to have accidentally allowed spell-check to correct Price's correctly incorrect spelling in my submitted draft. My apologies for the errors.

Posted by: at October 17, 2006 7:10 PM