October 17, 2007

NYFF. Views. 1.

As he did last year (1, 2), and hopefully will every year, Michael Sicinski takes a multi-part look at the Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar of the New York Film Festival. Here, he focuses on the younger generation of experimental filmmakers.

Victory Over the Sun Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Toronto - 2007 has been ridiculous. Masterpieces and near-masterpieces seem to be falling from the skies. Cinephiles everywhere have a song in their heart and a spring in their step, the streets are paved with gold, your daddy's rich and your mama's good-looking. Naturally, critics and audiences alike happily quarrel and quibble over this or that film. Does Silent Light represent a new sincerity for Carlos Reygadas or just a less-obvious form of cynicism? Is Sokurov's take on the Chechen War somewhat right-wing, or does the post-Communist dilemma require an altogether different political framework? But oh, how wonderful to be grappling with these questions, as opposed to the usual, "Why is contemporary cinema so crappy?" or "Will film just hurry up and die already?" Every serious filmgoer is forging his or her own unique path through the Films of 2007, but the consensus, for once, is mostly positive. This year is kicking major ass.

As always, this brings us to the New York Film Festival. The relatively tiny main selection (usually 25 films or less) is, we're to understand, the cream of the crop, and in a year like 2007, such intense selectivity is mostly a winning formula. There were a few sins of omission (where's the Rivette?), and one or two sins of commission (cherchez le sponsor - i.e., HBO Films), but by and large the NYFF showcased the most acclaimed films from a banner year. In this regard, the NYFF is typically not a place for discoveries, but for consolidation. The one major exception to this rule, year after year, is Views from the Avant-Garde, the festival's so-called "sidebar" which, under the direction of Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith, has become one of film culture's highest-profile showcases for new experimental film and video.

Although Views wisely refrains from harping on the premiere status of the films it includes, most of the selections are either US or world premieres, and so the jam-packed weekend consistently serves as an opportunity not only to delve into exciting new work, but to take the temperature of the field of experimental media production, to see where we are as a community and as a creative force. And whether or not we realize it, this aspect of Views is even more crucial in a year like 2007. Can the best and brightest of the avant-garde stack up against the heavy-hitters of world cinema? This isn't a question of competition or misplaced chauvinism. For those of us who deplore the ghettoization of non-narrative, formally-driven film and video work and harbor a desire for an all-encompassing "unified field" of advanced art cinema (in the realm of criticism, certainly, if not exhibition), Views is more than just an intensive weekend seminar on the power of pulsating light. It's also a bit of a proving ground. How are our masters faring? And where are the new voices coming from?

Victory Over the Sun Good news. By and large, the Avant-Garde Class of 2007 is a rousing success story. This year's crop included a number of evocative, mind-rattling new works which demonstrate the vitality and sheer visceral excitement of experimental cinema at its best. Last year's startling new discovery, Chicago-based Michael Robinson, has, if anything, upped his game from last year. To my mind there can no longer be any question that Robinson is the most significant new experimental filmmaker to emerge in the last decade. And part of what makes his work so overwhelming is the fact that he refrains from grand statement, preferring to explore the unique headspace of his (and my) generation. We are living in the hangover of postmodernism. We were promised that the end of so-called "metanarratives" (Marxism, psychoanalysis, hermeneutical philosophy, utopian social engineering) would usher in a new era of anarchic pluralism and self-styled bricolage. Liberated from the chains of History, we were supposed to become 24-hour party people. Robinson's films expose this bill of goods and mourn the lie. His Victory Over the Sun is a plangent, earthbound science fiction landscape study, an orchestration of fragmentary views of what's left of World's Fair architecture - geodesic domes, people movers, International Style abstractions. He plants his camera in the weeds, showing the ruins of these broken dreams in the natural present, an unplanned world that unthinkingly reclaims these once-intentional spaces. Just as the fairgrounds are overtaken by uncleared brush, Robinson's soundtrack is slowly overtaken by a collection of voices droning in unison, the precise contents of their language frequently indecipherable. What we can glean, however, is a litany of preparation for some undefined future event. The chanting is cult-like, as it should be; today only cultists are allowed to have utopian dreams, to think about seismic changes in society coming under human control. As Victory Over the Sun concludes, Robinson provides exit music for the broken fairgrounds, in the form of an orchestral rendition of Guns N' Roses' "November Rain." It's only funny for a second, and then it hits you. The power ballad as genuine human expression is as ludicrous as, say, daring to hope for a better world. At the time, we were all so relieved when Nirvana vanquished Axl. Now, we stare into the distance, waiting in vain for Chinese Democracy. Without polemic or a shred of didacticism, Robinson's film captures the anguish of waiting not for a dream deferred, but the deferral of dreaming itself. I have no doubt Victory Over the Sun will prove to be one of the defining films of the decade. See it at all costs.

Light Is Waiting Robinson's other Views contribution, Light Is Waiting, is every bit as masterful, although its impact is more formal and the questions it engages are primarily related to the history of video art. The piece begins with an unaltered clip from TV's Full House, and as a TV set falls from the upstairs banister, we are transported into a throbbing netherworld of strobe and grinding audio. After a slightly attenuated journey by boat, Robinson has stranded us on a tropical island with the cast of Full House, doing the hula and behaving like buffoons. The episode, with its colonialist, ooga-booga depiction of "natives," is eerie enough, but Robinson manipulates the image with symmetrical mirroring, red-and-blue strobing filter effects, and satanically slowed audio. The results are two-pronged. Light Is Waiting allows us to take a critical stance toward the source material, but perhaps more importantly, Robinson's alterations liberate subterranean formal properties already at work within this artless "TGIF" drivel. Light, as it were, is waiting for its own showcase. Deliberately retro in its effects (the piece most explicitly recalls the mid-80s video work of media-scavenger Dara Birnbaum), Light Is Waiting finds Robinson working in an altogether different vein but succeeding nonetheless.

Old Dark House This year's most noteworthy new discovery was the work of Britain's Ben Rivers, a relatively young and highly prolific filmmaker represented in the program by five films made between 2003 and 2007. There are certain commonalities among Rivers's films, most notably a preference for black and white film stock with a thick, tactile grain, lending the films an antiquated quality not unlike the early photography of Fox Talbot. (Rivers does work in color, but those films were not included.) What's most striking about Rivers's work, apart from the sheer physical pleasure of his hazy chiaroscuro, is its resonance with specifically British cinematic traditions. The films look ahead to the contemporary avant-garde in their pacing and fluid organization, but look back to earlier sources for under-explored possibilities. His films Old Dark House from 2004 and House from this year both adopt a similar technique. Rivers enters decrepit homes, some with the remnants of furnishings and all in various states of structural disrepair, and lights small areas with a flashlight. Through multiple exposures, Rivers is able to present several beams of light illuminating the darkened spaces at once, or, in the case of House, more fully control the sweep and intensity of lamplight. What one finds is a sort of non-narrative corollary to the post-Kitchen Sink cinema of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Rivers shows us familiar, echt-British interiors (middle-class two-stories or possibly broken-down counsel flats), but allows their physicality to do the talking. In his films The Coming Race (2005) and The Hyrcynium Wood (2007), Rivers reaches even further back, adopting a lyrical semi-documentary element and gently Constructivist treatment of landscape that recalls the great British documentary tradition of the 1930s and 40s, particularly the films of John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings. Like those earlier directors, Rivers attends to the specifics of his subjects - their homes, their demeanor, their interactions with one another, the landscape they inhabit - while organizing that experience according to poetic rhythms and subtle, non-didactic montage. Here's hoping North Americans receive more opportunities to experience Rivers's gentle, poignant cinema.

Frontier Step Of the newer faces on the scene, Boston-based videomaker Gretchen Skogerson and self-described "itinerant" Ben Russell also distinguished themselves with significant contributions this year. Both artists have garnered significant attention in the past few years, although as is usually the case with experimental media, "significant attention" is a relative term and seldom does anyone really receive their due. Skogerson's video Drive-Thru, featured in last year's Views, has slowly built a significant following, with many critics and programmers considering it one of the key works of the past few years. In that video, Skogerson surveyed the aftermath of a Florida hurricane, paying particular attention to electric road signs which had lost their plastic signage, resulting in bare fluorescents piercing the night like errant, upright Dan Flavin installations along US 41. Although I frequently found the images themselves quite arresting, I had significant doubts about Skogerson's rather vague organization of the material, which seemed stranded between deliberate montage and baldly serial presentation. But her latest work, Frontier Step, represents such a step forward in that arena that I want to look back at Drive-Thru to see if perhaps I just missed the boat. Frontier Step is a widescreen video work that describes an arc across the daytime sky, that arc being the rounded roof of New Orleans' Superdome. Skogerson trains her camera on the sparse work crew repairing the Katrina damage (clearly a theme is emerging in Skogerson's work), keeping her distance and maintaining a long shot that obscures the figures' specifics but conveys their comportment, interaction, and precarious balance. Visually striking and shot in some of the crispest digital video I've seen, Frontier Step recalls Dominic Angerame's suite of films documenting San Francisco's clean-up from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and could reasonably borrow one of his titles as a subtitle for her own piece: "in the course of human events." Sadly, Skogerson undermines some of the video's power with an ill-judged soundtrack of skittering jazz-rock, vaguely reminiscent of The Red Krayola or Art Bears but lacking their formal precision.

Black and White Trypps Number Three Ben Russell has been moving about the cabin for a few years now with his Black and White Trypps series, and thankfully our kindly impresarios Mark and Gavin saw fit to include his latest, Black and White Trypps Number Three. I make particular note of the inclusion because Russell's film has shown around quite a bit, having world premiered this January at Sundance. Unloosed on an uncomprehending and utterly unsympathetic audience, Trypps garnered some of the worst reviews of the entire festival (yes, even worse than the "Dakota Fanning gets raped" movie), mostly because virtually no one understood what Russell was up to. Trypps Number Three which, by the way, is not in black and white, is a sumptuous study in classical portraiture brought into what seems at first to be an unlikely realm - a hardcore punk show by Rhode Island's Lightning Bolt. Much like Ben Rivers did with the collapsing British homes, Russell films the audience with a single handheld spotlight as the individual members bob and weave out of the darkness and into the light. The deep blacks and warm golden hue play off one another to form chiaroscuros that practically leap from the screen. This formal aspect combines with the hypnotic character of the music itself, and the trancelike state it produces in the listeners we're watching. The end result is a filmic portrait of secular rapture that harks back to the great annunciation canvases of Titian and Caravaggio. Trypps, indeed.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 17, 2007 3:54 PM


Great stuff as always, Michael. I always enjoy reading a knowledgable person writing about a topic I don't know as much about as I should. Michael Robinson sounds right up my alley.

One quibble:

"The power ballad as genuine human expression is as ludicrous as, say, daring to hope for a better world."

Says you, bud. Says you.

Posted by: Noel Murray at October 17, 2007 4:57 PM

Yey! Finally!!! Thank you for documenting the NYFF, Michael! I say this with love: Jeanne Liotta's, OBSERVANDO EL CIELO, is the masterpiece! (And I never say that about anything - it's so uncreative :) Seven years of sky recordings deserves a lot more attention than invisible cinema. . . Why why why is this film not mentioned here? Much love.

Posted by: jmac at October 17, 2007 7:50 PM


I just noticed that there is a part 2 . . . so my bad, it's just that the grouping of the artists in the review is a bit confusing to me, since they were in different programs . . . Sorry to place so much pressure on your writing, but I know that you can handle it. :) Feel free to visit my blog & pressure me . . .

Posted by: jmac at October 17, 2007 9:41 PM

How would a person even know where to begin without your guidance, Michael? Rendered with insight and humor. Thank you.

Posted by: Michael Guillen at October 18, 2007 12:28 AM

I am so glad you mentioned Old Dark House! I saw this short masterpiece recently, and I am pleasantly surprised it got to your blog.
Here is what the director, Ben Rivers has to say about this film: "Revisiting my youth, breaking into abandoned houses, searching for signs of past occurrences. With the help of my trusty Bolex, revealing rooms with in-camera superimpositions of a torchlight. Hand-processed and accompanied by sounds from degraded found films".

Posted by: Toronto real estate agents at October 18, 2007 10:13 AM