October 25, 2007

NYFF. Views. 3.

Following up on his first and second pieces on the Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar of the New York Film Festival, Michael Sicinski focuses on five "modern masters at mid-career."

Ernie Gehr: Cinematic Fertilizer In film criticism, exposure (and overexposure) is relative. Certainly where experimental cinema is concerned, any reasonable and nominally sympathetic observer would have to concur that no one working in the field has ever received the attention they deserved. Fortunately no one except Matthew Barney makes experimental film in the hopes of conquering the universe and getting a spread in GQ; the respect of a small but devoted audience is usually enough to sustain most of the a-g's hardcore lifers. Naturally it's difficult to sustain one's career as grant monies become increasingly scarce, film stocks are discontinued left and right, and the demands of academia (where many experimentalists find refuge) inevitably pull one's time away from the work itself.

In short, it's hard out there. Over two decades ago, a major American critic quipped that Ernie Gehr "need[ed] critical attention like Bob Hope needs real estate." Try, for a moment, to imagine a world in which the cinema of Ernie Gehr is ubiquitously over-praised, discussed to death over espressos in movie house lobbies and parsed into deconstructive oblivion in the halls of academe. Has anyone actually glimpsed this Bizarro-world? (If so, perhaps you could also let me know how President LaDuke faired at the G8 Summit.) One of the indispensable functions of Views each year is its family-reunion vibe, which is due in no small part to the fact that anyone making challenging, defiantly uncommercial artworks is fighting an uphill battle. Yes, the invited filmmakers come to the Walter Reade to show their latest, but even if they've been given a one-person showcase program, they're still "the featured filmmaker" for a tiny fragment of the weekend. The rest of the time, they're the audience. What do they see?

There is a group of filmmakers, all pretty much of the same generation, whose profile is woefully inadequate to the order of their achievement. In this essay I'd like to focus on five filmmakers who, to my eyes, are modern masters at mid-career, whose work should absolutely be better known and whose contributions to Views 2007 were, as usual, among the finest selections overall. I am tempted to call them "filmmakers' filmmakers," since all of them are widely recognized as major artists by their peers and colleagues and have been for quite some time. But that phrase, "filmmakers' filmmaker," could give the mistaken impression that their work is abstruse or arcane, reliant on intricate historical knowledge and / or formal training for full (or even partial) appreciation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The visceral pleasures their cinema provides, and in particular its openness to the uncertain textures of the everyday, actually make it some of the most directly engaging filmmaking around. These five demonstrate an all-too-rare combination of accessibility and rigor.

North Shore Fred Worden's films have distinguished themselves over the years with their ability to provoke a unique ocular agitation while exhibiting bone-dry humor. His inkwash animations, such as Automatic Writing (2000) and The Or Cloud (2001), play on the spatial terms available through basic drawing, such as density and fragmentary depth. These films turn brushstroke or the individual calligraphy of the painter's hand into scenarios for anxiety and, eventually, systematic breakdown. In his recent digital works, Worden has reintroduced concrete imagery in order to reduce its power of signification. In 2005's Here, a static proscenium and the horizontal drive of costumed Hollywood knights combine and alternate to enfold space and pin down the would-be actors within it. Worden took a bold step towards an aggressive, almost primal formalism in last year's Everyday Bad Dream, a flickering, clanging, semi-abstract animation that moved from the eyeball out and locked onto the frightening face that banality seldom shows you. That piece was a mean comic gem that grabbed you by the lapels. His 2007 selection, North Shore, once again moves in a new direction. A confounding pool of viscous semi-images against jet-black, the video flickers to generate opposing, symmetrical forms which become complementary receptacles for one another's oozings. 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? Although far less scathing than Bad Dream, North Shore is a throbbing, shimmering mirage that bears its own traces of a deep nightmare logic.

Interieur Interior Perhaps gentler at first glance but possibly harboring a wicked passive-aggressive streak, the recent video works by Vincent Grenier have consistently been highlights of the Views line-up, and this year was no exception. Grenier has been making witty, elegant experimental films and videos for over 30 years, and his approach has always been defined by its eclecticism. His earlier film works partake of the orthodoxies of experimental film history but refuse to be defined by it. For example, 1978's Interieur Interiors (To AK) is a high-modernist exploration of adjacent geometrical planes, an intimate domestic study, and a collection of wry perceptual miscues organized not unlike a series of blackout sketches. Works from the early 90s such as Out in the Garden and You display a sensitivity to portraiture that allows figure and landscape to merge and separate in a kind of mitosis / meiosis. And most recently Grenier's career has been characterized by a rigorous exploration of digital video and its unique properties. Rather than attempting to duplicate the style of his films by other means, as many film-turned-videomakers have done, he has embraced video's defining traits - relative flatness, a capacity for inner framing and image juxtaposition, and a more tightly controlled capability for superimposition - in order to produce video artworks distinguished by their subtlety and grace, to say nothing of their quirky humor. Where video has been an impediment to others, it has expanded Grenier's creative vocabulary.

Armoire The last four years of Views have included videos by Grenier. 2004's Tabula Rasa fragmented but deepened our apprehension of a particular space, a high school in the Bronx through staggered sound and internal superimpositions. 2005's North Southernly is a single view from a window slowly transformed, although discerning rack focus from digital manipulation is quite tricky, perhaps a sly acknowledgment of DV's relative indifference to older avant-garde traditions of fussy handicraft. 2006 brought us This, and This, a tape which can only be described as a comedy of the horizontal wipe. In it, numerous less-than-flattering views of the so-called natural world bump against one another, get in each other's way, and yet refuse to actually connect through genuine montage. Reminiscent of Scott Stark's video SLOW from 2001, Grenier's piece is less complicated, more straightforward, resulting not in ambiguous space but in a confounding metonymy of images, splashing us with a puddle then driving on. This year's Grenier video, Armoire, is one of his briefest (three minutes), and its humor is so deadpan I actually didn't immediately recognize it as such - a true "way homer." In it, Grenier has "trapped" a bird in a reflection on the water and essentially chases it around the screen with increasingly narrow frames-within-frames, pinning it down, making it sing for the artist's own supper. Its sense of eventual claustrophobia recalls the glass box sculptures of Joseph Cornell, tight spaces where imaginary living things went to gain immobility / immortality. But here, we're so used to equating the very image of a bird in a tree with absolute freedom that Grenier's comic aggression is a slow-burn, provoking a tense grimace of discomfort by minute three, and a chuckling nod of assent by the second viewing. Even those of us fiercely devoted to the field of experimental cinema know all too well that it can be rather humor-impaired. No surprise, then, that a stealth anarchist like Grenier is like a breath of fresh air.

Prague Winter Speaking of anarchy, or at least the breakdown of established order, it was delightfully perverse this year to find two films, made almost in answer to one another, by two filmmakers whose sensibilities could hardly more divergent. Both Jim Jennings and Henry Hills were represented in Views this year by films shot in the heart of Prague, and according to Mark McElhatten, it was Hills who tipped him off to the existence of Jennings's film and suggested the unlikely two-fer. Played back to back, it was a rare opportunity to observe two masters at work on outwardly similar material. But their remarkably dissimilar handling of it exemplifies the working methods of these two exacting, meticulous craftsmen. Working in cinema since the 1970s, Jennings is in many ways the preeminent New York City film poet. Although he has worked in color on occasion (for example his 2001 Venice film Impossible Love), and sometimes with sound, the majority of his films are silent and shot in luminous black and white, accumulated from scenes Jennings observes during his day-job rounds. His films are a balancing act between a transformative, camera-stylo approach which abstracts small segments of the urban environment, and a commitment to rendering that street life with a fidelity that keeps the shadows of its lives intact. 1998's Painting the Town is an at-first-confounding swirl of lights in the night sky that, over the course of the running time, coax the viewer into embracing their swooping and diving patterns and discerning a loose but tangible method. From the same year, Silvercup may be Jennings's finest work of a particular sort. It lets movement and the built environment do much of the work as it observes elevated trains, old billboards, and other urban features against the sky and ground, cutting their dense, darkened forms into the celluloid. (A sign shown in the film bears the slogan, "Quality is not an accident," and this could be said of Jennings's exquisite filmmaking as well.) Jennings has consistently challenged himself to expand his technique and turn his attentions to a vast array of the world's surfaces. 2004's Close Quarters is a domestic interior and, in its combination of exacting visual detail and stark emotional vulnerability, is a flat-out masterpiece; last year's spry, funky Silk Ties took to the streets once more but with a percussive in-camera editing scheme that lent Jennings's Manhattan a feel almost equivalent to stop-motion animation.

Making Money In fact, before this year, Silk Ties is probably the only Jennings film that would ever in a million years prompt someone to think of Henry Hills. A polymath steeped in multiple fields of avant-garde creativity and a key figure for the consideration of "composition" as a practice across disciplines, Hills's filmwork is inseparable from his involvement with the (sorry to use the contested term) "language poets" as well as the Downtown NY experimental music and dance scenes. The music of John Zorn, Christian Marclay and Tom Cora wends its way throughout Hills's key films, along with fragments of writing and speech by Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews. Hills shares with these highly distinctive artists a focus on the structures of signification, the poetics of colliding fragments, and above all a Futurist commitment to the intellectual power of clamor and speed, only this time - this is crucial! - harnessed for the political left. Hills's films display a preference for what Peter Kubelka called "strong articulations," extreme differences between edits and even frames which push our capacities for understanding to the limit and then some. A film such as Kino Da! (1981) takes a single poetic performance (or possibly several - it's admittedly hard to tell) and, through jump cuts and manic compression, squeezes meaning from the speech like juice from an orange, with only key words and primal hiccups coming through the flurry. His Porter Springs films, which are personal favorites of mine, find Hills applying his jagged, staccato editing style and phoneme-level sonic manipulations to home movies from what once was a quiet lakeside retreat. Nature becomes processed and reprocessed into a series of semiotic gestures and code-images while retaining the very qualities that distinguish any good landscape study - attention to specifics of light and shadow, depth and shallow space. However more than any other single film, Money, from 1985, is probably Hills's clearest statement of purpose. Slicing and dicing a vast collection of street scenes, conversations, readings, public dance works, skronky avant-jazz riffs and the occasional dab of urban negative space into a rapid-fire turntablist extravaganza, Hills breaks up nearly every linguistic and imagistic unit of comprehension he can find and reconnects them as interlocking language Legos, forming an entirely new logic of organization based on formal affinities (shape, timbre, gesture, framing) rather than mundane rules of communication. Henry Hills is such a form-buster that watching his films inevitably prompts a momentary disquieting thought: what's it like inside this guy's head?

So, naturally, Jennings and Hills went to Prague, rode the same inner-city rails, and found completely different worlds. However, they are surprisingly complementary. Jennings's Prague Winter is a relaxed, not quite melancholy effort that slides between two related poles. The title, of course, refers to the post-68 Soviet crackdown on liberal reform, but also on the time of year Jennings's film depicts. He shows us the cityscape, the rusty, trusty tram system, the cobblestone streets, all bathed in the shadows that almost always preoccupy his films. In between, Jennings focuses in on the faces of individual citizens, mostly seniors who have withstood the political turmoil of the last century, along with the uncertainties of today's post-Communist economic shock-therapies. Although it's a cliché, I know, these men and (mostly) women have this history indelibly etched upon their faces. Jennings's film attends to their uniqueness while returning to the larger urban situation, resulting in a firm part / whole structure. In fact, Prague Winter is one of Jennings's most clearly organized films, giving the sense that his outside-observer status made him too reticent to indulge in more thorough abstraction.

Electricity Hills's Electricity (a video work which appears to have been begun on film) perhaps deals with the same dilemma but in an entirely different way. The piece is a crackling montage of the tram wires just above the city streets, with the tram's diamond-shaped electrical conductors poking in and out of the image with brusque periodicity. As per usual, these enjambed fragments form a kind of concrete poetry of shape and noise, a Prague city symphony that averts its eyes from most of the city and its inhabitants in favor of the sort of once-triumphant technology over which Vertov, at least, would have openly wept. As a contrapuntal image, Hills shows us the Zizkov Television Tower, a Soviet-imposed device for jamming Western TV signals. So in one respect, Hills's semiotic is just as manifest as Jennings's. We're looking at the transmissions and dis-transmissions, energies and invisible waves of communication and isolation. 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 tape-funk soundtrack belying any stodgy 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. At any rate, the trip abroad finds these two modern masters accepting new challenges, handily rising to meet them, and passing the complex results along to us.

Muktikara The films of Jeanne Liotta likewise pose their own perceptual challenges. But Liotta's style and tone has tended to avoid the grand gesture in favor of subtle transformations. The standpoint evident from her films often recalls the amateur scientists of the 19th century, taking it upon themselves to break the world down into its component parts and see what's inside. Muktikara, Liotta's 1999 masterpiece, exemplifies this approach while embracing sheer pictorial beauty. In it, Liotta trains her camera on a lake and the sky above it, photographed in grainy, hazed-out black and white. Time-lapse and minor aperture adjustments make the mostly still image of the landscape pulse and tremble, as if this scene by the water were being presented to us in time as a series of invisibly replenishing photocopies. In fact, what Liotta's flutter does tell us is that this "stable" environment is renewing itself endlessly. Eventually, Liotta flattens out the space of the image, its reflected double-form of the shore in the lake turning a bulbous black void into a solid entity. Muktikara resembles nothing so much as a filmic riff on Robert Motherwell's Elegies to the Spanish Republic, his canvas-splitting mega-form replaced by Liotta with a natural feature and the perceptual discrepancies it gathers around itself. Operating in an entirely different register, 2003's Loretta displays a woman's shadowy form against a canary yellow background, as an aria strains to sweep the figure into a drama disproportionate to her physical circumstance. Liotta exposed the film with a flashlight, marking shadows directly onto the strip.

Observando El Cielo This jewel-like miniature points the way toward Liotta's work becoming more intimate, which makes her 2007 film Observando El Cielo all the more breathtaking. In her latest, which many in attendance considered to be the best film in the entire festival, Liotta assembles seven years' worth of field recordings from her astronomical observations - accelerated night skies in over a dozen distinct locations, all with their own unique character. The film is remarkable for its meticulous, neo-Constructivist organization; her edits feel both agile and inevitable, like stonemasonry achieved through light. We see stars streaking by, stars in frozen time, slices of the sky at differential moments of the night. Sometimes a sky is shown bare unto itself, sometimes offset with a jutting red roof or the horizontal jab of a tree branch. These non-sky images are astonishing in themselves; the searing red interior of a planetarium dome or the alternating light on a house façade, first amber and then a harsh neon green, represent gorgeous cinematography that any narrative filmmaker would kill for. But perhaps the film's most typical maneuver is to show the stars slowly arcing past at a 45° angle to the frame, only to have a countervailing movement - stratus clouds or a comet-like streak - bisect the screen from the opposite angle. These images do more than transform the familiar; they practically vanquish the familiar, preconceived images of the skies we've accumulated over time, along with their needless symbolic freight. Observando El Cielo asks us to watch the skies for themselves, as an ever-shifting set of locations, trajectories and triangulations. The soundtrack, composed by fellow filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh, is a dense yet buoyant collage of broadcasts, short waves, and palpable interference. If there is anything up in these skies, it isn't God or Superman but human communication, the invisible traffic of modern technological endeavor. In every possible way, Liotta's film scrupulously resists metaphor in favor of attentive, awe-struck empiricism. And in this regard, Observando El Cielo exemplifies a capacious but strictly rationalist aesthetic sensibility. Once, science and the aesthetic were not considered opposing epistemologies. Both rely on a partially distanced stance that steps outside the everyday; only with increased professionalization and the subsequent battles for funding did these attitudes decisively part ways in the public imagination. But before that point, the beauty and elegance of natural phenomena was a necessary component of the drive to examine, to learn more. (Near the end of the film, Liotta inserts a droll but telling shot of a sign outside a planetarium: "OBSERVATION IN PROGRESS.") Liotta's latest film casts its lot with this fröhliche Wissenschaft. Whether or not Liotta intended to make a celestial symphony for agnostics and atheists, I do not know. However, at a time when both science and art are under attack, and we're continually asked to supplicate ourselves to the heavens instead of subjecting the world to legitimate human inquiry, Liotta's film certainly has a political dimension as well.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 25, 2007 4:53 AM


"When I say the word, you, I mean a hundred universes.”


That's my new film review of OBSERVANDO EL CIELO by Jeanne Liotta. :)

You inspired me, Michael!

Posted by: jmac at October 25, 2007 2:35 PM