Shadows and Outlaws
The 12th edition of the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde
by Genevieve Yue
At the beginning of what was to be his last film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), Guy Debord declares, “I have sometimes been reproached—wrongly, I believe—for making difficult films. Now I am actually going to make one.” “Difficult” in a film like Howls for Sade (1952), which prompted audiences not only to walk out of the theater but threaten to burn it down, might be an understatement. But with In girum, Debord means difficult in a different sense. The film is actually a lot more straightforward than his other work; unlike Society of the Spectacle (1973), which relies on the uncomfortable dissonance between a monotone Marxist critique of image consumption and the scintillating allure of ‘60s pinup models and pulpy films, In girum is more interested in bringing words and images together to tell a story—specifically, Debord’s own.
If it’s difficult, it might be because this is the one that was hardest for him to express. And while the film retains his characteristically dyspeptic view of late capitalist society, it also suggests a deeper, more complicated, more passionate involvement with its images, which are presented in an array of magazine ads, comics, film clips, and black-and-white photographs of Debord’s old comrades. For as much as he enjoyed rewriting the speech balloons of comic strips or grafting cutouts onto improper surfaces in a strategy he called détournement, In girum makes it clear that Debord loved the movies for their own sake. As writer Greil Marcus observed on the panel following the film’s screening at the 12th annual Views from the Avant-Garde series at the New York Film Festival, the oddly long eight-minute battle scene from The Charge of the Light Brigade was included in the film presumably because Debord loved it, that it stirred something within him beyond any didactic impulse or ironic detachment. He’s attracted to “rubbish,” the dusty fragments of popular culture, because that’s where he finds his story: a gang of artist-rebels known as the Situationist International, who, for a moment, found a way to live differently, undetected, as shadows and outlaws.
Presented in a newly restored and subtitled 35mm print, In girum kicked off an intensive three days of programming, curated by Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith. It was an instructive choice, a primer on how images are made and then destroyed, and how we, like Debord, might begin to see things differently. Like the chess game in Les Visiteurs du soir (an echo of the “game of war,” which Debord himself invented) there’s one swift, secret move that can reveal everything. During the panel discussion, and nearly jumping out of his seat, filmmaker Olivier Assayas exclaimed of the film, “This is dangerous, this is violent, this is beyond cinema!” His description, after all, captures in large part what the avant-garde strives to be: a call to arms, a radical new way of seeing. And whether or not any film actually achieves this, it’s worth remembering just how high the stakes are in any image, as dreams, fantasies, lies, and promises.
Perhaps the film that came closest to Assayas’s formulation was the surprise screening of Bruce Conner’s Valse Triste (1979), which mysteriously snuck into the first group program and shook up the entire afternoon. A program of Conner’s films was planned for the following evening to honor his passing earlier this year, but tucking this film into a collection of newer works only proved how vital his cut-up aesthetic remains. Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin praised In girum as a “dream machine,” and Valse Triste, which begins with a boy turning out his bedside light, is itself a kind of dream, pieced together from funny, odd, and uncanny bits of film. Scenes rise to the surface as if they’d been submerged in a well of darkness, and they bring with them images of the deep: a row of cars driving through a flood, or a man and a boy shoveling leaves onto a burning pile. Like dreams, it’s not always clear when waking begins. In one sequence, for example, a businessman hesitatingly turns around to look at a photograph of a train on the wall behind him. In the following shot, an actual train passes through the space where he had been sitting: his premonition comes true.
False Aging (2008), one of two films the Los Angeles filmmaker Lewis Klahr presented at Views, is similarly haunted by the detritus of days past, with magazine clippings, strips of faded wallpaper, postage stamps, and a library book plate, all of it come alive with Klahr’s evocative, surrealist stop-motion collage. False Aging expresses a sense of lost time, of not moving in step with the rest of the world. In one sequence Jefferson Airplane’s “Lather” asks the question, “Is it true I’m no longer young?” Time makes us prisoners locked in ourselves, like the a small yellow bird who slips behind the back of a playing card, then comes back out in front of it. In rapid alternation, they make a kind of thaumatrope, that spinning parlor trick that suggests a sense of movement in the flapping wings of a caged bird. Here the birdcage has been replaced by chance, underscoring the momentary illusion that the bird is free.
The shattering of the optical trick is echoed in Ken Jacobs’s latest stereoscopic investigation, Scenic View (2008), which seems to take a cue from Klahr in exposing the edge of the cutout. The tilting, tumbling, tottering desert landscape that’s digitally skewered in Jacobs’s film opens a rift onto something even more profoundly unstable: the gaps, discontinuities, and dark underside of the image. And Michael Robinson’s Hold Me Now (2008), a karaoke video made for the Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival, exposes a different kind of surface tension altogether. Over an anguished bedroom argument scene from the television show Little House on the Prairie, the titular Thompson Twins song plays without a singer, and the background music comes to the fore as the characters wring their hands, grab at each other’s faces, and shout. Things come undone as the fight escalates, seahorses appear at the chorus, and the screen erupts in a dizzying flicker. By the final, relentless verse, the woman has torn down the curtains and crashed through the window. A bystander appears from within, horrified at the sight of blood and broken glass, the stickiness of pop, and a song you can’t get out of your head.
In girum is filled with panning river shots, glimpses of cities as seen from water’s edge. Like the Dogana promontory in Florence, or time itself, “it was designed to be seen in this particular way and no other,” a collection of passing views and views passed through. Debord titled one of his films On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time, and this pivotal gesture resounds with a number of films shown at Views. Conner’s Report (1967), a reworking of the infamous Zapruder footage, never fails to throttle its audience for the event it invokes but never directly shows. Instead of seeing the assassination of President Kennedy (even the audio report struggles to find the right words to describe what’s happening), we watch a seemingly endless repetition of the motorcade’s approach. Every time it passes, Kennedy turns his head to smile and wave, unaware of what’s to come. For us, every time is the last time, all of it leading to a single, terrible event. We feel the terrible gravity of the moment before the fall.
With Vincent Grenier’s Les Chaises (2008), the suspended moment is loosened and stretched, and like the wind that blows throughout, there’s no sense of where it starts or stops. The HD views, which should quiet once and for all any remaining skeptics of the medium, are appropriately breathtaking; under the rustling leaves of a quiet afternoon subtle gradations of light and shadow, red and green, form. In one recurring shot, Grenier fixes on the vinyl surface of a red chair, inviting us to sit and get lost in the image. The mottled reds, seemingly endless in their variation, fill the screen, and become more than an image, more than just an abstract rendering of a commonplace object, but an experience of the sublime. In Grenier’s hands, the HD camera becomes a tool for discovery, a way of seeing, an open path. Nathaniel Dorsky presented two films in a solo show, Winter (2008) and Sarabande (2008), both portraits of San Francisco’s verdant winter months. Sarabande, a dance form, was shown before and after the more staid and somber Winter, and the double screening brought out the fluid quality of its movements. Through a dense galaxy of tiny leaves, Sarabande presents the quiet rhythms of light on afternoon city streets and Bay Area gardens. One particularly graceful shot shows a woman pulling a stroller through the door of a coffee shop. As she turns and exits, there’s a man right behind her holding the door, which in turn is caught by another passerby. In this unexpected gesture of kindness, of openness, Dorsky reveals the serene, unthinking rituals of the everyday. Speaking from the audience after the screening, Saul Levine remarked that the films had done nothing short of restoring his faith in “the possibility of visual metaphor,” which, in Dorsky’s able hands, “lead one into a kind of paradise.”
The disaster has long since passed in Mary Helena Clark’s After Writing (2007) and Taylor Dunne’s Obar (2008), both films made by Views newcomers. Each takes place in a distant aftermath; in After Writing, Clark used a pinhole camera to capture the peeling interiors of an abandoned schoolhouse near her childhood home in South Carolina, and in Obar, the still, saturated Super-8 views of a New Mexico ghost town seem like relics themselves, desert landscapes so vast and dusty that they’ve taken over the film stock. A faint message scratched on a chalkboard in After Writing, a train car seemingly dropped in the middle of a field in Obar—the remains of human life are often startling and strange, and the point at which these traces blend into the environment is obscure.
Both films ask, what things in our own lives will survive us? The question pervades two of Ben Rivers’s entries, Origins of the Species (2008) and Ah! Liberty (2008), both of which cast human life on a geological scale. They concern neighbors of a sort—isolated inhabitants of a remote, even primordial landscape—though Ah! Liberty, which won the Tiger Award for Short Film at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, is the more enigmatic and stirring of the two. In gloriously wide, hand-processed 16mm scope, a band of brothers roam the mountains and mists of their domain, sifting through a graveyard of car parts or aping for the camera in animal masks. Rivers’s touch is light, and the film frequently fades to white as if always on the brink of erasure. As one of the children sing-songs, “Get off the world”— he knows as well as anyone that our time here is only borrowed.
With Film for Invisible Ink, case no. 142 Abbreviation for Dead Winter [diminished by 1,794] (2008), David Gatten also examines a few pages of Origin of Species, though in this case, it’s done literally; Gatten boiled a few pages of Darwin’s text, removed the words with scotch tape, and filmed the pulpy remains through a microscopic lens. The result is a world unto itself, black clusters of paper fibers with wide spaces in between, a metaphor for migratory animals and people grown, in Darwin's faded words, “far distant from each other.” A radically restricted camera was similarly fixed on half of a neon sign in Ben Russell’s Trypps #5 (Dubai) (2008), which displayed the letters “APP” and only half of a “Y” in an erratic, discontinuous pulse. If the mention of Dubai conjures a cosmopolitan skyline, Russell renounces the possibility of seeing even a single street. As Mark McElhatten writes in the program notes, “Happiness is always, incomplete,” and here, in a critique that Debord may have particularly appreciated, it’s a brightly colored sign for a shop that promises everything but sells nothing.
Robert Todd’s Dig (2007) locks its gaze on an ever-shifting ground, the street in front of the filmmaker’s home as it was continually dug out, paved over, then ripped apart all over again. Over the staccato beats of a jackhammer, orange and yellow hieroglyphs point in all directions, a restless array of mysterious geometries whose meanings might not be known, but are doubtlessly headed for destruction. Craig Baldwin’s latest, Mock Up on Mu (2008) is narrow in a different sense; though it attempts to bring together B-movies, California beatniks, instructional films, aerospace engineers and L. Ron Hubbard in a vast and sinister network, the paranoid intensity of the narrative reaches a fever pitch that exhausts itself and the viewer well before the end of the first act. The film falls into its own trap by getting lost in the labyrinthine web of hidden connections, less a conspiracy than a failure of vision. Even its live-action characters seem like they’re struggling to keep up. With Fred Worden’s When Worlds Collude (2008), on the other hand, the found footage traces are far more ominous because they’re left to speak for themselves. “What the hell is that?”—it’s a familiar, even banal question uttered all too often in sci-fi and horror films, but here, without knowing what monster lurks around the corner, the terror in the sampled voice sounds different. It suggests that we don’t know, or maybe we can’t know, what’s coming next.
In girum ends with the recommendation that the film be viewed again from the start, or as Greil Marcus put it, “to begin again at the beginning.” The film’s very title, a palindrome that translates to “we turn in the night, consumed by fire,” is also a metaphor for the cinema, a darkened theater of endless nights, each lit by the illuminated screen. Conner’s A Movie (1958), a movie about all movies, begins with—what else?—the sight of a woman, and Jessie Stead and David Gatten’s Today! (2008) opens with what can be seen as a witty response to Conner’s face that launched a thousand ships; a woman emerges from the sea, Aphrodite-like, wearing headphones and carrying an ice cream cone, which she promptly licks. Later, carrying a plastic bag printed with the word “Mystique,” she wanders the destroyed world to pick out whatever she pleases, be it a New York baseball cap or the reflection of clouds on pages of a small photo album. Joel Schlemowitz reaches to a beginning that goes further back, behind the camera apparatus, in Nocturne [Avenue A, no lens] (2008). Filled with washes of colored light, the film is pretty enough, but moreover it’s a reminder that just about anything can be fascinating to look at; it’s more a matter of looking. Nocturne suggests a certain blurred edge to what we can perceive, and in terms of limits, Pat O’Neill’s rigorous Horizontal Boundaries (2008) layers scenes caught in between the frame line. The result is a kinetic portrait of residential Los Angeles, hillside homes and beachcombers that constantly slip beyond the borders of the frame to places we can’t follow.
In the final program, James Benning’s RR (2007) and its passing trains gives us 43 beginnings and endings, each perfectly self-contained shot an echo of The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the first film ever made. Where other Benning films like Ten Skies or the California Trilogy have fixed shot lengths, RR patiently waits for each train to pass, however long it takes. From suburban crossings to desert plains, we settle into the rhythms of each moment, listening to a baseball game on a car radio or watching the sudden rush of a passing speedboat. RR, after all, could also mean R&R, and after a weekend of “difficult” films, of passages and fire, rest and relaxation may have been the ending we deserved.