Acts of Perception
New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde, 2010
By Genevieve Yue

The 14th annual and newly expanded Views from the Avant-Garde opened and closed this year in the Furman Gallery, a smallish room off to the side of the Walter Reade Theater, where the bulk of the program’s experimental films were shown. Repurposed for 8mm projectors and outfitted with folding chairs and free beer, the gallery invited a looser, more casual encounter with the films shown there, a kind of rec room to unwind in the after-hours of the festival-within-a-festival. Different films demand different kinds of viewing situations, and for the psychedelic Pierre Clémenti film journals discovered after languishing in a dusty corner of the Pompidou Center for twenty years, the taut, urban superimpositions of Paul Clipson, or Bruce McClure’s aggressive, minimalist projection-performances, the gallery space offered a comfortable closeness, both in terms of intimacy and proximity to the screen. It also helped being seated cross-legged on the floor next to filmmakers, festivalgoers, and all the other faces that had become welcomingly familiar by the weekend’s final program.

The expanse of the 268-seat Walter Reade, however, did not diminish the possibilities of experiencing closeness onscreen, such as Helga Fanderl’s 8mm notebooks, single-reel films blown up to 16-millimeter and strung together into series of light, little observations of birdswarms (Birds at Checkpoint Charlie), fern shadows (Hut), and the soft tufts of a tray of handmade tortellini (Tortelloni). Altogether, these works had the distinct effect of a body in the midst of perceiving: momentary shadows sometimes came across like blinking eyelids, and in a segment about a white house surrounded by trees, the branches stoked by a gentle breeze, mimicked in the easy swaying of Fanderl’s camerawork, provoked the sensation of breathing. Jonathan Schwartz’s New Year Sun (2010), which like Fanderl’s work was composed in-camera, produced a similar rapture of sight, here trained on the water slowly dripping from a melting icicle, each quivering bud containing in remarkable detail a miniature image of the surrounding trees.

While such brief and delicate works sometimes got lost in the shuffle over the weekend’s 18 programs, New Year Sun provided a concentrated pause in the middle of a dense cluster of films, a clear and focused moment of abeyance. With The Agonal Phase (2010), Jennifer Montgomery also looked closely at the incidental objects that detailed her experiences of loss, surveying the furniture in her father’s bedroom after her mother’s death, lingering on layers of bathtub scum or zooming in on a tuft of hair stuffed into an envelope. Looking perhaps too closely, Montgomery draws the viewer into the discomfort of her own grief and the disorder that clutters such significant moments. As her earlier work, Transitional Objects (2000), is framed by scenes of the artist struggling to splice film with her feet, her toes bloodied in the process, both films suggest that the act of creation, whether rebuilding a life or making a film, always place us in the role of beginner.

Timoleon Wilkins’s contemplative Drifter (1996-2010) offered a record of the sights that enlivened the filmmaker’s eye, from the play of neon over a wet city street to the lens flares stretching across an expansive skyscape, reminding us of the way perception always shapes and complicates a sense of place. In the case of Recámara by Rosario Sotelo, the artist’s home is completely transformed by way of cinema as she films the oldest of moving image technologies, the camera obscura, projected on the walls of her apartment. As a small hole in the darkened windows reveals, upside-down, the midday sun and passing cars outside on the walls of Sotelo’s bedroom, the simple yet powerful device opens her most intimate spaces to the chance and chaos of the world beyond. Also accumulating a sense of environment was Dani Leventhal’s Hearts Are Trump Again (2010), a video that departs somewhat from the diaristic driftiness of Leventhal’s Draft 9 or Show & Tell in the Land of Milk & Honey by encompassing a broader range of geographic and gendered tensions, and introducing an element of fiction in a German woman’s mock account of finding a sperm donor, as well as the playacting of Leventhal herself dressed up as a bandit. Occurring late in the film, the latter moment suggests a link between the filmmaker’s craft and an act of theft, scenes and images stolen from various places and rearranged in the filmmaker’s imagination like a hand of poker, with the heart always ending up the winning card.

The possibilities of costuming were most vibrantly expressed in the madcap homemade films of Jeff Keen, recently preserved by the British Film Institute. Recalling Jack Smith’s campy antics, Kenneth Anger’s hallucinatory inversions of pop culture, or Craig Baldwin’s frenetic paranoiac mash-ups, Keen’s work fires at a rapid clip, parading a dazzling array of characters inspired by pulpy B-movie aesthetics: the Cold War couple Anti-Matter Man and the Bride of the Atom in White Lite (1968), seen “inside out” in a hazy negative rendering; the nefarious Dr. Volta and his voluptuous captive Vulvana in White Dust (1970-72); and a man prancing around in a Daffy Duck mask in Rayday Film (1968-70). Keen’s most eye-searing images, however, come from his animations. In a film like Meatdaze (1968), which combines live action with stop-motion effects, sometimes within the same sequence, crumpled-up plastic spews from people’s mouths, guns leak paper arrows, women stare with animal stripes painted on their cheeks, and the faces of plastic dolls melt and deform as the world seems headed for imminent annihilation. But the most lasting image of Keen’s work might have been the recurring shot of large black x’s drawn over a photographed pair of eyes; as Keen was profoundly affected by his experiences fighting in World War II, this motif might signal a refusal to see, or the mark of having seen too much.

Also afflicted by the traumas of war, though at a far remove, was Stephanie Barber and Xav LePlae’s razor’s edge (2010), a dramatization of the Somerset Maugham novel The Razor’s Edge. Maugham’s story of postwar dissolution is only vaguely remembered in Barber and LePlae’s escapade, more an occasion of the friends’ reconnection after long years of absence than any kind of adaptation, and the film could be understood as the wild, unpredictable flowering that grows from the settling of things past. As the pair dances in an extreme wide shot on a downtown Baltimore rooftop, or passes an invisible mass of energy back and forth in the background of a Korean restaurant, their melodramatic theatrics are met with quizzical looks from bystanders. They are misunderstood by the world around them, and probably a fair number of people in the audience, yet however removed or inscrutable the creative logic underpinning their collaboration, it’s impossible to miss the film’s effervescent sense of joy. Stuffed in a too-tight leisure suit, LePlae fumbles with the objects in a barbershop, while Barber, dressed in a mustard yellow evening gown, stumbles drunk across the front of an abandoned grocery store. Like a pair of silent film comedians, they move gleefully against the rhythms of the city, and in the process they create their own intrepid and improbable itinerary through Baltimore’s empty lots and the pages of Maugham’s book.

Memory is central to a number of films, and several of the festival’s more rigorous offerings examined the particularities of short-term repetitions. Jean-Marie Straub’s austere Corneille-Brecht ou “Rome, l’unique object de mon ressentiment!” (2009), a thrice-repeated scene of the actress Cornelia Geiser reading a segment from Brecht’s 1939 radio play Lehrstruck, opened the first full day of the festival. Each sequence contained a different layer of translation: the first, spoken in German, was left untranslated, the second was fitted with French subtitles, and the third, English subtitles. For me, German-poor and possessed of rusty French, the scene shifted from the sonorous lilt of Geiser’s voice to glimpses of recognizable words (the effect was similar to reading the heavily redacted English subtitles added to Godard’s Film socialisme) and in the final iteration, to the full pathos of the trial of Lucullus in the underworld. Before his jury of commoners, the renowned Roman general is called by a different name, and his great deeds are undermined by the people who suffered the consequences of his actions. Brecht presents a man who is not who he thinks he is, and Straub’s film similarly disrupts the expectations of what a film should be. However frustrating Corneille-Brecht could be (and there was plenty of grumbling in the audience), Straub’s work was a fitting first-day film, adjusting the eyes and alerting the ears to cinema’s most basic components.

Manon de Boer also played with the disjunction of sound and image in Dissonant (2010), where dancer Cynthia Loemij performs a sequence of choreography after listening, her eyes shut and head nodding slightly, to three violin sonatas by Eugène Ysaÿe. There is repetition and then there is not: the rigid contours of Loemij’s energetic dance, repeated many times over, loosen as she grows more fatigued, and after three minutes, or the end of a 16mm film roll, the screen goes to black as the camera is reloaded. Because she can still be heard dancing, her breath and footsteps occurring in now-familiar moments, her temporarily absent image melds with the viewer’s imagination, her form filled in by both memory and fantasy.

Martin Arnold, meanwhile, works over the repetition of the instant in Shadow Cuts (2010), a stuttering sequence of selective black-outs and slices into a scene from a Mickey Mouse cartoon. By turns funny and deeply disturbing, or more often both at once, the film—like Arnold’s mutations of Hollywood convention in pièce touchée (1989), passage à l'acte (1993) and Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998)—reveals a compulsive cinema that stumbles over itself, compulsively revealing its insides out. A Thousand Julys (2010), one of several musical “couplets” Lewis Klahr premiered this year, combines the backwards-played version of Astrud Gilberto’s “Gentle Rain” with a collapsed close-up view of a romance comic-book page seen from both sides through a lightbox. Amid the compressed cluster of cars and crying women drawn in thick, textured lines, the reversed song plays first, Gilberto’s haunting voice wafting above the strings. The song sets up the expectation that the story will iron itself out by the second half, but when the “Gentle Rain” returns, this time playing forward, the muddy confusion only thickens. With its rich web of colors and feeling of hopeless collapse, A Thousand Julys makes for a stunning and entirely despairing vision of consumptive, codependent love.

While film is often concerned with the past, a number of works opened up to the future, whether Messianic in tone, headed for celestial burnout, or left simply unknown. Fern Silva’s In the Absence of Light, Darkness Prevails (2010) suggests a future already arrived, merging the destruction with the creation of life as seen in the tiny turtles crawling their way to the sea, or heard in the crackling of a Geiger counter as a masked man sprays plants with pesticides. Though only 13 minutes, the film’s span is enormous. As revelers in Salvador, Bahia, parade through the streets, a gnat-sized Mercury passes across the surface of the sun, and men slowly make their way up the giant steps of an ancient temple; the film resides in a well of deep time, civilizational history swallowed by the life of the planet.

A restored print of Manoel de Oliveira’s Rite of Spring (1963), on the other hand, narrowed its historical scope by steering the story of the crucifixion toward the destruction wrought by World War II. Partly a documentary of a passion play dramatized by the inhabitants of Curalha, a remote area of northern Portugal, the film faithfully (and almost dully) records the rhythmic singing of the actors, framing them in straightforward medium shots more often used in television than in cinema. At the moment of Christ’s ascension, however, a curious thing happens: film strips shoot up in the sky, followed by a montage of invading soldiers newsreels, the explosion of the atomic bomb, and images of the burn victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pontius Pilate, who until now has been dressed in a brightly-colored costume, appears in the drab attire of 1963, reading a newspaper. The performance continues otherwise unchanged, the same as when it began in the 16th century, yet Oliveira’s unexpected sequence fixes this moment to time, setting the stage for other revelations which may be as much dream as disaster. Looking to a future beyond death, Michael Robinson’s These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us (2010), one of the filmmaker’s most sophisticated found footage concoctions yet, combined Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” music video with footage of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and roughly a dozen other sources, creating for the late pop star a solemn passage into a bedazzled Egyptian afterlife tenderly ushered by his real-life confidante.

The most poignant gesture toward a future was David Gatten’s Film for Invisible Ink, case no. 323: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (2010), a stark, black-and-white procession of telegraphic code across a blank frame. The film builds slowly and gradually reveals its purpose: an epithalamion film for filmmaker Erin Espelie written in the code of pollen and pine gathered in the woods by their Colorado home. The text of Gatten’s wedding vows, screened during their actual marriage, appear and then evaporate, but the endurance of Gatten’s silent phrasing remained long in the theater. Though there were films that came after, it was for me a graceful conclusion to the festival, an end that opened to other possibilities, to the new or unimaginable, and a reverent promise of all the sights and sensations yet to come.

Above: Photo from Lewis Klahr's A Thousand Julys.