Hard and Soft Montage:
NYFF: Projections 2015
by Genevieve Yue

It’s only been in use for two years, but the title of the experimental film and video sidebar of the New York Film Festival, Projections, is already in danger of becoming obsolete. Though the custom of actually projecting cinematic works is alive and well in a festival setting such as this, the primary way viewers encounter moving images has become more of an emanation on glowing digital displays. (Case in point: highlights from last year’s edition are now streaming on Mubi.) As many of the works in the Projections program show, the Internet has also become a primary source of material and site of conceptual exploration, particularly among the gallery crowd, and programmers Dennis Lim, Aily Nash, and Gavin Smith have added to the core experimental film roster a considerable number of visual artists like James Richards, Jon Rafman, Beatrice Gibson, Cécile B. Evans, and Louis Henderson, all newcomers to the festival.

Two works by Henderson explicitly address this digital tendency. All That Is Solid (2014) adopts the view of a computer desktop, opening folders containing media clips, and Wikipedia, YouTube, and Google browsers to examine, in crowded juxtaposition, the supposedly immaterial operations of software and the physical reality of hardware. Henderson, the invisible user, stacks windows on top of one another, densely layering the frame with disparate strands of texts and images: here an archival film of a colonial British school lesson entitled “I Will Speak English”; there a scene of men hacking away at PC towers in the Agbogbloshie tech junkyard in Accra, Ghana. Somewhat haphazardly, though seemingly by design, the fragments accumulate as “soft montage” (as one desktop folder is named), which progresses not sequentially as in traditional film editing, but spatially. The film turns the Internet against itself, holding its utopian seamlessness—in one advertisement for the cloud, we hear a voice confidently say “It just works”—against the reality of an industry grounded in economic disparity and environmental disaster. Henderson’s Black Code/Code Noir (2015), which is having its world premiere at NYFF, similarly adopts “soft montage” to implicate database-driven surveillance networks used by the justice system with the racist protocols of arrest, incarceration, and the state-sanctioned murder of young black men in the United States. Though Black Code, in its aggregation of Ustream videos, archival footage of Malcolm X, NYPD press conferences, and a chilling 3D model recreation of the Michael Brown shooting, is just as unwieldy as All That Is Solid, its focus is more coherent and forceful. Here the overwhelming accumulation of evidence of racist violence has a singular purpose: it conveys the immense scope of the injustice, its permeation in all aspects of American life, and the urgency of systemic political change.

While Henderson’s films bring the world into view through discrete and overlapping windows, several works delve into the spaces that computer technologies create for themselves. F for Fibonacci (2014), by Beatrice Gibson, leads us, among other places, through a virtual world created in the videogame Minecraft. Gibson’s guide, as well as ours, is Clay Barnard Chodzko, a boy whose character is inspired by the eleven-year-old capitalist who creates a massive fortune with the help of his school’s composer in William Gaddis’s satirical novel JR (1975). As with most 11-year-olds, Chodzko brims with enthusiasm. Gliding past giant pixelated buildings or bounding up a floating parkour arena, he gleefully explains, in voiceover, that the world in view was created by Mr. Money, “a superhero…very full of himself, and… really, really, really rich.” (Mr. Money is also portrayed as a tongue-wagging, squiggly-line cartoon.) Building off its literary source, the film draws connections between musical composition, magical numbers, and financial speculation, emphasizing how each is a creative act governed by chance. While the nuances of these links may be lost on some viewers, they are given full expression in the film’s dazzling imagery, from a kaleidoscopic collage featuring the heads of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, to the intent facial expressions of traders on a market floor, and the vertiginous reaches of Mr. Money’s blocky empire.

Cécile B. Evans’s Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen (2014) pushes even deeper into the digital realm, suggesting, through its avatar, a 3D-generated model of Philip Seymour Hoffman, that the Internet is a complete, autonomous world onto itself. The droll “Phil” plays the role of Virgil as he guides us through a series of memorable tableaux. Though he cautions us not to use the word “uncanny,” the film imagines the Internet as an underworld inhabited by the ghosts of our own: a deceased woman who continues to tag herself in her boyfriend’s Facebook photos; the North Korean “computer girls” who, after the video of them performing was leaked to YouTube, were reportedly murdered (“I’m not sure where they fit in, I just can’t stop thinking about them,” Phil muses); and the Japanese hologram pop star Hatsune Miku, who sings “Forever Young” in an empty hotel suite. The most poignant of the film’s scenes comes from a sourced YouTube video, in which a little girl tearfully confesses to her uncle that she deleted his picture from a phone. “Your picture went away forever,” she says, her mouth contorted in a deep frown. After this tour of a virtual afterlife, we understand, as she does, that to no longer exist as an image is to be nothing at all.

Though soft montage and its digital ilk are given considerable room in the Projections program, the equivalent “hard” montage of traditional film editing is hardly missing. The delightful Non-Stop Beautiful Ladies (2015), by Alee Peoples, shows that the simplest of means, whether a cut or a carefully executed pan, can achieve complicated and surprising cinematic effects. What would otherwise be a fairly straightforward array of street scenes becomes in Peoples’s film an inventive chain of shots linked through the continuity of movement. From above, where the mostly empty shells of illuminated signs still stand, Peoples pans down to the advertisements that have taken their place, namely motorized mannequins displaying cardboard signs for vehicle registration or iPad repair services. Sometimes the pan lands not on a mannequin, but a woman standing in its place, mimicking its movements in a strange repetitious dance. Later we see a trio of women on an amphitheater stage, gracefully swaying to music playing from a small boom box. Movement connects each image: the motion begun in the camera’s pans and tilts is carried through to the mannequins’ gyrations and finally to the women’s gentle sashays. The extension of a movement from camera to actor, or sign to model, quite literally fulfills the promise of “NON STOP BEAUTIFUL LADIES” heralded by one of the film’s few remaining storefront signs.

The title of Riccardo Giacconi’s Entrelazado (Entangled)(2014) is suggestive of its braided structure, where scenes of a puppeteer, a physicist, a psychic, a tailor, and a woman playing a theremin slowly unfold in concert with each other. Giacconi links shots like a daisy chain, connecting the sound of running water to an image of plastic fish floating in a cylindrical tank, a view of a rushing river, a painted waterfall, and finally, in a wide view of the same backdrop, a curtain falls over the stage we now see before it. Disparate scenes align in this manner, their affinities not apparent until they’ve been given space to stretch and play out, as when an early shot of a sleeping lion is later met with a story about a bus accident reportedly caused by an escaped lion lying in the middle of the road. By the time the physicist explains the phenomenon of “quantum entanglement,” the sustained link between particles no matter how far they are separated, the principle has already been demonstrated cinematically, as if all the film’s spaces were strung together on a taught, invisible line.

The same logic adheres in Hard as Opal (2015), by Jared Buckheister and former Kazuko Trust Award winner Dani Leventhal, though in this case the entanglement of scenes and characters is where the film begins, not ends. Hard as Opal is Leventhal’s first foray into narrative, an area often kept “loose” or “suggested” for avant-garde filmmakers wary of straying too far into the fiction camp, yet for Buckheister and Leventhal the story of a lesbian who seeks the help of a male friend in conceiving a child only adds to the richness of the montage. The film loses none of the sharpness of Leventhal’s eye or her willingness to stick the camera into uncomfortable, too-close places; here we see a long and recently stitched surgical wound, a beat-up mount used in the collection of horse semen, a live animal birth, and a man’s furtive glances at nudie magazines while he awkwardly has sex solely for the purposes of insemination. Unlike many narrative films, where editing only serves to develop the story, the story supplements the (correspondingly hard) montage by allowing Buckheister and Leventhal’s camera to circle around and return to certain scenarios and images. In ample, raw, and moving detail, the film fills out the world around its characters. It’s a world that might make us squirm, but it’s one we can’t fail to recognize as our own.