Children, Nature, Fragmentation: An Idiosyncratic Review of the New York Film Festival's "Views from the Avant-Garde"

by Craig Fischer

Program 1: LIGHT SPILL
Tentative Suggestions

As Tom Taylor and Steve Reinke point out in the introduction to LUX: A DECADE OF ARTISTS' FILM AND VIDEO, introductions are the space in a book where authors and editors say "I'm sorry" by acknowledging limitations, confessing inexperience and lamenting for what might have been if they had world enough and time to do perfect work. Taylor and Reinke wisely avoid this hand-wringing and express justifiable pride in the LUX anthology, but I need to preface the following review of the New York Film Festival's "Views from the Avant-Garde" with some disclaimers and apologies. First, I'm writing about films I've seen only once or twice, so forgive me for any details I got wrong. Also, I'm more concerned with trying to understand the films rather than evaluating their aesthetic worth. Every festival film I saw was complex, ambitious and unconventional, and it was an overwhelming experience to see twenty-one such works in a single two-day lump. The best I can do is toss out hypotheses and make tentative connections, and I'll leave it to posterity and the mechanisms of canon formation to determine which will be anointed as "classics." The following descriptions and speculations, then, are just notes literally and figuratively written in the dark, though I hope a little light snuck in.

Program 1: LIGHT SPILL
THE HEART OF THE WORLD (Guy Maddin, 2000)
THE FOURTH WATCH (Janie Geiser, 2000)
THE GLASS SYSTEM (Mark LaPore, 2000)
SURFACE NOISE (Abigail Child, 2000)
MOON STREAMS (Mary Beth Reed, 2000)
LIKE A DREAM THAT VANISHES (Barbara Sternberg, 1999)
ORIGIN OF THE 21ST CENTURY (Jean-Luc Godard, 2000)

Many of the LIGHT SPILL films explicitly acknowledge the work of previous filmmakers, avant-garde and otherwise. THE HEART OF THE WORLD, like most of Guy Maddin's films, is a fever-dream reinterpretation of the tropes of silent cinema. HEART tells the sublimely melodramatic story of two brothers--Nikolai, a Caligari-like mortician, and Osip, an actor who lives his part as Christ in the Passion Play--vying for the love of Anna, a refugee from METROPOLIS who discovers that "the earth's heart" is beginning to fail. Madden also tips his bowler in Eisenstein's direction by casting a fat capitalist straight out of STRIKE as his villain, and by ending HEART with a celebration of "Kino! Kino! Kino!" and a parade of bare-chested men carrying flags. Abigail Child's SURFACE NOISE, cobbled from found footage that Child describes as "outtakes of outtakes," is a dense collage of images with a John Zorn-like soundtrack. Sometimes the images sync with the noise; the flailings of a salmon swimming upstream is coupled with a rimshot, and home movie footage of a man laughing is paired with a female opera singer. In most of SURFACE NOISE, however, sound and image follow their own dialectical paths, creating a density which is Child's tribute (as a dedication at the end of the film makes clear) to the equally complex films of Warren Sonbert. And Mary Beth Reed's MOON STREAMS, a lovely exploration of emulsion textures, painted surfaces and carefully modulated rhythms, is dedicated to Stan Brakhage.

Barbara Sternberg's LIKE A DREAM THAT VANISHES also evokes Brakhage, but in a much more critical way. Although the film evokes other traditions (it begins and ends with Sharits-like flickering frames of solid color), Sternberg's central concern is with debunking the metaphysical claims Brakhage makes for sight, childhood and nature. Laced through DREAM are excerpts from an interview with a philosopher who chats about the possibility of miracles and the arguments David Hume made against divine intervention into the natural world. But in the footage surrounding the philosopher, Sternberg exhausts the catalog of Brakhage techniques (scratched emulsion, close-ups of animal fur, children running in the grass, etc.), while the ominous soundtrack indicates that Sternberg fails to find the miracles that the philosopher discusses and that Brakhage celebrates in his early films and writings. This is especially true of Sternberg's portrayal of children. Instead of Brakhage's blessed tabula razas, the kids in DREAM are aggressive consumers (as in repeated footage of a boy tearing into Christmas presents and angrily shaking a Batman doll box) or pot smoking sullen hipster teens. (These teens, in fact, remind me of the scenes of Brakhage's grown-up children in later, more despairing films like TORTURED DUST [1986].) Although the film's philosopher-character praises "wonder" at the end of the movie, the dream that vanishes is the dream of Brakhage's modernism, the dream that nature offers a miraculous coherence and beauty open to anyone who knows how to truly see. The curatorial coup of the "Views from the Avant-Garde" was following Reed's MOON STREAMS and its joyous appropriation of Brakhage's ways of seeing with Sternberg's pessimistic denial of the miraculous.

Children appeared in other LIGHT SPILL films too. In SURFACE NOISE, footage of girls playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie and boys staging a mock bullfight is quickly eclipsed by shots of factories and snippets from old science documentaries; childhood is subsumed by rationality and work. In Godard's video ORIGIN OF THE 21ST CENTURY, kids from various films--the starving children from Buñuel's LAS HURDES (1932), the boy pedaling his Big Wheel through the corridors of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980)­are juxtaposed with documentary footage of the 20th century's executions and genocides. (In her review in the VILLAGE VOICE, Amy Taubin claimed that ORIGIN's emphasis on children was "unusual" in Godard's work, but I disagree. NUMERO DEUX (1975), FRANCE/TOUR/DETOUR/DEUX/ENFANTS (1977), HAIL MARY (1985), THE KIDS PLAY RUSSIAN (1993) and other Godard films of the last quarter-century focus on interviews with and sympathy for kids.) Janie Geiser's THE FOURTH WATCH mixes scenes of a meticulously-decorated dollhouse shot on film with video overlays of human figures taken from silent films: the house of film haunted by video. Geiser creates beautiful links between the film and video planes; in the dollhouse's bedroom, the flickering image of a boy lies in bed, and a reverse shot from the boy's point of view shows us a pixilated, menacing older man bursting into the bedroom. For me, this shot-reverse shot captures the unease of being five years old, waking up in the middle of the night, and hearing sounds.

The film which most provocatively invoked childhood was Mark LaPore's THE GLASS SYSTEM, a montage of shots from a trip LaPore took to Calcutta (with a few insert shots from his native New York) that examines the relationships between children and the politics of the ethnocentric gaze. Early in THE GLASS SYSTEM, LaPore frames two Indian schoolgirls in medium shot and, presumably, instructs them to remain as still as possible for their "portrait." During this long take, the girls look around nervously and eventually begin to smile and giggle. The scene begins as an example of ethnography, with the long take and static framing representing objectivity, but the ethnographic gaze crumbles as the girls assert their own personalities and acknowledge the presence of LaPore's camera. This complex shot is quickly followed by some heart-breaking footage of two Calcutta street performers, a ringleader father and a toddler daughter who expertly walks a tightrope while her father collects alms. The footage is both troubling and poignant, but I interpret the father and daughter in this sequence metaphorically; just as LaPore exploited the two schoolgirls in the earlier shot, so too the father exploits his daughter for her value as a performer. I am not saying, however, that LaPore is morally suspect for shooting these scenes; by self-reflexively putting himself in the "father" role, he responsibly investigates and explores the exploitation implicit in his own (and perhaps in all) filmmaking practices. In the question-and-answer session after the screening I attended, one spectator accused LaPore of romanticizing child labor, but THE GLASS SYSTEM shows us children stripped of their wonder by poverty and class rather than by naive ethnographic filmmaking.

TIME AND TIDE (Peter Hutton, 2000)
ARBOR VITAE (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2000)

Peter Hutton has stated in interviews that the purpose behind his films is to create a space where spectators can slow down and truly see the images that he culls from nature. In this respect TIME AND TIDE, a silent, meditative chronicle of shipping boats as they travel up and down the Hudson river, is similar to his earlier work. The film includes several scenes­especially black-and-white shots of a boat's wake cracking ice on the surface of the frozen river­that are among the most meditative and ravishing I've seen in an avant-garde film. But TIME AND TIDE is also concerned with issues beyond stillness and aesthetic beauty: Hutton links his filmmaking practice with those of silent film by beginning TIME AND TIDE with a 1903 short by Billy Bitzer during his own boat ride down the Hudson. Bitzer's film is shown in fast motion, which, according to Hutton, was the speed at which Bitzer wanted it to be seen. It's also possible to interpret this speed as Hutton's commentary on the subjective nature of time. In 1903, a boat was probably one of the fastest forms of transportation available (hence the speed of the Bitzer film), while in 2000 such travel is slow, antiquated and capable of inducing a stillness among spectators used to airplanes and the Internet. Hutton further evokes the spirit of silent cinema by shooting many shots through boat portholes, creating an iris effect that was an integral part of the grammar of silent films (including the melodramas that Bitzer and D.W. Griffith made for Biograph).

Hutton's film functions primarily as an exquisite presentation of the Hudson River and its ships, but Nathaniel Dorsky's ARBOR VITAE is more concerned with mounting a philosophical argument about the relationships between humanity and nature. Many shots in ARBOR VITAE show profoundly unhappy people­Dorsky is able to photograph frowning, chain-smoking yuppies on street corners in almost embarrassing close-ups­and the film's editing implies that urban environments cause this profound unhappiness. One shot captures a woman facing away from the camera, with her hands flitting and twitching nervously behind her back. Dorsky immediately follows this shot with images of birds trapped in cages, implying that both the woman and the birds are imprisoned and cut off from nature. (There are other people-animal comparisons, as when another woman's nervous hands are juxtaposed with a close-up of a horse sticking his neck out of a stall and jerking his head back and forth.) Dorsky's alternative to the rhythms of the urban machine is the increased cultivation of our awareness of nature. Flowers drift gently in the breeze; a tall bush shivers against the corner of a building; the shadows of tree branches dance against the back of a stop sign; a butterfly flits off a rock and then returns. As Dorsky writes in the festival's program notes, such images are designed to reconnect us to "our tender mystery midst the elaborate unfolding of the tree of life," and both TIME AND TIDE and ARBOR VITAE remind us that this unfolding of the natural world is perhaps the most experimental show of all.

PRELUDE (Michael Snow, 2000)
SPIRAL VESSEL (Janie Geiser, 2000)
THE ADVENTURE PARADE (Kerry Laitala, 2000)
THE ZERO ORDER (Bobby Abate, 2000)
LOST MOTION (Janie Geiser, 2000)
NOT RESTING (Nicky Hamlyn, 1999)
BLITZE (Dietmar Brehm, 2000)
SLOW DEATH (Stom Sogo, 2000)
TWIG (Michael Mideke, 1967)
IN ABSENTIA (The Quay Brothers, 2000)

Many of the BENEATH THE SECOND HAND films build on the themes presented in LIGHT SPILL. If Maddin's THE HEART OF THE WORLD is a mixmaster interpretation of Eisenstein and silent melodrama, Dietmar Brehm's BLITZE is a detourned version of Hitchcockian suspense. The film's rigid structure­a close-up of a staring man, accompanied by a brief lightning flash and reverse shots of a woman taking a shower and getting into bed­feels like REAR WINDOW stripped of character motivation and plot complication and reduced to the brute logic of voyeuristic obsession. The blue-tinted, ethereal images of Indian women and stalking tigers in Kerry Laitala's THE ADVENTURE PARADE provide, like LaPore's THE GLASS SYSTEM, a challenging alternative to the legible but pernicious rhetoric of travel documentaries. And Michael Mideke's TWIG, a fast-moving montage of black and white frames, ink drawings, contact printing and textured spray paint, distresses our vision in Brakhage-like ways.

Other films in the program seem concerned with fragmentation, with disjunction in both psychological and formal terms. Michael Snow's PRELUDE presents us with a single shot of twenty-somethings hanging out in a fancy apartment, eating pizza and making plans to see a movie. PRELUDE's soundtrack is out of sync with its images, however, so that we hear a crashing sound long before one of the characters hurls a vase to the floor. (And Snow is obviously baiting critics bothered by the female nudity in his films when he has one of the female characters declare "If they want sex, we'll give them sex!" about a minute before she takes off her blouse and reveals her breasts.) Nicky Hamlyn's NOT RESTING is constructed in terms almost exactly opposite from PRELUDE; Snow's film is a single take exploration of sound-image interaction, while NOT RESTING is a silent, deliberately-paced montage of a bedroom where shots or rumpled sheets imply the absence of bodies and where extremes in focus (from sharp to blurry) subvert our sense of a coherent space. DELLAMORTE DELLAMORTE DELLAMORTE by David Matarasso carves a trailer for Michele Soavi's CEMETERY MAN into slices of individual frames which appear to have been glued onto a new, and hand-painted, film strip. The end result is a jarring, phantasmagoric take of Soavi's already nutty movie. Janie Geiser's second festival film, SPIRAL VESSEL, an extended stop-motion dance of a jigsaw puzzle of arms, ears and a face, brings these impulses towards fragmentation to our sense of bodily integrity.

Psychic confusion is expressed in Bobby Abate's THE ZERO ORDER, a very loose narrative about two men, a film director and an actor, who each try to will themselves into believing that they are Holly Golightly while collaborating on a Warholesque remake of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. ZERO begins with a ball swaying back and forth in the frame while a voice (possibly culled from actual "therapeutic" cassette tapes) addresses us directly about giving up conscious and unconscious homosexual urges. The voice tries to plant post-hypnotic suggestions, delivering lines like "When I count backwards from three, you will feel rested and at ease with yourself because you will have relinquished your homosexual desires. Three...two..." This is where the film's title comes from; Abate takes us to the ground zero of repression and shows how much our unconscious dreams are shaped by images and characters from popular culture. Abate's film operates as a witty gloss on Blake Edwards' original BREAKFAST­lingering shots of a horrified Asian actress are an implicit criticism of Mickey Rooney's monstrous, buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi­but perhaps Abate's most subversive move comes when he re-presents scenes from BREAKFAST at half-speed, making Audrey Hepburn's voice a bit deeper than James Earl Jones'. The protagonists of THE ZERO ORDER wish they were Holly Golightly, but Abate has his revenge on Hollywood by turning Holly Golightly into a man.

The one movie in the BENEATH THE SECOND HAND program that battles against fragmentation and disintegration is Janie Geiser's third (!) festival film, the stop-action LOST MOTION. The film's central protagonist is a small, metal figurine of a businessman, who travels through a landscape rife with thick superimpositions and backgrounds made of stamps and maps. He is also stalked by the benign face of a female puppet that occasionally hovers over his shoulder. But just as the film settles into a comfortable, dancing rhythm between the metal businessman and the female puppet face, Geiser's imagery grows darker: the stamps and maps are replaced with pistons and gears, and disembodied doll arms cover the mouths of the businessman and puppet. Finally, it is clear that the female puppet is trapped in the world created by this hellish imagery; in what is perhaps a nod to THE PERILS OF PAULINE, she is tied to railroad tracks and her head, shoulders and arms are detached from her body. LOST MOTION ends as the businessman also begins to interact with this fierce industry. I may be going out on a rickety interpretive limb here, but I read LOST MOTION as a kind of Orphic parable, where a hero descends into Hell in order to save his beloved. The little metal man is the only hero the BENEATH THE SECOND HAND program offers us, and it says something about the fragmentation in our own lives that Geiser strongly hints that the machines will swallow him.

TEATRO AMAZONAS (Sharon Lockhart, 1999)

Lockhart shot TEATRO AMAZONAS in an opera house located in Manaus, Brazil, where she asked 308 members of the community to attend a concert of an experimental tone piece performed by a large choir. The music was written by composer Becky Allen, who designed the piece to peak and then gradually fade away. The image that accompanies this music is simplicity itself: a long-shot long take, about a half-hour long, of the Manaus citizens sitting in the audience and listening to the performance. The camera is placed on the opera house's stage, so the framing of the image is from a slight high angle. The choir is excluded from this framing, so all we see are spectators responding to a barrage of vocal tones, which in the last half of the film dissipate and are replaced by ambient sounds created by the Manaus audience. It's fun to speculate on the motivations behind TEATRO AMAZONAS­Is Lockhart commenting on ethnographic film style the same way LaPore does in his portrait of the schoolgirls? Is TEATRO AMAZONAS an experimental rockumentary? Why does Lockhart set up a mirror situation where two audiences scrutinize each other?­but much of TEATRO AMAZONAS' charm lies in its matter-of-factness, its refusal to court ambiguity and mean anything beyond its straight-faced presentation of 308 people. This dry sensibility continues into the film's ten minute credit sequence, which not only lists the crew but also all the audience members and the Manaus streets each lives on. Rhizomatic connection: TEATRO AMAZONAS reminds me of another single-shot, pseudo-ehtnographic structural film with long, amusing credits, Standish Lawder's NECROLOGY.

Tentative Suggestions

This was the first time I attended the New York Film Festival's "Views from the Avant-Garde," but it won't be the last. I had a ball and saw more experimental movies than I typically see in six months; my thanks to curators Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten for organizing the event and giving me this chance to burn my eyeballs to jelly. I only have two suggestions for future festivals. First, there was a noticeable absence of humor in all the programs. One of the BENEATH THE SECOND HAND films, Stom Sogo's SLOW DEATH, a grainy collection of dour scenes (a man pushed around in a wheelchair, a driver pulling a rickshaw, people shoving their way onto a subway train, intense flicker) paired with an abrasive soundtrack, was both a tour-de-force and a perfect example of the despairing seriousness of most of the festival offerings. Now I realize that these filmmakers are not interested in making art that is "pleasurable" in conventional ways, but many of my favorite avant-garde works (BLONDE COBRA, BLEU SHUT, ON THE MARRIAGE BROKER JOKE, Kuchar's WEATHER DIARIES, everything I've seen by Martha Colburn) are the ones that make me laugh out loud, and maybe future programs would be more diverse and lively if they included a few comedians.

Second, I wonder if it isn't time for Smith and McElhatten to lobby for avant-garde screenings both at the festival sidebar at the Walter Reade Theater and before the feature film showings films in Alice Tully Hall. The last film in the BENEATH THE SECOND HAND program, the Brothers Quay's IN ABSENTIA, was projected in 35mm, had a soundtrack by Stockhausen, and clearly cost over a million dollars to make. It's experimental in its subject matter­I'm especially fond of the little horned creature whose job it was to vacuum up the broken pencil points­but its high production values also make it accessible to spectators more accustomed to "professional" features. (Was it so long ago that movies by the Brothers Quay made it into art houses?) The sell-out crowds and extra showings at the Walter Reade proved that the contemporary avant-garde is a thriving, vibrant subculture, and by spreading our films across the entire New York Film Festival, we can win over new converts and continue to grow.

Craig J. Fischer

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