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American Film Institute INternational Film Festival

FESTIVALS: NYFF Avant-Garde Views, 5 Years and Counting

by Brian Frye

(indieWIRE/ 10.19.01) -- The New York Film Festival takes the old-school avant-garde seriously. And in the wake of the digital revolution, that's a lot more than can be said for most festivals these days. Last weekend, the NYFF presented "Views from the Avant-Garde," a festival sidebar curated by Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten. For five years now, Smith and McElhatten have offered the more adventurous festival-goers their singular version of the movies. Easily the highest-profile screening of avant-garde films in the United States, it's a must-see for devotees. Of course, the films aren't for everyone, but audiences are steadily growing. In fact, this year virtually every program sold out. Still, no one could accuse the programmers of pandering to their audience. "Views from the Avant-Garde" indisputably reflects their very particular tastes, and this year's program was more hermetic than ever. The series included 29 films presented in five programs over two days. As in previous years, the films spanned an impressive range of formats, from Super-8 to 35mm. The program even included a feature length digital video, Andrew Noren's rather disappointing "Time Being." In recent years, "Views from the Avant-Garde" has enjoyed a degree of critical attention rarely afforded avant-garde film. It's not often one sees experimental films reviewed in The New York Times, and two filmmakers are largely responsible: Nathaniel Dorsky and Robert Beavers. While Dorsky and Beavers both began making films in the 1960s, they remained relatively obscure until a few years ago, when NYFF screenings catapulted them into the public eye. Both have appeared in the NYFF regularly since. It's quite gratifying that two such rigorous filmmakers should have attracted such a following, if a bit of a surprise. This year, Beavers's "The Ground" showed in a program with Dorsky's "Love's Refrain," the first time their films have played together. One of Beavers's finest films to date, "The Ground" is the perfect example of his austerely beautiful style. Filmed in a remote part of Greece, the film consists of perhaps 5 or 6 images. A crouching man doggedly chisels a block of stone into shape, then beats his breast and cups his palm against it, to the sound of a bird fluttering skyward; the ruins of an ancient mill overlook a tiny, white chapel perched on a slip of land in the sea; a rude cave opens onto a shrine-like copse of trees. The images are each repeated several times in enigmatic combinations, slowly acquiring an iconic significance. The weight of history pressing onto the landscape is almost palpable, as if one is actually watching it accrete. After the screening, Beavers spoke of the man's beating of his breast as a cathartic act, but the film is charged with the tension between this catharsis and the asceticism that enables him to continue his endless labor. One has the impression that Beavers has somehow condensed the metaphysical struggle that precipitated Western civilization into its component elements. "The Ground" was preceded by Nathaniel Dorsky's "Love's Refrain," which he called a coda to the trilogy completed by last year's "Arbor Vitae." Structurally, they are very similar. Silent films shown at silent speed (16 frames per second), they consist of exquisitely photographed images snatched from the flow of life. But where "Arbor Vitae" represented an attempt to transcend the physical world, "Love's Refrain" muses on its inescapable pull. If "Arbor Vitae" reflects a yearning for the glories of the pure spirit, "Love's Refrain" tempers that yearning with a reminder of its imminence. Dorsky is renowned for his skillful and subtle montage, and his new film is no exception. A poet of the mundane, Dorsky imbues his films with a powerful emotional charge by ensuring that his images always retain their particular character and never reduce to mere symbols. From the brightly colored prow of a tethered rowboat that begins "Love's Refrain" to the hovering, sun-drenched birds that end it, every image remains exactly what it is and no less, even while carrying the sense of the film. I was surprised by the absence of the short films by well-known feature directors like Guy Maddin, Jean-Luc Godard and the Brothers Quay that gave last year's program a distinctly international feel. While the program did include several European films "Nebel" by Matthias Muller, "Dream Work" (For Man Ray) by Peter Tcherkassky and "The Last Long Shot" by Cecile Fontaine - all three were unfortunately weak. Muller's antiseptic "Nebel" was the best of the lot. Tcherkassky managed little more than a belabored redux of last year's bland "Outer Space." The fantastic fervor of Maddin's wonderful "Heart of the World" was sorely missed. Every festival programmer hopes for a real discovery, and Minyong Jang's "The Dark Room" certainly fits the bill. Shot in the famous Camera Obscura at San Francisco's Cliff House, this Korean-born artist's first film is exquisitely beautiful. The Camera Obscura uses a large, rotating lens to project an image of the surrounding cliffs and ocean onto a parabolic screen in the center of a darkened room, transforming the world into an ephemeral real-time movie. Jang distills the essence of its already breathtaking image, suspending it in darkness like the retina of a gigantic eye, then filming it obliquely so the churning waves of the Pacific seem to sweep out over the audience. Another especially notable film was Scott Stark's "Angel Beach." Several years ago Stark discovered a box of early-70s vintage stereo Kodachrome slides at a junk sale. The slides were unmarked, but it doesn't take much imagination to conjure up a picture of the photographer. Most of the slides were taken at the beach, and every one features a bikini-clad bathing bunny. A few were posed but the vast majority were obviously taken surreptitiously, a whole new take on "shooting from the hip." But it's not the subject matter that makes them special; it's the fact that they were intended to be seen in 3D. Each original slide consisted of two distinct images, exposed simultaneously from slightly different angles. Viewed through polarized lenses, they'd produce a beautiful, full-color, 3D image. Instead, Stark turned them into a movie. By oscillating rapidly between the two images, he produces a strange simulation of three-dimensionality: the centered subjects leap out of the screen, literally vibrating with libidinal energy, while the intensely pulsating backgrounds veer toward semi-abstraction. The girls' awkward poses produce some peculiar and interesting effects. But most impressive of all is the illusion of continuous motion Stark produces by cutting between two separate sets of images. The distinct sensation of circling around a stationary subject, while never actually changing position is profoundly disorienting. Paradoxically, however, the spirit of the program was best expressed by the smallest film, literally speaking. Saul Levine made his amazing Super-8 film, "Light Licks: Get It While You Can," by so drastically overexposing the film in bright sunlight that the light actually spills over the edge of the image into the adjacent unexposed frame. The effect when projected is stunning, as the flickering crescents and flashes leap across the screen. It's almost like looking directly into the sun, just long enough to smart, burning a hole into whatever one looks at next.

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