Report on the 13th Annual Views from the Avant-Garde

Tony Pipolo

When The New York Film Festival celebrates its 48th anniversary this Fall, Views from the Avant-Garde (hereafter “Views”) will mark its 14th year as an essential sidebar to the Festival. Conceived and hosted by Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith, these programs have presented well over 500 independent works as of its 13th incarnation in 2009 – ranging in length from 1 minute (Katherin McInnis’ Horizon Line, 2009) to nearly 7 hours (Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death, 2003) and spread over as many as 11 programs in a single weekend. Owing to financial straits and erratic publishing deadlines, “Views” has never had the substantial coverage it deserves in Millennium Film Journal. The present report on last year’s programs is a small attempt at reparation. Since films, ideally, have a life beyond festivals, it seems appropriate, if belated, to pay homage to the works and their creators, as well as to Messieurs McElhatten and Smith for the daunting task of mounting “Views” year after year.

The number of films and programs crowded into those weekends can be exhausting: not allowing sufficient time to absorb, let alone reflect upon the countless images projected. Despite this, “Views” has often come under fire for not being inclusive enough. Since I am not a programmer, I cannot speak to this question with authority. As it is, my report barely scratches the surface. Though I saw virtually everything in “Views 13,” I restrict my remarks to works that stirred me the most and evoked the aesthetic invention associated with avant-garde films historically--whether in France of the 1920s or America in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Then and now, the best works fuse aesthetics with cultural, political, and personal preoccupations. Is there a more telling example of counter-cultural aesthetics driven by autobiographical passion than Kenneth Anger’s appropriation of Soviet montage in Fireworks (1947)?

The 2009 edition of “Views 13” screened sixty-one films. What follows is an appreciation of a handful – a selection dictated by personal preferences, space restrictions, and the opportunity to see a work more than once. Barry Gerson’s The Universe left me speechless, but I prefer to write about it more fully in a future issue of MFJ. Also, since I chose to concentrate on new works, I give no attention to the older films screened. As always, there were short works and those of feature or near-feature length; films in 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm and various forms of video and digital processes. Indeed, “Views 13” was an apt occasion for comparing the relative strengths of different media.

New works by familiar names stood alongside debuts of promise. One of the latter was Jason Byrne’s Scrap Vessel (USA, HDcam from 16mm and video, color, sound, 2009). Though perhaps not perfectly realized, Byrne’s feeling for the sea and for the Norwegian-built freighter on its last journey to Bangladesh, where it will be demolished, comes across well. Stylistically, the film exhibits an imbalance between documentary and lyrical tendencies. Shots of activity on the ship are nondescript whereas overhead shots of a turbulent sea are stunning, and long takes of the deck as the vessel moves incrementally forward suggest an uncanny, indiscernibly animated still life, testimony to the filmmaker’s visual sense over the reportorial.

A similar negotiation between document and lyricism, Pim Zwier’s Sarah Ann (Netherlands/UK, 35mm, b&w, sound, 2008) leaves an indelible impression via three stunning black and white shots of the Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol, England. A female voice-over recounts the strange tale of the young woman of the title who on May 8, 1885 jumped off this bridge and survived for the next sixty-two years. Based on three possibly conflicting newspaper reports, two of them contemporaneous to the event, the matter-of-fact narration is dramatically countered by breathtakingly framed images of the bridge (shot by Ben Rivers) conveying its immense proportions in relation to the rock formations that it spans, as well as a vertiginous “fall” to the river. In 35mm, the simplicity of these shots is invested with a grandeur that both mirrors and belies the notion that the tale might have been blown out of proportion. The artfully crafted shots are themselves suspended between skepticism and majesty.

A good number of the films and videos in “Views 13” appropriate some aspect of the natural world in conjunction or disjunction with a cultural or social phenomenon or in relation to the art process. David Gatten’s Journal and Remarks (USA, 16mm, color, silent, 2009) seems in part to illustrate and to interact with a text from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. The rigor of the film’s editing – each shot seems approximately 1.4 seconds long – reflects the discipline of the scientist and explorer. Images of flora and fauna, birds and reptiles, taken on the Galapagos islands, share screen time with black and white leader; flashes of Darwin’s text; and near the end, long distance shots of the sea and sunset. While the regularity of this rhythm suggests a certain democratic perspective, in the spirit of the true scientist, we do see some images more than once, from different angles – most strikingly shots of a large turtle staring boldly at the camera with what seems a suspicious eye. One effect of Gatten’s approach – unlike that of nature documentaries that attempt to explain everything – is to restore a sense of strangeness to the unknown aspects of the natural world, as they might first have appeared to Darwin.

Less formally rigorous, Erin Espelie’s What Part of the Earth is Inhabited (After Pliny the Elder) (USA, MiniDV, color, sound, 2009) shares a similar fascination with life forms, familiar and not. Plants, age-old rocks, algae, fungus, lizards, crabs, and other sea creatures pass before the camera, but for the presence of which we might imagine they have done so for eons quite indifferent to the curiosity and observations of the human race. If Pliny called “the livable part of our planet” a “speck,” as the filmmaker remarks in his notes, films like Gatten’s and this one seem bent on humbling our conceptions of the world, reminding us of how much we will never see or know.

If Gatten’s editing invokes a dialogue between nature and film, few works differ more in approach than Ernie Gehr’s Waterfront Follies (USA, DVcam, color, sound, 2009). Consisting of only three long takes in thirty-nine minutes, Gehr’s steady, persistent gaze at a sunset from a Brooklyn waterfront invests the familiar with an appropriate gravity often overlooked. The immersion in real time accommodates occasional off-screen “intrusions” by passersby who try to engage Gehr as he stands steadfast by his camera. Acknowledged or not, however, the sun, sea, and sky retain their sovereignty as the social world passes by.

Rebecca Meyers describes her film night side (USA, 16mm, color, 2008) as “a side of the universe turned away from the sun.” It is a lovely tone poem of twilight images, colors, and lights that privilege isolation, even loneliness. Birds, a favorite motif, appear alone, perched sentinel-like on winter branches. Interiors, though absent of human presence, nevertheless beckon through warmly lit reflections of lamps in windows.

In Katherin McInnis’ Horizon Line (USA, DV, color, silent, 2009) the natural world is offstage but poignantly evoked in a wholly original manner. Filmed at Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the first prisons in the United States (according to the notes), whose “walls were painted to reflect the horizon line outside the walls,” the film’s material is composed of flakes and shards of the building’s decaying walls, divided in the frame between gray and green rectangles that echo the grass and sky they were meant to imitate. As dissolves and superimpositions fuse these remnants of time, we might imagine the equally decomposed fates of those who once walked along the painted line while looking out beyond toward its distant, elusive model.

Nature is powerfully present in David Dinnell’s Physical Changes (USA, video, b&w and color, sound, 2009) and Daicho Saito’s Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis (Canada, 35mm, color, sound, 2009), two works equally preoccupied with form. The former celebrates the creative potential of video, while the latter confirms the rich tradition of 35mm. Both make distinct, sensorial use of sound. Dinnell’s video is almost entirely black and white, while Saito’s film is in color. Dinnell’s natural images are bleached to a ghostly elsewhere; Saito’s are taken to an expressionist frenzy.

Dinnell’s is an unnerving work, rooted in and alien from the physical world, an effect enhanced by an ear-splitting soundtrack. Increasingly shrill throughout the work’s thirty-six minutes, the sound pierces the environment, threatening to displace attention to the image and swallow everything around it. Nothing about the imagery appears to elicit this, not the initial flashes of light and distant view of a town or a suburb, not the cloudy sky that often dominates the upper 2/3 of the image. Perhaps a clue lies in the vague, underlying image of vertical shapes that suggest some blocked interior world trying to burst through.

More than two dozen images follow – of landscapes of hills and mountains, forests with tall, leafless trees, lush foliage waving furiously in the wind, eerily lit night skies, clouds of all kinds, shimmering, silvery-tinged leaves, tops of trees fluttering in dialogue, cows grazing, deer moving in a forest, a horse and rider approaching the foreground. Largely gray-black, the photography is mistily filtered, alternately luminous and spectral, as if the camera, positioned on an alien spacecraft, were focused on an un-chartered zone between nature and the cosmos.

The soundtrack – somewhere between an amplified buzz saw and a sustained emission from an industrial plant – assaults the familiarity of this imagery, erasing its appropriation by landscape painting or naturalistic films and reclaiming it to an order of the enigmatic universe. The more startling physical change, however, is the affirmation that sound alters consciousness, disturbing the equilibrium that allows us to receive and respond to stimuli, whether from the natural world, artificial noise, or the manipulations of an artwork. Dinnell’s dark flower walks a thin line between aesthetic resonance and aural torture, obviating metaphorical appropriation as it defies easy consumption.

In contrast, Saito’s gorgeous film restores the dialogue between nature and art. The setting of Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis is a wooded area at the foot of Montreal’s Mount-Royal Park, where both Saito and Malcolm Goldstein, the score’s composer and violinist, live. Darkened trees occupy the foreground with a lighted area beyond. This simple, shifting composition is the basis for astonishingly beautiful transformations initially produced by a shuttering between black frames and explosions of light and color – reds, greens, yellows, and browns. The plunks, strokes, and brushes of a violin of the score, entitled “Hues of the Spectrum,” eschewing a discernible melodic line, at first appear to match the flickering effect of the images, but soon constitute an appropriately parallel experience. Both anxious and meditative in tone, the score accents the metamorphoses of the images as they progress from the representational into brilliant patterns of color detached from their objects. Shaped by the rhythmic elements of the cinema, the film passes from naturalism to expressionism to cubism to abstraction, reaching a purely visual level that recalls Brakhage’s hand-painted films, enveloping us in the sheer pleasure of watching nature become art.

While a particular social fluxus is captured in Alexandra Cuesta’s Piensa en mi (USA/Ecuador, 16mm, color, sound, 2009), the relation between that fluxus and the private sphere is the focus of Amie Siegel’s My Way 1 (USA, video, color, sound, 2009). The former is a lyrical evocation of parts of Los Angeles as seen from a bus making its way across the city. Though the bus’s windows often act as frames within the frame, the film is never reduced to a formal exercise, as it alternates this tactic with glimpses of passengers and street life that are remarkably unself-conscious. Neither desperate to convey a message nor impatient to reach a preconceived goal, the film allows the presences of the primarily Hispanic people we see to unfold with a pace both respectful and true – the mark of a genuine filmmaker whose heart is never too far ahead of her eye.

Like Laida Lertxundi’s minimalist My Tears Are Dry (Spain/USA, 16mm, color, sound, 2009),which, halfway through, cuts from a blazingly blue California sky to blank leader while its title song continues to a fadeout, Amie Siegel’s video is also structured by a song. The title does not refer to the golden oldie immortalized by Frank Sinatra, but to the wistful “Gotta Go My Own Way,” uncannily appropriate to the more than two-dozen earnest, hopeful teenage faces that populate this work. Each sits alone in her (mostly) or his bedroom, surrounded by favored objects, facing forward, singing the song for YouTube online. Siegel’s notes indicate that she sees such internet sources as ripe material for exposing, yet again, the illusion of individualism within capitalism. While the ideology may be naïve and the material sentimental, the faces themselves, reflecting narcissistic need as much as premature resignation, are both enchanting and sad.

More ambitiously, Deborah Stratman’s O’er the Land (USA, 16mm, color, sound, 2009) explores important themes in its fifty-two minutes – from middle America’s obsession with guns and violence to the irrational connection often made between these and a form of pseudo patriotism. The nation’s early history is invoked at the outset via images of Redcoats moving through a forest in what appears to be an annual reenactment of the War of Independence. One of the most extraordinary things about the film is Stratman’s sober-eyed approach, allowing her images to speak for themselves – whether they be of the locals or visitors attending the event or of men firing on targets and literally playing with fire. No doubt her ingratiating manner helped in gathering material. This is evident in the shot of a few of her subjects near the end, when we hear her voice without a trace of condescension getting the guys to line up and pose.

If landscapes figure prominently in “Views 13,” Laura Kraning’s Vineland (USA, MiniDV, color, sound, 2009) contemplates the line between a journey through a desolate area of Los Angeles and the colonization of our minds by Hollywood, the industry linked indissolubly with that city. Filmed near and at the last drive-in movie theater in L. A., entirely at night, a spectral quality characterizes all the images and sounds, those that emanate from the screen in the night sky, as well as those of the surrounding cityscape. The film begins on a train traveling across the outer L.A. terrain, effectively functioning as a tracking shot, during which we sight the drive-in screen at a distance. A series of steady shots follows, juxtaposing larger-than-life images of the giant movie screen with various lights from buildings and people presumably at the drive-in that are no less hallucinatory in effect. The space and line between the two are often indiscernible: a shadowy figure moving on one side of the frame can easily merge with an action in the movie on the other as spaces and realities conflate. A brief passage from The Dark Knight is cued first by the voice of Michael Caine, then a close up of Heath Ledger. Later, the voice of Keanu Reeves from the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Although I hesitate to suggest a direct correlation between every image in Kraning’s film – found or original – it hardly seems coincidental that her vision of a cityscape both earthly and surreal should be accompanied by allusions to fantasy and sci-fi fare. The screen that floats against the night sky is no more or less haunting than the lights and sounds attached to the cityscape around it, which is itself haunted by a history strewn with conjurations of dreams and nightmares that constitute Hollywood. As an internal movie’s credits roll in the musty dark, Kraning’s film also fades, the train returning before the fade out. Neither wholly nostalgic nor purely homage, Vineland speaks quietly and eloquently of fantasized image-making, of the sheer presence and scale of Hollywood’s – fading? – imposition on the landscape, both that of the nation and the one in our minds.

A road movie perhaps to end all road movies, Ben Rivers’ I Know Where I’m Going (UK, 16mm anamorphic, color, sound, 2009) ends with the title song from Michael Powell’s 1947 film of the same title sung over its final images. The mood of the song’s original context could not be further removed from the lyrical fatalism that pervades Rivers’ film. In some way this impression is induced by the film’s voice-over narration, which while tending to attribute cosmic significance to the presence and history of humanity, also speaks of indifferent erasure, of the possibility that the planet is merely going through one of its billion-year phases, in which case all that humanity has built is merely a blip on the interstellar radar – even more terrifying an idea perhaps than Pliny’s “speck.”

The theme and tenor of most of the roadside stops have a 60s, early 70s feel, and though Rivers is from the UK, the mood invokes, in this viewer at least, memories of friends I knew in those decades who had isolated themselves in the mountains, engaged in any number of anti-social activities. Rivers stops by the house that Jack built, occupied by a red-bearded, thick-brogued, old outsider who wonders how the earth got here in the first place. “Nice to see you boys,” he says as they leave, laughingly adding, “Say goodbye to the devil.” In between such stops, we travel by subjective camera through mountainous roads, by night and day, as that knowing voice speaks of the distant future as made up of “a whole vista of buried landscapes.” A beekeeper, a tree surgeon, another lone “grizzly man” living in a snow-bound cabin, all interspersed with a voice that speaks of cities going down, of fossilized buildings and subways. Is it much of a stretch to suggest that these subjective traveling shots recall alternately the final voyage of the spaceship in 2001, atmospheric soundtrack and all, and the drive up to the Overlook Hotel at the beginning of The Shining as well as the snow-bound one Dick Halloran makes near the end? The end of the world and rebirth themes haunt the former as the burial of Indian civilization does the latter. On the road, we go from misty daylight to pitch black night until we see a series of still shots of the rusted skeletal remains of cars, tossed amidst fields, destined perhaps to mix inexplicably with earthen matter to some future being’s consternation. “Have we been a mere blip in the history of the planet with everything gone?” the voice asks. Alternatively, one wonders: have we altered the earth enough to leave an indelible signature? If we don’t know where we’re going, do we know where we’ve been?

What has preceded is an entirely subjective reflection on an eclectic body of work. From any gathering of riches one must pick and savor, no doubt affected by conscious and unconscious feelings. Thus, whatever weaving of themes has guided this essay is entirely of my own devising and does not reflect the minds of the festival’s organizers. While re-seeing, note-taking, and conceiving this essay, my aim was to acknowledge the range and value of the many films and videos that warrant more attention from serious viewers of cinema. No less a motive was the sheer pleasure of expressing appreciation to those artists dedicated to keeping alive the spirit of the Avant-Garde.