Bradford Nordeen, who curates the Dirty Looks queer experimental film series, reports on this year’s recently concluded Views from the Avant-Garde, the New York Film Festival’s annual experimental film sidebar.
The New York Film Festival’s annual Views From the Avant-Garde sidebar is the reigning festival of its kind. Which is to say, like other premier festivals, on offer here are the big budget, technically ambitious provocations and aesthetic explosions from celebrated festival regulars, with a few idiosyncratic newcomers thrown in for good measure. This years’ fest is noteworthy for its expansion, via the recently erected Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, adding a second screen and a plasma-walled amphitheater on which to launch peripheral programming. From university campuses across America, the leading contributors to avant-garde film assembled for a weekend’s worth of premieres. Sadly, there was a startling lack of creative innovation on offer from the impressive roster assembled.
While it’s a fact that strikes many passers by as (rightfully) ironic, avant-garde film is, itself, a genre. This has tended to generate generic structuring principles or conventions in a cinema fundamentally concerned with either dismantling viewing patterns or aesthetic advancement in film and video. There are different strains within the genre, to be sure, but these conventions have become a rubric for working for many involved, for a result that can possess the familiar air similar to other genre fare. And with 50-some odd years in, that genre has built a booming micro-industry, with museums and granting institutions standing in for the old Zugsmiths and the Selzicks who, alongside several choice academic departments, have ensured careers for the forerunners of the medium. If anything plagued this year’s annual Views, it is the creative Catch-22 that such a professional climate engenders.
Technically, the works have never looked so good: glowing Blu-Rays and 3D technologies saddled alongside the stalwart 16mm prints. Images were crisp and intoxicating. But there arose a shocking disconnect between the urgent voices ringing up from Wall Street and our Upper West Side theater. This year, more than in the recent past, the venerable Views curators, Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith, presented countless pieces that weave crystalline images or push hi-def video technologies to extol the minutiae of the everyday. To this material effect, Views frequently lacked a politic. MM Serra’s Bitch-Beauty divided audiences, perhaps because it dashed those glimmering aesthetics, which stagnated so many offerings, for a messy and, ultimately thrilling, digital assemblage of found and original video, Super8mm and 16mm. There, the medium was not of primary concern, but the content it conveyed. Perhaps too explicit for many Viewers, Serra’s piece traced 20 years of life in the East Village as a woman: rape, heroin, performance art flowed into each other in her frenzied mash-up.
Placed within those same programs were recent Academy Film Archive restorations by preservationist Mark Toscano, which often overpowered the current output with pieces that were, while technically rudimentary, still culturally innovative or vital. In “Bitches Brew,” the program that featured Serra’s title, Daina Krumins’s 1982 Babobilicons reigned breathtakingly victorious. Her whirling surrealist masterpiece, created with old-school optical printing methods, constructs a rich tapestry of blossoming mushrooms, ladybugs and robotic crab-clawed critters who scurry about drawing room environs. Also impressing amid a smattering of promising filmmakers in the “Looking Through a Glass Onion” program (featuring Views regulars Dani Leventhal, Bobby Abate, Stephanie Barber, Michael Robinson, Laida Lertxundi, et al.), Peter Mays’s 1966 The Death of the Gorilla unleashed a burst of energy, which paired beautifully with Mary Helena Clark’s By foot-candle Light. Gorilla featured bright and primary-colored vintage adventure sequences, caught somewhere between Jack Smith and Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart and shot off of the television screen. May’s film spins a free-associative, dream narrative starring King Kong and Maria Montez, capturing the power of these images, beyond their often silly narrative premises. Clark’s film similarly drifted freely, between a theater scrim, a cave tour and one very expressive gentleman, holding your attention with his silent, performative tics and hammy mannerisms.
Lewis Klahr premiered his first feature film, The Pettifogger (pictured at top of page), an astounding progression for the single frame (a kind of cut and paste animation) filmmaker. The loaded psychology and inherent nostalgia triggered by outmoded magazine clippings, comic book cut-outs and other bric-a-brac and has for years preoccupied Klahr’s work, burrows deep into the unconscious, spurring liminal states. Here, the feature format grants Klahr the appropriate duration to introduce a compelling narrative (featuring casinos, a dame and a petty thief) and pull back—way back—into an extended sequence of inert screen time, flashed with fleeting frames of imagery, lulled with a monotonous soundtrack. The Pettifogger devolves consciousness into a fascinating dead zone of psychotropic entropy.
Ben Rivers’s exquisite Slow Action was another highlight. This dystopic post-apocalyptic sci fi fantasy layered gorgeous anamorphic 16mm footage with a collaborative text written with science fiction author, Mark von Schlegell. Slow Action dreams of future civilizations that colonize remote islands, once a catastrophic event wipes our slate clean. The accounts of island life conflict with the real-world visions, shot on location in Lanzarote, Nagasaki, Tuvalu and a final, tribal revision of the filmmaker’s native Somerset.
As glorious as that film was, alongside Ben Russell’s River Rites and Jonathan Schwartz’s A Preface to Red, these works showcased a suspicious trend towards ethnography. That strain of documentary would be a perfectly viable platform, were it not for the startling lack of racial diversity behind the camera. With a scant few exceptions, the only people of color that populated this year’s Views were caught within the far-roving lens of the astoundingly white (male) contributors. And while this weekend certainly showcased remarkable strides towards the advancement of the moving image, the politics of production and the interpretive content must be as carefully considered and vanguard. Otherwise, that counter-industry once trained to the fore might start to look a little behind the times.