Migrating Forms at BAM
This year’s Migrating Forms Festival returns to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for nine days of high art, low resolution, feature premieres, and a few retrospectives from New York’s avant garde heyday. The curators, Nellie Killian of BAMcinematék and Los Angeles-based writer Kevin McGarry, have chosen a lineup that will pamper audiences with a mix of moviegoing sensation and good, old-fashioned “what the fuck?” Now in its sixth year, Migrating Forms continues to avoid easy categorization, existing instead in the hazy twilight zone between cinema—narrative, experimental, or whatever—and its spectral cousin, video art. A glance at the schedule reveals some heavy hitters (Cory Arcangel, William E. Jones, and Fruit Chan), but viewer beware: there’s plenty of great stuff playing alongside these touted premieres. Whether you’re a longtime attendee or a recent convert, here are a few sidebar programs that are sure to enlighten and entertain:
William Greaves Retrospective
Greaves, the pioneering African-American experimental filmmaker and documentarian, passed away this August at the age of 87. His flagship avant-garde film, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), features the simultaneous participation of multiple documentary film crews ambling through the human wunderkammer that is late-60s Central Park. Made concurrently with his proto-PBS news program Black Journal, the film was largely unseen until its restoration and re-release in the early aughts.
There’s also a rare back-to-back screening of the Emmy Award-winning 1968 program Still a Brother, and 1974’s The Fight, about Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s legendary 1971 bout at Madison Square Garden. The former is a still-fresh reaction to “respectability politics” and square America’s fixation on the “model minority,” while The Fight examines the state of the Sweet Science, and its not-so-sweet undertones of exploitation and exoticism. (Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, Dec 11, 9pm; Still a Brother, Dec 15, 7pm; The Fight, Dec 15, 9:30pm)
Artist Spotlight: Rachel Rose
New York-based artist Rachel Rose will be on hand to present and discuss three recent works: Sitting Feeding Sleeping, Palisades in Palisades, and A Minute Ago. A Minute Ago is a rare mix of original and found footage that absorbs its own seams. At first, there is that familiar home movie trope: a sunny day at the beach, crowded with children and families playing in the water. The scene is violently disrupted by an indistinguishable assailant, a freak hailstorm that surrenders its terrifying power as the video gives way to a tour of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut (of all places).
Audiences may be quick to connect the dots between a very real, very violent man-versus-nature occurrence and the relative security of Johnson’s modernist home. Every hailstorm in July or “Snowpocalypse” seems to inspire a fresh wave of freaking out and finger-wagging, but Rose maintains that her work is not an “END IS NIGH” sandwich board.
“I didn’t want to look at this catastrophe in weather (for example) from a moral or political perspective, but rather a structural one,” Rose told me. “Perceptually, glass collages space of different distances together—looking outside from inside, rain, the sun, a tree all flatten together. This is also true of storms themselves—one minute suddenly appearing—they can feel cut and pasted into our reality, collaged in.”
Palisades in Palisades is an examination of the identity of a space—in this instance, the Revolutionary War battle site at Fort Lee—vis-à-vis its present state, its place in history, and its role as a source of artistic inspiration. “I wanted to take a single, local almost everyday landscape, like a park, and trace different scales of time through it,” Rose says. “This park in particular is on top of a 200 million-year-old cliff. It holds social-historical time, geological time, and bodily time together—as any place does.”
A young woman stands in for the director and, true to Rose’s modus operandi, exists simultaneously within the space of the video and on top of it. “Everything that the woman in the film is wearing—from her grey canvas jacket, to her blue sweater, to her blue mascara—I choose so that the cuts in the edit could tromp-l’oeil multiple times together. The canvas jacket gives way to the canvas paintings depicting men standing and dying where she stood. Its grey gives way to the grey rock face. Her blue sweater to the blue jackets of the soldiers, etc.” (Dec 11, 7pm)
Shorts Program: Life and People
Canadian animator Barry Doupé’s new short, Life and People, premieres with Jeremy Shaw’s Quickeners and Jon Rafman’s Mainsqueeze.
Barry Doupé has screened work at Migrating Forms nearly every year since his 2009 debut feature, Ponytail. Though he’s an animator first and foremost, his premiere live-action short combines the sneaky best of eavesdropping with the intimacy of a living theater workshop. Life and People borrows actors from within the artist’s own social circle—“friends, fellow artists, peers and coworkers”—and each scene is anchored by an exchange that is easily recognizable and ready for misinterpretation.
Performers regularly swap roles, calling attention to the nuanced power dynamics of even the simplest conversations. “These types of communications can be in danger of becoming invisible, non-interactions,” Doupé told me. “I wanted to put them into a kind of jeopardy, to wake them up.”
Each scene is as relatable as the last, whether it’s a performance review between a boss and an employee, a “Telephone”-like relay of gossip, or an eager entreaty from an unseen Samaritan. Bucking well-worn trends of below-the-surface maliciousness, Life and People brings viewers into the fold of this unapologetically vulnerable troupe. Doupé’s animated works are, by nature of their medium, exercises in total environmental control—by contrast, the spare sets and straightforward filming style of Life and People is an arresting new direction that makes the best use of life’s basic ingredients. (Dec 16, 7pm)
Here’s to the Future!
In her latest feature, which has its World Premiere at Migrating Forms, Brooklyn-based filmmaker and artist Gina Telaroli rallies the troops to recreate a scene from Michael Curtiz’s pre-Code socialist melodrama The Cabin in the Cotton, shot over one day in a single location. The scene in question provides a much-needed nucleus for the actors, crew members, and friends whose unique perspectives contribute to the film’s creation. Performers cycle in and out of the set, sharing screentime with a behind-the-scenes look at the shared joys and frustrations of indie cinema “set life.” Captured here in an array of formats and styles, the production uses every part of the buffalo, drawing from a camera-wielding community of participants.
Speaking to me about her process, Telaroli elaborated on the nuts-and-bolts: “I got a few actors to come in and do the scene, all with very different temperaments, and also encouraged people to film whatever and whenever on the set and to bring cameras if they wanted, figuring there might be something to use in the transition between the documentary part and the narrative ‘movie’ part.” Transition, in this case, may be a bit of a misnomer: here, conventional distinctions between narrative and documentary are washed away. What remains is the armature of filmmaking itself, a deeply collaborative process reliant on the legwork of its individual participants. (Dec 13, 7pm)