A sign of festival bounty or contemporary shortfall, Migrating Forms (May 11-20 at Anthology Film Archives), New York’s annual recap of what used to be called “the avant-garde,” and now might better be called “lo-fi cinema,” offers about a third of its programming to rep considerations: 35mm prints of Chuck Jones shorts, Fritz Lang’s Indian diptych, Adachi and Wakamatsu’s Red Army, and a 16mm, fade-resistant copy of Raúl Ruiz’s On Top of a Whale. Nothing better! With zero competition, Migrating Forms is probably the city’s best film festival; in opposition to the usual form of festival gloat, Migrating Forms’ 31 programs over 10 days seem less dedicated to the dubious hagiography of surveying every vein of avant-garde, than featuring its programmers’ own, divergent interests.
Modesty’s a good question for a YouTube era of art, but films made by friends and for friends, screened by friends and for friends, at least seem the product of specialized networking that’s probably the only viable future for making and distributing work. If right now there's a lack of figures of central importance, it’s probably because it’s probably a given that central importance is not something any moviemaker could admirably attain. So instead there are smaller pleasures, almost none of which I’ve seen; given the inevitable ass-pulling and hopelessness of A-G shorts to brook consumer reports, it would probably be as well to speculate on all the stuff I’ve yet to see.
There is Daniel Schmidt and Garbiel Abrantes’s Palácios de Pena, a kind of soft-spoken Corman fable, and their grizzly take on Portuguese imperialism in the strange wraiths of teenage girls. There is Ben Rivers’ Slow Action, a film that runs with the otherworldly fetishism of ethnographic docs to posit every captured sight as a beautiful, dubious speculation of science-fiction. And there is Laida Lertxundi’s A Lax Riddle Unit, seemingly another handheld documentary of Lertxundi’s weird, off-suburban zone, where sights seem preconceived with 60s R&B playing in some disjointed netherworld out of time; Lertxundi’s only way to mark time’s passing is to cut to variants off her sites, days earlier or later, when the song and light have changed. The world, in a set groove but zero momentum, plays as some sort of cover of itself.
The highlight for me, critically and otherwise, is automatically Traveling Light, an-hour long record of a day’s train ride by my friend and long-time movie sparring partner, Gina Telaroli. A narrative abandoned twice—first when the cast and crew were halted by a snowstorm halfway through their journey and forced to split; later when GT eschewed all narratives at the editing table to figure only their traces—Traveling Light plays as erstwhile fiction and erstwhile documentary, a travelogue of nothing more than the conditions of it’s making. Deceptively simple, a kind of found piece of concrete dialogue between track sounds and a dwindling light that halfway through turns the movie from half-representational to half-abstract, it’s one of the only recent films, narrative, avant-garde, or otherwise, that seems to have sacrificed itself to its subjects to determine its course.
For a couple weeks, GT and I carried on an email exchange about whatever we wanted, and I let her edit it, with usual scrupulousness, however she pleased. A former inner-city basketball coach, GT’s turn to movies in the past few years seems both a product and response to new possibilities for digital profusion: works seem to emerge on their own timetable, assembled as a critical response to their own subjects and materials. Within these few weeks, her first two features will each have festival premieres—A Little Death at the Berkshire Film Festival, Traveling Light at Migrating Forms—alongside publications of a new series at MUBI, Amuse-Gueule, a piece in Kent Jones’s anthology on Olivier Assayas, and maybe most significantly of all, her piece on Jerry Lewis in an image montage that seems a form of her own invention. Just sampling.
You’ve talked about this thing being an experience beyond yourself, that you’re just the one who provided the framework for it.
Oh, yea? I mean, at this point, it’s something I’ve made and moved on from, sure it’s mine as much as anyone’s. And I am probably more curious what it is in the eyes of other people. Maybe you should tell me the answers.
What would you ask?
I think I’m fresh out of questions at this point—the whole process of making this movie was asking myself questions, trying out solutions that didn’t work. From the shooting process, where a crazy snowstorm derailed our original travel plans and thus our story arc, to the editing, where I had to put aside original intention and just put together the puzzle pieces I actually had, it was all questions. At the end of the day though, it’s really just a train ride that you take and hopefully enjoy because honestly I wish I was on a train most of the time. Anyway, I try to tell people not to over think it.
I was going to ask you about that clichÉ of the train ride as a kind of proto-cinema.
I don’t know, if you tried asking the commuters on their way home from work or drunks coming back from a baseball game, you could see if they think it’s a clichÉ that riding a train is like watching a movie, watching my movie is like riding a train. Just as long as you don’t mix them up. The movie’s just a movie, whatever else it wants to be.
The idea for the thing was a pretty cloudy one, which is how I’d like to work, or how I seem to work, at least. I sent friends an email and pitched the thing as a three-day collaborative filmmaking adventure, “to explore motion, romanticism of travel, technology + travel and landscape (out the window and at stops along the way) in concurrence with a more character driven narrative.” You said that I gave this ride a frame, but it really was the opposite: I picked a project that already had a framework in place, and of course, the movie itself became something else breaking that frame entirely. It’s the train thing, that the more determined the course, the less determined the course. The more fixed the frame, the more the elements seem to fluctuate. It’s like those Rousseau and Duras films. You can limit yourself to an Amtrak seat, a scummy window, and the sky, with the train fixed on its path, the camera fixed on the window, and think that everything’s under your control, when nothing is, except maybe the decision you haven’t made yet.
It feels like a place you’re going with your movies, using these tight structures as a way of relinquishing control. God does the lighting, Amtrak does the sound.
I don’t know if I believe in either God or Amtrak.
Maybe Amtrak. We had this great ticket taker on the trip who, judging from her voice, must have smoked at least three packs a day. A few months after the we shot the movie I was taking the train back to Ohio to visit my family and brought a sound recorder to try and recapture various sounds, including the story of the Horseshoe Curve that you hear during the opening of the movie, and the first thing I heard when I boarded the train was that woman’s wonderful voice.
But, let me finish what I was getting at earlier.
The idea really came when I saw Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired girl. The train being used as the framing device got me to think about how trains are the perfect, preassembled set. You don't need to light them, they're already decorated, and because they're moving, they're always interesting.
It’s like my love of courtroom movies, this miniature mockup of society as a movie set, with everyone playing the roles they’ve been assigned from outside, even though they’re in a self-contained world. It’s kind of great, this way of turning society into a collective theater; at the same time it’s absurd, people propagating this system whose values are anything but collective. For research, I was watching movies like Human Desire, Class Relations, and Mission: Impossible, and it’s always the same thing: every seat carries a token citizen of a different class, and the train is this collective space where they have to confront each other and reestablish their roles through the simplest gestures of who gets priority to the bathroom, who can afford a sandwich, who can afford to tip someone else to get him a sandwich. And sandwiches are expensive on Amtrak—though not as gross as the equally over-priced and under-microwaved frozen pizzas they sell.
But, David Harvey’s writings are pretty great, about how the land that had tied down feudalism, became a real nuisance to capitalism, this fixed object with a fixed value in a mobile world—how the railroads would change all that by offering land an exchange value relative to its nearest supply station and distribution center. Raising the land value no longer meant waiting for sheep, cows, and backyard vegetable patches to multiply over winters: a nearby railway line was enough. Just think about Joan Crawford standing her ground in Johnny Guitar as she waits for the railroad to come to town so she can reap the rewards.
And of course movies do the same thing, boosting the economy wherever they go. The politics are crazy. If that snowstorm hadn’t stranded us in Pittsburgh and screwed up our connecting train to Cleveland, the shoot would have gone over the B&O line toward Chicago, which Stephen Douglas turned into America’s national hub in exchange for “popular sovereignty” and a civil war in Kansas. And then our own civil war. That meandering route would have been one of the bases for his transcontinental railroad—he was staring down a fortune. There are all those movies like The Iron Horse and Union Pacific to celebrate the railroad as this consecration of the new American unity. In the future, Hollywood will probably shoot odes to Walmart, Starbucks, and eventually Whole Foods, uniting North and South, East and West in the same lifestyle beyond all those divides. But I started realizing how the railroad brings everything together only to expose those divides.
How much of that is in the movie?
Well, it’s in reality, anyway, so hopefully it’s in the movie by extension. If I did my job right it should be. Not my place to say, really, but the divides in the landscape are definitely there, maybe some of the divides between people in those traces of all the cut characters and stories. I realized after I finished it that there’s this kind of double montage effect that you see the landscapes changing both through the unfolding of time in the long takes, but just as much in the cuts.
But, anyway, relinquishing control?
From A Little Death, which besides the running sequence, is this kind of closed, boxed-in dollhouse, also with the static shots and long takes.
Not sure I have too much to say about that movie, feels like another person made it, and I guess one did, but, at the very least, I suppose you can say the actors went from characters to landscape, so maybe I was a better director of the landscape, since it can’t really be directed anyway.
I don’t know, I feel like A Little Death also treats its characters as these pre-found objects, these bodies in motion.
Well, at this point I’m really not interested in all of those boxed-in, long take Haneke, Seidl movies, so on, all these inexpressive characters doomed by an inexpressive camera. It’s this idea, one that probably hits way too close to my Catholic upbringing, that we deserve to be punished, but then can gloat that since we accepted our punishment, at least we’re not hypocrites like everyone else. We’re supposed to be grateful bourgeois to the Herr director for these punishing experiences, like the bourgeois on-screen are supposed to be grateful to their savage avengers. It’s that self-righteous view of the directors that seems really hypocritical. The long takes pretend to be non-judgmental while snooting their nose at involving themselves in the action. So you get this extremely condescending, extremely judgmental perspective that takes refuge in its “ambiguous” refusal to actually put the action in any kind of perspective. This faÇade of patience when everything is preordained.
Even actual patience can become a pretense of objectivity, a one-sided conversation as bad as those TV reports in which the voice-over is running ramshackle over the subject. If you use a single, fixed take to avoid imposing terms on your material, you only end up with more constricted terms. I mean, A Little Death really came from that impulse to avoid all that shit of camerawork and editing that tells you what to think, or what the character is thinking. That’s obvious, maybe even most in guys like Hitchcock or Argento, who made the kind of films I’d love to make if I lived in some alternate universe. You know, if Argento just gave you a fixed angle from the back of a scene, it would be unbearable, watching two actors existing only as bodies beating the shit out of each other. But that subjective camerawork could only work in an artificial, candy-colored fantasy world, in which we accept that all the rules are invented on-screen and inescapably repeated. Like a Minnelli movie. That sense of complicity and involvement only works in a visceral world we don’t believe in: as soon as they put us in the perspective of the torturer’s eyes, we’ll adopt the perspective of the victim whom we can see, just as much, if not more. Comedy always goes with horror like it goes with musicals. It’s a speculative universe, and that camerawork is part of that speculation.
But how to respect your objects by opening up a dialogue between camera and actor, subject and object isn’t easy. What you really need is a pirated copy of Final Cut Pro, a laptop, and a good book to read while things render.
It’s a way of letting things speak for themselves?
GT: A way of letting them speak through my voice? [Laughs] Well, I almost called Physical Instincts, my Cronenberg video, “Mute Speech,” but then I realized I’m not very good at keeping quiet. Adorno’s “the true language of art is mute,” the language of form, seems almost the radical opposite that RanciÈre attempt at no idea but in things. Here it’s no idea but in pixels. Puns over ideas.
As it stands, the name of the game is that cinema is a language, probably the first one most kids learn now, but at least it’s one every movie can invent as it goes along. Take it up as a preexistent language to impose in long, static takes on your friends and whoever else you can sucker into watching, and you’re not revealing anything about them, you’re just making them speak in a foreign tongue. I can understand the need for that estrangement from the most familiar things around us. But you objectify the world, and it’s no better than a movie.
Whereas Traveling Light feels like this totally abstract movie that keeps trying to obtain a kind of objectivity on what it’s filming.
Hmm... I don’t know? Maybe it’s the opposite, actually. Think about Oph&uunl;ls and those train scenes in Letter from an Unknown Woman and even Madame de… The characters are sitting still on a train watching a passing landscape, but it turns out the movement was a simulation and they actually were sitting still, just as they appeared to be. The deception is only our projection to begin with. The characters on trains are moving, but see themselves as stuck in place, as if they were watching a movie out the window; the viewers of a movie are stuck in place, but see themselves as moving, as if they were watching something real on-screen. So you can watch these fluctuating colors in Traveling Light and try to recreate the natural conditions behind them as one reality, but the movie’s just a movie. Some Michael Snow stuff seems really obsessed with it. You were talking the other day about how Rameau’s Nephew is like Jerry Lewis, this movie universe in which the characters are stuck and trying to pinch themselves to become real. “Hearing is deceiving,” as Snow puts it, and of course it works the other way, that you leave that movie without believing any of your senses at the same time that the whole movie is super cinematic, this gaze of the viewer that mistakes itself for a body in the scene. The weather, the night, build all throughout Traveling Light, but I’m not sure if you’re watching evidence of some boring day we had, or total nonsense.
Is one better?
Probably not. Same thing, really.