On Migrating Forms, and What We Mean When We Call a Film "Experimental" 

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Migrating Forms
May 20-29 at Anthology Film Archives

Benefits of a festival as useful as Migrating Forms are as much sociological as cinematic. I've seen 16 of its 45 or so hours of shorts, presentations, and retrospectives, a knot of video essays, flipcam body-horror, and "color series" from 5+ continents; even the title of the series deliberately evades classification. Older works are stalwartly documentary and avant-garde both: Straub-Huillet's Too Early, Too Late, a Glauber Rocha mini-retro, and, rarest, a double-feature of Georges Perec scripts: Alain Tourneau's Série Noire, with a Warren Oates-type killer who reinvents his character as he tip-toes around a slummy French town, and Bernard Queysanne's Un homme qui dort, a late city symphony of an empty, Atget Paris in fragments, filmed fluidly as a continuous work of architecture beyond time. Chicly existential, it's now clearly one of the last gasp of city-maze films, alongside Wheel of Ashes and Blast of Silence, with solitary walkers and second-person voiceover, as dérives were still popular ways of losing one's sense of physical place —in physical places. That there are other means of doing so now is a recurring theme elsewhere in the program.

The impossibility of generalizations is a key generalization: eschewal of classification's particularly current. As Hollywood becomes as marginalized as the avant-garde from New York consciousness, the hearts of critics seem to swing to the fiction-documentary "hybrid film" of Costa-Gomes-Alonso-Haroun-Reichhardt-Porterfield-Serra-Denis, and one of Migrating Forms' specialties, alone among New York festivals, happens to be passive portraiture of disenfranchised nomads, bodies without voices traipsing through the daily coordinates of dramatic lives. Pioneered by the Lumière brothers, popularized digitally, interrogating the limits of narrative but rarely the image, the "hybrid film" is at best as perspectival as Poussin, at worst prose-poetry making an easy alibi of lazy camerawork and dramaturgy on faith that life in front of the camera is its own sort of found footage. A conversional idyll, masking pangs of 00s disengagement through 90s slackerdom, the hybrid film offers, per Zadie Smith, the "slightly sublime." Often it's as much a zeitgeist as an evasion of the times, but against the pretty lolling of Hollywood and the avant-garde's artier heights, it returns cinema to level 0 and offers an easy basis for experimentation.

This is not the experimentation of lyrical "experimental film," but experimentation as scientific experiment, enabled digitally, as Godard called his first videos "research" in the 70s: surveillance footage shooting perpetually, reducing the artist's role to following the scientific method in a controlled environment, establishing an operative method for shooting and editing with the movie itself as test and conclusion both. The movie becomes a document of a single element.

Oxhide II, a 132-minute, 9-shot survey of a table as a Chinese family cooks in real-time, is not so different from Chewbacca Supercut, the cobbled 13 minutes of Chewbacca's on-screen time in A New Hope. Documentary or fiction? Both would seem "formalist" but are still totally content-based; the formal decisions treat the material as test-subject so that it might reveal something about itself unknowingly. Like neither Warhol's blank slate and stare, that let the characters determine their own movie out of scratch, nor Michael Snow's imposed grammar, that transforms the image and outpaces it's the grammar's own intentions, the test-film seems to spring improbably from the post-cinema of Quentin Tarantino and his fetishizing genre outskirts, those points of downtime on the edges of noirs and Westerns where iconographic characters eat, gossip, watch TV, and shit.

Chewbacca retells the battle for the galaxy through the perspective of an unseen man plodding in a suit of a 7-foot hypertrichosis victim: incidental to the story, the story is still his only geography, and typically he seems to be out of the scene altogether until a faraway storm-trooper steps out of his way or a wisp of brown threads are spotted sprouting at frame's edge. As Bérénice Reynaud's suggested, Oxhide II is a martial-arts training montage—the befuddled daughter aping the wisdom of her parents in the art of the dumpling in real time. Again traditional focus on narrative drama is flipped with stress on more banal, eternal dramas: the hands of off-screen characters working in improvised harmony to make dumplings. More material, more abstract. The moment-by-moment rhythms make a music of bodies—hands—across the screen, the physical in its unthinking routine vitalized by some off-screen force. For moments it's as miraculous as Vertov or Bresson, filmmakers of hands as tools, process and procedure as creation.

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Oxhide II is the reducto ad absurdum of the loaf of bread that is being baked and eaten through the background of Dreyer's Ordet. This is the point. As Vitaphone sound shorts in the 20s, with single-take ten-minute documents of stagy vaudeville acts, rebooted movies to a drama-less "cinema of attractions" of the first films, movies like the "Supercuts" and Oxhide II do something similar for a nascent medium and age of installation art, performance pieces, surveillance technology. The camera isn't conceived as anything less obvious than a window between audience and subject.

That Chewbacca becomes an alternate channel through the Star Wars universe explains something of the posed naivité of Michael Robinson's These Hammers Don't Hurt Us, a séance, at the invocation of Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time," into Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra's lair, or Shana Moulton's The Galactic Pot Healer, in which a floating spirit in a Blues Clues world sculpts an ingénue's back into a pot, then bakes it in a microwave to New Age accompaniment. Both films, like the supercut, seem to take place within the world of New Media as though there is no other; irony is ingrown to innocence in this vision of media that's so tacky, so unsubstantiated by anything but itself, that it seems a wormhole into another level of consciousness. It's the path that might be taken in a video game.

Both in and against this mode is Laida Lertxundi's 16mm Cry When It Happens, one of three films at last year's New York Film Festival that seemed vital. Like Uncle Boonmee and Film Socialisme, Cry sees characters with their vision subsumed in the portholes of dingy technology-and eventually takes on their perspective. In the first image, two girls splay on a couch, antiparallel but touching, vaguely grinning, with the light intensified on their arms and faces. Already the film's both naturalistic, with feeling—a delimited space, real-time hold, physical respite, sense of the bodies touching cloth on all sides—and slightly surreal: their sense of comfort, huddling, belied by the unnecessarily tight squeeze. Eventually two figures in an LA motel room watch TV footage of the sky while one fingers an accordion, and some minutes later, that sky footage becomes the film itself, God's heavens accompanied by the Blue Rondos' "Little Baby."

The song becomes a signal of real-world culture and time against the sky, and every time the movie offers a transformative sight it's inevitably mediated by the physical realities of a blinking TV and preset sound-loop, like a sidekick that won't shut up channeling the transcendental. Lertxundi is precise in her abstraction; her cuts back and forth from the sky to the motel are like the Wallace Stevens rhyme schemes in which the words won't rhyme, but are repeated thuddingly untransformed. Her TV's not different from Stevens's jar in Tennessee—"It took dominion every where/ The jar was gray and bare"—at once both all-encompassing and physically self-contained. Shot-by-shot, like Stevens line-by-line, Lertxundi probably has a better sense of bodily relations, suburban detail, and epic landscape, spaces rising deep in the frame instead of receding, than anyone in America, but her accumulation of precisions makes a through line of disembodied gazes, very much of 2011, in which each portal seems to lead forward or back to the next.

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