“Extinction was a current theme of his,” says a character in Don DeLillo’s recent Point Omega, which takes as its starting point Douglas Gordon’s slowed-down Hitchcock installation, 24 Hour Psycho. Nothing in the second edition of Migrating Forms is as extreme as Gordon’s entropic project, yet extinction emerges as a theme among a diverse festival of experimental, underground, and off-the-map films, the shared tone less apocalyptic than haunted and bitter. Take, for instance, echoed images from disparate video works: overlaid with pontifications on a passage from the letters of Walter Benjamin, a montage of famous and anonymous Parisian graves in Moyra Davey’s My Necropolis captures the restless past inhabiting final resting places, while in John Gianvito’s documentary Vapor Trail (Clark) a montage of graves for infant Filipino victims of toxic contamination around former U.S. military bases is designed to outrage.
Indeed, the festival itself seems to want to fight the potential extinction of the political avant-garde by preserving its golden age with a three-film retrospective of rare videos by Jean-Pierre Gorin (Godard’s former collaborator in the Dziga Vertov Group) and a screening of the final Straub-Huillet film, L’itin�ƒ�’�†�€™�ƒ�€š�‚¨raire de Jean Bricard. But perhaps even more encouraging for the future is the return engagement of emerging filmmakers exploring the furthest regions of narrative and form. Canadian animator Barry Doupe, whose disturbing Ponytail was a highlight of last year’s MF, is back with two shorter works including Whose Toes, which interweaves cryptically evolving corporeal nightmares&emdash;eerily rudimentary computer-animated characters trying on and rejecting heads for their decapitated bodies, wandering through deserts, bleeding from eyes and ears&emdash;with banal images of ATM withdrawals and bedroom melodramas. Adding a soft static soundtrack and blurry superimpositions, Doupe increases the dreamlike quality of his style while retaining a singular harshness.
Doupe revels in elusive moments that challenge the viewer’s imaginative faculties, and so do the best of MF’s shorts. Cyprien Gaillard’s Cities of Gold and Mirrors provides contradictory reports from a hedonistic and self-destructing Cancun, as American spring breakers compete in liquor consumption, buildings implode into dust and disco lights flash without human accompaniment. In Bethlehem, Peggy Ahwesh honors late, great found footage surrealist Bruce Conner with a collage of fragments whose loose relations become, conversely, evocative. The image lodged most poignantly in my mind comes from Kamal Aljafari’s straightforward depiction of national despair, Port of Memory, in which the filmmaker’s clan is forced to abandon their Jaffa home. At one point a hokey Jesus movie plays on television, a family cat lounging on top of the monitor as the triumphant savior appears to John the Baptist&emdash;like the dancing chicken of Herzog’s Stroszek, it’s a great metaphor for God only knows what.
Continuing the tradition of the New York Underground Film Festival, its former incarnation, Migrating’s documentaries have been consistently sober. The downside to this approach is something like the aforementioned Vapor Trail&emdash;at four hours long and featuring unbroken interviews with community activists alongside illustrations of the history of Filipino-American relations, this epic could use more than a little editing. But then there are gems like Stephanie Spray’s As Long As There’s Breath, an unpretentious portrait of a Nepali family anticipating the return of their son, Kevin Jerome Everson’s opening night film Erie, a series of rich black and white long takes of African-American life along the titular lake, and Sharon Lockhart’s Podw�ƒ�’�†�€™�ƒ�€š�‚³rka, a half-hour series of commentary-less vignettes capturing the post-industrial courtyards of Lodz, Poland, where children turn landscapes of urban decay into sites of play. The latter seems to stand in for Migrating as a whole: observing what others might regard as disintegration and discovering the resurgence within it.