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

05/19/2011 1:00 PM |

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.