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

05/19/2011 1:00 PM |

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.