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Issue 03, Volume 02

Views From the Avant-Garde Struggles With the Slow Death of Celluloid

by Will Noah

These days the institution of the film festival finds itself at an embattled position in the cultural landscape. Festivals like NYFF continue to showcase great work, but much of the media chatter surrounding them focuses on the ongoing tug-of-war over the meaning of such events: are they the dying gasps of an obsolete intellectual culture? Are they elitist bastions of snobbery insisting on a myth of “cinema” that’s out of touch with the economic reality of “the movies”? Are they just red carpet opportunities built around stars, prestige, and press rather than what’s ostensibly being exhibited? And can you even call them “film” festivals when most titles are now shot and projected digitally? With all of the chatter surrounding the average festival, one might think a sidebar devoted to experimental film would be even more anxious about its future. After all, avant-garde film is an extremely small niche, even by the standards of our 21st century cultural fragmentation. Yet this year’s Views From the Avant-Garde program showed few signs of fatigue or defeat. While Main Slate titles faced hostility from brows low (walkouts from Leviathan) and high (guffaws at the closing night selection of Flight), avant-garde selections screened across the street to largely appreciative crowds of devotees. Though the avant-garde label effectively functions as a commercial death sentence, it also drastically increases the probability that the audience for a movie thus designated will go into it with an open mind, hoping to be challenged. While most films in the Main Slate arrived at Alice Tully laden with expectations and were consequently subjected to extreme scrutiny, their experimental cousins across the street quietly drew crowds prepared merely to expect the unexpected. The mood of most Views screenings was much warmer than that of their Main Slate counterparts; nearly every program found respectably sized audiences eagerly taking in the work and communicating with the artists afterwards. Only one shadow hung over the sidebar: the threat of film’s demise as a physical medium. Yet while the demands of the market may soon rob many experimental filmmakers of their medium of choice, the current generation of film artists has responded to the situation with vital work, both by clinging to their stockpiles of 16mm and by exploring the possibilities of the new technology that has been forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control.

On the conservative, cold-dead-hands-clutching-the-last-decaying-frame-of-nitrate side of the spectrum lies Peter Kubelka, the 78-year-old Austrian filmmaker whose Monument Film was one of the highlights of the festival. The program includes two handmade films, 1960’s Arnulf Rainer and 2012’s Antiphon, which consist of opposite patterns of light and darkness, noise and silence. The two films are projected sequentially, then side-by-side, then on top of each other. The films themselves are powerful: blasts of positive and negative sensation that seem assaultive at first but soon give rise to a trancelike state in the viewer. Yet these two works do not constitute the entirety of Monument Film. The project also includes a “sculpture” of the films, but more important is the presence of Kubelka himself. Much of the program consisted of Kubelka talking: in the dark or in the light; focusing attention on himself or on the two projectionists threading the projectors located inside the auditorium; and in general calling attention to the materiality and temporality of the film going experience. At one point he compared the pulse of the film to a simple drumbeat, in that both had no meaning beyond a declaration of “now.” At first I kept wondering about the time, thinking about the fact that I hadn’t eaten in hours and hoping that Kubelka would hurry things along. This impatience soon gave way to a state of awe at the lost “now-ness” of the cinematic apparatus. When Kubelka instructs the audience to watch the projectionists thread the film (deadpanning, “this makes you think, of course, of the thread of Ariadne”), he forces us to slow down and marvel at the physical rituals of the cinema that are fading every day. Monument Film takes a crisis of the medium and translates it into something larger and more profound: an elegy for the present as we know it.

This year’s Views also served as my first introduction to two of the most talked about contemporary filmmakers in the avant-garde, both of whom continue to shoot on 16mm: Ben Rives and Nathaniel Dorsky. Each artist had two shorts in the sidebar: Rivers’ Phantoms of a Libertine and The Creation as We Saw It and Dorsky’s August and After and April. While I’ve since seen Rivers’ Two Years At Sea and fallen head over heels for it, his shorts intrigued more than they compelled. Libertine, conceived as part of a larger art installation, serves on its own as little more than a tease of amusing signifiers, consisting of a series of cryptic photos and captions. The Creation breaches more fruitful territory, examining a number of possible entry points into understanding an alien culture before settling on the image of an erupting volcano. This image bulldozes the viewer with sheer natural force, making the preceding ethnographic techniques look feeble by comparison. The Creation’s high contrast black and white photography is one of its key assets, embracing a physical density that would be impossible on digital. If the medium of film is important for Rivers, it’s a basic necessity for Dorsky, whose new films are about the contact between light and emulsion as much as they are about loss and recovery. Where Rivers’ shorts leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the viewers to follow, Dorsky’s envelop the viewer in the texture of their images. I don’t know if I’ve seen an argument for the continued production of film stock more powerful than a single shot from August and After, in which a puppet floats suspended in some kind of solution that appears to be made from pure light.

Though most of my favorite Views titles this year were shot on film, a number of artists demonstrated a capacity for working with digital as a medium with its own range of possibilities. Ernie Gehr’s Work In Progress pulls apart the space, time, and color components of the video image, depicting everyday activities on the streets of Chelsea as a garish but beautiful dance of digital shadows. Even better was Tsai Ming-Liang’s Walker, in which a monk moves through Hong Kong at a snail’s pace while the bustle of the city continues at full speed all around him. Tsai’s frames are composed with elegant precision, but the fast-moving pedestrians that surround the walker are real people, rather than extras. This blend of artificiality and reality frames the film not as documentary, but as performance art, integrating the reactions of spectators into the fabric of the piece. João Pedro Rodrigues’ Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day, also included in the “Invisible Attributes” program, shared some striking affinities with Walker but failed to reach the same heights. Both are elegantly framed city symphonies tracing the paths of slow-moving subjects, but while Tsai’s short builds towards a beautiful tonal shift, Rodrigues’ quickly devolves into a banal lament for a city’s alienated youth. I don’t think Morning’s aim is mere hand-wringing over the millennial generation, but a shot in which a zombified teenage girl stares into a blank iphone screen while drowning herself in a lake is risibly heavy-handed no matter the intent. Rodrigues’ formal control is a sight to behold (as it is in his Main Slate feature The Last Time I Saw Macao, which I had a similarly tough time getting onboard with), but the film sticks out like a sore thumb when placed next to the work of someone like Tsai, who is more able to straddle arthouse and avant-garde contexts where Rodrigues falls into the gap in between.

Tsai and Rodrigues both look like experimental dilettantes, however, when placed next to Nicolas Rey, whose feature anders, Molussien was one of the best films I saw at the festival, in Views or otherwise. Rey’s film challenges some of the most basic assumptions we have about films, beginning with the title. Molussien is adapted from Günter Anders’ novel The Molussian Catacombs, which has never been translated into English or French. Anders means “differently” in German, so Rey’s decision not to capitalize the name in the film’s title creates an ambiguity of translation: should English-speakers refer to it as differently, Molussian? Such an interpretation would be supported by the film itself, which consists of nine reels that are projected in a random order at every screening. These nine reels can be arranged in 362,880 different orders, meaning that the statistical probability of the film ever being the same twice is practically nil. Rey’s shuffling technique disrupts the basic expectations of temporality and causality that we bring to films, a challenge that is extended into the political sphere by the textual excerpts that are read from Anders’ novel. These passages are narratives told by prisoners in a fascist state about the world outside their prison. Molussian’smeaning cannot be reduced to a simple thesis, since every projection of the film results in a different dialectical recombination of narratives, progressions, and linkages. Rey creates by surrendering control over his creation, a tactic that could give rise to a slogan for this year’s crop of artists struggling with the sea change of the film medium: give up but don’t give in.



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