October 1–2, 2005
Packed tightly into two demanding, marathon-like days, this year’s annual New York Film Festival component Views from the Avant-Garde featured a record ten programs, some comprising a series of short to mid-length films by various filmmakers, some devoted to the work of a single artist (this year the spotlight fell on David Gatten, Allen Ross, Larry Gottheim and Heinz Emigholz), with a couple of slots filled by feature-length films (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Une Visite au Louvre [A Trip to the Louvre]  and Andy Warhol’s long out-of-circulation Blue Movie ). As usual, there was not enough time to truly appreciate all the work, and I had to miss too many of the programs to be able to evaluate the Views as a whole, but a great deal of the individual films and programs were not to be missed.
The inclusion of A Trip to the Louvre alone made a trip to this year’s Views essential, even if the film was somewhat sadly relegated to a 10:00am slot, a demanding hour for a demanding film (although it at least ensured an audience of true Straub/Huillet devotees, minimising the distracting walk-outs which would have been numerous at any other time). Still, given the difficulty/impossibility of seeing most of Straub/Huillet’s recent work, it was a small price to pay. Based on the poet Joachim Gasquet’s account of a trip to the Louvre in the company of Paul Cézanne, the film is minimalistic even by Straub/Huillet’s standards, consisting almost entirely of still images of 14 paintings (and one sculpture), accompanied by a recitation of Cézanne’s commentary (as recounted by Gasquet) on each artwork. Straub and Huillet are renowned for their formal rigour and A Trip to the Louvre is no exception. But it is not without a certain flexibility; while more often than not the paintings are shown in their entirety, sometimes their physical frames are included within the cinematic frame, sometimes cropped out, and in a handful of instances Straub/Huillet break their self-imposed rule against re-composing the artwork to focus on a certain part of the canvas. And it is in the spaces created by this flexibility that the film comes alive, setting into play a series of fascinating tensions between different modes of communication and levels of representation: the film frame vs the frame of each painting; the painting as a physical object vs the painting as a world unto itself; image vs speech; photography vs painting; motion vs stillness – all of these relationships are explored and questioned. The distinction between those shots which include the frame of the painting and those which do not is an especially crucial one: by including the physical boundary between the world represented by the painter and the world in which the painting itself exists, Straub/Huillet present the painting as a physical object in and of itself, whereas by cropping this boundary out the painted image and the filmed image become one, so that the world conjured into existence by the artist is, in a sense, liberated from its constricting frame.
The most radical departures from the parade of images which make up the greater part of the film are the three brief moments when Straub/Huillet reveal the world directly, rather than as represented by these paintings (and sculpture). The opening shot, held for only a minute or so, pans across the exterior of the Louvre itself; sometime later, about halfway through, there is a short shot of trees along the Seine blowing in the wind; and the film concludes with a slow, 360 degree pan around a forest landscape. Precisely because these glimpses of a reality at only one degree of remove are so rare and brief, they carry a tremendous charge – our perception of the world seems, in these moments, to be sharpened to an extraordinary degree of sensitivity, as if, after being immersed in a procession of profoundly still, self-enclosed images, we were truly looking at the natural world for the first time. The most profound quality of these shots, aside from the introduction of motion, is the sense that the phenomena that we see extends indefinitely beyond the bounds of the film frame, a conviction that is emphasised by the final, 360 degree shot, which seems to luxuriate in the infinite expansiveness of the natural world it records. Perhaps to further suggest this expansiveness, two different versions of the film were presented, virtually identical (as far as I could perceive), except that these three shots were replaced by different takes, recognisable as such only by the tiniest details (I noticed a difference in the traffic passing before the Louvre in the opening shot) – an indication that these shots represent a temporal as well as a spatial continuum.
Ken Jacobs boasted two pieces in the selection, one of which, bearing the unwieldy title Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince – Leeds Bridge (2005), bore comparison to A Trip to the Louvre. Similarly preoccupied with the rephotographing of an existing work of art, in this case the subject is a very early cinematic relic, a filmic document of the traffic on Leeds Bridge on a certain day in 1888, as recorded by the pioneering filmmaker Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince. Le Prince was, according to Jacobs’ program notes, “the first person to create, in 1885, a single recording apparatus that photographed images in quick succession on George Eastman’s new paper roll film”, though the credit and glory eventually went to Edison and the Lumière brothers. As in his legendary feature-length dissection of an existing early film, Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969), Jacobs loops the film and isolates certain details within the frame, sometimes zooming in so close that the image becomes near-abstract. More than an analysis of the original film’s formal or rhythmic qualities, the goal seems to be to enter into the grain of the film, in order to penetrate the reality that is represented by the image. Jacobs manages to simultaneously emphasise, and luxuriate in, the physical substance of the film itself, and to transcend this physicality, to pass through it as it were, to insist on the almost supernatural connection to a now long-past point in time and space. Where A Trip to the Louvre ponders the paradoxical nature of painting – the painter’s ability to create the illusion of light and space and texture with nothing more than canvas and paint – Jacobs explores the uniquely charged and mysterious dynamic at the heart of the cinema, the fact that what is photographed existed in time and space at the moment of filming, independently from the filmmaker’s inspiration. Whatever the cultural or artistic status of Le Prince’s film, a great deal of its value is as a document of a vanished historical moment, a form of time travel, a freezing of passing time. Jacobs amplifies this quality of the original film, with its teeming, unceasing activity, by relentlessly zooming in on tiny portions of the frame, picking out particular figures, rescuing them from their anonymity within the whole. Their featureless, nearly abstract appearance only intensifies the overwhelming and uncanny feeling that what appears on the screen as merely a blur of grain and light and darkness was at one time a living, breathing human being, in a particular time and place.
Fred Worden’s Here (2005) demonstrated a totally different approach to the transformation of an existing film (or films). Starting with excerpts from two separate sources, a Laurence Olivier film and Georges Méliès’ Voyage dans la lune (A Voyage to the Moon) (1902), Worden sets these unrelated excerpts in confrontation with each other, alternating between them so rapidly that, despite their unmistakable dissimilarity (the Oliver images are in colour and consist largely of galloping horses, while the Méliès excerpt is of course in black and white and involves a very theatrical artifice), they form a dynamic fusion, an exhilaratingly rhythmic composite image. Meanwhile, the soundtrack contributes its own contrast, countering the furious montage by means of a gentle, calm, contemplative music. Worden manages to create a strange kind of calm and harmony through motion and discord. His use of the Olivier material is especially witty and suggestive – by looping and endlessly repeating these scenes of galloping horses, Worden decontextualises them, removing any sense of the horses travelling through space, progressing anywhere. They become simply an embodiment of perpetual motion, and their constant running takes on a paradoxical quality of stillness, a phenomenon which extends to the perpetual montage of Worden’s film. (Appearing in another program was a second, less successful Worden film, Blue Poles (2005), a wholly abstract piece which fills the screen with what appear to be white sparks, variously suggesting scraps of burning paper floating away from a fire, frost crystals on a window, or the visual phenomena which appear when holding one’s eyes shut tightly – a beautiful, haunting effect, but rhythmically monotonous over the film’s 20 minutes, and marred by a distracting electronic soundtrack).
If Here is a kind of perpetual motion machine created out of pre-existing cinematic material, Ken Jacobs’ other contribution to the festival, Krypton is Doomed (2005), extended both these notions to radical extremes. Jacobs has often in the past showed a predilection for appropriating large chunks of found material, most famously in his five-plus-hour Star Spangled to Death (1957-2003) (which encompasses the entirety of Nixon’s infamous Checkers speech, among other things) and Perfect Film (1986) (which is quite simply a reel, containing footage shot in the aftermath of Malcolm X’s assassination, which Jacobs found on the street and presented whole and unmodified). In this case, the chunk of found material is the soundtrack, a 1940s Superman radio serial, narrating the destruction of Krypton and the escape of the child superhero to earth (Jacobs’ program notes draw parallels between this apocalypse and the destruction of Europe during World War II, as well as the political and social crises America is currently undergoing). Visually, Krypton is Doomed presents another kind of found material, but the sources are distorted almost totally beyond recognition. In the centre of the black screen is a throbbing mass of light, which appears to revolve perpetually without ever actually completing a revolution. There are, at the very edges of perceptibility, a series of images within this mass, which become more or less recognisable throughout the piece, without ever truly revealing themselves. They form an impossible object, three-dimensional yet formless, in motion but frozen, suggesting a world being torn apart.
Jennifer Reeves’ Shadows Choose Their Horrors (2005) utilises a great deal of found material as well, especially in its first several minutes. Reeves’ film was commissioned by the Bard Music Festival to accompany the early Aaron Copland ballet Grohg (whose score constitutes the soundtrack of the film), a piece inspired by German Expressionist cinema which concerns a solitary necromancer who yearns for the love of those he brings back to life, but whose touch destroys them. It’s a haunting, wonderfully macabre story, and Reeves opens Shadows Choose Their Horrors by evoking this quality through a varied collage built out of clips from Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), footage of street protests in New York, news footage, excerpts from scientific films, and even decaying film stock. Woven throughout all this material is (silent) footage shot by Reeves with actors dramatising the story (her protagonist is female), and if it’s somewhat disappointing when Reeves gradually abandons the collage technique for a more straightforward enactment of the narrative, her imagery is consistently inventive and mysterious. And like Guy Maddin’s own ballet film (with its own vampiric protagonist), Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), Shadows Choose Their Horrors communicates some of the uncanny, otherworldly quality of the silent films Copland’s ballet was inspired by.
The weekend was also graced by a program of films by Larry Gottheim, one of the most under-screened of the great structuralist filmmakers, whose films are seemingly far removed from either Worden’s Here or Jacobs’ Krypton is Doomed (though not so far removed from the final shot of A Visit to the Louvre); but in their own way they share those films’ interest in exploring the relationship between motion and stasis. The program featured the 1991 film Your Television Traveler and a 15 minute excerpt, “The Opening”, from a work-in-progress entitled Chants and Dances for Hand, as well as newly preserved prints of several of Gottheim’s seminal films, Blues (1969), Fog Line (1970), Doorway (1970), and Barn Rushes (1971). Sadly, I was forced to miss the screening, so I can’t speak to the quality of the preservation prints, nor comment on the work-in-progress. But I’ve seen the other films, and Fog Line and Doorway in particular are close to my heart. One of the most exquisite and conceptually pure of all experimental films, Fog Line is both disarmingly simple and profoundly mysterious. It is nothing more than a fixed shot of a hilly, tree-dotted landscape shrouded in heavy fog, a view the camera patiently and unblinkingly records for 11 minutes while the fog slowly lifts, gradually revealing the details of the landscape. It could hardly be more straightforward or direct in its technique, but the sense of a world becoming before our eyes, of a mystery being unveiled, is overwhelming. Doorway is just as simple, a very slow pan across a snowy, farmland landscape, beginning and ending with the hard, dark edges of a doorframe in the foreground. It shares with Fog Line a preoccupation with the most gradual kind of change, the patient accumulation of visual information, and the articulation of space in depth. Along with Blues and Barn Rushes, all four films demonstrate Gottheim’s preoccupation with conveying a process of change that is barely visible. Blues consists of a tight, fixed shot of a bowl of blueberries in cream, with a disembodied hand periodically but methodically dipping into the frame to carry off another spoonful, until the bowl has been emptied. Here the change is hardly invisible, but the hand descends only every 15 seconds or so, so that the majority of the film is essentially a still-life. Barn Rushes performs an interesting variation on the theme. It consists of a series of shots of rural barns, but while Gottheim’s camera is constantly in motion, it circles the barns in such a way that they retain their position in the dead centre of the frame – the foreground whizzes past the camera, but the barns remain compositionally frozen. All four films are predicated on change, on transformation, but all four give a moment by moment impression of stillness.
A more modest, observational kind of filmmaking was represented by films like Jim Jennings’ Made in Chinatown and Stephanie Barber’s Total Power – Dead Dead Dead (both 2005). Jennings, a prolific and consistently wonderful filmmaker, excels at constructing near-perfect short films out of glimpses of fleeting, ephemeral visual phenomena. Made in Chinatown is a street film in which the human presence is represented only indirectly and in fragments, either through its reflection in shop windows, cars, and other surfaces, or through the shadows it casts. There is nothing extraneous here, nothing which upsets the film’s fragile, delicate balance between what is physically substantial and the immaterial traces of that substantiality. Even more modest was Stephanie Barber’s Total Power – Dead Dead Dead, a haiku-like fragment in which a video game console, a TV monitor and a vending machine sit side by side, neglected by any human presence, each seemingly trying to communicate in its own limited, mechanical way. The beauty of the piece lies in the contrast between the video game and TV, with their relatively sophisticated, complex messages, and the vending machine, whose blinking red light seems sadly but charmingly inadequate in comparison.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from this unadorned simplicity was Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s The Space Between (2005), an extravagantly layered, rhythmically complex investigation into a particular architectural space. By using an arsenal of different cinematic tools, including double exposure, freeze framing and careening camera work, Mirza and Butler transform a handful of recognisable features, including a non-descript interior hallway and a column of exterior balconies, into an increasingly dense and abstract visual field. Repeatedly filming the balconies by tilting the camera rapidly up and down, they create a pendulum-like effect, stripping the balconies of their architectural reality until they come to resemble a kind of zipper or spinal column.
The most memorable event of the weekend (or what I experienced of it) was certainly the ultra-rare screening of Warhol’s Blue Movie, an evening which was graced by the personal appearance of an aged but entirely undimmed Viva, who introduced the film and returned afterwards for a Q&A. Though her energy seemed to have declined by the time the film was over (as had my own), her introduction was sublime and unforgettable, a blast of charisma that helped power us through the film, an 8:30pm screening and the fifth program of a day that had started at 10:00 in the morning. The dynamic here was not film vs painting, or motion vs stasis, but rather an even more paradoxical combination of consistently sustained hilarity and numbing boredom, an effect only Warhol could achieve. A showcase for Louis Waldon and Viva, a truly wondrous film presence, with her movie-star eyebrows, lazy eyelids and dreamy cadences, Blue Movie features a very little bit of sex and a whole lot of talk, most of it gloriously banal and extremely funny (the best exchange: “I wanted to run for President” “What happened?” “No one picked up on it”). At several moments, the tenuously maintained conceit of the film, that Waldon and Viva are in a relationship, falls away entirely, especially towards the end, during an amazing shower/blow-job scene, in which a profoundly stoned Viva mumbles, “I thought I was supposed to be your wife in this movie.” The comic peak comes when Viva prepares to give Waldon a blow-job and can’t keep a straight face. A seemingly endless film, but an essential one, and who could fail to appreciate the fact that its final line, and hence the conclusion of the entire day, was “That was your fart, not mine”?
Views from the Avant-Garde is a crucial part of the New York Film Festival, immeasurably broadening the event’s scope and bringing wider attention to a mode of alternative filmmaking that is criminally neglected in mainstream culture. It’s a shame that it has to be relegated to a single weekend – you can feel the programmers, Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith, struggling to pack their selections into the time allotted, to do justice to the breadth and depth of contemporary avant-garde film without really having enough space to do so. And the result is that only the hardiest and most dedicated spectators, mostly those who are already involved in producing, programming, and writing about avant-garde film, make the choice to devote the entirety of their weekend to the event. It’s not that there are too many films in the selection, but that there’s not enough time to accommodate them, to spread the programs out and allow for multiple screenings of each one. By their very nature, many of these films are so dense and challenging, so radical in their approaches to filmmaking, that they demand to be seen in a context that allows for reflection. Seeing them in two full-to-bursting 12-hour days is exhilarating but it’s also cacophonous and numbing – ideally it lets the different films communicate with each other, but in practice it can lead to a kind of overload, in which they tend instead to drown each other out. We’re fortunate that part of the New York Film Festival is dedicated to avant-garde filmmaking, but setting aside merely a single weekend smacks more of a token gesture than a genuine tribute.