Pitcher of Colored Light

6-7 October 2007

Standing outside the Walter Reade Theater in between screenings at this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde, P. Adams Sitney recounted how the filmmaker Harry Smith, in a stream of expletives, once condemned the preservation of films in favour of building a time machine. Rather than spending the money preserving films, he argued, let them be retrieved from the past. Though known for his own collections, including string figures, American folk music and paper airplanes, the mercurial Smith also quickly abandoned projects and artworks as soon as they were completed, moving on to the next thing without so much as a backward glance. His passion was not for the archive, rooted in the past, but for the accumulation of diverse materials, to see what they might yield as a dynamic and always evolving whole. In essence Smith was a curator, a collector of rare and transient things.

Though none of Smith’s films were being shown at the festival, his attentive, uninhibited eye, and his seemingly inexhaustible curiosity were evident in the offerings at the 11th edition of the Views from the Avant-Garde. Programmers Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith packed 11 screenings into a single weekend, with related events taking place at Anthology Film Archives before and after Views. Major filmmakers were there presenting new work – Peter Hutton, Robert Beavers, Ken Jacobs, Helga Fanderl and Ernie Gehr each had individual billing – but there was also an ample showing of younger filmmakers like Ben Rivers, Gretchen Skogerson and Jonathan Schwartz mingling among them. All the expectations I might have had of an old guard obstinately dedicated to celluloid or a new generation pushing the edges of the digital frontier were refreshingly upset by the program, a good indication that the avant garde still drives innovation in contemporary cinema. Couched with the New York Film Festival, which was showing groundbreaking films in its own right, the Views program might be considered the eye of the hurricane, if the eye itself was not so volatile.

Of the younger generation, Olivier Fouchard and Mahine Rouhi took up the optical printer with a vengeance in Tahousse, a film made in the artist-run L’Abominable lab in Paris, while in Hyrcynium Wood, Rivers used the now-rare format 16 millimetre cinemascope to the delight of film fetishists in the crowd. Among the more established filmmakers, the recalcitrant attitude toward video and digital formats I’d seen in years past was replaced by a deep engagement with the blessedly inexpensive medium. Lewis Klahr screened Antigenic Drift, bringing his stop-motion cut-out work to DV. The hardness of the video image, so unlike the saturated glow of his previous celluloid endeavours, paired well with Klahr’s depictions of institutional anonymity in the hospital and airport, with bodies diagrammed and foreign agents marked neatly with telling red dots. The title, taken from a term describing the process of viral mutation, suggests that it is not only illness, but institutional regulation that can take on a menacing life of its own. Phil Solomon created two magnificent, elegiac machinima films from within the video game world of Grand Theft Auto, Rehearsals for Retirement and Last Days in a Lonely Place. The former is a kind of sequel to the untitled film he and Mark LaPore made for David Gatten in 2005, where a lone figure rushes through a storm and then pauses outside a house, a bouquet of flowers spinning beside him. With Rehearsals, the same man, presumably soaked by the same rain, now runs through a series of landscapes, from forest to city to a hearse in a railroad tunnel engulfed in flames. In the film’s most evocative scene, the man rides a bicycle through the bleak night sky like E.T., but with no sense of a certain home. Last Days in a Lonely Place is like noir-infused surrealism: alone in an empty city, its moody hero wanders through foggy streets, a witness to the phantom traces of other people. In one scene, the hearse has crashed in front of the movie theatre where the lights are on, but there’s nothing on the marquee. Though the titles of the films can be understood as those of a filmmaker troubled by ill health (and it was wonderful to see Solomon make the journey to New York despite this), the energetic and evocative détournement of the video game environment suggests a renewed creative force.

SpaceDisco-One

Perhaps the film that most resembled Harry Smith’s time machine was Damon Packard’s SpaceDisco-One, best described as being the reason for Packard’s lifetime ban from entering the Universal City Walk in Hollywood. Fittingly, it also sent nearly a third the audience out of the theatre (though to be fair, it was also the last film of the day). Film festivals often do best to provoke, to leave you wondering how and why something was chosen, and in that regard SpaceDisco-One did not disappoint. A wildly over-the-top fusion of ‘70s sci-fi, laser light beams and roller disco, the film constructs an alternate history through Logan’s Run, Battlestar Galactica, Bladerunner, and Big Brother in a de-brainwashing session, a portion of which takes place along the famed City Walk, that twisted, theme-park vision of what a city should be. If the film’s media mash-up tactics are absurd to the point of insanity, the film’s central question is all too familiar: how did things go so wrong? SpaceDisco-One is cacophonous, messy, hallucinogenic and proudly amateur, though perhaps in the sense that Maya Deren meant the term, the Latin word for lover. Laida Lertxundi’s Footnotes to a House of Love, also set in southern California, was in some ways the aftermath to the apocalyptic buildup of SpaceDisco-One. The desert, so often a stand-in for other places imagined by Hollywood, here is barren and bright, set to the tune of Leslie Gore and the Kinks playing through an intrepid little tape deck. The tinny sound carries through a broken-down house, a house without walls and whose door falls down the moment someone tries to open it. People drift by and a couple makes love on a sheet laid out in the sand; it’s not clear where the house ends and the desert begins. The music plays in most of the film like a radio signal, a relic of another time, now gone. The film is pervaded with the sense of something having happened, though we’re given only brief glimpses of what came after.

The passage of time was similarly marked in a number of films. Jeanne Liotta shot Observando el Cielo over a time-lapse of seven years, the night sky giving way to the tipping horizon line interrupted by flashes, neon jitters and a found radio broadcast that at one point notes an “observation in progress”. Robert Beavers, in one of the most anticipated screenings of the festival, presented Pitcher of Colored Light, the first film he made in the United States since moving to Europe in 1967. The film is a homecoming: Beavers returned to his mother’s home and filmed her with striking candidness, the camera gliding over surfaces like a bird, its eye caught in the glint of a piece of coloured glass, or startled by the sound of children playing outside. Through the window seasons change but Beavers fixes most of his attention to the unchanging scene indoors: the ceramic lamp shaped like a rooster, old photographs mounted on the wall, the curly white tail of a napping dog. There’s not much that speaks directly to their relationship – in one moment, Beavers’ mother asks him if he’s ready for his breakfast, and we don’t hear any response – but what’s unmistakable is their intimacy and Beaver’s tender regard of his sleeping, singing, aging mother.

Two films by David Gatten, What the Water Said 4-6 and How to Conduct a Love Affair arrived like distant letters. The former, part of a nine-year project of sending unexposed film strips to the South Carolina coast, returned a diary of the sea, some days calm, with brush-like smudges on the filmstrip, and other days raging, sharp blues and white crystalline pops exploding across the frame. How to Conduct a Love Affair begins by quoting The Little Blue Book of Etiquette, which advises the long-distance lover to write letters, practice patience and above all, to not give up. The result is the painstaking study of a small room observed by one who has all the time in the world. The attention to detail, seen in the coarseness of the curtain fabric and the shadow of the window slats on the bed, resonated with Abraham Ravett’s careful and quiet Tziporah, a series of handkerchief embroidery whose colourful stitching bear the evident trace of a human hand. In a few poignant frames, the fabric is seen from the reverse side, dimpled and empty, the hand long gone. The camera looks closely, as if these delicate objects would also soon disappear.

Of the four films presented by Ernie Gehr, the most affecting and in some ways the most direct was Shadow. Like How to Conduct a Love Affair and Pitcher of Colored Light, Shadow dwells in an interior space, Gehr’s own New York apartment after his recent return to the city. In soft beiges and blues, he films the light streaming in like water through the curtain windows. The shadowplay is vibrant, though the walls they perform on are empty and speak to a home not fully moved into. Shadow bookends somewhat with the filmmaker’s earlier work, Rear Window (1986/1991), though where Gehr cupped his hands to create shadow and depth in Rear Window, here he seems to step back, allowing the DV camera to crisply record the starkness in front of him. In his remarks after the film, Gehr was surprisingly open about the film’s origins, his eyes misting as he explained that Shadow was about “returning to New York, aging, and things disappearing.”

Beirut Outtakes

Like Peter Kubelka’s Dichtung und Wahrheit (Truth and Poetry) (2003), Christophe Giradet and Matthias Müller exert pressure on advertising footage in Hide by layering it in sequence, building an intensity of repetition that reveals an uncanny link between skin and surface in commercials for lotions, soaps and shampoos. As the shots repeat, they corrode and degrade, washed out by various chemical baths until we can no longer see what’s under the white. Peggy Ahwesh, with numerous films in this year’s program, composed Beirut Outtakes, a collection of film scraps and trailers rescued from a ruined Lebanese movie theatre. Many of the clips, literal found footage mostly dating from the 1960s, were distributed by Columbia Pictures, a company whose international reach cannot be overlooked. Arguably this was the program’s most political film: the deteriorated condition of the film may speak for itself, but it is the added layer of the exported American films, another veil of white, that stings with irony. “Beware you infidels and unbelievers,” warns one announcer advertising The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), “do not meddle with the secrets of the dead!” In this brief and ridiculous scene from a movie about English tomb raiders in Egypt, a filmstrip excavated in its own right, it is, then and now, the return of the repressed.

Scanning the crowd during the introductory remarks for his film, At Sea, Peter Hutton looked a little befuddled, seeing that so many of his friends had come to the screening. He explained that screenings had always been opportunities for old friends to meet, though after he left the city for upstate New York, those gatherings had become less frequent for him. Of all the films on the program, At Sea might have been the best suited for viewer communion, joining people on its “slow boat to somewhere” as Hutton half-joked before walking offstage. As the film drifts from the dockyard, with the slow and determined movement of massive ships like small cities, it passes to the sea, where the horizon line rises and falls as if resting on a breathing body, the sun seeming to bob on the surface of the water. The final section, the film’s most compelling, is shot in Bangladesh where ships are broken and dismembered, their frames left like giant carcasses on the shore. The workers labour in the distance but gradually come closer, peering intently into Hutton’s camera as if a secret were kept within, something that could be revealed if scrutinised closely.

That secret might have been something like the three one-minute films of Robert Breer: two restored versions of Eyewash (1959) and the equally magnificent Recreation (1956), rapid-eye provocations that flooded the senses with found objects, strips of coloured paper, animated doodles and scraps of film. The secret might have been the unassuming wonder of Vincent Grenier’s Armoire, a film in which a small bird expands the edges of the frame by hopping and fluttering about. As the frame responds to his light, unpredictable movements, it is at times rushing sideways or holding still, shrinking and stretched in every imaginable permutation. And yet the frame doesn’t always manage to capture or contain the bird, who in the end darts out of sight. It is as if he is the true filmmaker, directing the scene and, with his own star exit, deciding when to cut.

Perhaps the secret most resembled Helga Fanderl’s short, silent Super 8 films (blown up to 16 millimetre), presented as an ensemble of kinetic views. Fanderl’s portraits of herons, goldfish, a gravestone covered in flowers, or a worker brushing tar over cracks in cobblestone, might not have been extraordinary alone, but together, they accumulated a complexity of tone and rhythm reminiscent of Marie Menken’s notebooks. It’s Fanderl’s dexterity, her passion and attention, the camera-as-companion, that registers so familiarly with the rest of the audience. Following her screening, I saw her rushed with people, not just those who went to praise her films, but old friends who hadn’t seen her in years, and friends discovered through the course of the screening.

Views from the Avant-Garde website: http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff/program/avantgarde/avantgarde.html