Back to the Beyond
New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde, 2012
By Genevieve Yue
Though most of the events of the 16th edition of Views from the Avant-Garde took place within the two theaters and gallery amphitheater at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, something curious was happening across the street in the mini-festival’s old stomping grounds, the Walter Reade Theater. Throughout the long weekend, Peter Kubelka was installing Monument Film sculpture, three panels of meticulously pinned strips of film including his legendary flicker film Arnulf Rainer (1958–60), composed of clear and black leader; Antiphon (2012), Arnulf Rainer’s inverse with black substituted for clear and vice versa; and in the center wall of the Furman Gallery, the superimposed layering of both films. On Sunday evening, Kubelka invited the Views audience to inspect the completed work and examine up close the delicate strips of celluloid that, slightly bowing away from the flatness of the wall, shone with the reflections of the lights and the people gathered in the room. The following day, in an explosive conclusion to the festival, Kubelka ran Monument Film in its theatrical form: a projection of Arnulf Rainer, followed by Antiphon, and finally the two films ecstatically collapsed, or rather expanded, on top of each other.
Monument Film’s recombinant forms were echoed in the structure of Nicolas Rey’s anders, Molussien (differently, Molussia) (2012), a film built like a deck of cards. Chance determines the order of its nine separate sections, which are meant to be resequenced with each viewing. In making the film, too, Rey relied on the chance circumstances of outdated print stock donated by a friend, unsure what kind of image his camera would register, if any. The result, however, was hardly random, but revealed latent lines of connection with the film’s source text, Günther Anders’s haunting anti-fascist fable, The Molussian Catacomb. Written between 1932 and 1936, while Anders, who was Hannah Arendt’s first husband, lived in California in exile, and published only posthumously, the novel is assembled in fragments, a collection of stories that prisoners of an imaginary fascist state tell of the world outside. Amid the thick and teeming grain of anders, Molussien’s images, which sometimes spin around like a pinwheel, their tales drift in and out: snippets of an impassioned strike leader’s swift rise and devastating fall when he is told he has “no right to being right,” a factory boss’s consolidation of political power through semantic manipulation, and the “signs of life” a seafaring son sends to his mother in postcards that, entrusted to the ship’s captain, continue to be arrive even after sender and receiver have both passed away. “Molussia is everywhere,” Rey explained in the Q&A as his rationale for shooting a fictional location, and the film’s rivers, skies, and solemn industrial edifices blend into each other, offering no clear beginning or end, but a space without limits, and an unending process, or card-shuffle, of dialectical change.
A more tactile sense of rummaging could be found in Ben Rivers’s Phantoms of a Libertine (2012), which was originally presented in installation form with a looped film and a set of black and white photographs. In its theatrical setting, the scarcity of the photographic images is more apparent. Though the film treats the largely paper remains of an apartment whose inhabitant has passed away, we mostly see the edges of images, as the camera concentrates on the notes scrawled in margins of their faded scrapbook pages. We read the names of distant locales like Haifa, Acapulco, and Marseille, all visited while the anonymous and absent subject of the film, the man who made the album, worked for Time & Life Magazine. Some of the captions are less detailed, like the one scribbled “someone + me” or in a more enigmatic case, simply “?” Over a light and infrequent clicking sound, there perhaps to underscore the quiet stillness of the space, the film’s steady, observational view conveys the dual sense of a life lived and left behind. Karen Yasinsky’s Audition (2012), one of the most beguiling films of the festival, delves into paper archives of another sort. In the first half of the film, Yasinsky works over a few frames from John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, animating and repeating, in an intricate pattern that mimics dot-matrix commercial printing, the image of a woman prancing across a strip club stage, her skirt swirling Loie Fuller-like around her. Sit too close to the screen, and the image becomes illegible; it loses coherence the more closely it’s examined. The second half of the film features a book of early Japanese photographs whose pages are flipped before the camera. The two parts are joined by the repetition of Bo Harwood’s “Rainy Fields of Frost and Magic,” the track used in Cassavetes’s scene, which stutters as if on a scratched record during the first half, and is given room and full volume to play out in the second. Against the distortion of the animated section, the photographic one seems especially clear. Yet even when the images are legible, the subjects, this array of nameless people—a man shouldering a cart, a woman brushing her hair in a mirror—remain stubbornly inaccessible.
Paolo Gioli’s When Faces Touch (2012) also addresses looking at old photographs, but it does so in a way that underscores their ephemerality. Rifling swiftly through black and white images, we catch only bits of buttons, ringlets of hair, and snippets of houndstooth. Adding to the fragmented nature of the film’s portraits, sprocket holes and a wandering frameline jut frequently into view so that the film medium, which normally offers the apprehension of an image, here functions to obscure it. Peggy Ahwesh’s Collections (2012), parenthetically subtitled “death and the book,” moves even faster, rapidly scrolling through digital snapshots (and rare video shots), some of them with blurred or off-kilter compositions, that examine details of religious paintings at the Prado, Chinese porcelain at Topkopi Palace, optical devices at Arts et Métiers, and books held open by hand in the Eisenstein Apartment Museum. These accumulations describe not only the depth of these holdings, but the ways we—collectors, curators, artists, and tourists all—attempt to make sense of them, to give them meaning, or merely to glimpse them as they hurtle by. “Is not the whole universe that strange skull in which meteors, suns, comets and planets rush endlessly?” asks Malevich in the film’s final frame, itself a black rectangle for the artist’s square, which was previously seen folded among the images.
In addition to Collections, several of Ahwesh’s films were screened, including two seminal Super 8 blowups, Martina’s Playhouse (1989) and From Romance to Ritual (1985), both of which examine what Ahwesh called the “tribal behaviors” of small groups. In the former, the sturdy six-year-old Martina is old enough to read aloud a passage from Lacan but not able to comprehend its theories of parent-child attachments, though Martina unknowingly enacts them. She role-plays as mother, when her own mother whines for her nipple, and even steps in as director, when she insists on wearing a diaper to be in the film. The adults similarly test the limits of their own exhibitionism, as when a wily Jennifer Montgomery dares herself to put the microphone up to her bare crotch. As she lowers her pants, she also rolls over and obstructs Ahwesh’s camera view. Flushed and giggling, she asks, “can you see?” From Romance to Ritual (1985) similarly describes a tension between lived experience and the social roles imposed on women, broadening its view to include an explanation, rendered crudely in a backyard dirt circle, of how the longstones of an ancient matriarchal society at Avebury were later buried and broken by Christian townspeople. The film includes the Barbie-play of adult women, several exuberantly recounted stories of early sexual experiences, and a girl, dancing in a bedroom, proudly spelling words that Ahwesh provides from behind the camera.
Ahwesh’s complex and often contradictory processes of socialization made a sharp contrast with the radically antisocial work of Joe Gibbons, whose Spying (1977–78) and Confidential Pt. 2 (1980), also Super 8 blow-ups, were screened in the same program. Both titles bluntly describe what happens in each film: with Spying, Gibbons films his San Francisco neighbors through keyholes, a mail slot, and windows as they tend their yards, sunbathe, watch each other, and sometimes return Gibbons’s intrusive gaze. The effect is comedic and uncomfortable—judging by the nervous, near-constant laughter of the man sitting beside me, it is likely both. In several shots, Gibbons zooms back to show how far removed he is from what he sees, not only in terms of his camera’s proximity, but also the array of ordinary activity in which he doesn’t participate. If Spying is a version of Rear Window, and Gibbons remarked in the Q&A that the film was meant to extend the voyeuristic logic of narrative movies, he never joins the action like the heroic Jimmy Stewart. Feeling some remorse for Spying’s unbridled scopophilia (“I still had some remnants of a conscience so I felt bad about that,” he admitted), Gibbons made Confidential Pt. 2, an intense interrogation into and through the camera to “the formless mass” of an audience on the other side. Channeling the anger he imagined his neighbors felt as a result of Spying, he wrestles the camera to the floor, then apologizes for his aggression: “I just couldn’t take your complacency anymore.”
Several films explored the mysticism sometimes recorded by, and created in, the camera. Talena Sanders’s Tokens and Penalties (2012) takes place in the spare, tire-track lacerated landscape of Utah’s salt flats, where a woman in a white gown repeatedly crosses her body in a series of harsh gestures. She is both a totem, reminiscent of Nico’s striking figure against the desert of Philippe Garrel’s La Cicatrice intérieure, and a marker of taboo: as the end text describes, the Mormon Church scrubbed blood oaths and penalties from its official doctrine in 1990. Apart from these signs of ritual (and ritualized repression), the film leaves us wanting more of the Mormon prophecies it merely hints at, namely its origins in dreams and its violent consequences. In Michael Robinson’s Circle in the Sand (2012), brightly colored press-on nails are tossed like oracle bones where, in a near future, groups of young men and women uncover the buried secrets of the present. At 47 minutes, the film is Robinson’s longest and most ambitious to date, combining the feverish search for traces of the departed in If There Be Thorns with the weather-beaten utopianism of Victory over The Sun, though like all of his works, Circle in the Sand uses collage to reveal the evocative power of its magical, motley objects. The men, outfitted like Civil War soldiers in longjohns and suspenders fashioned from backpack straps, throw fax machines and television antennae into a giant gray trash heap, while the women flip through magazines that, when held to the sun, shimmer and reveal the hidden messages within the language of advertising. Here, pop artifacts are harmonious with nature; everywhere the earth reveals strange fruit, whether a Counting Crows CD dug out of the sand or an inkjet printer found in the woods. Yet they are also denatured: in this world of “destroyed knowledge” (as described by a line of text), these unseated remains, reverberating with cosmic force, become tokens of prophecy. Shambhavi Kaul’s 21 Chitrakoot (2012) similarly delves into the tension between nature and artifice. In her film, the skies and storms that formed the video backdrop to India’s most popular mythological television show in the eighties—a program that prompted many viewers to pray to their monitors—are isolated and infused with uncanny life. Islands rise out of the sea, magical arrows collide with boulders and uprooted trees, and an out-of-focus thicket of branches awaits a figure to clarify the scene, yet Kaul has purposefully removed the deities who control these chroma-key environments. The result is a televisual landscape at once familiar and unlocatable, even otherworldly.
Another form of god-like manipulation, this time orchestrated by the director, could be found in John Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum (1976). In his witty take on the actuality film, Smith shouts orders at passersby on busy London intersection, his voiceover directives occurring just moments before their mundane actions: crossing the street, looking around, or, in one particularly amusing sequence, commanding the minute and hour hands of a clock to rotate at regular intervals. The scene, of course, is constructed after the fact, and as Smith responds to its activities instead of directing them, the film underscores the fictive quality of all narration. In its “sequel,” The Man Phoning Mum (2012), Smith revisits the same corner, superimposing the present-day color digital footage on top of the black and white 16mm film, sometimes emphasizing one over the other. The new work maintains the same audio track from the first film, and leaves contemporary observations as lines of text. Shown right after The Girl Chewing Gum, The Man Phoning Mum was a palpably different experience.
While the first film provoked nearly uproarious laughter from the audience, the once funny scenes appeared haunted in the second film, with translucent figures passing through each other in time, and a brick wall appearing where there once was a cinema. When Smith tries to recreate the scene in a field several miles away, he notes that he cannot find the precise spot. There is a touch of menace to his closing remarks; he observes that there are shotgun casings on the ground around him, and that a man in a rugby shirt, perhaps the owner of the field, is looking suspiciously at him. Perhaps more noticeable is the absence of Smith’s robust voice, which instead of shouting is now mute and replaced by small, neat subtitles.
Janie Geiser’s Arbor (2012), made from a set of found photographs, also produces a sense of ghostly apparition. She doubles the images of men and women, people unknown to Geiser, over themselves as they recline on a broad lawn, distorts them through various lenses and sheets of transparent paper, and finally erases their figures and replaces them with the grass around them. No traces of their bodies remain. This return to nature, so to speak, also haunts the media of film and photography. As Arbor hauntingly illustrates, both share a shadowy condition in which, as Roland Barthes has argued, the presences recorded by a camera are, by the time of their viewing, inevitably gone.
David Gatten’s The Extravagant Shadows (2012) takes up the process of vanishing as its aesthetic conceit and poetic core. Over the course of nearly three hours, following an image of a shelf of books, Gatten brushes paint over the surface of a glass panel set in front of his camera, allowing the text of his narrative to rise up, fade away, and be painted over again. The digital rendering of the words is important; moving with and against the painted surface, they appear to be both embedded within it and floating beyond it, immaterially returning like the washes of paint that reappear as the newest layer thins and dries. Like many of Gatten’s works on celluloid, The Extravagant Shadows is concerned with time of reading, of messages sent and not always, or not fully, received—the video could be considered as much an expanded book as it is a moving image work. The opening shot of a row of books, matched in the closing with the film’s title inscribed on one of the spines, confirms the literary hybridity of the work. Correspondingly, the attention it demands is atypical for film audiences, even those well-versed in the temporal manipulations of the avant-garde. To merely watch this film is not enough; it must also be read and indeed inhabited, feeling through the sometimes long intervals between panes of applied paint, the momentary appearance of text, the times of the film’s many vanishings. The film provides ample space to settle in (or to sometimes resist) its subtle rhythms, to observe the striations of color and texture as the paint accumulates, and to absorb the tale of a love affair conducted in letters over the span many years, along with many digressions on the physics of sound transmission, instructions for cablegram communication, and philosophical ruminations on the nature of speech and description. Rare for Gatten’s work, there are also occasional moments of sound, whether the lush strains of Merrilee Rush’s “Angel on My Shoulder” and “Love Street” or simply the sound of the room, and the air, in which Gatten paints. With the chirping of birds in the distance, such moments bring a calm relief, as if a window had been opened somewhere close by. For its formal austerity, The Extravagant Shadows may be a perceptually demanding work, though it is by no means an unforgiving one. Rather it is, as Gatten suggested in his eloquent introduction to the film, “an offering of protected time,” an occasion to see and sense the events of disappeared pasts in the richness of the present.