Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Third Annual Migrating Forms Festival at New York’s Anthology Film Archives
by Genevieve Yue
In Kristin Thompson’s essay “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” she discusses those elements of a film that don’t fit into a critic’s narrative or thematic framework, shots and details that destabilize an otherwise homogenous whole. These odd lots can also appear among groupings of films, whether by genre or curation, as loose ends that unravel the seams of tidy categorization. Even in something as expansive and variously defined as experimental film, it’s possible to find oneself suddenly stranded in a cinematic hinterland; indeed, that’s kind of the point, the sharpened edge of the avant that the practice aspires to, at least in theory. In this way, Migrating Forms, formerly the New York Underground Film Festival, allows itself considerable experimental drift, programming an impressively broad range of contemporary avant-garde films, vintage video art, schlocky revivals and remixes, and esoterica to satiate the rarest of cinephagic appetites. I doubt anyone could love everything that screened in Anthology Film Archives’s Maya Deren Theater during the ten-day run—I’m sure there’s plenty that was hated outright—but that speaks to the accomplishment, not the detriment, of Migrating Forms, a moving target of a festival composed almost entirely of these disquieting, startling, and sometimes sublime moments of excess.
Even as I focused my attention on the substantial repertory offerings, there was considerable range, starting with a program of videos by Los Angeles–based artist Cynthia Maughan. Recently restored by the Getty Research Institute and presented as part of EAI’s 40th anniversary, the videos, each lasting only a couple of minutes in length, represent a fraction of the over 300 pieces Maughan produced in the seventies and eighties. Maughan’s films are pulpy and playful, and her influences are easy to detect: advertising copy, horror films, and soap operas, as well as the early video work of Paul McCarthy and William Wegman, some of which were also shown in the program. McCarthy’s Ma Bell (1971) is particularly disturbing for the artist’s maniacal laughter as he smears flour, cotton stuffing, and motor oil into the pages of a phone book; the video makes for a strange sort of baking project, and shares with Maughan’s sensibility a fondness for common household objects put to uncommon use.
Wegman, meanwhile, lays uncomfortably bare the mystique of consumer products in works like Deodorant (1972–73), in which he lauds the effectiveness of his favorite aerosol can while emptying its contents onto his armpit, or the frustrated salesman of Pocketbook Man (1970¬–71), in which a tighty-whitey-clad man covered in purses arrives home, exhausted after a rough day at work. Maughan saw the latter as a student at the California State University, Long Beach; her own work, like Wegman’s, is suffused with comedic verve, a combination of the absurd and the banal. Beneath the droll and somewhat disaffected tone of her videos, however, is a darker reflection in her pop cultural mirror. In Razor Necklace (1975), for example, she gingerly affixes a chain of razor blades across her bare torso, wincing from the pain it causes. Beauty culture is incriminated in Scar/Scarf (1973–74) as well, as Maughan tries out different scarves to cover a prominent vertical scar along her neck. “Hurry up,” a male voice says offscreen. “I’m trying to find a scarf to hide my scar,” she responds dryly.
Despite the amateurish feel of the videos, which were all edited in-camera and show Maughan turning the camera on and off, the work is deceptively layered and complex. Feminist in outlook, the videos are also fascinated by a culture that positions women as mysterious and discretely mutilated objects. In The Way Underpants Really Are (1975), she exposes the decidedly unsexy view of the proverbial peep show, lifting her skirt to reveal a comically large and tattered pair of granny panties. Taking Medicine with Gloves On (1975) shows the opera-gloved arms of a woman delicately pouring liquid onto a spoon and then presumably drinking it offscreen, a sickliness, or a poisonous habit, indicated but hidden from sight. Though they’re at work in every piece, death and desire coincide explicitly in Frozen & Buried Alive (1974–1975), an account of a heinous experiment whose only record, due in part to a camera malfunction, is a white nightgown, and the sepulchral finds precise form in Coffin from Toothpicks (1975), a display of a tiny coffin, complete with gauze-wrapped mummy, painstakingly constructed during the speaker’s stay in a mental hospital.
Georges Perec and Bernard Queysanne take another view of cultural activity through extreme disengagement in Un Homme qui dort (1974), presented at the festival alongside Alain Corneau’s Série noire (1979), for which Perec adapted Jim Thompson’s Hell of a Woman. Perec is perhaps best known for his literary experimentation with the Oulipo group, during which time he wrote a novel devoid of the letter e and composed another based on a series of chess moves. While puzzles and patterns shaped Perec’s later career, Un Homme qui dort, which he adapted from a novella he wrote in 1967, prior to joining Oulipo, bears a looser though no less rigorous style. The film is written and narrated entirely in the second person, and the “you” (voiced by Shelley Duvall in the English version) it describes concerns the unspeaking young man we see in the film, but it also extends to the reader or the audience, a record of spiraling detachment, a hallucination embedded with an exhaustive catalogue of concrete detail, or even, perhaps, a hypnosis.
The story tells of a young man for whom “something has gone wrong.” A dropout in every sense, he skips his university exam and idles in his small Parisian apartment. Notes from concerned friends accumulate under the door as he plays solitaire or stares at cracks in the ceiling. Occasionally he wanders out for dinner or a movie, and in the latter half of the film, he takes long walks through the mostly empty city. Usually, however, he’s somewhere between sleep and waking, the camera cutting to the same objects in his apartment with the regularity of a clock: socks soaking in a washbasin, a tube of condensed milk he squirts into a cup of instant coffee, a fractured mirror. Some of the details, like the poster of Magritte’s La Reproduction interdite, feel belabored; while the later, Oulipian films of Perec bring to mind the language-based structural cinema of Hollis Frampton, Un Homme qui dort lacks Frampton’s witty interrogation of film grammar. Still, with a slowly tracking camera, Perec and Queysanne achieve some instances of provocative rhyme, as when we see the bottom of the Eiffel Tour erased in fog, and, moments later, hear Duvall’s monotone description of “a gray man for whom gray has no grayness.”
The film is pulled into the whirlpool momentum of its spiral structure, returning with devastating rapidity to the same greasy plate of steak and fries, the same elderly man sitting motionless before an obelisk, and the same anonymous rooftop view that begins and ends the film. The relentless voiceover leaves little room either for a psychological interpretation or a political one; while both are certainly possible, Un Homme qui dort’s conclusion moves beyond boredom, loneliness, or indifference to complete and unconditional surrender to that most domineering of formal structures, time itself: “It is on a day like this one, a little later, a little earlier, that everything starts again, that everything starts, that everything continues.”
That line, uttered toward the end of Perec and Queysanne’s film, could easily have fit in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late (1981). As the filmmakers frequently borrow their dialogue from other sources, Too Early, Too Late incorporates three main texts. In the first part, shot in France in 1980, Huillet reads from a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky in 1889 correcting the latter’s “major shortcomings” in his book on the plight of the French peasantry prior to the revolution. As the camera moves from a car-held shot circling a Parisian roundabout to locations in the French countryside, her voiceover switches to sections of the Cahiers de Doléances that describe the impoverished state of the villages and small cities we see. The second part, filmed in Egypt in 1981, features sections of Mahmoud Hussein’s Class Struggle in Egypt as read by Bhagat El Nadi, describing the failed revolts in Egypt leading up to the 1952 military coup. Too Early, Too Late sets up a number of comparisons: 1789 France and 1952 Egypt, history and its contemporary revision(ism) (both in Straub-Huillet’s 1980 and 1981 visits and this screening in 2011), and the tension between text and image, time and landscape. Yet the film refrains from stating outright what exactly it is that arrived too early, or too late. Instead film remains a provocation as it does in all their work: Marxist in approach, but open in dialectical implication. Without assessment of prescription, Too Early, Too Late begins with Engels’s attempt to fill the gaps of Kautsky’s account and eventually gives itself over to the small, unchoreographed moments of the countryside. After the depopulated towns and steeples of France, the lengthier section in Egypt’s fields and river deltas are filled with people. The slow pans around rippling grass, dirt roads, and braying donkeys recall the meditative sweep of Peter Hutton and James Benning’s films, and El Nadi’s narration becomes shorter and more infrequent as the landscape takes over, airing out, as it were, Hussein’s dense prose.
In the film’s longest single take, a stream of workers leave a factory, but unlike the Lumière employees of 1895, none of them seem to be in any particular hurry. Men, mostly—though there are a few women and young boys—walk their bikes and smile at each other, paying little attention to the camera. Serge Daney calls this the film’s “moral point,” the camera’s position balancing too close with too far, a view belonging to neither the intrusive ethnographer nor the detached observer. It’s also the stance the filmmakers take vis-à-vis the histories and people they document, and in the context of recent developments in Egypt and elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East, it leaves space for the possibility of unanticipated, self-realized futures.
With Antônio das Mortes (1969), Glauber Rocha envisions another kind of political destiny for his native country, Brazil. Rocha is best known for his involvement with the leftist Cinema Novo movement in the 50s and 60s, and most notably his seminal essay, “An Esthetic of Hunger,” and in complementary ways, his films, three of which screened at Migrating Forms, express the same aspirations and frustrations of his revolutionary praxis. Antônio das Mortes illustrates many of the manifesto’s aims: as Rocha argues for a more direct, forceful, and violent cinema tied to postcolonial struggle, the film, the first Rocha shot in color, luridly brings together ritualistic chanting, psychedelic delirium (one scene involving a pair of groping lovers and a bloodied corpse is particularly reminiscent of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures), a Western shootout, and an outdoor classroom scene in which a group of children enthusiastically recite significant historical dates to their teacher, simply called the Professor.
The title figure of Antônio das Mortes is a mercenary hired by a local landowner to hunt down the last of the cangaceiros, Coirana, a folk hero and rebel fighter who has been hiding in the rocky caves of the arid sertão. After defeating Coirana in a duel (with both men holding the ends of a pink bandanna in their teeth), however, Antônio realizes that the landowner is his actual enemy and he joins forces with the Professor to fight for the downtrodden people of the sertão. Rocha’s film, however, is far from straightforward. The elliptical narrative is mixed with allegorical elements borrowed from Catholic and African religious traditions, and there’s enough singing in the film for it to qualify as a musical. Unlike the stark, Neo-Realist-inspired films of Rocha’s contemporary, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Antônio das Mortes uses lush symbolism to address urgent and ongoing issues pertinent to Brazil of 1964, namely poverty, the abuses of power, and the role of artists and intellectuals in addressing the concerns of the nation.
Like Straub-Huillet’s moral distance, Perec and Queysanne’s temporal submission, and Maughan’s ambivalent embrace of pop culture, Antônio das Mortes offers, in lieu of closure, an opening, or at least a direction. “Here will start the endless war,” declares the enigmatic Santa, a dark-haired woman in a fringed white headdress (reminiscent of Nico’s garb in Philippe Garrel’s The Interior Scar) and Rocha alerts us to the cyclical nature of political struggle, where the past doesn’t disappear but reemerges as future. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that Terra em transe, made two years earlier, is a kind of sequel to Antônio das Mortes, a tale that picks up on the disillusionment and ultimate corruption of the Professor once he becomes a politician. Antônio das Mortes’ exuberant excesses seem the most appropriate response to ceaseless struggle, shifting with each turn of the gyre, and meeting each rotation as if new.