The end of the year is always a time of reflection and consideration; the end of a decade even more so. As I’ve been working on a “Best Experimental Films of 2000-2009” list, mulling over the thousands of films and videos and live moving image works that I’ve seen during that time, it’s hard not to wonder about trends, themes and movements. What has characterised the first decade of the new millennium? How are the avant-garde works of the last ten years different from those of the last decade of the old millennium?
The answer, it turns out, is surprising but simple: there is no difference. The 2000s feel very much like a continuation of the 1990s, with no clearly defining movements or trends – both decades seem marked more by a lack of clear labels or boxes for the work made than by anything else.
This is a good thing: it is easy and lazy to “group” films, spending time defining and filling categories – and conveniently ignoring those works that don’t fit – rather than dealing with the films themselves. It also speaks to the diversity and frequent eclecticism of the work being made over the last twenty years. While we may not have towering masters (Brakhage, Frampton, Warhol, Markopoulos, et al) any longer, the avant-garde as a whole has never been as rich or as democratic.
Perhaps the 2000s will be defined by exceptional artists rather than by overarching movements. Even before the decade is out it seems clear, to me at least, that it belongs to four remarkable film and video makers: Kyle Canterbury, Michael Robinson, Bruce McClure, and Lewis Klahr. That’s not a shot against anyone else; it’s simply that these four artists have achieved a level of sustained greatness, some across many years, some across many works, that they stand apart from their peers.
Of course this is my own opinion and compelling cases can be made for many others, including Ben Russell, David Gatten, Ben Rivers, Luis Recoder, Stephanie Barber, Vincent Grenier, Fred Worden, Julie Murray, Luther Price, Robert Todd, Brian Frye and Phil Solomon, just to name a handful. (Certainly David Gatten’s presence alone, with his infectious enthusiasm, his intelligent and carefully considered opinions, his generosity towards his fellow artists and his audiences, and his damned charm, would make him invaluable to the avant-garde decade even if he’d never touched a scrap of celluloid. If we had to nominate an ambassador of Experimental Film, he’d be the only candidate I’d support.)
It’s not surprising that all of these artists mentioned (with the curious exception of Canterbury) have been well represented at the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde over the years – and most of them had work at the 2009 festival as well. And now when one mentions Views (curated by Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten), it is nearly a sin of omission not to mention the unofficial “satellite” series Walking Picture Palace – curated by McElhatten and, for the last few years, taking place at Anthology Film Archives.
The 2009 editions of Views and the Walking Picture Palace were marked by a wide swath of good films and videos, very few bad ones, and a handful of exciting ones. In short, one snapshot of the state of the avant-garde today – filtered by Smith and McElhatten’s curatorial preferences. Having the luxury of selection and bias, here are some of the works that excited or fascinated me the most. I’ll begin with four stunning miniatures (and end with the monumental).
For the last decade Rebecca Meyers has been staking a claim to the rich legacy of lyrical filmmaking in America. Her newest film, night side, is delicate and beautiful – gem-like one might say – but it does have an edge to it. Meyers’ images are certainly familiar ones: trees, the eaves of houses, snow-covered ground, a solitary squirrel; but her editing keeps everything unbalanced and the dusk and night time photography shrouds her images in a faintly otherworldly haze. There is a subtle tension in her unpopulated spaces, reinforced by a low rumbling soundtrack that slowly builds over the length of the film. It’s not quite science fiction, but it’s not domestic quietude either.
Laida Lertxundi’s My Tears Are Dry is something of a coda to her wonderful 2008 film Footnotes to a House of Love. It is a haiku-like sunshiny Southern California riff on Bruce Baillie’s classic All My Life, with a towering palm tree instead of the brambling roses. But the simple, yet elegant, skyward tilt at the end is still there. As with her earlier film, Lertxundi is concerned with the feeling of a location. She creates an off-hand, casual tone that is both comfortable and slightly on edge. The effect is gentler here, but the cross-cutting at the beginning between a woman sprawled on a bed playing snippets of the 1961 Hoagy Landis song “My Tears Are Dry” on a portable cassette deck and a woman plucking discordantly on a guitar sets up an uneasy tension (a slight nod to the “Dueling Banjos” in Deliverance?). It’s the experimental film equivalent of lo-fi pop.
Nicky Hamlyn’s Quartet is an exercise in minimalism and theme-and-variation. His stationary camera films the interior of an apartment, focusing primarily on architectural details: a skylight, closet doors, a smoke detector. The four sections – the first two in nearly-monochromatic colour; the second two in low-contrast grainy black-and-white – revisit the same images with alternate framings. The result is a spare, contemplative film that seems to owe much of its visual look to 1960s and ‘70s minimalist painters and sculptors.
Where Hamlyn’s film is spare in its simplicity, Vincent Grenier’s new HD video, Straight Lines, is rich in its (as contradictory as that sounds). It is nothing more than the wavering shadow cast by window blinds on a desk or table top, but Grenier has a keen sensitivity to light and colour and texture and to finding tiny, magical details in the world around us. Here, at least at first, we’re uncertain what we are looking at: the titular straight lines with a quivering black mass in the centre. It’s an abstraction, but one culled from daily life. As in many of his films and videos, Grenier allows the real world to have its play, revealing itself in delicacies of light and shadow, colour and form. It’s an instructional manual showing us how to find the same kind of miraculous little moments in our own lives.
Luther Price has been a man on a mission the last couple of years. Best known for his Super-8 and 16mm found footage films, he has recently been creating hand-painted films and burying found films in his backyard. And not making prints – each film is an original and sheds a grimy mess of paint flecks or emulsion as it’s projected. I’ve lost count, but there must be dozens of these new films by now. These are abstract works and easily compared to Stan Brakhage’s hand-painted films, but Price’s work is less structured and more organic in its feel. He might be modelling Brakhage but he’s not copying him. The buried films, which retain only fragments of the original image after they are dug up and cleaned, are visceral reminders about the instability of the filmed image (quite literally here). Price’s hand-painted films, two of which screened at Walking Picture Palace, are richly textured works that aim for a particular mood more than anything else. Ink Blot #25: The Burnt Night is one of the most sombre of the series, its palette consisting of browns and rusts. But it’s also one of the most beautiful and moving – there’s a certain magnificence in sadness.
Ernie Gehr’s Waterfront Follies is a challenging work. At water’s edge (the Brooklyn waterfront) he films three sunsets in single 13 minute takes, allowing any pedestrian traffic or ambient noise to come and go as it pleases (including people inquiring what he’s doing). It’s a slow piece, meant for contemplation of the image (he refers to it as “Zen-like”) and as the last work in a program near the end of a long weekend of viewing it was hard going. But it’s one of the works that has also stayed with me the most in the following weeks. The colour is astounding – saturated to the point of disbelief – but Gehr did not manipulate it or the light exposure at any point. What we see is the unreality of reality – letting the world expose itself in unexpected ways. Something Gehr has been a master at for four decades.
For Faces by a Person Unknown Paolo Gioli re-photographed footage from a turn of the 20th century film he had found in 1972, using the same camera the original footage was likely shot on. The images – mainly of men, women and children, usually alone, sometimes in groups – collide and overlap each other in rapid succession. There is barely enough time for them to register before they are gone. Given the time frame – just a decade or two before Europe is engulfed in nearly a quarter century of turmoil – the film becomes an elegy of sorts: a secular memento mori, an after-the-fact portrait of loss and mortality. These once-private and long forgotten images are brought out of hiding, but Gioli only allows them a brief second in the light – forcing them to remain elusive, but telling, ghostly reminders of the past and our own eventual end.
For the program notes for his film Parallax, Christopher Becks provides three dictionary definitions of the term – all of which centre on the notion of displacement. A conceit, certainly, but an apt one for this visually jarring travel film shot over three continents. Becks’ seemingly disjointed editing creates unexpected, confounding and constantly shifting rhythms that gain meaning through accumulation. Where most travel films aim for creating pictorial beauty or a “sense of a place”, Becks seems interested in conveying the feeling of disorientation or lack of sync with one’s surroundings that travellers can have. Stranger in a strange land might be too obvious: Becks does allow for moments of respite and recognition between headlong rushes forward. Finally, though, it’s a masterful take on being out of place.
One work in particular made extensive use of cutting edge technology – only the video at hand is from 1974 and the technology is mid-‘70s analogue video processing and effects. Jack Bond and Jane Arden’s Vibration is a puzzler, to say the least. It split the audience, and I’m still not quite sure if it’s any good, but it is compelling and fascinating. A trippy work about consciousness and religious mysticism, it’s the kind of thing that should be insufferable. But there is a sincerity and naïveté about it that pulls it back from the brink of pretentiousness. Arden’s writing on it attempts to clarify the intent (“Scientific, therapeutic investigation of the dream world and Sufic. Edges up to the Eastern void and in an audio video unification carries the experiencing self along the biologic path to the cosmos”), but it’s really more of a poetic corollary to what we see on screen than it is an explanation. Images of a Sufi mystic in the desert, two Westerners undergoing dream therapy, and chroma-keyed images of a reel-to-reel tape deck and other images all combine into an inscrutable, but strangely riveting, work that could be a Nam June Paik remake of Owen Land’s Thank You Jesus for the Eternal Present.
Michael Robinson continues to make work like no one else. His deft combinations of pop and cultural artifacts are just so intuitively right and never devolve into simple post-modernist pastiche or cultural commentary. They move beyond that to become something deeper, more mysterious, and less fathomable. The word that keeps coming to mind is uncanny: his work feels haunted by a time out of time. His newest video, If There Be Thorns, is his most narratively-bent work yet. He fashions an elusive tale of siblings – with hints of social withdrawal, incest and tragedy – through fragments from horror author V.C. Andrews, William S. Burroughs, Stevie Nicks and others. There is an uneasy quality to Robinson’s work, a vaguely troubling glimpse beneath the surface of things into a dark place he never lets one actually see. Strangely, there is also a simultaneous feeling of euphoria in his work – suggestions of redemption or grace or peace. There is no dark without light, after all.
Lewis Klahr continues to find his stride with digital video. Earlier works seemed to incorporate the slick look of the medium in the late, rather than mid, 20th century themes of medical and air travel anxieties (Antigenic Drift) and perhaps the closest he has come to nostalgic longing (False Aging). With the works in his new series, “Prolix Satori”, Klahr returns to the look and feel of his stunning 16mm films – demonstrating that while his work seems attenuated for the film medium it’s not dependent on it. (Actually, what I can’t quite get used to is seeing Klahr in a 16×9 aspect ratio.) In Wednesday Morning Two A.M., Klahr presents his usual cryptic narrative (perhaps something about a woman’s emotional turmoil?) set, brilliantly, to the Shangri-Las’ song “I’ll Never Learn”. In the second half of the video, the song repeats and the cutout animation and three-dimensional objects (a key, flower petals) are replaced with solid colour-fields and close-ups of textured and patterned objects (cloth, wallpaper, etc.). The tone of loss, heartache and confusion Klahr creates in the first section carries over, informing his abstractions with the same emotional weight. It’s a stunning move, and demonstrates that Klahr, more than most, understands the power of music and has a great sympathy for the intricacies and complexities of feeling.
I was fortunate to see seven Bruce McClure multi-projector performances in four different cities in 2009. At Views he presented Cong In Our Gregational Pom-Poms, in which he used a small stand-alone screen as a foil for the large main screen behind. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the piece seemed mismatched to the size of the space – the work felt dwarfed and I’m not sure he got what he was after. The screening at Walking Picture Palace was more successful. McClure performed three of the works in his amazing new Pie Pellicane Jesu Dominae series. Here he bi-packs three projectors with two film loops each – one alternating clear and black leader, the other of bird imagery from a found nature film. Despite this rare use of representative images, McClure pushes towards abstraction. My disjointed notes on the first piece: “pelican, red/yellow/blue, diseased lung tissue, red/blue corpuscles, op art, Shock Corridor, epileptic seizure, descent into madness, cri au coeur, psychotic breakdown”. This, accompanied by a deafening, relentless percussive soundtrack generated by the film and manipulated live be McClure. Needless to say, when he’s in his groove McClure’s performances are visceral experiences not soon forgotten.
With Let Each One Go Where He May Ben Russell has raised the bar and set an expectation for himself that seems foolish: one wonders how he can exceed what is clearly his masterwork. Let me be blunt – this is a great film. The many outstanding films and videos he’s made over the last ten years all seem preamble now. A ramping up to what seemed inevitable, even from the early 2000 short Daumë. Let Each One hints at the mythological in its structure as a journey or quest. Blending reality and fiction, two brothers travel across Surinam – mirroring the route their ancestors took as escaped slaves centuries before. Russell’s feature, shot in 13 uninterrupted single takes, is part reverie, part explication. He combines documentary and narrative into an open-ended ethnography that allows for multiple entry points and asks and invites many questions. It is part history, biography, autobiography, structural film, landscape film, political tract, ritual performance, and more. But, ultimately, it is mostly poetry. A slow unwinding of images that allow time and space for consideration and wonder.
Views from the Avant-Garde
2-4 October, 2009
Part of the New York Film Festival
Program website: http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff/program/avantgarde/avantgarde.html