POSTCARD FROM THE AVANT-GARDE
by Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa and Aily Nash
Highlights from the 49th NYFFs Views
The views at Views from the Avant-Garde were still sharper this year, thanks to Lincoln Center’s new glimmering, grass knoll-topped Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, within which are three impeccably decked out theaters—including the Francesca Beale, a new favorite to many filmmakers who showed their works on 16mm, and a wood-panelled amphitheater that housed a looping program open to the public. From Jean-Marie Straub’s didactic elegies for Kafka and Orpheus to Michael Robinson’s A Line Describing Your Mom, and wacky new work by the late, great George Kuchar, there was much seriousness and much fun to be had at this year’s Views, which utilized the new venue to showcase more work than ever before.
With three films in this year’s festival, including his first feature Two Years at Sea and the Darwin-inspired sci-fi flick Slow Action, Ben Rivers bookended the weekend with his gorgeous jaunts into mysterious territories. Unlike most factory films, Sack Barrow, Rivers’s third piece, isn’t concerned with the mechanics of capitalism or the conditions of its workers, but instead unveils an uncanny world, much like those he has previously portrayed. Rather than agents of production, these workers are more like permanent inhabitants, ambling through their alchemical sanctum with a calm, surrendered passivity. We see them clock out, but do they really get to leave? The lack of any exterior shots amplifies a certain hermetic dislocation. There doesn’t seem to exist a natural world outside this factory, and it’s in the organic forms sprouting from within that we see beauty and defiance, refusing industrial productivity: the textures of mold and calcification, the toxically vibrant colors of chemical build-up, the rust, the whimsical shape and movement of steam, the ripple of liquids. The mixture of diegetic sounds, timeless radio tunes, echoey drips, and samples from sci-fi movie soundtracks creates an atmosphere rich with peculiarity. Shots of posters and cut-outs of models, often caked with layers of dust and splatters, hint at the existence of an exterior world, while this nostalgic gaze heightens the temporal ambiguity. Straddling multiple eras, the film intersperses images of the factory since its closure with those that show it still in use; faced with this portentous future already under way, Rivers beckons the tenacity of the bygone past.
A very different factory film, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Quality Control exposes us to the daily grind of America’s working class. Composed of a series of lengthy shots, a handful of short silent montages, and an interview sequence, Everson’s film depicts the African-American workers of an Alabama dry-cleaning factory as they relentlessly carry out their jobs in real time. (During the Q&A, Everson expressed a desire to someday make an eight-hour film chronicling a single workday in its entirety.) The repetition behind these workers’ tasks is mesmerizing: the various sizes, shapes, and colors of garments, the attentive manner in which each item is treated individually, the mixture of human and mechanical rhythms involved in the process. The opening shot unobtrusively frames a man at his station as he grabs the shirts and blazers that float toward him like ghosts and wraps them around an off-white dress form. Later we see a woman working a pant press, laying down each leg, and using a hand-iron to flatten whatever wrinkles were missed. It is hard to avoid the socio-economic and racial subtext of the work, yet the film never explicitly articulates these points, choosing to focus on what is immediately palpable: the duration and physicality of labor. Everson’s films explore the subject of working-class African-Americans, and with each iteration he continues to simplify his structure, honing the content, and allowing the complexity of his subjects to dominate the screen. The final product is profound despite its minimalism, simultaneously a fascinating “art object,” as Everson calls his pieces, and a frank portrayal of individuals working.
While Everson’s film constructs an intimate portrait of people within their workspace, James Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes focuses exclusively on each of its characters’ faces. Consisting of 20 close-ups, the lengths of which are determined by the time it takes the subject to smoke a cigarette, Benning’s film isolates each individual within a slice of their environment. The film begins with a young man beside a forest lighting the first cigarette of his life, licking his lips and thoughtfully considering the taste of each drag. Later a burly man with a handlebar mustache calls to his dog between puffs. The film questions what can be gleaned about people by simply looking at them. When we lock eyes with someone, what information can we gather, and how does the presence of a filmmaker, a camera, and a projector change this dynamic? Whether the film’s subjects are squirming uncomfortably, hamming it up for the camera, losing themselves in thought, or staring vacantly, the audience alternates between mystery and empathy, and their attempts at concretely pinning down the subjects’ internal emotions end in conjecture. Beneath this process are questions about the possibilities and limits of the cinematic medium itself. Challenging us to use expansive concentration and patience, Benning pushes his work to the borderline of what can and cannot be communicated through the moving image.
Jerome Hiler’s Words of Mercury, paired with Nathaniel Dorsky’s pensive, meditative The Return, was shot on reversal film and screened on the original print. Both projected at silent speed, these films are clearly born from the same universe, sharing an attraction to similar subject matter—the movement and play of light, brambles and branches foregrounding the sky—yet their formal approaches are distinctly their own. Hiler’s film elegantly layers images through multiple exposures, sometimes getting as many as four exposures onto a single roll. Also a stained glass artist, Hiler demonstrates his craft and love of colors. His emotive use of gels impart expressionistic voice to his silent images. Hiler uses a coloring technique that involves a treasured, decades-old bottle of “liquid fade” into which he dips 14 frames of film at a time to create his distinctive fades to black. There are many unique pleasures in Hiler’s rarely seen work, which we hope he will share more of in the future.
In tune with Dorsky’s and Hiler’s reverence for the image, Ute Aurand activates resonance between shots in her meditation on Japan, Young Pine. Aurand cuts from the vertical lines of a shoji door, to the torsos of a couple adorned in black-and-white striped shirts, to stripes on the socks of a toddler, whom we follow until a striped umbrella carries us down the street. While the subjects in Young Pine are undoubtedly iconic, it isn’t so much the content that captivates as the way in which the kinetic energy is carried from one shot to another, crafting a precise and purposefully rendered experience. The crux of the film lies in accentuating rare symmetries—we hear the voiceover of a few women talking while we look onto groups of umbrellas from above, the correlation playfully insinuating a dialogue between umbrellas. Aurand deliberately transitions between sound and silence to command attention. She cuts to silence, and simultaneously to a shot of gardeners as they sweep water and rubble in a shallow pond, the sound of the sensorially rich swooshes is left to our imagination. Aurand reminds us to look rather than be swept away by sonic seduction.
The power of sound becomes visually transmitted in Sylvia Schedelbauer’s imposing Sounding Glass. The film meditates on the lasting resonances of violence imparted first through a strobe effect, flashing between a shot of trees and blackness. This device has the power to imbue a still image with immense movement, impart an ominous threat onto neutral foliage, and create a mounting sense of tension. We flicker through a series of images depicting forms of destruction, such as burning buildings, storms, explosions, shootouts, as well as other more innocuous images of the forest, birds in flight, mountain ranges, and a rural Japanese town. The effect of these lightning-fast juxtapositions is the bleeding over of content from image to image. Witnesses are interspersed throughout—an eye in close up, and a man in the woods staring from behind a tree. At times these eyes close tightly, as if trying to shut out what’s before them. But even in the moments of darkness, as the viewers perceive through the split seconds of black peppering the screen, the previous images stay embedded on the retina. The violence in some of the imagery inescapably taints the rest, casting a shadow over the piece as a whole. Brutality once witnessed, the film suggests, infiltrates all facets of life, persistent and unavoidable.
In contrast to Schedelbauer’s stark tone, Mary Helena Clark’s By Foot Candle Light entices the audience along a fascinating alternation between illusions and revelations. Beginning with a spotlight on red curtains, which rise to uncover the spotlight itself, we follow the film through the night sky, spelunking in dark caverns, attending dance recitals, and finally ending up with a man in a nondescript room engaging in a curious staring contest, hiding, squinting, and bulging his eyes. Clark maneuvers through wild shifts in tone and content, always directing the viewer’s eye, anticipating and playing with our reactions. Fun and mysterious, the film finishes before the audience is finished with it, leaving us wondering what we’ve just witnessed.
A different kind of mystery unfolds in Ben Russell’s preternatural look at the Suriname River, River Rites, which begins with a man and some children on a sandy bank, speaking a language we cannot understand. We are somehow estranged from our normal mode of viewing, and it isn’t until we see the movement of the water that we ascribe this strangeness to Russell’s reversal of time. Indeed, not only can we not understand this language but, in fact, no one can. Our usual ethnographic distance from the subject—through questions of culture, location, and customs—is subordinated to ontological preoccupations, as our minds try to calculate the narrative of the severed cause-and-effect relationship we are accustomed to. At some point we lose interest in putting the past and the future in their proper order—the past becomes the future, and the revelation is in seeing next what came before. Our watching becomes recalibrated, rendering everything purely physical. Our newly discovered fascination with movement is not limited to the human body, but includes nets, clothing, and predominantly water. By the end we have lost our thoughts of cultural otherness and temporal reckoning and are left marveling at the strangeness of the world and the miracles of movement.
BENJAMÍN SCHULTZ-FIGUEROA is an artist, theorist, and independent curator based out of Brooklyn, New York.Aily Nash
AILY NASH is a curator and writer, currently working on Kinema Nippon, a series of benefit screenings of moving images works from Japan. She works for the Berlinale Film Festival, and is based in Hudson and Brooklyn, NY.