PASTS AND PRESENTS
The New York Film Festivals Projections
For 17 years, Views from the Avant-Garde, a sidebar program to the New York Film Festival, was the United States’s defining institution for the locus of films and videos that constitute what we still, half-heartedly, call the avant-garde. Mark McElhatten, its co-programmer and animating spirit, stewarded the festival with an apparent love for the work he programmed and the artists who made it. Few of his contemporaries have demonstrated the same kind of sustained passion for the preservation and extension of the avant-garde film tradition.
But for many of Views’ recent years, that love had become suffocating. Individual programs were overstuffed, too long and crowded out by an ever-expanded collection of legacy filmmakers who appeared every year regardless of the quality of their latest work. McElhatten’s unimpeachable seriousness cast a heavy, sacralizing air over work best approached with an irreverent curiosity. There was a fundamental conflict between the central position Views had come to occupy and the deeply personal vision its programmer was intent on executing. In this light, McElhatten’s taste for the romantic, the sensuous, and the recondite appeared only more conservative, and the atmosphere more clubby.
After a final, larger-than-ever edition last year, McElhatten has departed and Views is no more. In its place has appeared Projections, a slightly scaled-down survey assembled by Dennis Lim, Aily Nash, and Gavin Smith, who for many years co-programmed Views with McElhatten.
This first edition offered a welcome improvement upon Views’ late excesses—tighter group programs drawn from a wider array of styles and milieux, featuring younger filmmakers and more women—without ultimately taking the radical steps necessary to locate a coherent role for the avant garde in the 21st century. A large portion of the work that appeared offered little more than the trivial elaboration of this or that venerable avant-garde subgenre; there were still too many vaguely conceived project films and grant-money travelogues—too many small abstractions. It must be admitted, however, that these are the larger problems of avant-garde. It’s too bad that Projections didn’t intervene more decisively, but it cannot be accused of offering a distorted picture of the landscape.
The shorter programs gave breathing space to work that might have previously appeared at Views. It was easier to become more fully involved, for instance, in the perceptual puzzles of Mike Gibisser’s stunning Blue Loop, July, and the tactical displacements and things left unsaid in Mary Helena Clark’s The Dragon is the Frame.
Other festival highlights could have been more easily anticipated. For many years now, Kevin Jerome Everson has shouldered a disproportionate amount of weight in the experimental film world. One of the shamefully small number of black filmmakers whose work travels the experimental circuit, Everson’s fragmentary documentaries and neorealist fictions of mostly black, working-class life are significant not only for their attention to black life or working-class life, but to life outside the movie theater at all. Almost single-handedly he substantiates one of the essential promises of experimental film: to offer a dialectic of form and content more fully responsive to the vagaries of experience than standard Hollywood or documentary narrative.
Projections presented Everson’s recent diptych of films made in East Cleveland, Fe26 and Sound That, documentary-style portraits of people who, in different ways, make a living from city services. Everson leaves visible the crack through which he enters his subject’s lives, establishing a connection and revealing detail without presuming authority, thereby giving real weight to the larger questions posed about labor and the uses of the state, and nuance to his ancillary formal concerns about the provenance of the real.
Another work that locates the abstract in the specific, The Measures is a collaboration between Jacqueline Goss and Jenny Perlin that narrates the prolonged expedition by two 18th century French astronomers to chart the meridian arc that would serve as the basis for the meter. Enamoured with their materials, but alive to the complexities of historical storytelling, Goss and Perlin offer fresh ways of thinking about the pleasures and perils of collaboration, as well as relationships between art and science, and standardization and nationhood.
Generically, The Measures resembles the kind of wandering, associative historical essays that have had great purchase in the art and film worlds for some time now. It isn’t the first time Goss has belatedly taken up a popular trope after it has otherwise exhausted its utility, and enlivened it with her patient curiosity and unshowy wit. Two artists who have previously employed the essayistic as an escape hatch, Luke Fowler and Eric Baudelaire, were also featured in Projections, each with the most interesting work of theirs I’ve yet seen. Working with archival materials from and about the Scottish Highlands, Fowler’s Depositions, like The Measures, deals with the imposition of scientific—in this case, pseudo-scientific—rationality onto recalcitrant actuality. In many ways, it’s as scatterbrained as Fowler’s past work, but the density of its montage remains consistently fertile, and its specific engagement with the television medium helps narrow its focus. Comparatively direct, though rich in ambiguity, Baudelaire’s Letters to Max presents an epistolary exchange between the filmmaker and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs for the largely unrecognized Abkhazia.
Examining a less significant episode of recent history, Phillip Warnell’s Ming of Harlem: 21 storeys in the air returns to a 2003 human interest bonanza: the story of Antoine Yates, caught keeping a 3-year-old tiger and full-grown alligator in Harlem’s Drew Hamilton Houses. Warnell employs a more conventional documentary approach in the two sections that bookend the film’s quasi-structural set-piece, which pictures animal stand-ins exploring recreations of Yates’ apartment. Against Yates’ repeated insistence on the love he and these animals shared, Warnell’s emphasis on banal, abstract questions about human-animal relationships and spaces of confinement (underlined by the inclusion of a pair of embarrassingly purple texts by Jean-Luc Nancy and composer Hildur Gudnadóttir) seems not only cold, but a little clueless—particularly in the context of a festival that also included Lisa Truttman and Behrouz Rae’s Babash, which tackles similar themes with considerably more liveliness and humility. Warnell seems to flinch from Yates out of some ostentatious display of the ethnographer’s good manners—the white Briton acknowledging his distance from his black American subject—but the effect runs counter to the intended sensitivity, and instead establishes a detached and voyeuristic point of view.
Projections’ penultimate program surveyed a variety of politically oriented archival projects. Taking their place in the margins of the past—of better defined historical moments, more directly engaged films, established thinkers, and canonical texts—many of these films only underlined the pervasive sense of impotence that haunts the avant-garde. Though in some cases, the historical recursion was more pointed. Basma Alsharif’s O, Persecuted, and another film by Everson, Sugarcoated Arsenic, made in collaboration with University of Virginia history professor Claudrena Harold, both respond to a certain exhaustion of art’s political efficacy in the struggles they respectively address: the ongoing occupation of Palestine, and the more subtle forms of repression inflicted on black Americans in the decades following the major Civil Rights successes. In O, Persecuted, Alsharif offers an occluded view of the restoration of Kassem Hawal’s 1974 work of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine agitprop, Our Small Houses, before launching into a rapid-fire montage of decadent Israeli party photos, set to a pounding gabba soundtrack. Despairing at the contrast between the certainties of the past and those of present, Alsharif suggests an effort to shatter the former through the recapitulation of the latter.
Sugarcoated Arsenic, like Fe26, unfolds at the border between docudrama and documentary. Built around a 1976 recording of a talk by writer, teacher, and Black Studies pioneer Vivian Gordon that laments the failures of progress at the same time it celebrates black mentorship and collective achievement. That nearly 40 years later Gordon’s speech is still urgently relevant to present conditions is a grim fact that Everson and Harold know they don’t have to dwell upon. With a light, tight touch, the filmmakers repeat what must be said as they extend the tribute she pays her forebears and contemporaries, constructing a sort of mise en abyme of solidarity. Right now, it’s difficult to imagine a more noble task an avant-garde film could perform.
COLIN BECKETT has contributed film reviews to the Brooklyn Rail since 2011. He lives in Los Angeles.