Perhaps more than most other forms of cinema, experimental film and video is an auteur’s medium through and through. Since the production model for avant-garde work is almost exclusively artisanal, with a single individual (or possibly a duo or an artists’ collective) making the work from a studio context similar to that or a sculptor or photographer, it only makes sense to consider these works are expressions of an artist’s point of view. As such, those of us who regularly engage with experimental work will inevitably use the artist as the primary mode of categorization—who to keep track of, who seems promising, etc.
But there’s a bit more to it. One of the greatest joys of avant-garde filmgoing, as any fan will tell you, is seeing an expertly curated program of films, be they new short works, recontextualized classics, or some combination thereof. A great programmer is more than a tastemaker or a gatekeeper. He or she is able to translate her or his knowledge and perspective into a coherent viewing experience, one in which films by different artists take on a new, dialectical meaning by their proximity while at the same time retaining their unique identity.
This is harder than it sounds. Some of the greatest films in the experimental canon are also so aesthetically demanding, or even domineering, that they flatten any other film in their path. Likewise, a group of new works is a delicate thing, and sometimes a very subtle piece can get lost in the midst of a set of films characterized by more obvious virtuosity or panache. To give an example: I firmly believe that two of the best films from the last decade are Lynn Marie Kirby’s St. Ignacius Church Exposure: Lenten Light Conversions (2004) and Jeanne Liotta’s Observando El Cielo (2007). But if I were to program them side by side, it would be a disaster. Liotta’s film—with its dynamic soundtrack, flash frames, and rapid, precise editing—would annihilate Kirby’s slow, silent color-field abstraction. And the crisp digital tone of Kirby’s work would make Liotta’s dark, dense color palette seem murky by comparison.
All of this by way of saying, film programming is a hard job. It’s an art, in fact, and discovering a talented programmer like Mónica Savirón, who has assembled A Matter of Visibility as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look festival, is in some ways even more encouraging than finding out about great new filmmakers (which this program allowed me to do as well). Savirón, a New York based curator originally from Madrid, is also a filmmaker herself, as well as a consulting editor for the film journal La Furia Umana. Her program is exception in large part to the breadth of knowledge she brings to it, her awareness of the international field. But with A Matter of Visibility, she is clearly doing what the best programmers do. She is making an argument, tracing a somewhat different line through the history of the avant-garde. Savirón does this not in order to explain or justify the contemporary work she’s showcasing, but to contextualize that current work within shifting priorities, situating it in a broader but no less central position vis-à-vis “the tradition.”
Several of the older works Savirón has chosen for this program are revelatory and even a bit strange. By this I mean that there are films included here that many of us are aware of, and that some of us may have seen. But this program allows us to see them as works within a lineage, and in this regard we have a choice. Is Savirón showing us a possible “alternate canon,” or implicitly proposing necessary revisions to the one we continue to inherit? This is a question that only time can answer, since canons are evolving things, based on future programming, teaching, and publishing. What seems incontestable, however, is that some films and filmmakers are not being seen in proportion to their aesthetic importance.
The most obvious case here is Lis Rhodes, whose 1978 film Light Reading concludes the program. Rhodes is one of the key members of the 1970s British avant-garde, emerging around the same time as Peter Gidal, Malcolm LeGrice, William Raban, and others. For purely geographical reasons (having more to do with the formidable cost of renting films from Europe than with any genuine national chauvinism), none of the British “structuralists” became as well known in the States as their North American counterparts. But as one watches Light Reading, it’s nearly impossible not to see it as a kind of formal and philosophical cousin to Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma. Like that film, Light Reading begins in darkness, employs a text that self-reflexively considers the possibility of illumination, and evolves into a rhythmic pattern of still images. But differences are key. Where Zorns Lemma uses the alphabet to arrange its pictures, and replaces them with passages of moving film, Rhodes employs a small selection of semi-abstract photos that are then cropped, collaged, and zoomed. Light Reading is more openly phenomenological, and arguably feminist, that Frampton’s work, since it is less about the intellectual process of ordering and more about the crisis of confronting one’s own lack of knowledge across time. Light Reading is a key film of the 1970s.
Two of the other older works in the program are equal in stature but different in kind. One, Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher (1989) by the late Chantal Akerman, is an unusual and underseen entry from one of the most important film artists of the past fifty years. The other, Cross Worlds (2006) by Cécile Fontaine, is a highly emblematic work by one of the most best contemporary filmmakers working today, someone whose profile in North America is not nearly high enough. Akerman’s film, made in collaboration with cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton for French television, is a combination filmed-performance work and music video. The central element of the film is Wieder-Atherton’s performance of the title work by Henri Dutilleux on a stage set designed to look like an apartment: bed on the left, end table on the right. In the background, two windows through which we see women in their own “homes,” performing mundane, ritualized tasks—ironing, putting on makeup, pacing back and forth. The moves are slow and stilted like a dance, and Akerman’s staging allows her to use Dutilleux’s jagged post-Debussy modernism as a hinge between the feminist drudgery of Jeanne Dielman and the task-oriented minimalist dance work of Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti.
Fontaine is a part of the loose cohort of French experimentalists that includes Rose Lowder, Marcelle Thirache, Frédérique Devaux, and Olivier Fouchard. Lowder, the transplanted Briton, by way of Peru, has always gotten the most attention over here. But Fontaine is every bit the contemporary master, an artist whose deft combination of hand-processing, filmstrip collaging, and intellectual montage is rare indeed. Aside from Devaux, whose work employs the in-strip collaging but is more visceral than cerebral, the only filmmaker doing anything resembling Fontaine is Luther Price. (He favors all-enveloping psychological soundscapes, however, in a manner Fontaine the rationalist does not.) Cross Worlds is a rhythmic interrogation of colonialism. Most of the film consists of pairs of Super-8 images laid side by side, with a scratchy lime-green stripe swerving back and forth between them. Fontaine includes images from both the West and the two-thirds world, never matching up in predictable ways. Plus, Cross Worlds is not just a study of poverty vs. affluence. The relationship is dynamic and dialectical, and seeing as it exists as much (if not more) on the filmstrip and the screen as in real life, there is a 2-dimensionality to these collisions that Fontaine emphasizes. That is, Cross Worlds both depicts real human relationships and radically simplifies them.
One other older work from the program came from a filmmaker I had never heard of, Canada’s Cara Morton. Sadly, Morton passed away in 2012; Savirón has dedicated “A Matter of Visibility” to her memory. Just as vital a tribute, Savirón has programmed Morton’s film Across (1997), a work that is short, sharp, and darkly funny. Although it is not a found footage film (Morton shot all the material with her Bolex and hand-processed the film), Across’s wry sense of montage and pacing recalls both Su Friedrich and Abigail Child. The film is a kind of compendium-riff on all possible meanings of the word “across,” with Morton seen moving across the film’s diegetic space; lying in the grass, splayed across the frame; swimming horizontally, crossing the pool and the frame; and in a home movie as a little girl, permitting the film to span across time. The camera’s point of view moves through the Z-axis, into the grass, or down a road; down a stream and across the Morton’s shadow, etc. Perhaps most importantly, the scratches, pockmarks, and warps emphasize the physical movement of the filmstrip across the gate. In effect, Morton treats the film frame as a literal cell, something to run, swim, twirl, or otherwise charm her way out of. What a great film. What a loss.
Not all of the current works are quite up to the level of the older entries. But part of Savirón’s skill is in generating relationships that display every film in its best possible light. Japanese filmmaker Rei Hayama’s Reportage ! is lovely if slight, a hand-cranked, one-minute single-shot effort whose primary attractions are its texture and density. The film depicts a miniature house burning down; with a clear homage to the Lumière brothers’ actualités, Hayama documents a patently fake version of a newsworthy event. With an intentional space between her title and its exclamation point, Hayama points to film’s documentary value even in the face of artifice.
Likewise, Defenestration by the U.K.’s Bea Haut is a brief structural work, obliquely drawing on the performative history of early video art (Lynda Benglis, Joan Jonas, Vito Acconci). In it, Haut trains her camera on windows, opens them, and climbs out of them, sometimes balancing on a ledge, other times jumping down into the hedges. Like Hayama, Haut uses dense, dark tones, and the compositions are certainly sturdy. As a work operating between cinema and performance, Defenestration seems stranded between the aesthetic principles of both. Neither Reportage ! nor Defenestration are outstanding works, but their focus on light, surface, and spatial relations plays nicely against the other films in the program, the Rhodes and the Morton in particular.
Among the newer films in “A Matter of Visibility,” the three strongest are quite different in tone, but united by a tactile approach to the cinematic image. As with the earlier works, with their focus on granularity, surface elements, hand-processing, or visually oriented montage, these current films ask us to look at the cinematic image rather than through it. Often, Friedl vom Gröller’s brief, delicate films suffer in group programs, because her unassuming, tone-poem approach to filmmaking sometimes requires multiple films of hers in one sitting to establish the parameters of her method. But Maschile, Roma, from last year, is a fine representative of what vom Gröller does. Using silent, black-and-white 16mm, she produces a series of brief portraits of “masculine” men. As if to complicate the category, many of the men do not fit into our usual idea of the Italian macho. Like several of the other films that Savirón selected, Machile, Roma is all in close-up, forcing the issue of filmic representation by virtually removing all context from that which is before the camera.
Spanish filmmaker Klara Ravat, another artist about whom I previously knew nothing, appears in the program with Pixel Jungle, an highly accomplished abstract film that interfaces at the junction between digital and analog photographic information. Composed from computer-enhanced, extremely enlarged 35mm images of downtown Madrid, Pixel Jungle resolves as a tapestry of organic and urban colors, unfurling its pictorial data in a manner that resembles both a video game world and an Oriental tapestry. Ravat removed the actual image print-outs from their original surface with cellophane tape, then affixed them to the clear leader, returning the analog material right back to the filmstrip. Related to both T. Marie’s Op Art “pixel paintings” and the recent Impressionist landscape cinema of Alexandre Larose, Ravat’s work exploits the gap between representation and color play in droll and fascinating ways.
The most bracing film in Savirón’s program, however, the one that echoed in my thoughts in the days since I saw it, is Her Silent Seaming by Nazli Dinçel. This is a film so skillful, so unusual, and so disarmingly honest, that it immediately threw me into a conundrum. Dinçel appeared as though she might be a major artist, and yet the experience of watching her film was a deeply uncomfortable one, one that left me in intimate proximity to the filmmaker without having asked. Her Silent Seaming is divided into three parts, each one centered around a particular male character (“Henry,” “Adam,” and “Ben”) whose explicit speech before, during, and after sex is scratched into the emulsion, in Brakhage / Friedrich mode. As a formalist counterpoint to this extremely direct verbiage, Dinçel arranges the written frames in each section with a different type of material. The first contains nude images, including an erect penis, all covered with paint and agitated mark-making, in a manner reminiscent of Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses. The second section features a woman with a pink wig applying lipstick; Dinçel has cited Jack Smith as her inspiration here. In the third movement, we see close-up footage, forward and reverse, of hands pulling a pomegranate apart. In color and framing, this looks distinctly like a Hollis Frampton sequence.
Dinçel’s work falls into a very odd space for reception and interpretation. She appears to be taking her most private confessions possible and displaying them as art, while at the same time channeling these speech acts very directly through the history of avant-garde film. This leads to my confusion. On the one hand, Dinçel’s approach is in line with the over-sharing personal style of much art of the day, wherein a direct connection to autobiography, memoir, or the artist’s body serves as a guarantor of authentic value. But on the other hand, Dinçel’s intertextual style completely calls that intimacy into question. Is she telling the truth? But more than this, what Her Silent Seaming (“seeming”?) actually accomplishes is a rather astonishing feat. The film allows Dinçel to turn her ownmost personal experiences into formal material, both in the scratched visual manipulation of the words and in their use in an overall aesthetic schema. But more than this, we can witness this formalist approach and experience it as something other than “distance.” It jabs us, shaking us to the core. It is next to impossible to treat personal information as both humanist connection and as pure text. Su Friedrich has; so has Yvonne Rainer. I cannot wait to see what Nazli Dinçel does next with her bold, febrile cinema.