For Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image to house an event like the First Look series—opening this Friday and running through January 18—is a cinematic blessing. Here, in its fourth year, you’ll find undistributed gems, but, though its similarities to other festivals halt with “undistributed,” the curation of the series is precise and impeccable, giving an illusion of intimacy. This year, with selections from Omer Fast, Gina Telaroli, and Jessica Hausner, there’s a stress on waking nightmares; films whose atmospheres are bone chilling in both overt and subtle ways.
Opening with a title card dedicating the film to Carlos Lorenzo, Ville Marie—one of the many experimental films being exhibited during the series—intentionally or otherwise becomes a living fever dream, its use of double and reverse exposure reminiscent of E. Elias Merhige’s horror experiment Begotten. That film sought to expose the horror of creation, and Alexandre Larose’s film seems to have a commonality in theme as well. But rather than look at creation, several moments suggest as if we are looking Death in the face. Through its abstract imagery, seeing faces (or is it a single, haunting face?), splices, flashes, a myriad of pictures that come together like puzzle pieces, it’s like we’re wandering through halls, delirious, lost, each inky black figure mutating and transforming like a Rorschach test.
For Lina Rodriguez’s Einschnitte, the filmmaker takes her camera to observe the subtleties of sculpture, knowing full well that her low resolution images can barely touch the surfaces of the nuances within the figures she examines. It’s not until the very end of this three minute short that she looks at the faces of these figures, and perhaps it’s with a knowing wink that Ms. Rodriguez pokes fun at our idolatry of such figures and art when, like her camera, we can never grasp the perfection of each detail within that work, or within life in general.
The accomplished young artist (and Notebook contributor) Gina Telaroli has two shorts as part of this year’s First Look program. The first, called Silk Tatters, begins with kisses excerpted from films projected onto something that seems like flying cloth. Inconsequential it seems at first, and yet it’s hard to deny how well it serves not only as a metaphor for the transience of romance, but also for the everlasting power of cinema: Romance fades away, but film does not. The sensory assault that follows is at once playful and disturbing. Images layered one atop the other, blending, morphing, and oscillating, perhaps long a standard of experimental film, but very much recalling the multifaceted quality of Godard’s newest film Goodbye to Language. Telaroli takes scenes from Judy Garland classics and manipulates them, utilizing a tone that mixes the jovial with the unsettling. There’s almost a subversive quality to Silk Tatters, in a way that Telaroli certainly knows the original tonal intentions of the clips she uses and wants to invert and subvert that tone. She has these films bloom in new and different ways, like flowering tea in a pot.
Her second short, Starting Sketches #7, seems like the jumping off point of what would become Silk Tatters, but where Silk Tatters was filled with luminous and gaudy color, Starting Sketches #7 is in black and white. In a way, with that fascinating convergence of different grey scales, blacks, whites, lines, etc., it’s even more entrancing. Similarly to Ville Marie, it becomes a nightmarish kaleidoscope. The implied lines and borders are blurred, each layer almost dissolving back and forth between one another. It is ironic that Telaroli’s use of black and white is even dreamier than her use of color, and it soon turns into a delightful kind of delirium, with dancing and music, and swift turns.
In the wake of the Sony hack, the pulling of the comedy The Interview, and the accusations against North Korea for said hack, the documentary International Tourism comes as a timely examination on exactly how the country wants to sell itself and what kind of impression it wants to make. We follow a group of people on a tour, we watch as the tour guides’ mouths move and not a word is heard. But the message is clear: this is a new history, a propagandistic one at that. Why is it silent? We hear the rustles of footsteps, of things being moved, but the words of the tour guides have been muted. It’s because we don’t need to listen to what they’re saying. Though certainly all tour guides memorize the same kind of monologue regardless of what museum or place they’re working at, it’s this idea of North Korea feeding these words and silencing all other thought which is the point of focus.
While the air of art house solemnity certainly permeates the aforementioned works, especially in the experimental toying with sound and tone, it’s in Omer Fast’s Continuity where such a tone works the best, examining the harsh transition of a German soldier coming home after serving time in Iraq. Fast wants to play with relationships here and test his audience's expectations and his characters' reactions. but this gambit is, skeletally, framed in something easily explainable: His parents’ desire for things, routines, and their way of life to just slip back into the normalcy that they remember does not work, as there are clear signs of the trauma their son is manifesting even when walking back into his own room. Fast doesn’t push or overplay his hand at the atmosphere either; there’s a nice subtlety to the dourness. The darkness lies in how the parental dynamics change when several male prostitutes playing the same character, the son. It makes one question whose trauma is this really: the ones who have left or the ones who have stayed behind?
Fast’s second film, Everything That Rises Must Converge, feels more explicitly like an installation piece than Continuity. The general framework concerns the voiceover recording session between Fast and a voice actress, and the screen is split between different people (sometimes four, sometimes two). What’s amusing about this is the skepticism this actress has for the words on the page, the kind of voiceover that employs poeticism of the gratuitously erotic kind (remember Bennett Miller’s The Cruise?). She’s somewhat bemused by it, perhaps even mildly offended. But, in comparison to Continuity, which had more concrete emotional weight, Everything That Rises Must Converge feels tedious and annoying. The everyday routine of these actors, who just so happen to be adult film performers, is comparable to the everyday routines of anyone else. Maybe that’s the point. But as far as art house pornography goes, even in terms of tedium, Lars von Trier’s digressionist magnum opus Nymphomaniac, even at six times Fast’s film’s length, is far more provocative and interesting.
As the teacher lectures on how to create a word in Persian in Sanaz Azari’s I for Iran, the convergence of two other words to mean something else, I’m reminded of the years I took Chinese. It was the same basic concept: each character is basically a picture, utilizing different elements in tandem to create something new. Azari, though Belgian, desires to learn her mother tongue, and through the use of a teacher and a textbook from the Islamic revolution, what starts as a generic language class becomes an exploration of Persian and Islamic culture and history. I for Iran plays like an engrossing exercise in semiotics and history: what do these words mean, what do they signify? What is their cultural impact? There’s a personal and intimate touch to the film, because the words not only have an impact on Persian history, but on Azari herself. The film is poetic, with collages of images from the book ebbing and flowing with shots of the teacher lecturing and Azari writing. It is a film, like In the Loop and Dogtooth, about the personal and political ramifications/power of language.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” And so Jessica Hausner desires to explore and unpack the quote in Amour Fou, which premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section and follows German writer Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Freidel) in his search for a woman to die with him, set against the backdrop of German social and tax reform. Hausner declines to take the title literally (“crazy love”) and instead allows von Kleist to demonstrate his bizarre yearnings in a more reserved, drawn back way, per social custom. But it is with that kind of nonchalance, and the meticulous framing of the “will you make a suicide pact with me?” exchanges, that makes this droll tale all the more interesting. There’s a performative quality to his request, perhaps due to the period; and, though the seriousness of the matter is seldom written off, he asks with the same lack of irony the way one would proposing or asking one to tea. This is Kleist’s brand of crazy.
Pervading the many superb films throughout the First Look series is a question regarding reality and fiction, as Omer Fast’s films combine performance with documentation (particularly in Everything That Rises Must Converge). I for Iran examines the semiotic relationship between words and their context, and Telaroli’s films use archival footage as a way to actually blur lines. Amour Fou is no different, since von Kleist’s primary pursuit seems to be in direct opposition of reality, an escape from it. He reiterates again and again how miserable he is and how he wants to die. Presumably, to escape the reality he knows. The First Look series asks its audience to discern these lines, why the filmmakers set the boundaries where they do, and how performance is all a part of it. These films allow one to parse such questions in new and exciting ways. This line-up of cinematic gems, also including works by Ken Jacobs, Denis Côté, and Aleksei German, continues to probe the audience, asking them to examine the place of such questions in our daily lives. But to watch this series and be able to consider those ideas is all part of the fun: It will be a cinematic inquiry worth taking.