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Making Up For Lost Time: "Stop" and "The Day of Two Noons"

Two films from the New York Film Festival's sidebar Views from the Avant-Garde.

The works in this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde at the New York Film Festival seemed acutely aware of the end of a properly titled filmic era. Whether it was the leap some filmmakers made from celluloid to digital, an emphatic refusal to do so or some middle ground ambivalence the question of medium specificity rang loud and clear across multiple programs. In this context, Jeff Preiss’ feature-length Stop was in one sense a long, last glance at a dying medium as well as a clear-eyed openness towards things to come. Separated into four parts and shot on 16 mm between 1995 and 2011 before being digitally converted, there is an inherent nostalgia ingrained in its format. The loading of the film; the cranking of the camera; the independence and amateurism of choosing 16 mm rather than 35 mm. Continuing to work this way, rather than adopt the digital format, as late as 2011 implies a labor of love and with Stop there is indeed an emphasis on labor and love.

Preiss’ new movie is in part about the medium itself, but it is also about what is actually going on around the camera. The images are culled from his home movies, which by and large mean they are of his family and friends with a particular focus on the maturation of his young child. Thanks to his commercial, documentary and music video work, Preiss is a well traveled filmmaker, so in addition to his family the audience is treated to brief shots of the places he has been and worked. Knowing “aahs” escaped viewers’ mouths as they recognized figures—from Tiger Woods to Jonas Mekas—from his professional life. Unsurprisingly, the shots where more personal relations wandered in and out of the frame were greeted with respectful silence. It is in moments like these that public display of home movies reveals how fundamentally strange its premise is: a room of complete strangers will willingly watch someone else’s diary flicker across the screen. For the home movie, particularly on film, is precisely the inscription of moments of great personal import across a series of frames. It is an attempt to capture the light of friends and family members in order to look back fondly and melancholically on the faces and movements that aging memories threaten to erase.

The major difference between the home movie and the diary is that rather than focusing on one’s own experiences, the home movie tends to look at others, with a special affinity for children. Stop is no different. In the director’s words, it offers a record of “coming to be.” In this instance, that process of coming to be is that of Isaac’s (Preiss’ son) increasingly confident assertion of gender identification. On a formal level, the film is much more concerned with his movement from being a young child to an adolescent. Knowing that the main subject is similarly undergoing a process of intellectual and linguistic development, the editing choices become clearer as each section progresses. Beginning with snippets of words from children and adults alike that are barely understandable, it finally arrives at shots long enough to deliver full sentences. The early shots are reduced to examinations of the simplicity of discrete movements: biting a piece of food or turning an arm. Later, they begin to linger over visual phenomena such as the way a speeding car makes a row of green highway pylons appear to vibrate in a monotone symphony of pure color. Finally, striking optic interests are reduced in favor of Isaac speaking declaratively to the camera about his experience with the courts to have his name legally changed.

Preiss’ ode to the past, both an intimate one and that of a medium, occupies the middle ground of the genre debate. This is not quite a documentary and not quite abstraction. It is rather like a curated catalogue of life, bringing together events as varied as moments of beauty otherwise to mundane to remember, as with the pylons, and moments of genuine terror as in the silence that envelopes the film when images of September 11th first appear. It is especially striking considering that complete silence is rare in the film. Preiss favors instead the chatter of disrupted language, which begs the question—what can these people from the past really say to the audience? There is, after all, a certain level of incommunicability. The audience can laugh and smile at the ways in which the young perform for the camera, but there is always a nagging voice in the back of the head reminding them that these people are not performing for them, but those they know intimately. Yet there is pleasure in knowing that no matter what is said about a medium or a generation, and there are many platitudes for both, there will always be an irresistible wonder in watching whatever may come to be.

On November 18, 1883 America’s major railroad companies successfully standardized time. On this date, the “day with two noons” Mike Gibisser’s film is named after, stations across the country rolled their clocks back to 12:00 pm in accordance with their five newly christened time zones. With the advent of high speed travel and communication, it had become necessary to settle on some standard, any standard, that would allow people to organize the flow of goods and ideas despite the vast distances between them. That a handful of corporations were successfully structuring the way the nation thought about time did not sit well with a number of citizens who challenged these standards in court well into the next century, until an act of Congress intervened. Although Gibisser does not purport to have created a documentary about this particular day, his experimental film essay is in a certain sense “based on a true story.”

The Day of Two Noons leaps across a variety of genres: from portraiture of elderly members of his family to landscapes and Lumière-like actualités of tourist attractions. In spite of its medley of genres, it is always first and foremost concerned with investigating the way people form time and vice versa. Many treatises have been, and will be, written on the nature of time and its relationship to fundamental questions of existence. The last provides the richest terrain for exploration, since asking whether time really exists is, in effect, asking whether anything does. The Day of Two Noons, however, is largely uninterested in asking if something is real, than in asking how we have made it real. Beginning with the movie’s form, its length is already problematic to those used to standardizations.

In fact, the film revels throughout in its own awkward lengths of time. Early in the film an elderly woman’s voice describes the frailty of her age, while a busy family passes between interacting with her and attending to their own chores. At a certain moment, the conversation becomes repetitive and the dialogue does not seem so important for the words that it articulates as much as for the feeling of helplessness on both parties’ parts. She cannot heal herself and so is reduced to complaining and apologizing; they cannot heal her and so are reduced to soothing and forgiving. Then, slowly, it becomes apparent that the woman is reciting a poem whose lines she cannot completely remember. Suddenly, there is a struggle to remember: where did the poem begin? This is not time conceived as an unstoppable engine of forward progress, but as unfolding necessary for understanding.

There are nevertheless engines of progress strewn across The Day of Two Noons’ landscape. Old, but well maintained, steam powered trains figure prominently in the film, mostly in reenactments of American tycoon Leland Stanford driving a golden spike to unite the First Transcontinental Railroad. These scenes are temporally uncanny in their natural mix of contemporary and antiquated symbols (top hats and steam engines alongside microphones and camera toting tourists) and Gibisser only emphasizes this by rendering them in black and white. There may be more to glean about the human condition from the intimate stories people tell to the camera, but the trains themselves provide the raw material for the most powerfully cinematic moments. In one, the engine alone plods along toward the screen, but instead of belching out smoke, the dense black fumes spiral back into the smokestack. Through a simple reversal, the earliest myths of cinema—a train arriving at La Ciotat and Méliès’ sleights of hand—are recalled to the screen.

The Day of Two Noons is undoubtedly a personal story, but it is innately intertwined with ideas of a collective. It is only through a common mythology of cinema that images of trains and actors pretending to be Leland Stanford, who funded Eadweard Muybridge’s seminal studies of galloping horses, take on added meaning. Gibisser’s film is infused with history that can only be brought to life with the audience’s engagement. Consequently, time here is not a question of units or measurements, but of experiences and memories. The question of how people experience time is necessarily about cultural structures. As The Day of Two Noons shows, even telling the time of day is the result of an often antagonistic relationship between corporations, the government and the people. But the film does not just want to talk about communities and time; it wants to exist in the specific community of cinephiles and work with time. In doing so, it searches out those images that appear timeless in cinema’s history—and what better than those engines of modernity pulling in before a rapt crowd?

Very happy to see more great coverage of avant-garde programming.

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