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New York Film Festival 2020: Alternating Currents

The first of two discussions of the feature films in the new Currents section of the New York Film Festival.
Michael Sicinski
Given the complicated situation with film festivals this year, there were obviously a lot of films from 2020 that might have potentially fallen through the cracks. They might have premiered at Rotterdam or Berlin, only to vanish without a trace. Or they could have simply remained on their maker’s hard drive, waiting for next year’s round of submissions, when they’d be competing with a new spate of other films.
In light of this, the New York Film Festival is providing a public service with its rather swollen Currents lineup. Without inclusion in this year’s NYFF, many of these films would not receive another high profile screening, and this has consequences for future programming slots, distribution, as well as simply getting seen by viewers like you. Going forward, it’s unlikely that the Currents section will be so sprawling. After all, selectivity is NYFF’s brand.
Having said that, Currents is a bit of a beast to try and cover, especially if you also have an interest in the Main Slate films. At this point, I have managed to view nine of the fourteen features in Currents. (I’ll finish the slate before my third and final dispatch.) And although, as I said last time, I want to refrain from making summary judgments about the section, given the extraordinary circumstances under which its debut outing came together, I do think that, going forward, it is incumbent upon the programming team not just to streamline the section, but to provide it with a more coherent identity.
While there is certainly some conceptual rapport between the feature programming and the short films, it is perhaps not as clearly articulated as it could be. While a few of the artists included in the program do have roots in the experimental film world, others are more ensconced in the same international film scene that comprises the Main Slate. Their presentation under the Currents banner, alongside short films that are mostly (but not exclusively) experimental, suggests that one can expect films that challenge conventional aesthetic forms. But in many cases, the films seem to represent a second tier, not unlike Cannes’ Un Certain Regard presentation.
Again, this is a transitional year in all respects, and there is no way to know what was available to programmers under very tough conditions. 2020 just might not have been a banner year for feature-length avant-garde cinema. As it happens, the year’s best feature-length experimental film, Lewis Klahr’s Circumstantial Pleasures, premiered for online viewing earlier this year. What's more, James Benning’s Maggie’s Farm—one of his very best features in years—had already been claimed by the (cancelled) First Look series at the Museum of the Moving Image. Hopefully Benning's film finds it way to viewers eventually.
Still, plenty of films were included, and there's quite a lot to say about them.
Fauna (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico / Canada, 2020)
Pereda, now on this ninth feature, seems like a director who should have made the leap to Main Slate status by this point. This year, in particular, Pereda is joined in NYFF by two filmmakers whose work his superficially resembles: Tsai Ming-liang and Matías Piñeiro. Like those two, Pereda has made a series of features that are almost modular recombinants of one another, with a recurring cast of regulars whose very presence has become a kind of directorial signature. 
And yet, there is something almost defiantly minor about many of Pereda's films, as though he were less interested in them on their own terms than as part of an ongoing conceptual style. One of three Currents selections that, as a troika, represented this year's Wavelengths section at Toronto, Fauna is a film that seems somehow incomplete, or at least left me wanting more. It begins promisingly in one mode—a bone-dry riff on Meet the Parents, as Paco (Francisco Barreiro) keeps innocently running afoul of the expectations of his girlfriend's father (José Rodríguez López) and brother (Gabino Rodríguez). 
But then, based on a dream the brother has, Fauna moves into meta-narrative mode, becoming a low-key story of mistaken identity, hunting for fugitives, and an unexpected barging in to someone else's motel room. Pereda intends to generate humor through the discrepancy between the high-intensity acting (the TV show Narcos, on which Barreiro is a cast member, is repeatedly referenced) and the ultra-cheap setting. But the relationship between the two halves seems rather random. There is a throughline of absurdity—based on human behavior in the first half, and plot mechanics in the second. But this only suggests an unresolved dialectic. This is the sort of terrain that Alain Guiraudie manages with considerably more success.
Her Socialist Smile (John Gianvito, U.S., 2020)
In 2007, filmmaker and scholar John Gianvito made Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, a feature documentary / landscape study that followed a trail of forgotten historical markers and gravesites, tracing a silent testimonial network that told of an often-forgotten, seldom spoken-of leftist foundation of the United States. Now, in 2020 when we arguably need it the most, Gianvito offers a quasi-sequel to that film, in the form of a political biography of one of America's most revered, but perhaps least understood intellectuals.
This is the story of Helen Keller, whose first autobiography, Story of My Life, has for years been required reading in grade schools around the world. She is primarily known as a pioneer in the field of disability rights. Born blind and deaf, she defied expectation by learning to read, write, and speak, with the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. However, her story has been sentimentalized as a tale of individual triumph and determination, an early liberal-humanist example of "no child left behind." Gianvito's film refutes the image of Keller as the perpetual little girl learning to speak, and demands that we recognize the woman whose actual place in 20th century history is a bit more inconvenient.
In her twenties, during the course of her philosophical and sociological studies, Keller became a dedicated socialist, a position from which she never swerved her entire life. Influenced by direct study of the works of Marx and Bakunin, she came to see that virtually all of her political commitments—women's suffrage, racial justice, workers' rights, the defense of children, the antiwar movement, as well as the rights of the disabled—could only be realized on the precondition that capitalism be replaced with an industrial workers' state. While Keller started out as a socialist aligned with trade unions and organized party politics in the U.S., she eventually abandoned those avenues as too reformist, instead joining the I.W.W. (the Wobblies), and demanding a radical reconfiguration of society.
Gianvito depicts Keller's point of view in a number of compelling ways. The film must grapple with the fact, stated early in the narration, that despite Keller's hundreds of well-attended public lectures and events, no film documentation exists of them, and few recordings of her speech survive. So there is a cyclical organization to Her Socialist Smile, whereby a broad outline of Keller's life and work is provided in voiceover (read by poet-activist Carolyn Forché), and the majority of Keller's own words are presented in silence, as blocks of white text on a black screen. This makes Her Socialist Smile something of a "reading film," a textual object that separates rather than harmonizes the usual components of the cinema.
In contrast, Gianvito frequently punctuates the film with colorful images from nature—flowers, foliage, snow-covered landscapes, and the like. This material not only connects the Keller film with Profit Motive, but serves to heighten the viewer's experience of the visual—one of the senses that Keller did not have at her disposal—by withholding its contents and then providing them, in stark isolation, as entities worthy of their own contemplation. Gianvito's haptic treatment of these images also emphasizes their tactile qualities, those with which Keller herself was most intimately acquainted.
In an additional strand of material, Gianvito frequently returns us to an empty theater, a gloriously restored WPA hall of the early part of the previous century, its murals and broad proscenium suggesting the great crowds Keller addressed in the prime of her public career. During these sequences, Gianvito uses superimposed questions and answers to give as a taste of Keller's appearances as a public intellectual, and she comes off as puckish, occasionally coquettish, razor sharp in her dialectics, and never less than sincere.
By any reckoning, Her Socialist Smile is a beautifully executed portrait of a major figure in American intellectual history, someone whose rougher edges have been sanded away, both by the general homogenizing tendencies of time, and the inherent sexism, ableism, and anti-leftism that defines the dominant discourse in this country. Any cause for a reconsideration of Helen Keller (especially her monumental 1913 essay collection Out of the Dark) is cause for celebration. But it is particularly urgent now. We find ourselves at a decisive kairotic moment in American cultural and political life. There are certain historical truths that cannot be ceded to the fascists who have crawled out of the rat holes of late. They want us to believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican, not a socialist; that Andrew Jackson is a more enduring symbol of American greatness than Harriet Tubman; and that Helen Keller was only that little girl at the well who discovered water, spoke the word, and faded back into demure silence. 
As Her Socialist Smile shows, we've been fighting Fox News and its ilk for a long time. And if Keller's example can offer lessons for the present day, one of them might be this: it's possible that being shielded from the society of the spectacle may protect one's mental faculties. After all, almost every piece of information that Keller absorbed was taken in by choice. This is in no way to fetishize Keller's difference in abilities, but to postulate them as a legitimate basis for an epistemological position less susceptible to ideology.
The Inheritance (Ephraim Asili, U.S., 2020)
I'm actually a bit envious of those viewers for whom the righteous glory of The Inheritance appears to be coming out of nowhere. This often when an experimental filmmaker crosses the threshold and enters slightly more accessible territory, but so often the forms and ideas that made that artist special in the first place get lost in translation. Not here. The Inheritance is the logical consequence of the political aesthetic that Asili has been honing, and perfecting, for years.
He's best known for the Diaspora Suite, a group of five films made between 2011 and 2017. The last of those films, Fluid Frontiers, found Asili and a group of performers paying homage to the Afrocentric poetry and theory published in the 1960s and 70s by Detroit's Broadside Press. This work, largely forgotten until recently, included the writing of poet Sonia Sanchez, who is prominently featured in The Inheritance. So in a way, this film is a kind of physical instantiation of the revival of that long-suppressed Black radicalism, "the sixties" bursting forth as a possible solution to the crises of Black life in 2019/2020.
Julien (Eric Lockley) has inherited a house in Philly from his grandmother. Inside the house, he finds a chest filled with radical Black literature, and this inspires him to convert the house into a shared space for experimental shared living, according to the socialist principles of the African elders: the House of Ubutu. His girlfriend Gwen (Nozipho Mclean) is the first member, and eventually the commune (although that's not the right word—it immediately conjures images of white bell-bottom wearing hippies smoking weed) is nine residents strong. Before long, the House of Ubutu is making plans to open to the public as a reading room / community center.
Woven right through the center of The Inheritance is the history of MOVE, the Black separatist collective led by John Africa in the 1980s. After various complaints by neighbors (mostly about the smell of their livestock and compost), the Philly Police raided the compound under the pretext of serving a warrant. A firefight ensued, and a police helicopter dropped a bomb on MOVE's apartment, killing seven MOVE members, including five children. Asili does not force the point—he hardly needs to—but this too is part of the inheritance that the men and women of Ubutu must grapple with. When the group is debating about who to invite as a guest speaker, Old Head (Julian Rozzell Jr.), who is indeed a bit older than the others in the group, suggests a Black gun rights advocate. The younger members resist, but he is adamant. "We're getting killed out there."
In its visual style and approach, The Inheritance borrows very liberally from Godard's La chinoise. That film is about a group of French youth trying to live a collective, anti-capitalist existence an accordance with the teachings of Mao. They fail. Asili's vision is far more optimistic. The biggest problems we witness involve Gwen's distaste for Julien's politically incorrect friend Rich (Chris Jarell), and the expected struggles when nine people share a single bathroom.
Part of this success, it seems, has to do with the fact of Julien being in possession of a space relatively apart from the violence that defines so much of Black public life. So ownership undergirds the Ubutu project: you have to have something before you can share it. And in a way, this could be seen as a metaphor for the film itself, and Asili's rightful seizure of the cinematic means of production. As Stephanie (Aniya Picou) tells Gwen, it's the college-educated white people who always make a fetish out of her "street knowledge," telling her she doesn't need to go to school. The Inheritance gives the finger to this liberal claptrap, showing the Black cultural and intellectual wealth that is right there for the taking.
The Lobby (Heinz Emigholz, Germany / Argentina, 2020)
It's weird. Streetscapes [Dialogue] was such a tonic precisely because, after so many years of silently walking us through some of the world's most important buildings, Emigholz suddenly burst forth with a million ideas about the world, the self, human consciousness, sexuality, cinema, the works. It's somehow not as satisfying seeing him till this same ground again, as though this heady logorrhea represents his new, dominant style. 
The Lobby is essentially a monologue by a "character" called Old White Male (John Erdman), edited to sound as though it is a nonstop theatrical presentation, despite the fact the Emigholz's camerawork and framing is continually fragmenting space, and also moving O.W.M. effortless among many different lobbies in many different well-appointed office buildings in Buenos Aires. This waiting-room trope, we're to understand, reflects the fact that O.W.M. is "dead," or at least he will be by the time we watch the film. (He repeatedly delineates the cinematic disphasure between the time of filming and the time of viewing.)
O.W.M. has many complaints. He hates embodiment, thinks we the living don't understand the true meaning of Death, seems to have some problems with women (although he claims to have been quite the Lothario), and although he had several friends over the years, they too are all dead. As a piece of theater, The Lobby is very much like a mediocre riff on the plays of Wallace Shawn (especially The Fever), and its cinematic interventions, while skillful, reflect Emigholz operating at a level of basic competence. This will be a footnote in a distinguished career. It happens.
The Plastic House (Allison Chhorn, Australia, 2019)
Despite an apparent third-person perspective, this is probably the Currents feature I've seen that comes closest to the intensely personal first-person cinema that we've tended to associate with the avant-garde for many years. With its opening shots depicting what appear to be the locations of the death of each of the filmmaker's parents (although they are actually still alive), The Plastic House moves almost immediately into a quiet, observational mode as we watch the film's subject struggle to renovate a greenhouse that has fallen into disrepair.
The film is therefore centered around a metaphor which is actually a tangible object—a space, actually—where work is patiently accomplished and the changes brought about by that labor are gradually registered. In her focus on the rituals of planting, movement, and organization, Chhorn displays considerable formal kinship with Sharon Lockhart, although The Plastic House also interjects private moments that a structuralist like Lockhart would find too revealing.
Near the end of the film, Chhorn introduces footage of her parents, as we see them working in the greenhouse and trying to shore up the vulnerable tarps and scaffolding. Although it's interesting in theory that The Plastic House morphs into a free-floating consideration of the passage of time, it does tend to undermine the rhythms Chhorn has worked so hard to establish. But then, perhaps that's the point. She remediated the space, the elements destroyed it again, and we are all left in the wake.
Slow Machine (Joe DeNardo & Paul Felten, U.S., 2020)
A fascinating first effort, Slow Machine belongs to a grand tradition of highly ambitious American independent cinema whose reach exceeds its grasp. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and will be closely watching to see what this team does next. But I worry, because projects this unusual and unresolved often take years to follow up. (Cf. Kyle Henry's Room, Scott King's Treasure Island, Andrew Repasky McElhinney's A Chronicle of Corpses.)
Sort of a low-budget meta-thriller about New York, circa 2020, as a place where nobody really belongs, Slow Machine orbits around Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), a Swedish actress who ostensibly blacks out drunk on the street in Brooklyn one night and is rescued by Gerard (Scott Shepherd), an NYPD operative with connections to covert anti-terror operations. DeNardo and Felten use the pair's opposing politics as the pretext for an unlikely meet-cute, all the while signaling that neither party is entirely certain the other won't slit their throat, given the chance.
The film engages in other awkward hipster business, including Stephanie's uncomfortable housemate situation with the members of a New Pornographers-style band fronted by Eleanor Friedberger. One of the housemates, Jim (Ean Sheehy), hits on Stephanie in a manner that is probably intended to evoke cringe-humor but is genuinely nauseating. But Slow Machine, which all told would have been a more suitable New Directors / New Films item in a regular year, is at its best when exploring the sexualized antipathy between Stephanie and Gerard, mirroring the kind of Trump-era hookups that are probably a sad commonplace in the singles' bars of America.
The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror (Raúl Ruiz and Valeria Sarmiento, Chile, 1967/2020)
If The Wandering Soap Opera was analogous to Eyes Wide Shut—a work that a master had all but completed, that only needed minor technical finishes in order to bring to fruition—then I'm afraid The Tango of the Widower... is more along the lines of "Free As a Bird" by "The Beatles," a patchwork effort cobbled from the contents of an old file folder, something that ought not to be added to the filmography without a big old honking asterisk.  I do think there's something admirable in Sarmiento's desire to explore the vast reserves of Ruíz's archive, given that he was a fitful, often distracted artist, even allowing for the political vicissitudes that disrupted his career in Chile. And yet, I think we may well be approaching the point of diminishing returns.
After all, there is Surrealism, and there is nonsense. And a lot of what we see in the first half of The Tango of the Widower just seems to lack the connective tissue necessary to elucidate its major themes. We know we are dealing with mourning and loss as a set of dual crises, something that our subject wants to intellectualize away through discourse but cannot contain. But what the film actually provides us is inconclusive; irruptions from the unconscious are indistinguishable from plot points and symbols that are never properly elaborated. (Are they making champagne from women's stockings? Are the wigs emblems of the dead woman, or broader implements of femininity as mechanized deception? Et cetera.) 
Running the whole thing in reverse is an ingenious solution to the problem posed by this doomed restoration, and it is actually more conceptually satisfying than one might expect. In fact, this maneuver saved the film for me, up to a point. Seeing Sarmiento unwind her own salvage-job on her husband's project, we not only get to reconsider all those strange elements that (still) make no sense. We are actively invited by the film to evaluate whether or not the project itself was a failure. And that it a fairly gutsy move, especially considering all that had to be emotionally at stake for the woman at the helm.
There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting On a Horse (Nicolás Zukerfeld, Argentina, 2020)
Well, like it or not, the "supercut" is now officially a film genre. This means we're going to be seeing a lot more of these found-footage slice-and-dice efforts devoted to all manner of themes—internet images of Native peoples (Dominic Gagnon's Of the North), cinematic depictions of the heavens (Johann Lurf's ★), and of course the granddaddy of them all, Christian Marclay's The Clock. These are works that suggest comprehensiveness, and in doing so overwhelm the viewer with the sheer imagination of endless hours of research. In the age of media production, this is a sort of objective guarantee of "value," the way we used to lionize Renaissance masters because "I could never do that."
...Thirty-Six Ways... is an unusual specimen, in that it operates like a video essay about Raoul Walsh but doesn't actually offer a great deal of analysis about his cinema or what makes him such a compelling director. The title comes from a half-remembered, possibly apocryphal quote by Walsh, implying that a great deal of filmmaking (especially in the studio-system days) is pretty task oriented. So Zukerfeld shows us lots of repeating gestures—mounting up, opening and shutting doors, saying "good morning," et cetera—from Walsh's filmography to drive home the basic sameness of the maneuvers, although of course it's the differences that jump out at us. But the primary takeaway is "Walsh does [X] a lot."
The second half of the film is actually more intriguing. In it, Zukerfeld goes back through his notes, and tracks down various sources—both printed and original interview subjects—to try to confirm the veracity of the Walsh quote, and ascertain its origin. By linking these two projects together, ...Thirty-Six Ways... almost provides a glimpse of two separate but related facets of film history, especially as practiced by the "Madison School" (David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Janet Staiger, et al). But this doesn't really change the fact that, in the end, Raoul Walsh feels like a kind of pretext for some other sort of project, and that perhaps we're seeing the limitations of the supercut as a communicative device.
The Year of the Discovery (Luis López Carrasco, Spain, 2020)
One of the most undeniably impressive films of 2020, The Year of the Discovery is also one of the most frustrating. A fiction / documentary hybrid, or perhaps more properly, a creation of a supporting document for an event whose traces have all but evaporated, The Year of the Discovery examines Spain in 1992 by focusing on the trade union uprisings in Cartagena that ultimately led to be burning of the state parliament building. 
In a little over three hours, Carrasco delivers a wide array of interviews, mostly set inside a local watering hole that once served the city's now-defunct industrial base. Shooting in Hi-8 video, and having his subjects select somewhat dated outfits, Carrasco generates a state of temporal undecidability. Are these interviews from 1992, or shortly thereafter? Or are the contemporary recollections of the events of 1992? Part of the structural premise of Discovery is that the past and the present are smeared to form an indecipherable, suspended time, wherein the economic and political decisions made by the EU and the IMF (which led to the destruction of Cartagena's economy) have left the city stranded in a neo-liberal limbo.
While it seems churlish to complain that The Year of the Discovery is too long, my main problem with the film is its bagginess and frequent lack of precision. One of the most valuable and consistently compelling aspects of Carrasco's film is its extended interviews with workers who were part of the '92 uprising, along with more contemporary trade unionists who are able to contextualize the loss of class consciousness in Spain with concrete analysis: exploitation of foreign labor, the gig economy, introduction of the open shop, etc.
However, the long midsection of the film consists of conversations among younger people that seem designed to showcase their lack of understanding of the issues, or at least their resignation. So we hear someone arguing for the return of compulsory military service, and another person claiming that bosses have it tougher than employees, and so forth. These conversations are so formulaic that it's difficult to believe that their speakers even believe what they're saying, although maybe they do. In any case, Carrasco could have selected a different method for displaying the failure of historical memory. As it stands, these extended interludes only dilute the power of the inquiry into 1992.
Likewise, Carrasco's use of the split-screen format is an odd choice. The Year of the Discovery, clocking in at 200 minutes, is only a few minutes shy of the total running time of Andy Warhol's The Chelsea Girls, an obvious influence. But why? I suppose both Warhol and Carrasco are interested in improv, and portraiture, and the manipulation of cinematic time. But for the most part, The Year of the Discovery uses the technique only to show two related angles of the same conversation. This allows us to observe listeners as well as speakers, something cinema tends not to do. But most of Carrasco's film is so visually negligible—talking heads, really—that his activation of a well-known avant-garde trope mostly feels like an unkept promise.


NYFFNYFF 2020Festival CoverageNicolas PeredaJohn GianvitoEphraim AsiliHeinz EmigholzAllison ChhornJoe DeNardoPaul FeltenRaúl RuizValeria SarmientoNicolás ZukerfeldLuis López Carrasco
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