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NYFF 2014. First Projections

A select overview of the New York Film Festival's re-launched expanded cinema section, once "Views from the Avant-Garde," now "Projections."

With so few events during which to premiere new and important avant-garde films in North America—among them, the recently wrapped Wavelengths section of the Toronto International Film Festival, the Ann Arbor Film Fest, and the San Francisco Cinematheque's Crossroads series—the shift that has occurred at this year's New York Film Festival is one well worth noting. This weekend, the inaugural Projects program will debut. Previously known as "Views from the Avant-Garde" and programmed by Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith (though last year's titanic program was done by McElhatten alone), this sidebar more akin to a festival-inside-a-festival of film and video works has been re-named "Projections" and in its first year is programmed by a returned Smith, Film Society of Lincoln Center's Director of Programming Dennis Lim, and Aily Nash.

The section encompasses 13 programs over a single weekend during the festival, including a handful of feature length films and numerous shorts, several of which were also featured in Toronto's Wavelengths section. Taking "avant-garde" out of its title is perhaps the most direct declaration of a change of orientation for this essential program, which has defined its mission as expanding "upon our notions of what the moving image can do and be," something I would hope the festival's other sections would aim to do as well. As with Wavelength's opening weekend of shorts programs, Projections serves as a refuge—literally a refuge, nestled as it is in the still new feeling and pleasingly dark and intimate two-screen Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center underneath Lincoln Center—for mostly short and medium length films more formally adventurous and unclassifiable than what can be found on the bigger screens of the festival. Taking a chance on one of the section's many shorts programs always has an exciting sense of risk and the unknown involved, a particularly special festival feeling generally not found in such a select event as New York's.

Many familiar names have returned—among them, Jodie Mack, Paul Clipson, Ken Jacobs, Harun Farocki, and Lewis Klahr—along with a bunch of new ones, and some, like previous perennial favorites James Benning, Ernie Gehr and Nathaniel Dorksy, are missing, but suffice to say it's exciting to see a program dedicated to expanded cinema refreshing itself. Time, more viewings and more years will tell what kind of program Projections reveals itself to be, but a number of films I was able to see in advance may suggest its contents and direction.

Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air is neither "avant-garde" (whatever that means) nor "experimental" (likewise), but since it is a documentary and the festival has bizarrely stuck to its program strand introduced several years ago of having an entire section devoted to documentaries even when there are docs programmed in the Main Slate, Projections, and Convergence sections one must take the approach of director Phillip Warnell as an indicative and an alternative proposition for the practice.

For one, it is allusive as to its subject. Nominally dedicated to Antoine Yates, who in 2003 was caught keeping a Bengal tiger (Ming) and an alligator (Al) in his fifth floor Harlem apartment, the 16mm-shot film returns to Yates a decade later to interview him reflectively as he is driven around his old neighborhood. Another portion of the film is given over to a recreated set of his Harlem apartment and observing, in formalist compositions and perpendicular edits calling to mind domestic scenes shot by Chantal Akerman, a stalking, captured tiger and a decidedly more laconic alligator. Several other media serve to bolster this bifurcated doc essay: a poem by Jean-Luc Nancy about animals, a quote by Deleuze about how thinking of animals is thinking in poetry, and a soundtrack by Icelandic musician Hildur Guðnadóttir.

At 71 minutes the film has far too much animal—a strong conceptual conceit, almost an installation-as-film, but which overstays its presence—and not enough man, leaving me without a clear picture of its argument or description. With its numerous shots of plenteous Harlem residential housing, apartment windows, and mail boxes, as well as Yate's cruising-talking vision—a beautiful interview technique capturing space, person, movement, inside and outside all in one—Ming of Harlem points towards the suggestion not only that Yate's behind-closed-doors eccentricity may in fact be wider spread, but also, more provocatively, that the black experience in Harlem is something rarely given a voice, an image, and a story. The anomalous, undefinable strangeness of the revelation of Ming and of his owner's profuse, deeply felt and consciously philosophic attitude towards caging, training and living with animals is a real world mythologization of many valences: supposed confirmation of quietly racist fears, a fantastical secret cultural world, and allegories of imprisonment and love. 

Not quite a documentary nor ethnography nor avant-garde, the film overlaps all three unsuitable definitions. It's an overlap that has made films like Ming of Harlem as well as those coming out of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab so attractive to programmers: as a new kind of "crossover" film. (Iron Ministry, directed by SEL participant J.P. Sniadecki, is included in the festival's Spotlight on Documentary section.)

Babash, by Lisa Truttmann and Behrouz Rae, shares with Ming of Harlem a direct animistic metaphor. A family parrot residing in Los Angeles speaks only Farsi and bits of other languages, with which it communicates with co-director Rae, who plays with it between shots of the bird exploring the family's shelves, pictures, and other personal household paraphernalia. The sounds inside the apartment, particularly the bird's tentative footsteps, are great: sharp and distinct. Single shade papers colored like the exact green, yellow and red of the bird's feather patterning are sometimes suddenly cut in, as well as intrude occasionally at the edges of semi-documentary shots of the bird wandering, playful forms of categorization of and influence over the kept pet. Ending on illustrated images of other parrots and bird-types, the little essay emerges as a irreverent transliteration of exile and/or immigrant experience and foreign-land isolation, from which personal spaces can be claimed and exhibited, and cross-species friendships—or, at least, tolerated companionships—forged.

Another film, this one a short feature, like Ming of Harlem exists in an overlap of documentary and avant-garde that is currently de rigeur in the festival and art world, where cultural studies programs have collided with and subsumed film/cinema making, creating fascinating projects but sometimes less than fascinating forms for those projects. The Measures, by Jacqueline Goss and Jenny Perlin, narrates a wonderful history of geo-scientific teleology: concurrent to the French Revolution, two "savant" geometrists set out to create a standardized measurement system by accurately, scientifically charting and measuring France. The two begin each in a different location, and a once repressed and now displayed on-screen correspondence between the them reveals the radically different personalities at play—suggesting at a melancholy real world version of Thomas Pynchon's great dividing line historical screwball, Mason & Dixon.

The themes are wonderful: the idealist, near artistic desire for form and standards at the same time as society is in the midst of radical upheaval, the blurred line between the sureness of science and the uncertainty of humanity (and perhaps a world beyond), and so on. But the form of the film, mostly taking place in split screen, nowadays versions of a dual-telescope method of triangulation used by the Frenchmen, presumably planted by the filmmakers in the same or similar spots as their scientific predecessors, is bland and not nearly as gripping as the history narrated. The film also hints at a correspondence between the two filmmakers analogous to the correspondence between the two scientists—it's suggested each camera on each side of the screen is handled by separate filmmakers at different times—and which carries a tone vaguely similar to Chris Marker's film essay idiom of epistolary voiceover to unseen receivers. (The film's notes online say that the public Projections screenings these voiceovers will be performed live in the cinema, which will notably change this dynamic.) All suggestive, and all good ideas, but ultimately a reach towards a creative re-creation and explanation of a history that would require a firmer and more direct grip on today's images of yesterday's triumphs and confusions, or rather might better exist as an illustrated text.

That can't be said for some of the great short films curated variously around Projection's many shorts programs. The always joyous Jodie Mack has two small shorts here. Razzle Dazzle, an iridescent animated flicker film—Mack's principle style—is made of glistening, beglittered fabrics. Slow to strobe at first and then increasing in speed, you can create your own abstract narrative from the animation. Myself, during its most fleet section, what with a recurrent background fabric of black with colored sparkling glimmers, interspersed with flutters of paisley looking like flaming rocket bursts, I saw a trip into outer space. Told, of course, through flat on flat on flat on flatness, making a suggestion of three dimensional movement a giddy surprise. Blanket Statement #2: It's All or Nothing similarly toys with textured flat surfaces. Here a blanket is animated such that its topography is scrolled over or zoomed into and out of: a Google Maps of yarn, the thwapping optical soundtrack perhaps a helicopter watching the terrain overhead. Then the animation slows down to a crawl, image by image, the sound slowed too, and the sense, folding back reflexively, was for me like viewing the ground-fabric-film on a flatbed editor, map by map, blanket by blanket, image by image.

A more direct exploration of two dimensions to three and back again was found in one of Projection's major highlights, Anton Ginzburg's Pan. Shot, like Razzle Dazzle, in 16mm—Projections and the Joseph L. Mankiewicz retrospective being just about the only places in this "film" festival where you can find film—Ginzburg's short begins by observing an empty church's bare, beautiful tilework in stark grayscale. A pan over a series of rectangular tiles in this instance practically achieves a slow-motion animated effect akin to Blanket Statement #2 , but Ginzburg is clearly after something else when his camera's movements reveal spaces rather than just flatness, projected light rather than pure shades.

The rhyme and reason of the irregular camera movements and angles isn't initially clear, being non-systematic and casually descriptive, each shot a singular unit, but small. Shots of further distance from the church's surfaces reveal similar repeated shapely geometry in window coverings and flooring, projected and falling light. But then the rug is pulled out from under us. The form of the film is suddenly radically complicated and contexualized when during one particular camera movement the image quality degrades weirdly...and then the image starts to recede away from us into blackness, and by the slight jerk of this movement and the screen-like size of the falling image it becomes clear Ginzburg had been filming projected footage. Our viewpoint had been that of a color 16mm camera watching a black and white projection of the church footage.

The camera continues its movement away from the screen we were watching, arcs around the whirling 16mm projector, colors beginning to be revealed, and then slowly dollies into a video monitor. As the monitor fills the image just as the screen did previously our vision loses its ascetic palette of black, gray, and white and becomes awash in analog video swathes of variegating, wavy colors. We've lost all concrete geometry, all space, all documentation, and with it we've lost the record of the real world—one, notably, referring to another world itself, the spiritual one of religion—and entered into a new kind, a pure world, purely video and full of resplendent, warping color; but also one completely flat, with no room for us in it but a receptor for pulsing hues. In a single, stunning bravura movement we go from holy space to projected cinema space to the space of the cinema projector to the no-space-whatsoever of video. Re-watching the film on Vimeo seemed all the more fitting, absorbing the film-to-analog narrative into the digital realm.

Old Growth's encrusted, mossy plunge into the forest—reminding me of the tactile sense of a biome in Jacques Tourneur's Technicolor Canyon Passage—would be better served from the emulsion immersion of a film projection, as it will be shown publicly at the festival, than the rather distancing experience of being previewed on a glassy Vimeo stream. Still, at once crepuscular and verdant (and what a wonderful title!), light is treasured for its green, humming glow, and deep black, blackest ever blacks, ancient blacks, for its intercession between the laced traces of light. A study of moist vegetal shades and almost-hidden natural reserves, Ryan Marino's sylvan gem would pair nicely with the tundra wilderness textures of Lisando Alonso's Jauja, programmed over in the Main Slate.

Back in the digital realm, Zachary Epcar's Under the Heat Lamp an Opening seems to re-imagine the images of Godard's hotel-bound Détective on Côte d'Azur: pure decoupage of a tightly contained traveler's refuge, here the documentation of a sun-drenched outdoor restaurant-waterside. The images on the ground are cropped into tight rectangles of isolated haute vacation—variously tanned or pasty skins adorned in beach/lounge-wear, plates of deluxe foodstuffs—and above it all a giant mirror angled downward, its grid surface delineating reflected vacationers into split, sequestered boxes. Glass and mirrors focus the sun rays into a pin-point sharpness, and mocking sounds—sea gulls (Godard again) and entitled, dubbed voices speaking clipped fragments—complete this beaming, analytic seaside portrait as a very smart separation of people, space, objects and environment. The mirror above it all becomes an emblem of a glassy and lux but broken up (side down) world.

Nicky Hamlyn's shuddering corporate time-lapse film, Renaissance Center/GM Tower, also defines itself by a reflected grid, but one in stoic, intractable and isolated monumentality: mirrored windows of the General Motors headquarters building in Detroit. Isolating its stubby tip against an ever-changing sky (and looking as alien and old as the similarly forlorn pyramid tip in Johann Lurf's 2013 Picture Perfect Pyramid), the tower dominates the sky view from Ontario spatially during the day, and electrically dominates the night, its square neon sign adorning the summit with GM logos and a belt-like strip of lights across its girth the only thing to see up there after the sun sets. We can't see in, only the world without; hints of GM's life are told only by tiny figures periodically adjusting a satellite antenna on the roof, and the animation of the logo sign, looking in its lapsed speediness like a casino's slot machine where the winner is always "GM".  The building's glass paneling seems a failed technique to blend into the sky, and as the sun sets and the building disappears its flashing logos of course do not, refreshing and pulsing their brands out into the dark ether constantly until the day rises again and the tower regains supremacy.

There are many more worthy Projections films—including several we've written on already from other festivals: Jean-Paul Kelly's The Innocents, Takashi Makino's 2012, Rebecca Baron's Detour de Force, Blake Williams' Red Capriccio (1, 2), Sylvia Schedelbauer's Sea of Vapors (1, 2), Eric Baudelaire's feature Letters to Max, Joana Pimenta's The Figures Carved into the Knife by the Sap of the Banana Trees, Shambhavi Kaul's Night Noon, and Ken Jacob's Canopy (1, 2)—as well as some unworthy ones, and many more left to discover. It's a lot to watch in a single weekend, but the intense density had always been key to the experience of Views from the Avant-Garde, and while Projections has thankfully dialed back the number of screenings and films for 2014, no doubt it will retain the quality the sidebar has always had: the most exciting, variable, exploratory, and social part of the New York Film Festival.

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