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NYFF 2015. Projections: Flipping Through Channels

A selection of highlights from the 2015 Projections series at the New York Film Festival.
 THE NEW STYLE
This is the second year that the New York Film Festival has presented Projections, its extensive showcase of experimental film and video that for years had been called Views From the Avant-Garde. The name change (or "rebranding," in the parlance of our ugly times) corresponded, of course, to the departure of longtime programmer Mark McElhatten. Under his stewardship, Views became one of the premiere experimental film festivals in the world, a long weekend of high caliber dispatches from established masters, alongside bracing discoveries by up-and-coming makers whose work somehow caught Mark's eye. His programming partner, Film Comment's Gavin Smith, often brought along selections that complemented Mark's, even as they were out of his usual bailiwick.
The Views era was not without its dissenters. Some complained that McElhatten rounded up the usual suspects year after year, sometimes without regard to the relative quality of their latest offerings. Others, most prominently Su Friedrich, argued that Views was by and large a boys' club, with women filmmakers consistently underrepresented in the line-up. While these are criticisms are by no means without merit, they could just as easily be leveled at the NYFF Main Slate, or any other segment of the film festival universe, which means that they speak to broader, more systemic problems. And as these things go, McElhatten was never less than responsive, a worker for the cultural good.
Upon the departure of McElhatten in 2014, Projections launched with an impressive panel of programmers: Smith, FSLC's Dennis Lim, and independent curator Aily Nash, all of whom have returned this year. (The 2015 edition is sponsored by MUBI, which is currently hosting a retrospective of highlights from the inaugural program, including film by Jodie Mack, Shambhavi Kaul, and Sylvia Schedelbauer.) While 2014 was a transitional year, with an impressive line-up that in many ways resembled what one might have expected from a 2014 McElhatten / Smith Views assemblage, 2015 finds the new team confidently coming into its own. Projections has staked out a new, unique identity, not only featuring works that would never have appeared in Views, but establishing a few general aesthetic preferences that seem to dominate the program as a whole.
HAS THE WORLD CHANGED OR HAVE I CHANGED?
I'm not so sure this is a good thing. But I say this with a high degree of trepidation, because I wonder whether the landscape of avant-garde film and video (what's the difference now?) has evolved beyond my aesthetic preferences, and I am just being left behind.
Every critic faces this. We either adapt, or stake our claim on the old ways, defending increasingly untenable positions until we come to resemble that popular internet meme of Grandpa Simpson shaking his fist at a cloud. There have been moments, of course, when the shock of the new has left me (and I'm sure you) nonplussed, and only with time and repeat exposure did it become clear to us that that new thing was busily altering our criteria, expanding our sense of what art can and should do. I remember being coldcocked by Phil Solomon's first Grand Theft Auto pieces, for example, or wanting to claw my face off during my first encounter with Ryan Trecartin's work or Shana Moulton's Whispering Pines series. Now I can't imagine living without any of those works.
But I'm having a hard time right now, because so much of the work I am seeing in Projections 2015 is anchored by text, text, so much text. There is a sense that narrative is back, or at least a kind of fractured, semi-poetic form of narrative, delivered either verbally or in the form of onscreen writing or silent subtitles. Viewing these works in rapid succession, I started to feel like I was trapped in a vortex of exposition, with artists earnestly telling me directly what their images could not, or would not.
In fact, in many of these works, images and sounds begin to feel almost negligible, a sort of bedrock that allows the language to conduct its business. Now, I understand that my sensibilities were formed by structural film, and that means that some part of me wants to see films adopt a procedure and work it through to a logical endpoint, or explore its possible permutations. And I get that this isn't how most younger artists think anymore. True multimedia creation means that text, sound, image, and music all share equal billing, and they can assert their primacy at different moments.
GET THE HELL OFF MY LAWN!
The best artists working in this vein—Michael Robinson, Jesse McLean, Steve Reinke—are capable of managing these floating hierarchies. But so many of the pieces I saw this year seem to take the random clicking of digital culture as their aesthetic dominant. (One even organizes itself around the image of a computer desktop, and the results are rather unbecoming.) So if it appears as though images don't matter all that much, it may be because some of these artists are taking as axiomatic our current saturation point of images and sounds, the multiple open tabs and windows of daily experience.
In this context, asking someone to concentrate on a single visual theme and explore its possibilities seems positively archaic, like throwing someone a pair of scissors and a bolt of fabric and asking them to sit down at a sewing machine and make a pair of pants. (The artisanal difficulties of true tailoring is addressed by Riccardo Giacconi in his film Entangled, one of this year's better entries.) It is understandable that so many films this year jump from one idea to the next, with only the slightest hint of connection. That's "who we are now," I guess.
But this does raise a broader question. When art reflects the cultural climate of its making, does it need to be extra careful to insert a semiotic gap of some kind, a space between itself and the culture it's mirroring? Otherwise, where is the critique? Does art have an obligation to oppose the dominant regimes of representation? Do artists have an abiding interest in doing so? With many of this year's selections, I am not sure I am finding even that small gap between the object and its representation, or even a desire for that gap to persist.
Granted, we may not be looking at a representative sample. Contemporary filmmakers who are emblematic of a more patient, more contemplative aesthetic (Ernie Gehr, Phil Solomon, David Gatten, Robert Todd, Jonathan Schwartz), or those who operate from a more explicitly oppositional formalism (Ken Jacobs, Abigail Child, Kevin Jerome Everson, Stephanie Barber, or even Damon Packard), most likely didn't have work ready in 2015. But this undoubtedly permitted a shift in emphasis, one that speaks to Projections as a newly defined curatorial endeavor. This is a program that is establishing its own identity. But just how intentional is this move, to showcase an avant-garde that is younger, faster, more talkative, and much more willing to treat 'art' and 'content' as interchangable concepts?
Like I said above, it's possible that I am recoiling from a new shift in meaning-making, one that I will embrace in due time. But I'm really not sure. This isn't just about how these works look or sound. It has to do with my perception of an overriding postmodern ethos of shoulder-shrugging acceptance, an unnerving beatitude in the face of hopelessness.
MY TOP TEN PROJECTIONS FILMS
These are the ten best films I saw originally in the NYFF Projections festival. Some of the best selections in the festival are films I already wrote about during my TIFF Wavelengths coverage (shorts, features), including Lois Patiño's Noite Sem Distância, Ben Russell's YOLO, Charlotte Pryce's Prima Materia, Peter Tscherkassky's The Exquisite Corpus, and Isiah Medina's 88:88.
10. Entangled (Riccardo Giacconi, Colombia / Italy)
This extended short (or mini-featurette, depending on your outlook—it's 37 minutes long) begins with an extended close-up of a sleeping lion whose nose is covered in flies. It's nature, but also a metaphor, since the large animal is immobile, too big to be irritated by the buzzing little peons in his midst. Eventually he wakes, and the flies have to scatter. A loosely structured essay film about quantum mechanics and social interaction, Giacconi's primary point is that these micro / macro systems can and should only relate as suggestive metaphors, since neither can ever really be seen with any consistency. As such, Entangled moves by visual and conceptual rhymes, everything "linking," but in no absolute way. Giacconi is a filmmaker to watch.
9. Hyperlinks or It Didn't Happen (Cécile B. Evans, U.K.)
The very best example of the sort of web-driven film I decry above, Hyperlinks postulates a haunted internet in which spambots, visual graphics artifacts, and other web-based entities circulate and develop forms of consciousness. They form a kind of hypertext as they move, broaching various topics that light upon each other without ever really being connected—a Deleuzian assemblage, if you will. What does link (or hyperlink) all of these messages and codes is a prevailing sense of sadness, not unlike if the web-ghost in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse discovered there was no one left to terrorize. The dominant spirit / emcee of Evans' webworld is "PHIL," a digital avatar of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose independent consciousness within the context of the video is uncertain. What could have been tasteless is in fact forlorn and deeply moving.
8. Intersection (Vincent Grenier, U.S. / Canada)
Grenier's work is consistently characterized by small-scale landscape study, usually taken as an opportunity for an examination of the pleasures and vicissitudes of color and light. Unlike so many other artists working in this formalist vein, Grenier almost always finds room in his work for wry, subtle humor, which makes him kind of a treasure, especially in the often grim, strait-laced world of the avant-garde. His latest, Intersection, has a built-in pun: it is in fact shot at an intersection, where a spur street meets a state highway in Ithaca, NY. Grenier trains his camera on a patch of wildflowers up on a hill overlooking the intersection. But this means that the cars and trucks moving in and out of the streets consistently penetrate the image field. Grenier uses complex digital editing to push and pull the vehicles into the image, smearing them or taking them apart. So the result is a baseline painterly image in the Impressionist vernacular, constantly interrupted, blended, and yes, intersected by hard enamel, color field, AbEx, and Pop coloration. Confounding? Well, yes. But mom always told you to stay out of the street.
7. Chums From Across the Void (Jim Finn, U.S.)
Jim Finn has been working a very specific beat for quite some time, responding to the collapse of Communism in the way some artists have treated the end of Super-8 or VHS. Once the thing is officially "dead," it can be turned into a fully aesthetic object, seen with new eyes and put to unexpected uses. Occasionally his work has been mistaken for kitsch, probably owing to the fact that his best known film, 2006's Interkosmos, was just so much fun. But lately Finn has been remedying this directly with the "Inner Trotsky Child" series, appropriating the style of the (capitalist) self-help movement in order to champion an explicitly anti-Stalinist counterhistory of international Marxism. Chums is a kind of séance in which three forgotten folk heroes of the revolutionary past are conjured for the viewer, intended to serve as inspiration for good (leftist) works but also as mentally introjected friends, avatars who will stay with you as you traverse the austerity-driven neoliberal wasteland. In a way, Finn has created a kind of comic complement to John Gianvito's Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, but instead of tombstones, Finn gives us imaginary friends to keep with us on the barricades. And let's face it: living or dead, we need all the friends we can get.
6. Scales in the Spectrum of Space (Fern Silva, U.S.)
Silva has been one of the most reliably compelling filmmakers on the experimental scene for the past decade. His work bears certain similarities with that of "the Bens" (Russell and Rivers), in that he travels the world with an eye for the beautiful and unique in other cultures, without any hint of the acquisitive anthropological gaze. However Silva's films frequently include scenes from "home" as well as "elsewhere," and he is a maker just as adept at montage construction as the graceful, unbroken long take. There is also a more pronounced Surrealist vibe in Silva's work, an interest in disruption and surprise that works against any mere explanatory impulse. Scales in the Spectrum of Space represents yet another mode that Silva has mastered. It is a found footage work, operating very much within that Conner / Lipsett vocabulary. Commissioned by the Chicago Film Archive, made in collaboration with jazz musician Phil Cohran, Scales finds Silva operating in an almost Child-like mode (as in Abigail), following the gestures of Cohran's accompaniment with puzzle-like, Constructivist edits that just "pop." It's the rhythm of a city, drawn from earlier times but made unavoidably contemporary.
5. Traces / Legacy (Scott Stark, U.S.)
Scott Stark's newest piece harks back to some of his earliest released films, such as the "Chromesthetic Response Series," in which the filmmaker shot 35mm movie film in a still-image camera, letting the registration and the optical sound strip (dis)organize themselves as they would. Adapting this approach for digital media can't have been easy, but with Traces / Legacy, Stark applies a similar idea under quite different circumstances. The earlier films looked at small items, like a deck of cards, without a broader context. Here, we see close-up patterns—colored lines, hexagons, staggered shapes. Then we begin to suss out what we are looking at. It might be kitchen utensils, such as a whisk, a colander, or a drying rack. But then we see people, and taxidermied animals, and begin to notice that Stark is shooting inside a sporting goods store for a large portion of the film. So this is a fine example of a renewed or modified structuralist attitude. We begin in a kind of perceptual isolation tank, a sort of riff on Man Ray's cinema, and gradually open outward as Stark shows us the larger world and its relationships. The fundamental strangeness of the stuffed river otter, or the bucket of baseballs, invites reflection, as well as refraction—a commentary on how consumer goods end up before us, and how a disruptive mode of looking can reanimate the dead.
4. Vivir para vivir / Live to Live (Laida Lertxundi, U.S. / Spain)
Laida Lertxundi's work just keeps getting weirder and weirder, and subsequently more and more fascinating. Where several of her previous films have explored particular spaces (interiors as well as landscapes), Vivir para vivir takes a striking new approach. The film seems to measure or establish relationships to the landscape, or to other objects and events, by using the body as a fundamental locus. While this is what all of us do whether we think about it or not—Phenomenology 101—Lertxundi seems to be registering her own bodily space and its responses as ways to gauge the landscape. At the beginning, the camera pivots as though we are lost, but we hear a snoring sound, almost establishing the body's life as the anchor and guarantee of safety and, of course, the pole against which "lostness" is defined. Later, we see Lertxundi's EKG, we observe distant hills with the fog rolling out, and we hear a cello. All of these disparate pieces of film would appear to suggest events that are not only perceived by the body but that can establish, or be established by, the body's own time. How does the sound resonate, and how does its resonance alter the body's rhythms? Is the fog relaxing, or does it generate impatience? By the end, Lertxundi seems to have reduced even sexual excitation to a purely digital state (a pun, perhaps), something that swells and recedes, a literal "turn on" and "turn off." The title itself, "Live to Live," is also a joke of sorts, a play on "art for art's sake." Lertxundi looks upon the bodily processes as aesthetic functions in themselves, systems that have no higher purpose but their own perpetuation and, now with this film, the creation of abstract codes.
3. Lost Note (Saul Levine, U.S., 1969 / 2015)
As the date would indicate, this "new" film by Saul Levine is in fact a rediscovered "note" from the end of the Sixties, one of the filmmaker's most productive periods. A document of both the domestic sphere—the home and life he shared with then-wife Isa Milman—and his good friends and their children, there is a complexity in editing and superimposition at work that belies that apparent offhandedness of some of the images (Milman on the toilet; the kids rolling around in the park). Moving from black and white to color, Lost Note exhibits a density of light texture that is all too rare in cinema today. The combination of Levine's subject matter, his meticulous editing, and his abstract constructions through layering, all make Stan Brakhage a key point of comparison for this work, but the differences are obvious and instructive. Levine's camera moves with the pace and follow-through of the body, not the twitchy hesitancy of the eye. So even at moments of apparent unease, Lost Note, like most all of Levine's work, is characterized by a sense of grace.
2. Mars Garden (Lewis Klahr, U.S.)
Another part of Klahr's ongoing Sixty-Six series, Mars Garden, like all the films in the series, can be fully appreciated on its own. Like few other filmmakers (Hong Sang-soo and Philippe Garrel are two who come to mind), Klahr's work has such a consistency that it can sometimes be difficult to single out one film from the others for analysis or praise. As John Peel famously said about his favorite band The Fall, "They are always different, they are always the same." However, Mars Garden strikes me as something of a breakthrough film for Klahr. In it, he employs a lightbox in order to make his usual comic book material highly translucent. This means that characters and designs from both sides of the page intersect in odd, unexpected ways. This has two consequences, both of which represent extensions of tendencies frequently at work within Klahr's work. First, the customary 1950s and 60s businessmen and superheroes strike their usual poses, but are shadowed by their opposing selves, or by ghosts of alternate-universe versions of the (mostly) men who populate their landscapes. Not quite fitting into the primary frame, these spectral figures are twisted into dubious shapes, serving as avatars of the unconscious desires of the "real men." Second, the framelines and the architectural schemas between the clashing frames bisect one another, producing heavy lines of intersecting structure. Figures are pinned in, trapped in a Futurist skein of cancellation marks and imaginary I-beams. Klahr uses the lightbox to produce a double reality with less than half the freedom, masculinity on the rocks yet again.
1. Something Between Us (Jodie Mack, U.S.)
Best known for her single-frame animations centered on fabrics, weaving, and other craft-based materials, Mack has recently taken an interest in a more conventional photography, examining objects like reflective mobiles that have the capacity to instigate semi-psychedelic, prismatic light-play, but on the cheap. These are the optical toys of our time, the glinting doodads from Justice or Hot Topic that bring the hypnotic dazzle of reflective light into the mundane self-styled universe of the girls' dorm room. (These shiny points of jagged illumination can provoke what Kenneth Anger believed to be epiphanic moments of communion with Lucifer, the God of Light.) Something Between Us plays with the cheap shine of costume jewelry, but does so in a broader, more environmental manner. Not only do we see hands rolling bracelets and dangling necklaces like toys before the magpie. Mack intercuts these close-ups with shots of a hazy lakeside forest, its early dawn refracted by the misty fog to produce rainbow prisms and flares. In time, Mack is alternating between this "natural" light and its highly artificial facsimile, the trinkets swinging to their own chiming electronic theme song. A game show bell dings mid-film, as though we've found the right answer when the organic is largely vanquished in favor of Mack's pendular, sun-dappled Claire's Boutique of the mind. A breakthrough work by one of the best filmmakers working today.
Honorable Mentions
  • All My Love, All My Love (Hannah Black, U.K.)  
  • Black Code / Code Noir (Louis Henderson, France)  
  • Cathode Garden (Janie Geiser, U.S.)  
  • The Devastated Land (Emmanuel Lefrant, France)  
  • The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys (Basim Magdy, Egypt / U.S. / U.K.)  
  • F For Fibonacci (Beatrice Gibson, U.K.)  
  • Half Human, Half Vapor (Mike Stoltz, U.S.)  
  • Hard As Opal (Jared Buckhiester and Dani Leventhal, U.S.)
  • Lessons of War (Peggy Ahwesh, U.S.)  
  • Mad Ladders (Michael Robinson, U.S.)  
  • Rabbit Season, Duck Season (Michael Bell-Smith, U.S.)

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