Shorts program one of Views from the Avant-Garde was entitled “The Warmth of the Sun”—for AG’s Emersonian vein of wind in the trees, shadows in the water, mountains in the sky? So it seemed with Ben Rivers’ perfect teaser, Dove Coup: doves trying to escape the cage and (we see the film strip with a couple frames struggling for prominence on-screen at once) even the frame itself. Animal freedom from the artist’s tyranny of order! Capture instead of conceive! But don’t capture! Don’t encage like photography! Keep moving, keep the photographs struggling for our eyes! The mottos of whole histories of avant-garde.
Things teetered and tottered soon after. Vincent Grenier’s Les Chaises, a study of chairs’ unnatural, commodity red, placed against the wilderness of a suburban backyard with ensuing wind and shadows and sky, moves from abstraction to clarity with the hint that in nature, we always see and hear something of an abstraction (as fluctuating as a nature sight is, flittering in wind and shadow), and would be perfectly fine on film; on digital, the nature looks all too enshrined—captured, encaged, even conceived—without a film’s flicker of mystery about. Taylor Dunne’s Obar, and Rivers’ own Origins of the Species go florid and, as florid goes, disposable (jus’ people talkin’ bout their run-down land), both made all the more so in double features with (respectively) Bruce Conner’s classic Valse Triste and David Gatten’s Film for Invisible Ink, case no. 142 Abbreviation for Dead Winter [diminished by 1,794]. Where Valse Triste takes the Kansas Americana of Obar and perverts it into a slow-mo ballet of muddy small-town movement whirling away, as if automatized (a bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here, with every movement so iconic in its ordinariness, even in its banality of morning football practice à la Elephant, that it all seems preconceived, guessable, and, as if aliens were rehearsing human behavior, strange), Gatten’s Film takes up Darwin, Rivers’ subject, to nearly fossilize his words and attempt minute rediscovery in a paper’s inky fibers. Constantly turning the focus (so it seems), Gatten lets these gossamer ink-strands ripple into view out of total blankness (an empty world), more and more, so that even when they are in focus, they’re still just an abstraction: a bunch of fibers entwined. And even, then, of course, there’s the feeling that if Gatten keeps refocusing he’ll discover entirely new strands as well; appropriate to a film whose words are from Darwin, Film feels like an archaeological dig, though more importantly, like Valse Triste, and unlike both their counterparts, it has rhythm, pacing. Obar and Origins are scrapbooks. Valse Triste and Film are films.
But after Julie Murray’s enchanting forest bit, Elements, nature was through, to be subsumed by artifice—a studio-set video, manmade wallpaper, the wallpaper of Lewis Klahr’s cut-out animations, in a strange format for a ’60s eulogy, respectively—in Michael Robinson’s Hold Me Now (another of his pop nightmares, obsessively rehashing a bit of TV trash like a trauma that can’t be ridden), Mary Helena Clark’s And the sun Flowers, and Lewis Klahr’s False Aging, a tribute to Warhol and the others that, like so much of American indie culture right now, feels like a simulacra collage of neutered images and sounds from the psychedelic past—though perhaps such cut-out castrations are, here, more of the point. If there is one.
“Time of the Signs,” the next shorts program was called, perhaps a bit of a joke as possibly only one of the movies—Jessie Stead and David Gatten’s faux-Langian, infuriatingly cutesy, endlessly empty (were there such a thing, this would be it), and well-scored Today!—looked to modern times for its (scant) inspiration in matching the same word up across different places (a non-coincidence the movie would jest is conspiracy—jest, of course, because it’s just the moviemakers’ cute device). (Ben Russell’s Trypps #5 (Dubai), a movie of an actual sign of the actual times, may be another exception.) Bookends 1859, flares of light from Fred Worden (one take on Genesis, let there be light), and Ah Liberty, another outing—outdoors—from Rivers (in glorious 16mm ’Scope, and another take on Genesis, Eden), look at 1800s frontierism, landscape and technological pioneering, as promising the origins of the world. “There’s no particular story; beginning, middle or end, just fragments of lives lived, rituals performed,” Rivers explained in a lack of explanation in the program notes; Ah Liberty proves another Rivers disposable in its total lack of form, though again for him, it’s the edenic lack of any order that he wants. Terrence Malick’s done this better.
In New York, Jim Jennings’ Train of Thought flips subway rushes in various directions and quick cuts to provide a whole line study of broadway (Queens) boogie-woogie that only occasionally syncopates into rhythms, while giving the wet apparitions of the metro—graffiti, rust, people’s crowded, fleeting faces—this is, after all, a ghost story—the black-and-white glint of those old puddly New York bum movies (Engels’, Rogosin’s, Cassavetes’), and never quite reaching the sun-spangled heights of its obvious underground model, D.A. Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express. Ernie Gehr’s New York Lantern also looks back and, as is his want, forward, and back-and-forth-and-forward, as two century-old colored photographs of the city toggle rapidly and repeatedly with each other, and, every once in a while, one of them (or both) is replaced by another (or two). Like Ken Jacobs, Gehr is using digital but reasserting one of film's main faculties: the flicker. And like Jacobs, he is using flickering still-lives to reassert film’s main magic: movement, change, development. As the photographs alternate, eventually, we begin to perceive each undergoing a metamorphosis. Buildings spring erect; couples on streets leapfrog from background to foreground and back; people are switched from apartments to street; and a few times, we see, as if one were the immigrant fantasy, the justification for the other’s realistic sufferings, the poor become rich. (The movie could be called Trading Places.) With such shifts, none of the recurring images feels stable; even if they aren’t fantasies, but “realistic” images of an actual time, that time is only a single second long. “New York Lantern,” it’s called: like a magical lantern slideshow, it seems to capture and recreate the past, but hints all you can do is imagine it—as the movie’s New Yorkers, like Gehr, looking both back and forward, have always done. Imagine it, it will be yours! The old New York fantasy, emphasizing fantasy’s value. Appropriately, Gehr’s wry melting pot turns out to mark just how much of New York’s character has changed.