Light Reading: Views and Wavelengths
January 21st, 2012
For their monthly series ‘Light Reading,’ ArtsEmerson brought together, on January 21st, selections from the New York Film Festival’s ‘Views From the Avant Garde’ and the Toronto Film Festival’s ‘Wavelengths’ from 2011. This was their second year doing such a screening, and while the lag-time for the Boston appearance of films picked for such illustrious categories is always lamentable (particularly considering the number of local filmmakers included), the opportunity to see both in one place more than makes up for that. The very title of NYFF’s series is quite pleasing, using the words ‘avant garde’ (being at the front line) to also connote a looking out at the world, to far-off vistas, while also being rooted in a particular historical moment. With several of the films selected, that was literally the contiguous strand connecting them. While one reviewer of the NYFF’s lineup last year found the growing tendency in avant garde film toward ethnography to be disturbing and problematic, most of the films here seem highly engaged with, if not entirely hung up on, questions of representation when it comes to including people and cultures. The two big themes that seemed the most present in the night’s selections are: reaching epiphanies in a foreign place, and attempting to maintain the photographic properties inherent in filmmaking while transitioning to digital.
Feeling one’s own otherness, reconciling the impressions of a strange land with personal modes of viewing things, is a common theme that ties in with spectatorship as well, helping to define the artist as a spectator as much as the viewer. In Jonathan Schwartz’s short film A Preface to Red, which played at both Toronto and New York, the filmmaker takes footage of Istanbul, going back and forth on the Bosphoros ferry between Asia and Europe, to create what he calls a cross-border dialogue. Negotiating a split personality of the city (or personalities, as nearly everything seems bifurcated by contrasting, even opposing ideologies, lifestyles, and time frames), the work is just as much about the diverging experiences of the filmmaker as what he is presenting as the actuality of the place, the political and sociological elements that comprise the surface. Both elements are subtext, and both are also the most obvious layers. The visual components coalesce to become a plane of superimpositions, a stacking of transparencies that alter and express another.
While the shots take the form of documentation – a traffic jam at night, a parade of people in traditional dress, streets, shops, and the water – Schwartz refrains from connecting them in coherence, looking at them instead as a series of emotional responses. In contrast to the unhurried life present in the imagery, the soundtrack is violent; the noise of a traffic-filled tunnel, processed electronically. While the audio feels like an amplification of sounds natural to the setting, eliciting a feeling of closeness to the city, it also functions as a cautionary roar, a modulation of reality that holds it back. Versus the up-close anthropology of the films of Kathryn Ramey (who draws a distinction between her own approach and Schwartz’s methods of distancing himself) this seems as much a statement on identification as a reasassembling of the concrete from a morass of subjectivity, a broken-up mirroring of reality that equally communicates its randomness. As distanced as it is, the personal experience of distance surrounds it. And to be sure, it lacks intimacy, but the effect of it is relatable; to summon recognition in the strange, and to develop a self-awareness in surroundings that have nothing to do with oneself, are things we often try to do visually, and thus we have much in common with homesick filmmakers.
Dani Levanthal’s Tin Pressed does a similar thing in a much more contentious place, showing individual fragments of Israel and Palestine, beginning with someone being quietly beaten up on a streetcorner at night. Things become gentler from there (depending on one’s views), moving to sides of cow hanging in a butcher shop, and silvery shad floating in a bucket of water at the market. Leventhal definitely seems to be reintroducing the realm of digital with the photographic, while it is debatable that the two were ever acquainted, let alone one being descended from the other. The video emphasizes the wild ups and downs of daily life; while conflict is part of the reality of these places, it is not the defining reality. Politics, religion, culture, are real things but not everything and, in some ways, are so steadily volatile that they fade into the background. People kill animals and life goes on. In one sense a personal diary of a trip to Prague, Saul Levine’s Light Licks: By the Waters of Babylon: I WANT TO PAINT IT BLACK seems an attempt at melding the realities of indeterminacy – inconsistencies, light leaks, as it were – with more structured elements extant in the filmmaker’s surroundings, such as architecture and his mind’s organizing of what is around him. The light starts to form buildings of its own, triumphal arches and spheres that merge into one another, penumbrae around the lights of looming vitality that are both documented and reimagined here. While Jordan Belson’s abstractions were a look at the vision generated behind the eye, Levine’s work is always equally introspective, but more about the eye/mind dialogue, being only half about imagery.
A partially historical film whose footage dates from 1986, Woman With Flowers was begun by Chick Strand in 1995 and was completed, posthumously, for release in 2011 by colleagues of hers. On one hand, the film recalls Strand’s Fake Fruit Factory (1986), also shot in Mexico, which comments on womanhood and gendered industry in the modernized world. Like the synthetic objects in that film, the flowers that the woman sells door to door become extensions of her personal grief, as well as the bleak solitude of women’s suffering. But here it is a pre-modern type of work in which she engages, which continues in solemn dignity but inwardly relates a tale of woe, to be read all over it. Like in the earlier film, we hear a narration attributable to the subject, as she talks about having a drunken and murderous husband. We see images of her washing playfully in a river, squired by her daughter, and walking through a beautiful field that to her must represent a green hell. There is an incongruity between the speech on the soundtrack and the imagery, but only just barely – as we come to be more familiar with both, the connections start to materialize, and the images begin to speak of liberation, or degrees of it, that would not be apparent if we only saw the woman at work. The film combines the visual intimacy of Bruce Baillie’s stoically watchful Valentin de Las Sierras (1971) with the sociological narrative of her own earlier work. On top of the woman and the vivid blur of Strand’s photography, expansive, vaguely industrial music has been added. It’s hard to tell what – the editing, the soundtrack, etc. – was entirely her work and what was added by others. Disparate as the collective elements are, the end result is fully exhuberant and haunting, sumptuous and melancholy.
To balance out the films about being elsewhere and the wideness of the world are their (on paper, at least) polar opposites, films whose materials extend no farther than what already exists on hand. Jodie Mack’s animation is, evidently, almost always comprised of materials found at home. For Posthaste Perennial Pattern she uses just that, varied floral designs on fabric, shown in rapid, almost violent succession. While at times it resembles conventional animation (in the sense of describing continuous motion – which, she says, like Robert Breer, she consciously refrains from), with flowers seemingly blooming and contracting, this is certainly an impression brought on by the slew of mass-produced familiarity. The film draws on the nature simulacrum locked in the fabric surfaces (along with a soundtrack of an unaffected recording of birdsong outside the window), and at the same time hinting at a pulsing artistic energy dormant in generations of domesticity and consumerism. Roles and symbols, flattened and reduced, get a new life by the motion that emerges from their sequencing, just like how the otherwise flatly abstracted flowers acheive growth and vividness before our eyes.
Also from the home front were three short shorts by Stephanie Barber, utilizing pre-existing works (miniature portraits in one, a book about Degas in another, photographs from an eclipse that happened in 1900 in a third) to engage in an intimate communion with past moments that emphasizes a kind of cyclical connection to the present, neither confined to contemporary definition nor tied to a state of being over-with. The videos also try to infuse the inertia of art history with colorful liveliness. On the more structural side of things was Shiloh Cinquemani’s film of railroad tracks in Berlin that become alternating streams of cardinal and horizontal paths. The film divines a lateral motion through static shots of the shape of the tracks, the steel rails glinting like beams of light. Vincent Grenier’s study of an alley way, Back View, is shot from a high back window. Walled in by two buildings, one with a green fire escape and one with a black fire escape, the sunlight that comes down onto the pavement experiences jumps and interruptions as it time-lapses across the screen. Natural sound seems to lead the light on its path (or perhaps it’s vice versa), as it bounces to the sounds of extraneous music. And then the sky gets overcast with rain, causing the frame to become static once again, and rendering the buildings a soft reflection. Veteran experimental filmmaker Leslie Thornton’s digital work was sallow next to the 16- and 8mm pieces, showing images of zoo animals side-by-side with video transformation, the eight-part circular reflection that renders everything a tube, each motion a shift in the geometric display of a kaleidoscope. An orangutan creates concentric rings of red hair, a python’s careful movement fans out as necklaces and beams. The problem with having such a varied program is that some works might be far from their intended context, especially ones that are closer to installation or visual art. Here we seem to be seeing the one-time elapsing of what is by nature a loop. The obviousness of the process seems to impose a schema on the work itself, and not being an adequate stand-in for rigor or ideas, exists only as well-defined exercises.
Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Sounding Glass got a disappointingly slight audience response, considering how powerfully it negates the notion of DV as lacking in consistency or intensity. A stroboscopic gallery of degraded black and white, it depicts a man seated in a tree. At first it is uncertain whether he is meant as the subject or the spectator of the successive images, which are sodden with grim portent, enshrouded by a seething cello soundtrack and changing surreptitiously, like a painting of action that appears to move when one’s concentration on it is interrupted. The strobe effect adds external augenblicken on one’s experience, taking the continuity of the images out of our perception and subjecting it to new and forceful intervals. From the UK, Samantha Rebello’s Forms Are Not Self-Subsitant Substances explores stone-carved symbolry in a cathedral, emerging from the darkness of a grand nave. Blobs of light become pigeons milling around, an intrusion of nature into man’s stone edifices. Medieval pictures of hunted animals and animals devouring people mix signs and lore, and, coupled with a misspelled shopping list of animal products, try to ‘scramble’ power relationships in civilization but come up dull rather than jarring. Chunks of gore sit limpidly in a frying pan, acted upon but inert. The film is bookended by quotations from Aristotle about substance, which might address notions of independent existence and control in eating meat (devouring the particles that come together to comprise us), but feel like little more than hipster philosophy-pasting; its result is more an equation than a jeremiad. Things feel too schematic to have sympathetic impact, and the images don’t have enough power to activate and openly challenge one another, and thus get isolated in a bath of tedium.
The one entirely historic film of the night was Joyce Wieland’s Sailboat (1967). In it, against an electric-blue background of sea and sky, a sail boat perpetually drifts across the screen. When it passes the edge of the frame, the camera is repositioned so that it starts its journey again. One of the film’s most remarkable facets is its ability to intimate a feeling of dread through a minimalist, almost purely photographic image. Combined with the text saying “sailboat” at the top of the screen, the endless path of the boat seems to be keeping it imprisoned in its objecthood, its flattened chromaticity, not allowing it to break free into real or three-dimensional space. One almost feels sorry for the poor thing, hoping, each time it reaches the end of the horizon line, that it will find a way to fall off into the void behind the sea. John Price’s Sea Series #10 seemed like it could have been an open homage to Wieland’s film, the frame cut in half by the horizon filmed from the seashore. At first blush it is another exploration of the architecture of a frame, completed with the horizontal lines of the ocean. From the opening blue wash it progresses into high-contrast, black and white shot of a beach, seemingly composed of still photographs animated into a moving sequence. The Kodak film matrices that dart vertically across the screen in this part, along with the overall hand-developed look of it, make it seem like an overt polemic championing a moribund medium.
The works of T. Marie that were presented, from a series of Optra Fields, show intricate, computer-generated patterns of lines that gradually drift together to form different images, giving a sense of periodicity even though the change happens at an almost imperceptable level. The more one concentrates on the designs, the stranger it feels when one realizes they have already transformed – black has become white, step-well crenellations have become a flat and geometric plane, shards have become continents. A challenge of focus and the senses, the pieces (one tries to avoid possibly offending by calling them “films”) were chosen to start off this line-up, and served as a cleansing barrier between daily discussion and the discourses on sight that followed. Although technical difficulties cut the last of the three Optra Fields short, Marie wanted to make it known that it contained a dedication at the end to the late sound artist Maryanne Amacher. Indeed, what much of Amacher’s work does sonically – an opening-up of the auditory potential of human beings, wherein the ear creates sympathetic resonances itself, acting as an instrument – Marie’s pieces achieve in the totally visual, entirely silent realm. In mediating the bounds of what is perceived against available stimulae, she expands that interplay, eliciting unexplored potential in the mind’s propensity for patterning.
Present at the screening were Levine, Mack, and Schwartz, all three of whom have experience as artists, teachers, and curators. Levine spoke at great length about trying different ways to introduce improvisation into his process. Having been a super-8 filmmaker since the 1960s, Levine has been a vital member of Boston’s experimental film community for many years, both by creating important films and influencing successive generations of filmmakers at Massachusetts College of Art. He also spoke, in specific terms, of the setting of his film, of Central Europe as being a place where he had a lot of preconceptions resting, and about how going there was a way to either alleviate or at least transform the painful images that had been stored up.
True to the themes her work touches upon, Mack played the role of primitive materialist, her film being both an answer to material consumption and itself a cataloging of designs, which, she says, in spite of their utilitarian origins, bear a lot of resemblance to abstract art. This close and often-resisted (but equally often discussed) relationship between the abstract, the personal, and the publicly useful was a consistent theme throughout the talk that the artists did. While filmmaker Robert Todd, who was in the audience, posed the idea of achieving a kind of spiritual ascendance (intersecting with Levine’s notion that abstraction – particularly in film – is a way for secular nonbelievers to have pseudo-religious visions), the talk ended up at the theme of social utility in experimentation. The fact that a social message cannot always easily be divined from the most abstract work – or even the decidedly less abstract work, for that matter – doesn’t preclude a film from having concrete implications and potential for real-world change, for the impact can be quite indirect or circuitous. If an artistic creation is important to someone, even just the person who made it, then it already has presence in reality and affects it. Schwartz’s work of late (but even going back to 2002’s Den of Tigers) has been highly personal but also very much about reaching for an interface, or generating a medium, through which to engage with a society. He said that he depends on the audience to complete the realization of a work, citing Duchamp’s notion that the creative act is only half done by the artist. And, as Levine put it, each one of them is part of an active, living and important social movement – avant garde film.