Rirkrit Tiravanija, Chew the Fat, 2008, still from a color film in digital video, 120 minutes. From left: Carsten Höller, Rirkrit Tiravanija.
MYSTERY, OF COURSE, is in the not-seen, in the unquantifiable. This not-visible suffuses the archaeology of knowledge, bolstering it like a flange supporting the weight of the seen. Evidence of the ineffable in the particular form of fellow feeling is everywhere present in the curiosity and affection that Rirkrit Tiravanija displays in Chew the Fat (2008), his loosely constructed film memoir of the working lives of his close circle of friends—a group of artists who rose to critical attention in the 1990s: Angela Bulloch, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno, Elizabeth Peyton, and Andrea Zittel. (In homage to Maurizio Cattelan’s signature tricksterism, he’s discussed by numerous others but never appears on-screen.) But memoir is likely too specific a genre to speak of in this instance. Part road trip, part diary of the pieces of their days, the film is improvisational and handheld, both in the camerawork and in the sense of an almost trembling tenderness on view as Tiravanija makes his rounds of their studios, kitchens, backyards, and habitual cafés.
Tiravanija’s docu-diary is much in keeping with his aesthetic, which seeks chance and dynamism in the milieu and invests in the frame rather than in the control of the active core of his projects. Here he is the interviewer and interlocutor, seen barely but heard as an amiable and not terribly pressing questioner, asking his friends where they went to school and why they became artists, and reminiscing. He is generally content with the minimal resources of cinema verité; what we learn about his friends we learn through the Flaubertian tendencies of his lens, with its slow capture of drifting minutiae that pool to form an image of time, place, and personality. The oddness of Höller’s fascination with birds and their food, the mixture of levity and gravity in Huyghe’s sense of himself and his practice, the characteristic incisiveness of Gillick’s intelligence caught in playful sentences, and Gonzalez-Foerster’s outsiderish will toward philosophical isolation give us small glimmers of their lives and personhoods, of their assumption by now of success and material ease, though not a great deal is gathered in any rigorous way about the intellectual foundations or feeling obsessions that have compelled them to make the work they do or to form the congress of filiations they have.
That, I suppose, is still left in part to Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, which first rounded them up as sharing elective affinities in their cultural production. And though Gillick has argued vociferously in print against this theorized ghetto, there is nothing said in Chew the Fat’s two-hour running time to countermand or render problematic that discussion. Perhaps Nancy Spector’s exhibition catalogue for “theanyspacewhatever” will offer the retrospective gaze and analytic discipline required to balance Bourriaud’s pioneering claims. And while the desire to learn more about their net of commonalities and differences is piqued by the film, Tiravanija is still in the midst of finishing full-length films on each of the artists, produced over three years of shooting, which presumably will have the depth impossible to attain here. In any case, polemics and discursive argument have rarely been Tiravanija’s method. He often prefers, in a John Cage–like way, to be a knowing innocent. In fact, in this record of unrehearsed moments, what he is after is the luminous harvest of mystery, with its aperçus shuffling softly into view and disappearing. But to slightly rephrase Adorno, innocence and sophistication are concepts so endlessly intertwined that no good can come of playing one off against the other. That could be said of all of Tiravanija’s work, and it is surely the case here. Bring popcorn, and a joint.
Rirkrit Tiravanija's Chew the Fat screens on Sundays at 1 and 3 PM and on Mondays at 2 and 3:30 PM as part of the exhibition “theanyspacewhatever,” on view through January 7 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Jennifer Reeves, When It Was Blue, 2008, still from a color and black-and-white film in 16 mm, 67 minutes.
WHEN IT WAS BLUE (2008), Jennifer Reeves’s new 16-mm film performance with live musical accompaniment, will be presented at the Kitchen in New York this week, marking the culmination of a work that took more than four years for the artist to create. Its scale is appropriately epic: With a running time of just over an hour, the piece consists of two films projected one atop the other on a single screen, each reel containing a constant stream of images captured from the landscapes of Canada, the United States, Central America, Iceland, and New Zealand, frequently optically printed into high-contrast near abstraction or hand-painted with thick swaths of organic blue, ocher, green, or red. The montage is quick and palpitant, precisely edited in its two layers to a mix of wind, insect chatter, birdsong, and music composed by Skúli Sverrisson, and feels effortlessly light and nimble despite its formidable density. Seemingly always on the move, When It Was Blue flits through an ever-changing world of sun-struck treetops, billowing hills, collapsing glaciers, and efflorescent lava, stopping for scant seconds for portraits of owls, seafowl, snakes, and the occasional human. The double projection grants the experience a flickering, phantom depth—a richly tactile effect that has been utilized to diverse ends historically by filmmakers like Barbara Rubin and Paul Sharits and more recently by Glen Fogel and Luis Recoder. The optical thickness combines with the strumming, susurrant soundscape to create an alluring, enveloping journey.
Among contemporary 16-mm film artists, Reeves is not alone in her desire to engage with the natural world. As celluloid enters the winter of its existence, Peter Hutton and James Benning have continued their solitary Bolex treks to capture vistas of desert, ocean, and clouds; David Gatten has submerged film stock inside saltwater crab traps and Luther Price has buried footage in moldy backyard dirt, both aiming for beautifully deteriorated emulsion; Jeanne Liotta has aimed her camera at the night sky’s stars and Julie Murray has investigated insect life with a magnifying lens. No doubt the fragile stuff of film, made newly strange in an age of immaterial electronic images, encourages the contemplation of change and chance, birth and death; such notions are registered through utterly physical means by Reeves in the fractal cracks of distressed pigment that adorn some of her hand-edited frames and in the tidal flows of thick, opalescent paint, sometimes dotted with stellar bubbles of captured air, that wash across other moments. These more formalist sequences hark back to Reeves’s earlier films like Fear of Blushing (2001), bespeaking a genealogy of lyric avant-gardists like Len Lye and Stan Brakhage (and glimpses of the rocky Vancouver shore indeed bring to mind some of the latter’s final work, likewise shot in British Columbia). But When It Was Blue should not be understood as a half century's echo of Dog Star Man (1961–64); here, Reeves looks not mythically inward but phenomenally outward, attempting to embrace and commune with a realm seemingly beyond human experience that has nevertheless been made poignantly precious through its rapid endangerment.
Jennifer Reeves's film When It Was Blue will be screened at the Kitchen in New York on Wednesday, October 29, and Thursday, October 30. It will be accompanied by live music from Skúli Sverrisson, Anthony Burr, and Eyvind Kang. For more information, click here.
Amos Gitai, News from Home/News from House, 2006, still from a color film in 35 mm, 97 minutes. Mohamad Said el Arj.
IN THE US, Israeli director Amos Gitai is best known for the narrative films he has made over the past decade, particularly Kadosh (1999) and Kippur (2000). However, he began his career as a documentarian and director of experimental shorts, and his strongest fiction films maintain a direct connection to reality. Perhaps his best narrative film, Esther (1986), is notable for a coda in which the actors break character to speak directly about their own experiences.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art is screening most of Gitai’s documentaries in a series titled “Amos Gitai: Non-Fiction,” including a weeklong run of his latest, News from Home/News from House (2006). The “house” trilogy is his rough equivalent of Michael Apted’s “Up” series, except that it uses a home in West Jerusalem to chart the tensions inherent in Israel’s fragile status quo. A mere fifty minutes, The House (1980) sets the tone. Despite a reliance on talking-head interviews, Gitai seems fascinated by images of manual labor and architecture, a trade in which he earned a Ph.D. The film’s politics emerge naturally out of Gitai’s conversations with Arab workers, who speak frankly about their anger at Israeli Jews in general and Israeli homeowners in particular. It also possesses the first instance of a Gitai trademark: a tracking shot taken from a car window.
A House in Jerusalem (1998) focuses in its opening and closing reels on the Dajani family, one of the house’s original owners. The film, the most reliant on interviews of the trilogy, is notable for the intelligent and reasonable responses Gitai receives after asking extremely contentious questions about the dual claims of Jews and Arabs to the land of Israel. News from Home is Gitai’s slickest-looking documentary to date, thanks to handsome high-definition videography, and brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. In many ways, it sums up the project’s strengths, in particular Gitai’s ability to speak about politics in a way that honors individual experience more than the cant of official spokespeople.
The MoMA retrospective leads in to the release of Gitai’s latest narrative film, One Day You’ll Understand (2008). Set in France in 1987, it chronicles the growing fascination of Victor Bastien (Hippolyte Girardot) with his Jewish roots and his family’s experiences during World War II. Despite a strong performance by Jeanne Moreau as Victor’s mother, the film's camera movements have more presence than its characters. Gitai places himself in a tradition stretching from F. W. Murnau to Béla Tarr, using the camera to probe space in long takes. Many times, it crosses through a wall and suddenly leaves the actors off-screen. Even during close-ups, Gitai constantly reframes the image, and the film’s final shot tracks back from a view of the Eiffel Tower through a hallway. All this motion seems disconnected from the narrative. The discoveries Victor makes about the Holocaust are news to him, but they won’t startle any reasonably well-informed viewer. Girardot’s performance is too bland to really convey his character’s obsessive nature. Despite Gitai’s considerable skill, One Day You’ll Understand’s captivating style can’t hide the bluntness and overly familiar nature of its story. Watching it back to back with News from Home/News from House suggests that at this point, Gitai is a better documentarian than narrative filmmaker.
Fear(s) of the Dark, 2008, still from a film in digital HD, 80 minutes. Illustration by Charles Burns.
IN FEAR(S) OF THE DARK (2008), an international cast of graphic artists gives life to dread, fright, panic, terror, and just plain high anxiety. But these spine-tingling delights, rendered in bare-bones black-and-white, aren’t simply about things that go bump in the night. Rather, the six interwoven tales—by Blutch (aka Christian Hincker), Charles Burns, Pierre di Sciullo, Marie Caillou, Lorenzo Mattotti, and Richard McGuire—offer a distinct whiff of how varied horror can be.
Di Sciullo presents the most humane treatment of the night’s dark dreams. His pairing of morphing abstractions with a litany of existential worries (“I’m scared of being irredeemably bourgeois”), proffered in a matter-of-fact voice-over, is very French. Caillou’s tale of a bloodthirsty samurai spirit borrows stylistically from Japanese art, and Mattotti’s spooky pastoral preys on the unnatural quietude of rural life. The best offerings bookend the series. Blutch’s vicious metaphor of class politics, which opens the anthology, is told in brief episodes throughout the film. The ominous story follows an eighteenth-century marquis, voiced only with a grating cackle, who sets his ferocious hounds on an impoverished boy, a worker, and a woman. The artist’s scratched, smudged, quivering lines serve his narrative well, casting a chilly misery over a disturbing tale. Blutch’s murky tonal gradations are the inverse of McGuire’s impermeable blackness, which serves as the story’s principle character. In the film’s closing sequence (a tense but farcical adventure), a man navigates his way through a pitch-black house. As the dense darkness engulfs him, only his candle’s light calls forth a minute circle of the house’s interior, just enough for the remainder to be imagined.
For American audiences, who are likely unfamiliar with many of these creators, Burns is an enticing addition. His comic book Black Hole is a modern classic of Twilight Zone–style teen angst, and here he offers the most detailed narrative, reimagining Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” by way of sci-fi’s big-bug fantasies. A young man’s love of insects combined with his first sexual relationship is quintessential Burns, but the characters’ stilted movements distract from the story’s profound creepiness. The animation is reminiscent of something from CG’s early years, and the effect is not the enlivening of a series of drawings by motion but the filming of largely static pages.
Traditional horror fans may find few hair-raising moments in Fear(s) of the Dark, and even comics enthusiasts may consider it a mixed bag. But if mundanity makes your skin crawl, don’t watch this before bedtime.
Fear(s) of the Dark opens in New York on October 22. For more information, click here.
Six years before their best-known work, the film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) (1987), was completed, the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss created their first, equally charming and humorous films: The Point of Least Resistance (1981) and The Right Way (1983). These 16-mm gems make plain the correspondence between their collaboration, which began in the late 1970s, and the broader teamwork necessitated by the medium. Yet one wonders what the production managers must have thought of the footage, since what characterizes Fischli & Weiss’s work has been its eccentricity, its outlandishness, and how remarkably touching it is. These films foreground several signature elements in their practice: the positing of large philosophical questions; absurd, seemingly pointless acts; an emphasis on leisure and pleasure; and the transformation of everyday life into a spectacle at which one wonders.
The camera meanders alongside the artists, who are dressed in tattered rat and bear costumes, on adventures through and on the back alleys and freeways of Los Angeles and the sublime forests and lakes of the Swiss Alps. The Point of Least Resistance is a nonlinear crime drama wherein the rat and bear attempt to become artists and stumble across a dead body in a LA gallery. Curiously, the animals take the body with them, hoping it will lead to new paths of glory (although the result is more reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction watched after a dose of psilocybin mushrooms). In The Right Way, the duo drift around the Swiss countryside like furry nomads in search of meaningful, primitive experiences—which they then discuss to the point of near imponderability. For example, while gazing at the moon, the bear waxes poetic: “It’s like me. It comes and goes, always on the move, looks at everything. It does what it pleases.”
Their 2006–2007 retrospective at Tate Modern presented the original bear and rat costumes in glass cases that seemed like coffins for characters laid to rest. One gets the feeling that Fischli & Weiss could have made many more films documenting the kind of quixotic adventures presented here, and that the rat and the bear would have analyzed every last detail of them. For now, viewers should be adequately occupied with the questions prompted by these films’ observations until, with a bit of luck, more of the artists’ videos are released on DVD.
If Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time Redux (2008) is not the most beautiful movie ever made, then at least its beauty is sufficient to obliterate, for the moment, the memory of all others, including Wong’s own ravishing In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). Beauty and its memory, along with regret for lost love, are Wong’s subjects, and Redux, notwithstanding its martial-arts derivation, is the distillation of his swooning romances. It is also the materialization of his ongoing Proustian project—to revivify the past in all its sensory richness and capture the one that got away. In this case, the elusive object of desire is not a woman or a man but a movie in its entirety.
The original Ashes of Time (1994) was the third feature Wong put into production and the fourth he completed. Taking time off from the lengthy, difficult postproduction of Ashes to have a fling with screwball comedy, he completed the effervescent Chungking Express (1994) in record time—three months, start to finish. Ashes of Time, which was released in various versions (one for Hong Kong, another for Taiwan) later the same year, could not have been further from Chungking’s carefree spontaneity. It suffered from soporific pacing that never varied despite Wong’s attempt to amp it up with Eisensteinian edits synced to the beat of a tinny synthesized genre score. The editing jolts clashed with the images, which were both murky and washed-out, or at least that’s the way they appeared in the various 35-mm prints and video dubs that made their way to festivals and a handful of art houses. I fell asleep in three countries trying to watch Ashes of Time, and you may share that experience in your own home if you rent the version available from Netflix.
Based on Louis Cha aka Jin Yong’s The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, a series of novels published in Hong Kong in the late 1950s, Ashes of Time is set in the parallel world of the wuxia pian (martial-arts movie), where master sword fighters have power over the elements and laws of nature. Not only can they fly, but, in Wong’s version of wuxia storytelling, they can cause the earth to quake and lakes to spout. When Wong discovered that the original film materials and prints were decomposing—becoming themselves “ashes of time”—he embarked on a five-year project using new digital tools and his mastery of cinematic rhythms to produce a lysergically colored world of aquamarine skies and windswept deserts in myriad shades of yellow-orange, where time contracts into swirls of color or expands in gestures of infinite yearning. With its anamorphic close-ups of exquisitely chiseled faces and its desert tableaux vivants, Redux is closer to a Sergio Leone spaghetti western or the melodrama of King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946) than it is to a traditional wuxia pian or even a recent art film–wuxia hybrid like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (2004).
Redux’s episodic narrative, replete with flashbacks, spirals like a dream that you grasp in its entirety only for a fleeting moment on awakening, and is no easier to follow than the original. It doesn’t hurt the experience when seeing the movie for the first time to get lost in its beauty alone. But perhaps it is helpful to know that the story is filtered through the consciousness of Ouyang Fei (Leslie Cheung), a temporarily retired master swordsman living in an inn on the edge of the Gobi Desert, where he acts as a go-between for warriors and their clients. Like nearly all the characters in the film, Ouyang is haunted by the memory of a failed romance. Afraid of rejection, he abandoned the woman he loved (Maggie Cheung), who then married his brother. Once a year, Ouyang is visited by another great swordsman, Huang Yoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who secretly is in love with the same woman. Huang was a childhood friend of still another wandering swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who is now going blind. The blind swordsman knows that his wife, Peach Blossom (Carina Lau), has had an affair with Huang, but nevertheless he dreams of surviving long enough to see her once more. In a film in which eroticism is most strongly evoked through the sense of touch, one scene is unforgettable. In the midst of what is to be his final battle, the blind swordsman sees in his mind’s eye (or in the cosmic simultaneity of all time and space) Peach Blossom, standing in a pool of water, her hands stroking the neck of a horse whose head is bent toward her breast.
The actors, most of them international stars and regulars in Wong’s films, magnificently negotiate the mythic aspects of their characters and the lovesickness that makes them all too human. In particular, Maggie Cheung’s grief-stricken final monologue is the heart of the film and goes to the core of all Wong’s work. Ashes of Time Redux ends with a montage as transcendent as that of Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929). When I get my hands on the DVD, I’ll play it as a bedtime story every night.
Ashes of Time Redux opens today at selected theaters in New York and Los Angeles. For additional information, check your local listings.
Eric Rohmer, Place de L'Etoile, 1965, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 15 minutes. Right: Jean-Marc (Jean-Michel Rouziere). From the anthology film Six in Paris, 1965.
Six in Paris (1965) is a collection of vignettes filmed by the era’s leading French directors and produced by Barbet Schroeder, who, with Eric Rohmer, had formed the production company Les Films du Losange three years earlier. Rohmer’s own comic contribution to the anthology portrays the fastidious Jean-Marc, a former runner now working in a clothing shop near the Place d’Etoile, who thinks he may have accidentally murdered a drunk in a mild street tussle. It’s the anomaly in a collection otherwise dedicated to love’s squabbles.
The temporal compression heightens the melodrama. Claude Chabrol, in his view of La Muette, plays a disgusting upper-class husband who fights with his constipated wife so much that their son takes to wearing earplugs, with disastrous consequences. Schroeder himself stars in Jean Rouch’s portrait of the district around the Gare du Nord; an argument with his wife, played by Nadine Ballot, precipitates a dramatic encounter for her on the street. Jean-Daniel Pollet’s tender sketch portrays the awkward interactions between a no-nonsense prostitute and a childlike john who works as a dishwasher in a nearby restaurant. And Jean-Luc Godard inserts into Montparnasse a Canadian girl who tries to game her two lovers—one wields a blowtorch as a sculptor, the other as an auto detailer—and ends up losing them both.
Tricks, cons, romantic vicissitudes, all set against the kinetic backdrop of the City of Light: The six shorts are certainly emblematic of New Wave style, but not of Schroeder’s career as a whole. He went on to direct films of his own, including 1970s-era documentaries on Idi Amin Dada and Koko, the infamous “talking” gorilla, and the Hollywood hits Reversal of Fortune (1990) and Single White Female (1992). He acts, too: Mainstream American audiences may remember him as the mechanic in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007). The “Mad Obsessions” series surveys Schroeder’s peripatetic and malleable output; but hurry to see Six in Paris, which screens only until tomorrow.
“Mad Obsessions: The Films of Barbet Schroeder” runs at the BAMcinématek in Brooklyn until October 21. Six in Paris screens as part of the series through October 9. For more details on the series, click here.
Max Ophüls, Lola Montès, 1955, still from a color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Lola Montès (Martine Carol).
TOWARD THE END of Lola Montès (1955), Max Ophüls’s last and perhaps greatest film, the eponymous heroine, a nineteenth-century dancer, goes backstage at the theater in which she has just performed to meet with the king of Bavaria, whom she is attempting to seduce. The king, obviously infatuated, tries to persuade her to stay in his country under the pretext of learning more about her “revolutionary” “Spanish” dancing (in truth, she is not skilled enough to dance in the classical style), while she feigns ignorance of his intentions, insisting that she must move on for professional reasons. They are surrounded by props, flats, and other stage paraphernalia, and the king remarks that she has “won” her “place in this theater.” Just in case the viewer misses the theatricality of the interaction—they are self-consciously playing their parts in a game of erotic pursuit—Ophüls places a rope between the camera and the actors; it swings conspicuously back and forth from the rigging above.
This is not the first time Ophüls resorts to this unusual technique. In the opening scene, as the circus master and jugglers prime the audience for Lola’s entry to the ring, where she will reenact scenes from her “sensational” life, a fake crown is lowered on a rope in front of the camera. In general, Ophüls takes pains to remind the viewer of his artifice through a panoply of devices: a mise-en-scène that employs props, setting, and translucent curtains and screens to create a highly patterned image; objects that block our view of the characters; an iris that imitates a curtain opening and closing; and manifestly flat back projection and oversaturated colors.
Artificiality and performance, in other words, are major concerns of this film, both on the level of the narrative, with characters playing literal and metaphoric roles, and, more reflexively, on the level of the film itself. It arguably turns Lola’s life into a cheap spectacle, one that satisfies the prurient desire of its audience for sensation much as the circus and Lola herself do. Lola Montès is one of the most scrupulously honest films in the history of cinema, shining a light—long before political modernists of the 1960s such as Jean-Luc Godard and Nagisa Oshima—on the filmmaker’s and viewers’ willing complicity in the fabrications of the film’s characters.
And yet, not everything is inauthentic. For just as viewers can feel genuine emotions toward characters while remaining fully aware that they are fictional, so sometimes do the characters themselves exhibit real feelings. After being forced to flee Bavaria, Lola confesses that she loved the king, and from the opening moments of the film, Ophüls demonstrates that, behind the illusion of a powerful, beautiful femme fatale, there is an exhausted woman who has been made ill by her lifestyle. Pretense shades unpredictably and sometimes tragically into reality, the film seems to say, a point confirmed by its devastating final scene, in which men line up to touch Lola, now protected (and imprisoned) by bars.
Although Ophüls explores this theme to a greater or lesser extent in all of his last four films, which he made on returning to France after working in Hollywood during and immediately after the war, 1950’s La Ronde (recently released by Criterion on DVD along with Le Plasir  and The Earrings of Madame de . . . ), the first of the four, is more lighthearted. Once again, reflexivity abounds, this time in the form of a narrator who addresses the camera, which he leads onto and off the film sets. He also initiates and occasionally intervenes in the highly artificial narrative, in which a character meets (and usually makes love to) another character, who meets another character, and so on until the tenth encounters the first and the “rounds of love” are completed. Rivaling many of those who experimented with narration in modernist and postmodernist fiction, Ophüls has great fun with the narrator, showing him, for example, censoring the film by cutting out a lovemaking scene from the print with scissors, and in general the characters, as they “all dance to love’s tune,” do not suffer like Lola. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case with Ophüls himself, who died from a heart attack in March 1957 following the financial failure and subsequent reediting of Lola Montès by its producers.
Lola Montès screens at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, October 4. For more information or to buy tickets, click here. The film then runs at Film Forum in New York from October 10 to October 30. For more information, click here. La Ronde, Le Plaisir, and The Earrings of Madame de . . . are available now from the Criterion Collection.
James Benning, RR, 2007, still from a color film in 16 mm, 112 minutes.
“AVANT-GARDES HAVE ONLY ONE TIME; and the best thing that can happen to them is to have enlivened their time without outliving it.” Guy Debord throws down this critique near the end of his last film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), a 100-minute Niagara of images stolen from cinema and magazines, détourned into illustrative counterpoint for an anti-masscult philippic interwoven with autobiographical self-reflection. Debord’s films have long been banished to a shadow economy of bootlegs, but now In girum resurfaces at the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar in a freshly subtitled 35-mm blowup. Encountering Debord’s words today, as they further an elaborate military analogy spoken atop footage from a cinematic depiction of the Crimean War, it is impossible not to reinterpret his language now as an autodestructive maneuver, deftly undermining his own twenty-first-century legacy as academic commodity in the nostalgia trade of May ’68 philosophical memorabilia.
Yet this week’s context also raises the question of what constitutes avant-garde film as it enters its second century. For Debord, found-footage tinkering serves to articulate a cultural negation and an anti-aesthetic: “This film disdains the image scraps of which it is composed,” he declares. Such a sentiment clashes harshly with the predominantly Anglo-American tradition of experimental film and video showcased elsewhere during “Views,” which in its current incarnation wholeheartedly savors moments of optic beauty and rejects an overt engagement with theory in favor of a more Deweyan practice of art as experience. Which is not to say that the transatlantic avant-garde has no politics, as witnessed by the curators’ retrospective tribute to the late Bruce Conner, who remixed stolen images of mainstream mindlessness into rhythmic mental benders of deep-punk subversion like A Movie (1958), Report (1967), and America Is Waiting (1982). Contra Debord, Conner had his Pop and ate it, too.
Fittingly, the program also showcases the newest feature by Bay Area underground stalwart Craig Baldwin. A man who could pass for Debord and Conner’s love child, he is known for stitching together fragments from old industrials, B movies, and other celluloid detritus into feature-length derangements of American culture that conjure up the bugaboos of the nation’s own paranoid narratives. Baldwin’s first digitally edited work, Mock Up on Mu (2008), spins a lurid sci-fi fairy tale around the true-ish story of occult dabbler and aerospace pioneer Jack Parsons, invoking a menagerie of his real-life confidantes, including self-proclaimed Antichrist Aleister Crowley, New Age progenitor Marjorie Cameron, and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Baldwin’s high-impact machine-gun montage couldn’t be further from the languor of his contemporary James Benning, who will screen what he claims will be his final 16-mm film, RR (2008), a collection of precisely calibrated long takes of trains passing through sublime stretches of American landscape. Both an unabashed paean to the beauties of the machine age and a stealth metaphor for the chugging, linear mechanics of cinema, RR nevertheless includes its own gestures toward cultural disquiet, including audio of readings from the Book of Revelations and a recording of Eisenhower’s denunciation of the military-industrial complex. Benning’s endorsement of unhurried acts of looking stands as an implicit critique of the attention-deficit age, and even here one might circle back to Debord: In one segment of RR, an off-camera radio plays snatches from a classic jingle for Coca-Cola, providing Benning with his own détournement moment. “That’s the way it is and the way it will stay,” a woman’s voice sings. “What the world wants today is the real thing.”
“Views from the Avant-Garde” screens at the 46th New York Film Festival from October 3 to October 5. For more information, click here.