View Finder

Ed Halter on NYFF's “Views from the Avant-Garde”

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.