Top Forms


Left: Jean-Pierre Gorin, Routine Pleasures, 1986, still from a video, 81 minutes. Right: Zhao Liang, Petition, 2009, still from a color video, 123 minutes.

ASKED ONCE to describe his 1986 essay film Routine Pleasures, Jean-Pierre Gorin settled on saying that it is simply “a film about about.” One might argue the same of the Migrating Forms festival, held May 14–23 at Anthology Film Archives, where three of Gorin’s works screened amid a selection of films and videos that cannily sustained breadth and focus while corralling explorations, co-presenters, and essentials from both the art gallery and the cinema. Besides programs of new and recent experimental shorts by the usual suspects, the Gotham-bound one-stop cinephile could scoop up rare revivals (Gorin, Ed Ruscha’s 16-mm works), catch-up suites (Stanya Kahn, Kerry Tribe, Straub plus or minus Huillet), and ambitious documentary deployments (Zhao Liang’s Petition [2009], John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail [Clark] [2010], Kutlug Ataman’s Journey to the Moon [2009]).

The Gorin screenings demonstrated the nimble insights of the former Godard collaborator and “twin brain” to Manny Farber (a fellow UCSDer). Poto and Cabengo (1979) is an extraordinary funny-sad document of Gorin’s encounter with pidgin-speaking six-year-old twins and their desperately optimistic half-German parents. Shot by Les Blank and enlivened by the distinctive stonerlike drawl of Gorin’s voice-over, it’s a film about translation, and it’s as restless as its pent-up subjects, replete with text scrolls, sound looping, and freeze frames. The film presents a suburban California snapshot of ready-made housing, eye-popping wigs, and Dad’s hopeless realtor-ing. (The title alone is a fascinating closed circuit: the children’s names for each other.)

Even more fertile and visually engrossing, Routine Pleasures treks into the clubhouse of a group of train hobbyists, with its replica terrain and “temporal landscapes.” Full of reflective pivots and outright comedy, Gorin’s “small-scale epic” is punctuated with considerations of Farber and his own omnidirectional work (on canvas and off). It’s about men hanging out, a Frenchman in America, tools (“What you do with them and what they do to you”), and, in a spectacular climactic montage, the heavy grace with which the clubhouse’s wires and rigging hang together. Less an essay film than a collaborative chronicle, My Crasy Life (1992) goes heart to heart with ethnic-Samoan gangbangers in “Strong Beach.” There’s homegrown rap and the bizarre conceit of a beat cop’s Knight Rider-ish onboard computer making ironic observations.

Gorin’s films were the sort that send one walking away with freshly inquisitive eyes, and the festival’s programs likewise tapped multiple modes of attention: the immersive sylvan nocturne of Robert Todd’s Golden Hour (2009); shifts in and out of headily dynamic animal perception in Ruth Maclennan’s Three Short Films on Hawks and Men (2009); Dani Leventhal’s lusciously disorienting close-ups in 54 Days This Winter 36 Days This Spring for 18 Minutes (2009); the hypervivid field recordings and Song of Ceylon–descended sonic pastiches of Luke Fowler’s A Grammar for Listening (2009); and hypnotic digressions in Peggy Ahwesh’s Ape of Nature (2010). In these mixed contexts, a program of critically adored Straub and Huillet shorts was free to seem as precious as any other sampling of exactingly executed but rigid and off-putting aesthetics.

The feature documentary work in Migrating Forms (which opened with the trompe l’oeil actualitÚs of Kevin Jerome Everson’s Erie [2010]) included Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark), about the toxic legacy of the US military presence in the Philippines. Originating in Gianvito’s scouting for documentary material for a fiction project, the 264-minute mammoth is part history lecture, part marathon testimonial by activists and victims. While informative and boasting Gianvito’s striking landscape photography, the film suffers from the literal-minded conceit that duration ensures fidelity and, at worst, suggests a kind of penitence cinema. (“I’m not sure the film asks enough of you,” Gianvito said in introductory remarks.)

Zhao’s Petition achieves more with less, burrowing into the psychological hellholes of Beijing legal petitioners from the provinces. Whole chunks of life, a decade or more at a time, are sheared off during their disputes; the dead-end disorder of their victimhood is echoed in the screen-filling clutter of their temporary shantytown rooms and environs, and in slurry grays of debris and the sad washed-out synthetic pinks and blues of clothing. Last, continuing the extraordinarily intimate globe-trotting, was Stephanie Spray’s As Long as There’s Breath (2009), in which a family frets over a son gone to Maoist rebels in between bickering, bantering, frank sex talk, and offhand wisdom: “Things look good used.”

Nicolas Rapold