Ben Rivers, Two Years at Sea, 2011, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm blown up to 35 mm, 86 minutes.

AS ALWAYS, this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde, a sidebar of the forty-ninth New York Film Festival, offers a variety of media works and sensibilities. For the first time, the series will present a composition in “official” 3-D—i.e., requiring glasses. Titled Upending, it’s a stunning piece by the OpenEndedGroup, running about fifty minutes and accompanied by excerpts of a recording of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 1, performed by the Flux Quartet. The visual world summoned begins simply enough, with a copper-toned curved line emerging from the screen’s darkness to the sound of a brief pizzicato phrase from the strings. Before long, elaborate designs take skeletal shape within the three-dimensional space, as the camera (or cameras) moves toward, away from, under, over, and through them. The shapes themselves, according to the artists, derive from actual objects—tables, chairs, people, trees, a garden, a swing—existing in real space, but abstracted into atomistic elements that no sooner come together into recognizable form than they swim apart, dissolving back into the endlessly protean mise-en-scène of the work’s cosmology. These lines and shapes, defined and constructed through light and color (reddish orange, white, gold), achieve a richness altogether unexpected, given their genesis within the overall fragmentary nature of the entire “performative” space. The music has a singular, tactile quality affined to the viewer’s tendency to want to reach out and touch these fragile forms before they vanish. One feels one has entered an impossible space, conjured by the mind but uninhabitable, a space in which music, mathematics, and the concept of form itself dance elusively.

Perhaps in the spirit of the end-of-the-world themes of several of the festival’s main slate entries, Views includes Studies for the Decay of the West (1979–2010) by veteran German filmmaker Klaus Wyborny. Few of Wyborny’s works are known in the US. Even Birth of a Nation (1973), his first major piece, is rarely screened. Studies is divided into five parts whose titles suggest more distinction among them than one might discern at an initial viewing. For example, part one, “Turning; tumbling towards the end,” is largely composed of relatively static industrial images—refineries, smokestacks, nuclear reactors, and chemical plants—while part four, “About the Light of the North,” is dominated by movement: rivers and canals, boats and trains, seashore views, and city life. Except for the bulk of Part four, most of the images throughout are tinted red, yellow, or blue, suggesting perhaps a parallel between chemical deterioration and what they display.

The most striking formal aspect of the work is that Wyborny has edited his images in nearly perfect synchrony with a musical score he composed for piano and strings. In the silent era, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling composed films based on musical principles (e.g., rhythms of repetition and variation), and in the sound era, the Disney studios animated graphic shapes to classic musical pieces. But to my knowledge, I don’t think anyone has timed the editing of filmed images of the world—iron structures, concrete buildings, beaches, waterfronts, apartment buildings, waterways, people, and so forth—to the notations and phrases of a musical composition. In many instances (further viewings would indicate how extensively), images are repeated in sync with the repetition of the musical note first associated with them. At nearly eighty minutes, the effectiveness of this may tend to lose force, but I found the work even more seductive on second viewing.

Left: Ute Aurand, Young Pines, 2011, still from a color film in 16 mm, 43 minutes. Right: Klaus Wyborny, Studies for the Decay of the West, 1979–2010, stills from a color film in Super 8 transferred to DigiBeta, 80 minutes.

NOT IMMUNE TO APOCALYPTIC FOREBODINGS HIMSELF, Ben Rivers makes work that celebrates the simplest virtues of craft, self-reliance, and the solitary life in the face of a future that may expunge all traces of humanity. These themes, discernible in I Know Where I’m Going (2009), are played out in different ways in Rivers’s three works on view this year. Though Slow Action is closest to the darker side of Rivers’s sensibility, I find the two other offerings more affecting. Sack Barrow, dedicated to the workers in a factory that had engaged in metal electroplating and finishing since 1931, was filmed during its last month of operation in 2010. Though the site appears old and grungy, the colors and compositions of every shot are anything but. To stress this painterly quality, Rivers inserts full frames of vivid red, yellow, green, and blue that also reflect the heating and cooling stages of the work. No interviews explain the work in any detail. We do get glimpses of it, but Rivers is less interested in documenting a process than in capturing the atmosphere—popular music streams from radios or recorders; cheesecake photos are generously displayed on walls and lockers—and in extracting the physical beauty in rusty surfaces and corrosive decay. These indelible images—especially those of objects deformed by toxic chemicals—evoke comparable artifacts of antiquity.

Rivers’s feature-length Two Years at Sea is an entrancing, all-out tribute to a hermitic, Thoreau-like existence, given wide-screen grandeur and photographed in a black-and-white made appropriately grainy through a blowup from 16 to 35 mm. It is no criticism to remark that there is nothing especially avant-garde about this work. (It is far more viewer-friendly, for example, than Béla Tarr’s aggressively minimalist The Turin Horse, one of the festival’s main slate entries.) Filmed in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, its lone protagonist lives a self-sufficient existence amid pine-crowded mountains and vast gray skies: rising briskly, whistling old pop melodies, brewing coffee, taking long walks through woods and hills, and hauling fallen tree limbs for his wood-burning stove. We know he has access to water and gasoline, since he takes showers and drives a jeep, but we’re not sure where or how he gets them. He is also well supplied with sophisticated tools: With a rope and pulley, he constructs a tree house by hoisting a small trailer atop several tall pines that he has bent downward into a kind of huge nest, just to provide an alternative view of his surroundings. In similar fashion, he constructs a raft supported by plastic containers just to float aimlessly. On two occasions, we see him reading assiduously. Who he is and why he is there is never explained. A single shot of a nearby rock is held long enough for us to read its markings as the grave of a Scottish clansman from centuries earlier—a kindred spirit, perhaps? The film has a directness and an innocence that are anything but sentimental. Rivers shows how existence itself and its duration in a specific place and time is sufficiently compelling, requiring no metaphors or symbols to impress its value on us. There is no surer sign of the filmmaker’s trust in his methods and of the human composure of his protagonist than the final, five-minute-long take: a close-up of the man’s face on frame right, flanked by the blackness of the wide screen, as a sputtering fire burns down, casting soft, diminishing light across his features until the screen goes dark.

UTE AURAND’S YOUNG PINES, a chronicle of her trip to Japan, is a lovely example of what is usually called the “diary” mode of avant-garde filmmaking. It recalls the distinction made by P. Adams Sitney (in his indispensable study Visionary Film [1974]) between that term and what he aptly phrased the “quotidian lyric.” Both terms refer to the form in which a filmmaker, with handheld camera, shoots in the moment—from the hip, so to speak—amassing footage through a kind of editing in camera. But while the word “diary” implies daily chronicling, the “quotidian lyric” accommodates a self-contained quality and stresses the poetic nature of such works.

Like the best exemplars of the genre, Aurand’s film reminds us that the critical element is the presence of the artist—not visibly, but via every pulse and movement of the flow of images. No form of filmmaking comes closer to palpably rendering the exterior and interior being of the artist—the camera becoming, as Stan Brakhage once said, an extension of the body, recording not only what the filmmaker sees but everything he or she feels each instant, transferred from the rhythms of breathing and gestures to the images pulsing before us. Balancing rapidly edited phrases of grave markers in a cemetery or bicyclists in motion with longer-held gazes at rice fields, vegetable harvesting, and floral arrangements, Aurand’s film manifests a sensibility as attuned to what she sees as it is to the mechanics of the apparatus in her hands. Tonal shifts from color to black and white and from silence to sound recharge the image track as it does the viewer’s attention. The filmmaker’s steady hand, keen eye, and empathic, patient demeanor invest this familiar form with a vibrancy often unappreciated.

Tony Pipolo

Views from the Avant-Garde runs October 7–10 during the 49th edition of the New York Film Festival.