First-Come, First-Served

Nick Pinkerton on First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image

Ken Jacobs, Orchard Street, 1955/2015, 35 mm, color, 27 minutes.

THE IDENTITY of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look festival, spread across three weekends in January, is tied to its very firstness—after the holiday debauch and hangover, it’s New York’s premiere festival showcase of the new year. Come its fifth iteration, the fest’s identity has also gelled in some other important ways, as it emphasizes the experimental and noncommercial documentary. In many cases, sorry to say, this will also be the last look that a NYC theatrical audience gets at these movies.

In its short life, First Look has snagged a few significant New York premieres—Mati Diop’s Mille soleils in 2014 and Jessica Hausner’s Amour fou last year. (It is worth noting that the fest has also been consistently supportive of female filmmakers, with Mónica Savirón’s “A Matter of Visibility: International Avant-Garde and Artists’ Cinema” program continuing the tradition this time around.) And though the fest’s lineup doesn’t privilege premiere status, this year’s notable rollouts include a trio of shorts by Ken Jacobs, among them a restored version of 1955’s Orchard Street, as well as Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia, in which the director of the Hermitage-shot Russian Ark (2002) turns his camera on the Louvre.

Sokurov’s film establishes a precedent for this edition’s emphasis on cinematic treatments of the plastic arts. Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson’s Abandoned Goods, for example, sifts through a catalogue of work created by mental patients at the Netherne Hospital in Surrey, UK, between 1946 and 1981, during which time art therapist Edward Adamson presided over a program teaching handicrafts and studio art to inmates. Combining archival film and audio recordings with images of work that encompasses furtive sketches on toilet paper and the flyleaves of library books as well as sophisticated pieces by institutionalized trained artists like painter William Kurelek and sculptor Rolanda Polonska, Borg and Lawrenson shed light on the shadowy confines from which these pieces bloomed, while a postscript touches on their eventual gallery commodification. Andy Guérif’s tableau vivant Maesta finds another point of entry into a static artwork, using twenty-first-century digital motion-picture technology to explore the logic of fourteenth-century linear storytelling, reproducing the reverse side of Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maesta altarpiece, which shows the Paschal mystery of Christ in fourteen panels and twenty-six individual “frames.” The film begins with a cold open on a live-action crucifixion, and as the crowds around Golgotha clear, the wide-screen frame pulls back to eventually encompass the whole template of Duccio’s tempera-and-gold painting, almost entirely uninhabited. A live cast next enter and begin their chronological progress from vignette to vignette, enacting the scenes of Duccio’s work up to the point where they are captured in freeze-frame, then move on. The action starts with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in the lower left corner and ends with the appearance of Christ on the road to Emmaus in the upper right—which includes one of several sight gags touching on the eccentricities of the Sienese primitives’ almost Byzantine sense of perspective. (Maesta plays as part of a sidebar of films programmed by FIDMarseille director Jean-Pierre Rehm, along with one of my most anticipated works of the fest, unavailable to screen at the time of this writing, Le Juif de Lascaux, a personal essay film by the inimitable, outrageous, splenetic former Libération critic Louis Skorecki, who will appear in person.)

Dominic Gagnon, Of the North, 2015, video, color, sound, 74 minutes.

Maesta establishes its conceit early, leaving the audience to watch the familiar story work its way across its gridwork stage over sixty-two minutes. Jonathan Perel’s doc Toponymy lays down a schematic tactic of its own: In four “chapter” sections, Perel surveys four grid-plan prefab villages in Argentina’s mountainous, northwestern Tucuman province, from their inception in forty-year-old official documents to their present-day state, seen in a series of static compositions of exactly equal quarter-minute duration. While some appear more gone-to-seed than others, in each village we find the same decorative flourishes, the same military monuments, the same cinder-block-and-corrugated-metal architecture, the same stray dogs and wild horses, the same soccer fields and basketball courts, and the same final image: a dead-end street leading toward the mountains beyond. These mountains were once the homes of the village’s inhabitants but, per the official documents, they were forcibly removed to centralized locations after a series of uprisings in the early 1970s, so as to be more easily controlled. Toponymy, then, is a study in the forceful imposition of unified national identity—a piece of World Cup graffiti reads WE ARE ALL ARGENTINA—as well as the stubborn endurance of ineradicable individuality among subjugated peoples in the subtle variety which has through the years asserted itself onto these uniform environments.

Another perspective on political turmoil, this one captured in the present tense, is found in Anna Roussilon’s I Am the People, which filters two turbulent years in Egyptian life through the everyday experience of a single family in a rural village far from Cairo. The film benefits greatly from Roussilon’s easy, humorous, sometimes contentious rapport with her subjects, who chide the director for what they perceive as her political naïveté and for her unmarried status. Roussilon is a crucial offscreen character in I Am the People, while Krzysztof Kaczmarek occasionally appears on camera in his Pawel and Wawel, which follows the filmmaker as he tours Iceland presenting a program of classic Polish films to anemic or nonexistent audiences at cultural centers. In his seemingly aimless road-trip movie, Kaczmarek casually raises questions about the meaning of Polish identity in diaspora, the natural world as a competitor for the moving image, and, in a gradual breakdown of spatial logic that concludes in a phenomenal, gravity-defying coup-de-cinema loop-the-loop trick shot, a reaffirmation of the power of the cinematic apparatus.

At least one among the documentary slate at First Look will, in a unique sense, be a world premiere: Québécois filmmaker Dominic Gagnon’s Of the North. In fact, Gagnon’s decoupage, made of user-submitted online video of Inuit subjects hailing from Canada’s Nunavut territory, has already been on the festival trail in North America. I saw it over the fall at the Camden International Film Festival, where it knocked me flat, and it may be said that the film has never failed to elicit strong reactions since. Most notably, when screening at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM), it was publicly attacked by Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer whose music Gagnon used in the film, who referred to Of the North as “painful and racist,” adding that to make a film about the Inuit was “not [Gagnon’s] place.” Tagaq is currently touring, performing her original score to Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, the same work which the title of Gagnon’s film addresses and in a sense redresses, ceding the point-of-view to his subjects while retaining the privilege of assemblage—and it is for his failure to include the right kind of images that Gagnon has been criticized. In the ensuing flap, Gagnon offered to remove anything by parties who objected to its inclusion, though he announced his intention not to replace the excised material. The version at MoMI, then, will be screened with sound track dead air and gouges of black, a mutilated casualty of the ongoing debate over the role of authorial identity in representation. (It will screen with Gagnon’s 2011 Pieces and Love All to Hell, another assemblage culled from footage of female right-wing conspiracy theorists. Comparing responses to the two films should prove instructive.)

Margaret Honda, Spectrum Reverse Spectrum, 2014, 70 mm, color, 21 minutes.

Of the North, a work of lo-fi pixelated junkiness, often nausea-inducing camerawork and subject matter, and gobbing punkish provocation, exists somewhere at the juncture between the fest’s documentary and avant-garde sections. Elsewhere among the experimental work, which includes a program of shorts by Björn Kämmerer that will all be projected in 35 mm, there emerges a subset of films—yes, films—that in one way or another make the materiality of analog celluloid their subject. I didn’t know the conceptual hook of Margaret Honda’s Color Correction when I sat down for the press screening, but its 101-minute procession of monochromatic color-field frames of various durations and tones, ranging from pale pinks and grays to bright aquamarine, had a hypnotic allure. What I was watching, it transpires, was just what the title implies: the color corrections for what is only identified as “a conventional feature film,” a string of color-correction gels made into timing tapes that correspond to every shot in the feature, designed to remove the greenish cast of fluorescent light. If Color Correction is a mesmerizing conceptual gambit, then Honda’s Spectrum Reverse Spectrum, which will be projected on the intended 70 mm in the program with Abandoned Goods, is nothing less than a marvel. Running the length of a single reel of wide-gauge stock, the film follows exactly the eponymous trajectory, chameleonically transitioning across the visible light spectrum, from violet to red and back again, beginning and ending in black. The simple effect, achieved using a contact film printer, is something like a prismatic sunset in a distant galaxy and, along with Maesta, is among the work that can only really be seen on MoMI’s massive screen.

First Look runs January 8–24 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.