THE NICOLAS PROVOST PROGRAM shown on the second evening of this year’s ten-day Migrating Forms proved a suitable foil to any unified accounts of the festival. Stardust, an uncanny film perpetually verging on narrative intrigue, features a nocturnal Las Vegas haunted by hidden-camera shots of half-caught glances, suggestively linked gestures, and the ready-to-read faces of actual off-duty stars (Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson). Much like Provost’s Long Live the New Flesh, which beads together a bottomless visual continuum from madly artifacting digital images of gore, it’s a recipe for paranoid recognition: Is there something there? Are things coming together?
In the characteristically diverse, experimental lineup—drawn from festivals, archives, and galleries (some of the films in the festival related to concurrent exhibitions elsewhere, e.g., Cao Fei and Olga Chernysheva)—a number of works took for granted a self-consciousness about vision and cognition, in a stance sometimes liberating, sometimes unsettling, and often both. Working at a fundamental level was Madison Brookshire’s Color Series: Expanses of blue and red, achieved sans camera, were held for cone-numbing durations. The viewer’s initially attentive gaze turns passive, capitulating to ocular laws that conjure beauty through shifts in hue and edge definition. Jackie Goss’s The Observers, a chronicle of two successive women in residence in a blustery mountaintop weather observatory, brings out the ritual quality and inscrutability of their scientific pursuits; our critical gaze is twinned with the (slightly dazed) pair’s weather readings and obsessive fumblings with a locked box. And the glitches in a screening of Kevin Jerome Everson’s BZV initially added another, serendipitous layer to its staged scenes of Congo River waterskiing: Blown-out black-and-white contrast seemed to align with the film’s wind-whipped audio.
The revivals at this year’s edition of Migrating Forms spanned the 1970s, closed-circuit-video blackout sketches/performative objets of Cynthia Maughan (who was paired with vintage William Wegman in an Electronic Arts Intermix program), Glauber Rocha’s syllabus-staple Cinema Novo provocations, and artifacts from two eras of Detroit-born phenomenon Destroy All Monsters. But a personal favorite was a night devoted to features worked on by French experimental wordsmith Georges Perec. First up was Série noire, the funny-bleak 1979 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman, named after the cult French crime imprint. Director Alain Corneau recruited Perec to write dialogue that put only clichés in the mouth of scheming door-to-door salesman Frank, a helpless whirlwind played with exhilarating idiosyncrasy by Patrick Dewaere.
It’s fascinating to think of Perec at the time also finalizing his greatest work, Life: A User’s Manual (1978). And, extraordinarily, the evening’s other selection, Un Homme qui dort (1974), was introduced by Perec’s faithful fellow Oulipian Harry Mathews. Codirected with Bernard Queysanne, who worked on the film mostly on weekends and late at night, this disarming adaptation of Perec’s novel depicts a young man’s withdrawal from society into an itinerant hermitism, ignoring knocks at the door at home, or walking through gorgeously and kinetically photographed Paris locations (including, in a climactic sequence, a shot from Franju’s Sang des bêtes). But the guiding force is the second-person voice-over (by Shelley Duvall in the English version) that seemingly speaks to viewer, subject, the work itself—everything. With pronouncements such as “Something has gone wrong / You don’t know how to live” continually outflanking the viewer (and, ironically, echoing the direct address typical of advertising copy), it marked the festival’s halfway point but truly felt like The End.
Migrating Forms ran May 20–29, 2011, at Anthology Film Archives in New York.