Frame to Frame

Tony Pipolo on Projections at the 52nd New York Film Festival

Lewis Klahr, The Occidental Hotel, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 26 minutes.

“PROJECTIONS” IS THE NEW LABEL for the sidebar of the New York Film Festival devoted to film and digital works formerly shown under the rubric Views from the Avant-Garde. With fewer programs, none of which overlap, it is possible, were one inclined, to see everything. (The series runs Friday October 3 to Sunday October 5.) Many names are familiar from Views, and two rarely shown films by Belgian poet/artist/filmmaker Marcel Broodthaers—Berlin or a Dream with Cream (1974) and Mr. Teste et La Lune (1970–74) will be projected in 35 mm. The selections vary in duration, format, and style, and at least three of the longer pieces—Harun Farocki’s Sauerbruch Hutton Architects (2013), Phillip Warnel’s Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air (2014), and Eric Baudelaire’s Letters to Max (2014)—could easily have been part of the festival’s documentary sidebar. Though few titles—in the festival’s main slate or elsewhere—are apt to rouse as much jubilation and hostility as Jean-Luc Godard’s exhilarating 3-D exercise Goodbye to Language, there is certainly inventive fare to be found amid the Projections programs.

It is always gratifying to see how artists working with minimal resources and familiar techniques manage to create works of lively originality. Consider the very different approaches several filmmakers have taken to create intensely personal mindscapes. In Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Sea of Vapors (2014), soft black-and-white images—both archival and original—flicker at more or less a constant rate before slowly dissolving into other images, the overall effect enhanced by the varying discernibility of shots, as well as by slight camera movements within them. Beginning with an image of the back of a woman’s head as the camera moves in, the film ends with a shot of what we assume is the same woman, raising to her lips, and then draining the contents of, a cup whose luminous round base conceals her face. Despite the teeming flow of images juxtaposed and superimposed in between—eye to mountainscape, face to fingernails, flowers to lips, rocks to sea, forest to child—we are struck less by associative or metaphorical links than by the sense that, with her simple gesture, the woman engages the phenomenal world, drinking in nothing less than the universe conjured throughout.

Janie Geiser’s The Hummingbird Wars (2014) is a dense collage comprising nineteenth-century photographs of stage actors, theater makeup, Japanese masks, flowers in various states of decay, an autobiographical text, and a World War I first-aid book. Unveiled via a dynamic deployment of cutout black mattes, whose flitting about the frame perhaps mimes that of the titular hummingbird, the images are both free-associative and recurrent, complicated through each new, interlocking cluster, as well as by an equally evocative audio track. Like the artist making her way through the paradoxical interrelations of history, art, and consciousness, the hummingbird gently traverses the clash of images that flesh out Geiser’s mesmerizing tapestry.

If Geiser’s film suggests an indirect portrait of the artist, Victoria Fu’s Lorem ipsum 1 (2013) constructs a digital portrait both more literal and skewed, cleverly composed of multiple, simultaneous, even contradictory angles. How this reflects its title—a phrase derived from an ancient text of Cicero’s and now used to identify a “filler text” in graphic design—is unclear to me. As we watch a woman walking into and through her house and gazing out of her window (Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon [1943] may come to mind), an uneasy tension invests the flow of fragmentary images as they flirt with and recoil from a fully integrated, intact portrait: We never quite see the woman’s entire face in a sustained composition—as if, like her work, the artist refuses reduction to a single perspective.

Sylvia Schedelbauer, Sea of Vapors, 2014, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 15 minutes.

To say that Jodie Mack’s two new works are homespun is literally to describe what she does. In both Razzle Dazzle (2014) and Blanket Statement #2: It’s All or Nothing (2013), this ever-resourceful artist shoots fabrics with such tactile sensitivity and edits with such rhythmic aplomb that her images shimmer before us. Bejeweled items flicker luminously between black leader, as if directed by some invisible cosmic law, while layers of wooly “color bars” are rewoven, through Mack’s editing savvy, into cozy but restless intimations of domestic comfort.

Standouts among the shorter films also include new works by Thorsten Fleisch, Mike Gibisser, and Paul Clipson. Fleisch’s Picture Particles (2014) begins as a rapid flow of film stock unreels on a smaller rectangle within the full frame. The burns, color flares, scratches, and sprocket holes associated with film flash by, preserved, as it were, by Fleisch’s digital time machine, enfolding its revered predecessor. As the work expands to full frame, the random colors and shapes fuse into kaleidoscopic patterns that seem to mourn the fading of the old even as it is reshaped by the new.

Gibisser’s Blue Loop, July (2014) is a miniature “fireworks” movie unlike any I can recall. We watch a piece of night sky, shot at what seems a fixed perspective and detached from any discernible communal context, as images of soaring, exploding pyrotechnics sinuate upward into the darkness at a preternatural pace, creating scattershot configurations, quite distinct from the usual, patriotically tinged fan-bursts of expanding stars.

With Light Year (2013), Paul Clipson proves once again to have a keen eye and a wonderful gift for lyricism. He begins with impressive shots around what looks to be a shipyard: iron fences, wooden docks, cargo ships, and the sea. Vertical, dividing columns in many images give way to horizontal pans rightward over ships, tugboats, cranes, pulleys, cables, and electrical towers, many of these superimposed, creating a seemingly seamless panorama, which then shifts into more abstract patterns of color and light. A nautical paean to Apollo, perhaps, Clipson’s movie celebrates the source, power, and reach of light as it passes over sea and material surfaces, wheedles between the narrowest crevices of a wooden structure, and penetrates the begrimed windows of a warehouse.

Inevitably, the creative possibilities of digital technology have also preoccupied such legendary filmmakers as Ernie Gehr and Ken Jacobs. Last year’s Views presented five exciting digital pieces by the former, and this year Projections includes a brief but thrilling new work by the latter. Canopy (2014) opens on a tunnel-like shot of a sidewalk with a lone figure in the foreground. Overhanging the space is an actual canopy extending the length of this “tunnel,” at the far end of which a police car and a taxi are parked on the cross street. While these tend to ground the work’s perspective, so to speak, they are visually upstaged by the shifting contours and curving fabric of the canopy, animated into a play of interchanging and overlapping undulations that convert the entire space into an exploration of surface, depth, and everything in between—the territory, in other words, where Jacobs feels most at home.

Victoria Fu, Lorem ipsum I, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes.

The predominance of place is explored in several works of distinct personality—from Luke Fowler’s Depositions (2014), a witty mosaic of present-day life in Scotland, and Fern Silva’s Wayward Fronds (2014), a palpably humid evocation of the Florida Everglades, to Lewis Klahr’s The Occidental Hotel (2014), a “city symphony” of sorts, and Baudelaire’s Letters to Max, an affecting if somewhat sketchy exchange between the filmmaker and the former foreign minister of the republic of Abkhazia concerning the latter’s efforts to win recognition as a separate state.

As its title denotes, the hotel in Klahr’s movie could exist in a number of European cities. Signs in English, Danish, and German identify sites in London, Copenhagen, and Berlin. Populated by Klahr’s familiar cutouts of businessmen and seductive women, the fluid interchangeability of locations and people are less indicative of narrative import (in the manner of Klahr’s 2011 feature The Pettifogger) than they comprise a catalogue of the elements of melodrama and film noir—the Hollywood genres that bear endearingly on Klahr’s aesthetic. Hotel rooms, with Klahr’s characteristic stress on beds and bathrooms, ominous alleys and doorways, dirty tile floors, cars, traffic lights, and cigarette machines are the props and backdrops of virtual encounters and events, most of which never seem to occur. As dice—one of Klahr’s favorite motifs—repeatedly roll across these images, we’re tempted to think they suggest bad bets on clinching significant links among them, despite the recurring insertions of concerned glances or erotically charged postures. However prompted by a persistent dramatic soundtrack, any effort to correlate the greater number of repeated images to greater narrative meaning seems futile—as Klahr himself seems to wittily acknowledge when he suddenly inserts the loaded word, “then…” about two-thirds in. More likely, Klahr’s slipping his cutout men and women in and out of his frames mimic the transient behavior of people passing through big cities, frequenting hotels and restaurants, and walking the streets—subjects and objects of thousands of individual stories, imaginary and real, that remain untold. What is extraordinary is the vigor with which Klahr still invests this form.

The documentary Letters to Max also exudes an air of existential disquiet, playing the virtual presence of the filmmaker behind the camera against his absence—his letters from Paris are inscribed on the screen. Compatible not only with Max’s restless cosmopolitanism and the question of Abkhazia’s identity, Baudelaire’s film, like Klahr’s, seems equally preoccupied with what it means to be in a place.

“Projections,” a sidebar of the fifty-second New York Film Festival, runs Friday, October 3 to Sunday, October 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.