This Way and That

Tony Pipolo on Projections at the 54th New York Film Festival

Ismaïl Bahri, Foyer, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 32 minutes.

THE FIFTY-FOURTH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL’S Projections sidebar is its most impressive to date. In addition to films by known masters, many new works are noteworthy. Among the stalwarts, Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler present new films, though they were unavailable for previewing, and Robert Beavers will show a restoration of From the Notebook of… (1971/1998). Canadian filmmaker David Rimmer is represented by three 16-mm films, and the late Peter Hutton’s In Titan’s Goblet (1991), an homage to painter Thomas Cole, is a luminous black-and-white contemplation of smoke, fog, and ships at sea.

Rimmer’s 16-mm work retains a vibrancy that feeds off the dazzling formal creativity of 1970s avant-garde cinema. His sensitivity to the medium has a physical handprint not easily duplicable in digital. This is as true of the grainy social realism of Real Italian Pizza (1971) and Canadian Pacific I (1974) as it is of the virtuosic display of Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970). The last is a nine-minute black-and-white loop of an eight-second shot, in which a female factory worker, facing the camera, unwinds and flips a sheet of cellophane in fast undulating movements while an assaultive soundtrack magnifies the gesture to thunderous effect. As Rimmer subjects the footage to aural and chemical treatment, the woman is transformed into negative and ghostlike silhouettes, until the film is finally reduced to fleeting splotches of white floating against a black screen. It’s a perfect marriage of filmic clout and social comment.

The inventiveness typical of Rimmer and his peers can also be seen in more recent works such as Tomonari Nishikawa’s Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon, also shot in 16 mm, and Ismaïl Bahri’s Foyer. The former is a subtly stimulating work. As several extreme long shots unfold of landscapes along Japan’s Yahagi River, the shadowy vertical bars that veil the foreground seem, initially, to represent a fixed perspective, as if every shot were taken from behind some off-screen grilled window. But we soon realize that distant vehicles or figures within the landscapes do not move continuously across an integral image, but actually vanish between the vertical bars, as if into black holes. Despite this optical delusion, the seemingly unobstructed view of a unified landscape endures and the film achieves the harmonious serenity of Japanese painting.

Even more ambitious, Foyer is driven by a formal strategy that reconfigures the sovereignty of the camera lens, recalling such films as Hollis Frampton’s Travelling Matte (1971). Through its richly evocative soundtrack, Foyer also realizes the implications of its title—acting as a “lobby” of sorts before the entrance to an unseen “theater” blocked, in fact, by a blank piece of paper that Bahri holds in front of the lens. Thus the physical and cultural world of Tunisia, the movie’s ostensible setting and the filmmaker’s birthplace, remains off screen, except for split-second peeks at a man’s T-shirt and a sunlit harbor. Onlookers inquire about what Bahri is doing and why. He claims he is an amateur, just learning about photography. One man assumes that eventually Bahri will “do a montage,” but Bahri discounts the possibility as contrary to his resolve to allow the wind to determine whether we see anything or not. “Ah, so the wind is the editor,” the man exclaims. If it stirs the paper, we may see something, or not. At one point a suspicious policeman imagines Bahri is filming a nearby police station, but when he looks through the lens and sees “nothing,” he declares it’s a kind of hide-and-seek approach. To be sure, we discern shadowy figures on the other side of the paper, determined by the behavior of sunlight. People express pride that Bahri lives in France, where they are certain he shows Tunisia and its people in a good light. Bahri’s technique, in fact, plays on the very notion of cultural images, which are relegated here to the imagination. People speak like people everywhere, and their visual absence evokes and precludes efforts to stereotype them. Though its aesthetic is spare, Foyer is as rich a conjuring of off-screen space and the tenors of the human voice that fill it as any movie I’ve seen in years. And in embracing the most elemental of cinematic figures, it obviates the features that separate peoples and cultures, just as it dissolves distinctions between film and digital.

Guillermo Moncayo, Event Horizon, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 16 minutes.

Guillermo Moncayo’s Event Horizon is an equally evocative visual experience. A somewhat philosophical and poetic text is superimposed, modeled on “nineteenth-century ethnography and colonialist travel literature,” but the central image embodies the adventurous spirit the work documents and celebrates. At what seems an infinite distance we detect a white speck, so tiny it might pass for a spot on the screen, which slowly grows and approaches the foreground—or seems to as the camera moves toward it, so deftly is this done. We perceive a low canopied boat illuminated by a single swinging lamp. Floating silently through impenetrable darkness, its pilot only glimpsed, it is a stunning metaphor of the mind’s journey into the unknown. But as the text asserts, the enlightenment exploration produces has a dual effect: Myths are dispelled, but such clarity coincides with the evaporation of a people.

Watching Dane Komljen’s All the Cities of the North, a feature production of Serbia/Bosnia-Herzogovina/Montenegro, it’s difficult not to think of the work of Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov. As the latter does in Spiritual Voices (1995) and Confession (1998), Komljen exhibits a predilection for long takes, somber monologic voiceover, indifference to narrative drive, a vaguely defined sociopolitical situation, and long silences, all laced with a lyrical but subtle homoeroticism. The multinational pedigree of Komljen’s work lends itself to the fantasy that brotherly love can overcome social, ethnic, religious, and political barriers. An absence of distinctive data about the men reinforces this impression. No conflict, no drama, no rising or falling action, no climax shapes or intrudes upon the evenness of the everyday and, given the many shots of men sleeping harmoniously side by side, the apparent peace that pervades the atmosphere.

Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge, a feature of similarly mixed pedigree, is also enamored of long takes by a camera at once blunt, invasive, and indifferent to its assortment of people in Argentina, Brazil, and Portugal going about mundane tasks amid impoverished environs or lackluster employment with hardly a thought about future prospects, yet wired to the outer world via phones. Like so many contemporary moving-image artists in the developing world, Williams seems more committed to what might be called the anti-aesthetic aesthetic of Philippine director Lav Diaz than to the pictorial lyricism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Dane Komljen, Svi severni gradovi (All the Cities of the North), 2016, digital video, color, sound, 100 minutes.

Near the end of Indefinite Pitch, an award-winning digital work by James N. Kienitz Wilkins, a narrator (Wilkins?) says he’s tired of movies, that too many people are making movies. Is this work then not just not film, but not a movie? Is it anti-movie? The black-and-white stills, silvery actually, of the Androscoggin river in New England are certainly lustrous, and other artists have made movies, even films dominated by still images. But for this viewer they are a thing apart from the voiceover monologue, which plays, a bit too cavalierly in my judgment, with facts, time, history, American culture, racism, anxiety, deception, and finally itself—all in the spirit of the age of Wikipedia. I’m betting that lurking somewhere deep in his unconscious, the talented Wilkins harbors a passion for the medium that lies beyond strained irony.

In Rosa Barba’s Bending to Earth aerial shots of geometrically shaped mounds are occasionally crosscut with shots of natural cliff formations and landscapes—the layered terrain of the latter marking the ages of the earth, ironically and soberly contrasted with the unnaturally ordered shapes covering acres or miles, containing toxic radioactive material and designed to last undisturbed into the indefinite future. The miniscule shadow of a helicopter as it surveys these “time capsules” is itself a metaphor for how insignificant human concerns appear in the light of what technology has wrought.

Mention must be made of Brigid McCaffrey’s oddly lyrical Bad mama, who cares, in which 35-mm shots of local and industrial sites and railroad yards share screen time with close-ups of an old woman, at one point rendered cubistically as an apt subject of geological study. Also Rosalind Nashashibi’s Electrical Gaza, which combines documentary footage of Gaza with computer animations that subvert them to reflect political realities; Janie Geiser’s Flowers of the Sky, which continues this filmmaker’s fascinating meld of archival photographs and botanical cutouts conjuring a dream of history altogether unique and personal; Stephen Sutcliffe’s charming and witty Edwardian fantasy Twixt Cup and Lip; Jesse McLean’s affecting See a Dog, Hear a Dog; and Luke Fowler’s For Christian, a lovely portrait of composer Christian Wolff playing and discussing brief piano passages over serene bucolic images of his New England home.

The fifty-fourth New York Film Festival’s Projections sidebar runs October 7 through 9 at the Film Society at Lincoln Center.