Poetry in Motion

Tony Pipolo on the fourteenth Views from the Avant-Garde

Left: Jeanne Liotta, Crosswalk, 2010, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 19 minutes. Right: Robert Beavers, The Suppliant, 2010, still from a color film in 16 mm, 5 minutes.

THE FOURTEENTH EDITION OF “VIEWS FROM THE AVANT GARDE,” an event of the forty-eighth New York Film Festival organized by Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith, presents seventeen programs of films and videos. Though some are devoted to a single artist––e.g., Jean-Marie Straub, Phil Solomon, and Helga Fanderl––most are eclectically composed. The works vary in length and format, some in Super 8 or 16 mm, others in alternative media. James Benning’s Ruhr (2009) represents his first foray into digital. It is an occasion to study and appreciate the potential and values of different media. Of those I previewed, many deserve more attention than space allows, including Manon de Boer’s Dissonant (2010), Dominic Angerame’s Soul of Things (2010), Paolo Gioli’s Il finish delle figure (Photofinish Figures, 2009), Ute Aurand’s Hanging Upside Down in the Branches, Pieter Geenen’s Atlantis (2008), Fred Worden’s Possessed (2010), and Fanderl’s luminous miniature sketches.

Robert Beavers’s The Suppliant (2010) is an exquisitely wrought, five-minute portrait, both of the small statue of the title and of the artist/friend in whose apartment it resides. Its arms raised in appeal to an absent being––perhaps a deity, or, as the shot of the figure seen from the back implies, the radiant sun that blazes through the windows––the figure is crosscut with an unmade bed, an anatomical drawing, a painting of a male nude, and views of Lower Manhattan seen from a nearby Brooklyn promenade. Beavers pans briskly up and down the figure’s sleek surface, as if to summon its spiritual, nurturing power, cutting these moves with shots of its head, its torso, and an arm gracefully poised. Sounds are minimal and precise: A gentle scratching suggests the friend at work, perhaps shading in a pencil sketch. Without a single shot of the apartment’s occupant, images and sounds carve a portrait of a solitary life comforted by art.

Nathaniel Dorsky’s lyrical Pastourelle (2010) plays with the borders between recognition and wonderment. Though much of the imagery is of flowers and plants, the film escapes sentimentality. Dorsky’s lens pushes through blossoms and stalks, as if to penetrate the secrets of their existence. Signs of the human, via reflections or close-ups of hands, assume no priority over the natural world. Venetian blinds, shades, windows, and gaudy colors from a television deflect the light or mediate between the botanical and the biological in what seems almost a pantheistic view of the universe.

Rebecca Meyers’s Blue Mantle (2010) is an elegant, sorrowful meditation on the sea, crosscutting haunting images of its variable moods, seductive hallucinations, and numerous shipwrecks with excerpts from poems, novels, paintings, and music––of Melville, Turner, Wagner, and Tennyson––that have bowed to the supremacy of all seas over human history and invention. At the end of Meyers’s meticulously crafted voyage, the cruel irony of her title becomes clear: “Alas! What is life, what is death, what are we / That when the ship sinks we no longer may be?”

In an entirely different register, Thom Andersen’s Get Out of the Car (2010) and Jeanne Liotta’s Crosswalk (2010) focus on marginal cultural aspects of city life. At least his second chronicle on Los Angeles, Anderson’s film is composed of stunningly shot single takes of storefronts, fenced-in empty lots, and decrepit, unused billboards. Graffiti covering many surfaces––including images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary––mark the displacement of a mostly Spanish population, as mournfully noted by a native voice-over. Though not a city symphony in the classic mode, the juxtaposition of forlorn images with the sounds of endless, unseen traffic on the highway nearby speak eloquently of the onrush of urban life indifferent to the fate of its cultural fabric.

Set in New York’s Losaida, Crosswalk’s directness––embodied in handheld shots and the grainy tactility of Super 8––respects its subject. Liotta’s camera follows a Good Friday procession on the Lower East Side. Through crowded streets, the Christ figure falls the requisite three times as “soldiers” lash him into line. Sensitized to her material’s connotations, Liotta avoids messages. The religious pun of the title extends easily to the cultural and racial cross-sections of the environment; to the aural juncture of police sirens, traffic, hip-hop, and a voice-over religious text; to the reenactment of a biblical event amid storefronts, banks, and vehicles. The two final images seal a coexistence too compacted to ignore: a black-and-white negative of the Christ figure frozen in place, followed by that of a storekeeper––the living present displacing, though not erasing, the iconic past.

Digital works are strongly represented. In T. Marie’s Slave Ship (2010), a minimalist gem, details of J. M. W. Turner’s painting of the same name slowly, almost imperceptibly bleed through and supplant preceding ones, a revelatory visual feat unimaginable in any other medium. Jürgen Reble’s mind-bending, alternately numbing and mesmerizing Materia Obscura (2010) is a work whose morphing of cellular-like forms of indiscernible origin and trajectory, might evoke the atomistic views of the universe of pre-Socratic philosophers or the Heraclitean notion of flux. We could be looking at the coagulation and decoagulation of organic matter. The ultimate hypnotic screen saver, the film is a paean to the endless mutability of the cosmos.

Phil Solomon, American Falls, 2010, still from a color film in HD, 55 minutes.

Should anyone imagine that the art of alchemy died with the Middle Ages, Phil Solomon’s American Falls testifies to the contrary: both to the possibilities of photographic and digital transformation and to the magical emanations of their fusion. The work is epic in conception and form, with a surface texture that, as it refashions and transmutes archival footage from myriad sources, resembles something between a palimpsest of chemical and photographic strata and the impasto of a painter’s canvas. The incipient visions of Solomon’s previous labors in this style here burst forth, unleashed, with images from America’s collective unconscious. Burnished bronze and pulsing forward through layers of idiosyncratic techniques, they flesh out a three-framed canvas with “monumental” aspirations, sometimes invoking the nation’s war memorials. Images are conjured into transient visibility before dissolving back into the recesses of historical memory. This is as much about inviting instant recognition as it is about limiting exposure of the overfamiliar. Similarly, popular songs are gently deconstructed through the rhythmic protractions of an intricate sound design (cocreated and mixed by Wrick Wolff) that freshens their nostalgic currency.

Opening with 1901 footage and a reenactment of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, allusions to “falls” pervade: of political and inspirational leaders (from Lincoln to FDR to JFK and King), and soldiers on battlefields (the American Revolution, the Civil War, both world wars, and Korea); from pratfalls of movie comics (Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin) to baseball heroes crippled by disease (Lou Gehrig). Disillusionment with America’s promise is palpable throughout. In one triptych, George Washington in the central panel is flanked by the text of the Declaration of Independence; but in another the Liberty Bell’s crack is visible in all three panels. Still later, the looming rule of capital, evoked by the credits of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), needs only the central panel to dominate.

It is impossible to do justice here to the juxtapositions and permutations of these images, or to the aching beauty and emotional resonances of this work. Much of the latter derives from the sheer physiological spectacle of each marble or bronze tableau throbbing into life through Solomon’s midwifery. More than any other independent film or video I can think of from the past decade, American Falls invokes the specter of a nation whose present unraveling is all too rooted in its history. How sad it is to realize that Solomon’s masterwork, painstakingly crafted over thousands of hours, cannot hope to reach as many people as the lamest television commercial. Anyone still touched by the poetic viability of the avant-garde should not miss this opportunity to see it.

The fourteenth Views from the Avant-Garde runs Thursday, September 30–Sunday, October 3 as part of the New York Film Festival. For more details, click here.