Take It to the Limit

Lois Patiño, Costa da Morte (Coast of Death), 2013, HD video, color, sound, 83 minutes.

WITH THIRTY-FOUR PROGRAMS comprising over two hundred films and videos, the seventeenth edition of Views from the Avant-Garde at the fifty-first New York Film Festival is more ambitious than ever. There are reprises and newly restored films by such masters as Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Chris Marker, Raúl Ruiz, and Robert Nelson, as well as classic narratives—John Stahl’s Only Yesterday (1933) and Max Ophuls’s Sans Lendemain (1939–40). The latter are included not only because of their special significance for curator Mark McElhatten but also, he avows, as a gesture toward smashing artificial boundaries among kinds of cinema. This sentiment has characterized former Views programs, and it speaks to the frequent overlap between the main slate of the New York Film Festival and “official” avant-garde selections. In this year’s main slate, for example, Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs could easily be a Views selection, as could last year’s Leviathan. This is too complex an issue to be taken up here, but it certainly drifts in and out of mind as one watches the many selections in both camps.

More than one work in this year’s Views programs either toys with narrative material or provides the kind of atmosphere, context, and tension one finds in a narrative film. A distinction made decades ago between cinema resembling prose narrative and cinema closer to poetry because of its stress on imagery, rhythm, and editing not dictated by narrative logic still applies. The latter is exemplified in the richly textured and elegantly condensed Listening to the Space in My Room by Robert Beavers, as well as in two films by Nathaniel Dorsky, Spring and Song. These are among the must-sees this year. More proselike are such feature-length “personal” documentaries as Marielle Nitoslawska’s Breaking the Frame, an affecting portrait of legendary feminist artist and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann, and Talena Sanders’s Liahona, an arresting, deceptively low-key indictment of Mormonism composed almost entirely of found footage.

Marielle Nitoslawska, Breaking the Frame, 2012, color, sound, 100 minutes.

While several Views programs are repeated and others made doubly accessible via the amphitheater projections at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, even the most diligent enthusiast could not transcend overlapping scheduling and see everything. Many films were unavailable for previewing, including new work by Ernie Gehr, which undoubtedly merits attention. But if the definitive signs of the genuine filmmaker are a keen eye and an unerring sense of editing, one must single out such jewels as Rebecca Meyers’s exquisitely crafted murmurations, in which once again the seemingly ordinary—shots of skies, trees, birds, and animals—is transformed into extraordinary instances of the palpable but invisible rhythms of the natural world; Barry Gerson’s Late Summer, in which a severely limited visual field becomes a minilaboratory for experimental play with the optical and perceptual parameters of the medium; Fred Worden’s All or Nothing; and Robert Todd’s Threshold, which begins tamely enough before immersing the viewer in visual and sonic convergences.

Two major discoveries of this year’s Views are the Spanish Lois Patiño and the Portuguese Sandro Aguilar. Both tend to fuse poetic and narrative impulses. The former filmmaker is represented by the feature-length Costa da morte (Coast of Death) as well as by short landscape studies—Landscape-Rocks and Mountain in Shadows—that take the breath away. Shot from a seemingly impossible godlike perspective, the latter’s ski slopes, mountainous terrain, and waterfalls evoke an immensity even more pronounced by the tiny black human dots that move antlike across them. While human presence and dialogue are more integral to the feature, both are subjected to the overpowering natural environment. The scene is Galicia, an area of Spain whose rocky coastline has wrecked many a vessel through the centuries, leaving its inhabitants with numerous tales to pass on. Shots of the sea in its more turbulent moods recall such landmark works in the genre as Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934) and Jean Epstein’s Le Tempestaire (1947)—although Patiño exhibits a lighter touch, as when the idle chatter of the locals is at odds with their miniscule presence within the vastness of the land and seascapes.

Equally revelatory is Sandro Aguilar, represented by six compelling works—under the umbrella title “Dive: Approach and Exit”—whose complex, tantalizing flirtation with narrative belies their brevity and astutely restrained visual texture. While these works are a small sample of an apparently large output, they bear the sure touch of a natural, a filmmaker whose contact with the work of others (often as a producer) has clearly rubbed off.

Stephanie Barber, Daredevils, 2013, color, sound, 85 minutes.

An interesting area of comparison between narrative features in the main slate and those in the Views selections has often been a propensity for the long take. The shots that wait out shifting water levels in the locks of a flood-prone area in Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Island of St. Matthews rival the durations of those in Tsai’s Stray Dogs, though the former has considerably less psychological tension. On the other hand, in Stephanie Barber’s Daredevils, a fifty-minute shot/counter-shot conversation about the making of art between a young writer and an older female artist is followed by a fifteen-minute take of the former on a treadmill. Her internal processing of the conversation is revealed by the gradual shift from a blank facial expression to signs of emotional distress, all without breaking her stride.

Both Josh Gibson’s Nile Perch and Peter Hutton’s Three Landscapes use the long take as a tool to observe ethnographic realities. Gibson’s relatively short documentary is about the harvesting of the titular fish from the Nile, which, we are told, is second only to salmon in European markets. His clear-eyed, utterly fact-driven shooting style could easily make one miss the ravishing nature of his black-and-white images. Though also prompted by the nature of what he observes, Peter Hutton employs the long take in conjunction with long shots until we sense that he wants to suggest something beyond raw data. At first, Three Landscapes may resemble a James Benning movie, but “three” here refers not to the number of shots but to distinct locations. The “first” landscape is composed of more than one site and shot, all more or less with industrial structures of steel and cable towering against blue and gray skies that lend them an almost primeval stature. The second collates several farming scenes of plowing and harvesting in lush settings; and the third, filmed in Ethiopia, comprises shots of men in arid, desolate landscapes hewing stones into rectangular slabs suitable for building, which they then load onto camels to take back to their communities. In all three parts, people, while far from negligible, are dwarfed by their environments—whether natural or man-made—through the use of long shots. The final views of men and camels as they morph into quivering shapes distorted by heat waves before dissolving into an indeterminate horizon line evinces this most strikingly. Hutton’s work, like Patiño’s, might be said to fuse ethnography with philosophical ruminations via the singular aesthetics of cinema.

Since the poetic tradition of American cinema is indebted to the work of Stan Brakhage, it is fitting that three of his early films, preserved by the Academy Film Archive, will be screened in the penultimate program of this year’s Views: Anticipation of the Night (1958), Window Water Baby Moving (1959), and The Dead (1960). As strong and vital as they were decades ago, they remain an inspiration for present and future film and video makers seeking a form that fuses psychological necessity with artistic vision.

The seventeenth edition of Views from the Avant-Garde runs October 3–7 at the fifty-first New York Film Festival.