New York Film Festival: Projections

Tony Pipolo on the Projections section at the 53rd New York Film Festival

Nicolas Pereda, Minotaur, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 53 minutes.

OF THE MORE THAN FIFTY WORKS in the “Projections” sidebar at the fifty-third New York Film Festival, nearly forty are in one digital format or another. At this point, of course, this is less surprising than the fact that eight films are in 16 mm and five in 35 mm. As always, there are familiar names as well as new ones; and as is to be expected, the works vary not only in focus and style but in merit as well. Against those digital pieces enamored of postmodern pretensions, there are plenty of artists for whom the digital is not a route to facile thinking but an opportunity for exciting new ways to create.

Among the latter is Lewis Klahr, whose unfailing instinct for generating “action” in the fleeting intervals between and superimpositions of still images is apparent in Mars Garden, an episode from his series exploring links between Greek myths and comic-book superheroes. Equally unmistakable is Vincent Grenier’s uncanny use of digital images against a fixed backdrop, effectively obliterating such notions of spatial configuration as foreground and background—evident in this year’s Intersection—and Janie Geiser’s gift for cutting between private, encoded images to create dense montages that defy ready interpretation, as vibrant as ever in Cathode Garden. These elegantly conceived, shot, and constructed gems bear the indelible signs of irreplaceable moving-picture artists. They share company with Laura Kraning (Port Noir), Simon Fujiwara (Hello), Giorgio Andreotta Calo (In Girum Imus Nocte), Riccardo Giacconi (Entangled), and Samuel Delgado and Helena Girón (Neither God nor Santa Maria).

Saul Levine’s 16-mm film Lost Note (1969) is less a blast from the past than a lovely remnant of one of the ruling forms of independent cinema of the 1960s and 1970s—the diary film. This was the period of such pioneers as Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage. Seen now, in the context of so many digital works, Levine’s film, with its handheld shooting, rapid editing, and in-camera superimpositions, has a fading, granular texture both startling and poignant, as suggestive of the vulnerability of celluloid as it is of the mortality of the filmmaker’s subjects—his wife, their dog, their friends and their friends’ children. Every image is suffused with an intimacy and personality that we rarely, if ever, see today. No one who first encountered American avant-garde cinema in that heroic era could fail to be moved by this work, the modesty of which now seems overshadowed by its fragile but monumental humanity.

Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias, Santa Teresa & Other Stories, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 65 minutes.

How does one make a film in which nothing ostensibly happens and manage to avoid both boredom and pretentiousness? Mexican director Nicolas Pereda does so in Minotaur, one of this year’s feature-length entries. Set, in Pereda’s words, in “a home of soft light, of eternal afternoons, of sleepiness, of dreams,” the film is neither a study in stasis nor, properly speaking, minimalist. Its comfortable, gutsy wide-screen compositions within a single apartment seem as natural as the ambience and the behavior of its “characters.” Pereda’s people neither make plans nor talk very much, although now and again Gabino Rodriguez, something of the director’s alter ego in several films, reads passages from a novel, about recognition and unremembered encounters. Even if life outside is, as Pereda puts it, “on fire,” one’s home is “impermeable to the world.” None of this is dull, at least for this viewer, which means that something is happening on that screen, if only the patient registration of each moment of existence, which asks to be taken as legitimate and precious, a style closer, in fact, to the way ruminative people actually live.

The sometimes porous boundary between fiction and nonfiction is not a new preoccupation of film and video makers, but two of the longer entries of this year’s “Projections” grapple with it as if it were. The more complicated is Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias’s Santa Teresa & Other Stories, a fascinating gloss on Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth 2004 novel 2666. Not unlike the novel, the movie is a collection of stories told by disembodied voices, its overall effect captured by remarks in the last pages of the book: “The style was strange, the writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one another didn’t lead anywhere…” Both the town of Santa Teresa (Ciudad Juárez) and two of the movie’s talked-about but never seen characters are Bolaño’s creations. Opening with real footage of devout Mexicans visiting a shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the movie goes in many directions, intermittently and stealthily slipping in an account of the city’s most notorious crimes—the disappearances, rapes, and murders of young women. Despite this subject and occasional horrific imagery of decomposed bodies, the movie sustains an understated, ironic tone, as when an alleged “niece” recounts the death of her fictitious uncle, investigative reporter Juan de Dios Martinez, as having curiously occurred just when he was about to resolve “the worst serial crimes in Mexico’s history.”

In The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers once again explores generic boundaries but with a more personal investment. The film’s last hour is an adaptation of Paul Bowles’s story “A Distant Episode,” while its first thirty-five minutes includes behind-the-scenes footage, some of it of another production by Oliver Laxe—who plays the protagonist in the Bowles adaptation. Since the early material is shot with an air of mystery and leaves most dialogue untranslated, the segue to the first “official” scene of the adaptation is virtually seamless, apparently to imply a continuity, if not a fusion of the man of the earlier section and the character in the story.

Bowles’s protagonist is a professor revisiting Morocco, but in Rivers’s take he seems just another clueless Westerner in an alien culture. Inexplicably, he is lured by a stranger and then beaten by bandits who cut out his tongue, dress him in a sack sewn of tin-can lids, and force him to dance. When later he refuses to perform, his enraged new owner is killed by the bandits, leaving the protagonist to escape. We last see him running and screaming maniacally into the desert toward the Moroccan sun. Whereas the power of Bowles’s tale is its implicit and stark fatalism, Rivers has one of the bandits mockingly remark to his victim, “You came looking for trouble and you found it” (a line not from the story), thus literalizing and diminishing this effect. While the compelling landscapes and faces of Morocco—impressively shot in 35 mm—suggest a real desire to bring Bowles’s tale to life, another reading seems apropos: The image of the enslaved artist, his voice silenced, turned into a provider of cheap entertainment and sold off until he is driven mad is all too apt a metaphor for what might be Rivers’s worst nightmare—becoming just another commercial filmmaker at the mercy of callous producers.

Lois Patiño, Noite Sem Distância (Night Without Distance), 2015, HD video, color, sound, 23 minutes.

At least two of the works rotating in the Amphitheater of the Elinor Bunin Center are must-sees. Katherin McInnis’s Two Sights is a witty, hypnotic riff on an eleventh-century theory of optics that influenced da Vinci and Galileo. McInnis claims her movie is a “false translation” of this work, but every pellucid black-and-white image in her movie is true and memorable. Idolater that I am, I was especially pleased to find a profile of Ava Gardner smack in the middle of McInnis’s imagery, shattering every quasi-scientific theory of illusory visions.

Also unforgettable is Lois Patiño’s Noite Sem Distância (Night Without Distance), a mesmerizing series of long takes of the border between Portugal and Galicia, the site of smuggling traffic for centuries. Patiño, a proven master of landscape cinematography, captures the clandestine night scenes in the Gerês mountain range in eerily composed “negative” images. Compounding the tension with this unnatural ambience, he embeds the nearly immobile figures of smugglers and guards within the dark and rocky terrain, rendering them both virtually invisible and as ghostlike sentinels of a timeless activity.

Though not officially part of the Projections series, the festival’s retrospectives of the works of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler warrant mention in this context. Luminous and often achingly beautiful, Dorsky’s movies—which can only be seen projected on a screen—are living testimony to the visual and textural qualities of film even as we seem to be witnessing year after year its slow fade into history.

The Projections section at the 53rd New York Film Festival is curated by Dennis Lim, Aily Nash, and Gavin Smith. It runs October 2–4, 2015.