The 2001 New York Video Festival

Written by Ed Halter on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


Digital
video hype posits the medium as a plug-and-play format for visionary art kids,
but one of the most far-out DV works on view at this year’s New York Video
Festival is by an artist in his 70s. In his new feature-length work The Cedar
Bar
, painter and filmmaker Alfred Leslie uses DIY desktop technologies to
create a hypercomplex meditation on the role of art in culture in the 20th century,
built around a semi-fictional argument between critic Clement Greenberg, Willem
De Kooning and other real-life art-world types, set at the eponymous West Village
abstract expressionist watering hole. Laid over the dialogue is a complicated,
often funny found-footage montage, crafted from over 400 distinct sources ranging
from Hollywood musicals to hardcore porn. It’s not unlike a burlesque version
of Jean-Luc Godard’s The Origins of the 21st Century, with a homespun
American remote-control twist.


The Cedar
Bar
took four years for Leslie to edit, but its roots are deeply intertwined
with his entire career as an artist. In 1950, at age 23, Leslie was tapped for
a show curated by Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro. He had already been both painting
and making 16 mm films, but the boost from these bigwigs made him decide to
abandon all other arts but painting. Nevertheless, in 1952 he wrote a dialogue
about painters and critics called The Cedar Bar, based on real conversations
he overheard.


"I
used to go drinking at Cedar Bar every night," Leslie says. "I loved
conversations and loved people’s voices. So one night I just wrote out
everything that had gone on. I did it in one evening, working straight through
for about five or six hours. It was actually a compilation of things–as
the people’s voices were running through my head, I would bring in things
that had happened to them at different places and different times. I had stopped
doing anything but painting at this point, so I had no intention actually of
getting it produced or doing any kind of performance."


But Leslie
did return to filmmaking in the late 50s. With Robert Frank, he codirected what
is now considered one of the central works of Beat generation filmmaking, the
Kerouac-narrated Pull My Daisy. A controversial countercultural hit in
its day, Pull My Daisy is often considered the work that jump-started
the underground film boom of the next decade. In the early 60s, Leslie worked
on some never-completed animation pieces, finished The Last Clean Shirt,
a 44-minute minimalist film narrated by Frank O’Hara, which caused consternation
at its New York Film Festival debut, and began work on a 150-minute epic entitled
Alfred Leslie’s Birth of a Nation.


In 1966,
however, all of Leslie’s films were lost when his studio caught fire, destroying
almost all of his paintings, papers and other works and bifurcating his artistic
career. Pull My Daisy survived, however, as prints were already in circulation.
"After the fire, I had two lives," he says. "One part of my life
was retrieving a record of what had been lost, the chronology of my work, and
the other, continuing to make new work." Twenty years later, on a Yaddo
retreat, Leslie reconstructed the lost Cedar Bar from memory, triggered
while looking through boxes of salvaged documents. He also added songs to the
play, and the result reads like Oscar Wilde’s The Critic As Artist
meets Ed Harris’ Pollock by way of 42nd Street–a philosophical
argument with musical numbers.


Another
decade later, in 1997, Leslie produced a staged reading of the work, hiring
three cameramen to shoot DV footage of the event, in hopes of finally realizing
The Cedar Bar in cinematic form. The resulting filmed play, however,
"looked terrible" says Leslie. "It was boring." So, using
a newly acquired G3 with editing software, he began inserting expressively edited
found footage from Hollywood films. At first, he planned merely to illustrate
the opening of the video with footage of New York from old movies–restoring
fictional footage, as it were, to the realm of documentary. Taken with the results,
he kept adding more footage, now of various kinds, digging into his collection
of thousands of movies taped off of television, until the original performance
was almost completely buried, with the audio track of dialog remaining over
the montage.


The Cedar
Bar
’s final form feels both high-art and homemade, with quirky visual
commentary throughout. A party at Clem Greenberg’s is illustrated by a
scene of Hollywood dancing girls. Gruesome footage of the Holocaust is laid
over the Three Stooges singing a goofy alphabet song. Leslie even provides his
own audience reaction footage, culled at times from old Oscar broadcasts. Kurt
Russell and Ronald Reagan chuckle as Willem de Kooning perorates on the rising
role of curators and the marketplace in the artworld. Leslie’s VCR archives
spill forth the whole span of the 20th century, with a midcentury esthetic debate
at its center.


In Leslie’s
abstract paintings from the early 60s, thick slabs of free-floating acrylic
and torn bits of painted paper are laid over one another in chunky grids to
form a deep, thick collage, creating a surface that is simultaneously covered
and uncovered in multiple ways. Revamped for video, a similar esthetic is at
work in The Cedar Bar, now stretched out in time. The editing feels strangely
both retro and futuristic. Leslie cites the theories of Eisenstein and Pudovkin
and the dialectic poetics of Ezra Pound as influences, but the never-ending
possibilities of desktop editing allow him to take modernist montage to extreme
levels of dense involution. It’s like early 20th century esthetic theories
through the filter of early 21st century low-budget video tech: Finnegans
Wake
meets Final Cut Pro.


The Cedar
Bar
is one of the more successful feature-length works screening at the
Video Festival this year. But as with most experimental festivals, the NYVF
is strongest in the shorts department. Some notable shorts that were available
for preview:


Avant-film
veteran Peggy Ahwesh switches to new media for She-Puppet, an ingenious
experiment created by playing the game Tomb Raider. Ahwesh rigged a means
to record the video images directly from the game as she played, making Lara
Croft poke around the game environment in strange and unnerving ways. Clever
without being too clever, She-Puppet lets the odd visual textures and
silently surreal iconography of the blocky 3-D graphics speak for themselves.


Portland
filmmaker Matt McCormick’s mock-doc The Subconscious Art of Graffiti
Removal
, narrated by fellow Portland artist Miranda July, is one of the
finest shorts of any kind I’ve seen in a long time. Much of the film presents
16 mm and digital shots of gray color field-like paintings done by city workers
to cover tagging. Mixing documentation of real graffiti removal practices by
the city of Portland with theories that the removers are "collaborating"
with graffiti artists to create unconsciously-motivated "collaborative
works of art," McCormick crafts an argument so elegant, with achingly beautiful
cold-color visuals floating in a warm-bath electronic score, that it’s
hard not to be seduced.


Known for
his decades of Super-8 and video diaries, Joe Gibbons has begun to create a
feature-length diary digest called Confessions of a Sociopath. The first
30-minute installment shows a mostly twentysomething Gibbons in the 80s, a clean-cut
lad of varying haircuts who shoots heroin, does art pranks, shoplifts books
to feed his habit, confesses to a therapist, gets in trouble with courts and
dodges his parole officers while gaining notoriety as an avant-garde filmmaker,
and finally succumbs to a desk job, all told with clenched-teeth Bostonian self-deprecating
humor.


Speaking
of art pranks, Erik Saks and Michael Goedecke’s Dust edits together
what seem like real intercepted cell phone conversations–mostly about sex
and love–and lays them over a minimalist image of pulsating light and airborne
dust. Although this gag is getting a bit long in the tooth–what with over
a decade of bootleg tapes, CD compilations and transcribed books presenting
much of the same–I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it.


And New
York Press
readers shouldn’t miss the latest installment of Armond
White’s clip-and-lecture music video presentations, which have become a
traditional mainstay of the NYVF. In this year’s edition, "Weapons
of Choice," he analyzes works by Spike Jonze, Jay-Z, Sade, OutKast and
more.



The New
York Video Festival runs July 13-19, the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center,
165 W. 65th St. (B’way), 875-5600.


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