in the face of complaints that rising rents, commercial strip-malling and gentrification
are indelibly harshing New York’s artistic vibe, the underground cinema
scene has been booming in the city for more than a couple of years now. Going
on its third year, Bradley Eros and Brian Frye’s Tuesday night Robert Beck
Memorial Cinema continues to screen celluloid hermeticisms to an avowed art-core
crowd on Ludlow St. In Williamsburg, the Monday night screenings by Ocularis
at Galapagos have become increasingly popular, serving up a mixture of underground
oddities, live music and video mixing, film festival showcases and classic experimental
fare, sometimes going head-to-head with similarly eclectic guest-curated offerings
on the same nights at Tonic. Up until last May, curator Astria Suparak rounded
out the week with Wednesday avant-garde film screenings at Pratt, spun with
a superlative curatorial taste that combined a savvy political consciousness
and sexy indie-rock-style showmanship without ever losing crucial nerd cred.
While this curatorial energy
may have brought back New York’s edge as cinematic tastemakers in the avant-garde
realm, similar smaller scenes are flourishing all across the country. There’s
hardly a metropolitan area now that doesn’t host some kind of underground
festival or ongoing experimental cinema series. Some of the most engaging and
interesting work isn’t being produced in New York, but by small cadres
of artists in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Baltimore,
Washington, DC, and more obscure locales. Building off the burgeoning downtown
interest in avant-garde work, uptown’s art mafia has stepped up its response.
Since its "American Century" film series, the Whitney has been ambitiously
programming avant-garde classics nonstop. The curators at Lincoln Center racked
up an impressive slate of showcases of new work in the past year as well. The
Film Society’s Video Festival in July appeared to attract larger crowds
than ever before. The newly energized "Image Innovators" series has
presented popular one-man shows by Lewis Klahr, Luis Recoder and Nathaniel Dorsky,
and even hosted a program of new Super 8 work produced by young filmmakers from
downtown and Brooklyn.
In the wake of this remarkable
wave of activity, the selections available for preview screening from the New
York Film Festival’s annual "Views from the Avant-Garde" showcase
seem all the more disappointing. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the necessity
of the sidebar’s film-only purism. One can’t fault the programmers
for not trying, however. The slate includes an impressive set of premieres from
big-name avant-garde luminaries: Jean-Luc Godard’s Origin of the 21st
Century, Michael Snow’s Prelude, Guy Maddin’s The Heart
of the World and In Absentia, a film by the Quay brothers with an
original score by Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Of these, Maddin’s
is the only hands-down astounding work, a five-minute feature done in the style
of an Eisenstein-era Soviet science-fiction film (a la Aelita, Queen of Mars).
Scratched and superannuated to a greater degree than his previous feature-length
excursions into perverted nostalgia, the film is packed with early cinema’s
trick-film trickery, cut to an insanely spastic millennial pace. Not as breakneck
but still impressive is Godard’s piece, a somber meditation on the psychological
and moral extremities of the 20th century, as seen through archival footage
and clips from the works of fellow auteurs ranging from Kubrick to Kurosawa
to Jerry Lewis. Snow’s piece, produced as a trailer for the Toronto Film
Festival, is a dull one-shot time-puzzle trifle with amateur actors. In Absentia,
produced by the BBC and the Quays’ first new film in six years, retreads
their now-familiar style to tell a tediously grim quasi-parable about a writer.
The Quays’ slick Lynch-meets-Svankmajer style has been copped so many times
by music video and commercials that I half expected either Marilyn Manson or
a Volvo to swing into frame at any second.
More endearingly scrappy
is Abigail Child’s Surface Noise, a collage film built from home
movies, travelogues and other small-format oddities. The jittery montage recalls
the anarcho-random pasteups of Arthur Lipsett, always on the verge of complete
nonsense. As with many nonnarrative films, the soundtrack is what gives Surface
Noise its true kick. It’s a bizarre multitrack sonata filled with back-masking,
electronic bleepage, cartoon sound effects and fluxoid Ono-esque utterances,
produced by experimental music faves Christian Marclay, Zeena Parkins, Shelly
Hirsch and Jim Black.
A couple of less established
directors steal the show from the old school. Bobby Abate’s The Zero
Order is a fractured narrative about a twentysomething depressive lad (played
by the director) obsessed with Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Shot on moody 16 mm, The Zero Order engages in a complicated dialogue
with the 60s, not just in its protagonist’s object of obsession, but in
the director’s choice of film format and color scheme, the amateurish Factory-esque
actor ensemble and central image of the tragically fey, sensitive, sad young
man. A completely different strain of 60s excess provides the genealogy for
Stom Sogo’s darkly psychedelic Slow Death, an abstract epileptic
epic of flashing light, color, obscured images and intensely fucked-up sound
design. A key personality on the downtown New York avant-kid scene for the past
few years, Sogo creates his remarkably advanced works through dizzingly complex
rerecordings of Super 8 and video. Completely divorced from the tired academism
and banal traditionalism of many lesser offerings on view, Sogo’s films
are powerful and utterly unique works of sublime transportation and oblivion,
not easily forgotten.
Despite a handful of impressive
films, however, the preview program as a whole suffers from a lack of diversity
of tone. Unlike the dynamic Video Festival, which screened everything from subcultural
docudramas to structural feminist essays to manic performance tapes, the film-only
"Views from the Avant-Garde" plays out one long, somber note of funereal
formalism. The videomakers look both forward and back in time for inspiration,
while almost every experimental film here wallows in death-of-film nostalgia.
There’s also the intrinsic limits of a dying medium. Only so many times
can one gush about the colors of Super 8, the possibilities of found-footage
collage, or the Tinkertoy wonders of emulsion-scratching and hand-processing
before most of the films seem like unadventurous repetitions of familiar formal
elements. The current avant-boom is decisively multiformat. While there may
always be a few new hardline celluloid geniuses in the retro genre of experimental
film, perhaps it’s time to concede that, for film, the experiment is over.