Lois Patiño's Costa da Morte
Now in its 17th year, Views From the Avant-Garde—the New York Film Festival's second week ode to the best experimental filmmaking of today and yesteryear—opens Thursday with a whopping 34 programs. Running for five days, the series is a highlight for fans and filmmakers alike in which the challenging and underseen receive an opportunity to play Uptown. An institution in the same vein as the invaluable Anthology Film Archives and The Film-makers' Coop, Views has become a hot ticket for those wishing to experience something new and expressive.
The avant-garde has often been an influence on popular moviemaking. Although Noah Baumbach was on hand to shoot a scene from an upcoming film starring Naomi Watts last Friday night, this was not the first time the New York Film Festival became a part of the artform it represents. Ken Jacobs, the legendary avant-garde mainstay, made America At War on Opening Night of NYFF '10 (The Social Network's World Premiere screening), shooting inside Alice Tully Hall.
With so many films both short and feature-length, choosing worthwhile highlights can prove a daunting task. Extensively curated by Mark McElhatten, Views may best be experienced as the ultimate festival in which to take a few blind chances on what you attend. Nonetheless, shining the spotlight on some of this year's featured works of interest may serve as harmless recommendations worth seeking. Perhaps more so than any other genre, the cinema of the avant-garde represents personal taste and experience.
Nathanial Dorsky's Song
“When I first encountered avant-garde films, in the early 1960s,” filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky recalled in his 2001 lecture and subsequent book Devotional Cinema, “the works I found most interesting were those that were discovering a language unique to film, a language that enabled the view to have the experience of film itself and, at the same time, allowed film to be an evocation of something meaningfully human.” Represented in Program 20 (in which his films are paired with one by Jerome Hiler, to whom his book is dedicated) and Program 34, Dorsky's films possess an acute awareness of visual texture and focus. In Song, Dorksy often uses forms of light (sunlight, traffic lights) to emphasize our surroundings. Water plays a key role too: One beautiful shot features H2O in a glass overlooking the water on a nearby lake, while another features raindrops on a window blurring the outside world. In Spring, Dorsky's camera offers an in-the-moment POV, but of whom we can never be completely sure. Some of the film's beautiful imagery, often featuring flowers and other greenery, tends to, positively speaking, suffocate the lens. Dorksy's symmetrical imagery does wonders—clouds appear divided by lines in the sky as the sun peers through—and there is a striking shot which appears to be inside the halls of a mini-cathedral above a mass of water.
Program 7 features the films of Portuguese filmmaker Sandro Aguilar, whose pieces are full of striking imagery and, most noticeably, sound. Dive: Approach and Exit observes men at work on a dock, getting into diving gear, looking at TV monitors and getting rained on. Bathed in orange light and darkness, the film could seen as a take on the coldness and impersonal nature of surveillance machines. Amidst this, there's something quite peaceful about the work, as seagulls make their presence known and young children attempt to sleep in amid the hustle and bustle outside. Aguilar's Signs of Stillness Out of Meaningless Things often feels like a moody horror/sci-fi film with uncomfortableness aplenty, and Mercurio is part triangular relationship drama (between a father, mother and son) and part reflection on nature complete with a mise en scene favoring still automobiles. Special mention must go to Arquivo, which features many powerful images, but maybe none more so than that of a fish lying on a table gasping for air. As it flips around struggling for life, a person's hand brings the fish back to the center of the table, continuing the agonizing suffering. This seqence last for a few minutes (complete with close-ups of the fish's mouth opening and closing) and is dramatically shot, although most likely not for the squeamish.
Anne Charlotte Robertson's Apologies
Saul Levine's Falling Notes Unleaving (Program 18) could prove to be a cathartic experience for some and a literally religious experience for others. At one point, the viewer becomes a witness to a person's funeral (fellow filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robinson, represented in Program 8) in an ever-enchanting forest. First seated in the back of a car following others driving to the event, we then become a part of the proceedings, standing amongst family and friends as flowers come in and out (and occasionally over) images of the people. The perfect film for the fall, represented by the plethora of orange leaves on the ground when a family dog looks over a mother and her child, this film finds the welcoming spirituality of nature, and one of the best darn looking waterfalls this side of Niagara.
For those who like their cinema feature-length, Costa da Morte from Spain's Lois Patiño in Program 3, is also well worth checking out. A sense of dread and a deathly history are encompassed at all times, as this avant-garde hybrid focuses on a location with stories to die for. Be on the look out for a spotlight post on this film later this week.
Old favorites and grandmasters will also be well-represented in Views. Chris Marker, Hollis Frampton, Max Ophuls, Phil Solomon, Jennifer Reeves, Peter Hutton and Stan Brakhage will have work screened, Brakhage's classic Window Water Baby Moving (presented in 16mm) representing the ultimate in highly detailed, personal filmmaking. For fans of Tabu, a selection in last year's NYFF Main Slate, Miguel Gomes will have a new work screened alongside a piece from Travis Wilkerson.
And if that's not enough, there will also be 11 free programs screening in our Film Center Amphitheater, proving that Views has adopted the mantra of its featured works in its attempt to reach all. Filmmakers such as Ernie Gehr, Aura Satz and the aforementioned Lois Patiño will have work on display.
Views from the Avant-Garde runs October 3 – 7 in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.