The fourth annual Migrating Forms festival of film and video is about the movies and nothing but the movies. Blessedly free of industry schmoozing and PR white noise, the fest, programmed by Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry, carries on the DIY spirit of their predecessor, The New York Underground Film Festival (1994-2008), by booking a dizzyingly wide range of work. The selections are “formally innovative,” McGarry told me, and “without an obvious audience or genre.” What fills sidebars at Rotterdam or the New York Film Festival (if it shows at all) is the main event here. While the main slate tends toward heady experimental work, there is also a rich and varied repertory program which this year feted everyone from Raul Ruiz to Chuck Jones. It’s a cinephile’s paradise, where like-minded image-worshippers occupy the shoebox-sized theater at Anthology Film Archives with no thought to potential grosses.
The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years without Images
The first uncategorizable object they screened was the opening-night film (take a deep breath): The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years without Images (2011). Director Eric Baudelaire interviewed filmmaker and former Japanese Red Army member Masao Adachi, and May Shigenobu, the daughter of a Red Army leader. Their voices are looped over contemporary images of Beirut and Tokyo, the twin poles of their former existence. These smoothly tracking images act as a setting for the duo’s reminiscences, as documents of the changed present, and as glimpses of films that Adachi might make in the future. Since his arrest in Lebanon and subsequent extradition to Japan in 2000, Adachi is not allowed to leave the country, and he asked Baudelaire to shoot specific images of Beirut for use in his own work. Each shot is charged with these collisions of past-present-future, all which indicate losses: of political movements, artistic practice, and entire lives.
Landscapes abound in the program—as sites of contemplation (Traveling Light), as exercises in narrative play (Slow Action, Agatha), as witnesses to dying traditions (It’s the Earth Not the Moon), and as subjects of critical anthropology (Abendland). Traveling Light (2011) was the most sensuously pleasurable, a hypnotic document of a train ride from New York City to Pittsburgh. After originally attempting to shoot the movie as a scripted drama, director Gina Telaroli stripped away all the dialogue and retained only brief glimpses of the actors, to produce a nonnarrative sensorium of a lonely Amtrak ride. Playing off the dual meaning of the title, the film captures the experience of “traveling light,” without baggage or company, idly staring out of windows and at other passengers. But what the passengers stare at is how light travels as it filters through the train’s cabin in kaleidoscopic variations.
It’s the Earth, Not the Moon
Where Traveling Light is a precise and intimate travelogue, It’s the Earth, Not the Moon (2011) is sprawling: a three-hour immersion in the tiny Portuguese island of Corvo, the westernmost point in Europe. Director Gonçalo Tocha arrived with his sound man and a single guiding purpose: “We are going to film everything we can.” Tocha opts for an anecdotal history of the island by asking the locals to re-create dead traditions (hat-knitting, lock-carving), while still capturing the ambivalent tenor of their daily lives through coverage of the local elections. All of this takes place against an unearthly volcanic landscape, which is slowly being overrun by bird-watchers and dance-group retreats, making Tocha’s project of historical reclamation all the more urgent.
In Slow Action (2010), there is no such urgency, since the worlds Ben Rivers puts on display are utopias. Rivers shot in four far-flung locales (Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands; Gunkanjima, Japan; the island nation of Tuvalu; and Somerset, England) in hand-processed B&W, and overlaid with a narration of imaginary histories, written by science-fiction writer and cultural critic Mark von Schlegell. Using the enunciatory power of voiceover, as in Anabasis, Rivers forces the viewer to grapple with intensely detailed oral narratives while contemplating emptied-out imagery. In the section shot in Tuvalu, where abandoned husks of cars dot the tropical landscape, the narrator speaks of the island’s “sublime unfathomable dimension” as local villagers pick their way through garbage-strewn paths. The ensuing sections collapse the distance between voice and image; the spoken histories become more elemental, describing worlds of “ruins of ruins.” The film concludes in “Somerset,” inhabited by a tribal culture marked by violence and “imminent, recurring, or just suppressed revolution.” For the first time, actors illustrate the voiceover’s visions, emerging in primitive straw masks as emissaries from a disturbingly retrograde future.
Killian and McGarry paired Slow Action with Agatha (2012), another experiment with voiceover. Filmmaker Beatrice Gibson renders a dream by British composer Cornelius Cardew about an expedition to a planet inhabited by color-changing creatures. Gibson made the film amidst the gray slate and neon-green moss of North Wales’s Snowdonia Mountains, captured with the tactile richness of 16mm. The aliens wander about in retro-futuristic homemade polka-dot outfits while the planet-hopping narrator recounts an episode of unrequited love. This is a gentle, DIY Solaris, and the narrator’s advances towards Agatha, her shapeshifting tour guide, end with a repeated sense of absence. For Agatha is a spectral embodiment of the land itself, impossible to embrace in a single grasp. Ultimately, the actors cease pretending to be aliens and simply laze about the greenery, content to be lonely without the benefit of the story.
A similarly potent landscape, or landscape as agitator, is seen in the greatest film in the festival’s lineup, Duck Amuck, shown to commemorate Chuck Jones’s centennial. In the 1953 short, a rogue animator keeps changing the background behind Daffy Duck, swapping in a medieval castle, a country farm, and ski slopes, until Daffy (like the actors in Agatha) drops the performance and becomes himself, namely a neurotic with anger-management issues. Projected in a gorgeous 35mm Technicolor print, there is no better illustration of how landscape can become a character, and influence the actions of the people (and ducks) it contains.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter allows his compositions to speak for themselves in Abendland (2011), in which clinical, geometrically composed shots of landscapes simply reflect his gimlet-eyed view of 21st-century Europe, seen at night. He shows a continent obsessed with controlling its borders as well as its own amusement. The most terrifying images depict an orgiastic beer hall during Oktoberfest, and an equally decadent dance-music concert in the Netherlands, in which entertainment is doled out on a massive, homogeneous scale.
On Top of the Whale
Anything but homogeneous, Migrating Forms once again proved itself to be a small but wildly diverse program that has among the highest revelation-per-event ratios of any festival in New York. Capturing the spirit of the whole affair was the tribute to Raul Ruiz after a screening of his colonialist fever dream On Top of the Whale (1982). Some passages from his Poetics of Cinema were read, and a few former associates, among them producer Jodi Torrent and filmmaker Michael Almereyda, told stories about their experiences with him. To a crowd of tens (including Willem Dafoe), Almereyda related one of his brief encounters with Ruiz (who “looked like Saddam Hussein’s cherubic brother”) at the Torino Film Festival. He asked Ruiz what he was working on, and the gnomic Chilean director responded, “Escapeology, Houdini’s book about getting out of tight spots.” When Almereyda said, “So you’re working on a film about Houdini?” Ruiz replied simply, “No.”
Houdini never wrote a book by that title, but Ruiz could not resist spinning a new story. The anecdote was intimate, strange, and revealing, much like Migrating Forms.