Lois Patiño's Costa da Morte.

[In her final installment from the 51st New York Film Festival, Critics Academy member Vanessa Erazo “dives into” the avant-garde with a look at Lois Patiño's films and discovers a subliminal immersive experience.]

In all honesty I'm not an expert in avant-garde cinema. If films were placed on a spectrum based on their preoccupation with story — Hollywood blockbusters on the extreme left and the avant-garde which favors form over narrative all the way to the right — my preference lies somewhere on the center left. Basically, I am like the Bill Clinton of movie watchers. Perusing the program guide of the New York Film Festival's seventeenth incarnation of Views From the Avant-Garde I had no idea where to start. So, I just dove in.

Throughout my dip in the pool of experimental cinema I kept coming back to one filmmaker: Lois Patiño. Costa da Morte (Coast of Death), his first feature-length film, opened the sprawling annual laudation of the avant-garde. Taking its title from a region of Galicia, Spain famous for shipwrecks, the film is aptly named. Men tell stories while fishing, women tell stories while walking along the water — we never see their faces up close. They recount an oral history of capsized boats and treasures that would wash ashore. Once a boat packed with chocolate bon-bons sank. Another time it was filled with sweet, condensed milk. Crashing waves and off-screen voices narrate an instance when a ship crammed with immigrants succumbed to the harsh waters. Eventually some of the bodies made their way to land.

Loosely connected scenes blend together. Men in black wetsuits stand on slippery, jagged rocks bracing themselves from forceful, monstrous waves. Landscapes are immense, people are tiny. Whether it has rained, the waves have pummeled the shoreline, or a grey mist has settled in, there is the sensation that cold dampness pervades the Coast of Death.

Lois Patiño's Distance/Duration/Vibration.

In a program devoted to Patiño's short films, six of them screened in one continuous block. During Mountain in Shadow tiny skiers dot an immense, white, snow-covered mountain. Against the pristine terrain the miniature people riding down the slopes appear as black silhouettes in the high-contrast environment. The image warps as if there are waves billowing across the screen.

Into Water's Vibration depicts a forceful, majestic waterfall. People in rain jackets try to avoid getting soaked. Once again it becomes man versus nature. Then amidst the water and rocks a rainbow appears. I can't quite explain it but all his films lulled me into a meditative trance. It felt like a lucid dream.     

While submerged in Views From the Avant-Garde, I found myself connecting with Patiño's films on a completely subliminal level. I learned that experimental cinema even more so than narrative-driven movies appeals to a person's particular sensibilities. When they get it right, avant-garde films can be absolutely immersive, drawing one into a total sensory experience. Whether it was the 83 minute long Costa da Morte or the selection of his short films: Into Earth’s Vibration; Into Water’s Vibration; Mountain in shadow; Duration, Landscape Road; Duration, Landscape Rocks; and Distance – Landscape, Football Field I finally understood the power of the medium.

When I don't enjoy a traditional narrative film, I can always say a lot about it: how the story didn't work or that the acting or tone was off. That it was a ridiculous premise or formulaic — my analysis of a mainstream film gone wrong is mostly a cognitive process. When I didn't connect with one of the experimental films I had trouble verbalizing it. Somehow the film just didn't feel right. It was confusing. My internal monologue became a jumble of questions: What's happening? What is this? Is that a foot? What is that sound? Why is that person yelling? At the end, all I could muster were the words, “I don't get it.”

Through images and sound Lois Patiño reaches that part of the brain that doesn't think but just feels. All of a sudden, I stopped analyzing. I stopped asking questions. I just accepted the images in front of me and didn't have to understand why they were there. I finally let go of my desire to logically dissect the works. I was genuinely captivated. That's exactly what cinema is supposed to do.