A terrific year for avant-garde film and video–much more so than had been forecast for 2011- -was matched by mid-year woe and commemorative celebration as a string of successive losses reminded us that many of the great, pioneering voices of the sixties and seventies (largely considered the “second wave” of cinematic avant-gardists, some limning the “New American Cinema”) were dying off, or nearing the end of their lives.
2011 brought with it the passing of Lithuanian-born anarchic filmmaker Adolfas Mekas, legendary animator Robert Breer, enigmatic prankster Owen Land (a.k.a. George Landow), visual music animator Jordan Belson, the inimitable underground camp supernova, trash enthusiast and twin extraordinaire George Kuchar, as well as Chilean-French master Raoul Ruiz and British bad boy Ken Russell, both avant-garde in their own amazing, hallucinatory (and very different!) ways.
And yet, to proclaim a ceremonial changing of the guard would be recklessly premature and shortsighted. Three of the most consistently great and intensely prolific moving image artists have been working for over 40 years and are, without a doubt, at the peak of their game. Nathaniel Dorsky, Ken Jacobs and James Benning–the latter two exploring the digital realm in revealing, resuscitative and, at their best, inscrutable ways–are rightly being hailed as some of today's most important artists, period.
While they are all arguably working like painters, each continues to evolve their respective, signature textures and thematic preoccupations in equally suspecting and unsuspecting ways. "The Return" saw Dorsky revisiting familiar, windswept, twilight, shimmery terrain, as if to collude with his threatened 16mm medium. But the stain glass beauty that has become so characteristic of his work was punctuated by startling moments of the uncanny (in the true Surrealist sense of the word), as when fluttering hands conduct an animated but mute orchestral conversation playing off visible and invisible worlds communicated through the chance encounter with arbitrary strips of masking tape, or a destabilizing tracking shot that reaches, grandiloquently, for the heavens, only to betray our inevitable inelegance during this experience (not tree) called life.
Darker (in tone and hue) than much of his recent work, "The Return" is also more trippy and infused with a sly humor that softens traditional definitions of grace. Having premiered in the Toronto International Film Festival's Wavelengths section, "The Return" was paired up at New York Film Fest's Views from the Avant-Garde section with stain-glass artist and filmmaker Jerome Hiler's reportedly gorgeous and grand "Words of Mercury" (which I sadly did not see).
Meanwhile, Ken Jacobs' explosive marriage of metallic beauty and fierce, political statement in "Seeking the Monkey King" shattered illusions–not just optical ones, but ones too often assuming dictatorial reign upon the history of image-making itself, and society writ large (well, 99% of us, anyway).
Jacobs is the least complacent of artists, as radical today as he's always been, here seducing us with gold foil (medieval reliquaries and icons come quickly to mind) and crystalline blues, frenetically shaking, giggling, taunting us with brilliance, as a 2D/3D cosmos pulses in and out of focus, stirring our perceptive senses as the fell of history casts its diabolical shadow.
Responding to the turbulent, tragic times in which we live, Jacobs delivers a trenchant, doozy of a text in embedded intertitles as an intense psycho-acoustical soundtrack from J.G. Thirlwell (of Foetus fame) enhances the seething "Monkey King." Indeed, “America is a fiction” and it's up to us to interpret the Rorschach images of its recycled past. "Monkey King" would make a fine double bill with fellow dissenter Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialisme," which traces looted gold to Hollywood and employs cryptic, gnomic subtitles as a dirge for humanity, a casualty of cyclical imperialism.
Since acquiring a high-end digital camera for the making of "Ruhr" (2009), James Benning has literally been unstoppable, making several films and installations per year. 2011 bore many fruits of his production, beginning with "Twenty Cigarettes," which premiered in February in the Forum at the Berlinale and wound its way through the festival circuit.
A deceptively simple, Warholian portraiture film, "Twenty Cigarettes" is ostensibly about duration, but is rich in meaning and profoundly moving as it nods to the "Screen Tests" as much as it does to Benning's life and career. A literal Benning bonanza took place at the Austrian Filmmuseum in November, where "Ruhr" and "Twenty Cigarettes" were shown alongside the premiere of the glorious 35mm restoration of "American Dreams (lost and found)" (1984), a newly struck 16mm print of "Landscape Suicide" (1986), in addition to the world premieres of four new works: "Two Cabins, Small Roads" (masterpiece alert!), "You tube Trilogy: 4 Songs, History, Asian Girls," and "Faces" (courtesy of Cassavetes) accompanied by the handsomely designed book "(FC) Two Cabins by JB," edited by Julie Ault and published by A.R.T. Press. Even though he's already made a couple more films since (if not more), I expect and hope that these will continue to be shown into next year.
Still, 2011 largely belonged to British artist-filmmaker Ben Rivers, who had three major films playing simultaneously on several continents, at festivals large, medium and small: The 45-minute four-part futuristic epic "Slow Action," which was shown as both a work for cinema and an installation, the Baloise Art prize-winning short "Sack Barrow" and Rivers' feature debut "Two Years at Sea," which garnered a FIPRESCI prize in Venice and the main prize at CPH:DOX.
Distinct works that together demonstrate an even more distinct auterist imprint as Rivers furthers his inquiry into vanishing worlds and hybrid forms, marshaling science fiction, fairytale and ethnography. Revisiting the forest-dwelling subject of his 2006 film "This is My Land," Rivers observes a nameless Pan-like figure (Jake Williams), who lives alone entirely off the grid fulfilling daily rituals that sustain him and his freedom.
Despite its austere and attenuated form, "Two Years at Sea" is buoyed by a generosity of vision, spirit and soft humor. Its sublime widescreen images hover and surge as one man lives his life and extended observation begets meditation (for him as for us). Every frame of the film crackles with life–and magnificent still lives–and a clock ticks profusely despite the stoppage of time. In some ways the opposite of Béla Tarr's "The Turin Horse," "Two Days at Sea" offers birdsong instead of howling winds, freedom instead of entrapment and wafting nostalgic melancholia instead of Nietzschean despair. It is an astonishing, quietly moving (and virtually wordless) debut from an important future auteur.
Rivers is already in production with his next feature film to be co-directed by friend and collaborator Ben Russell, whose "River Rites" returns to the Surinam river and to the sinewy long take, hand-held style of his first feature "Let Each One Go Where He May." The two Bens co-curated a program at CPH:DOX this year, titled after their forthcoming film, "A Spell to Ward off the Darkness." Sparks flew as Kenneth Anger's "Lucifer Rising" mysteriously caught fire and a strange session of live film-aerobics prompted spontaneous jumping jacks from the crowd.
But the two Bens are not alone in their interest in ethnography. Many of the year's main works adopted a pseudo-ethnographic approach, whether traditional as in the case of Robert Fenz's border study "The Sole of the Foot" and homage to Robert Gardner, "Correspondence," unassumingly lyrical in Sarah J. Christman's "Broad Channel," raw and personal in Natasha Mendonca's Tiger Award winner "Jan Villa," idiosyncratic and refreshing in Jonathan Schwartz's studies along the Bosphoros, "Between Gold" and "A Preface to Red," and improvisational in Christopher Harris' double 16mm gossamer Passion play-theme park portrait, "28.IV.81 (Descending Figures)."
While the imminent demise of celluloid remained a constant, and in most cases, a plaintive conversation as lab closures sent artists scrambling and scurrying across borders (to Amsterdam and Canada, mainly), 2011 proved to be the year of the feature length experimental film. Noteworthy contributions in addition to those aforementioned include Marie Losier's festival favorite "The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye," Betzy Bromberg's moist and meticulous "Voluptuous Sleep," Michael Palm's prescient "Low Definition Control," Rania Stephen's "The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni" (which was also shown as an installation at P.S.1), Luo Li's "The Rivers and My Father," and Sylvain George's Medvedkin-riffing "Les Éclats (ma gueule, ma révolte, mon nom). Perhaps most anticipated of all was Lewis Khlar's first feature length work, "The Pettifogger," a sumptuously textured collage noir which veers into sublimated, awesome abstraction.
The retrospective of the year, bar none, was Pacific Film Archive's grand touring extravaganza, Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-2000, curated by Kathy Geritz, Steve Seid and Steve Anker to accompany their publication of the same name. Ten years in the making and creatively conceived, the monograph is a major contribution to the history and scholarship of experimental film.
Additional 2011 highlights (there were many!) include Kevin Jerome Everson's lovely and surprising feature length, black and white portrait of an Alabama dry cleaners, “Quality Control”, not to mention his major solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art; newcomer Blake Williams' Google Street View constructed “Coorow-Latham Road”; Deborah Stratman's scintillating “These Blazing Stars”; Norbert Pfaffenbichler's menacing 35mm “Conference” starring many Hitler look-a-likes; Mark Lewis's equally eerie “Black Mirror at the National Gallery” based on an object by French designer Martin Szekely; Neil Beloufa's sculptural set piece “Untitled”, Laura Krane's “Devil's Gate”; Ammad Ghossein's “My Father is still a Communist”; “Palacios de Peña” by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt (the former received a much deserved retro at this year's Experimenta as part of the London Film Festival, and the film will have its New York Premiere at MoMI's upcoming First Look festival); and various Super 8mm performances by San Francisco-based filmmaker (and SFMOMA projectionist) Paul Clipson.
An obligatory special mention goes to archivists and preservationists Andrew Lampert (Anthology Film Archives), Mark Toscano (Academy Film Archives) and Ross Lipman (UCLA Film and Television Archive) for ensuring that the history of experimental film can be enjoyed by new generations (at least for the time being), such as the essential work of Chick Strand, which circulated widely this year due to Toscano's efforts.
Finally, 2011 was a year of flourishing international micro-cinemas and cine-clubs, many of which are putting certain large institutions to shame. More versatile and autonomous, their programming can best respond to the changes in the world, and as 2011 attested, that flux can be fast and furious. Word to the nimble!