For most of the three-hour runtime, the screen is filled with one vivid paint color after the next, applied by brushstroke. Periodically, superimposed passages of text fade in and out. And that's about it. David Gatten’s palpable new film, "The Extravagant Shadows," is one of the works featured in the 16th annual Views from the Avant-Garde, a New York Film Festival sidebar that concluded Monday.
If the film feels like watching paint dry, that was Gatten's intent. "I was thinking about a long period of time, and this was an experiment to see how to structure that. How do you make watching paint dry visible and dramatic?" he said by phone from the Lincoln Center festival. With pigments chosen for emotional impact and color theory, he layers enamel oil-based paint over acrylic so that it cracks as it dries, adding visual interest to an endurance test of a film. It also invokes one of his regular themes, the intersection of the printed word and the moving image.
Slow. Quiet. Conceptual. Longer or shorter than the average feature. These are the hallmarks of much of the new work shown in this year's Views, and perhaps a reflection of a genre that intends to be challenging, not entertaining or popular. According to Mark McElhatten, the section’s co-curator (with Film Comment editor Gavin Smith), "Like the skull and crossbones on a medicine bottle, avant-garde can mean poison to some, a strong medicine with life or death consequences to others, or on a flag it can be the proud declaration of a pirate ship."
Academic settings and other artistic disciplines (writing, painting, music, etc.) are cauldrons of ideas that turn out a great many of today's avant-garde filmmakers, who by definition test the edges of the medium and experiment technically, aesthetically, topically, or psychologically. For audiences with patience, there is always something to be gleaned.
"Chevelle," by Kevin Jerome Everson, is an unexpectedly satisfying peek at two GM cars getting crushed and compacted in a junkyard with the seeming ease of crumpling soda cans. Michael Robinson's "Circle in the Sand" is notable for its evocation of narrative, complete with nascent storyline and characters. Post-apocalyptic hippies pick through the debris of American culture, even foraging for artificial fingernails like razor clams in the sand. French director Nicolas Rey shot on nine reels of outdated 16mm stock to create "Differently, Molussia." Presented in a random order, each reel is a chapter based on an imaginary fascist state created by German philosopher Günther Anders in the 1930s. The dry narration and repetitive structure of the film is occasionally interrupted by mesmerizing moments in the texture and palette of nondescript images caught by a camera in motion.
Nathaniel Dorsky’s delicious silent shorts "August and After" and "April" are stunning photographs come to life with personal and quotidian images morphing into abstraction through camera movement, position and focus. A plaid coat is a grid. A telephone cord is a coiled tendril. Dorsky’s colorful image collections pulse with life. They are a highpoint in the program.
A handful of filmmakers find their work placed in both theatrical movie theaters and experimental venues. "Walker," by Tsai Ming Liang ("Goodbye, Dragon Inn") tests our patience as a Buddhist monk inches along barefoot through the bustling streets of Hong Kong, a calm presence amidst a storm of activity. "Morning of Saint Anthony's Day," by João Pedro Rodrigues ("To Die Like a Man"), follows the celebration of Lisbon's June 13th holiday through a slow choreography of young people traversing their architecturally interesting environs.
Throughout the five days of Views, a few films screened for free to the public in Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Munroe amphitheater. Andy Warhol's 1964 eight-hour single shot of the Empire State Building inspired the 48 minute "Empire," by Phil Solomon, who uses the equivalent skyscraper from the videogame "Grand Theft Auto IV" for a computer graphic update complete with nightfall and shifting weather patterns around the tower. Peter Bo Rappmund's "Vulgar Fractions" explores seven state intersections along Nebraska's border through sequential single frames that create unique rhythms in scenes of wildlife, farm equipment, roads, and boundary markers. Against a melancholy string score, Steven Dwoskin’s "Age Is…" examines the landscape of faces and hands of the elderly, their daily rituals, and their sentiment for old photographs.
What is the best venue for avant-garde film? It was easy to dip in and out of the amphitheater, as one might in a museum or gallery setting. For work that is not engaging, the movie theater may feel like a trap. "Art" films may be in better company with other pieces of art. But McElhatten feels differently. "Most galleries make it easy to ignore the demands, duration and discovery that can take place with dedicated viewing," he said. "When you have proper projection equipment and you are in the company of people who love cinema and love to voyage, then you have a circumstance to be treasured, where a real experience can take place."
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