FESTIVALS: Animation to Beta to Surveillance in Diverse 8th N.Y. Video Fest
by Anthony Kaufman
Thick jiggling lines run lengthwise up and down my television screen and I can't tell if the New York Video Festival preview tape has just begun or I forgot to switch to channel 3. Turns out, I was on channel 4. But I could have kept watching, those mesmerizing snake-like impulses on my TV screen not so different from some of the new works on display at this year's Video Fest, running July 16-22 at New York's Walter Reade Theater.
Now in its 8th year, the always eclectic video program runs the gamut from those oblique experimental pieces to cutting-edge documentary work to live multi-media performance art. And surprisingly, very little narrative. While you'd think with the introduction of digital video into the independent production sphere and the success of "The Celebration," et. al., a whole slew of video features would hit the festival, this year's program includes not a one. Dedicated to the fringes of the medium, rather than its mainstreaming, the work in the NYVF is always independent and unique, sometimes to frustrating extremes. To wit, where else can you see "Confession," a four and a half hour videographic saga about a submarine captain and his country, directed by Russian director Aleksander Sokurov ("Moloch," "Mother and Son")?
The program includes the premiere of The Wooster Group's adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones," directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, performed by Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe, with the help of videomaker Chris Kondek. New York Press film critic Armond White will be on hand to present his annual music video showcase (this year looking at the surreal visions of Lauryn Hill, Busta Rhymes, Blackstreet, Cake and others). And closing night showcases "Love Diamond," a performance piece that combines video, slide projection, and sound design from "Big Miss Moviola" creator and Portland-based artist, Miranda July.
Preceding July's feminist road show, two woman filmmakers contribute the strongest entries in the festival, and perhaps reflecting my bias, two of the most linear pieces in the program. Former "CD-ROM auteur" Theresa Duncan -- known for her popular girl games Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero -- contributes the "History of Glamour," a 40-minute animated mockumentary chronicling fictional feminist pop icon, Charles Valentine, a singer/model who goes from sipping Chanel perfume on the rocks among New York's elite to her Ohio farm to become a writer.
Collaborating with illustrator Jeremy Blake, artist Karen Kilimnik, and animator Eric Dyer who used programs After Effects and Photoshop for the unique look of the project, and with original songs from Brendan Canty of Fugazi and Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill, Duncan says, "I tried to do something that was completely different from the wacky, family sit-com that happens to be animated," a trend the 29-year-old Silicon Alley star sees often in mainstream animated work. For Duncan, who wrote her college thesis on alternative forms of narrative (like CD-ROM), the challenge on "History of Glamour" was to go from interactive, non-linear work to a compelling straightforward narrative. Why the switch? "I thought CD-ROM had a big future that it certainly does not have," she says. "Even though I'm attached to alternative media, I find myself increasingly moving closer to live action film. That's where you find the largest audience."
Duncan is now producing a television series for Oxygen -- the new cable network for women which is slated to launch Feb. 2000 -- and wants to helm a big budget feature film, a thriller with an adolescent heroine ("kind of Nancy Drew meets 'Heavenly Creatures,'" she says). "Independent film kind of welcomes women," admits Duncan, "but I want to get to the level that woman aren't recognized yet."
Still comfortable in the independent realm, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt follows up her highly acclaimed 1995 debut feature, "River of Grass" with "Ode," a 50-minute Super-8 featurette based on Herman Raucher's novel, "Ode to Billy Joe." A tender portrait of teenagers in love, the story is awkward, sentimental, powerful, nostalgic, and affecting all at the same time. Unknown actors Heather Gottlieb and Kevin Poole deliver remarkably naturalistic performances as the troubled Southern teens. Photographed, adapted and directed by Reichardt, the film is easily the most emotional piece in the program. But why is it included in a video festival if it was shot on Super-8? Cut on AVID and projected on Beta SP, "Ode" only exists in the video format -- one of a number of straight-from film-to-video works in the selection.
While there are other major videos worth noting in this year's festival, none held this viewer's attention for their duration. (There may be something to be said about the high cost of celluloid; if anything, it requires artists to be concise.) Still, Jem Cohen's 48-minute urban portrait "Amber City" (shot on 16 mm and also projected on Beta SP) -- a rhythmic series of artfully composed tableaus, faces, and artifacts belonging to an unnamed European city -- engages with the propelling question, "What city actually is it?" And another experimental doc, "Transit Riders of the Earth Arise! Walk Dog Eat Donut" from Ken Kobland ("The Shanghaied Text") skillfully interweaves and overlaps footage from the New York IRT and the Berlin S-Bahn all the while playing with subtitles to a catchy Russian ballad to create a portrait of the mundane.
Two experimental documentaries from the BBC by filmmaker/novelist/former film critic Chris Petit entertain and enlighten for about half their 40-50 minute running times: "Negative Space," a portrait of Manny Farber combined with a roadtrip, and "The Falconer" -- "a film in which nothing is true [and everything is permitted]" -- a multi-layered document of the enigmatic life of 60's filmmaker/occultist/conspirator Peter Whitehead. The most conventional piece in the festival, Christopher Wilcha's "The Target Shoots First" is necessary viewing for anyone considering an entry level position in a major corporation. Wilcha -- a recent college grad -- documents his gradual rise to power at Columbia House, the Sony/Time Warner-owned record club, on a consumer video camera that never leaves his side.
Other videomakers of note: Canadian Donigan Cumming focuses his trademark disturbing lens ("Cut the Parrot" and "A Prayer for Nettie") on a 50-year-old recovering alcoholic in "Erratic Angel," UK-artist Carl Callam delves into his complex background as a black man raised in a white foster family, Canadian Steve Reinke shares his hypochondriacal, angst-ridden, eclectically comic auto-film, "Spiritual Animal Kingdom," and veteran videomaker Les LeVeque makes the 8-minute "2 Spellbound," a sped-up, multiply exposed, electronica version of Hitchcock's classic.
But one of the most resonant moments at this year's New York Video Festival comes from a simple, unadulterated moment taken from a surveillance camera. In Walid Raad's "Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs," the videomaker explains a certain boardwalk in Beirut is the frequent site of espionage, and dubious activities. To monitor the beach walkway, the government set up 24-hour manned surveillance cameras. But every afternoon at around sunset, one of the camera operators turned the lens away from his designated target and to the setting sun. Raad includes in his project the few minutes of sunset footage that haven't been confiscated by the government -- and it's a beautiful and subversive sight, one that could only be captured by the ever-presence of video.