NYFF 2000: Vital Visions, from Godard to Maddin, Dorsky to Hutton
by Bryan Frye
(indieWIRE/ 10.6.00) -- This weekend, the New York Film Festival presents the fourth annual Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar at the Walter Reade Theater, curated by Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten. Arguably the highest profile showcase for avant-garde or experimental film in the United States, the series is eagerly anticipated -- and much discussed -- by the often contentious scholars and aficionados of the popular art's most hermetic relation. While many festival-goers avoid it like the plague, the more adventurous will encounter what I consider the finest and most vital exponent of the cinema.
This year, the program includes an unusually large number of 35 mm films by well-known artists and directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Snow, Guy Maddin, Sharon Lockhart and the Quay Brothers. Among these, Maddin's brilliant "Heart of the World" is a standout. Recently shown at the Toronto Film Festival, it is a perfect distillation of Maddin's neo-expressionist style, only describable as a Eugene Castle condensed version of an Eisenstein film with set and costumes by Fritz Lang based on a screenplay by Bunuel. The story concerns the rivalry two brothers, one an amateur mortician and the other a passion play Christ, for the love of a female scientist who has discovered the earth is about to have a heart attack. Dizzyingly rapid cutting, a beautifully photographed picture, lovingly encrusted with gummy tape, and Maddin's mordant wit recommend this amusing and surprisingly eloquent rumination on the origins of the cinema.
Michael Snow's "Prelude," another trailer for the Toronto festival, is less successful. A sort of condensation of his seminal films "Wavelength" and "Back and Forth," it unfortunately succumbs to his tendency toward jokey glibness. Vaguely amusing, but thin to the point of transparency, it utterly lacks the depth and resonance of his best work.
Notorious iconoclast and indisputable genius Jean-Luc Godard acquits himself more honorably, contributing "The Origin of the 21st Century," which makes its American debut after opening the Cannes Film Festival last May. Much as he did in his celebrated "Histoires du Cinema" Godard collects an eclectic variety of clips, from sources including Kubrick's "The Shining" Cuban documentarian Santiago Alvarez's "69 Springtimes of Ho Chi Minh," Jerry Lewis's "The Nutty Professor," and his own "Breathless," among countless others. A rumination on the blood and terror of the 20th, Century, "The Origin of the 21st Century," -- like Maddin's work -- reflects on the "primal scene" of the cinema, epitomized in Jean Seberg's lip-sealing gesture.
I hope somebody from New York venue, The Screening Room -- home of the longest run ever of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" -- sees Robert Abate's "The Zero Order," a loopy portrait of a young gay man (played by Abate himself) convinced he's Holly Golightly. Despite some clumsy moments, Abate's trenchantly funny portrait of psychosexual guilt and frustration is engaging and fresh, if a little hard to follow at times.
Stom Sogo, the former enfant terrible of the LES film scene (since relocated to San Francisco), makes his festival debut with "Slow Death," a characteristically trippy melange of intensely grainy, superimposed Super 8 images accompanied by an ear-splittingly cacophanous soundtrack. A regular on the club scene, Sogo often did visuals for local DJs, and "Slow Death," does a fine job of distilling the experience of one of his live performances. Though the sound is a bit overwhelming, Sogo is a wizard with the rinky-dink Super 8 cameras we all know and love, and the film is an especially good example of his talents, featuring the inimitable Auguste Varkalis of Sogo's old haunt, Anthology Film Archives.
Unlike most festival programmers, who choose films based only on their individual merits, Smith and McElhatten claim to also consider the aesthetic coherence of the program as a whole. While they do not always realize this admirable goal, their success is abundantly apparent in this year's strongest and most austere program, which consists of two films: Peter Hutton's "Time and Tide," and Nathaniel Dorsky's "Arbor Vitae." Both films are exceptional in their own right, but they work together so perfectly that each seems to unfold in the presence of its complement.
Hutton shot "Time and Tide" from a petroleum-laden barge as it made its laborious passage up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany and back. Opening with a brief 1903 film of Upper Manhattan made by Billy Bitzer, the film continues with a breathtaking shot of the prow of a boat plowing through the iced-over waters of the river, the fractured panes of ice sliding over one another.
A Merchant Marine for ten years in his youth, Hutton has a profound sensitivity to the peculiar rhythms of maritime life. From his early "Images of Asian Music," a diaristic record of his time on a Pacific trading vessel in the Pacific, to his recent Hudson river series, of which "Time and Tide" is a part, Hutton's films display a special affinity for the flux and flow of water. His first color film, "Time and Tide" retains his signature style of extremely long takes (at 35 minutes it contains only 45 shots) punctuated by cuts to black. The discreteness of his images lends them a pregnant stillness and gravity, each simply asserting that the event transpired and observed.
Nathaniel Dorsky has enjoyed a somewhat unexpected critical acclaim of late, spurred by plaudits from the venerable New York Times, a rarity for an indisputably avant-garde filmmaker. "Arbor Vitae," which translates as "Tree of Life," is the third film in a trilogy that includes "Triste" and "Variations," that Dorsky presented in a sold-out show at the Walter Reade earlier this year. Like its companions, "Arbor Vitae" consists of "perfect moments," images carefully culled from quotidian experience: the shadow of a leaf, a man's hand, styrofoam peanuts swirling in the wind. Dorsky's explained his superbly assured montage as motivated by the attempt to express the "nowness" of the images he selects and "open up a mystery."
At first glance, the two films appear rather similar. Both are silent, slow-paced, relatively long meditations on the experience of living in the world. But in fact, they couldn't be more different. While "Time and Tide" offers a rigorously phenomenological view of the world, perfectly capturing the languid, dreamlike flow of the Hudson, "Arbor Vitae" is a sublime expression of a pure metaphysical conviction. Images of people's faces, softly illuminated as they pause before stepping off the curb to cross the street, light streaming though an attic skylight, or steam from a vent in the street, followed upward until it dissipates in the air, converge on a search for the ineffable, the essential truth of what cannot be captured on film.
After seeing "Arbor Vitae," I realized that the key to understanding Dorsky's films is the film "Pneuma," which consists entirely of unexposed and developed rolls of outdated film, the degradation of the emulsion over time alone producing the image. The fullest expression of the soul of film, the spirit of "Pneuma" is extended in "Arbor Vitae" into an attempt to capture the animating principle of living beings. If, as Jean Cocteau famously remarked, the cinema is the image of death, "Arbor Vitae" captures that spark of humanity that remains after the corporeal passes away.
Though not nearly as flawless as "Arbor Vitae," Canadian filmmaker Barbara Sternberg's "Like a Dream that Vanishes" addresses similar ideas. Alternating between a Brakhagian montage of manipulated and distressed images and footage of a charming elderly philosopher expounding on Hume's treatise on miracles and its metaphysical implications, Sternberg too searches for the residue of the absolute. Obviously a nod to fellow Canadian Jack Chambers's rarely seen masterpiece "Hart of London," the film looks for Truth in the ghostly apparitions of a past era, peeling away the surfaces in search of their essence. Although many of its optically printed passages struck me as somewhat stiff and artificial, the film as a whole is enigmatic and compelling, and a real discovery. While Sternberg is hardly known in the United States, she's been making films for years, and is the subject of a lovely new monograph, which ought to prompt one of the innumerable screening spaces in town to bring in a program of her films.