NYFF '99 ON THE SCENE: Vive l'Avant-Garde! Baldwin and Beavers Return
by Brian Frye
One of the highest profile venues remaining for avant-garde films, the Views From the Avant-Garde section of the New York Film Festival, screens this weekend Oct. 9-10, including two programs of short films and two programs devoted to individual filmmakers, this year Craig Baldwin and Robert Beavers.
After twenty-five years of obscurity, filmmaker Robert Beavers suddenly reappeared at the New York Film Festival two years ago, when one program was devoted to his films and one to those of his recently deceased mentor and companion, Gregory Markopoulos. At the time, unfortunately eclipsed by the excitement surrounding the first-in-ages screening of the legendary Markopoulos, Beavers returns this year with a selection of three recently completed films, "From the Notebook of...," "Work Done," and "The Painting," three segments of a projected eighteen-part series entitled "Winged Distance/Sightless Measure."
All three films were originally completed in the early 70's to some substantial acclaim (the first version of "From the Notebooks of..." was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art), but later withdrawn from circulation. Not having had the opportunity to see these films in their original form, I can't say how extensively Beavers reworked them, but the results are quite impressive.
While Beavers readily acknowledges an apparent debt to Markopoulos, his films are quite remarkable in their own right. Passionate reveries on the beauty of the world, and its reflection in film, they eloquently define Beavers' rarefied, yet emotionally charged style. The rigorously precise camerawork and formal austerity of these three films are tempered by the lush images of which they are composed. Careful variation of colored filters, superimpositions and sliding mattes reconfigure the shape of the screen, isolating for study the elements within the frame.
San Francisco-based Craig Baldwin weighs in with his latest feature, "Spectres of the Spectrum (SOS)." While his most recent film, "Sonic Outlaws" documented the loony antics and legal troubles of sound artists Negativland and the Tape-Beatles, "SOS" marks Baldwin's long-awaited return to the paranoid rants and crazy-quilt stock-footage of his 1990 masterpiece "Tribulation 99." Much more accessible than some of his other films, "SOS" is rumored to have a future run at New York's Film Forum, but no screening date could be confirmed as of press time.
While the shorts are, predictably, hit or miss, two films merit special praise. First, Phil Solomon's breathtakingly beautiful "Twilight Psalm II: Walking Distance," shown as a work-in-progress at his Cineprobe at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year. Solomon seems to eschew photography altogether, forming images out of pools of molten bronze flowing across the surface of the screen. Acquiring an astonishing depth, the images appear three-dimensional. I've never seen anything like it.
Second, Luis Recoder's brilliant "Moebius Strip" to my mind the greatest discovery of the festival, applies a simple technique to impressive effect. By looping a strip of film back against itself and running it through the projector twice simultaneously, Recoder utterly transforms banal footage taken from a reel of thrill-a-minute sports highlights. While the technique is hardly novel, Recoder realizes its associative and graphic potential to an unprecedented degree. Visually stunning, the opposing images mask and reveal one another, a slightly offset bilateral symmetry drawing in the eye and pushing it away again. But the real strength of the film is its subtle revision of the original footage: boxers appear to grapple with themselves, sprinters merge with their doubles, people and objects serenely float in the absurdist and most provocative locations. As a horse appears to step out onto the surface of a lake, amidst a sprinkling of bobbing sailboats, space and time melt away for a moment, suspended in this curiously surreal image, which suddenly vanishes.
Other short films stirred up particular interest, as well. In "Removed," a witty riff on the more obtuse strains of feminist film theory, Naomi Uman literally bleaches the women out of several mismatched clips snipped from kitschy foreign pornos. The effect is quite disconcerting, as they suddenly resemble featureless glowing aliens, moaning and writhing about. The swinging music, already bizarre, poorly dubbed dialogue (part of which concerns catching trains) and jarringly abrupt cuts contribute significantly to the laughs. But the film is more than a one-liner; the tension between a man's description of a woman viewed through a "one-way mirror" and what we actually see transforms what could have been a simple conceit into a metaphor for perception and desire.
English filmmaker Guy Sherwin contributes the delicate "Filter Beds," a worm's-eye study of a tangle of scrub and trees. A very shallow depth of field causes branches and stalks of wild grasses to emerge and disappear as Sherwin racks focus, settling on the jet planes sweeping across and impossibly distant sky. The soft, rich grain of the muted image lends it a dreamlike timelessness familiar from Sherwin's 1980 masterpiece, "Messages."
[Brian Frye is a New York-based curator of the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema and other venues, and filmmaker.]