"There are some situations that leave you utterly speechless," says one of the committed performers in Wim Wenders' fine 3-D dance movie "Pina," screening this week at the New York Film Festival. But that assertion could just as easily apply to the other 3-D event at this year's festival, the transcendent "Upending" playing in the Views from the Avant Garde sidebar, not to mention many of the other outstanding works that screened on Friday to kick off the program.
"Upending," one of over 100 experimental films selected by Mark McElthatten and Gavin Smith for this year's lineup, was created by the art collective OpenEndedGroup (comprised of Marc Downie, Shelley Shkar and Paul Kaiser) using a software they invented called Field. Commissioned by the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, the 50-minute piece is solely comprised of revolving shapes, phantom characters and floating words rendered in spindly golden lines. Using still photography and a roaming virtual camera, the trio assemble light particles into glistening objects frozen in time.
Drifting in front of the viewer with a ghostly texture, the items in question include a swing, a chair and a tree, explored by the camera with remarkable fluidity--at one point venturing beneath the tree's trunk and eventually inside it. Meanwhile, an ominous rendition of Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 1 plays in surround sound to deepen the immersion factor. The filmmakers have described the experience as a way of observing "completely suppressed" motion, an achievement that brings out the primal quality of 3-D lost on most contemporary applications of the effect.
Of course, "Upending" is hardly the first use of 3-D technology in the avant garde realm. The legendary Ken Jacobs has created the illusion with his stereoscopic technique for decades, and expressed his approval of this latest usage from the "Upending" audience on Friday. Only an hour later, however, Jacobs had the opportunity to show a new work of his own, an equally provocative accomplishment particularly compelling for its ideological intensity.
The 40-minute "Seeking the Monkey King" finds Jacobs furious about the state of the world. Primarily composed of shifting gold and blue foil-like objects, this seething creation makes his sprawling opus "Star Spangled to Death" look comparatively measured, even tame. As the imagery flashes erratically onscreen, Jacobs provides a series of intertitles outlining his anguish. He's mad at centuries of capitalism, Bush and Obama alike, fearful of global warming and Wall Street corruption - and unites these unseemly forces under the ominous metaphor of the Monkey King. "The beast is jerking off," he asserts, using JG Thurwell's hectic score to underline the point.
Jacobs' observations are all over the place, but they flow together into a collage of indictments. "American is a fiction," he explains, arguing that its official history hides a darker past. As an example, his free-wheeling essay notes recent DVDs for "Poltergeist" that no longer include the Indian burial ground beneath the haunted house. There's a different kind of haunting at work here: "Seeking the Monkey King" plays like a horror film on Jacobs' terms. Mechanical grunts imply the monkey king's present beneath a glistening ocean of chaos. Jacobs only finds solace in a handful of artistry, citing everyone from Maya Deren to Fats Waller as antidotes to his pervasive misery.
However, he could also turn to "Crystal Palace," one of several new works screened by Jacobs contemporary Ernie Gehr in the next program. Assembled out of mostly black-and-white footage shot in Lake Tahoe, "Crystal Palace" expounds on the digital interlacing of late nineties video footage by turning images of snow-covered trees into a gorgeously blurry mush. The resulting texture breaks the physical world down into complete abstraction.
It's a quietly impressive display, but for me the rhetoric of Jacobs' film still lingered. Not merely an arrangement of shapes or an end unto itself, "Seeking the Monkey King" exists as a raging, organic poem. With its bleak prognosis (Jacobs said during the post-screening Q&A that he thinks the world has 10 years left), it's technically the third movie about the apocalypse playing at NYFF this year, joining "Melancholia" and "4:44 Last Day on Earth." Of the three, only Jacobs refuses to make peace with the mounting gloom.
Moving beyond the end of the world, the final screening of the day signaled the end of an era. The great George Kuchar, one half of the prolific sibling duo, died from cancer earlier this year. However, in 2010, he completed a couple of characteristically devilish works with his students at the San Francisco Art Institute. The NYFF sidebar included two of them; the second on the program, "Empire of Evil," delivers a steady flow of comedic inspiration. Kuchar's enthusiastic approach to deconstructing genre with relentless silliness frequently delivers in this delightfully cheap film noir satire, where a black-and-white love triangle littered with homoerotic subtext eventually devolves into outlandish orgies and crimes of passion.
As usual, "Empire of Evil" displays Kuchar's near-religious fixation on the joys of camp and the ability to create, in the celebration of trash, a very special kind of art. With its dogged subversion of commercial norms, Kuchar's late period work still embodies an avant garde spirit that will continue to outlive him, no matter what happens to the fate of the planet.