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The Two-Faced Format: Documents and Experiments at NY's Video Fest

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire July 17, 1998 at 2:0AM

The Two-Faced Format: Documents and Experiments at NY'sVideo Fest
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The Two-Faced Format: Documents and Experiments at NY's
Video Fest

by Anthony Kaufman




Proving once again that video isn't just a medium for obsessive dads to
document their kid's baseball errors, the New York Video Festival
returns this Friday with a collection of both the straightforward and
cutting-edge variations of the format. The headliners of this year's
fest include new works by PXLvision stalwart Sadie Benning, acclaimed
black filmmaker Charles Burnett, and Russian elegist Aleksandr Sokurov.
Also featured are Armond White's annual look at music video (this time
Hype Williams and Spike Jonze get theoried), never-aired censored
segments of Michael Moore's Fox show "TV Nation," a CD-ROM exhibition,
and a video/stage performance from Deke Weaver called "Girlfriend: The
Live Performance." Now in its 7th year, the Video fest has sufficiently
outgrown its early years piggy-backing on the New York Film Festival in
the Fall, now standing alone as a strong summertime foray (this year
from July 17 - 23) into the limits and profundities to be found in the
new medium.


Over 500 videos were submitted to this year's fest, but most of the
works, according to curator Graham Leggatt, came from festival outreach.
"Only a smattering of non-solicited works were accepted, which is
usually the case," he says. Unique to this year's program are more
feature-length programs as well as a highlighted group of unknown
international video makers mixed in with the local regulars. For leads
to important foreign work, programmer Gavin Smith found international
sources at the World Wide Video Festival in the Netherlands, Montreal's
Festival of New Cinema, the Impact Festival, Lucerne's Viper Festival,
and London's bi-annual Pandemonium fest.


"Almost every country has an organization that is dedicated to
distributing video," says Smith, one of the main curators of the
festival, along with Leggatt and the the Film Society's Marion
Masone. "It's a little hit and miss. There are parts of Europe that are
well-represented, and there are parts that aren't represented. There
is, of course, Eastern Europe and Russia where I know a lot of stuff
happens, but we just don't have any good contacts," says Smith. "No one
has figured out how to get that work out. But it's there." Although
Aleksandr Sukurov would appear to be an adequate Russian ambassador, in
the fest this year with a five-hour long experimental doc called
"Spiritual Voices: The Diaries of War" which tracks a Russian army unit,
Smith notes that the acclaimed video and filmmaker works out of Germany.


Aside from U.S. entries which dominate the program, Belgium appears to
be the next hotbed of new media work. Opening the festival is the
83-minute "The Way of the Weed," directed by An-Marie Lambrechts, Peter
Missotten, and Anne Quirynen. Shot with high production values on
digital video, the work follows a researcher through post-industrial
futuristic settings as he unravels the mystery of weeds.


Another strong entry from Belgium is Johan Grimonprez's 68-minute,
cultural history of hijacking and terrorism, "dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y." Using
old news footage, industrial airline videos, and Don DeLillo quotes,
Grimonprez creates a powerful (although overly long) investigative
mosaic about what he calls "the media politics of contemporary
catastrophe culture." Sprinkled with ironic riffs from Motown hit "The
Hustle" as airplanes explode into oblivion, the work is both wry and
ripping. At one point, the narrator says, "Everything seeks its own
heightened version," -- a mantra that shoots through the entire spine of
video's origins -- of ordinary people taking their everyday lives and
transforming them into media moments.


This is essentially what Dominique Cabrera does in one of the strongest
pieces in the festival, "Tomorrow and Tomorrow: Diary 1995," the French
director's 83-minute autobiographical hi-8 video diary, which captures
life's moments of bliss, pain and the sublime of the everyday. With
characters and situations just as dramatic and heartfelt as any
narrative feature, Cabrera documents her battles with depression, the
country's presidential election, strained attempts to connect with her
son, and a troubled affair with a man who loves another woman.


Other intimate studies can be found in Sadie Benning's new work, "Flat
is Beautiful
" and Charles Burnett's "The Final Insult." Benning
combines Fisher-Price PXLvision footage with Super-8 dream sequences to
get into the head of an 11-year-old girl who is questioning her
sexuality. Through the course of the entire tape, all the characters
wear cartoonish masks covering their expressions. Although an
interesting attempt to distance the spectator and experience the same
kind of alienation as the characters, you can't help but miss the power
of the human face.


Burnett, on the other hand, who is best known for his brilliant "To
Sleep with Anger
," hardly shies away from the human countenance in this
in-your-face docu-fiction about poverty and homelessness in Los
Angeles. Financed by ZDF German TV, "Insult" straddles the line between
narrative and experimental forms, cross-cutting between a profile of Box
Brown, an accountant who lives out of his car, and the real-life victims
of downsizing and ghettoisation. Burnett's journey into videowork seems
to confirm the notion that the cheaper video format allows for
filmmakers to undertake story structures and imagery that a commercial
feature might not afford.


A program about displaced travelers rounds out the more personal works
in the festival. Included is the voyage of Tony Mendoza, a professor
returning to the home of his adolescence in "Cuba: Going Back." Using a
consumer video camera and shot completely from the professor's point of
view, the audience feels the same alienation and displacement he must
have felt as the locals label him an American and a tourist. Mendoza's
autobiographical journey is testament to what Leggatt calls "the
pleasure of the promiscuity of the medium" where anyone can pick up a
videocamera and become an artist, a sociologist or a storyteller.


The programmers have continued to categorize the videos under different
subject headings in an effort to package the selections, give them a
cohesive identity, and allow the works to resonate with each other. For
instance, a wide-ranging program of formal play and motion-pieces
garners the name, "Persistence of Vision" while a group of absurdist
tapes are listed under the rubric, "Stop Making Sense." But even the
features are given their own branding, (for example, "The Way of the
Weed
," is headed by the more accessible sounding "Next Stop: Beyond the
X-Files
"). Beyond a way to reel in those film diehards, the collective
programs also provide an "extraordinary sense of community" for the
video makers, "who come to see all the programs of their peers," says
Leggatt.


Shifting to the digitally enhanced, multi-layered manipulations of the
fest, one discovers a few startling talents in the more experimental
programs, most of them NY Video Fest veterans. These short videos pump,
beat, jiggle, humor, and pulsate with originality and innovation. "Good
short videos are like a great pop single that you make in your garage,"
Leggatt admits, though "of course, it's more sophisticated than that."


Still, the garage metaphor is apt, especially for the continuously
comical and edgy work of a team of video makers known as HalfLifers
(Torsten Burns and Anthony DiScenza). Their white-noise, bad-color,
postmodern videos combine base humor, action tropes, and semiotic
wordplay, often in fastforward (complete with those static lines across
the TV screen.) In their latest "Action in Action," a suburban kitchen
becomes their frenzied, crisis zone and junk food like Cheetoes and
bologna their access to stability. Even more relentless (and sometimes
painful) are the works of another team, self-titled "Animal Charm", whose
four videos use repetition, juxtaposition and grating sounds to obscure
effect.


Far more understandable and effective in his use of repetition is the
work of Les LeVeque. A teacher at Ithaca College and Colgate
University, LeVeque has worked in video for the last ten years. His
"Dissing D.A.R.E.: Education as Spectacle," an indicting montage of the
Drug Abuse Resistance Program, is notable, as is the itching "Thorazine
Rebel
" which had Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel" seared in my brains days after
viewing.


Other strong shorts come from seminal downtown New Yorker Joe Gibbons,
who contributes his latest Barbi PXLvision short and an arresting
2-minute "Apocalypse Now" - homage, co-directed with Emily Breer, who adds
stunning colored animations to the images. ResFest discovery Eric Henry
appears with "Wood Technology in the Design of Structures" and "Bored
Project Movie
." And two mesmerizing experiments in motion should not go
unnoticed, Seoungho Cho's "Rev" and Michael Intriere's "Fish."


All works made in a style and image only possible in new media, these
shorter videos testify to the uniqueness of the format. Although
"certain things we show possibly originate on film or Super-8 or 16 or
even 35," says Smith, "it's ultimate destination is video, and in the
process, it becomes distinctly video. There's nothing we're showing that
could equally be projected on film." For videomakers, it must be nice
to know there's at least someone out there who respects the medium.