FESTIVALS: NYFF Avant-Garde Views, 5 Years and Counting
by Brian Frye
(indieWIRE/ 10.19.01) — The New York Film Festival takes the old-school avant-garde seriously. And in the wake of the digital revolution, that’s a lot more than can be said for most festivals these days. Last weekend, the NYFF presented “Views from the Avant-Garde,” a festival sidebar curated by Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten. For five years now, Smith and McElhatten have offered the more adventurous festival-goers their singular version of the movies. Easily the highest-profile screening of avant-garde films in the United States, it’s a must-see for devotees. Of course, the films aren’t for everyone, but audiences are steadily growing. In fact, this year virtually every program sold out.
Still, no one could accuse the programmers of pandering to their audience. “Views from the Avant-Garde” indisputably reflects their very particular tastes, and this year’s program was more hermetic than ever. The series included 29 films presented in five programs over two days. As in previous years, the films spanned an impressive range of formats, from Super-8 to 35mm. The program even included a feature length digital video, Andrew Noren‘s rather disappointing “Time Being.”
In recent years, “Views from the Avant-Garde” has enjoyed a degree of critical attention rarely afforded avant-garde film. It’s not often one sees experimental films reviewed in The New York Times, and two filmmakers are largely responsible: Nathaniel Dorsky and Robert Beavers. While Dorsky and Beavers both began making films in the 1960s, they remained relatively obscure until a few years ago, when NYFF screenings catapulted them into the public eye. Both have appeared in the NYFF regularly since. It’s quite gratifying that two such rigorous filmmakers should have attracted such a following, if a bit of a surprise. This year, Beavers’s “The Ground” showed in a program with Dorsky’s “Love’s Refrain,” the first time their films have played together.
One of Beavers’s finest films to date, “The Ground” is the perfect example of his austerely beautiful style. Filmed in a remote part of Greece, the film consists of perhaps 5 or 6 images. A crouching man doggedly chisels a block of stone into shape, then beats his breast and cups his palm against it, to the sound of a bird fluttering skyward; the ruins of an ancient mill overlook a tiny, white chapel perched on a slip of land in the sea; a rude cave opens onto a shrine-like copse of trees. The images are each repeated several times in enigmatic combinations, slowly acquiring an iconic significance. The weight of history pressing onto the landscape is almost palpable, as if one is actually watching it accrete. After the screening, Beavers spoke of the man’s beating of his breast as a cathartic act, but the film is charged with the tension between this catharsis and the asceticism that enables him to continue his endless labor. One has the impression that Beavers has somehow condensed the metaphysical struggle that precipitated Western civilization into its component elements.
“The Ground” was preceded by Nathaniel Dorsky’s “Love’s Refrain,” which he called a coda to the trilogy completed by last year’s “Arbor Vitae.” Structurally, they are very similar. Silent films shown at silent speed (16 frames per second), they consist of exquisitely photographed images snatched from the flow of life. But where “Arbor Vitae” represented an attempt to transcend the physical world, “Love’s Refrain” muses on its inescapable pull. If “Arbor Vitae” reflects a yearning for the glories of the pure spirit, “Love’s Refrain” tempers that yearning with a reminder of its imminence. Dorsky is renowned for his skillful and subtle montage, and his new film is no exception. A poet of the mundane, Dorsky imbues his films with a powerful emotional charge by ensuring that his images always retain their particular character and never reduce to mere symbols. From the brightly colored prow of a tethered rowboat that begins “Love’s Refrain” to the hovering, sun-drenched birds that end it, every image remains exactly what it is and no less, even while carrying the sense of the film.
I was surprised by the absence of the short films by well-known feature directors like Guy Maddin, Jean-Luc Godard and the Brothers Quay that gave last year’s program a distinctly international feel. While the program did include several European films