By Karina Longworth
To win a pass to all five days worth of Migrating Forms screenings, see instructions at the bottom of the post, after the jump.
Around this time last year, I wrote a preview of the final installment of the New York Underground Film Festival, in which I quoted a memorial to the 15 year downtown institution published in the Village Voice by former festival organizer Ed Halter. Halter had painted a picture of an event that inspired protests and counterprotests, that hosted a raw meat fashion show, that was locally known as a peddler of “fucked-up shit” … and which eventually evolved into a showcase for the work of artsy-cool artists like Bill Brown, Miranda July and Deborah Stratman, who rarely had “fucked-up shit” on the agenda. Based on the portion of the program of the last NYUFF that I screened, I was disappointed that it seemed like the pendulum had swung too far away from the festival’s subversive roots. I wrote:
Times change, and whatever local transgressive spirit that might have fueled a downtown Manhattan arts event in the mid-90s has now been apparently fully squashed by the area’s total, generally dispiriting gentrification. I’ve seen several films on this year’s program, and I wouldn’t call any of them “fucked up”…And there’s a disappointing art school austerity to the fest’s closing night film, The Juche Idea, a textual coldness that belies the satire…
A year later, times have changed once again. Within a New York playing field leveled just a little by economic unrest, where underground screening series are popping up left and right to fill the gaps left by the demise of sometime institutions like the Pioneer Theater, the remains of the NYUFF have been refashioned into Migrating Forms, a 5 day festival beginning at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow night, devoted to showcasing “new experimental film and video.”
The three features I’ve seen on the program — “Canary,” directed by Alejandro Adams; “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” by Jessica Oreck; and “IMPOLEX,” by sometime SpoutBlog contributor Alex Ross Perry –– offer something of a best of both worlds splitting of the difference between conscious fucked-up-ness and artistic austerity. In all of them, there is a will to weirdness for the sake of weirdness, but the forms that weirdness takes have themselves migrated (tee hee) into modes of deceptive subtelty. Their subject matters — dementia on the battlefield, the redistribution of human organs, a nation obsessed with insects –– could easily be played for shock value or within literal genre constraints, but each of the filmmakers have instead chosen a more playful path. One is nominally a sci-fi drama, another an absurdist comedy/war film, the other a documentary — and yet each contains elements of all of the above. All surprise, without telegraphing their surprises.
“Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo”
The first feature by entomologist Jessica Oreck (shot by “Frownland” cinematographer Sean Williams, who also shot “IMPOLEX”), “Beetle Queen” enters into a territory that could easily lend itself to one-note kitsch, and instead plumbs it for inspired reflection. This investigation of the role of insects in Japanese culture (both historical and pop) flits between documenting the novelty insect trade, in which the desires of children to keep beetles as pets are fed by a rock star insect hunter who drives a sports car, and contemplating the country’s relationship to bugs as it manifests itself in art, myth, and even modern design. Focused less on narrative than in offering a multi-faceted portrait of a place, with long passages narrated in Japanese prose so literary that the translated subtitles sometimes seem to move across the screen too quickly for comprehension, at its “Beetle Queen” is often reminiscent of a Chris Marker travelogue. The film works best when it eschews traditional documentary techniques for a more formalist approach, which seems better suited to the contradictions of a place that incorporates both the epitome of urban chaos and a deep respect for and engagement with nature, to the point where certain bugs are revered for their “delicate ergonomic lives.”
Alex Ross Perry’s own synopsis of this, his first feature, calls “IMPOLEX” “an unjustifiable blend of the bare-bones realism of John Ford’s WWII documentaries and the glorious stupidity of Abbot and Costello.” Bare-bones, maybe; glorious in its stupidity, definitely. But to use the word “realism” in association with a film so dedicated to hallucinatory goofiness almost seems in and of itself to be unjustifiable, at least at first glance; in the end, this winking boast of misdirection has a neat symmetry with the games played by movie’s narrative.
“IMPOLEX” follows Tyrone (Riley O’Bryan), a lone American soldier wandering an unidentified forrest on a reconnaissance mission to collect German rockets. Lugging along one life-sized explosive device and in search of another, he fantasizes (or so it would seem) run-ins with a varied cast of characters, including a taunting apparent former girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil) and a talking octopus (voiced by comedian Eugene Mirman). As his mental state deteriorates and the mission itself becomes murkier, he falls into what seems like a strange, co-dependent, quasi-sexual relationship with his rocket. Shot in 16mm but with a spontaneity and informality that’s recognizably post-video, “IMPOLEX” traffics in the absurd for effect, but it truly arrests with a late-inning long dialogue scene which seems to take place outside of time, enriching what we’ve seen and recasting the whole of the project in a new light.
When I told Alejandro Adams that I watched his second feature, “Canary,” on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, he all but made me pinky swear that I’d mention these viewing conditions in my writing on the film. So I think I should also note that I wrote most of what follows in a red Moleskine, using a Dallas Film Commission ballpoint pen, while sitting at a bar in Park Slope drinking a glass of Malbec. I feel a responsibility to say this not for Adams’ benefit — I almost believe that Adams knows it already; of all the filmmakers who read this blog, follow me on Twitter, and keep tabs on me in other ways, Alejandro Adams is the only one whose gaze makes me paranoid. In fact, I assume that if I don’t own up to the exact social texture that backgrounded this writing process, Adams will call me on it. That’s what he does, at least within Canary: he calls out social texture.
We know the film is ostensibly about the commodification of human organs, because people on screen obliquely talk about it and because the film’s most consistent character (played by Carla Pauli) seems to make a living repossessing them, but “Canary” is as much about the titular organ circulation firm that gives the film its title as “Hannah Montana” is about Montana. Its true subject is the texture of contemporary social space. Within the world it depicts, which is just a degree or two off from the present day real-world and would be indistinguishable from “reality” if we all currently lived under the threat of surprise emergency surgery at the hands of a silent corporate agent in a white jump suit, his camera seems to exist as the sole knowing eye. The footage it records flutters out of the coal mine of contemporary corporatized life to warn what’s wrong.
In his personal rhetoric, Adams can be conspicuously eager to displease (in a recent press release, he promised that “[one as yet unfinished project] will “offend anyone not offended by [another as yet unfinished project]”), but that does nothing to belie “Canary’”s actual provocations. With a density of thought and image that makes multiple viewings virtually mandatory in spite of (if not because of) its troubling aftertaste, “Canary” is, for my money, a must-see.