In Kristin Thompson’s essay “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” she discusses those elements of a film that don’t fit into a critic’s narrative or thematic framework, shots and details that destabilize an otherwise homogenous whole. These odd lots can also appear among groupings of films, whether by genre or curation, as loose ends that unravel the seams of tidy categorization. Even in something as expansive and variously defined as experimental film, it’s possible to find oneself suddenly stranded in a cinemat hinterland; indeed, that’s kind of the point, the sharpened edge of the avant that the practice aspires to, at least in theory. In this way, Migrating Forms, formerly the New York Underground Film Festival, allows itself considerable experimental drift, programming an impressively broad range of contemporary avant-garde films, vintage video art, schlocky revivals and remixes, and esoterica to satiate the rarest of cinephagic appetites. I doubt anyone could love everything that screened in Anthology Film Archives’s Maya Deren Theater during the ten-day run—I’m sure there’s plenty that was hated outright—but that speaks to the accomplishment, not the detriment, of Migrating Forms, a moving target of a festival composed almost entirely of these disquieting, startling, and sometimes sublime moments of excess.
Even as I focused my attention on the substantial repertory offerings, there was considerable range, starting with a program of videos by Los Angeles–based artist Cynthia Maughan. Recently restored by the Getty Research Institute and presented as part of EAI’s 40th anniversary, the videos, each lasting only a couple of minutes in length, represent a fraction of the over 300 pieces Maughan produced in the seventies and eighties. Maughan’s films are pulpy and playful, and her influences are easy to detect: advertising copy, horror films, and soap operas, as well as the early video work of Paul McCarthy and William Wegman, some of which were also shown in the program. McCarthy’s Ma Bell (1971) is particularly disturbing for the artist’s maniacal laughter as he smears flour, cotton stuffing, and motor oil into the pages of a phone book; the video makes for a strange sort of baking project, and sharices with Maughan’s sensibility a fondness for common household objects put to uncommon use. Read all of Genevieve Yue’s report from the Third Annual Migrating Forms Festival in New York.