Avant-Garde Film Diary

Brian Frye

Printed in MFJ No. 39/40 (Winter 2003) Hidden Currents

January 20, 2002 - Scratch and Twitch at Remote

It's quite common to see film and video shows in bars, but never before have I seen the bar itself become the show. Remote, the drinking establishment in question, sets a new benchmark for concept bars. The entire place is stuffed with banks of TV sets, usually linked to security cameras strategically placed all around the room. Patrons control the cameras with arcade-style controls, allowing them to observe their fellow imbibers clandestinely.

Tonight, most of the cameras were turned off, and videos programmed by Sandra McLean, Charlene Rule and Grahame Weinbren filled the bulk of the screens. The result was peculiar, but not without its charms. Not all tapes would benefit from this sort of presentation, or even survive it intact. The more visually complicated tapes and those with strong narrative elements often became quite confusing.

The more minimal and repetitive tapes fared much better; in fact, some actually profited by the presentation. Blandly mechanical on a single screen, the grid of signaling flags in Lux's Semaphore easily bridged the gaps separating the monitors, fusing them into one great screen. I was quite taken with Keep Smiling, in which the artist Miho Suzuki bends over, touches her toes and straightens up as rapidly as possible for 11 minutes, an increasingly strained rictus of a smile plastered across her face: Vito Acconci need no longer make an exer-video. Splashed across a bank of monitors, it looked just like something you might see at the chicest hi-tech gym for bulemics.

January 26, 2002 - False Ocean at Jaraf Video

Over the course of the last few years, New York has spawned quite a few new avant-garde-friendly underground film venues. However, the same isn't quite true of video. Likely, it's a happy function of the sudden and rather unexpected ubiquity of video art in the hipper galleries. But most galleries have an aesthetic agenda that doesn't always square with what a lot of video artists actually do. The slicker and flashier the better, and minimalism is definitely out. Rebekah Rutkoff and Jasmine Moorhead of Jaraf Video set out to provide a forum for more formal video art. Judging by the healthy size of their audience, they’re doing something right. Somehow they convinced well over a hundred people to cram themselves into the basement of the Bleeker Street Theater on a Saturday night to see ten rather minimal videos.

In practice, Rutkoff and Moorhead interpret their own mandate rather loosely. It's probably for the best, as rigid formal criteria rarely lend themselves to sensitive programming. And yet, the most successful tapes in this program by far were those most conscious of the texture of video. Old-timer Jud Yalkut was up to his usual tricks in River Sequence 3, superimposing shots of psychedelically colored river-currents; still good fun, even if it's beginning to feel a little by-the-numbers. Younger artists tended to infuse their tapes with a bit of levity. Vincente Razo's A Superlative Achivement and O.K. - All Right added a dollop of Hollis Frampton's dry wit to Paik-esque magnet-TV images. I was particularly impressed by the Halflifers' Actions in Action. Something like an affectionate homage to Vito Acconci, the Halflifers actually do him better in both raw formal purity and sophomoric antics. In goofy goggled outfits they smear themselves with junkfood and get dragged behid a truck, the undercranked video making them look like hyperactive kids on 45. The only thing they're missing is Acconci's aggressive menace - they play the harmless neurotic foils to his psychotic monster. The only real turkey of the lot, Ursula Hodel's Past Life: The Fisherman's Woman, paired an overwrought narration with close-ups of a writhing woman , revisiting a genre I'd really hoped to have seen the last of.

January 30, 2002: Joel Schlemowitz at Anthology Film Archive's Courthouse Gallery

It's always good to see an artist mount a serious gallery show using old-school film equipment, but it doesn't happen nearly as often as it ought to. Unfortunately, that's no surprise - despite today's remarkably projected-media-friendly environment - as few gallery owners are familiar with even the most notable avant-garde filmmakers. The art world and avant-garde film have always had a lot more in common than either cares to admit; the troubles attending their reconciliation tend toward the logistical. Enter the Courthouse Gallery at Anthology Film Archive, which is film-forward by definition, and treats the gallery-specific concerns as something of an afterthought.

I attended the closing of Joel Schlemowitz’s two-week presentation of film installations. Everything I saw was classic Schlemowitz: beautifully photographed, esoterically inscrutable, and achingly nostalgic. His installations fell into three categories: loop projections, devices, and "cine-paintings." The cine-paintings -- framed, aligned and rear-lit filmstrips behind glass of laterally-filmed pans, which semi-abstractly depicted various subjects, including a stained-glass window and a sunlit room -- were beautiful, though I think that a cleaner look might make them even stronger and easier to sell. The various devices, which require one to spool film from one reel to another under a magnifying glass were intriguing, if limited. As lovely as the films was under magnification, the devices felt more like illustrations than stand-alone works of art, like a frozen moment from a film class you wish you might have had. All of the installations supported Schlemowitz’s projector installations, which were intermittently successful. While everything that Schlemowitz makes is lovely, its only the most enigmatic and peculiar pieces that stick in the mind. The more oblique the work, the better it works - Swinburne is fantastic, other are less effective.

March 24, 2002 - The Nutty Projector at Ocularis

In a perfect world, Jerry Lewis would applaud projector-performance ensemble Kino-Sonic's loopy homage to one of his better known films. As it is, they're lucky if he doesn't try to sue them silly.

One of Kino-Sonic's most ambitious performances to date, The Nutty Projector turned the Ocularis theater at Galapagos in Williamsburg, Brooklyn into a pseudo-Cinerama spectacular. A projected videotape of The Nutty Professor, horizontally distended by an anamorphic lens to double-wide dimensions, was the foundation for the performance. Bradley Eros and Donal O’Ceilleachair of Kino-Sonic jockeyed six film and video projectors, setting clips from various features, industrials and educational films up against Jerry, abetted by Andy Lampert at the audio controls, mixing the projector sound with various other sources.

The results ranged from banal to spectacular. At key moments, like Julius Kelp's transformation into Bud E. Love, the screen exploded with two versions of Jekyll and Hyde and a science film about the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies, but a good deal of the original film just didn't seem to spark much for the remixers. Expository scenes tended to drag, as did the buildup to some of Lewis's gags. But the grotty "lesbian" stag that turned up every time Kelp talked to Stella was witty in a smutty Lewisian sort of way. And the inclusion of bits from Un Chien Andalou was inspired: everything you wanted to know about what Jerry Lewis was thinking, but were afraid to ask...

March 29, 2002: Animal Charm at Foxy Productions, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The installation itself is the picture of simplicity: two monitors flank a tacky couch, the black, shapeless sort you picture in a Bret Easton Ellis novel.

A 41-track VCD plays on continuous shuffle on each monitor. Ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes in length, each track is a classic Animal Charm short. Comprised of found industrial and instructional videos mixed together with added sound elements, they feel like crazed cable commercials for incomprehensible products and services.

So it’s basically an automated Animal Charm performance, and one of the best projected media installations I’ve seen in ages. A man channels a nutjob from who-knows-when while another fellow bounces rubber balls in a big triangle, and everything gets chewed up anyway. It’s the perfect Animal Charm existential implosion, and something that one truly can watch for hours…

May 18, 2002 – Dominic Angerame at Millennium Film Workshop

In the seventy-plus years since Walter Ruttman made Berlin: Symphony of a City, the "city symphony" film has become something of a mini-genre. And yet, the more recent examples of the genre rarely capture the dynamism and mystery of their predecessors. It’s all too easy produce an interminable litany of "look at this!," and a good deal more difficult to capture the true essence of the secret life of a city. Still, filmmakers like Peter Hutton succeed in one way, and filmmakers like Dominic Angerame in another. Angerame’s version of the city symphony is peculiarly interesting in that he so perfectly illustrates the ideas of one of Ruttman’s more prescient contemporaries, Joseph Schumpeter. Lately in vogue after long obscurity, Schumpeter called capitalism as a form of "creative destruction," in which innovation overwhelms and erases that which preceded it. The Yale historian Max Page invoked Schumpeter in his recent history of New York City, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940; Angerame just goes ahead and films the process as it occurs. The razor-sharp, super-high-contrast, black and white printstock he habitually uses lends his footage a timeless antiquity, new and old at the same time. One neighborhood falls in anticipation of another, different one; the earthquake-mangled Embarcadero freeway in San Francisco disappears even more quickly than it was erected; cities remake themselves, for better or worse, while we watch. You can make what you like of these films. But the fact is, Something is Happening. And in a way, that’s enough.

July 14 and 16: The Halogen Canticles

Some time ago itinerant curator Mark McElhatten had the brilliantly obvious idea of showing experimental films composed primarily of found material along with the films they borrowed footage from. Ultimately, he paired Lewis Klahr’s Her Fragrant Emulsion with The Road to Salina, Peter Tcherkassky’s Outer Space and Dreamwork (For Man Ray) with The Entity and Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart with East of Borneo. The results, first seen at Lincoln Center and then at Anthology Film Archives, were fascinating. The first of these pairings was by far the most successful. Klahr’s Her Fragrant Emulsion is seen fairly regularly, but very few people have seen The Road to Salina, a kind of 70s AIP meets Antonioni exploitation film set in Mexico. As a result, Klahr’s film – often presented as a kind of homage to the less-than-famous actress Mimsy Farmer - always possessed a peculiarly enigmatic character. While it was clear that the film it was made from was pretty trashy, an unsettling sexual tension kept it tautly engaging. And yet, the delirious incest-by-proxy theme and multiple flashbacks of the original are perfectly in keeping with the fragmented fetishism of Klahr’s revision.

The pairing of Tcherkassky/DePalma pairing I found less successful. I’ve admired several of Tscherkassky’s films, but been ambivalent about these two since the first time I saw them. Their Cinemascope fabulousness, super-crisp and visually intense, always seemed to be covering up for a certain lack of substance. They knock you over, but once they’re done, there doesn’t seem so much to them. And pairing them up with their source material made the why rather plainer. A healthy dollop of 70s silliness doesn’t hurt this truly creepy and strange film at all. Barbara Hershey’s fantastic as the invisible-rapist-tormented mother, and the film never really ties down what’s in her head and what’s not. It’s a real success, and ought to get seen more often. But I don’t think that there’s much in Tcherkassky’s redux that isn’t already there in the original. And that’s the rub about working with material from a really good film.

As for Rose Hobart vs. East of Borneo, well, it was instructive. And there’s no question that I understand just how Cornell saw what he did in East of Borneo rather better. But I don’t think that I’d want to see them together again. Klahr’s and Tcherkassky’s films, despite extensive physical manipulation, retain strong connections to their respective sources. Rose Hobart, however, has nothing whatever to do with East of Borneo, which is actually a lovely film. But a good part of Rose Hobart’s sublimity derives from the elevation of Hobart’s actions from the prosaic into the metaphysical through their inexplicability as anything else. Watching Rose Hobart the first time was like watching a dream directed by the gaze of the dreamer. It loses some essential part of its dreaminess when one knows too freshly the substance of the dream itself.

13 October

It’s a bit galling that Ken Jacobs manages to make some of the finest movies I’ve ever seen without using so much as a scrap of film. Over the last several years, I’ve seen quite a few of Jacobs’s Nervous System and Magic Lantern performances. Some have been more successful than others, but every one has had something new and ineffable about it. But this performance at the New York Film Festival was something else entirely. Jacobs filled the wonderfully enormous screen of the Walter Reade Theater with pulsing, mottled patterns of refracted and masked light, light imbued with a peculiar, cold glow. The image was abstracted, and yet didn’t seem quite abstract. The vast majority of it faded into a soft blur, except for a circle of razor-sharp focus, that pulled me deeper into the image as it shifted slightly with each pulse. The sensation of drifting through a grand cave, or some microscopic landscape, was overwhelming, and the screen fell open like a great hole. And then it ended and began again. The last was perhaps the most peculiar. I could not shake the impression of gazing out over an opulent theater, patrons seated in the thousands under the arch of a vast cavern, and the image pulled back, and I felt as if I were gazing on a slightly hazy Breugels, gazing out over this off crowd, carousing in honor of a spectacle to which I was not a party. And then after the show, Jacobs displayed what he had been projecting. A sheet of ordinary wax paper in a frame.

19 October

It was plenty late in coming. Not to mention a little anticlimactic. But I’m convinced that today was a rather important day for American avant-garde film. Today began the first ever retrospective of Stan Brakhage’s films in Washington, D.C. There’s no disputing that Stan Brakhage is to the American avant-garde cinema what Jackson Pollock was to Abstract Expressionism. Brakhage is something like a barometer for the avant-garde. When he’s doing well, good things are a-coming. Unfortunately, it took a damn sight longer than it should have for Brakhage to get his due from Uncle Sam.

Still, here it finally is, and in fine form too. Ten programs of 75 films will represent a pretty substantial fraction of Brakhage’s work. The theater is large and well-filled. The prints were beautiful, and the selection very good, especially for the first show. Something like: Brakhage, boy to man. Beginning with the sweet, early Zone Moment, which is like a last glimpse of Brakhage as a boy, through Centuries of June, which become almost like Cornell looking though his eyes at that very moment. Then Gnir Rednow, the twist that sets things going, and on through a summation of maturation in Three Films: birth, first food and first sex. Suddenly, Stellar, in which the child relates to the cosmos, then Fire of Waters, in which the cosmos projects itself back onto the home. And ending with Anticipation of the Night, in which the horrible truth of what is lost in that change, from boy to man, is made most clear.

It’s like an overture, an introduction to Brakhage, and perfectly done. Many thanks to Mark McElhatten and Paul Roth of the Corcoran who put this series together. America is now sunk in its darkest days since, well, Brakhage made these films. And it is a gift indeed to have them to remind us of life, and how to live it.