The 44th New York Film Festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presents its 10th Annual Views from the Avant-Garde. In addition to a new video by Jean-Luc Godard, four restored prints of seminal films by Kenneth Anger, and a debut screening of Guy Maddin’s latest, Brand Upon the Brain! (with live narration by Isabella Rossellini), there will also be, among the series’s nine programs, various premieres of new work by artists I’m ashamed to admit a complete unfamiliarity with. Indeed, when it comes to the world of experimental cinema (and how I fear that label might reek of an unintentional condescension) I am decidedly a neophyte, but then it is rare for works such as these to find much play outside of the festival circuit, and rarer still for critics—wrapped in deceptively reassuring blankets of received wisdom—to charge forth blindly into the uncharted wilderness. This is to say that I’m taking it on faith that Lincoln Center’s choice of programs here represents a more-than-adequate representation of the (so-called) fringe and that my impressions of the two programs made available for preview are as astute as they can be under the circumstances.
“Where there’s a will…” so they say, a sentiment that might equally apply to the great Saul Levine, subject of Program 2 of the series, entitled “Notes from the Underground.” The five silent Super-8 works exhibited here (all blown up to 16mm for projection) range in subject and mood, from the playful to the political to the pornographic. Save for The Big Stick/An Old Reel (a comparison/dissection of two Chaplin shorts, intercut with newsreel footage of policemen working crowd control), each film is referred to as a Note, a designation I gather to have connotations both intimate and musical. Levine seems to be speaking, in these films, to a single entity as opposed to a mass mindset; his films play antithetically (or dissonantly) with the ’60s/’70s-era settings (times of mass unrest and uprising) that they document. Part of this arises out of Levine’s frequent stylistic tic, evident throughout, of bisecting his films’ frames with visible splice marks.
In his masterful New Left Note, Levine’s footage of the “Free Bobby Seale” demonstrations in New Haven clashes violently with televised images of Richard Nixon and death-toll news reports of Vietnam. The edits come fast and furious, hitting with ultimate force, and superimpositions are prevalent. The overwhelming sense is of a universal chaos, a disquiet that knows no boundaries, left or right. Even intimate interludes with a girlfriend or a seemingly progressive event like the moon landing are intruded upon, however tangentially, by threat (though never of the sort that select groups—subservient to their varied political aims and actions—would have us believe). Levine’s Note films (which, in addition to New Left, include Note to Pati, Note to Coleen and Note to Poli) aim at rectification and reappraisal of actions communal, artistic and sexual. Childhood jaunts through snow in Note to Pati play as a mini-nightmare of memory (all sensory overload with little participatory pleasure) while a portrait artist’s processes, in Note to Coleen, are rendered in heady fast motion, the act of creation collapsed into brief, elegiac snippets, ending as quickly as they begin. That’s as good a descriptor of the half-seen sexual interlude in Note to Poli, where oral and anal sex blends aggressively (near-subliminally) one into the other, with no visibly expressed release.
Levine’s edge is his elation and his constant pricks at our consciousness bring about a sort of revelatory catharsis. Not so, at least in my experience, with the films of the Italian artist Paolo Gioli, subject of Program 6 in the Avant-Garde series. Gioli’s film work has never had much of a proper exhibition in the west and so this mini-retrospective is welcome, even if many of the works exhibited tried my patience to the breaking point. The best piece is Filmarilyn, in which Gioli examines the proof sheets of a famous Bert Stern photo shoot with Marilyn Monroe, done at the time of her aborted George Cukor film project Something’s Gotta Give. Gioli animates the proofs, effectively resurrecting this cinema icon and forcing her through a cruel (but completely justified) psychological breakdown. Monroe-as-puppet is nothing new, but there’s a cutting insight and clarity to Gioli’s method, an interrogation of artistic morals and of our desire to peer beneath the skin of celebrity.
I suspect the Davids (Cronenberg and Lynch) would be stunned by the result (if they aren’t already), as I’m sure Luis Buñuel would have been appreciative of Quando L’occhio Trema (Gioli’s interrogation of the famed cloud-moon/razor-eye juxtaposition from Un Chien Andalou), the primary theme of which appears to be the crushing anxiety of influence of one artist on another. The Perforated Operator and Traumatograph are further interrogations of film form: The former focuses its intense gaze on a strip of PathÈ 9.5mm film, specifically its center-of-the-image perforation, while the latter crashes together images of actual and fictional trauma, though the points of both these works are decidedly tiresome in their arrhythmic repetition. Gioli’s “masterpiece” is the 45-minute Images Disturbed by an Intense Parasite, to these eyes and ears a deathly dull and sleep-inducing series of aural/visual superimpositions, overlays and juxtapositions. Strains of Wagner’s Das Rheingold and African tribal ululations collide with bi-/tri-sected television footage while negative-positive visuals smash heedlessly into their mirror images, an unbounded series of “meaningful” artistic fender-benders that amount to little of resonant substance. The fact, though, that one man’s eye-gouger is another’s revelation should go without saying, and I’m humbled as well by an observation of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (whose Five Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu is one of the great experimental works), to wit that the films he most remembers and admires are the ones “that allow me a nice nap.”