Migrating Forms remains the art-house event of the New York moviegoing calendar, even as institutions like the Museum of the Moving Image and Lincoln Center have gotten in on the act by spotlighting similar contemporary works with newer programs like First Look and Art of the Real, respectively. Programmed by Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry, the 2014 festival peers into the 21st-century crisis of verisimilitude with playful aplomb, featuring works that don’t so much blur fact and fiction as they put quotation marks around every “fact” on screen and take their respective digressions from there. This love for the autopsy is a cinephile’s to be sure, and the program reflects concerns with both self-representation (to say nothing of representation of others) and the creeping interference of the digital world with what used to be dubbed “cinema.” That said, a measured appreciation for filmmaking’s material labors seems to imbue Killian and McGarry’s choices, which find grace in their own rigor—a kind that isn’t nearly often enough blown up on the big screen.
So while the inclusion of the late, pioneering documentarian William Greaves’s 1968 Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class might initially appear an act of due diligence, the doc actually makes a striking contrast with what Greaves would accomplish in the very same year with Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. Squarely narrated by Ossie Davis, Brother’s tone can be mistaken for clinical at first blush, even dispassionate; it’s only once Greaves begins his sit-down interviews (with a handful of successful black men in some of America’s major cities) that his journalistic finesse comes to the fore. In the context of their careers, these interviewees are as prestigious as they are guarded before the camera; consider a moment when pioneering chemist Percy L. Julian offhandedly says of his “negro” brethren: “I’m not sure we can rest comfortably and think that the majority of white Americans have good will toward them….... I wish I could keep this dream, but…. I’m afraid that these experiences to which you refer made me doubt that I could have any such dream as that.” Most of these revelations – if that’s even the proper term – sound like tangents or afterthoughts; Greaves doesn’t fail to pick up on the strain between wanting to speak candidly without rocking the boat. In his own way, Greaves captures the sense of pained compromise inherent in “respectability politics” just long enough to make it linger, before breezing onward to another touchstone.
On the other hand, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, a compendium of footage both from and surrounding a “screen test” filmed by Greaves and a small crew over a summer day in Central Park, delights in its own narrative slowing down and sputtering back to life. Scenes from a hoary, anonymous melodrama between two actors are interrupted by Greaves, speaking suddenly as the director—upending whatever pretensions Symbiopsychotaxiplasm has heretofore feigned to realism. By the time all three of the production’s cameras are retrained on the scene, it’s abundantly clear—via seamlessly timed split-panel editing—that no angle will suffice to hide the crew. The film’s working title of Over the Cliff may well have been improvised by Greaves just to placate a crowd of curious women early in the day’s shoot—a “scene” which, like many others, feels a little too preconceived to be straight documentary. The crew grows increasingly opinionated about where the production is heading, resulting in a mélange made with scads of discipline even if making the film ipso facto to have fun; if we could document the making of all films, we wouldn’t have films anymore, just footage. (Greaves’s Ali-Frazier documentary, The Fight, sometimes listed as The Fighters, is reputed for a similar razor-sharp acuity in capturing live moments, and this will be its first New York screening this century.)
Built from a sturdier postmodern proposition is Gina Telaroli’s Here’s to the Future!, chronicling a single day in the fall of 2011 wherein the filmmaker rounded up friends and collaborators to light, stage, and shoot a scene from Michael Curtiz’s 1932 The Cabin in the Cotton. The film’s hushed, luxurious opening carries the timbre of a 23-piece band warming up for a concert, regularly zeroing in on any one of many miniscule details of production (resetting of lights, grappling to get the perfect medium close-up) before the first “Action!” Even then, Telaroli will edit simultaneous phone footage from around the set in with snippets of her own input to the actors as they’re changed up, round-robin style, for each successive take. Starting repeatedly from the same exact shot, Telaroli pans left to unfurl longer and shorter renditions, a kind of repeat jab at cinema’s infinite divisibility. (The scene itself suggests Telaroli would be well suited to direct a feature, but that’s not the point.) A camera is left recording after shooting has wrapped, and a lengthy shot of a radio playing music from the dinner table follows, cloaking the jubilant sounds of the crew behind it—a self-indulgent flourish that nevertheless invites narrative voyeurism. As party promoters say: “If you were there, then you know…”
Given that two films have been made about Julian Assange, one barn-burning documentary about Edward Snowden with a new Oliver Stone rendering en route, it’s a surprise nobody had tried yet to put on screen Pvt. Chelsea Manning, the first great Obama-era whistleblower. Paradoxically, Lance Wakeling’s Field Visits for Chelsea Manning opens with the “Collateral Murder” video Manning shared with WikiLeaks in 2010, only to shift focus off the contents of her disclosures and limit her “appearance” on screen to drab, white-on-black text court transcripts. Wakeling retreads Manning’s journey—as, it should be noted, a prisoner—from Kuwait back to heartland America, an attempt to see the world as she saw it in transit, according to the filmmaker’s doleful voiceover. Wakeling imagines “a future in which road signs were torn down, and rusted into oblivion—leaving behind only their digital GPS coordinates,” but lets this bromide speak for itself while the rather mundane roadside driving footage does the same. The findings on display brilliantly bespeak the contradictions of the eternal, weird America; some, like a barbershop quartet of old men dressed as manacled jail inmates, can’t help but feel too perfect.
Faring better along video travel-diary lines is Soon-mi Yoo’s short feature about the two Koreas, Songs from the North. It’s no secret that the Kim regime adopted both a Hollywood vernacular (complete with snap zooms and musical swells) for its propaganda films, and a sense of pageantry comparable to that of the Third Reich for its public rallies. But as Yoo catalogues these mind-melting examples of state-directed spectacle, she plays them off of footage and interviews taken from her three separate trips to the hermit regime, ruminating on how both North and South Koreans have internalized their history (or not). Songs from the North is a work of sobriety, handily avoiding or exploding the rampant Western stereotypes (sure to be re-lit by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s The Interview). Yoo’s father makes an observation I’ve never encountered in any literature or film about the hermit regime, as he recounts a bourgeois friend who moved North during the war: “At that time, smart friends like him really believed communism was the best system to create an equal society. You see, these were all the sons of landed gentry…While farmers were worked to the bone, the landowners collected farm rent and lived a life of luxury.”
The flat, cloud-era disposition of Field Visits may well be a lodestar of the festival’s shorter works, in which the narrative form is demolished from one to the next; the only word for it is “artisinal.” Celebrated visual artist Cory Arcangel’s Freshbuzz makes its world premiere, essentially an hour-long video screencap of a trip into the green, yellow, and white landscape of the official Subway website. While Arcangel’s fumbling cursor stalks sandwich and salad options, each item is revealed to have its own signature dolly shot, with the Flash image pulling backward (sometimes around and backward) from the head of the sandwich out to reveal a wide-angle portrait. (Arcangel vigilantly clicks on the tab for each and every single one.) The lonely sojourn is only interrupted by “diet tips” from faux nutritionists and auto-playing Subway commercials, but eventually Arcangel steps out into the fresh air of the company’s social-media platforms, YouTube and beyond. Rigidly anti-essayistic, Freshbuzz will make the modern moviegoer queasy with existential corporate boredom, but for its claustrophobia and depiction of the never-ending zone-spiral, Arcangel’s work will prove invaluable to future generations—or alien visitors.
Canadian filmmaker Barry Doupé’s Life and People is drawn from an exercise similar to Telaroli’s, but unhinged to one piece of text; instead, it turns an anonymous stage into the ultimate safe space, with eight rotating actors (some better than others) performing an array of day-to-day interactions. Doupé’s ensemble appears free to try out different things, with every interaction’s dramatic momentum up for grabs the instant the players appear on screen. In one scene, a man blankly proposes to a woman from a profile angle, and the camera pans to her face for the response—only to find her staring, and responding, directly into the lens. Deadpan and hyper-lucid, the moment recedes as quietly as it appeared; the proliferating, empty connections between players become a therapeutic force for observation even. A moment as spare as somebody walking into a room and apologizing gets smothered in mystery.
Gabriel Abrantes’s Ennui Ennui is a brazen, abrasive sociopolitical burlesque on Obama’s drone wars and the clash between Eastern (goatherder, jihadist) and Western (divorced floozy, Foucault-clutching aid worker) character clichés. The production is massively slick, but in the service of such an enervating, literal-minded satire it becomes irreconcilable; instead of his command, you marvel at Abrantes’s budget. Meanwhile, the churning, lightweight digital images strung together to make Sarah Abu Abdallah and Joey L. DeFrancesco’s Delighted to Serve brings the manic-refracting intensity of digitally mediated day-to-day life—what they call “augmented reality”—to a boil. The narration is comprised of bogus, robo-voiced passages as if read from a user’s manual for the extinguishing of the human spirit, and indeed the short grows to feel like it might have been, for its makers, a Chris Burden-level extreme haul. Abdallah and DeFrancesco’s crowning image is a ceaselessly multiplying shot of a hotel corridor, the camera stumbling ever forward, giving us mere flickers before an imminent crash (or meltdown) that, however deeply felt, never arrives.
Tackled above is a mere sliver of what’s showing during this year’s program. There’s also a spotlight on artist Rachel Rose, whose short A Minute Ago rivals the best set piece in your favorite disaster epic for its sustained dread and screeching collision of layers of optical confusion. Swedish-American filmmaker Rolf Forsberg receives a mini-retrospective as well, and his post-apocalyptic nature poem Ark perfectly straddles the divide between lush ’60s ambience and garish, acrylic ’70s maximalism. Electronic Arts Intermix will be presenting The Irish Tapes, a 1974 documentary taken wholly from Portapak footage shot in Troubles-era Belfast, with a far more direct-cinema approach than Alexander McCaig’s essayistic The Patriot Game. But compared to these (slightly stale) repertory curios, no disrespect is intended in suggesting the contemporary forms are less migrating than they are evacuating.
BAMcinématek’ “Migrating Forms” program runs from December 10–18. For more information, click here.