I. The Trains
Among the earliest images from motion picture history is the arrival of a train; the locomotive entering La Ciotat station in 1895, its passengers exiting through compartment doors that, one by one, make the vehicle bloom, gives the cinema its archetypal visual allegory. Of course, trains appear not only in the Lumière mode (approaching, distending, coming to a halt), but also in the tenor of Howard Hawks (Twentieth Century) and Buster Keaton (The General) and James Benning (RR), trains that are either largely dining-car-and-dressing-room affairs or hopelessly fussy and incessant, objects with cycles rather than destinations.
The 60 shorts and features in this year’s Migrating Forms festival at Anthology Film Archives are not, in any ordinary sense, train movies, although they intensify assumptions about a medium that ultimately gave the Lumières their apocryphally startled audience at the end of the 19th century. Of course, the image of the moving train depends largely on expressions of space (the proximity of the movie camera to the train, for instance, or the axis of its trajectory across the frame) and time (the speed of its appearance on screen, the duration of its arrival and departure) that have their model consummation in the cinema, that supply the technology with definitive features exploited to great effect by many of this year’s filmmakers.
II. Flat Surfaces and Seashell Sounds
When they do appear, the trains in Tomonari Nishikawa’s shorts Tokyo-Ebisu and Shibuya-Tokyo too often become the ancillary visual components of collided streetscapes and truncated streetwalkers. Nishikawa turns Tokyo into a less silent, more impatient version of Peter Hutton’s straight-ahead moving cityscapes, and the effect feels incantatory; compartmentalizing and slicing their tableaus into grids of images shot during different times and from different angles, Nishikawa’s two films convert the spaces of the frame into opportunities for cacophonous montage, stacking flat surfaces with blocks of moving heads, arms, and traffic in ways that grant simultaneous access to multiple spaces. The quality of these images, their coarseness and the murk of their colors, is the distinctive feature of Nishikawa’s 16mm cinematography, and the visual enjambment of Tokyo-Ebisu and Shibuya-Tokyo is thickened by a soundtrack of nondescript motorways, a harsh and unrelenting low-decibel soundscape amplified beyond fidelity to its sources, like seashell noise set to the drone of overhead fluorescents.
In Mario Pfeifer’s 50-minute A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue & Epilogue, surfaces stay flat, although here the sharpness and definition of Avijit Mukul Kishore’s cinematography turns images of contemporary Mumbai—a tiny barbershop, the mountainside, streets stocked with canopied shops and vendors, a lake intercepted by twin motorways—into spaces resonant with historical feeling. The melancholy of Pfeifer’s film is precisely its insistence that pasts—private or otherwise—have contemporary import as allegories, that histories are only as palpable as their ruins, that landscapes remind but don’t resuscitate.
III. Thinking and Speaking From Elsewhere
So, too, does Neil Beloufa treat spaces as insufficient surrogates for history, although here the history is far more ominous, far less disclosed and tender than its incarnation in Pfeifer. With Untitled, Beloufa’s characters speak solemnly of the unidentified former occupants of the film’s large-windowed Algerian home, constructed here entirely in colorful cardboard panels, its interior reduced entirely to surfaces. Who were the owners of this home? The elusiveness of Untitled doesn’t necessarily frustrate, and the voices of its characters—the stories they tell, the information they give—contributes to the creation of a highly suggestive, portentous atmosphere. At one moment, we’re told that the absent occupants were terrorists, that a great deal of effort was required to guarantee their anonymity despite the numerous windows of the house.
Like Beloufa, Matías Piñeiro is curious about the consequences of speaking from the position of another, of temporarily inhabiting a different self. The beautiful Rosalind begins with its young men and women speaking vis-à-vis As You Like It, posing as vociferous and summertime proxies for the characters of Shakespeare’s play, their own romantic intrigues occasionally syncopated and extended by the world of fiction, by the space of pretend and performance. Under 40 minutes, Piñero’s film is a contemporary reworking or reimagining of the locus amoenus, the “pleasant place” of the pastoral, an environment that Rosalind handles with great strength and interest. These are characters proficient in the residency of other feelings, other selves, other dispositions. Piñero’s accomplishment is the persuasiveness with which he handles these perspective shifts and temporary psychic relocations.
Another import from Argentina, Santiago Loza and Iván Fund’s Los Labios situates three women in an abandoned hospital to administer medical services to provincial families. Their activities are captured here with the assistance of María Laura Collasso’s tight and shallow portraits, the women framed by a handheld camera that pans and tilts between moist faces and sunlit rooms. These are characters that exist primarily in the company of the people they assist, a group of women whose characteristic disposition is selflessness; if the young lovers of Rosalind think and feel from the place of others without risking irrevocable transformation, the tripartite union in Los Labios acts its way into a certain kind of role that it may feel ambivalent about, but to which it remains committed. Like Loza and Fund’s, these films are interested in the gaps that exist between pasts and futures, between different spaces with distinct features that very often resist reconciliation. This year’s installment of Migrating Forms pursues relationships between time and space that are complicated and vibrant; it is also a cross section of a cinema with a taste for landscapes and selves transformed.
Anthology Film Archives’ “Migrating Forms” program runs from May 20 – 29. For more information, click here.