[Autor’s Note: Ken Jacobs once said, “The avant-garde never starts on time.” Still, apologies, guys, for getting to you late.]
Rays of light fall onto grass. Images dance on a screen in front of a skyscraper. Flowers shimmer with purple and a light, gentle green. These are images from Nathaniel Dorsky’s Pastourelle, perhaps the most beautiful film of the year.
I do mean film. The dominant impression from this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde program at the New York Film Festival is that video artists are still figuring out what to do. There were gorgeous videos and ugly films, but as programmer Mark McElhatten noted in one of his program introductions, video has “a different optical itinerary” than film has, with different cutting paces and rhythms in addition to image quality. One really saw this in new video works by legendary avant-garde artists Ken Jacobs and James Benning, whose best films were studies in iteration (how many different ways you could present the same image) and duration (how long you could hold a shot), respectively. In their new works, A Loft and Ruhr, they continued as usual, but the results seemed far less impressive on DV than on film; DV allows you to cut a sequence an infinite number of ways and hold a shot for as long as you want, so the artists’ final efforts felt arbitrary. So, too, did a strain of video works that revisited film sequences by reediting them, speeding them up, and slowing them down, in ways that pleasured momentarily but that didn’t do enough to distinguish themselves from YouTube mash-ups.
DV is still uncharted territory, and perhaps its goal should be to break away from film. A few strong examples suggested that it look at other forms instead. T. Marie’s Slave Ship faded a J.W. Turner painting in and out of view, startling you with how much light and color you could find inside it; Shambhavi Kaul’s Place for Landing, captured entirely through mirrors, took shots of children and ducks in basic motion and refracted them until both your brain and mind ached.
But the programs also showed that film’s properties are still being learned too. The series’s revelation for me was David Gatten, who has previously shown work at Views. Gatten presented three films this year, all of which transformed text into image. Shrimp Boat Log silently cuts between boats’ logs and the actual boats, then between boat and sea, capturing both a setting sun and a half-moon in the process; So Sure of Nowhere Buying Times to Come depicted a Sir Thomas Browne eulogy in front of a gray stone memorial, language replacing a dead friend. Gatten is the closest I’ve seen to Hollis Frampton, who in films like Zorns Lemma showed that words could both represent the world and form their own. But don’t be intimidated. Gatten tempers intellectualism with sweetness; he’s not a linguist or a visionary, but a sentimentalist, someone who loves what he’s shooting and presents language to enrich it.
Or maybe it’s the other way around; maybe Gatten loves language so much that the rest of the world gets expressed through it. He suggests this in my favorite Gatten film, Film for Invisible Ink, case no. 323: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Gatten made the piece for his wedding to the video artist Erin Espelie (a very good one, whose pieces at Views from the Avant-Garde navigated trauma with quotes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James). Black words unfold against a white background, the whole thing seeming like a guidebook. The letters on top appear in telegraphic code (“HAFIJ 62 JSLSI”) while the words on bottom categorize them (“instances of the road”). The top letters eventually become full, coherent words, too (“They had arrived”), while the bottom words stay iterative (“instances that open doors”). “I take thee from this day forward” becomes a summoning instance; “to have and to hold” an instance of alliance; “in sickness and in health” an instance of refuge; and, finally, “all my love I do thee give” an instance of covenant, then a shining instance, then a magical instance. The film’s last images are Gatten’s dedication to Espelie—to her from him, “with love and promises for all our instances.”
The film itself, like Views from the Avant-Garde’s other strong pieces, was a magical instance. The best avant-garde works that I saw this year, film or video, took ordinary, basic images and infused them with wonder. Gatten got more from less than anyone else did. We have discovered a great filmmaker.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.