Two years ago, when the New York Underground Film Festival decided to close its doors and reopen shop under the title Migrating Forms, it was more than a fresh name change. The film which gave them their new moniker, an odd but singular vision by James Fotopoulos released in 1999, would be used as the model for an improved framework: the films shown would be transitory, at once fleeting and grounded, migrating through the questions that permeate not just experimental film and video, but contemporary art as a whole. The stigma attached to the word ‘underground’ could finally be let go. The work is what would now set expectations. One expectation that has already been set is for exemplary programming. Here are glimpses from the sidebars of major, commercial-driven platforms such as Toronto and the New York Film Festival, or looped on walls in side rooms at the Whitney Biennial. Though these are vastly different venues and formats, the works themselves shares similar concerns. They constitute very separate audiences who, generally speaking, like to keep a safe distance from one another. Why is that? Why further isolate work that has a tough enough time being shown in the dwindling number of spaces open to non-commercial art? By subjecting experimental film to such skepticism and scrutiny, the gap between these two modes of production and presentation is widened, both audiences playing a part in its demise.At Migrating Forms, however, we got to see both factions rubbing up against each other. One of the highlights this year was the program of work by Kerry Tribe, whose double-projection film H.M. (2009) was featured in the 2010 Whitney Biennial. Her work stood out in the museum but it was here, projected on the screen in a dark theater, that I was able to fully appreciate the the complexities. Here & Elsewhere (2002), also by Tribe, a two-channel video featuring film theorist Peter Wollen and his daughter Audrey, is a stunning examination of cinematic representation inspired by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne Marie Miéville’s video-essay France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1977). In many ways more successful than it’s predecessor, Tribe’s video rejects the interrogative interview style employed by Godard in favor of an inquisitive, open dialogue.Although Tribe’s work made the transition from gallery to theater unscathed, others did not fare so well. Nira Pereg’s Kept Alive (2010), while visually stunning and hypnotic, must have worked better in a gallery setting. The video’s three-channels and fascinating use of the audio field — creating minimalist rhythms through the clanging of shovels — seems more suitable as an installation that one might walk around and through, than screened as a straight film. The video, which was shot at Jerusalem’s Mountain of Rest, almost requires space from the spectator instead of the sealed-off viewing hole of the theater. Peggy Ahwesh’s Ape of Nature, which deals with the hypnotic state brought on by our post-industrial society, as well as Amie Siegel’s two-part opus about the world of intense fandom, My Way I and My Way II, though shorter, felt part of something larger.Many pieces were screened, however, that trod that thin line, for better or worse, between inconsequentiality and pertaining to a greater total narrative or sense of completeness. The latter was usually true of those films which played to greater, universal themes. For example, Michael Robinson’s If There Be Thorns, the most deceptively accessible piece in the festival, uses elements of the classic trance film to evoke a sense of longing, as three characters — siblings? friends? strangers? — wander through a dense landscape attempting to connect, at times to the sounds of a purposefully hammy synth-ballad. Stephanie Barber’s to the horse dream of arms (2010) manages to evoke a wide range of childhood experiences through the manipulation of a short piece of film. Building tension though the repetition of a flicker caused by an overexposed burst of light, the film finally breaks free in a startling jolt that is genuinely shocking, as well as comical. Despite its short five minutes, Barber’s film created a palpable mood that hours of footage could not guarantee. Also successful because of its human appeal was I Know Where I’m Going (2009), a beautifully-shot tribute to the art of wandering and isolation by Ben Rivers. In a road-trip through various weathered terrains, the filmmaker/audience encounters various autonomous men, living out their existence away from the influence of the outside world. An idyllic dream-film that also taps into the cold loneliness of this way of life served as a neat allegory for the struggle every artist faces in the process of creation.Such themes were present in the longer features at the festival. The retrospective of films by Jean-Pierre Gorin was a revelation, and the packed audiences should be as strong indication as any that his work deserves to be seen by a larger audience. After moving to California in the mid-1970s, in a series of moves to possibly distance himself from the drifting motives of the radicals he once associated himself, Godard and the Dziga Vertov Group, he took a teaching position at the University of California at San Diego and began what is informally known as the ‘California Trilogy.’ Displaying a strong journalistic streak, Gorin inserted himself in the narrative, both as a narrator and character. While Gorin’s films deal with how small groups thrive, other works at Migrating Forms dealt with communities that are slowly collapsing. The effects of the constant exploitation of the Philippines forms the basis of two very different films that premiered at the festival. In Lav Diaz’s Butterflies Have No Memories (2009), we see the economic hardships faced by a community after the sudden departure of the local mining company. The narrative revolves around Martha, a former resident who moved to Canada when she was nine years old and has now returned after the death of her father to the resentment of the community who sees her no differently than as another one of the outsiders who put them out of work. John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2009), a four-hour documentary, tells two parallel stories that echo each other; the first, a history of the Revolution and the second, dealing with the wreckage caused by the US Bases in the Philippines. It’s a powerful statement against American imperialism, filled with first-person testimonials that drive home the suffering caused by greed and, more sadly, plain stupidity.But not everything was so grim. Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s Made in Hollywood (1990) uses popular clichés ranging from 1950’s melodramas, soap operas, and commercial advertising to hilarious effect. Regarding the latter, the film opens with a commercial for a faux-company called Stater Brothers (what they produce is never specified), scored to an over-the-top pop-country jingle. Sample lyric: “If the girl next door can become your wife / every friend you make is a friend for life!” Starring a young Patricia Arquette in one of her first roles, the film questions the meaning of a world made completely of popular images.Along the same lines were the the comic short films of Ed Ruscha. Rarely seen, the work has been largely overshadowed by Ruscha’s drawing, painting, and photographic output over the years. Even more startling, considering the artist’s interest in language, was the fact that both films shown, Premium (1971) and Miracle (1975) contain little dialogue at all. Premium features the artist Larry Bell making a large salad on a hotel room bed, trying to convince a woman to roll around in it, and then leaving the scene, all peppered with small, simple sight gags (such as a chair breaking, and a small rat that appears in the corner of the room). Miracle, very similar in tone, features a car mechanic who, while obsessing over the interior of a 1965 Mustang, forgets that he was supposed to meet one of his girlfriends (played by Michelle Phillips) for a date. Ruscha’s work has never been overtly serious, but never has his work been so outrightly humorous as it is here.The greatest triumph of the festival, however, came at the very beginning. In years to come, when I think back on this edition of Migrating Forms, I will conjure images from Kevin Jerome Everson’s Erie (2010). Building a loose narrative through a succession of formalist long takes, each one shedding light on the next, the film achieves dream-like states that end in a climactic boat tour of Niagara Falls. Like all great films, the various connections between takes develop gradually, but the images themselves are instantaneously imprinted in your mind. If Migrating Forms continues to procure this kind of work, its success and longevity as a festival is assured, and fostering the survival of an intelligent film community seems, then, inevitable.
ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES, NEW YORK
32 2nd Ave.
May 14 – May 23