Friday, November 20, 2015

Best of the Avant-Garde 2015

This is the third iteration of this annual roundup of the year in avant-garde, and it has only gotten more difficult over that span to narrow down an entire twelve months of noteworthy accomplishments into an arbitrary list of favorites. For one, the term avant-garde, as broad and malleable as it’s ever been, is still a wholly subjective designation. Can a documentary be avant-garde? Can narrative shorts be avant-garde? Can widely travelled features be avant-garde? The answer is, of course, yes. So in the spirit of the proceedings, I haven’t placed any restrictions on the list you’re about to read, other than limiting it to eight selections, a number arrived at for no other reason than it happened to pop up on a few occasions as I began considering titles.

And this year, that pool of titles was larger than ever. I’ll certainly never claim any list to be definitive, but I will say that I watched more “avant-garde” films than ever this year: Essentially everything from Crossroads, Wavelengths, and Projections, with a number of select titles from Images and Ann Arbor and the odd regional program. Which is to say, a lot of excellent work was necessarily left out. So, before we begin, a quick tip of the hat to Scott Stark (Traces/Legacy), Eric Stewart (Wake), Mary Helena Clark (Palms), Ben Russell (Greetings to the Ancestors), Jonathan Schwartz (3 Miniatures), Lewis Klahr (Mars Garden), Blake Williams (Something Horizontal), Björn Kämmerer (Navigator), Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (Sector IX B), Laida Lertxundi (Viva para Vivir), Margaret Honda (Color Correction) and Madison Brookshire (About 11 Minutes).

8. Park Lanes / Kevin Jerome Everson (Rotterdam: Signals 24/7; Images Festival; MoMA: Documentary Fortnight)

Following a string of small-scale suburban surveys, Kevin Jerome Everson began 2015 with something far more ambitious: Park Lanes, an eight-hour observational portrait of an anonymous group of urban factory workers meant to replicate the shape and experience of an entire work day. Arriving at dawn in the film’s first scene, the team of mostly African and Vietnamese American laborers proceed straightaway in constructing what will only eventually be revealed as the component parts of a bowling lane. Shooting in a manner reminiscent of direct cinema pioneers Frederick Wiseman and Robert Gardner, Everson silently tracks the workers’ many tasks—which range from the menial and repetitious to the elaborate and intensely physical—pausing to capture lunch breaks and conversations between the staff with the same attention to the nuances of language, behavior and cultural identity that has come to define this commendably empathetic filmmaker’s sociological interests. In more ways than simply its more immediately appreciable qualities (the film’s scope and seamlessly integrated structure tell only part of the story here), this may be Everson’s most impressively comprehensive evocation of American life yet.

7. Neither God Nor Santa Maria / Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Girón (Toronto: Wavelengths; New York: Projections)

Part ethnography, part mystic cinematic mirage, this beautiful and evocative portrait of Yé, a remote village on the island of Lanzarote, is a paradoxically opaque work of tactile pleasures. Shot on expired 16mm celluloid, the film makes a virtue of its degraded textures, granting its images of flora and fauna, coastal vistas and mountainous contours, the look of an excavated travelogue, with scratches and imperfections resonating on the soundtrack as ambient accompaniment to the vast topographical phenomena peering through the fog-shrouded atmosphere. Meanwhile, audio recordings made in the late-sixties by the ethnographer Luis Diego Cuscoy act as ominous narration, the voices relating stories of witchcraft and the occult that, over centuries, have taken on local legend. With an acute eye and ear for natural detail and speculative history, directors Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Girón have constructed both an oral diary and an archaeological account of a far-off land, all the more vivid for never quite coming into focus.

6. The Two Sights / Katherine McInnis (New York: Projections)

Inspired by the Book of Optics, Muslim scientist Ibn al-Haytham’s 11th-century tome concerning the capacity of human vision and its relation to the physical world, this brief but bracing work by Katherine McInnis is, in the words of the filmmaker, a “false translation” of this ancient text. Comprised of vintage images from Life Magazine, The Two Sights’ formal presentation is deceptively simple, utilizing an elemental arsenal of flicker effects to visually stimulate its still life subject matter, in turn setting up a dialectal study in the perception and movement generated between individual frames. The sensory impression McInnis achieves is not unlike that provoked by Scott Stark in his contemporary classic The Realist (2013), but rather than a bombastic display of reanimation, McInnis’ montage suggests a more mournful fate for its subjects, as the paranoia of midcentury America bursts forth in affectless images of scientific and social experimentation, the at once nervy and naive facade broken ever further with each flash of light and shift in perspective.

5. The Exquisite Corpus / Peter Tscherkassky (Cannes: Directors’ Fortnight; Toronto: Wavelengths; New York: Projections)

The avant-garde has a not-unfair reputation of self-seriousness. But there are fun films out there as well, and Austrian veteran Peter Tscherkassky’s first film in five years is one very fine example, a playful amalgam of vintage erotica let loose as a fever-dream of cinema’s less refined past. The humor of The Exquisite Corpus is, in one sense, intrinsic to its source: faces charged with ecstasy and pleasure, un-ironic come-ons delivered in affectless timbres—it’s the stuff of late-night softcore lore, all black lace and unkempt nether regions. However, in the hands of Tscherkassky, these images are granted a dimension of burlesque theatricality, its dead-girl framework eviscerated at once by a hyperactive montage—achieved via the analogue employment of various masking, superimposition and re-photography effects—and an additional layer of orchestral bombast, the tactile texture of the celluloid filmstrips themselves appearing to buckle under the attendant sensory stress. It would make for an appropriate double-bill with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room, regenerating as it does bygone imagery while staging the resultant drama as a funhouse of the exotic.

4. Something Between Us / Jodie Mack (New York: Projections)

Jodie Mack topped the inaugural edition of this list in 2013 with the left-field triumph Let Your Light Shine. In the interim she’s produced a few films, all of which I’m fond of but which nevertheless feel like fairly prescribed reiterations of established strengths. Something Between Us feels like a proper follow-up, as well a genuine step forward for this ever-exciting artist. The opening moments of the film, a sort of bucolic lakeside pastorale, represent new territory for Mack, though the irregular intrusions of rolling bracelets and swinging bits of jewelry quickly break the reverie, repositioning us firmly within the filmmaker’s artisanal headspace. Mack proceeds to play these two forces—the natural and the manufactured—off one another brilliantly, the bedazzled trinkets producing prismatic light formations as they spin before an artificial light source, just as the sunlight streaming through the morning mist spills forth a rainbow of organic hues. Eventually, the two environments bleed into a single spectrum of aquatic illuminations and iridescent refractions, accompanied by the accumulating sound of bells and chimes, themselves gathering into a joyous music box medley. All told, the single most beautiful film yet from an artist with no shortage of striking visions to her name.

3. Night Without Distance / Lois Patiño (Locarno: Fuori concorso; Toronto: Wavelengths; New York: Projections)

Galician artist Lois Patiño is, in a broad sense, a landscape filmmaker—and, even at only 32 years of age, one of the very best. But if prior works such as Mountain in Shadow (2012) and Coast of Death (2013) relied largely on the grandeur and inherent beauty of their geologic subject matter, his latest, Night Without Distance, blatantly intervenes between the natural environment and the viewer’s perspective. Filmed in the Gerês Mountains on the border of Portugal and Galicia, the film essentially amounts to a series of languid shots of human bodies set amidst various topographies, the “characters,” as such, conspiring quietly about a vague smuggling operation. This is all backdrop, however, to the film’s visual palette, which Patiño produced through negative reversals, a common enough technique which here takes on an alien beauty, all vivid purples, deep greens, chromatic grays, and radioactive shades of white. Patiño’s camera then proceeds to tracks slowly, at times imperceptibly, through the landscape, generating an eerie sense of calm as previously unseen figures begin to reveal themselves within the rocky terrain. There’s something to be said for establishing a narrow set of aesthetic and formal boundaries and attempting to fully engage the cinematic potential offered therein. And in that sense, Night Without Distance is all but flawless.

2. Engram of Returning / Daïchi Saïto (Toronto: Wavelengths)

The year’s most visceral audio-visual experience, Daïchi Saïto’s bracing eighteen-minute trip across a volatile expanse of unidentified landscapes once and for all brings his working method into direct communication with his subject matter by dispensing with both context and any immediately readable means of expression. Where do these images come from? How has Saïto stitched them into a breathing aesthetic object when the material property of the images themselves appear to be losing ground to the encroaching crepuscular emanations of an untraceable source? Rather than submit these images to a structuralist strategy in a manner familiar to much of his recent work, Saïto instead allows each measure of visible topography to respond organically to his hand-processed photo-chemical effects and re-photography methods, the composite frames thereby gathering a tangible weight and a vividly saturated spectrum of inky pigments (indeed, what I casually identified in my report from Wavelengths as the employment of dyes is nothing so blatantly intrusive). The effect is one of locomotive momentum brought to a nightmarish intensity by the subterranean saxophone accompaniment of Jason Sharp, whose circular breathing technique produces an audible respiratory response which Saïto utilizes as conceptual compliment to the physicality of the geographic constituents. This is a film that plays on our most basic cognitive conceptions, rendering any sense of reality and its attendant distractions wholly obsolete.

1. 88:88 / Isiah Medina (Locarno: Signs of Life; Toronto: Wavelengths; New York: Projections)

On its own aesthetic and formal merit, 88:88 would be a worthy choice for the top spot of any year-end list of similar ordinance. But this a work that has already taken on a unique life of its own outside the confines of the cinema, the very act of supporting its advancements and upholding its ideology representing a rare instance in the advocation for something undeniably progressive—potentially even entirely new—in the cinematic medium. Certainly no work in recent memory has generated as much in debate in the experimental sector as Isiah Medina’s first feature, a film, for the sake of classification, we might identify as a sixty-five-minute montage comprising the director’s family and friends and the various Montreal haunts they call home. But what Medina has done is take the act of filming—something, based on the evidence at hand, he must vigorously partake in—and turned it into a statement of both political and cinematic unrest, one in which every frame and every cut bespeak a previously untapped means of human expression. It can be difficult at times to even attempt to keep up with the sheer onslaught of voices and images, articulations of cultural identity and civil liberty compressed into fleeting pleas for the dispossessed, images piling into collages of everyday beauty and banality alike. The film’s revelations, then, are tied up wholly in its means of expression, its themes byproducts of Medina’s highly intuitive process. 88:88’s unchecked energy is thus entirely appropriate—this is the rare film that feels truly inexhaustible. [Fandor]

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