Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Report on the 13th Annual Views from the Avant-Garde

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Report on the 13th Annual Views from the Avant-Garde

Article excerpt

When The New York Film Festival celebrates its 48th anniversary this Fall, Views from the Avant-Garde (hereafter "Views") will mark its 14th year as an essential sidebar to the Festival. Conceived and hosted by Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith, these programs have presented well over 500 independent works as of its 13th incarnation in 2009 - ranging in length from 1 minute (Katherin Mclnnis' Horizon Line, 2009) to nearly 7 hours (Ken Jacobs' Star Spangled to Death, 2003) and spread over as many as 1 1 programs in a single weekend. Owing to financial straits and erratic publishing deadlines, "Views" has never had the substantial coverage it deserves in Millennium Film Journal. The present report on last year's programs is a small attempt at reparation. Since films, ideally, have a life beyond festivals, it seems appropriate, if belated, to pay homage to the works and their creators, as well as to Messieurs McElhatten and Smith for the daunting task of mounting "Views" year after year.

The number of films and programs crowded into those weekends can be exhausting: not allowing sufficient time to absorb, let alone reflect upon the countless images projected. Despite this, "Views" has often come under fire for not being inclusive enough. Since I am not a programmer, I cannot speak to this question with audiority. As it is, my report barely scratches the surface. Though I saw virtually everything in "Views 13," I restrict my remarks to works that stirred me the most and evoked the aesthetic invention associated with avant-garde films historically - whether in France of the 1 920s or America in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Then and now, the best works fuse aesthetics with cultural, political, and personal preoccupations. Is there a more telling example of counter-cultural aesthetics driven by autobiographical passion than Kenneth Anger's appropriation of Soviet montage in Fireworks (1947)?

The 2009 edition of "Views 1 3" screened sixty-one films. What follows is an appreciation of a handful - a selection dictated by personal preferences, space restrictions, and the opportunity to see a work more than once. Barry Gerson's The Universe left me speechless, but I prefer to write about it more fully in a future issue oí MFJ. Also, since I chose to concentrate on new works, I give no attention to the older films screened. As always, there were short works and those of feature or near-feature length; films in 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm and various forms of video and digital processes. Indeed, "Views 13" was an apt occasion for comparing the relative strengths of different media.

New works by familiar names stood alongside debuts of promise. One of the latter was Jason Byrne's Scrap Vessel (USA, HDcam from 16mm and video, color, sound, 2009). Though perhaps not perfectly realized, Byrne's feeling for the sea and for the Norwegian-built freighter on its last journey to Bangladesh, where it will be demolished, comes across well. Stylistically, the film exhibits an imbalance between documentary and lyrical tendencies. Shots of activity on the ship are nondescript whereas overhead shots of a turbulent sea are stunning, and long takes of the deck as the vessel moves incrementally forward suggest an uncanny, indiscernibly animated still life, testimony to the filmmaker's visual sense over the reportorial.

A similar negotiation between document and lyricism, Pim Zwier's Sarah Ann (Netherlands/UK, 35mm, b&w, sound, 2008) leaves an indelible impression via three stunning black and white shots of die Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol, England. A female voice-over recounts the strange tale of the young woman of the tide who on May 8, 1885 jumped off this bridge and survived for the next sixty-two years. Based on three possibly conflicting newspaper reports, two of them contemporaneous to the event, the matter-of-fact narration is dramatically countered by breathtakingly framed images of the bridge (shot by Ben Rivers) conveying its immense proportions in relation to the rock formations that it spans, as well as a vertiginous "fall" to the river. …

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