Festivals: Projections at NYFF
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Projections series gracefully bore the traces of its esteemed predecessor—the 17-years-running Views from the Avant-Garde section of the New York Film Festival—while also signaling some changes. The festival-within-a-festival had less than half as many programs as last year, one theater instead of three, and three programmers instead of one. And for the first time in a few years, it was once again single-stream: no simultaneous programming, no repeats. As someone who appreciates the intimacy afforded by a single venue in which audiences repeatedly mingle as well as the restraint imposed by fewer programs, I found the down-sized Projections an illuminating and immersive two-and-a-half-day experience.
Letters to Max
The shift in status of the term “avant-garde” from noun to mere adjective (“avant-garde poetics”) in the festival-within-a-festival’s self-definition may be indicative of change, as is this year’s co-programming threesome (veteran Gavin Smith, Dennis Lim, and Aily Nash), for the first time including a woman. The lack of attention to truly unconventional and experimental works given by most major U.S. film festivals puts a lot of pressure on NYFF to be both exhaustive and innovative, and over the years “Views” had been both lauded and damned for such ambitions. This year’s Projections seemed to acknowledge that being exhaustive is simply impossible (and exhausting). Indeed, even the choice of its name—Projections—suggests a sense of being in process and in progress, a conjecture rather than a statement, a gesture towards something (a screen, an audience) that needs us to complete it. The 13 diverse programs provided a tantalizing sense of some of what is being made and imagined by today’s moving-image artists from various parts of the globe. Many artists’ names were familiar from “Views” years, some were not; and the emphasis was on young and mid-career artists rather than revered masters. Each of the programs felt carefully curated, with a number of thematic or formal resonances (one or two verged, perhaps, on feeling too homogeneous). As a whole weekend experience, Projections created a stimulating rhythm, with programs of short and medium-length works alternating regularly with feature-length films.
It is, of course, impossible to do justice to the experience of 63 films. Although I attempted to address about a dozen films, I found I could not do them all justice, so I will only write about half that many—a mere handful of those that stood out most forcefully over the course of the weekend. Even in that small sampling, my idiosyncratic reflections are clearly biased by personal taste and an imperfect memory as well as other factors, and I regret not being able to include more of the works screened.
Sea of Vapors
Artists’ films often attempt to articulate states of mind and being, elusive flows of feeling and sensation. Two shorts, at opposite ends of the formal spectrum, were particularly potent in evoking and drawing me into their affective landscapes. Jonathan Schwartz’s a certain worry and Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Sea of Vapors are both built around a series of visual associations and/or memories, although their techniques and tone could not be more different. While Schedelbauer’s piece was placed at the opening of a program and immediately and aggressively sucked one’s attention into its pulsating flicker and visual and auditory rhythms, Schwartz’s delicate 16mm camera roll was almost hidden in the midst of other shorts requiring one to actively heed its gentle call. Both have central images that emerge and re-emerge, seeming, like a Proustian madeleine, to set in motion streams of associations or recollections.
Schedelbauer’s graphic black-and-white images, both her own and found, pulsate and bleed into each other and into us. Alternating with black frames and emerging from and into complex superimpositions, they feel as if they swallow each other up. Beginning with what appears to be an image of a woman’s bending head, a curl of her hair hinting at the “vertigo” about to ensue, the film takes us to a hungry, grazing horse’s mouth, fingers, naked backs, and deep into an eye that pulls us, willingly or not, into its stream of (un-)consciousness. Circular images echo or form inside each other—eye, sun, moon, embryo, and the recurring white bowl, brimming with associations that beckon and repel and hold us in their grip. A tumult of barely discernable lips, pounding surf, forests, landscapes, accompanied by a powerful dissonant and disturbing score, overwhelms and exhausts the viewer as if we, too, are caught up in some traumatic flow of sensation and memory emerging from the simple act of holding, contemplating, raising, and drinking from that bowl. The incessant flicker of Schedelbauer’s images seems to bare the black holes (frames) of memory and time that alternately tear all of our images/recollections/sense of self apart or hold them/us together.
Schwartz’s a certain worry, on the other hand, is as unassuming and whimsical as its title. Made as part of a series of miniatures, it is a camera roll with cuts and multiple superimpositions done in-camera, visible to the eye. It opens with a mysterious image, both delicate and dangerous. What appears to be the jaw of a small shark lies on a flat surface beautifully lit by sunlight, as if a piece of jewelry, an object of adornment. This image of the shark teeth also closes the film, but now the frame-within-a-frame created by the warm light coming in through the window shifts—nothing is the same. After teeth come a series of shots, many single-framed, of ice. Superimposed, and appearing as if they are in another world behind this ice, are partially visible traces of other images: a child’s big smile with front teeth missing, a child in boots struggling to hold on to a dog, a child fast asleep, breathing with his mouth open, a flower. Like the worry potentially evoked by the bite of a shark, the ice, uneven and irregular, part solid part liquid, suggests worries of its own: possibilities of slipping, slippage, slippery-ness; surface instability; and the always failed attempt to “freeze” time. Thus the fleeting glimpses of children, with expressions trustingly open to the world and teeth that come and go, as well as what appears to be a miniature of a domestic scene under melting ice, suggest constant transformations, the sense that nothing (ever) stays the same in spite of a longing to hold on to moments of joy. A bright red geranium appears, reminding us of the coming of spring but also evoking the rhythms of a natural world that both soothes and constrains us. a certain worry’s minimal music track—repeating lines of a mournful melody—accentuates the ephemerality and transience of all we see. Each gesture, each cherished object and person, is inextricably bound to its own impermanence, liberated and limited by its potential transformations.
Another striking work was the highly abstract 2012 by Takashi Makino. Impossible to describe in language, the film may be, according to its maker, “everything [he] saw in 2012,” but it is also a stunning half-hour experience of a constant in-between state, a pervasive and inexorable becoming where no settling of any sort is possible. I hesitate to say much about it without being able to experience it again, yet the sensation of being between layers of consciousness, of existing inside abstraction (rather than just looking at abstraction from a distance), was powerful. Viewed with a filter in front of one eye, the three-dimensionality of the abstract yet sensual layers (both cinematic and digital) of verticals and horizontals, with barely discernable traces of some natural world in between, were particularly powerful. Fascinating and exhausting, 2012 was a highlight of the Projections weekend.
Outer Worlds, Essay Forms
Many works featured at Projections turned instead to our shared outer world, whether of landscapes natural or manmade, cultural or political belief systems, or traces of historical events. Two particularly interesting works—again wildly divergent from the point of view of form—explore human attempts and failures at scientific documentation. Jacqueline Goss and Jenny Perlin’s essayistic The Measures looks at the travails of two French astronomers/mathematicians as they measure the earth’s meridian arc from Dunkirk to Barcelona as part of an attempt to determine the appropriate length of a meter at the end of the 1700s, while Rebecca Baron’s Detour de Force re-tells the story of Ted Serios, infamous for his ability to transmit thoughts—bypassing language—directly onto Polaroid film. While the French scientists Jean Baptiste Delambre and Pierre Méchain use telescopes, rulers, and stars to quantify the Earth’s meridian from pole to equator, Serios and his Denver psychiatrists use the Polaroid camera, 16mm camera, and cassette tape recorder in trial after trial of Serios’s ability to produce pictures from his brain. In both works it is the (male) affective investment in the process of scientific or quasi-scientific inquiry that seems to be of prime interest to the (female) filmmakers.
Running at 46 minutes, The Measures was presented live. While the filmmakers could have included their text in recorded voice-over, their presence on opposite sides of the screen added a poignancy to the parallel narratives of collaborating astronomers in the 1790s and collaborating filmmakers in the 2010s. Goss and Perlin follow in the steps of their subjects. Planning to meet in the middle, Delambre started in Paris while Méchain started in Barcelona; Goss and Perlin move together along both their routes, encompassing the Mediterranean as well as the Channel, but with parallel cameras (similar but not the same in their framing and movements) often presented as double projection on the screen. Through the correspondence between the two men during their seven-year venture—extended first due to the French Revolution and its violent aftershocks, then due to Méchain’s diffidence and hesitations—we get a sense of their personalities: Delambre’s dogged perseverance (lining up rulers for 40 days, sleeping in haystacks while waiting out weeks of fog) and Méchain’s endearing but paralyzing self-loathing due to insecurities about his telescopic triangulations. Goss and Perlin question the attempt to standardize (the whole point of Delambre and Méchain’s odyssey is to standardize the meter which has been declared to be one ten millionth of the pole-to-equator meridian), comment on method—both the 18th-century scientists’ and their own—and suggest the impossibility of any two human visions/measures being truly the same. Occasionally their reflections tend towards the exceedingly digressive—choosing a color for each of the men; inserting a long scene of sleepers on the NY city subway reminiscent of a scene from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil; quoting Bresson’s Notes of a Cinematographer—yet it is the idiosyncratic unpredictability of such digressions that is the essay film’s life force.
Detour de Force
If The Measures comments on human anxieties about scientific method and truth as the flipside of the drive to create accurate standards, Rebecca Baron’s half-hour Detour de Force provokes reflection on the homosocial pleasures of research undertaken in the name of (ostensible) science. Ted Serios was a jack-of-all-trades employed by a Denver psychiatrist due to his uncanny ability to occasionally (and the film suggests only very occasionally) transmit images from his brain directly onto Polaroid film. Without any voiceover or explicit insertion of Baron’s perspective, the film deftly deploys a broad range of video, 16mm, and audio documentation of Serios with psychiatrists and electrical engineers as they repeat experiments in offices, private homes, and a television studio. We enter a world of tie-wearing doctors and professors jovially engaged in research with their beer-drinking, working-class, sometimes shirtless, and clearly charismatic subject. The professors, seemingly intent on at arriving at some statistically significant success rate, document each test with extensive notes (that they also film) while Serios is fully corporeally engaged in attempting to project his thoughts. He jerks, shouts, drinks, and commands the camera operators as he physically directs his mental energy through his “gismo” (a paper funnel) or directly at the lens of the Polaroid camera.
Without articulating any judgment, Detour de Force suggests the somewhat perverse pleasures of this all male world of “scientific” inquiry engaged in cross-class, quasi-erotic observation with the help of a variety of recording equipment. When Serios performs well (discernable images do appear on the Polaroids) he is “hot,” and when no images come through after numerous trials it is because he is “tight” according to the observers. Skepticism seems to become irrelevant compared to the pleasures of collectively smoking, drinking, watching and recording their captivating subject perform. In Baron’s elegant piece we are left only with questions, not only about the paranormal, but also about the rapt attention of the professors with their devices and our own fascination with Serios’s odd gestural performance.
Among the hybrid documentary/fiction/essay films at the festival was Ben Russell’s Atlantis, which seemed to mark a return (for the moment) to what one might call his imaginary (in the broadest sense of the term) ethnographies. Here Russell’s lucid and idiosyncratic camerawork links depictions of landscapes and people in Malta to three very different visions (Plato, Thomas More, 1970s science fiction) of an imagined Atlantis or utopian society. This linkage is curious and compelling, since, rather like the visions inspired by the mythical Atlantis, we too can only project our imagination onto the fragments of landscape, architecture, and religious and vocal traditions that Russell offers us. The recurring image of a person holding or walking with a mirror suggests such a play of reflections (as opposed to access to any “real”) as well as the desire for the framed and “contained” image a mirror can offer but that Russell never gives us. The use of texts (including a lengthy passage from Plato) can be disorienting, especially in an early scene of a group of men in a bar singing with a TV behind them. As the men informally sing a traditional form of music in which each in turn presents a verse, subtitles appear in time to the lyrics, for instance: “Utopians are utterly convinced that happiness after death will be beyond measure” and then continuing on to elucidate various kinds of bodily pleasure, one that floods the senses, another that accompanies discharges and intercourse, etc.
This scene is brilliant but disturbing: we realize Russell is playing with us, with the men whose lyrics he probably doesn’t understand either, and with nonfiction expectations and ethics. The remainder of Atlantis, with its beautiful images of the sea, of gestures and rituals that are both centuries old and modern, both caught and staged by Russell’s camera, and even a brief interview with a monk on happiness, is rife with this tension between what we see and the awareness of our possible projections onto it. As with many of Russell’s films, we are reminded that despite the alluring beauty of the landscapes and people he places in front of his camera, and despite the curiosity he elicits, these films are never about “others,” but about ideas, about him—and, of course, about us.
Long-Form Nonfiction, Politics, Subversion
Sauerbruch Hutton Architects
The feature-length works provided a timely respite from the dense programs of short films. All works of nonfiction, if not directly then by analogy, they did not, however, have the formal breadth or complexity of some of the shorter works. Harun Farocki’s Sauerbruch Hutton Architects, one of his explorations of contemporary workplaces, follows an architectural design firm as they discuss and analyze the forms of chairs, window hardware, and the interior and exterior design of a number of large-scale building projects. Since much of the creative process is invisible with little drama or affect evident in meetings, we are left to reflect on the significance of the architectural design and the power dynamic between architects, assistants, and clients. Due to Farocki’s unexpected death last summer, the screening had an elegiac quality, but Sauerbruch Hutton Architects isn’t one of his more challenging or innovative works.
The longest piece of the weekend was Eric Baudelaire’s epistolary documentary Letters to Max. Baudelaire’s Abkhazian correspondent Max is a one-time diplomat of a disputed country that claimed independence from Georgia in a bloody post-Soviet secession. The film paints an evocative portrait of this corner of the world, and the epistolary form is intriguing (Baudelaire sends questions via the post, Max answers in taped voice-overs, and the filming was done over several visits) if also problematic. While Max describes his political and personal life and reflects on the situation of Abkhazia, Baudelaire’s voice is expressed first in his questions, and secondly—most forcefully toward the end—through images that suggest possible alternate interpretations of the political realities. Like many documentaries that attempt or claim to give voice to their subjects, the film doesn’t, in my opinion, assert its challenges strongly enough. Those who take Max’s biased perspective at face value may end up with a skewed sense (or no sense) of Abkhazian-Georgian relations, and ultimately I’m not sure the personas Max and Baudelaire create for us are worth a full 100 minutes of attention.
Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air
Phillip Warnell’s Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air also felt excessively long. Warnell ambitiously combines straightforward documentary sections featuring Antoine Yates, who had successfully raised a 500-pound tiger in his Harlem home until his 2003 arrest, with artfully re-created scenes of a supple tiger pacing through the drab rooms of a low-income apartment, and with philosophical meditations on the nature of the animal. Both the documentary sections and the stunning, slow-paced, choreography of tiger-in-the-apartment are successful for what they are, but their combination is awkwardly paced, and the addition of voiceover reflections by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (whom I love in other contexts) makes the work feel downright oppressive. Yates (the documentary subject) is already eloquent when he articulates his vision of animal-human relations, and the addition of the philosopher seems, regrettably, to displace and devalue, rather than show respect for, Yates’s voice.
Luis Lopez Carrasco’s El Futuro is probably the film that most polarized audiences (at least those sitting near me). Purportedly set in the 1980s and featuring an all night party of twenty and thirty-somethings (who basically had a party that was filmed), the film is envisioned as political commentary on post-Franco Spanish political realities. While the intimacy of the roving camera and the ways in which it holds on faces as they subtly transform from posturing to drunken release to posturing again is remarkable, the experience is of being inescapably trapped in self-absorbed conversations for 80 minutes when one desperately wants to leave after fifteen. Audience members seemed divided on whether this endurance test was interesting—I personally felt it was excruciating, yet I did stick it out till the end and thus got to see a titillating scene of a young woman offering her breast milk to fellow partiers.
Seven Signs that Mean Silence
Some of the most politically and narratively subversive films, however, were featured in the final shorts selection. In fact, much of the irony and humor of the Projections weekend was packed into this single program that included How to Make Money Religiously and the wonderfully playful Seven Signs that Mean Silence. My own favorite of these was the first part (originally an installation I believe) of Andrew Norman Wilson’s Sone S/S 2014: Chase ATM Emitting Blue Smoke, Bank of America ATM Emitting Red Smoke, TD Bank ATM Emitting Green Smoke. The piece essentially illustrates its title, accompanied by a calm voice instructing us in the art of meditation. The paradox of transforming these emblems of our interactions with capital into objects worthy of aesthetic and/or moral contemplation and attuned detachment (as well as the commentary on the fact that money and meditation are, indeed, not seen as contradictory) was profoundly amusing and provocative.
There is much more to say about Projections and the pleasures elicited by many of the films and filmmakers that comprised it this year. But for now I end with my only regret: that there could not be a Q&A session after each of the programs. Of course, Q&As can be disastrous when a dozen filmmakers are present for a shorts program and only topical questions can be responded to. On the other hand, having the opportunity to engage in dialogue with artists, even if not always successful, is one of the great joys and unique privileges of festival-going. This year only the feature-length films had Q&A sessions; in each case they added enormously to my appreciation and expanded my understandings of the film. I would suggest that it is more important to risk boring an audience with a mediocre post-screening discussion (audience members can always leave) than to deprive both filmmakers and viewers of the possibility of a shared, thoughtful, and sometimes profoundly generative, exchange.
Thanks to all the filmmakers whose work was presented and to the three programmers who brought it together so elegantly.
Irina Leimbacher is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Keene State College and writes on nonfiction and experimental film.