Views from the Avant-Garde: Invisible Cities
The 16th edition of Views from the Avant-Garde at the New York Film Festival opened not in a cinema, but on the largest digital monitor in existence. Phil Solomon’s “EMPIRE” (2008–2012) is considerably shorter than the 1964 Andy Warhol film on which it is based—a mere 48 minutes as opposed to Warhol’s endurance-testing eight hours—though in the videogame world in which “EMPIRE” takes place, the film amounts to a full day, passing through rain, sunset, night, and, come the following afternoon, the return of stormy weather. Like the four films of his In Memoriam, Mark LaPore series (for which this and an earlier installation version serve as a coda), “EMPIRE” was machinima-made in various editions of Grand Theft Auto, a game franchise notorious for its glorification of prostitution, crime, and murder. From Solomon’s lofty vantage, however, the mayhem is but a distant din of traffic on the city streets below. Perched on a skyscraper ledge, in an elaborate choreography of avatar, camera, and encoded “cheats,” Solomon allows us to gaze, as Warhol did, at the building across the way: “Rotterdam Tower,” or what is more recognizable as the Empire State Building.
The view is higher and fuller than Warhol’s, which descends quickly into a foggy black and white night. Here in HD clarity we see the orange glow of sunlight on residential complexes to the east, piers jutting into the shimmering water on the Hudson, office lights flickering on in the foreground buildings. Empire looms in the center, and with the clouds wrapped around its pointed tower, it is the scene’s fulcrum, the steady center on a day of subtle though no less dramatic change. Gradually we notice unusual details: the absence of cars, for example, though the occasional car alarm can be heard, and a swarm of red taillights suddenly appears at twilight; Empire always shrouded in shadow, even in the brightness of noon; or a crescent moon that appears to the southeast, only to be replaced by a full one, slightly distended, in the same position. More troubling are the bits of debris flying in the air—though they pass too quickly for our inspection, Solomon revealed in the Q&A that these were fragments of newspaper, sometimes imprinted with photographs—and the many planes that ominously approach the building, pass behind it, and fail to come out the other side. We might note, too, the absence of the Twin Towers on the southern end of the island. However much the world of “EMPIRE” may resemble our own, these strange, quiet phenomena signal a place that’s sealed off, seasonless, and digitally looped in a moment of frozen time. Haunted by the passing of Mark LaPore, who took his own life on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, the dark tower of “EMPIRE” becomes a monument, a stand-in for an absent disaster whose paper remains fall interminably.
While the stillness of its central figure evokes a kind of digital afterlife in Solomon’s film, for Tsai Ming-Liang’s Walker (2012), the near-glacial pace of a monk moving through Hong Kong’s streets showcases the vibrancy of the city. Few filmmakers know how to fill a frame like Tsai; what appears as static, straightforward composition always gives way to complexity and surprise, as when Lee Kang-Sheng, barefoot and dressed in orange robes, shuffles in slow motion along an ad-plastered sidewalk. The gag here isn’t Lee’s deliberate (or, considering his wardrobe, mindful) movements, but the businessmen who glance at him, then look quizzically at the camera, drawing attention to the greater oddity of the film shoot. Later, when the monk makes his way through a busy shopping district, passersby snap photos of him, the crew, then, finally, lose interest and keep walking—all within the span of one, or possibly two, of his steps. Like “EMPIRE,” Walker takes place over the course of a day, and the monk, holding a bun and a plastic bag in his hands, is evidently out to buy a breakfast he will not eat until the following morning. In the meantime, with his head solemnly bowed, he passes before billboards, a “Mobile Softee” ice cream truck, and a darkened street where an apartment window is lit by a neon aquarium. When he finally arrives at his door in a pre-dawn blue, he lifts the food to his mouth and takes a long, lingering bite as a Cantopop classic, Ricky Hui’s “Cold Wind of the Heartless Night,” begins to play.
Though Tsai grew up in Malaysia and currently resides in Taipei, he has remarked that Hong Kong is a place well known to any overseas Chinese person of his generation because of its popular films and music. Yet it’s an imaginary place, too, a city made up by and for the movies, and a reality quite different from its on-screen doubles. Tsai visits Hong Kong only infrequently, and each time he notices how dramatically the city has changed, how his favorite restaurants have vanished, or how far his memory has strayed. Walker transforms that sense of alienation, of life moving too fast, into a tableau for observing the marvels of the city at a snail’s pace. Against the rush of urban life, he gives us all the time in the world.