Melanie Gilligan’s Popular Unrest (2010) opened this year’s Migrating Forms with a pointed set of questions: Is it relevant to render human stories in a traditional moving-image format? (Arguably not.) Can a movie portray the abstractions of capital amidst an increasingly global, savage monetarization of physical life? (It’s worth trying.) And, more broadly, what about the international outbreak of hybrid practices? (Right, what about them?) The remaining ten days of the festival unfolded like a contemporary countercultural procession. Like at all parades, some floats were designed to please, a few people overdosed on the candy, and veterans were afforded honors. What follows is a necessarily incomplete and tendentious account of highlights, provocations, and discoveries.
Color Series (2010) is a 70-plus-minute exercise in printing-by-numbers. It’s striking that festival programmers Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry include purist treatment on a platform otherwise occupied by trans-media bandits and emo-digitalia, but this sly titling effort reveals itself as a shape shifter. Approximately two-thirds of the way in, retinal exhaustion catches up with the brain. The theater space is no longer a theater space, or rather the room becomes extra in its room-ness, amplified by silence. The “mere” color images occasionally produce hallucinatory glimpses of figures. As director Madison Brookshire said in the Q&A, “Color is the thing you traverse in order to experience time.”
In four videos that appeared in three group programs—It, Heat, Hit (2010), Monolog (2009), The Artist (2010), and Burrow Me (2009)—French-born, UK-based videomaker Laure Prouvost attacks problems surrounding the nature of video and its reception with a ferocity and ingenuity that reminds us that these old issues have yet to be resolved. In sharp, brisk cuts, Prouvost deploys image fragments, both recorded and found, Godardian titles, and crisp, discomfiting sound effects. The result is a dense thicket wound together by schizophrenic narration that shuttles between stern commands, whispered digressions, and mumbled apologies. She speaks in the first person, directly addressing her audience in excursive monologues and improvised shaggy-dog stories. Timing is everything here: Prouvost careens to the edge of the medium’s possibilities at a rapid and irregular pace that is sometimes like music, sometimes like comedy, and sometimes like a Donald Barthelme story. She arranges her diverse materials into elaborate polyrhythms whose accents change the very moment you find the groove. The simultaneity of her method matches the simultaneity of her ideas. These single-channel images reach the brain like stereographs in which we see the artist as both petty tyrant and impotent try-hard, the viewer at once a passive receptacle and an indispensable collaborator, and narrative as hopelessly contrived as it is inevitable.
Despite the misleading and pretentious title, A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue & Epilogue (2011) offered another of the festival’s biggest surprises. An example of the “Rotterdam effect” that marks the well-funded, transnational hybrid efforts bankrolled by that city’s festival, Mario Pfeifer’s film does contain some strong formal elements, mostly following the now-familiar contours of observational cinema as updated by maximal sound design and painterly camerawork. The factory scene is muscular, even devastating. As the camera tracks from a dappled ceiling to a hoary array of ice-encrusted tubes illuminated by blue-green fluorescence, one could sense a collective jaw-drop amongst the filmmakers in the theater. All this is fine and well, but who could have predicted that such a tour-de-force would end with a romantic coupling? Yes, quite literally, a kiss. It’s a beguiling film that must be seen to be believed, even if you can’t quite believe where it leaves you.
Those pristine, Rotterdam-style documentary surfaces abound in Jacqueline Goss’s The Observers (2011), but they rest atop the barest fictional scaffolding. The film takes us to the peak of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington and inside the weather observation station that straddles it. For two seasons—a blustery, ice-packed winter and a muggy, green summer—Goss lovingly records the climate’s extremes, and the solitary, attentive labor of the meteorologists who study it. The weather is real, but the titular protagonists are not: Filmmakers Dani Levênthal and Katya Gorker stand in for the scientists, and an elegant little McGuffin winds the sections into a narrative loop. During the winter, Jesse Cain’s stunning Super-16 images tremble in the 80-mile-an-hour winds that gust before the lens, but the camera remains miraculously steadfast. The summer is less constricted, and though the camera and its proxies are equally absorbed in their duties, the more ruminative mood brings Goss’s narrative interventions to the fore, revealing the layers that compose this deceptively crystalline documentary image, and refract the particularities of this place into a kaleidoscopic examination of what it means to look at the natural world.
If a festival is invariably a mixed bag, then the shorts programs within offer the widest range of OMG-to-WTF moments. Jacob Ciocci’s Your Life/Your Language (2010)generates an impenetrable shroud of degradation, producing mystery from the nothing of YouTube’s most protean quarters. In the flawed if fascinating The Future Will Not Be Capitalist (2010), Sasha Pirker’s mournful architectural history of Oscar Niemeyer’s building for the Communist Party’s headquarters in Paris, capital is delicately displaced, as it is in J.P. Sniadecki’s The Yellow Bank (2010), which patiently eyes the shores of Shanghai in the midst of a total solar eclipse. One of the most striking of the shorts is Jen Proctor’s A Movie by Jen Proctor (2010), which, against all good sense, works beautifully. A shot-by-shot homage to Bruce Conner’s canonical collage, Proctor’s version dutifully raids the contemporary index for equivalent material. The stupid ATVs we drive; the marvel of snorkeling; the World Trade Center in collapse: It’s all in there, rendered just as arch and tender as the notorious original of non-originals, cut to The Pines of Rome.
Oliver Laxe’s You Are All Captains (2010) begins as a send-up of bohemian solipsism and colonialist condescension, but as the story moves from Tangiers to the Moroccan countryside, Laxe gradually pulls up the stakes that fix it to anything so graspable until his black-and-white images float unrestrained. The house lights came up, prodding us to stagger into the streets and face the onslaught of stimulus against which Laxe had stripped our defenses—the perfect aftertaste to New York’s best and broadest showcase of experimental film and video.