By Chris Packham
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Now that The Phantom Menace and An Ideal Husband have been digitally transmitted by satellite and electronically projected in theaters across the country and Jean-Luc Godard has packaged his idiosyncratic history of cinema on videotape, it's a bit surprising that the Film Society of Lincoln Center is stuck parsing the difference between video and film. For the past several years, the Film Society has programmed the New York Video Festival in July as part of the well-hyped Lincoln Center Festival and an avant-garde film series in October as a sidebar to the New York Film Festival.
The impetus for an all-video event may have come from the Lincoln Center Festival, which initially was invested in the kind of performance art that coexisted with video art (an ill-begotten category from the start) throughout the '70s and '80s in alternative art centers such as the Kitchen. But now that the Lincoln Center Festival has expanded the definition of cutting-edge performance to include Emanuel Ax playing the five Beethoven piano concertos, the concept of a video festival seems awfully retro. Especially because the most interesting and accomplished pieces in this year's "video" festival mix film and video with abandon.
Quarrels about categories and definitions aside, there are some good alt-movies here. Ken Kobland's 30-minute Transit Riders of the World Unite! Walk Dog Eat Donut (a misleadingly facetious title) superimposes footage shot over 20 years from subway windows in New York and Berlin in a meditation on daily routine, personal and political history, and how making art and feeling horribly depressed all the time are not mutually exclusive conditions. Kobland has made pieces that are as formally exciting as this one and others that are as emotionally revealing, but he's never knit feeling and form together as nakedly as he does here. Transit Riders screens on the "Inner and Outer Space" program, which also includes Scott Stark's acutely edited structural short in.side.out and Jem Cohen's Amber City, which is as attractive and empty a tour of Italy as you'd find in Condé Nast Traveler.
Kathy High mixes past and present in Shifting Positions (on the "Family Matters" program), evoking her relationship with her father and the discontinuities between childhood and middle age. High's previous work has been rather stolid and didactic, but here she plays her own flat-footed, prickly personality against a fluid and associatively edited montage of old home movies and freshly shot details of an empty house. The tensions between daughter and father and High's own contradictory feelings and impulses are expressed, not in words, but in the shape of the piece itself.
Kelly Reichardt's Ode (on the "They Don't Make 'em Like They Used To" program) spins the legend of Billy Joe McAllister (he who jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge) into a haunting, though slightly thin, narrative about gay sexuality, repression, and teen suicide. The film is expressively shot by Reichardt herself in the fragile, all-but-obsolete medium of Super-8. Like Kobland, Reichardt cherishes film for its grain. The more grainy the image, the more ghostly it appears, but also the livelier it seems even when the image is dead still, the grain never stops moving. Instead of the sentimental hit single, Reichardt uses an original score by Will Oldham and Yo La Tengo that's as evocative as her cinematography.
Canadian photographer and video maker Donigan Cumming (a discovery of the 1997 festival) provides another of his disturbingly intimate and unsparing portraits of people on the margins. Erratic Angel (on the "Mind the Gap" program) focuses on Colin, a 50-year-old recovering alcoholic and probable schizophrenic who's living in some kind of squalid halfway house. Colin is dependent on public assistance for the medication that keeps his demons in check, but he's furious at the subhuman way he and others are treated. Extremely intelligent and verbal, Colin seems to relish the presence of Cumming and his camera as an opportunity to articulate his anger and his distress.
Erratic Angel is as far from the eye-candy school of video as imaginable. So, too, are the pieces on the "After Images" program in particular, Tran T. Kim Trang's Eklipsis, a fragmented investigation into the syndrome of hysterical blindness manifested by survivors of the Khmer Rouge, and Walid Raad's Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs, an elegant, reflexive fictionalization of a series of incidents that might have occurred during the long civil war in Lebanon.
On a considerably lighter note, The Target Shoots First is Christopher Wilcha's video diary of his adventures in the corporate world. A former garage-band musician, Wilcha got a job at Columbia House Record Club and in the months before Kurt Cobain's death became the resident expert on grunge. British filmmaker Chris Petit delivers two neatly layered, slightly glib first-person documentaries. The Falconer is an elliptical, wistfully decadent portrait of the '60s filmmaker Peter Whitehead. It's paired with Negative Space, in which Petit uses a road trip through the Southwest as a backdrop for informal interviews about American visual art with art critic Dave Hickey and painter and film critic Manny Farber. In a particularly inspiring moment, Farber, who chides both critics and filmmakers for their inattention to how space, framing, and gesture make meaning in film, riffs on the resemblance of Fassbinder's films in their luminosity and use of color to the paintings of Fra Angelico. Petit throws in a clip from The Merchant of Four Seasons, and it's a revelation. Even in a degraded video dub, the film looks like a Renaissance painting.
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