In answer to the perennial question “What is avant-garde film?” the NYFF proposes four programs. If inventiveness were the hallmark, Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich would be the avant-garde film of the year. But filmmakers such as Robert Beavers and Craig Baldwin, two of the most accomplished filmmakers in the NYFF’s Avant-Garde series, work in a different way than Jonze does. They make films the way visual artists make paintings or sculpture—as a one-person operation. If the category of avant-garde film continues to have validity, it’s because it has at its center an individual artist working autonomously—it’s that lonely position that gets the creative juices flowing.
Baldwin’s feature-length Spectres of the Spectrum is a sci-fantasy set in 2007, when a small group of political activists have organized an underground cell to fight the monolithic, post-Microsoft corporation that rules the world. Or so we’re told by the film’s narrator, who’s also our guide through a nonstop collage of 50 years of television and movie detritus. Baldwin has edited these grotesque finds to suggest the existence of a military-industrial-media conspiracy vast enough to induce panic in even the most jaded X-Files fans.
At the opposite end of the avant-garde spectrum is Robert Beavers, whose exquisitely photographed images and rhythmically complicated editing reaffirm the analogy between avant-garde film and lyric poetry. Beavers’s three new films weren’t available for preview, but I don’t hesitate to recommend them sight unseen. In addition, there are two group programs that include new work by NYFF regulars Nicolas Dorsky, Jerome Hiler, Phil Solomon, Guy Maddin, Leslie Thornton, and Peter Tscherkassky. In Another Worldy, Thornton totally transforms a series of dance routines, mostly from old Hollywood films, simply by changing the sound that accompanies them. And Outer Space, Peter Tscherkassky’s deconstruction of an obscure ’70s film, turns Barbara Hershey into an icon as terrifying as Linda Blair in The Exorcist.