Video Vanguard; Mensch Musician


The most high-profile nontelevised forum in the U.S. for experimental video, the New York Video Festival is distinguished by its eclecticism. Here you will find every genre of video motion picture except the one that’s currently most hyped: the no-budget indie feature that recycles familiar commercial forms in new digital packaging.

Not that the NYVF 2000 is lacking in features. Clocking in at 135 minutes, George Kuchar’s Secrets of the Shadow World could pass for a Sundance midnight movie, although the Blair Witch crowd might be put off by the grungy middle-aged cast and Kuchar’s inimitable sensibility, which was formed, as he so eloquently puts it in his autobiography, Reflections From a Cinematic Cesspool, by the “evocative illustrations . . . of tormented souls haunting the covers of sleazy paperback books (the type my dad always read).”

Kuchar’s magnum opus, Secrets of the Shadow World is the culmination of a 20-year obsession with paranormal phenomena that began when he experienced strange visitations around the time that his beloved dog Bocko died. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which is credited in pulsing, jagged Day-Glo lettering at the opening of each of the picture’s three episodes, it purports to be—at least in part—a biopic of John A. Keel, a major figure in UFO literature. Kuchar visits Keel in his cluttered, dilapidated Upper West Side apartment and entices him to California, where they go climbing and have mystical experiences on Mount Shasta.

The Rockefeller money allowed Kuchar the luxury of high-end video postproduction, which he uses to re-create the pulpy effects of ’40s and ’50s horror and sci-fi movies and to originate some kitschy electronic ones of his own. Kuchar is a connoisseur of genre, and his eye and ear have never seemed so acutely tuned to details of image and music as they are here. Fans of his oeuvre will also be thrilled to reencounter many of his former stars, from Larry Leibowitz to Donna Kerness, who gamely dons her glamour togs of yore: witchy eyelashes and blue spangles head to toe.

Some of Kuchar’s feature-length films tend to peter out toward the end. Not Secrets of the Shadow World, which climaxes with a transcendentally lurid trailer for the film we’ve just seen. (A less artful filmmaker would have placed it at the beginning.) The trailer makes clear that the women whom Kuchar, throughout his 40-year career, plucked from obscurity and immortalized as avant-garde superstars weren’t objects of desire but alter egos.

In another universe of science-fiction deconstruction is Chris Petit’s elegant, slightly facile Asylum, made for Britain’s Channel Four. (It plays on the “Electronic Unconscious” program.) Reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Asylum wraps interviews with British novelist Michael Moorcock and American poet Ed Dorn into a fiction about a virus that destroys videotape and hence collective cultural memory. A female investigator is on the trail of a woman who disappeared while in pursuit of some elusive sound-and-image memory traces. The premise is marvelously evocative, but Petit is so at a loss for how to develop it that I began to long for a filmmaker as vulgar as Terry Gilliam to take it over and do what he did to La Jetée in 12 Monkeys.

Like Kuchar and Petit, Elizabeth Subrin is a favorite of the NYVF, which has shown both Swallow and Shulie, her brilliant reconstruction of a ’60s documentary about Shulamith Firestone. The Fancy is another of Subrin’s skewed female biopics, this one about the photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in New York in the early ’80s and left a body of work consisting of some 500 photographs, none of which Subrin shows in her video. Instead she evokes the photos by having various people read their descriptions over images of places in which they were possibly shot. Subrin also assembles the relics and detritus of a privileged life (though probably not Woodman’s actual possessions), encased like crime evidence in glassine envelopes. As in Shulie, Subrin suggests that the act of recording life inevitably fictionalizes it. The Fancy plays on the “Brought to Light” program with two other tapes that try to give voice to dilemmas of young women looking for their place in the world: Susana Donovan’s Haunt #451 and Jacqueline Goss’s So to Speak. All three pieces are exceptionally intelligent, but they also seem somewhat academic, like the final spin on a kind of structuralist filmmaking that flourished in semiotics departments in the ’70s and was most fully elaborated by Yvonne Rainer. Which is to say, like many videos in this show, they are made possible with the support of universities and art schools and they are also limited by the intellectual concerns and routines of the academy.

Another provocative program is “Only Disconnect,” with deceptively casual but formally tight homoerotic pieces by Nelson Henricks and Steve Reinke, and Miranda July’s disturbing Nest of Tens, a fragmented exploration of power relationships between children and adults. Canadian photographer Donigan Cumming continues his studies of life on the margins in Montreal with If Only I, his most controlled and powerful piece to date. (It’s on the “All Too Human” program.)

The festival kicks off with Trent Harris’s Beaver Trilogy. Harris made a TV-news-style documentary about a young man from Beaver, Utah, who impersonated Olivia Newton-John in his hometown talent show. Over the next eight years, Harris remade the documentary, not once but twice. The first time, he cast the then unknown Sean Penn as the fledgling transvestite. The second time, he enticed Crispin Glover into playing the role. The Beaver Trilogy, filmed between 1980 and 1988, is an oddity; although there are probably many similarly strange videos stored in people’s closets, it’s unlikely that any of them have the star power of this one.

A more delicate, raunchier drag-queen heartbreaker, Benjamin—the focus of the documentary Benjamin Smoke—had the face of Tom Verlaine and the voice of Tom Waits. An Atlanta singer-songwriter and an underground music legend, he died of AIDS in 1999. Off and on for 10 years, Jem Cohen filmed him performing in clubs with his bands, the Opal Foxx Quartet and Smoke, and in his Cabbagetown house, where he shared his insights into music, drugs, and sexuality; modeled his treasured blue taffeta cocktail dress; and proved himself in every way a mensch.

With Peter Sillen, Cohen shaped the footage into Benjamin Smoke, a film as ethereal, moving, and uncompromising as its subject. Cohen captures the intensity of Benjamin’s music and his performing persona. Like its frail but resilient protagonist, the film cherishes the poverty of its materials (it’s shot in both black-and-white and color on scraps of 16mm and Super 8) and uses them to expressive effect. The filmmakers, however, make a misstep when they bring in Patti Smith to read a poem in Benjamin’s honor. Benjamin, who started wearing dresses when he was nine, didn’t realize that he could be a musician until he heard Horses as a teenager. And since the high point of his last years seems to have been opening for Smith when her band played Atlanta, he would have been thrilled that Smith is in the movie. But Smith has a celebrity and a marquee value that Benjamin did not, and to put her center screen at the climax of the film undermines the celebration of its main figure. This quibble aside, Benjamin Smoke is a bittersweet pleasure.