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An autumn ritual, the New York Film Festival’s “Views From the Avant-Garde” offers devotees of the subculture an opportunity to see a fairly wide sampling of recent work in a theater that has most underground movie venues beat by a mile. The sight lines are perfect, the screen is luminous, and although over the past three years there have been a few gaffes in terms of focus and sound level, the projection is more reliable than at MOMA or the Anthology. This is a classy showcase for work that never gets the attention it deserves.
This year the programmers have cast their net wide, pulling in three films commissioned by other international festivals: Jean-Luc Godard’s Origin of the 21st Century, Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World, and Michael Snow’s Prelude. Shown opening night at Cannes 2000, Godard’s 13-minute film-history collage was blatantly calculated to cast a pall on the festivities. Working his way backward through the recently departed century to the moment of its origin—which is marked with a faded, flickering porno clip—Godard assembles an array of images of genocide, war, hangings, torture, rape, and betrayal. The film is less shocking than unsparing, the elegiac effect heightened by the softly repeated piano chords on the soundtrack. What’s unusual for Godard is the emphasis on children—the starving waifs from Land Without Bread, the terrifying gang leader from Los Olvidados, the boy hero of The Shining pedaling furiously through the corridors of the Overlook Hotel—all irrevocably damaged by the horrors they’ve witnessed. Although it goes down like a draft of hemlock, Origin of the 21st Century is an antidote to the celebratory inventories that marked the century’s end. Still, I thought as I watched, there might have been a place amid the death and destruction for one ecstatic moment—like the shot that Godard fetishizes in his epic L’Histoire du Cinema of Cyd Charisse’s leg cleaving her red skirt and arcing across the CinemaScope screen. But perhaps a polemic like this cannot afford such a generous gesture.
The Toronto Film Festival may have gotten more than it bargained for in the Maddin and Snow films. Part of a series of curtain-raisers by Canadian directors, they must have put most of the features they preceded to shame. Maddin’s delirious distillation of Soviet film from Aelita to Ivan the Terrible isn’t a collage but a near perfect forgery. Intended for multiple viewings, it gets better each time, as does Snow’s Prelude, a conceptual, perceptual brainteaser in which time folds in on itself and sound chases image, or maybe the reverse, as if caught in a revolving door, ad infinitum. The image is a continuous pan across a large, sparsely furnished loft where a group of festivalgoers are about to depart for a screening of the very film in which they are at that moment performing. The elegance of the image (Snow took advantage of a rare opportunity to shoot in 35mm) contrasts with the puerile dialogue, which, like the lame jokes preteens love to repeat, is calculated to make viewers groan when they hear it several times over the course of a festival, as was the case at Toronto.
Avant-garde festivals must deliver discoveries, and here there are at least two. Stom Sogo’s Slow Death is a vaporous, stop-motion continuum of barely legible images dynamized by a pulsating electronic soundtrack. Although he draws on a bunch of avant-garde classics from Ernie Gehr’s Reverberation to Brakhage’s hand-painted films, Sogo’s voice is assured and all his own. Robert Abate’s The Zero Order is an update on avant-garde psychodrama (its 21st-century sensibility signaled by low-end video effects) in which a gay man’s sexual identity crisis is reflected in a kind of karaoke version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Of the highly anticipated films by NYFF favorites Peter Hutton, Nathaniel Dorsky, and Mark LaPore, only LaPore’s The Glass System was available for preview. Shot almost entirely on the streets of Calcutta, and focusing on impromptu street performances, it’s a visually ravishing piece of personal anthropology.