The connection Maya Deren made 60 years ago between avant-garde and ethnographic moviemaking comes to the fore in this year’s edition of the New York Video Festival. While videomakers are as self-conscious as ever, their focus is less on the uniqueness of video as a medium and more on their relation between themselves and the subjects of their cameras.
In Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s Japanese travel diary, The Fourth Dimension, and Irit Batsry’s depiction of rural India, These Are Not My Images (Neither There Nor Here), the videomakers use voice-over to question their own authority in appropriating images from cultures that are not their own. Closer to home, Alfred Leslie, Joe Gibbons, and Jennifer Montgomery take up the interface between creativity and self-destruction in the artist’s psyche. Leslie’s The Cedar Bar demonstrates the hallucinatory power Hollywood movies had over his own post-World War II generation of American painters. Based on a play Leslie wrote in 1952 evoking a drunken night in the heyday of the Cedar with de Kooning, Greenberg, and various other art world luminaries exchanging fuck-yous, The Cedar Bar intercuts a video recording of a 1997 staged reading of the play with a promiscuous array of stolen clips, mostly from ’40s and ’50s films. Leslie is a connoisseur of images, but as an editor, he can be unbearably crude, as in a sequence that juxtaposes hardcore porn, concentration camp corpses, and televised reaction shots of the audience at the 2001 Academy Awards. The Cedar Bar originated long before Pollock, but Leslie’s contempt for Ed Harris’s biopic, evidenced by his appropriation of a couple of scenes in which Harris acts up a storm, is probably what drove the piece to completion.
In Confessions of a Sociopath, Part I, Gibbons uses his own diaristic film and video oeuvre to take stock of his stubbornly antisocial lifestyle, weighing his deadpan on-camera revelations against the assessments of psychiatrists and parole officers, the most laughable of which is “He appears to have less anxiety and stress than someone in his position should have.” These supercilious professionals don’t know that they’ve given Gibbons an angle for the strongest piece of his idiosyncratic career. Similar in its directness and intimacy, Montgomery’s Transitional Objects employs psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s theory of childhood development to illuminate the process of making art in all its psychical and sometimes physical violence. (Winnicott’s theory offers the best explanation for the wrenching moment when Rosebud goes into the fire in Citizen Kane.)
Among the NYVF regulars: Donigan Cumming returns with My Dinner With Weegee, the latest of his unsparing documentaries staged on Montreal’s skid row. Just as enigmatic in its mix of reality and performance, Souheil Bachar and Walid Raad’s Hostage: The Bachar Tapes subtly undermines its documentary veracity, while laying claim to a political truth: the silencing of Lebanese voices during the ’80s Beirut hostage crisis. And Matt McCormick’s The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, a send-up of art criticism and urban planning, and Michael Goedecke and Eric Saks’s Excerpt From a Video Installation: Dust, a collage of intercepted wireless phone conversations, are seemingly off-handed but exceptionally intelligent forays into American vernacular art.