Annual uptown destination for hardcore celluloid fetishists, the New York Film Festival’s “Views From the Avant-Garde” ushers the humble cinematheque experience into the big-screen, high-fidelity environs of the Walter Reade. The militaristic term “avant-garde” may mislead tyros; it implies cutting-edge radicals pushing formal boundaries into uncharted territory. Much contemporary experimental film presents the opposite. Akin to microcinematic offerings by venues like the San Francisco Cinematheque or the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, “Views” favors eccentric, subtle, and often gentle one-artist creations. Working with established art-school methods like found-footage collage, emulsion-scratching, and hand-processing, the filmmakers look backward more than forward, and inward more than out. Crypto-recidivists of the digital revolution, they employ self-consciously antique techniques to suss out moments of quiet wonder. The goal is not innovation, but epiphany.
At “Views,” however, many of these films fall victim to curatorial excess. Past attendees are familiar with the sidebar’s notorious reputation for burying small films in relentlessly overlong, unvaried programs with triple-digit running times. Still, spectators who make sure to score some Ritalin before the show will be rewarded with pleasant discoveries.
Bay Area filmmaker José Rodriguez stands out as one of the more original younger talents on view, represented with seven black-and-white shorts (some attributed to José Luis Duarte). His trance-films traffic in bad-dream symbolism and Latino-Catholic iconography: a strange marriage of Maya Deren and Coffin Joe, both loco y doloroso. In the simple Homesick, a camera shuffles through a grassy field to find a naked infant boy, crying, lost, and alone. Silence of the Bride is a fucked-up family movie, featuring a young woman in a white wedding dress staring blankly out a window (not unlike Deren does in Meshes of the Afternoon), her weatherbeaten teenager photos, and a mournful Hammond organ score. Theresa is a black-dressed woman, bird corpse in hand, walking in pumps across a damp embankment, until she tumbles flatly into the mud. In one untitled film, another woman in black hands a horror-movie knife to a sorrowful little girl in a white communion dress. Also untitled, an obscene orifice-plunging cut-out animation of men’s photos mixed with Rodriguez’s own spit and semen shows tiny knives cutting into asses and mouths.
Sex acts and multiple cutting—though lighthearted and colorful—also appear in two found-footage collaborations by Thomas Draschan and Ulrich Wiesner. The sex is second-hand, supplied by shots from fading pink-bound porn flicks, jumbled together with industrials, commercials, driver’s-ed films, and scenes from Bewitched. The shorter Yes? Oui? Ja? is set to the rhythms of a mod Euro-ditty, while Metropolis of Recklessness creates its own staccato beats from fuzzy, popping splices in the 16mm soundstrip.
A more somberly modernist German investigation into American art is provided by Heinz Emigholz’s Sullivan’s Banks. Subtitled Architecture as Autobiography, the film documents early-20th-century buildings designed by Louis Sullivan after he had turned from urban skyscrapers to small-town banks and municipal structures. Emigholz presents static, wordless shots of incongruously elaborate buildings like the National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, and the Land and Loan Office of Algona, Iowa, their tarnished Art Nouveau Celtic embellishments now surrounded by zooming cars and corporate logos.
As usual, “Views” is heavy on premieres of new works from old masters. This edition features regulars Abigail Child, Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage, Mark LaPore, and Luther Price, as well as rarer notables like Kenneth Anger, Owen Land, Gunvor Nelson, and Ernie Gehr. Sure-shot Nathaniel Dorsky, sly collector of silent, charged moments that build to an emotional tipping point, brings his latest, The Visitation. A climax comes with a shot of a deep blue sky seen through a pair of glasses. At that moment, one wonders which is more immense: the physical universe, or our imagination’s single, tiny, perfect view of the same.