The New York Film Festival’s annual experimental sidebar, “Views from the Avant-Garde,” has in recent years spilled out of its weekend confines at Lincoln Center and spread downtown to more expansive circumstances. For the past few seasons, Anthology Film Archives has hosted the “Walking Picture Palace,” a roving series organized by “Views” curator Mark McElhatten, which serves as a generous expansion pack for the uptown program, featuring additional works by “Views” artists, solo retrospectives, and related pieces. Since the programming at “Views” typically offers tight back-to-back group shows, the relatively casual format at Anthology allows more breathing room for the material, but otherwise the two events share enough of the same spirit that they’ve come to feel like an unofficial autumn film festival in their own right.
For 2007, the “Views”/”Palace” doubleheader offered new works by some of its favored names—Luther Price, Fred Worden, Ken Jacobs, Jeanne Liotta, Julie Murray—plus the first solo program by Phil Solomon in many moons and Peter Hutton’s long-form ocean journey, At Sea. But it also held some surprises. A few editions ago, “Views” eased up on its longstanding celluloid-only policy; this, coupled with the recent euthanasia of Lincoln Center’s ailing Video Festival, meant that the lineup now had room for work like Jackie Goss’s Stranger Comes to Town, an enigmatic post-terror fable told through footage nabbed from World of Warcraft that turns images from the fantasy game into an essay on global migration, and Peggy Ahwesh’s Beirut Outtakes, a startling digital resurrection of deteriorating 35mm trailers from the 1960s found in a ruined Lebanese movie theater. Outtakes appears to be a ready-made, albeit one tailor-made for Ahwesh’s career obsessions, pre-filled with her signature elements: gleeful disruptions of high and low, affection for decayed textures, a peeping eye for lurid sexuality, and a fascination with unlikely images of the Middle East. Just one sequence of a go-go-booted belly dancer wriggling in an Arabic-language cinema advertisement for home air conditioners alone has the power to shatter more stereotypes than 500 pages of Edward Said.
Although fresh titles by established artists provided the core of this year’s experience, there were also significant newbies to be discovered. Jessie Stead’s hour-long Foggy Mountains Breakdown More Than Non-Foggy Mountains at first feels like a loosey-goosey travelogue-cum-art-diary, but then it reveals more hardcore structuralist pattern-making as the picture proceeds. Each section contains different iterations of the same elements, presented in a repeated order: an image of a (literally) burnt CD surrounded by golden-blonde hair, a distorted voiceover, frenetic Super-8 footage shot on global journeys, hand-painted blotches animated over one of numerous renditions of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (a 1940s hillbilly fiddlin’ tune best remembered from Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde), finally concluding with a scrolling-text coda writ with tangled poetics (“Sounds are painted memories of speed, intoxicated politely. Like movie stars in general. A copy of what worked the first time”) before the cycle reboots anew. Foggy‘s a strange brew of visual semi-sequiturs and relentless editorial logic, at times resembling an even-lower-rent Jem Cohen, or perhaps Jon Moritsugu doing a Hollis Frampton cover—a welcome bit of wild shag for a scene that too often feels safely formalist.
Actual foggy mountains appear in Ben Rivers’s The Coming Race, a 16mm black-and-white short that shares with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Victorian novel only a sense of haunting fantasy, documenting a mysterious crowd of travelers (pilgrims? refugees?) as it wends its way up a rocky, cloudy hillside. Well represented this year by multiple works, Rivers is a British filmmaker whose style is nearly Austrian in its soulful materialism—obsessed with sussing out the distinctive textures of old photographic film, but subtending his visual investigations with a spooky spiritualism that reveals the ghosts in the machine. Rivers’s wide-screen 16mm piece, The Hyrcynium Wood, pictures a woman walking through a cluster of trees, her image doubled and superimposed upon itself, set to a drowning audio bluster of rain, birds, thunder, and screams, the whole shebang washed with organic coronas of hand-processing halos. His films play as fragments of stories, like the crumbly bits of dreams that cling to waking consciousness.
One of the more celebrated newcomers to “Views” 2006, Michael Robinson returned for “Walking Picture Palace” with a mini-retro of earlier works, including You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, And We All Shine On, and The General Returns from One Place to Another—three of the more remarkable experimental films produced in the last couple of years, alive with lush landscapes, sinuous pop melodies, and mysterious emotional resonances. He also premiered two new works at “Views.” Light Is Waiting, a video piece, alters bits from an island-vacation episode of the dreck sitcom Full House into a darkly psychedelic Rorschach test, strobing brutally with white and red flickers, evoking all manner of primal family no-no’s. Victory Over the Sun begins with near-still shots of old World’s Fair sculptures, but soon dispenses with such austere restraint to whisk viewers away to a Robinsonland of congregational chants, laser-light wormholes, muffled science-fiction bombastics, and melancholy strings, once again displaying the filmmaker’s skill at providing that ineffable aesthetic fix that the avant-junkies crave.