Migrating Forms and the Search for Meaning


If you went wandering NYC’s Channel J in the early 1980s, you might recognize Jaime Davidovich as host of The Live! Show, his downtown, left-of-the-TV-dial cable-access variety program. Davidovich is visiting Anthology Film Archives with a découpage of clips from the show, other odds and ends from sundry sources, and also his 1981 video Adventures of the Avant Garde, which follows its host “seeking for the meaning of avant-garde.” This naturally leads the Buenos Aires–born New York artist to Iowa City, where he conducts deadpan man-in-the-street interviews, discussing Shock of the New with art-school secretaries and museum guards.

There will be plenty of attempts to locate “the meaning of avant-garde” when Davidovich leaves Anthology, and Migrating Forms moves in. This is the second edition of the festival that rose from the grave of the New York Underground Film Festival, straddling the museum installation and movie-movie worlds—a dynamic epitomized by a screening of painter Ed Ruscha’s 16mm works. Migrating Forms’ 10-day lineup is fairly crammed with “a broad spectrum of contemporary film and video projects,” including the annual “Tube Time!,” a team showdown of outré online found footage. Davidovich—whose Anthology show places Dada, ’50s TV experimentalists like Ernie Kovacs, and YouTube along the same continuum—might approve.

The best of MF is Petition, a tattered, vital documentary by Zhao Liang, another of the ballsy new Chinese image-smugglers who’ve cropped up to bear witness to the transformation of their country. Zhao reveals the 21st-century equivalent to the purgatorial Chancery Courts of Dickens’s Bleak House. Beginning in 1996, Zhao recorded the “inexorable lives” of the residents of shantytown “Petition Village”—since washed away in the Olympic clean-up—populated by provincials wronged by their local governments who’ve come to Beijing with nothing but their grievances and endlessly deferred hope of having their records expunged or justice done. They clutter around the clerk’s windows, cuffed by equally exhausted guards and thugs hired to chase them home. Petition challenges a viewer to separate injustice from plain paranoia—and shows how one leads to the other.

Features play alongside off-the-grid revivals. Having a rare surfacing are three films produced by Godard’s collaborator, Jean-Pierre Gorin, after his relocation from France to Southern California, where he recorded Samoan homeboys, secret twin languages, and model train buffs. Patricia Arquette is in prime vintage as a farm girl straight out of MGM circa 1939 in Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s faux-naïve melodrama Made in Hollywood (1990). Arquette’s search for stardom lands her weekending with Mary Woronov at a mogul’s poolside (and singing the song “Firelight Waltz,” an absolute treasure). The Yonemotos interpolate the narrative with behind-the-scenes cast interviews and corny supermarket commercials—everything is a dialect of the language invented in Hollywood, summed up as “the desperate wet dreams of uneducated immigrants longing to be chic.”

Three recent shorts by the great Jean-Marie Straub—the first work completed after the death of his wife and career-long collaborator, Danièle Huillet—are the most high-profile of new shorts; another 10 full programs prove the fest is committed to the form as something more than filler to be played while everybody is finding their seats.

There are two new works by Peggy Ahwesh, including Bethlehem, a closet-clearing of ephemera imagery of Western Pennsylvania and points beyond, lifted heavenward on Henry Cowell compositions. Cyprien Gaillard’s Cities of Gold and Mirrors inspired something like awe with slo-mo 16mm dispatches from Spring Break Cancun: vacationing meatheads chugging mescal, dolphins skimming the molten gold water outside a terraced Mayan-style hotel, a dancer in gangsta bandanna and blood-red jumpsuit wriggling among the “El Rey” ruins, the demolition of a glass-box building, the whirring of nightclub lights, all in a trance of cartoon fantasy music. Meanwhile, remixing the Transformers movie, Transformers Transformed makes the “Well, duh” connection between the Michael Bay multiplex and the clangorous, speed-hungry Futurist Manifesto, confirming that we live in a very avant-garde world indeed.