In Astoria, the First Look Festival Makes Heroes Out of Unsung Film Artists


The Museum of the Moving Image means, with its First Look Festival, to make some long-overdue introductions. This unusual program of eccentric and experimental film art, now in its seventh year, celebrates the defiant, the distinctive, and the wildly idiosyncratic, and renders for its duration superstars of unheralded artists instead of flattering marquee talent. Who are they? There’s Anna Zamecka, of Poland, whose provocative documentary Communion (playing January 6) has yet to screen without arousing controversy. There’s Croatia’s Matjaž Ivanišin, whose uproarious Playing Men (January 14) is a sixty-minute parody of masculine hubris. And there’s James Benning and Ken Jacobs — legends hardly in need of introduction but with whom audiences can always stand to get acquainted again. A festival like First Look reminds even the savviest moviegoers how much there is to see, and how many people there are to meet.

In Toronto, amid the dark confines of the city’s art houses and cinematheques, Blake Williams is a familiar figure: a voracious devotee of repertory programming, well-respected as a discerning viewer. He often writes on film, as a contributor to the magazine Cinema Scope, and by day he studies it, as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto. He is, by any measure, a man immersed in movies. And that avidity is in evidence in the movies he makes — at once engaged with the history of cinema and situated way out on the medium’s bleeding edge. PROTOTYPE (January 5), Williams’s first feature, continues the expedition of his acclaimed shorts along the vanguard of three dimensions, exploring the possibilities of the 3-D image in a manner comparable only to recent Godard. (Among other accomplishments, PROTOTYPE is almost certainly the most significant 3-D film since Goodbye to Language.) The film concerns abstractly Texas’s Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, its devastation and its lingering effects. Williams’s ideas, about modernity and nature, are serious. But what rouses, even overwhelms, are the immediate impressions: the splendor and the intensity, the look of faded photographs and boiling waves.

Joe Callander is a 33-year-old documentarian living in Los Angeles. He makes what may be described as microprofiles — terse little shorts about mildly interesting people, a fine pair of which will precede Playing Men on Sunday the 14th. One of these, called No Attempt Was Made to Reattach, is about a cabinetmaker who lost the top phalanges of his left index finger in an accident with a table saw in the early Eighties. Another bears the marvelous title The God of 400 People on Drugs, and is about a fat autistic DJ from Australia who added Callander as a friend on Facebook because he happens to share his name. The latter film runs roughly five minutes; the former spans less than two. This is exactly the right scale. How many documentaries exhaust the fascination of their subjects well before their more traditional running times have elapsed? Callander’s m.o. involves a sort of implied confession: that many curious and intriguing topics, items of meaningful interest, can be covered in ninety seconds, and simply do not merit an hour and a half. His films are delightful — and, welcomely, very brief.

To the north, in Toronto again, we find Daniel Cockburn, a recent graduate of the prestigious MFA in Film program at York University, under whose aegis he produced his latest short film, The Argument (with annotations) — a playful and ingenious picture that premiered this September at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Argument begins as a somewhat high-flown video essay that applies lofty Wittgensteinian language games to, among other venerable objects, the metaphors of The Big Lebowski and The Prisoner’s unforgettable end credits. But midway through it pivots sharply, and becomes instead a character study of a college lecturer with a lot on her mind. The effect is common to all of Cockburn’s work: Ever restless, he aspires principally to challenge and surprise. This elusive film plays as part of the festival’s shorts selection (January 15). Screening Saturday the 6th, meanwhile, is another Cockburn curio, this one a live multimedia presentation — part scholarly monologue, part real-time essay film, and part solo theater, a bit like Spalding Gray with PowerPoint. All the Mistakes I’ve Made (Part 2) is about the cinema, and it is smart and amusing. Better still is its curt punch line, provided by none other than Paul Schrader — a sight gag worth the price of admission.

Over the pond, on the merry isle of England, looms the inimitable Charlie Lyne: Britain’s funniest documentary filmmaker, a virtuoso of unorthodox features and shorts, an invaluable benefactor of cinematic joy. Lyne’s simple comedies have produced, inexplicably, some of the strongest emotional reactions I have had to motion pictures in my life, which I admit is a strange response indeed to what amounts to merely lighthearted nonfiction. His 2017 short Fish Story, a thirteen-minute investigation of the veracity of a friend’s favorite party anecdote, flung me into paroxysms of euphoric laughter, elated tears streaming messily down my face. The latest one, Missing Episode (January 13), obliged me to pause it several times over the course of its fleet thirty minutes to collect myself; when it was done I promptly watched it again, and then one more time after that. A dazzling sung-through monologue, performed and written by the poet Ross Sutherland, staged and shot in Sutherland’s childhood home in a single roving take, the film is a bravura feat of choreography and music, staggeringly complex and almost unaccountably beautiful. Rhymes are matched to images with painstaking precision; the topic, by the way, is a one-off episode of the BBC soap opera EastEnders from 1997. It is, simply, an inestimable contribution to the cause of bliss at the movies — and just the kind of pleasure that, at their finest, the introductions at First Look bring.

First Look Festival
January 5–15
Museum of the Moving Image