Views from The Avant-Garde Flying in the face of complaints that rising rents, commercial strip-malling and gentrification are indelibly harshing New York's artistic vibe, the underground cinema scene has been booming in the city for more than a couple of years now. Going on its third year, Bradley Eros and Brian Frye's Tuesday night Robert Beck Memorial Cinema continues to screen celluloid hermeticisms to an avowed art-core crowd on Ludlow St. In Williamsburg, the Monday night screenings by Ocularis at Galapagos have become increasingly popular, serving up a mixture of underground oddities, live music and video mixing, film festival showcases and classic experimental fare, sometimes going head-to-head with similarly eclectic guest-curated offerings on the same nights at Tonic. Up until last May, curator Astria Suparak rounded out the week with Wednesday avant-garde film screenings at Pratt, spun with a superlative curatorial taste that combined a savvy political consciousness and sexy indie-rock-style showmanship without ever losing crucial nerd cred.
While this curatorial energy may have brought back New York's edge as cinematic tastemakers in the avant-garde realm, similar smaller scenes are flourishing all across the country. There's hardly a metropolitan area now that doesn't host some kind of underground festival or ongoing experimental cinema series. Some of the most engaging and interesting work isn't being produced in New York, but by small cadres of artists in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and more obscure locales. Building off the burgeoning downtown interest in avant-garde work, uptown's art mafia has stepped up its response. Since its "American Century" film series, the Whitney has been ambitiously programming avant-garde classics nonstop. The curators at Lincoln Center racked up an impressive slate of showcases of new work in the past year as well. The Film Society's Video Festival in July appeared to attract larger crowds than ever before. The newly energized "Image Innovators" series has presented popular one-man shows by Lewis Klahr, Luis Recoder and Nathaniel Dorsky, and even hosted a program of new Super 8 work produced by young filmmakers from downtown and Brooklyn.
In the wake of this remarkable wave of activity, the selections available for preview screening from the New York Film Festival's annual "Views from the Avant-Garde" showcase seem all the more disappointing. Maybe it's time to reconsider the necessity of the sidebar's film-only purism. One can't fault the programmers for not trying, however. The slate includes an impressive set of premieres from big-name avant-garde luminaries: Jean-Luc Godard's Origin of the 21st Century, Michael Snow's Prelude, Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World and In Absentia, a film by the Quay brothers with an original score by Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Of these, Maddin's is the only hands-down astounding work, a five-minute feature done in the style of an Eisenstein-era Soviet science-fiction film (a la Aelita, Queen of Mars). Scratched and superannuated to a greater degree than his previous feature-length excursions into perverted nostalgia, the film is packed with early cinema's trick-film trickery, cut to an insanely spastic millennial pace. Not as breakneck but still impressive is Godard's piece, a somber meditation on the psychological and moral extremities of the 20th century, as seen through archival footage and clips from the works of fellow auteurs ranging from Kubrick to Kurosawa to Jerry Lewis. Snow's piece, produced as a trailer for the Toronto Film Festival, is a dull one-shot time-puzzle trifle with amateur actors. In Absentia, produced by the BBC and the Quays' first new film in six years, retreads their now-familiar style to tell a tediously grim quasi-parable about a writer. The Quays' slick Lynch-meets-Svankmajer style has been copped so many times by music video and commercials that I half expected either Marilyn Manson or a Volvo to swing into frame at any second.
More endearingly scrappy is Abigail Child's Surface Noise, a collage film built from home movies, travelogues and other small-format oddities. The jittery montage recalls the anarcho-random pasteups of Arthur Lipsett, always on the verge of complete nonsense. As with many nonnarrative films, the soundtrack is what gives Surface Noise its true kick. It's a bizarre multitrack sonata filled with back-masking, electronic bleepage, cartoon sound effects and fluxoid Ono-esque utterances, produced by experimental music faves Christian Marclay, Zeena Parkins, Shelly Hirsch and Jim Black.
A couple of less established directors steal the show from the old school. Bobby Abate's The Zero Order is a fractured narrative about a twentysomething depressive lad (played by the director) obsessed with Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Shot on moody 16 mm, The Zero Order engages in a complicated dialogue with the 60s, not just in its protagonist's object of obsession, but in the director's choice of film format and color scheme, the amateurish Factory-esque actor ensemble and central image of the tragically fey, sensitive, sad young man. A completely different strain of 60s excess provides the genealogy for Stom Sogo's darkly psychedelic Slow Death, an abstract epileptic epic of flashing light, color, obscured images and intensely fucked-up sound design. A key personality on the downtown New York avant-kid scene for the past few years, Sogo creates his remarkably advanced works through dizzingly complex rerecordings of Super 8 and video. Completely divorced from the tired academism and banal traditionalism of many lesser offerings on view, Sogo's films are powerful and utterly unique works of sublime transportation and oblivion, not easily forgotten.
Despite a handful of impressive films, however, the preview program as a whole suffers from a lack of diversity of tone. Unlike the dynamic Video Festival, which screened everything from subcultural docudramas to structural feminist essays to manic performance tapes, the film-only "Views from the Avant-Garde" plays out one long, somber note of funereal formalism. The videomakers look both forward and back in time for inspiration, while almost every experimental film here wallows in death-of-film nostalgia. There's also the intrinsic limits of a dying medium. Only so many times can one gush about the colors of Super 8, the possibilities of found-footage collage, or the Tinkertoy wonders of emulsion-scratching and hand-processing before most of the films seem like unadventurous repetitions of familiar formal elements. The current avant-boom is decisively multiformat. While there may always be a few new hardline celluloid geniuses in the retro genre of experimental film, perhaps it's time to concede that, for film, the experiment is over.