The 2001 New York Video Festival
Digital video hype posits the medium as a plug-and-play format for visionary art kids, but one of the most far-out DV works on view at this year's New York Video Festival is by an artist in his 70s. In his new feature-length work The Cedar Bar, painter and filmmaker Alfred Leslie uses DIY desktop technologies to create a hypercomplex meditation on the role of art in culture in the 20th century, built around a semi-fictional argument between critic Clement Greenberg, Willem De Kooning and other real-life art-world types, set at the eponymous West Village abstract expressionist watering hole. Laid over the dialogue is a complicated, often funny found-footage montage, crafted from over 400 distinct sources ranging from Hollywood musicals to hardcore porn. It's not unlike a burlesque version of Jean-Luc Godard's The Origins of the 21st Century, with a homespun American remote-control twist.
The Cedar Bar took four years for Leslie to edit, but its roots are deeply intertwined with his entire career as an artist. In 1950, at age 23, Leslie was tapped for a show curated by Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro. He had already been both painting and making 16 mm films, but the boost from these bigwigs made him decide to abandon all other arts but painting. Nevertheless, in 1952 he wrote a dialogue about painters and critics called The Cedar Bar, based on real conversations he overheard.
"I used to go drinking at Cedar Bar every night," Leslie says. "I loved conversations and loved people's voices. So one night I just wrote out everything that had gone on. I did it in one evening, working straight through for about five or six hours. It was actually a compilation of things?as the people's voices were running through my head, I would bring in things that had happened to them at different places and different times. I had stopped doing anything but painting at this point, so I had no intention actually of getting it produced or doing any kind of performance."
But Leslie did return to filmmaking in the late 50s. With Robert Frank, he codirected what is now considered one of the central works of Beat generation filmmaking, the Kerouac-narrated Pull My Daisy. A controversial countercultural hit in its day, Pull My Daisy is often considered the work that jump-started the underground film boom of the next decade. In the early 60s, Leslie worked on some never-completed animation pieces, finished The Last Clean Shirt, a 44-minute minimalist film narrated by Frank O'Hara, which caused consternation at its New York Film Festival debut, and began work on a 150-minute epic entitled Alfred Leslie's Birth of a Nation.
In 1966, however, all of Leslie's films were lost when his studio caught fire, destroying almost all of his paintings, papers and other works and bifurcating his artistic career. Pull My Daisy survived, however, as prints were already in circulation. "After the fire, I had two lives," he says. "One part of my life was retrieving a record of what had been lost, the chronology of my work, and the other, continuing to make new work." Twenty years later, on a Yaddo retreat, Leslie reconstructed the lost Cedar Bar from memory, triggered while looking through boxes of salvaged documents. He also added songs to the play, and the result reads like Oscar Wilde's The Critic As Artist meets Ed Harris' Pollock by way of 42nd Street?a philosophical argument with musical numbers.
Another decade later, in 1997, Leslie produced a staged reading of the work, hiring three cameramen to shoot DV footage of the event, in hopes of finally realizing The Cedar Bar in cinematic form. The resulting filmed play, however, "looked terrible" says Leslie. "It was boring." So, using a newly acquired G3 with editing software, he began inserting expressively edited found footage from Hollywood films. At first, he planned merely to illustrate the opening of the video with footage of New York from old movies?restoring fictional footage, as it were, to the realm of documentary. Taken with the results, he kept adding more footage, now of various kinds, digging into his collection of thousands of movies taped off of television, until the original performance was almost completely buried, with the audio track of dialog remaining over the montage.
The Cedar Bar's final form feels both high-art and homemade, with quirky visual commentary throughout. A party at Clem Greenberg's is illustrated by a scene of Hollywood dancing girls. Gruesome footage of the Holocaust is laid over the Three Stooges singing a goofy alphabet song. Leslie even provides his own audience reaction footage, culled at times from old Oscar broadcasts. Kurt Russell and Ronald Reagan chuckle as Willem de Kooning perorates on the rising role of curators and the marketplace in the artworld. Leslie's VCR archives spill forth the whole span of the 20th century, with a midcentury esthetic debate at its center.
In Leslie's abstract paintings from the early 60s, thick slabs of free-floating acrylic and torn bits of painted paper are laid over one another in chunky grids to form a deep, thick collage, creating a surface that is simultaneously covered and uncovered in multiple ways. Revamped for video, a similar esthetic is at work in The Cedar Bar, now stretched out in time. The editing feels strangely both retro and futuristic. Leslie cites the theories of Eisenstein and Pudovkin and the dialectic poetics of Ezra Pound as influences, but the never-ending possibilities of desktop editing allow him to take modernist montage to extreme levels of dense involution. It's like early 20th century esthetic theories through the filter of early 21st century low-budget video tech: Finnegans Wake meets Final Cut Pro.
The Cedar Bar is one of the more successful feature-length works screening at the Video Festival this year. But as with most experimental festivals, the NYVF is strongest in the shorts department. Some notable shorts that were available for preview:
Avant-film veteran Peggy Ahwesh switches to new media for She-Puppet, an ingenious experiment created by playing the game Tomb Raider. Ahwesh rigged a means to record the video images directly from the game as she played, making Lara Croft poke around the game environment in strange and unnerving ways. Clever without being too clever, She-Puppet lets the odd visual textures and silently surreal iconography of the blocky 3-D graphics speak for themselves.
Portland filmmaker Matt McCormick's mock-doc The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, narrated by fellow Portland artist Miranda July, is one of the finest shorts of any kind I've seen in a long time. Much of the film presents 16 mm and digital shots of gray color field-like paintings done by city workers to cover tagging. Mixing documentation of real graffiti removal practices by the city of Portland with theories that the removers are "collaborating" with graffiti artists to create unconsciously-motivated "collaborative works of art," McCormick crafts an argument so elegant, with achingly beautiful cold-color visuals floating in a warm-bath electronic score, that it's hard not to be seduced.
Known for his decades of Super-8 and video diaries, Joe Gibbons has begun to create a feature-length diary digest called Confessions of a Sociopath. The first 30-minute installment shows a mostly twentysomething Gibbons in the 80s, a clean-cut lad of varying haircuts who shoots heroin, does art pranks, shoplifts books to feed his habit, confesses to a therapist, gets in trouble with courts and dodges his parole officers while gaining notoriety as an avant-garde filmmaker, and finally succumbs to a desk job, all told with clenched-teeth Bostonian self-deprecating humor.
Speaking of art pranks, Erik Saks and Michael Goedecke's Dust edits together what seem like real intercepted cell phone conversations?mostly about sex and love?and lays them over a minimalist image of pulsating light and airborne dust. Although this gag is getting a bit long in the tooth?what with over a decade of bootleg tapes, CD compilations and transcribed books presenting much of the same?I can't say I didn't enjoy it.
And New York Press readers shouldn't miss the latest installment of Armond White's clip-and-lecture music video presentations, which have become a traditional mainstay of the NYVF. In this year's edition, "Weapons of Choice," he analyzes works by Spike Jonze, Jay-Z, Sade, OutKast and more.
The New York Video Festival runs July 13-19, the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, 165 W. 65th St. (B'way), 875-5600.
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