STARTING TONIGHT the East Village intersection of 2nd and 2nd will become a meeting point for the eccentric, the willfully marginal, the obscure, the radical. The fourth-annual Migrating Forms festival, a reincarnation of the long-running New York Underground Film Festival (1994–2008), returns to Anthology Film Archives through May 20th.
Opening the fest is Eric Baudelaire’s epically titled The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images. This hour-long avant-doc overlays the respective biographies of Fusako Shigenobu, founder of the militant communist collective Japanese Red Army, Shigenobu’s daughter May, and Red Army comrade Masao Adachi, a filmmaker and theorist. Baudelaire sets audio interviews with his subjects to archival imagery from Japanese television and Adachi’s movies (which are tantalizingly fascinating, resembling a mash-up of George Kuchar, the Dziga Vertov Group, and fellow-travelling Japanese leftist Nagisa Oshima). The majority of Baudelaire’s visuals, however, are comprised of mobile landscape footage shot from passenger trains in Lebanon and Japan. Urban sprawl sculpted by multinational capital serves as counterpoint to the protagonists’ utopian dreams: a solid reality colliding with the incorporeal recollections of Adachi and the Shigenobus. The intertwining visualization of city and country become a kind of praxis for Adachi’s theoretical writings on film, which agitated for a cinema that would expose the ruling powers by unveiling the ways they shape our physical environment and control our perception of space.
Jesse McLean’s Remote (2011)
A concern with the politics of land, as well as with the sheer impressiveness of nature on consciousness, runs throughout this year’s lineup. Haunted by a horror-movie soundtrack, Jesse McLean’s Remote glances nervously from factory to forest and suburb to sky; cracks in the clouds, gaps in the fences, and the space between branches become abodes of spectral forces. In Fern Silva’s The Peril of Antilles, a hurricane approaches Haiti along with a cholera epidemic, the pathetic fallacy born out by history. Silva’s syncopated editing levies overbearing dread with moments of release. Celebratory music and hints of quotidian rural life punctuate the gathering storm. Journeying through calmer weather, Gina Telaroli’s Traveling Light concerns an Amtrak trip from NY to the Midwest. Trains have long served as a metonymy for cinema—a tradition that dates back to Lumiere’s famous short films—but Telaroli’s conceit underscores their phenomenological similarity: sitting still while observing motion. Telaroli restages the dissolving of space into light and texture. Her movie taps into a variety of natural and found rhythms, from the thoroughly rationalized timetable of arrivals and departures to the cosmic ebb and flow of seasonal and circadian cycles.
Laida Lerxtundi’s movies take place where Telaroli’s train is probably headed: Gold Rush territory. The dreamy California in An Lax Riddle is a mythical place, full of awe and disappointment. The numb serenity of Lerxtundi’s movies (which played this past March in the Whitney Biennial) recall a recognizable idiom of the Los Angeles art scene, a tradition that would include the rectilinear, planar surfaces of David Hockney’s Beverly Hills backyards and the savage, postcard simplicity of Ed Ruscha’s “Angelino Americana”. Like Hockney and Ruscha, Lerxtundi gives form to a kind of spiritual drift between boredom and fascination; her camera toggles in and out of focus; her human figures move from window to bed and back again. Pop songs float off the soundtrack through the crackle of old stereo systems, and there’s a calming glow to everything, the dense smog forcing the edges of the landscape to melt into the diffuse sunlight. A disturbed longing is conjured out of the languorous takes and old LPs. There’s something toxic in the quietude of these movies; it looks like paradise but it tastes like chemicals.
Shana Moulton’s Decorations of Mind II (2011)
Concerned, like Lerxtudni, with what lies hiding in leisure time, Shana Moulton returns to Forms with Decorations of Mind II, in which Moulton’s alter-ego Cynthia travels through the desert to understand a Magic Eye poster. Eventually, Cynthia gains requisite gnostic knowledge of the optical illusion and enters its fold, where she’s greeted by a gathering of friendly and awesome creatures. The delicately curated world of Moulton’s movies—with geometrically arranged thrift-shop curios in Lisa Frank colors—is at once an idealization of and cruel joke on New Age utopianism. Decorations also resembles a 3D MySpace page and fits with another trend at this year’s Forms, countervailing the focus on landscape: a concern with burrowing into the World Wide Web.
Guthrie Lonergan brings a wickedly obtuse sense of humor to his investigations of net culture. Lonergan’s movies are reminiscent of the can’t-be-bothered minimalism of avant-garde filmmaker Owen Land: wry commentary on popular forms rendered with idiotic-seeming insistence. Lonergan’s abiding concern is anatomizing the constituent elements of the most banal and overfamiliar cultural objects. Professional Berry Photos offers a cyclical origin myth for a family of stock photographs of strawberries. The careful arrangement of the berries; the angling of the camera; the calibrating of the lights: each becomes a tragic joke. There is a lot of work one must go through to make something that looks exactly like everything else. Birth of the Net is another creation story, comparing a silicon computer chip to a map of the world laid at the feet of construction workers. The movie is ironically set to suspense music, as if something marvelous might happen any minute now, just wait for it.
Jacob Ciocci’s Extreme Animals: Am I Evil? brings out the net’s darker side. Set to a nervy techno remix of the score from the Harry Potter movies, Ciocci’s montage stages an epic spiritual struggle against black magic, with Sarah Palin as the accusatory conscience and Harry Potter himself as the embattled pilgrim. As in Ciocci’s work with art collective Paper Rad, the palette and sense of rhythm in Am I Evil? are retrograde and rough. The work is suffused with a self-consciously bogus pop-culture nostalgia with one foot in the early 80s and one in Web 1.0.
Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck (1953)
Animator Chuck Jones—obviously Ciocci’s spiritual ancestor—gets a centennial screening at this year’s Forms. Jones’s cartoons stand with the films of Jerry Lewis and the television work of Ernie Kovacs at the outer limits of self-reflexive Hollywood outrageousness. In Duck Amuck, Daffy does battle with his animator, getting repeatedly erased and redrawn in new locations, world and self constantly dissolving and reappearing. In addition to inspiring who-knows-how-many Saturday morning comedy bits, Amuck served as one source for John Ashbery’s poem “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” in which the duck is recast as Milton’s Satan, vainly struggling against an omnipotent, eraser-wielding God.
Jones represents early Hollywood at its most avant-garde. In a variation on the same theme, the special event Un filme de Diane Chambers will be a clip-show lecture by Ed Halter on “fake experimental films as seen in mainstream movies and television.” Named after a fictional short film from Cheers, Halter’s lecture promises a uniquely humorous view of how counterculture has entered and interacted with the mainstream.
Another way of thinking about issues of periphery and center will be offered when n+1’s Christopher Glazek presents Harun Farocki’s Prison Images. Earlier this year, Glazek’s article ‘Raise the Crime Rate’ argued for the immediate abolition of US prisons. Published around the same time as Adam Gopniks’ ‘The Caging of America’ in the New Yorker, and bookended by substantial essays on mass incarceration in The New York Review of Books and Jacobin, Glazek’s article seems to be part of a tidal shift in public debates about criminal punishment. Glazek’s stance was almost uncannily in direct opposition to Gopnik’s. Glazek argued the hopelessness of incremental reform, the ineffectiveness of which could only prolong the problem indefinitely. Gopnik argued the total impracticality of radical reimagining, the unlikeliness of which could only lead to a perpetual deferral that would prolong the problem indefinitely. But each article struck the same tone of moral outrage at the basic indecency of the American justice system as it now operates. Gopnik begins his essay pondering the brutalizing dilation of time experienced by prisoners; Glazek begins with accounts of prison violence.
Harun Farocki’s Prison Images (2001)
Time and violence both are subjects of Farocki’s Prison Images, which looks at the history of cinematic portrayals of life behind bars, both fictional and documentary. Narrative movies serve in aggregate as x-rays of their parent cultures; surveillance footage from within prisons, on the other hand, begins to seem staged. The architecture, the prisoners, the guards: all the elements have been carefully arranged, and the scenes that result are little more than a kind of live puppet show for the Panopticon. The revival of Farocki’s 12-year-old investigation at a time when his concerns seem to be gaining more widespread attention serves as a reminder of what all the eccentric, willfully marginal, obscure, and radical art is doing: loitering in the shadows; biding its time; readying itself to indict, prosecute, and bury us.
Tom McCormack is an Editor of Alt Screen and the film and electronic art Editor of Idiom. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Film Comment and Moving Image Source, amongst other publications.
Migrating Forms is playing at Anthology Film Archives through May 20th.