AT THE BEGINNING of Michael Robinson’s These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us (2010)—one of the films playing in New York’s annual Migrating Forms Festival, which starts today at Anthology Film Archives—a blue-eyed Egyptian goddess discovers an androgynous dancer cutting a rug in a palace interior. The goddess goes positively histrionic when the dancer evades some royal guards by turning into a pillar of dust, at which point it’s revealed that he’s her son. She performs her own dance to assure him passage to the underworld; the passage involves floating through a blackened desert spotted with pyramids and outlined in psychedelic colors. We arrive in the afterlife to find a spectral ice-capades, the undead figure-skating for an audience of the undead, everyone pulsing with light. The occultist tone is accentuated by the talismanic quality of the dancer’s outrageously chintzy armor, a wardrobe at once superhuman yet colored with the worldly vanity of Shelley’s Ozymandias. (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”)
Robinson’s found footage saga–which is, not to get too academic, fucking awesome–could well serve as an allegory for the festival at which it’s playing. Migrating Forms, now in its third year, escorts viewers from the humdrum of the East Village into a subterranean world of ghostly apparitions and material mayhem. Forms grew out of the New York Underground Film Festival, and it expands upon that fest’s interest in bringing together heterogeneous material: the celluloid revival of the American avant-garde, the rough-hewn outer edges of the European art-house, old curios, New Media, the academy, the grindhouse, and the gutter. As a result, Forms has some of the most unpredictable and interesting—and some of the best—programming of any US festival.
Popular Unrest plays Fri May 20 at 8:30
FORMS’ OPENING NIGHT narrative feature, Melanie Gilligan’s Popular Unrest (2010), is at home in this heady atmosphere. A dystopian sci-fi mystery inspired by David Cronenberg and the “pornographic forensics” of contemporary police dramas, Unrest is both a compelling drama and an extended conceptual prank. The movie’s set in a future where all of life is overseen by an eerie entity called The Spirit, which monitors every individual’s “micro-story”—their “feelings, thoughts, loves, hates”—and weaves “together the threads into one world-wide macro-story that’s forever changing.” The macro-story, though, isn’t Tolstoy or Dickens, or Hegel or Marx for that matter, but numerical data used to increase productivity and profitability. “By learning about your emotions, The Spirit finds new ways to intensify your work,” creating “adaptive algorithms for managing workers in all sorts of situations.” Seeming like a monstrous love child of Malcolm Gladwell and Larry Page, The Spirit’s efficiency can be, well, dispiriting.
It’s in this near-future that two mysterious events are stirring things up: random groups of people from diverse backgrounds are spontaneously gathering together and instantaneously bonding, and people are being violently stabbed to death in public by an invisible being. Unrest ends up being as comical as it is provocative; the dialogue is imbued with a sly sense of humor. Upon entering the sparse abode of the information architect responsible for The Spirit, a woman remarks: “I pictured you having more computers.” “They’re here,” she’s told, “they’re just very small.” Unrest’s denouement—an attempt to explain everything, sort of, and render it digestible—may be a bit deflating, but perhaps Gilligan was merely staying true to the television procedurals from which she’s drawing inspiration.
Art Tape: Live With / Think About plays Sun May 22 at 9:15
FOOTAGE FROM ONE such TV show, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, opens Michael Bell-Smith’s Art Tape: Live With / Think About (2011). In the L&A clip, Detective Robert Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio) stands by a Monet and remarks, “Impressionists are too pretty.” When Detective Alexandra Eames (Kathryn Erbe) discovers he prefers Lucien’s Freud’s nudes, she shoots back, “You can’t put that stuff in your home! You can’t live with it!” “I’m not interested in living with it,” responds Goren, “I’m interested in thinking about it.”
Bell-Smith, who specializes in reconfiguring music video formulas, sets the rest of the movie to The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” which opens with the lyrics, “Home is where I want to be/ Pick me up and turn me round.” Bell-Smith puts the music first to images of home improvement and then to museum walls showcasing mostly Modernist art. The movie creates koanish resonances out of simple sound-image pairings. What does it mean that David Byrne sings “I feel numb” over Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, “born with a weak heart” over Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath, or “the less we say about it, the better” over a Jackson Pollock? The whole riddle ends with an extreme close-up of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, over which Bell-Smith draws computerized scribbles in perfect sync with the music. The Microsoft Paint aesthetic is a reminder of the shifting nature of the original terms invoked by the detectives: in the age of hard drives and tabbed browsing—the home without walls that is also a museum—who doesn’t “live with” everything they “think about”?
Versions (2010) plays Sun May 22 at 9:15
THE PROLIFERATION OF IMAGES enabled by new technologies is an explicit subject of Oliver Laric’s essay-movie Versions , a follow up to a four-part 2009 movie with the same title.
The first Versions was a meditation on images in the age of digital reconfiguring; Laric contemplated bootleg features (first-run films illegally taped off theater screens and posted online) along with things like Google’s 3D warehouse and pornography in which celebrity heads are grafted onto porn-star bodies. “The more often an image is viewed, the more likely it makes the top of search results,” says the narrator, noting elsewhere that “authenticity is decided on by the viewer.” A peculiar section of the first Versions concerned the history of iconoclasm—the literal kind: smashing idols—which Laric portrayed as a kind of creative destruction cognate with Photoshop modification.
This seems to provide the jumping off point for Versions II, which begins with an account of iconoclasm during the Reformation. While the narration in the first version of Versions appeared to be mostly original text, the narration in Versions II is mostly cribbed, if slightly re-arranged. Laric borrows from Donald Richie’s description of Rashomon, an interview with Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, a 1754 book called The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director; the part about the Reformation is taken from Joseph Leo Koerner’s The Reformation of the Image. It’s a testament to Laric’s artistry that it feels like everything fits together naturally, which is partly a result of the striking images he’s selected to go with the texts.
Particularly compelling and recurring throughout is the placing side-by-side of different generations of animation based on the same cells; on the left we see Christopher Robin throwing a rock off a cliff, on the right Mowgli from The Jungle Book throwing the same rock, with the same motion, off a different cliff. “The cautious common saying of rereading the classics turns out to be an innocent veracity. We are always somehow already rereading a classic because we have encountered some previous incarnation of it—a refraction—in other stories, texts, or versions.” So says Laric’s narrator, and this idea of texts being constant reiterations and echoes is reflected in the fact that the statement itself is an amalgam of Borges and Sergio Gabriel Waisman’s glossing of Borges.
The Galactic Pot Healer plays Sun May 22 at 9:15
RADICALLY DIFFERENT FROM Laric but no less concerned with exploring contemporary culture is video artist Shana Moulton, whose represented at Forms with The Galactic Pot Healer (2010). Many of Moulton’s videos, pastel-hued dreams of ecstatic restoration, have a familiar, almost rigid, structure: the heroine, played by Moulton herself, encounters an annoyance or bodily ache and seeks out and finds a cure, which involves thrift-store tchotchkes, some New Age ritual, something supernatural or all of the above–all of which is rendered faux-epic through the use of rigorously low-tech special effects. The videos gain their frisson by finding some measure of beauty in the commodity fetishism and self-help mythologies they parody—or is it the other way around?
Moulton’s vision is distinguished, too, by an interest in the quotidian. Her character inhabits a radically depopulated universe, playing puzzles or taking medication or trying to conceal pours, blankly cycling through entertainments and ablutions like a sybaritic Jeanne Dielman. In Pot Healer, Moulton breaks a pot and brings it to a pair of disembodied hands to be repaired, only to find the hands think the container beyond help. They offer her a massage, though, and when she lies down her back is revealed to be clay. The hands mold her pressure points into a misshapen mass, which is then microwaved into a perfect replica of the broken pot. The answer she was looking for was, of course, an unnoticed part of herself.
Coming Attractions plays Sun May 29 at 1:30
AUSTRIAN TECHNICAL FETISHIST and found-footage maestro Peter Tscherkassky appears at Forms with Coming Attractions (2010). As chock full of art-historical references as Bell-Smith’s Art Tape, Attractions is tonally the opposite, a self-serious exploration of early film history and avant-garde strategies. At times illustrating its ideas too bluntly, Attractions is kept lively by Tscherkassky’s restless discovery of unexpected juxtapositions and his ceaseless deployment of unique processing techniques. Visually manic, the film finds coherence, finally, in recurring images of actors making eye-contact with the camera, rearticulating an ur-Modernist concern with the confrontation between subject and viewer that runs from Manet through Hitchcock through Godard. And Tscherkassky’s images are well chosen; these people’s eyes unsettle.
IN A SIMILARLY formalist vein, Tomonari Nishikawa’s Tokyo-Ebisu and Shibuya-Tokyo (both 2010) form a sort of airy, impressionistic city symphony. Using complexly layered matte effects that frequently break the screen up into a grid, Nishikawa’s recent diptych may not be as immediately arresting as his 2005 instant classic Market Street, but the films are nonetheless resonant: busy portraits of urban traffic that startle the viewer with intricate patterns both found and fabricated. A very different portrait of place is offered by Kevin Jerome Everson’s BZV (2010). A meandering documentary poem set in Brazzaville, The Republic of Congo, BZV captures leisure time in a context that couldn’t be more different from Moulton’s fantasia. The film’s show-stopping first section shows us waterskiing on the Congo River, using long-takes and gorgeous handheld camerawork that make the movie itself feel every bit as suspended in motion as its subject.
Rosalinda plays Sun May 29 at 3:15
ONE OF THE strangest and most beguiling movies that I was able to preview was Matías Piñeiro’s Rosalinda (2011). Rosalinda is either a slowly paced film about a group of young actors rehearsing As You Like It in a forest in Uruguay or a Pirandellian meta-fiction in which Shakespeare’s characters break out of their ascribed roles and begin to lead lives as young thespians in Delta del Tigre.
We learn precious little about the young people in Rosalinda; they seem to enjoy kissing, swimming, riding in boats, throwing oranges at boats. Most of the action concerns the love affair between Rosalind and Orlando from As You Like It, in which the cross-dressing maiden trains the credulous suitor in the art of wooing her. María Villar’s Rosalind is self-possessed, resourceful, and a bit self-deceiving: a wonderful rendition of the willful heroine. Alberto Ajaka’s harried Orlando moves between lovesick and just dour, becoming legitimately frustrated by Rosalind’s increasingly absurd demands. The conceit of the rehearsal, rather than estranging the action, somehow renders it more natural, allowing Shakespeare’s world to be dreamily conjured instead of forced; or allowing it to, at times, remain appositely hidden. Rosalinda is, like its source material, a meditation on dissembling selves and displaceable passions. The movie ends with the theater troupe gathered around a table, engaged in a dinner party murder mystery game, the friends only able to reveal themselves to each other while playing make believe.
Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden is a land where rules are upended, where individuals can transform the world and be transformed by it. Rosalinda suggests that this land exists wherever young people gather, fall in love, stage a play. There’s a real Forest of Arden at Anthology Film Archives starting tonight and running through the 29th.
Tom McCormack is a critic based in Chicago. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Moving Image Source, Rhizome, The Chicago Reader, The L Magazine, and other publications.
Migrating Forms is playing at Anthology Film Archives May 20-29.