by Mónica Savirón

If you don’t have the ace of hearts, my dear, you’re a lost man.
Le Sang d’un Poète - Jean Cocteau

Falling Notes Unleaving (Saul Levine, 2013)

In the Forest of Estrangement

(Leer en español)

“Views from the Avant-Garde,” presented by the New York Film Festival, featured 46 film programs and over 200 individual works curated by Mark McElhatten. Finding myself without a survival kit, and lacking an instruction manual for writing about avant-garde filmmaking, McElhatten treated me to the most inspiring message I have ever received: “Experimental film, if we are to call it that, [...] needs people that are perceptive, find their own way into experience, and forge their own language. It requires a poet who knows how to slip in and out of themselves, someone who can open up to being haunted and stay articulate—a detective in love, alive to nuance, emblem, quirk, fluctuations; sensitive to the taste of snow and roots, the life giving poisons, and unafraid.”

McElhatten, who co-founded “Views from the Avant-Garde” with Gavin Smith seventeen years ago, and curated this edition solo for the first time, knows what to expect from the intrinsic risks of programming. He has remained a composer of unheard melodies over the years, offering artfully eclectic film views. At a time when the most innovative avant-garde proposals come from contemporary poetry, McElhatten has sent a love poem of monumental dimensions in a glass bottle—an opus magnum of autobiographical motivations, emotional connotations, and intellectual legacies. In his artists’ map, filmmakers and poets wander each others’ territories, collaborate, challenge one another, and even become one and the same. Poets turn on the light of the projector as filmmakers open the white pages of a book waiting to be written. “The language of cinema is fundamentally a language of poetry,” wrote Pier Paolo Pasolini in his Cinema of Poetry (1965). “A dictionary of images does not exist. There are no images classified and ready for use. If by chance we wanted to imagine a dictionary of images, we would have to imagine an infinite dictionary, just as the dictionary of possible words remains infinite.”

Who are these avant-garde filmmakers? What do they want? What defines them? Why are they different? Cleverness never predominates to control their work, always and only, authenticity. They all seem to be those rare ones of radically poetic freedom, who care about the transcendence of a twenty-fourth of a second. Always astonished. Responsible. Grateful. Simply remembering.

How is it possible to write accurately about avant-garde filmmaking, and to refine insights and understanding about experimental cinema? How can words describe the ineffable, unnamable, and inexpressible, when it is begging to be deciphered and metabolized by us? How is it conceivable to name the unexpected turns of colors and shapes that impinge on the screen, and to transform them into question marks, asterisks, ampersands, commas, periods, fffts, dings, zhoops, bangs, mental precipices, mirrors, and afterthoughts? Words trying to recollect meaning become frustrating tools, constrained by unavoidable limitations. Obtuse expressions such as “pulsing traces” or “unflinching melodies” are commonplaces devoid of meaning. A film’s purpose is not to provide answers, yet it conveys so many potential meanings, that it is senseless to write about a film after experiencing it only once. Given the impossibility of writing about “Views from the Avant-Garde,” I should end this text right here, but these films do merit the effort of a triple somersault. They are important because whenever a freely floating spirit sits in front of the screen, without the slightest clue of all that lies ahead, and there is only darkness and suspended time, then something inside minds and hearts might become real.

Poet Charles Bernstein likes to encourage his students suggesting, “Approach a text as if you were in a relationship. Don’t criticize the text. Be with the text.” Like the stimulating effect of a splinter in the mind, writing seems an exercise to grasp and keep whatever beauty we might be able to find—and to facilitate others to undertake a voyage that they have been assured would be worthwhile. As put by avant-garde poet Susan Howe in her homage, Sorting Facts; or Nineteen Ways of Looking at [Chris] Marker, “…Her impressions of her father may have been shaken if there ever was a way to translate the feeling of image-juxtaposition in these words moving from left to right across this sheet of paper”. Writing about avant-garde filmmaking is like confronting a broken mirror. The reader and the spectator are challenged to learn a new language, which can only be achieved the way harpists and cellists literally embrace their instruments. The variety and quantity of mirrors and reflections in this program are such that, you, dear reader, will need to assemble the jigsaw puzzle by yourself.

Strawberries in the Summertime (Jennifer Reeves, 2013)

“Views from the Avant-Garde” opened with the 16mm, hand-processed film Strawberries in the Summertime, shot by Jennifer Reeves at the “Film Farm” (Independent Imaging Retreat) in rural Ontario. Her method of diving into nature with a two-and-a-half-year-old and a camera is a celebration of the pure act of discovery, and an invitation to play with the idea of other means of hearing and seeing—incorporating negative and solarized images, fragmented voices, altered emulsions, and an exquisite sense of rhythm. Her position as both character and creator serves as a declaration of intentions: to turn the real unreal, the up down, the past present. A film of songs, voices and visions, its solarized footage seems to be part of a memory archive that harbors the x-rays of subjective cinema. Reeves’ film walks along the balance beam of five days of films in which women’s works have played an important role as agents of daring form and discourse.

Intensely musical and emotional, this first program provoked a solemn and introverted mood—the perfect setting for Phil Solomon’s delicate and disarming, Psalm IV: “Valley of the Shadow,” part of his film series The Twilight Psalms (Psalm I: “The Lateness of the Hour,” 2001; Psalm II: “Walking Distance,” 1999; Psalm III: “Night of the Meek,” 2002). The imagery of Valley of the Shadow belongs to a game-play territory of smooth tracking shots, tilted camera movements, chiaroscuros, furious clouds, broken branches, and flickering candle light. The transfixing gloominess of these symbols, and the polyphonic soundtrack of night animals, oceanic wind, and falling snow are the visual and audio metaphors in play, as the filmmaker comes to terms with the shadow of emotional turbulence—acknowledged, controlled, and accepted. In contrast with the picturesque and elegiac imagery, the faint sound narration comes from a Hollywood classic. The film starts with the muffled, suffocated moaning of Anjelica Huston in the penumbra of a black screen, followed by the almost unintelligible voice of actor Donal McCann reciting his interior monologue at the end of John Huston’s The Dead (1987), delicately accompanied by the simmering sound of an oboe. The appropriation of Huston’s soundtrack, which in turn adapted James Joyce’s words to the screen, adds depth to Solomon’s film-poem with layers of evocative lyricism. As Solomon reflects through McCann’s voice, after all, the other will always remain unknowable.

How poor a part I've played in your life,
it's almost as though I'm not your husband,
and we've never lived together as man and wife.
[…] Why am I feeling this riot of emotion?
What started it up?
A ride in the cab?
When not responding when I kissed her hand?
My aunt's party?
My own foolish speech?
Wine, dancing, music?

[…] Soon, perhaps, I'll be sitting in that
same drawing-room, dressed in black.
The blinds would be drawn down,
and I'd be casting about in my mind
for words of consolation.
And would find only lame and useless ones.
Yes, yes.
That will happen very soon.

[…] One by one
we are all becoming shades.
Better pass boldly into that other world,
in the full glory of some passion,
than fade and wither
dismally with age.

How long you locked away in your heart,
the image of your lover's eyes
when he told you that
he did not wish to live?
I've never felt like that myself towards any woman,
but I know that such a feeling must be love.

Think of all those who ever were,
back to the start of time.
And me, transient as they,
flickering out as well into their grey world.
Like everything around me,
this solid world itself,
which they reared and lived in,
is dwindling and dissolving.

Snow is falling.

[…] Falling faintly through the universe,
and faintly falling,
like the descent of their last end,
upon all the living
and the dead.

Valley of the Shadow (Phil Solomon, 2013)

In Valley of the Shadow, both sound and image fade in and out, and breathe as the stanzas of a poem would do. The third shot/stanza is left without narration, as an anonymous woman standing in the dark of the forest, facing a memento mori, is left behind with her memories and the potential of a future life—no matter how ruthless or unkind the decisions of the passage of time might have been. Its metaphorical countershot —the last stanza also without human voice— belongs to the helpless solitude of the narrator, the creator and, by extension, the viewer. The sounds from nature almost efface the murmurs and whispers of the male lamentation, coming from a feeling of depletion, and a meditative sadness that ponders death and the momentary perdurability of love—sounds for the inner ear only. The mood and the form, with the oneiric and doom-like palette of an Anselm Kiefer painting, become personal motifs of the film, emphasized by glimpses of clear light and words. The infinitude of the snow that covers it all in the end, in the absence of words, has the same epiphanic resonance of the torment that 81-year-old John Huston depicted in his last film—estranged from the world, sitting on a wheelchair and attached to oxygen tanks, watching life go by.

Drawing attention to the film material itself, we had the occasion to experience the only existing, never digitized, original print of Weissfilm (1977), by Wilhem and Brigit Hein, known for their structural film work. Weissfilm is created out of spliced transparent and semitransparent film leader—thin and thick splices that show the end of a shot and the beginning of a new one, with a different texture and dust accumulated with every projection, like a living and changing light sculpture. In 2013, German artist and filmmaker Florian Zeyfang created Splicefilm, an homage to Heins’ work made of HD 16:9 still photographs of the splices, projected for a longer time than the frames in the original film, and exposing the cuts in all detail. The physicality of the rubber cement, hair, tape, cracked emulsion, detritus of paint, sprocket holes and safety codes transforms the isolated image into an abstract landscape, and translates the original film into a new audio and visual language. Splicefilm is part of the Living Archive project, an exhibition that works with the collection of the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin. Brigit Hein had invited Zeyfang to present his book I said I love. That is the promise. The tvideo politics of Jean-Luc Godard (co-edited with Gareth James, Swiss Institute, NY, 2004) to the Art Academy in Braunschweig, and that is how it all began.

Splicefilm (Florian Zeyfang, 2013)

Zeyfang explains, “I would be happy if Splicefilm could offer the possibility of a dialectical reading, and if further parallel narratives could arise. It starts with an entirely different way of viewing: the duration of the video and the impression of a zoom, even if we are still in fact watching a 16mm frame. […] What if ‘delayed cinema’ could achieve what Weissfilm once did in 1977, namely, that the images themselves take on a political dimension, because they are ‘potentially able to challenge patterns of time’? I had not intended to illustrate a thesis when I photographed these cuts. I simply followed an impulse, […] but now I enjoy thinking about contemporary, formal-political responses to the digital image, and its consequences based on this." It was especially significant to experience this quasi-photographic work in a movie theater, instead of in an art gallery—changing the space in which the piece is experienced varies its connotations and meaning. The same result occurred with Leslie Thornton’s triptych Luna (2013), displayed at Winkleman gallery, in New York, last May-June. When the kaleidoscopic interplay of the parachute-jump tower at Coney Island of Thornton’s work was shown at the movie theater, the room transformed the spectacle of video technology into a haunting stratosphere of abstraction and nostalgia.

The splice as a descriptive and aesthetic element has been a metaphorical theme for a variety of filmmakers. As example, Saul Levine and David Gatten have explored the splice to merge the confluent narratives of film, landscape imagery, and literature. Gatten quotes Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s poem Empathy (1989) to refer to the metaphorical resonance of the cut and the splice:

Let the ragged edge between the two be lightning
or falling water, and figure its use: the distance
away of a person poised in the air with wings on. 

Gatten also states about his film, Secret History of the Dividing Line (1996-2002): “When using tape to make a splice, the cut pieces of film are placed end to end and the tape itself covers the gap: it is a band-aid and a bridge. But as the splice ages, a line becomes visible; eventually the adhesive dries and the connection dissolves. When making a cement splice, there is more violence involved. The films are not placed end to end but instead are crushed into one another. Frames are lost, emulsions are scraped. But the well-made splice is strong: in fact, it is permanent. Unlike tape, there is no going back. And it leaves a mark—a line—covering a third of one of the frames. A splice marks difference and defines duration. To suppress that mark is to pretend that we will live forever. Instead, take your splicer and knock the blade out of alignment. Forgo the B roll in favor of a single strand of faith. Hold your breath and count the hours since you were last together. Blow softly on a wet face and watch the smile form. Float your hand across the surface and find all the words you need. Unfold the splicer and separate your image from your dream; you will feel bound, as if tied down until you are fully awake. Only then will you know for sure: this may not be final but it is definite. The landscape you see can change only when you pass through it.”

The Big Stick / An Old Reel (Saul Levine, 2013)

Bridge or breach, this art of the guillotine, of the cine-frame, cinema of the moment, or taking life one frame at a time, is one of the very own traits that define Saul Levine’s work. In The Big Stick / An Old Reel (1967-73), Levine already explored the cinematic meaning of the splice, juxtaposing and superimposing shots from 8mm prints of Charlie Chaplin’s In the Park (1915), and Easy Street (1917), with television images of a police arrest at an antiwar protest in which the filmmaker had participated. On a different note, but also exploring the expressivity of the splice, Levine made his latest film, Falling Notes Unleaving, that takes its name from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Spring and Fall:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.

Falling Notes Unleaving (Saul Levine, 2013)

Shot during filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robertson’s burial in the fall of 2012 (her first person film diaries, of lacerating pain, were also projected at “Views,”) Falling Notes Unleaving is an ode to encapsulated denouements and to the ravenous beauty of decaying nature—in the form of silent leaves, and out of focus orange chrysanthemums. His shaky camera unfurls flowers and colors that surround the somber solemnity of familiar faces (Luther Price, Tara Nelson, Heather Green), anchors of support and friendship—as if love were the answer to all riddles. Deeming that this is a mourning piece, Levine chooses to reveal the cement splices as both union and separation of the filmic, imperious life. He seems to suggest that showing a splice has the same enlivening and awakening effect than surprising a lover in unguarded nakedness, as if the cut could be the visual representation of a blinking eye. Creating landscapes out of what he feels, and heedless of what others may think, Levine celebrates the beauty of the film splice, and its dual quality—harrowing and healing.

With Daredevils, her first feature-length film, Stephanie Barber gives utterance to the power of cinematic haikus, while juxtaposing three film segments (or lines), and separating them with a kireji. She belongs to a territory that underscores the subjective and lyrical, a playground of artistic milieu. Her words evolve from the mouths of wounds, often expressed with a smile. Her film manifests an intolerance of rules, exhilarating thinking, and commercial disobedience, through two monologues, a dialogue, and a song. She questions structure by emphasizing structural conceits. The first hour of the film is filled with conversation. An interview between a young female journalist and an experienced female artist is intercut by the shots of a man provoking and recording sounds of nature. These rhythmic melodies establish “a musical carpet to dream on,” and point out that nature helps us remember, “when the earth is so gracefully about forgetting.” The interview expresses how language—and the way a conversation takes place—can bring people together or separate them. The staged minimalist elegance of the conversation is charged with critical allusions to the art-world business, the power/victims dynamics, and the superficiality of personal relationships. Barber seems to be interested in exploring the potential of words, places, people, and above all, ideas. For her, the form is what is said. Her admiration for poet Susan Howe, who reads Barber’s words in the film, started when she was in high school and read Defenestration of Prague (1980). In the chapter The Liberties, Howe exposes women’s representation as activators of artistic conversations, historically wiped out by the conscious silence and obliteration perpetrated by males for their own personal glory and professional success.

Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay published his Shakespearean sonnet If We Must Die in 1919, during the race riots of the Red Summer, right after World War I, in The Liberator, the most openly communist magazine at that time. McKay chose the white, classic, pre-established literary uses and customs, with the highest poetic diction, as subversive form, and as a way to say, “If you kill me, you are just killing yourself”. Almost a century after this, Barber employs standard cinematic tools—shot and countershot, long takes, and trackings—to build a meta-poetic narrative film essay that fights back social and artistic conventions, as only a sensitive human being can do. The second section of the film, a 15-minute take in which the journalist is arrested in frustration, running on a treadmill in front of the number 13, functions as a kind of subtext without text, giving her space to take in the violence and vulnerability of being alive—and the certain uncertainty of spoken and unspoken words. She suddenly feels the weight and shock of the world’s absurdness, the eternal loneliness, the futility and fatality of personal relationships, and the latent mortality, as she merely realizes how easy it would be to give up. In the third and last part of the film, the journalist expresses this consciousness with the physicality of dance, which allows her to connect with the mysteriousness of life—and the tricks we create to survive. As Barber explains, “The translation from understanding these concepts verbally to moving through them with a raw experiential, sensual reaction (to fear, frustration, beauty, hope) is a further inquiry into these notions, as well as a catharsis.” Daredevils is a film of seekers, travelers, makers, of those who relentlessly dare—“daring to make art, daring to love, daring to live".

Daredevils (Stephanie Barber, 2013)