Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Odds and Sods

Still from 48 by Susana de Sousa Dias

In Friedrich Kittler's Optical Media, he writes a wonderful passage to support a much bigger argument about how we depend on media (defined broadly) as the one and only way of knowing our own senses:

"Around 1900, immediately after the development of film, it appears that there was an increase in the number of cases of mountain climbers, alpinists, and possibly also chimney-sweeps who, against the odds, survived almost fatal falls from mountains or rooftops.  It may be more likely, though, that the number of cases did not increase, but rather, that the number of scientists interested in them did.  In any case, a theory immediately began to circulate among physicians... [which] stated that the so-called experience - a key philosophical concept at that time - of falling (or, according to other observations, also drowning) was allegedly not terrible or frightening at all.  Instead, at the moment of imminent death a rapid time-lapse film of an entire former life is projected once again in the mind's eye, although it is unclear to me whether it is supposed to run forwards or backwards.  In any case, it is evident: in 1900, the soul suddenly stopped being a memory in the form of wax slates or books, as Plato describes it; rather, it was technically advanced and transformed into a motion picture."

With all the recent talk of a so-called fiscal cliff, reading this the other day made me laugh.  As we ready ourselves for a not-so-scary jump into January, it's time once again for an odds-and-sods inventory of the works I most enjoyed over the past twelve months (the year itself, well... let's just say there've been better ones, and leave it at that.)  Included are a couple of certifiable classics, and a mess of lesser-known surprises, YouTubery, and whatever-else (but minus the year's critics-poll eligibles or Chantal Akerman tantrums).  Use it as your in-flight movie for a leap into the 2013 void (at least as John Boehner defines it...)

48 by Susana de Sousa Dias: Drawn exclusively from police archives and recent interviews with political prisoners held under the Salazar regime, this ballad of the fallen is a seething slow burn ignited by a friction between the young faces before us photographed decades ago and their present-day voices recalling still-vivid memories of torture, degradation, and utterly senseless incarceration.  It may sound off the mark to praise the exquisite sense of craft--glacial dissolves, camera moving in the tiniest of increments--but with grace and subtletyde Sousa Dias serves spirits beaten but never broken, allowing them to sing with full and defiant power.  A remarkable achievement, and true high point amidst a spectacular Flaherty Seminar; thanks to Josetxo Cerdan, this year's Seminar programmer and all-around superhero.

Unlocking Dockstader by Justin H Brierley:  If he were still alive, Kittler might amend the passage I cited above to account for an increasingly common problem: that longevity has now extended to where the computer that models our 21st century soul (or what today we might call mind) experiences hard drive failure.  Imagine a composer unable to recall the creation of his own music, much less recognize it as his own- this is just what Brierley witnesses during a nursing home visit to this great (and still devilishly handsome) tape music pioneer.  Dockstader recorded a tremendous series of albums in the early 60s that was ignored by the academic establishment (and which also controlled access to the few electronic music labs then in existence), and his career came to a 30-year pause; interest in the late 90s (along with digital editing software) reinvigorated it and lead to Aerial, his crowning achievement, which we hear an unreleased section of here.  It's unclear where Brierley will go next with this project, but let's hope there's more.

Video-Palaro: Diaries by Kidlat Tahimik: It's hard to choose just a single item from this overdue retrospective, but these diary works are especially movingthe opening segments, conceived as letters to his sons, are bursting with pride and affection for what he considers to be his greatest creations.  Other subjects range from the proven strengths of indigenous roof-building techniques in Manila (particularly timely as the first sounds of Sandy stirred outside), and the aftermath of an oil spill on the shores of Guimaras.  Brimming with humor and expansive generosity, Tahimik's presence to introduce these programs was an added bonus; he is truly one of the most vital and important filmmakers living today.  Big thanks to Aily Nash and Juan Daniel Molero for organizing this tremendous program.

Still from Po Lakonu by Lev Kuleshov

Po Lakonu by Lev Kuleshov: Better known for an eponymous montage principle than for his too-rarely-seen films, Kuleshov momentarily set aside his avant-garde proclivities with this 1926 screen adaptation of Jack London's The Unexpected.  Cowritten with Viktor Shklovsky, and featuring Aleksandra Khoklova (Kuleshov's partner, and surely one of the most captivating actresses ever to appear onscreen), the story concerns the murderous rage of a Yukon prospector and his surviving partners' insistence on due process while still holding him accountable for his crime.  Cooped up in a cabin as they wait for a break in the weather, the film is a masterful study in sustained tension, surely heightened in the wake of Sandy, and further complemented by a beautiful contemporary score by Franz Reisecker.

Three Men and a Fish Pond by Laila Pakalnina and Maris Maskalans: Another cabin, this one world's away from the melodrama of gold and cold- mostly just three bachelors enjoying a leisurely middle age amidst birds, cigarettes, more birds, and Latvian TV.  With a Tati-esque eye toward the quotidian (and punctuated by occasional shotgun blasts), the filmmakers cast an affectionate but unsentimental gaze upon the men as their marshy hideaway becomes a comically abject love shack.  Another Flaherty high point.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace by Adam Curtis: Ignoring dumb taxonomies ("Adam Curtis is not an artist...", begins the text from a recent e-flux exhibition poster), Curtis seems to revel in his ability to integrate what (on paper) seems like impossibly disparate material.  With its title taken from a poem by Richard Brautigan, one segment of his most recent series for the BBC examines the unholy trinity of Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, and the inexplicably lauded painter Joan Mitchell; another looks at cybernetics and the misapplication of biological models in attempts to create self-organizing social networks.  Bad metaphors and their unintended consequences is a running theme throughout so much of Curtis's work, and here he poses deeply troubling questions regarding the supposed wisdom and managerial competence within our think tanks and research foundations today.

C'est Vrai (aka One Hour) by Robert Frank: Picture Cleo from 5 to 7 reconceived on a fraction of its modest budget, minus the grim prospect of a cancer diagnosis and starring a Jerry Lewis understudy... originally (and rather unbelievably) commissioned for French TV, Frank reinvigorates (via camcorder) the worn-out structural film conceit of the single roll, in-camera edit, fashioning a manic vehicle for Peter Orlovsky basically going nowhere.  With its mysterious nesting of fiction within a homely document (or is it the other way around?), the work shares a distant kinship with Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One for their unstable ontological boundaries and New Yorks that no longer exist.  Hats off to Light Industry for an inspired pairing with Rene Clair's The Crazy Ray

Still from The Odds of Recovery by Su Friedrich

The Odds of Recovery by Su Friedrich: The embroidered vine appearing at various steps of its creation throughout Friedrich's film lists her many surgeries, but it does other things as well: it works as a structuring device for the film's disparate materials and discursive modes; provides meditative moments to contrast the mounting agitation stemming from uncertain diagnoses and conflicting medical advice; echoes the act of surgical suture; metaphorically plants healthy new growth in place of the excised and unwanted kind; and simply exists as a remarkable item in itself.  Beautifully constructed in form and tone, and as with her previous work, brutally honest: Friedrich shares revelatory insights regarding our capacity for self-sabotage, eventually discovering that healthy living means understanding relationships and the heart as much as caring for the body.  I'll be writing more about this film here in the not-too-distant future.

Satantango by Bela Tarr: How can this unyieldingly grim film--with its hovering malevolence, extended cat killing sequence, 450-minute runtime, and more rain than you'll find in Morrissey's entire oeuvre--leave me feeling so exhilarated?  Was I (along with Tarr's countless admirers) simply happy to have made it through, feeling something like the cultural equivalent of a marathon runner's masochistic pleasure?  And yet there's so much to love, beginning with the unforgettable tavern scene--part Rabelais, part Heart of Glass--mechanical, and yet wild with abandon; the utter originality of Mihaly Vig's mournful soundtrack, moving freely between music and diegetic sound; the voyeur/doctor/lush, played by the great Peter Berling; the narrative structure itself, audaciously reprising the same scenes from different points of view.  And this is merely a beginning...  With the appearance this year of Laszlo Krasznahorkai's novel in English translation, the film can now be viewed here too as an object-lesson in cinematic adaptation.

Still from The Parallel Road by Ferdinand Khittl
The Parallel Road by Ferdinand Khittl: Five men are seated under duress for overnight viewing sessions, and shown a series of film sequences accompanied by cryptic, quasi-poetic spoken texts: the first footage is of animal slaughter projected in reverse (a nod to Vertov's Kino-Glaz?), and described as the animal's birth.  Jury duty, focus group, nightmare grants panel, or...what?  The film eludes reductive summary, and by its very conception, invites the same deliberation and debate as what takes place before us.  Barely known outside of Germany, Khittl made his living producing industrial films, and the fact that he used footage and other resources from his employers surely holds a key to unlocking at least part of the film's mystery.  Incredible to believe it appeared 50 years ago, and still speaks about the poetics of spectatorship with such cryptic eloquence; surely deserving of consideration as one of the key films of the 1960s. 

Sip'Ohi- El Lugar Del Mandure by Sebastian Lingiardi: Spinning off from the folktales of northern Argentina's Wichi and Toba people, Lingiardi's fiction/nonfiction hybrid on the pleasures and necessities of storytelling and indigenous oral traditions (and their continuance by way of radio) was also a meditation on the joys of getting lost; another description-defying puzzle I wrote about earlier, here.

Slow Glass by John Smith: It's a special sensitivity that can extract true visual poetry from pub interiors and charmless London street corners, and something much, much more to integrate this dense web of visual and verbal association around the ostensible theme of glass. Drawing on a panopoly of camera and editing tricks and conjoined with a glazier's nostalgic reveries, Smith expresses a great deal about vision and optics, the changing city, obsolescent craft traditions, and a more elusive sense of loss.  One of his bigger-budget (but by no means extravagant) productions, this film is hard to view without thinking of David Cameron's recent gutting of arts funding throughout Britain. Thanks to Colin Beckett and UnionDocs for making such a great screening happen.

Debt Begins at 20 by Stephanie Beroes: Before the devastation of its steel and manufacturing base, Pittsburgh was home to a very lively experimental film and music scene (as Peggy Ahwesh and others might attest), and this film stands as one of its core documents.  Integrating performance footage and endearingly staged encounters away from the little gigs and parties of this tightly-knit community, Beroes's film embodies an ethos far from poseurs and careerists; part of Jon Dieringer's terrific programming for the Fall season of Flaherty NYC.

Sweet Sal by Tony Buba: It's fun to imagine an encounter between small-time hustler Sal Carullo and the lovable punks of Beroes's film somewhere on the streets of late 70s Pittsburgh; despite irreconcilable differences regarding music and fashion, they shared an aversion to the mill and factory life that surrounded them and was about to disappear.  Buba gives Sal total freedom to chew the scenery and oh, how he makes a meal of it... the scene at his father's grave left me wondering why the guy never became a star.

VW Voyou by Jean Rouch: Pure freedom, one continuous moving violation: Rouch's crazy scheme was to convince Volkswagen executives to buy footage of this orange Beetle, driven with joyous abandon through shallow streams and over bumpy desert terrain.  Whatever promotional value this may have had, however, was negated by the company's decision to discontinue production of that particular model (driving it off a high cliff as a dramatic climax may not have helped their chances either).  Rouch and his collaborators got a couple of free cars out of the deal, and the rest of us got 35 minutes of pure joy.

Kraftwerk Ticket Blues: Judging by the many bitter comments posted online at the time, you might have forgotten there were bigger problems in the world.  The upside of this botched attempt at order was the humor it inspired; given that so much of their best music--Autobahn, TEE, Tour de France--celebrates the joy of movement, the irony of a virtual traffic jam to get a glimpse of  Adorno's Worst Nightmare was especially thick.

Der Ball by Ulrich Seidl: A hometown portrait upsetting enough to officials of the Vienna Film Academy that they asked its maker to leave; today this student effort stands out for its squirm-inducing hilarity, following what may be the world's most repressed community through a lead-up to the high school prom.  Endless iterations of The Chicken Dance punctuate this comically dull bacchanalia, and our only hope is that some students managed a post-graduation escape.

Still from Ginrin by Jikken Kobo/Experimental Workshop

Ginrin aka Bicycle in Dream by Jikken Kobo/Experimental Workshop: For this 1950s proto-Fluxus collaborativesomething of an anomaly; sponsored by the Japanese bicycle industry, it seems less promotional film than languid hallucination.  It has appeared twice this fall in New York City museums- first, in the New Museum's superb Ghosts in the Machine (my favorite museum show this year), and now, at MOMA's Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.

How Mata Hari Lost Her Head and Found Her Body by Amy Ruhl: Despite the title, something of a prismatic portrait of dancer Maud Allan, silent film star Theda Bara, and double agent Mata Hari, three near-contemporaries who shared a bold, unapologetic sexuality long before the world was ready, and paid dearly for it.  Lush and lovingly composited within a fixed frontal space recalling early silent cinema, the film makes explicit the visual links between orientalist strains of fin-de-siecle culture and their return in the lysergic vision of the 1960s.  The film is now being developed as a gallery installation, which promises to be every bit as exciting.

Teddy Tells Jokes by Tony Conrad: One little treasure (amongst countless others) produced by Conrad in the long stretch between the canonical works of the 60s and his more recent anointment as a major "minor" figure, this short video seems all the more remarkable knowing the goofy meta-jokes delivered by his son were improvised on the spot.  Along with Owen Land, George Kuchar, Joe Gibbons, and Mike Smith, Conrad stand as one of the great comedians of the avant-garde.

Confidential Pt.2 by Joe Gibbons: A breakthrough work for Gibbons, beginning his unique brand of direct address that displaces a lapsed Catholic's sacrament to become something far more interesting and funny.  No absolution perhaps, but lots to consider in terms of complicity, identification, and spectatorship; a nice future double-feature, too, with Stan Brakhage's Blue Moses.

Five Videos: Kristin Lucas' Cameras That Steal the Show by Kristin Lucas: A wonderful surprise from one of my favorite video makers working today- this, a web essay for that compiles a small but varied set of photos and videos whose common thread is the camera brought out of its everyday invisibility- you can see it here.

Flaherty NYC screening of ManDove; from left- Jim DeSeve, Kian Tjong, me, Lucius Barre, Mary Kerr,  Sarie Horowitz, and Kathy High

And lastly, I want to express my gratitude for the privilege of co-programming the Spring season of Flaherty NYC with my friend Kathy High- a true pleasure to work with her, along with the good folks at 92YTribeca, the Flaherty Seminar, and all the fantastic filmmakers and moderators: Arne Sucksdorff, Marina Zurkow, Una Chaudhuri, Shelly Silver, Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, Jason Livingston, Nancy Andrews, Jim Trainor, Kian Tjong and Jim DeSeve, Isabella Rossellini, Sam Easterson, Cynthia Chris, George Kuchar, Carolee Schneemann, and Abigail Child- thank you all, and Happy New Year everybody!


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