Nestled in the quiet weekend before the Tribeca Film Festival barnstormed into town, the inaugural Migrating Forms fest at Anthology Film Archives humbly went about its experimental business. Running from April 15th –April 19th, this wide-ranging and often thrilling offspring of the defunct New York Underground Film Festival displayed the vibrant idiosyncrasies of video and film artists the world over.
Everything is cinema for co-curators Kevin McGarry and Nellie Killian, as they culled from film festivals, gallery shows, Biennials, MFA programs, and other alternative venues. This approach, pulling video art from cramped museum spaces and affording it the same theatrical presence as the work on the experimental film circuit, is long overdue and much appreciated. The festival adopted its name from James Fotopoulos’s 2000 feature, and it’s an apt description of the varied styles and attitudes on display.
The first bundle of celluloid I took in was a program entitled “Only You,” comprising films engaged with iconic imagery. Bradley Eros and Tim Geraghty’s Eros c’est L’amour (2008) is a delirious found footage homage to Dorothy Lamour, in the tradition of Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart and Jack Smith’s fascination with Maria Montez. Geraghty takes John Ford’s 1937 adventure-melodrama The Hurricane and fashions an erotic fantasia around Lamour’s soft-focus South Pacific ingénue. In a montage heavy on tumescence, the earth heaves up as the harried colonials (Mary Astor and Thomas Mitchell among them) pinball around their dining room. Lamour is graceful in various positions of repose as others gaze through phallic binoculars, catching a glimpse of their own hidden fantasies. Yma Sumac provides the soundtrack, ululating their innermost desires.
Another piece of tightly edited found footage delirium was Jim Finn’s Great Man and Cinema (2009), whose title comes from a propaganda booklet promoting the filmmaking chops of Kim Jong Il. Pulling together clips from DPRK films (including some Esther Williams inspired water acrobatics) and scored to a rousing Korean punk tune (“Fuck the USA!”), it’s a propulsive and very funny examination of the country’s well-oiled propaganda machine.
“Land and Sea” offered up a diptych of exploratory ethnography, where Barbara Hammer’s playful Diving Women of Jeju-Do (2007) is paired with Naomi Uman’s hypnotic Unnamed Film (from the Ukrainian Time Machine Project (2008). Jeju-Do documents the fading tradition of the haeyno, women who dive for shellfish and sell it to vendors on Jeju, the largest Korean island. With profits cratering and kids fleeing to the mainland, Hammer captures what is likely the last generation of these grizzled females, whose demeanors are as suspicious and salty as any factory worker in the US. Hammer sensitively explores the contours of their dying world.
Uman’s film is also concerned with fading traditions, specifically those found in the rural communities of Eastern Europe, where all eight of her grandparents were raised. Wanting to experience the life of her ancestors, she moved to the small village of Legedzine (population: 1,000) in the Ukraine, where there are 30 deaths for every birth. Unnamed Film is one of a series of 16mm documentary works shot in the village, which Uman then exhibited wherever they were allowed to set up around the country. It is an intensely intimate, often overwhelmingly tactile viewing experience.
Uman captures everyday life in lingering close-ups, images of unmediated beauty illuminated by the region’s dusky light. Using non-synchronous sound, and opting against subtitling, the focus is entirely on the image (explanatory inter-titles aside). The aging population’s lined hands and faces, whether tending the fields or downing an after-work vodka, are lent a hieratic grace by Uman’s patient camera. Details pop out of the frame, like the radio with one dial (there was only one station during Communist times), or the exacting pickling process that provides food through the winter. Uman and her subjects, the engagingly polite and shy villagers, manage to turn the banal into the sublime, and for that it’s a major achievement.
The other major work on display at this year’s festival was Pat O’Neill’s Horizontal Boundaries (2008), which he’s been tinkering with since it first screened in 2003. In its latest iteration, Carl Stone has provided a dense musique concrete score to go along with a sparkling new 35mm print. The title refers to the boundaries between the film frames, and O’Neill displays his astonishing technical virtuosity with optical printing techniques to exploit this dividing line in a landscape portrait of southern California (the landscape of the film encountering the landscape of the state). Stone arranges everyday sounds (dog barks, sirens, insects, helicopters, applause) into a rhythmic backbeat to the throbbing of O’Neill’s landscape imagery (beaches, factory silos, mountain ranges).
Soon Stone incorporates shards of noir dialogue and a western swing tune into his dense mix as O’Neill bumps these images up and down, the frame line constantly rising into view, unveiling the physicality of the montage, and delimiting the image in space. The voice-over dialogue hints at a domestic narrative: “Your home, your family, and your life” and “find a job yet?” are repeated ad infinitum as the images slowly degrade, eventually reduced to pure flicker, just the black and white of the frame line and the exposed film—California replaced with film stock. The hard-boiled baritone seems to question the basis of his existence as Stone orchestrates a symphony of door slamming. It’s tough to parse the density of O’Neill’s montage without multiple viewings, but at first blush the film is a visceral thrill, a dizzying meta city-symphony that deconstructs itself before our eyes.
Other highlights include Robert Todd’s sinuous Riverbed, Michael Robinson’s All Through the Night, Phil Collins’s spare and devastating Why I Don’t Speak Serbian (Collins currently has a show at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in NYC) and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s feature that explores the villages effected by the Dakar Rally race, 7915 KM. All are well worth seeking out if they make it to a festival or museum near you.
The features at Migrating Forms missed more than they hit, but with such treasures in the shorts program it’s quite hard to complain, especially considering the sad state of the Tribeca Film Festival (the Tribeca After Party Festival would be more apt). With a clear mission and a wide range of material to choose from, Migrating Forms should be a prime destination for avant-garde cinema-seekers, slated right alongside the New York Film Festival’s smaller “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar. Here’s hoping for more of the same next year.