Adventurous and avant-garde cinema just visited my home borough of Queens at the 6th Annual First Look Festival of the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI). Intriguing short and longer American and international films from almost 20 countries were showcased. Programmed by MoMI’s Chief Curator David Schwartz, the two weekends in wintry January brought many of the filmmakers for their New York premieres, some from the French summer film festival now known as the Festival International de Cinéma Marseille, the 27th FIDMarseille, along with the Festival Director Jean-Pierre Rehm. "The Feed" selections reflected its original focus on experimental documentaries/documentary-like, that were set off by compelling new works by masters and creative debuts.
Reichstag 9/11 and Other New Films by Ken Jacobs
Legendary experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs is a frequent and welcome guest at the First Look Festival. Continuing to be inspired by his downtown Manhattan neighborhood, he brings his latest short films that demonstrate how the spry octogenarian, over a sixty year career, not just explores new technology, but bends it to his artistic eye. Now that he feels more assured communicating his choices on new digital software through his filmmaker daughter Nisi on the computer, he could finally channel 15 years of sorrow, rage and political protest about the attacks on the World Trade Center down the block from his home and the wars that resulted, with a different technique than his earlier autobiographical, longer video documentary Circling Zero: We See Absence (2002) of his return home on 9/15.
Seen in its U.S. premiere, Reichstag 9/11 is the first abstract avant-garde film that brought me to tears with its emotional wallop and may be the most beautiful and impactful visual art piece/film to come out of the attack. Too many other artists these days just appropriate free content online or “found footage” and claim their re-edit is somehow significant added value. In 38 minutes (thankfully silent, at his director son Azalel’s recommendation), Jacobs takes chronological stills and video he selected from the internet of one of the most photographed modern tragedies, including images that news and documentaries tend to sensitively shy from since, such as zoomed close-ups of the outline of the plane on the side of the North Tower and the jumping victims, then the reactions of the first responders, and then ashy dust enveloping the streets. (All “the murder” his daughter witnessed close-up that day, as he described in the Q & A.) Each set piece dissolves into paint-like splashes of color, first dominated by the bright blue of the sky that morning, then gradually with more and more red, that the audience can’t help but react to like lurid blood because he wanted “America to feel its own pain”. One need not subscribe to his conspiracy theories of “the new Pearl Harbor” in the startling title (blaming neo-conservatives for instigating war) to be impacted by the intersections of documentary-like footage and abstract expressionistic brush strokes show what he called “a sublime horror”, compared to “people now coming from all over the world to shop there”. I call it a masterpiece.
Considerably more upbeat, his other shorts showed his delight at continuing to explore his downtown neighborhood and subway with his wife Flo and his unjustly obsolete Fuji 3-D camera, which he carries with him everywhere to create 3D movement in 2D, edited into repeating rhythms: Windbreaker (2016, 6 mins., World premiere); Cyclops Observes the Celestial Bodies (2016, 16 mins. U.S. premiere); and Popeye Sees 3-D (2014, 22 mins. NY premiere). Considering his joy at seeing his films on such a big screen, Jacobs will present additional new shorts in the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight in February.
On Resistance : International Avant-Garde Films & Videos
Guest Curator Mónica Savirón again presented a program of a dozen new and rare short experimental shorts from around the world, many in North American premieres; some about the varied media techniques, some about aesthetics, some about a subject, though the overall theme was not clear at all. Two of the most impressive were documentary interpretations. Peruvian director Diego Lama’s From False to Legal in One Take (De falso a legal en una toma) ironically juxtaposes a depressed low-income neighborhood in Lima down the long street of Jirόn Azangaro to the incongruously colonial Palace of Justice that hugely looms over it. The camera on a drone is appropriately accompanied by LaMonte Young’s four-note droning score. Prospector shows the impact her Montana base and local students have had on artist Talena Sanders, who attended the Festival. She contrasted the irony of historically colonial and more contemporary racist stereotyped images and recordings of those whom Americans both call “Indians” – South Asians and Native Americans. Less translatable to an American audience (and anyone dependent on subtitles) was Mexican filmmaker Annalisa D. Quagliata’s Misters—Without Blame (Ñores—sin señalar). Looking like an angry political tribute to those killed protesting government-sanctioned violence, the montage of issues were drowned out by the ironic use of the song “Veracruz”. German artist
Ute Aurand’s Sakura, Sakura, from her tour of Japan, also got lost in cultural translation. Elderly women handcrafting colorful embroidery cherry blossoms reflect the country’s centuries of obsession, but the contrast or connection with the black-and-white focus on one woman is not clear.
Much like young children can’t distinguish between reality and their nightmares, Spanish artist Pere Ginard projects the looks and sounds of This Bogeyman in shadows from expired Super-8 film and found footage paired with manipulated sounds that are just intelligible enough to be spookily tantalizing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns these images into one of his illustrated books, but not for bed-time reading. In complete contrast, Inside the Inside (L’en-Dedans) is just simply breathtaking beautiful. A posthumous 16mm print made from French artist Philippe Cote’s pinhole camera piece demonstrates how the division of white light into colors can be perceived as more art than science.