By Brian Frye
Ed Halter of the NYUFF does himself one better every year. While not every film in the 2001 festival was great, a great many were. And, an even a greater number were complete surprises, no easy feat in these days of media saturation. If some of the most intriguing sounding films failed to deliver, plenty of others did. I could certainly have given some poor notices; I chose not to, merely as a function of the fact that it is more fun (and often easier) to write about the successes, so long as they are of sufficient number. And here, indeed, they were...
The winner of the best feature award for MIGRATING FORMS at last year's NYUFF, James Fotopoulos, returned this year with his new feature, BACK AGAINST THE WALL. It's a marvel, and one of the more exciting American features I've seen in ages. While the charm of MIGRATING FORMS lay in its forbidding austerity, as if Warhol had directed from a Cronenberg or Lynch screenplay, BACK AGAINST THE WALL works on several structural registers without sacrificing its astonishing formal purity and integrity. Shot almost like a documentary, but clearly fiction, it follows a hardened lingerie model through her interactions with various men, to an ambiguous comeuppance. The characters are impossible to read, à la Bresson; there's no psychology here, just pure circumstance, event following event. If ever a single film were the prescription for what most ails American indie filmmaking, this is it.
Filming the horrible little monsters of the insect world through a microscope, Julie Murray's stunning MICROMOTH recreates a terrible nightmare writ large. Murray captures the grotesque beauty in stunningly lush color, creakily racking focus to pull us through this unknowable world. You'll never forget this film. I'm also quite taken with Shannon Plumb's FILM SKETCHES, three of which were shown at the festival. Evoking her characters with wonderfully expressive economy of gestures, Plumb maintains a stony-faced demeanor reminiscent of the great Buster Keaton.
If you liked Guy Maddin's short THE HEART OF THE WORLD, don't miss Kerry Laitala's lovely THE ESCAPADES OF MADAME X, which has much the same look and feel. In a soft and murky black and white, a woefully uncomfortable looking dominatrix tames panoplies of projected little slimy things. With the shy seditiousness of a '50s "art film," it's sexy in a way few recent films manage.
Anthony DiSalvo's brutally bad KARATE RULER makes for fascinating viewing, as the cast is comprised almost entirely of retarded adults. Yes, it's the product of the Sprout Make-A-Movie project, and while it's obviously Mr. DiSalvo who made the (poorly produced, laughably tacky) video, the "script" was written by one of the performers, all of whom display their affinity for (and charming miscomprehension of) hopelessly awkward "slang," STAR WARS, and the WWF, more or less in that order. As best as I can tell, the tape was made in good faith, which makes it a bit worse, really. What the hell is this guy doing, submitting it to film festivals? It's a hoot, though, and definitely worth seeing. Also look for Kent Lambert's WHACK, a stutter-start re-mix of the great Anthony Michael Thomas's hokey introduction to his 1978 star-vehicle DEATH DRUG. Granted, it's not all that hard to send up the absurd portention of that sort of thing, but WHACK gets me every time.
Peripatetic curator-at-large Astria Suparak presented an excellent program of ephemeral and often willfully hermetic short films and videos titled A NEW ROMANTIC/TV SOUNDS. The deadpan wit of performance videos like Kristen Stoltmann's SELF-REFLECTING anchored the show on one end, the other held down by jewel-like wisps of films like Stephanie Barber's LETTERS, NOTES and an excerpt from Guy Sherwin's utterly perfect ongoing SHORT FILM SERIES.
Stoltmann's 55-second tape is a gem. Totally unpretentious and wryly self-effacing, it consists of perhaps three or four shots of the artist: a pretty, fleshy young woman in a bikini top who speaks a single line of dialogue, "I've been doing a lot of self-reflecting lately, and I think I've figured it out." Figured what out? Who's to say. It's a perfect summation of the best video art of our parents' generation, with a fillip of that refreshing millennial irony. If it took Acconci hours of mortifying self-abnegation to arrive at some universal truth about the human condition, the evidence of which no one but he was really privy to, Stoltmann certainly offers a more economical gesture to similar effect.
Novice video artist Zakery Weiss makes an auspicious debut with his COMMUNICATION, a six-minute record of a telephone conversation with his grandmother. Shot in extreme close-up from an extremely low angle, Weiss's face is so distorted that it's often barely legible. His nostrils loom like caverns and his scruffy stubble and dry lips appear profoundly unhealthy. Particularly to the point, his brutally kind grandmother hounds him about an obviously trivial cold and undergraduate laziness. Oh, deja vu! Seth Price's semi-documentary AMERICAN GRAFFITY (sic) was another real discovery. Though I still have no idea what sort of relationship linked its subjects - two dissipated middle-aged men - or why exactly they ran about railyards haphazardly spray-painting embankments, the degraded murkiness of the image lent the tape a misty pathos, more dreamlike than documentary.
Suparak also showed several excellent films (full disclosure - she closed the program with a found film I gave her titled IN LOVE WITH LOVE), starting with Guy Sherwin's perfect palindrome of coots (duck-like birds) diving and surfacing. Shot through the camera once, then flipped and run through again, the film registers the birds diving into one another, as if passing through the plane of the screen and emerging on the other side. This dizzying spatial paradox is worthy of Escher's prints, while thankfully lacking the neurotic precision that so sterilizes them. I've seen few films more beautiful this year. Barber's LETTERS, NOTES consists of found photographs overlain with letraset recountings of found letters. Oblique but subtly perfect juxtapositions of image and text enlarge her subject - the America of a dreamed childhood - without devolving into facile "critique."
I only caught the very end of Jeff Perkins's MOVIES FOR THE BLIND: EPISODE 3, and deeply regretted my tardiness. The disembodied voices of cab driver Perkins's fares were accompanied by a jazz musician, playing live in-absentia, over a speakerphone, prominently displayed on a pedestal in front of the screen. Particularly charming was the sad-sack attempt to get the closing image, a slide of Apollo's chariot, correctly onto the screen. Every which way but right, it made a perfect circle before finally appearing on the screen in all its glory. It's proof positive of the ethos of the festival itself: you reach your destination as best you can, and a little stumbling along the way is just part of the show.