by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 6: Selected Shorts

October 12, 2020
Credit: NYFF

Point and Line to Plane

How does one give shape to one’s experience, one’s grief? The question persists through the films of Canadian director Sofia Bohdanowicz, though it takes most literal form in her latest short, Point and Line to Plane, titled after the influential 1926 art theory text by Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. In it, longtime collaborator Deragh Campbell once again plays a woman named Audrey Benac (first introduced in the 2016 feature Never Eat Alone), who here finds herself adrift in another country, reeling from the unexpected death of a friend. This loss — as well as everything else that can be said to happen in the film, which mostly consists of Audrey’s travels — is related in measured, diaristic voiceover, accompanied by a steady progression of images that are at times directly illustrative, always geometrically pleasing: the concrete spiral of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, the staircase patterns of a crossword puzzle, a time-lapse shot of a mountain landscape. Without providing much in the way of narrative progression, these myriad sights and shapes nonetheless give Point and Line to Plane a sense of momentum, at once inciting and resisting our impulses to form connections between each successive cut. Bohdanowicz’s resourceful practice has often managed to maintain a distanced, but emotionally acute perspective on her subjects, and this film especially recognizes the extent to which meaning — of a painting, of a person’s death — derives from the associations that we are able to form, while also pointing up to the contingency of such connections. Like the picture frame that Audrey knocks over while house-sitting for a friend, our points of view are more unstable than we might know. So perhaps a person’s death is, in the end, the loss of both a life and a form of life. For to lose someone is to lose not just the sight of them, but also their way of seeing. Lawrence Garcia


Look Then Below

The third part of Ben Rivers’ so-called “sci-fi” trilogy, following Slow Action (2011) and Urth (2016), Look Then Below gives the unique impression of being an actual alien artifact. It renders the natural unnatural, transforming Earth’s basic signifiers water, foliage, dirt, rock into a bizarre, phantasmagoric unreality. Shot in the Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset, England, where Rivers is from, and (like the preceding films) featuring text written by Mark von Schlegell, Look Then Below is both a continuation of and expansion on Rivers’ long-term project of disrupting what might be called the ethnographic documentary. Using the building blocks of reality, Rivers renders them new and unfathomable. Shooting on 16mm film, Look Then Below takes the form of a (possibly otherworldly) visitor (only heard, never seen) exploring the remnants of a civilization that has taken shape after some kind of cataclysmic event has eradicated human life. The visitor’s voice is scratchy and distant, like a third generation recording, and its words are rendered in von Schlegell’s mix of pseudo-scientific gibberish and genuine awe at the mysteries this strange land contains. Whereas Slow Action and Urth mined the disjunction between (mostly) recognizable, realistic images and von Schlegell’s cryptic narration, Look Then Below directly manipulates the film frame itself. Rivers has essentially painted over his filmed footage, altering colors and textures into a psychedelic, hyper-colorized version of an irradiated world (think the stargate sequence from 2001). Here, the camera catches undulating waves, the skyline, and all manner of flora and fauna, but everything has a bio-luminescent feel; water is a pulsating, unnatural baby blue, while the sky is alternatingly a creamy peach or teal color. 

The camera leaves the ocean and traverses the land, a dense forest filled with multi-colored fog, before descending into an elaborate cave system. There’s one very impressive crane shot on land, a rarity in micro-budget short films, as the camera slowly pans right above the treeline, catches the top of a sculpture, moves down the length of it, and then gradually retreats backward at ground level. It’s impressively scaled, and when Rivers begins exploring the interiors of the island, there’s another “how’d they do that” moment. Here, the camera slowly zooms in on what appears to be a small opening in a rock formation, then keeps going through to reveal a larger interior space, and then keeps going even further until it comes to an expansive sculptural structure that appears to be enormous. Scale is amorphous here, so abstracted are the images, and the altered footage sometimes gives the impression of old-school matte paintings. There’s a line of narration in Slow Action that describes a space as “sublime, unfathomable dimensions.” The irony in that film is that the phrase is laid over a perfectly quotidian bit of footage, on its own totally unremarkable. With Look Then Below, Rivers has taken on that description as a kind of operating maxim, fully committed to envisioning such a fantastical dimension. It’s a remarkable piece of work — hypnotic and strange. As an anthropological study of an imaginary future, it blurs the lines between past and present into a liminal space of haunting beauty. Daniel Gorman


Figure Minus Fact

In his Metaphors on Vision, Stan Brakhage once called for us to “imagine a world before the ‘beginning was the word’,” and the jittery intensity we often associate with his films has worked to elaborate on that ideal. Despite differing vastly in both form and method, New York-based experimental filmmaker Mary Helena Clark’s Figure Minus Fact might nonetheless be said to engage with that famed pronouncement. The film opens with an image — probably an abstract painting, though it could well be a biological drawing — accompanied by a kind of warning tone, and then moves to the sight of a bell tower, first still and then in motion, with sounds of ringing in each case decoupled from movement. A hand soon moves into focus, holding a written message on a card: “Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.” From there, Figure Minus Fact presents the viewer with what its title promises: images stripped of a certain facticity, so what remains, as the sight of a breastfeeding infant suggests, is a certain pre-verbal immediacy — a sensuous drift divorced from language. 

Insofar as is possible, anyway. It would be one thing for Clark’s film to frustrate the ekphrasis that so much critical analysis trades on, deliberately removing context and unsettling our attempts at description and sense-making. But the director’s delicate, precisely delineated montage goes further, highlighting not just the impossibility of decoupling ourselves from what we might call the wording of the world, but also the futility in attempting to deny this reality by creating conceptual divisions — say, between figure and fact — where there are none. Though not an exhaustive work of historiography, Figure Minus Fact repeatedly underscores the inexorable arbitrariness of our ways of seeing, cycling through myriad modes of perception and representation: from precisely arranged still lifes to unobtrusively captured natural views; from home video footage to a pre-dawn landscape that’s tilted, readjusted, and then inverted altogether; from an encyclopedia illustration to footage of an aquarium touch pool. Some, though not all of these passages are shaded in an uncommonly intense blue, and indeed the film’s closing title card is set against a monochrome background that recalls nothing so much as Derek Jarman’s Blue. Although Clark’s film is, in both visual and sonic range, somewhat opposed to Jarman’s, the contrast points up to the tenuousness of drawing hard lines between image and sound, perception and cognition, figure and fact — all ultimately circumscribed by our bodily limitations. The construction of Clark’s title, then, is not so much mathematical as phenomenological — for what would the world be without a body to perceive it. Lawrence Garcia


Glimpses from a Visit to Orkney in Summer 1995

Glimpses from a Visit to Orkney in Summer 1995 is perhaps the most categorically detailed title that film diarist Ute Aurand has ever given one of her works, enumerating the location, season, and calendar date of this past excursion with an upfront alacrity — which is rather ironic, since these particulates only provide the most nominal contextual information, much like a scrapbook of assorted photos and their accompanying captions being shown to unaware travelers. The protracted title also features the most accurate descriptor for the type of intimate cinema Aurand has been crafting since the early ‘80s: allowing exclusive “glimpses” into her previous personal travels, an effort to vivify the seeming minutiae that these fleeting memories recall. Her editing style — which could be characterized as equally tactile and disorienting, a frenzy of emotionally visceral fragments stitched together and assembled with a strict focus on temperamental connotation over rigid denotation — is akin to her fellow memorialist Jonas Mekas, so it’s something of a surprise that the state-side praise bestowed upon the Lithuanian artist has never quite extended to the equally talented German. One could point to the obvious gender divide between the two, where one is deemed as poetic while the other can be written off as fastidious (just guess who is who in this situation). But a more accurate read on the situation (and one that operates in better faith) is that Mekas had the luxury of many entry points to institutional film culture — his essential “Movie Journal” column for The Village Voice and co-founding of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative has certainly helped with this canonization — while Aurand has enjoyed mostly minor success in niche international art circles. Mekas frequently updated his Vimeo page so that viewers could immerse themselves in his rich filmography; Aurand is far more reticent, operating with a Bolex and a projector only, with just a few digitizations appearing on private tracker sites. 

Suffice to say, Aurand hasn’t been attempting the same sort of iconography as her predecessor — and that’s OK, considering her approach to her craft is a bit more laconic in terms of establishing clear intent. Likewise, Glimpses, at first glance, might appear like a reserved, even minor work from Aurand: it clocks in at a brisk four minutes, cutting between the extreme close-ups of multicolored floral hues, nearby livestock, a portside dock, and a richly detailed hardcover book, all before turning the camera on friend and mentor Margaret Tait — the hostess for the titular visit. There’s an ostensible absence of aimed profundity within this series of rapidly cut shots, at least on a broadly universal level; however, this indifference towards self-aware significance-making within a given art form is an ethos almost purposely designed to irritate those who would be willing to write off such works as “lazy,” much in the same way late-period Benning’s static-shot features have been mocked by his detractors. What’s immensely condescending about this logic is the given assumption that one can base merit solely off of a perceived amount of “work” that went into a given product, or the idea that minimalism is a route taken only by the languorous; a capitalist-driven mindset that perceives art as needing a quantifiable purpose. Aurand, and others like her, are merely artists who believe and trust their own sensibilities, to the point where one could criticize and mistake such brazen confidence as becoming too comfortable. Again, these are professionals who have been steadily working for decades now, refining and mastering their craft through the most minimal means. And after all, Aurand was at least benevolent enough to state upfront we were only gonna get a few glimpses into this appointment; anything more would not have been accurate. Paul Attard


A Night at the Opera

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa‘s latest piece of archival “found footage” cinema would appear to have been taken straight from television. Edited together are a dozen or more red carpets from the Gala evenings organized by the Paris Opera at the Palais Garnier during the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently, there is some kind of irony to this work, or at least that is what the synopses floating around attempt to claim. It doesn’t seem off base to imagine that this purported irony lies within the exclusionary nature of the spectacle: in the distance between those on the red carpet and those to the sides, the latter of whom allowed to merely attend and view the spectacle but never engage in it. Unfortunately, there is very little to praise here; perhaps some aesthetic enjoyment can be gained from the synthesis of the event’s spectacle and the spectacle contrived through the form of the film, or maybe even from the chance to catch sight of our favourite contemporary celebrities or members of royalty. But what is any of this supposed to suggest that we haven’t seen or heard a hundred times before? Even as a simple documentation of an event(s), A Night at the Opera is sorely lacking. I can confidently say that I gained absolutely nothing from the experience of watching this film. No, I’ll do one better and say that the synopsis itself is enough to describe everything that happens here your imagination can fill in the rest, and likely do a better job than the real thing. High society never changes, ostensibly.  Sam Redfern


Stump the Guesser

Winnipeg madman Guy Maddin is back with another kooky, kitschy post-modern melodrama, this one called Stump the Guesser. It’s a 20 minute short that finds a carnival guesser lose his powers as he tries to find a way to marry his long lost sister. Anyone familiar with Maddin’s antics knows what to expect here, as he gallops through plot twists, frantic cutting that approximates old school Soviet montage, and wildly gesticulating, exaggerated actors. There’s a lot of inventive nonsense here, as Maddin seems dedicated to an almost constant stream of visual jokes and general lunacy (my favorite bit being a ‘guesser inspector’ who revokes the man’s guesser license and then adds a negative one point for incest). It all builds to a bizarre ending where the man must muster all his potential guessing power to pick between one of two doors, after which he’ll have to marry what’s behind his chosen door.

While not a Maddin completist, Stump the Guesser appears to me to be the director’s first work that is either entirely, or at least predominantly, shot on digital. The problem is, then, that the filmic quality of his early work is missing, the ghostly, smoky haze of small gauge 8mm and 16mm that linked Maddin to earlier generations of avant-garde filmmakers here absent. Maddin’s usual postmodernist mode of appropriating old silent techniques, a kind of meta-nostalgia, disappears in the sheen and crystal clarity of high definition. Video is decidedly present-tense, not a medium prone to historical nostalgia (or if there is, it’s only for the fuzzy, glitchy quality of early VHS tapes).  Maddin seems to be trying to do the same thing as always, not bothering to reconfigure his sensibility to this new format. It’s too crisp, and the image is left feeling flat and boring. The various graphics that pop up (meant to imitate old timey newspaper ads) are so clean and clearly delineated that they obliterate the illusion. The ephemera of film connotes a physical, tangible history — the sprocket holes, scratches, and jumpy frame rates all point towards the intervention of time, history, and a human touch. Digital does none of this, robbing the short film of any materialist quality. It’s a pretty big missed opportunity for Maddin, relegating Stump the Guesser to a mere curiosity rather than a fully-formed work. Daniel Gorman

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