More than a week after the festival is over, and still dragging my feet to write about the 17 works I saw over the five days (if I weren't a slacker, it would have been a few more), Migrating Forms 2009 is still taking shape in my mind. Intent on expanding the cinematic framework, whether into home videos, gallery pieces, or projection performances, Migrating Forms, if nothing else, shows that Cinema, whatever it is, is alive and well in 2009. Though I skipped a couple of the seemingly better received works in the festival (Ponytail, Canary) in favor of another feature and a shorts program which ended up featuring a couple of my favorite works in the festival, I was more than happy with what I got, even if I found the majority of the features quite underwhelming and the shorts programs hit or miss. And while some better organization would have been helpful (not to be hyper critical, but not one of the programs I went to started, or was even seating, within 15 minutes of its start time, and, typically, patrons stood around the lobby perfectly happy to be chatting with friends, but confused about seating and start times), Migrating Forms was a celebration of important works that all too often go unrecognized and unseen, especially in a theatrical context. Its intent focus on challenging viewers perceptions of cinematic spaces, at least in the best works, fit into a framework of migration that can, and should, keep this festival going as our media continues to expand and ask questions of who, what, and where cinema is headed. Kudos, kudos, and more kudos.
While I didn’t end up writing about nearly as many movies as I originally planned, I hope to make up for that a little bit here by highlighting some of the works that made some impression on me throughout the festival. Plus, its been over four months since top ten lists came out. It’s about time for another list, don’t you think?
First things first. Or rather, last things first. The festival’s Closing Night Feature, Michael Gitlin’s The Earth Is Young, was the keynote address for the festival’s focus on religiosity. Interviewing Young Earth Creation supporters who have turned to “science” to find a justification behind their theories, The Earth Is Young pretends to let these people speak their minds while Gitlin uses formal techniques to highlight the incoherence of such arguments. Most of the Young Earth Creationists are introduced as a blurry image, their dialogues with Gitlin get cut off by the editing, leaving their floating heads moving without actually speaking anything, much less anything of substance. While The Earth Is Young undoubtedly proves its point, the material is perhaps not as challenging or thoughtful as Gitlin might propose. He is, after all, only going to be speaking to the a-g community, his own choir, which makes The Earth Is Young go down a little too easy. If Gitlin is only out to prove Young Earth Creationists wrong and showcase real science versus morally driven science, The Earth Is Young does succeed, but who is it really convincing – or even trying to convince? Similar to another disappointing (yet more pointedly ambitious) festival entry, Erin Cosgrove’s sporadic, slapdash animated feature What Manner Of Person Art Thou?, The Earth Is Young tackles naivety behind aggressively religious groups, working just as hard to justify themselves in fields they probably do not belong, yet both movies buckle under their ideological restrictions ultimately challenging neither the audience nor themselves.
Rigorous modesty, on the other hand, went a long way for two festival bright spots – Lee Anne Schmitt's California Company Town and Sharon Lockhart’s 1998 video Goshagaoka. (Side note: I wonder why Lockhart’s much discussed new feature, Lunch Break, was not a part of the festival. It seemed a fitting venue for the New York premiere, but maybe I’m too hopeful). While the works couldn’t be more different, they both illustrate a mastery of special identity. California Company Town, a documentary about old towns in California which have evaporated for one reason or another in Hegelian Bush-era capitalism, finds a mythic beauty in dead towns. If nature corresponds to a state of mind, as a quotation from the film states, California Company Town works to illustrate this by refusing a selective memory and passing from one town to the next, finding a story, discovering a space, and looking for signs of life as the economic war between the government and private sector continues to rage on in the form of uninhabited places. Goshagaoka uses a single space, a high school gymnasium, as an actively involved location filled with fixed positions and punctuated with its fixed camera. In just a few very long, static shots of a high school volleyball practice, Goshagaoka finds lines that can and cannot be broken while it identifies a perfect form of movement, communication, and togetherness – a harmonious dreamscape of the haunted spaces featured in California Company Town.
Unique spaces were prominent in the best short works of the festival. Ben Rivers’s stunning piece The Origin of the Species tracks the evolution of life from immaterial goo into a world of wilderness and isolation. Having seen the film only once, I feel like I can’t describe the experience or the work very much at all, so I’ll default to Michael Sicinski’s wonderful review. Needless to say, The Origin of the Species struck me in an equally powerful way and I’m still thinking about it weeks later.
There were plenty of other works that I saw – some very good (Naomi Uman’s Kalendar), some underwhelming (Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo) – but Rivers is a good place to end. The species and the festival progressed into something beautiful no matter the form it took.
Migrating Forms 2009 Festival Top 5 Works
(note: since Lockhart’s work was not new, I decided not to include it on this list…)
1. The Origin of the Species (Ben Rivers)
2. DDR/DDR (Amie Siegel)
3. Kalendar (Naomi Uman)
4. Passing (Robert Todd)
5. Dialogues (Owen Land [George Landow])