Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Exhausting Tomorrow: Michael Robinson's "The Dark, Krystle" (2013)

INEZ: But, you crazy creature, what do you think you're doing? You know quite well I'm dead.
INEZ: Dead! Dead! Dead! Knives, poison, ropes--useless. It has happened already, do you understand? Once and for all. So here we are, forever.
ESTELLE: Forever. My God, how funny! Forever.
GARCIN: For ever, and ever, and ever.
(A long silence.)
GARCIN: Well, well, let's get on with it...

by James Hansen

Over the image of a fire burning blue, we hear the faint, exhausted whisper of a middle-aged woman. “There was a fire in the cabin. I tried to leave, but the door was locked. I died in that fire...” The woman sits in a hospital bed. Her head slightly tilted, she gazes into the distance with a look of despair. “I don’t know who I am.” These sounds and images serve as the prelude of Michael Robinson’s new video The Dark, Krystle. They establish the work’s central premise, that of being trapped in a place with no hope of escape. And yet, the narrator doesn’t die, despite stating her condition as being dead, as no longer knowing herself. She is alive, born new even, but lacks an awareness of herself, of her life, of her history.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Living Variables: Stephanie Barber's "Daredevils" (2013) and David Gatten's "The Extravagant Shadows" (2012)

by James Hansen

On Sunday, as I wandered through David Gatten’s monumental feature The Extravagant Shadows for the second time, my mind kept returning, quite unexpectedly, to Stephanie Barber’s Daredevils, a new feature-length video premiering this Thursday at the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar.        

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 2013)

by James Hansen

A tender, intimate portrait of care and friendship, life and art, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours may be best observed in the position of a wanderer. Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) makes an unexpected trip to Vienna to care for a dying family member. In Vienna, Johann (Bobby Summer), a museum guard, befriends Anna. He becomes her guide and they travel around a number of unique spaces – the hospital, the museum, and the city at large. Cohen’s fine directorial eye shows Anne and Johann as almost floating around the city. The beautifully rendered scenes softly flow from one to the next, as if they are leaves blowing in the wind or billiard balls gliding across a table.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

NYFF: 2013 Views from the Avant-Garde Schedule

Scott Stark, The Realist, 2013

Schedule for NYFF Views

he Film Society of Lincoln Center announced today the complete lineup for the 17
th edition of Views from the Avant-Garde (VIEWS), taking place from Oct 3-7 during the New York Film Festival (NYFF). The popular yearly touchstone for experimental film returns with curator Mark McElhatten at the helm, and will contain 35+ programs in glorious Super-8, 16 mm and 35mm film and HD formats. Many familiar faces will return, and VIEWS will also feature 45 new artists and several mini-retrospectives of several of these artists including, Aura Satz, Lois Patiño, Sandro Aguilar, and Jean-Paul Kelly. Views will also offer special tributes to the late Stom Sogo and Anne Robertson whose work is a testimony to the power of a Cinema that is fearless, confidential and inextinguishable.

Curator of Views from the Avant-Garde, Mark McElhatten said, “Cinema existed before Film and will exist long after film's twilight and digital's decay. Cinema exists as an innate way of perceiving the world through light, through cadence through juxtaposition and as a way of sensing and organizing reality. VIEWS celebrates Cinema in its material marriage with film, in its honeymoon period with an ideal medium, projecting super-8, 16mm, 35mm, sequential slides. We celebrate the lightning fleetness of digital that is able to translate the cinema of consciousness in a way than is very different than film, giving it a different elasticity and a different body. We are screening work that ranges through the ethnographic, abstract, psychological, documentarian, essayistic, devotional, parotic, scientific-naturalist many different impulses and directions along with the latest archival preservations of rediscovered works from earlier decades. The goal is to offer a festival of works that is evidence of true exploration coming from individual impulse, showing what can happen when exceptional artists absent themselves from the concerns of a consensus commercial aim and authentically pursue the limits of their art.”

Some highlights this year include, work by Lois Patiño who will showcase multiple programs, group shows, solo and amphitheater cycles. Opening night offers the North American Premiere of Patiño’s first feature COSTA DA MORTE, which just won an award of distinction at the 66th Festival del Film Locarno for Best Emerging Director. Filmed in a region of Galicia, Spain called Coast of Death, derived from the numerous shipwrecks that happened in this region. The film crosses this land observing the people who inhabit it, witnessing the traditional craftsmen who maintain both an intimate relationship and an antagonistic battle with the vastness of this territory. The wind, the stones, the sea, the fire, are characters in this film, and through them, approach the mystery of the landscape, understanding it as a unified ensemble with man, his history and legends.

Sandro Aguilar is known internationally as the founder of the production company, “O Som e a Fúria,” responsible for acclaimed films by Miguel Gomes, Manoel de Olivera and many other notable directors. His extraordinary films have been receiving nominations and awards from dozens of festivals worldwide over the last decade or so. Aguilar’s latest film Dive: Approach and Exit will be shown in its New York Premiere along with a selection of short films from 2007 to 2013. In addition his film A Serpente will screen once with the New York premiere of Scott Stark’s The REALIST.

VIEWS will present the World Premiere of Aura Satz’s just completed work Doorway for Nathalie Kalmus, a film centered around the use of color in moving image technology and exploring the disorienting technicolor prismatic effects of the lamp house of a 35mm color film printer. Through minute shifts across an abstract color spectrum, punctuated by a mechanical soundtrack, the film evokes kaleidoscopic perceptual after-images (bringing to mind Paul Sharits, Dario Argento and the Wizard of Oz).

SUNKEN TREASURE will be part of a special closing day of VIEWS that seeks to dissolve boundaries in the way we categorize and approach cinema of different origins and genre by presenting relative rarities directed by John Stahl and Max Ophuls, along with the works of Stan Brakhage and Nathaniel Dorsky. The evening will conclude with the last presentation in this year’s edition of VIEWS titled Kodachrome Dailies from the Time of Song and Solitude (Reel 2)by Nathaniel Dorsky, includes screening unreleased materials for the first and only time to a public audience.

Over 200 individual works will screen this year from all over the world, including: Argentina, Austria, Australia, Brazil, Burma/Myanmar, Canada, Ethiopia, France, Germany. Israel, Italy, India, Japan, Palestinian territories, Mexico, Nepal, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu and Venezuela.

Director Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s film Manakamana will be co-presented by Views from the Avant-Garde and was previously announced in the Spotlight on Documentary section, Motion Portraits. The film will screen on September 28 and 30 with the filmmakers in attendance. Visit Filmlinc.com for more information.

The 17-day New York Film Festival highlights the best in world cinema, featuring top films from celebrated filmmakers as well as fresh new talent. The selection committee, chaired by Kent Jones, also includes: Dennis Lim, FSLC Director of Cinematheque Programming; Marian Masone, FSLC Associate Director of Programming; Gavin Smith, Editor-in-Chief,Film Comment; and Amy Taubin, Contributing Editor, Film Comment and Sight & Sound.

Gain access to the 34 programs in Views from the Avant-Garde with a $99 NYFF Views Badge, which will be available for purchase exclusively online. The badge as well as tickets to individual programs will go on sale September 12th.  More ticket information for the New York Film Festival will be available on Filmlinc.com/NYFF.

Complete schedule after the break.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Has-Been History: The Impossible Call and Response of Lewis Klahr's "Candy's 16!" (1984)

by James Hansen

This is the text from a paper presented at the 2012 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston, Massachusetts. It remains a work in progress.

A girl named Candy sits alone at her 16th birthday party. A pop record plays quietly in the background. It starts to skip. An untouched birthday cake rests on a table in front of her. Sixteen candles remain unlit. There is no need to light them. For Candy, they are already extinguished. Her friends didn’t come to her celebration. In fact, they couldn’t come. It turns out this party wasn’t today or yesterday. It was years ago. But, for Candy, it is tomorrow. It is always tomorrow. She awaits an event – a future – which will never come, although perhaps it already has. Instead, she lingers in a present moment, hermeneutically sealed off from the yesterday of her adolescence and the tomorrow of her adulthood. She isn’t on a precipice – she is locked in it. As such, she becomes a forgotten figure in her own world. A has-been in her own being. 

This is a vision extrapolated from Lewis Klahr’s 1984 short film Candy’s 16!, part of his “Picture Books For Adults” series (1983-1985). In this series, Klahr gestures toward history as both static and moving. Constructed of eight 8mm short films, Klahr uses a variety of techniques – found footage, splicing, as well as his well known cutout animation style – and creates collages from ephemeral, cultural fragments – home movies, comic books, advertisements, and pop music. with a career and signals many of the concerns of which he continues to work through – history, memory, and the recent past. Stripping objects from their specific contexts, Klahr’s films reference the outmodedness of their objects through a self-referential temporal lag – that is, they are lapsed historical objects. The objects and images enter into dialogic communication allowing them to intersect both historically and aesthetically; his films display a process of an ongoing, irresolvable dialectical history: a history of the present’s past and the past’s presence – or, as Klahr himself says, his films illustrate “the pastness of the present.” 

This paper will examine Candy’s 16! as a model of what I am calling, following Walter Benjamin, “Has-Been history” – a conception of history understood through outmoded, forgotten objects and commodities. For Klahr, objects are “has-beens” lying dormant in historical ruins waiting to be revived. The stakes of this revival is central to this paper and Klahr’s work in general. Klahr has become well-known for his cutout animation techniques, yet Candy’s 16! is a more traditional found footage film. This may make it a somewhat odd choice for extended analysis. However, I argue Klahr’s approach, even in the early stages of his career, indicates the mission of has-been history  – the purpose is not to pace an object historically, but rather to uncover the irresolvable tensions between the historical context and the cultural moment in which materials are extended. Candy’s 16! operates as a transhistorical exchange in which the images of has-been history are revealed as irretrievably fractured. Klahr grants them new visibility only to have them quickly evaporate and remain unrealized. Candy’s 16! questions how personal materials, cultural memory, and the audience negotiate such a schism. Is this all an introduction or a farewell? As Candy awaits her party, celebrating her passage from adolescence to adulthood, Klahr indicates that has-been history can be called, but it cannot respond. History reverberates. Klahr’s films gesture toward its incommensurable aftershocks.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

A Tidy Mosaic: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

by James Hansen

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell maps out the mosaic-like narrative of her discovery that her father, Michael Polley, was, in fact, not her biological father. In making a film about her past and the relationship of her parents, Polley’s story spans her entire family history, stretching across space and time to reconstruct the story of her mother and the extramarital affair that lead to her birth. The film includes interviews with various family members and archival 8mm home footage, as well as reenactments of false events and recreations of supposedly ephemeral material. The film attempts to grapple with the refracted shards of fact and fiction, history and memory. Indeed, Polley’s narration and the possibly false interviews of actors playing Polley’s siblings*** point the audience directly toward these ambivalences time and again. While there remain moments in which the curtain is specifically lifted, Stories We Tell doesn’t attempt to trick its audience. Instead, it often explicitly states its intention to create and/or work through a slippage between the past and the present. 

This decision ends up cutting two directions at the same time. First, it places the audience in a place of comfort, more easily navigating the vagueries of the narrative. There is a little question what the film is “about” if only because the figures tell us time and again exactly what they are proposing and where the historical “target” is, even if they find it to be a moving one. Second, though, this ends up denying the film its central premise – that of the refracted, fragmented impossibility of recovering history and finding an essential truth within an individual figure or time period. (In some ways, Polley’s film reverses the thrust of Citizen Kane: a version of Citizen Kane made by the ghost of Hearst himself.)

Polley’s direction and construction of the film as a narrative – and its insistence on making the audience aware of its constructedness – is remarkably polished. Yet, with the narrative mystery in mind, this positive polish can also be read as overly tidy. While this highlights Polley’s talents as a narrative director, it fails to accept the mysteries and the challenges of its own documentary thrust. That is, for all its talk of fragmentation and rupture, Stories We Tell is resoundingly clear, its connections are perfectly tied together; thus, its entire mode of address becomes exceedingly didactic. For all its complexities and provocative lines of questioning, Stories We Tell, if anything, left me wanting less.

***Note: This sentence has lead to some confusion and was poorly worded. Polley speaks with her actual siblings throughout the interview process. In the faux-archival footage, however, they are played by other figures (as mentioned in the previous sentences). Here, I am trying to point to this productive slippage between fact/fiction that resonates throughout the film. Actors do not play the siblings in the interviews, although I would suggest the fact that the documentation becomes skewed suggests a neat, stage-like quality to the interviews themselves in which truth/falsity can still be raised. [Thanks to Peter Labuza, Jim Gabriel, and Corey Atad for raising these points.] 
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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cannes (à Paris) 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers)

by James Hansen

It was a bit strange when I realized my first trip to France – occurring during the month of May – wouldn’t be for the Cannes Film Festival. Luckily for me, and Parisians, not only do Cannes films open quickly here (Only God Forgives and The Past are already in theaters), but many films that won’t open for a while have a chance to be screened via the Cannes a Paris series. Showcasing “highlights” from the festival’s official selection, there have been plenty opportunities to enjoy Cannes outside of Cannes. Alas, I don’t trust my French enough to see films without English or French subs (my reading comprehension is good-ish). As such, the Coen Brothers new film Inside Llewyn Davis, currently considered one of the frontrunners for the Palme d’Or, was an easy choice. And it wasn’t even sold out!

The soft opening of Inside Llewyn Davis suggests the Coens may be offering a different type of character than we’ve seen in their previous features. A slow ballad rings from the voice of Llewyn (a terrific Oscar Isaac), shot in a classical “unplugged” concert style. The character’s introductory emotional state bleeds through the lyrics of the song. The film immediately hits you with music and there’s a lot more of that to come. Indeed, perhaps even more than O Brother Where Art Thou?, this film, or at least its lead character, lives and breathes through the music. There is a deeply understated, affecting quality that pervades the film, providing it with some kind of backbone as it drifts with Llewyn from place to place. Other forms of music appear as cheap knockoffs, full of cliches and lacking depth. Despite Llewyn’s brashness, the Coens feel fully on his cynical side.

Nonetheless, while different than the leads of A Serious Man or Burn After Reading, Llewyn ends up as a classic Coen character – difficult, off-putting in humorous ways, self-involved, etc. Here, Llewyn’s understated back story adds interesting depths to the character’s wandering, distant nature. For a while, Llewyn’s quest feeds a tale of a man who can’t speak or interact with others as well as the loss of partnership and the toll it takes. He finds a means of communication not through conversation, but through his music, his words, his art. The music as its own kind of language leads to some of the film’s emotional sequences, but also threatens to drain it of its sly humor filled in by an array of minor characters. It fits comfortably within the world of Llewyn, but it perhaps less certainly fits within the entire world of the film. There is something caught in the middle here – much like Llewyn himself – that doesn’t feel wholly...whole. 

And, while the film is nuanced enough to work around a number of cliches, the characters and scope of the film almost too familiar. The direction of the film is sharp and sensitive, but it also never seems particularly ambitious. Llewyn’s ventures undoubtedly reflects a sensibility very much present in the Coens’ recent films – that is, life’s incredible journey as a circular, repetitive road to nowhere – but one can’t help feeling this has been treaded on in the same way before by the Coens. And maybe that is just how it goes. 

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Mood of No-Mood: "Frames" (Brandon Colvin)

by James Hansen

*Writer’s Note: As long time readers of this site will know, Brandon Colvin was a crucial part to its founding and initial success. Brandon and I got the site going in 2007-08, as undergraduates at different institutions. I mention this not because I believe it disqualifies me from writing about the film at hand – if friendship were a disqualification, then we may have a very different history of film and art – but rather just to say this has been a rather difficult piece to put together. It is also somewhat strange to see Colvin listed as the director of a film and not the author of criticism. Those were the days. Anyways, I didn’t feel like I NEEDED to write a “disclaimer” on this piece, but I did want address the “history” of this site somewhat and credit Brandon for always thinking through his writing and writing through his thinking. It shows. jh

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Hug Me Tight: Tom Rhoads (1987-1989)

by James Hansen

This piece was originally published in Dirty Looks 3.3 "Tom Rhoads: 3 Films" as part of a screening which took place at The Kitchen in New York, NY on March 26, 2013. (http://dirtylooksnyc.org/pages/rhoads.html) Thanks to Bradford Nordeen for the opportunity. 

Tom Rhoads was a gentle, tortured soul. In the words of Luther Price, he was “a nice guy who would buy you an ice cream cone.” Nonetheless, watching the 8mm films of Tom Rhoads, one has to wonder how long he stood still in the sun, gripping the ice cream cone with a crooked smile on his face, anticipating the arrival of someone – anyone – so that they can finally pry the melting treat from his hand. The tender films appear as unearthed, forgotten time capsules. Intensely personal and deeply felt, they reveal unknown subjects lost in time, waiting on life or death or both.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel)

by James Hansen

It is practically useless to describe Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s experiential documentary Leviathan, surely one of the most enthralling and terrifying films of the year. Ostensibly about the commercial fishing industry, the directors utilize mini-waterproof cameras to gain access to various locations and points of view on board a fishing vessel. While there are certain precedents for this kind of “observational” filmmaking, Leviathan is truly something no one has seen or heard before.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

On Representation and Wish Fulfillment

by Adam Hofbauer

2012’s two most visible films relating the experiences of African Americans were both made by white men.  Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild fantasized a magical Mississippi Delta, where most of the magic seemed to involve ignoring any racial or post-Katrina related subtext and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained continued his increasingly Ouroboros like cycle of cinematic self-reference.  Here is a superhero origin story for a man whose superpower is cultural reparations via bullet to the nuts, where the intended pleasure is escapist, bloody fantasy. 

It is not these films’ treatment of race that raises eye brows, but their shared filter of wish fulfillment.  Their creators seem to be using blacks in the south as set dressing for their own personal fantasies.  Controversy over Django has been mostly limited to its use of the word “nigger”, with little question raised about its muddy approach to morality.  That the film all but equates freedom with gun ownership seems to little trouble audiences and critics when there is so much bloody carnage to enjoy.  Obviously, praise for Django has not been unanimous.  The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb called into question many of the film’s issues, from its portrayal of slaves as “ciphers passively awaiting freedom” (a diminishing of populist slave resistance that finds echoes in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) to its replacing of history with morally simplistic mythology.  Of course, even a cursory viewing of Django reveals that this is its very intention, restaging the legend of Siegfried through the kind of lone wolf emancipator inspired by real life rebels like John Brown.  Of course Tarantino is aware of his history.  The issue is the wide spread acceptance of stories that reshape history and contemporary politics for the sake of emotional catharsis.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

Out 1 Film Journal's Top 13 Films of 2012

Just like everyone else in the film critic community, I've been slowly putting together my list of the best films I saw in 2012. This year, rather than publish a simple list, I took the liberty to create this video compilation including clips/images from the films. (Fair use!) Quality probably isn't great (and it's probably obvious which clips have been cobbled together from all-too-brief-shots-in-trailers) but I hope you enjoy it. I should note that I still haven't seen Almayer's Folly, Amour, or Tabu, all of which I look forward to seeing. I also should say a second look may have greatly benefited two particular films (David Gatten's The Extravagant Shadows and Dardenne's Kid With A Bike) that I like very much, but which slid off this list nonetheless. I may eventually write capsules and include a list in this post, but, for now, just the video. [Edit: a list is now included after the break.] Thanks to everyone for your continued readership and support of the site. Here's to more movies (and more publishing!) in 2013. Cheers. 

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