Rabbit holes within rabbit holes, the experimental corners of film festivals are zones to lose yourself into. Freed from conventional narrative requirements, they offer different ways of experiencing cinema—unusual textures and rhythms, raw materials molded into perplexingly new compositions, assertive visions that seem to leave iridescent marks on the viewer's corneas. Striking as they are, these avant-garde works often prove difficult to catch in the whirlwind of multiple film programs, leaving the adventurous cinephile to seek these titles on laptop monitors when they should be watched on the big screen for their full, visceral effect. Which makes this week's retrospective of the New York Film Festival's Projections program (sponsored by our very own MUBI) all the more valuable: a chance for audiences to encounter innovative artists and approaches that, as the festival notes put it, “expand upon our notions of what the moving image can do and be.”
It's hard to imagine a better point of entry into the Projections series than Jodie Mack's Blanket Statement #2–It's All or Nothing. The punning title attests to the British-born experimental animator's rapt humor, with her 16mm close-ups turning a variety of quilts into a writhing cascade of multicolored yarn. The collage of patterns, with its waves of zigzagging blue and pink, is married to a soundtrack that thumps rhythmically along with the flickers, suggesting at once the whirring of the film projector and the motor of some lunar vehicle trailing up and down the woolly topography. Clocking in at over three minutes, Mack's short is tangible, ticklish, and, in its portrait of mundane surfaces enlivened by an inventive camera, divinely indicative of Projections' transformative purposes.
A different form of landscape mutation occurs in Shambhavi Kaul's Night Noon, which opens with rocky slopes and sandy crevasses filling the screen in a meditative montage scored to lonesome gusts of winds. Though filmed in Death Valley deserts and Mexican coasts, the desolate locations nevertheless evoke a single geological unit, a vast mineral organism that seems to shift its weight with each cut. (The visage-like stone formations discovered along the way hint at a mysterious force somewhere between erosion and sculpture.) The cobalt sky turns inky-black, and lunar reflections dart on the glistening ocean. Finally, the protagonists turn up: A dog and a parrot, locked in a peculiar staring contest while the world around them appears ready to reshape itself at any minute. An environmental fugue that builds toward a mordantly inscrutable punchline, Kaul's view of the planet’s conflicts and harmonies brings to mind a canny reimagining of Kubrick’s Dawn of Man sequence, or perhaps one of Herzog’s nature cantos.
Rebecca Baron's Detour de Force, meanwhile, brings to mind performance-art at a séance. Its subject is Ted Serios, a former bellhop who in the 1960s left a peculiar imprint as a "thoughtographer," pronouncing himself able to transfer pictures from his brain directly onto Polaroid strips with a spastic thrust of his head. Casually disheveled at the center of a recording session full of gizmos and psychiatrists, Serios works his convulsive voodoo while the screen radiates with blotches and flares. (Disembodied lines from this eerie documentary footage hang in the air like incantatory patter: "Whoever's holding the camera's got to smack it, you know, put some real oomph into it!") Arcane sights materialize from Serios' hepcat-magus act as well as from Baron's investigation of it, a layered mélange of archival film, video and snapshots that contemplates a living-room gathering from 50 years ago as a lost, possibly supernatural world. Neither fully confirming nor debunking her subject, Baron luxuriates in the singular atmosphere of free-floating unease and mischief, fascinatingly attuned to the art of image-making as an inherent form of sorcery. Kenneth Anger would have approved.
If Detour de Force hinges on the scrutiny of an individual psyche, The Measures announces itself as a collaboration between two minds. Four minds, really: 18th-century astronomers Pierre Méchain and Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, the subjects of this 45-minute, essayistic exploration, and its directors, Jacqueline Goss and Jenny Perlin. Identified as "savants" ("those who know"), Méchain and Delambre were dogged seekers who over of the course of seven years set out to determine the standard length of a meter by measuring the meridian from Paris to Barcelona. Centuries later, Goss and Perlin embark on their own routes, cameras at the ready: their dual correspondence, comprised of voiceovers and illustrations, is frequently visualized as a split at the center of the rectangular screen, with footage on different sides of the frame embodying alternately balanced and mismatched perspectives. A stronger sense of parallel visions might have benefited the film's braiding of historical and modern inquiries, which suffer somewhat from its increasingly abstracted digressions. (Bresson quotes! Gallic McDonald's billboards!) Whenever it turns its gaze to wandering scientists and stargazers, however, The Measures lingers as an eulogy to the human need and folly of trying to impose systems onto the cosmos.
Eric Baudelaire's Letters to Max is another series of filmic correspondences that straddles the divide between documentary and subjective examination. The eponymous Max is one Maxim Gvinjia, a former diplomat of the still-largely unrecognized Caucasian state of Abkhazia and a friend of the filmmaker's. "The question 'Are you there?' is very philosophical," goes a missive early in their extended dialogue, which is structured onscreen as an exchange between Baudelaire’s written queries and Gvinjia's voice recordings. On the soundtrack, the Abkhazian pen pal ruminates on his nostalgia for the Soviet Union, his father's disappearance during the war in the early 1990s, how close film is to time-traveling, and his own paradoxical role as a representative of a nation that still doesn't officially exist to much of the world. Baudelaire illustrates Gvinjia's political and personal musings with glimpses of stillness and bustle in his friend's homeland, with tableaux of rust-cracked military vehicles giving way to local celebrations and trips to the beach—a sometimes Akerman-esque play of sight and sound to emphasize suspensions and absences. Over-length and diffuseness of focus dilute the film's tension between the national and the private, but the feelings of dislocation and empathy come through loud and clear.
An even odder pair of friends lies at the center of Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air, Phillip Warnell's philosophical take on the bizarre but true story of Antoine Yates and his beloved roommate Ming, a 500-pound tiger. Having had Ming as well as his other unconventional pet (a seven-foot alligator named "Al") confiscated by the authorities after his 2003 arrest, Yates looks back with disarming serenity, his interview largely taking place in a taxi cruising through his old Harlem neighborhood. The bulk of the film, however, consists of lengthy passages set in an elaborate set recreation of his apartment, where fixed cameras record a tiger's prowling movements from room to room and, later, the leisurely slithering of a squinty-eyed alligator. (As the bulky, bored feline rubs his whiskers on the lenses, Icelandic musician Hildur Gudnadóttir murmurs pensées by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.) An early sight gag notwithstanding (a "No pets allowed" sign outside an apartment complex), Warnell's approach is sober and chilly, which leads to a half-intriguing, half-vaporous interpretation. Ming of Harlem aims to elucidate the gap between the exotic and the domestic, but none of its embellishments are as evocative as Yates' own comments.
Finally, there’s the hyper-concentrated maelstrom of Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Sea of Vapors. Hurling its fast and furious images and associations into a forceful, flickering spiral, this bravura 15-minute work bounds from shot to shot (limbs, flowers, eyeballs, horses, mouths) with a graphic density bordering on the hallucinatory. As its tempo accelerates, a pale circle emerges as the eye of the storm, though even its identity remains volatile: At times resembling a full moon, at others a white cup or a crystal ball onto which other objects are superimposed, it at last becomes something of an unstable nucleus in the filmmaker’s personal galaxy of remembrances and sensations. At once draining and exhilarating, Sea of Vapors is an emblematic Projections piece, expanding cinematic borders even as it seems to engulf itself.