Phil Collins, Tomorrow Is Always Too Long, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 82 minutes.

LURKING IN THE SHADOW of the Frieze Art Fair and relegated to the very back pages of the print catalogue of the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival was Experimenta, an assembly of nineteen programs devoted to experimental cinema and artists’ film and video. Curated for the second year running by LUX’s Benjamin Cook and the BFI’s Helen de Witt and William Fowler, the sidebar showcased some sixty-two works varying in length, ranging from productions with crews the size of a Sundance darling to films made by a single individual in the artisanal mode long associated with avant-garde cinema.

Indeed, the breadth of the program captured the extent to which “artists’ moving image”—seemingly the preferred term in the contemporary UK context—today encompasses not only a plurality of formal and conceptual approaches, but also strikingly different financing structures and modes of production. In Britain this sector is witnessing a clear push toward bigger budgets and longer running times, coming as much from art-world interest as it does from the changed funding policies of an organization like FLAMIN (the Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network), which now offers awards of between £20,000 and £50,000 ($32,000 and $80,000) to a handful of large-scale projects rather than disbursing a greater number of more modest grants.

One outcome of this is the “artists’ feature film,” an entity that must be distinguished from the established tradition of long-form experimental filmmaking not only due to its mode of production but also its crossover aspirations. Features like Emily Wardill’s When You Fall into a Trance (2014) and Phil Collins’s Tomorrow Is Always Too Long (2014) cultivated distinct alliances with conventional genre cinema: Wardill offered a family melodrama complete with a teenage suicide attempt, while Collins staged Glaswegian musical numbers not unlike those found in Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl (2014). If one had not known their makers to be fine artists, the presence of these films within the Experimenta strand would have been somewhat perplexing, particularly given that works far more challenging and daring—to name only two, Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before (2014) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage (2014)—were shown elsewhere in the festival. This is not to suggest that Diaz and Godard would have been better accommodated in Experimenta, but simply to point to how thoroughly the parameters of “artists’ moving image” have been transformed in recent years.

Despite this tendency, it was striking how many of the program’s most outstanding films revisited the history of a more artisanal way of working and testified to its ongoing viability. Robert Beavers’s Listening to the Space in My Room (2013) is an intimate account of self-transformation that retains his mastery of craft while integrating a joy and tenderness not always present in his earlier films. Works by younger filmmakers such as Mary Helena Clark (The Dragon Is the Frame [2014]) and Sylvia Schedelbauer (Sea of Vapors [2014]) engage with established paradigms of experimental film—the diary film and the flicker film, respectively—without feeling slavishly bound to their iterations by preceding generations. Clark’s beautiful memorial to her friend, artist Mark Aguhar, wanders through the San Francisco area, past the locations of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), searching for answers but finding only reminders of loss. Schedelbauer, meanwhile, mesmerizes the viewer with pulsating confusions of scale that turn the human face into landscape and vice-versa. Margaret Honda’s Spectrum Reverse Spectrum (2014) is a cameraless 70-mm film made at FotoKem in Burbank, California, the only lab in the world that continues to process the format. By using color-timing tape to control the opening and closing of the red-green-blue valves, Honda immerses the viewer in a passage across the visible light spectrum, from violet to red and back again, producing a spectacular effect through simple means.

Emily Wardill, When You Fall into a Trance, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 72 minutes.

The clear highlight of the archival selections—and indeed, one of the highlights of the festival as a whole—was “Meditations from Our Lady of the Angels,” a program of eleven films from Los Angeles recently restored by Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive. Toscano’s peerless selection included impeccable presentations of classics like Morgan Fisher’s Projection Instructions (1976) and Chick Strand’s Kristallnacht (1979), as well as world premieres of the Academy preservations of three very different but very accomplished films: Amy Halpern’s Invocation (1982), Pat O’Neill’s Coreopsis (1998), and Penelope Spheeris’s I Don’t Know (1970). When Toscano describes I Don’t Know as a “truly major work” in his program notes, he makes no overstatement. An almost unclassifiable documentary portrait of the relationship between the transgender Jimmie and Linda, who identifies as a lesbian, the film is a moving, playful, and lingering early work from a woman best known as the director of Wayne’s World (1992).

Spheeris’s unorthodox documentary resonates with a major strand of contemporary practice, one that received deservedly strong representation in Experimenta: the engagement with complex contaminations of reality and fiction. Ben Russell’s Atlantis (2014) is a twenty-minute film shot on Malta that explores the enduring myth of the island utopia as imagined both by Plato and by a 1970s American television series. Judith Schalansky has written in her Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, “An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature.” Atlantis interrogates this space of fabulation without ever leaving the real island behind, finding itself caught between a portrait of place and the conjuring of a drowned paradise. Eric Baudelaire’s justly celebrated Letters to Max (2014) also confronts the tension between the real and the imagined, albeit in a very different register. Baudelaire addresses the problematic of the nation as imagined community through epistolary correspondence with Maxim Gvinjia, the former minister of foreign affairs of Abkhazia, a largely unrecognized state that seceded from Georgia in the 1992–93 civil war. The simplicity of Baudelaire’s letters belie his sophisticated knowledge of the region and deep engagement with questions of nationhood, facts that become evident through the film’s deft deployment of the relations among sound, image, and text. Some might see Letters to Max as fitting into the paradigm of the essay film, and in certain ways it does. But it departs from many of the conventions that have lately been deployed with such frequency, such that the mode has calcified into an all too recognizable genre. The essay is by definition something that challenges established categories and gambles on experimental forms; beyond all those who seek to ventriloquize Marker and Resnais, Letters to Max remains faithful to these aims and reveals the enormous potential that resides in doing so.

Joining Letters to Max in this desire to think within and beyond the essay film was Harun Farocki’s last completed work, Parallel I–IV (2012–14). This series continues the late filmmaker’s long-standing investigation into the rise of calculable, actionable images possessing a relationship to reality very different than that of the cinema before them. Tracing the evolution of video game graphics from the two-dimensional schematics of the early 1980s to the photorealistic environments of today, Farocki foregoes the obsession with novelty that too often characterizes discussions of so-called “new” media, instead situating games within a longer history of representation. The Parallel series is a major achievement that exemplifies a key attribute of a singular practice cut far too short: Farocki joins poetic speculation with analytical strength to call upon the viewer not simply to look and listen carefully, but also to think along with him. The closing title of Laure Prouvost’s How To Make Money Religiously (2014) offered excellent advice for Parallel I–IV and many other works of this year’s Experimenta: “MULTIPLE VIEWINGS ARE RECOMMENDED.”

Erika Balsom

“Experimenta” ran October 8–19 at the British Film Institute in London.

Gold Rushes


Production still from Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day, 1913. Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams.

“I THINK THEY DIDN’T release it because it wasn’t racist enough,” said Ron Magliozzi, associate curator in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, before a press preview of assembled footage of a movie shot in 1913 but ultimately abandoned—the earliest surviving feature-length production with a black cast. The stunning rushes for this work—a lively project devoid of many (though not all) bigoted grotesqueries—are being presented as part of MoMA’s twelfth annual film-preservation program “To Save and Project”; this particular rescue mission has an exceptionally long history. These seven reels were part of a trove of materials acquired by Iris Barry, MoMA’s founding film curator, from the Biograph Studio’s Bronx facilities shortly before their destruction in 1939.

Though never titled at the time, MoMA is calling the unfinished film Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day, in reference to its lead, the Bahamian-born actor who was the best-known black entertainer of the era (and who appeared in only a few movies, making his central role here all the more remarkable). During the roughly one hour of unedited material (for which no inter-titles were found), Williams is established as a banjo-playing boulevardier and con man vying for the attentions of the neighborhood beauty (played by Odessa Warren Gray, once a prominent milliner, according to Magliozzi). The couple attends the annual picnic and ball sponsored by the titular fraternal organization for the town’s black residents; Williams and his date eat ice cream, share a lollipop on a carousel, and, later that night at the Lime Kiln Club, take part in a fancy-dress cakewalk. (Cultural critic Margo Jefferson, during a brief panel discussion before the screening, wittily compared this dance number to “a Don Cornelius Soul Train moment” and more broadly noted the scene’s “proud élan.”) As the suitor walks his lady home, the film concludes with the two of them kissing—a bit of romance between a black man and a black woman played not for laughs, as was almost always the case at the time, but as an honest expression of love. (The moment is anomalous not just for 1913; throughout the next several decades, black actors would rarely be permitted to display any affection on screen.)

Despite this and other singular traits of the film—notably the cast’s ease and camaraderie with the two white directors, Edwin Middleton and T. Hayes Hunter, and other white crew members, glimpsed during the rushes and in the production stills that line MoMA’s theater-lobby galleries—the project is not without egregious stereotypes. Williams performs in blackface; the sign for the book-lined room of the Lime Kiln Club announces it as “De Libray.” In the prescreening panel, Magliozzi—who, with another MoMA colleague, led the team that spent the past decade identifying as much as possible about the production—emphasized that he didn’t want to further exacerbate these painful incidents during the assembling of the footage: “We felt like we were trapping these performers in a minstrel narrative...Being white curators, we missed things.” (Keen to hear others’ observations, Magliozzi asked Jacqueline Stewart, a leading scholar of African American cinema, and social-practice artist Theaster Gates to also look at the footage.) Flickering on a screen a century-plus later, the actors are, at the very least, no longer confined to an even greater ignominy: being forgotten.

Melissa Anderson

The world-premiere presentation of the assembled rushes for Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day will take place on November 8 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the film-preservation festival “To Save and Project,” which runs through November 22. “100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History” is on view in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater Lobby Galleries at MoMA through March 2015.

Indie Rocks


Albert Serra, Story of My Death, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 148 minutes.

ALBERT SERRA’S STORY OF MY DEATH (2013) animates the past with glinting life. Serra, a thirty-nine-year-old Catalonian, focuses on a corpulent, decaying, half-mad Casanova (Vicenç Altaió) who spends his waning days in a Swiss castle admiring himself—and younger women. He leads a group of followers on a trip to a sunlit pastoral setting where no less forbidding a figure than Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) awaits them. The group succumbs to vampirism within a film whose nighttime images often hover on the precipice of visibility. We witness the spectacle of an older world burning out like a candle on its way to being replaced by times that could prove even darker.

Story of My Death won the Golden Leopard at last year’s Locarno International Film Festival and will begin its US theatrical premiere run November 20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Story also recently headlined a Serra retrospective at the fourteenth edition of Brazil’s Indie Festival, an exciting program of contemporary film offered to audiences both in São Paulo and in Belo Horizonte. We observed the honing of Serra’s methods prior to Story, in works like Quixotic/Honor de Cavalleria (2006) and Birdsong (2008). Serra typically adapts canonical source material (Don Quixote, the Bible) into low-budget, largely improvised films with nonprofessional actors wandering across vivid landscapes, lost within a fragile present.

At first glance, Serra’s films seemed strikingly different from those of this year’s other Indie retrospective recipient, the sixty-seven-year-old, US-born and France-naturalized Eugène Green. While Serra transforms literary characters, Green depicts contemporary people seeking texts by which to live. In fiction films such as Le Pont des Arts (2004) and The Portuguese Nun (2009), the longtime writer and theater director presents ensembles of aspiring and established actors, artists, authors, and musicians who engage one another with the hopes of filling empty spiritual lives, and who choose to do so in the most controlled ways that they can. A typical Green scene alternates between two people, each in his or her own fixed frame, each formally and precisely reciting his or her thoughts to the other and to the film’s viewers.

Green’s latest, La Sapienza (2014)—which premiered at this year’s edition of Locarno and will be released in the US early next year—offers many such moments. The film’s four main characters form mirrored pairs, with two middle-aged, malaise-stricken French spouses seeing reflections of themselves in younger Italian counterparts they meet abroad. All four seek other people’s histories to stand in for their own. The two men together devote themselves to studying architecture, and the Frenchman (Fabrizio Rongione) turns his attention toward the work of Francesco Borromini, whose Baroque edifices express a designed perfection that he desires for his own inner life.

Green, like Serra, finds beauty in human mortality. Something similar could be said of two other filmmakers represented in the Indie program, both with works that function as moving, sensorial autobiography. The first is twenty-seven-year-old Argentine Eduardo “Teddy” Williams, a brilliant crafter of lively, semistaged short films in which young male friends joyfully explore towns and cities together. I Forgot! (2014) catches a bantering group of youth whose members race around Hanoi roads and streets that appear in fleeting, pleasurably unfamiliar ways, as though all the young men—including Williams—were savoring these grounds for the very first time.

Eighty-one-year-old New Yorker Ken Jacobs knows the Brooklyn Bridge well but finds new ways to render it in A Primer in Sky Socialism (2013), a silent 3-D revisitation of his earlier film The Sky Socialist (1964) that uses a succession of stills to render the bridge as he and his wife Flo see it on New Year’s Eve. For more than fifty years, Jacobs has sought new ways to depict human figures. Here, warm reds and greens surround streams of celebrants, who appear as happy blurs of light.

Aaron Cutler

The fourteenth Indie Festival ran September 3–10 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and September 17–October 1 in São Paulo.

Gregg Araki, White Bird in a Blizzard, 2014, color, sound, 91 minutes. Kat Connor, Beth, and Mickey (Shailene Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe, and Mark Indelicato).

GREGG ARAKI FOLLOWED his 1992 breakthrough, The Living End, one of the foundational titles of the New Queer Cinema, with what he called his “teenage apocalypse trilogy”: Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997). Yet in the seventeen years since the final entry of that triptych, Araki has rarely strayed from the theme of adolescents or young people confronting the end of the world. Sometimes the planet quite literally blows up, as in 2010’s Kaboom. In Araki’s latest, the uneven White Bird in a Blizzard—which he adapted from Laura Kasischke’s 1999 novel of the same name—what shatters is the complacent facade of a San Bernardino, California, family, the shards collected and sifted through by the adolescent daughter of miserably married suburban parents.

“I was seventeen when my mother disappeared,” Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley) says in voice-over as the film opens in the fall/winter of 1988. Mom, named Eve and played by Eva Green, is seen in flashback and in Kat’s dream sequences, a shellacked, stay-at-home beauty slowly unraveling from the hate she feels toward her timid husband (Christopher Meloni) and from a life in which the only creative outlet is preparing crab thermidor. Araki does little to shape this mad housewife into more than a rough sketch of camp flourishes; Eve is made even more absurd by the wildly rampaging accent of the French-born, London-trained Green.

Grounding White Bird in a Blizzard and providing its warmth, however, is Woodley, who, earlier this year, starred in two high-profile adaptation of YA novels: the dystopic Divergent (depicting another kind of teen apocalypse) and the weepie The Fault in Our Stars. Born in 1991, Woodley has been acting since she was eight—the same age that Joseph Gordon-Levitt (born in 1980), the star of Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004), was when he began his career. As Mysterious Skin did for Gordon-Levitt, White Bird marks a major transition for Woodley, calling on her to reveal a sexual confidence and hunger previously tamed or elided.

“Whatever—can we just stop talking and fuck?” Kat asks of her dim boyfriend, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez). The teenager may follow through on the police department’s suggestion that she see a therapist (Angela Bassett, always a boon no matter how itty-bitty her part) after her mother vanishes, but Kat is not bereaved, unable, at first, to mourn for someone who had already seemed long gone. No grief dampens her concupiscence; she easily beds the taurine, middle-aged cop (Thomas Jane) assigned to her mother’s case. In that same bed three years later, when Kat is home on break from Berkeley, the detective will tell her what he really thinks happened to her mom—a revelation that may seem inevitable but that nonetheless causes the young protagonist to completely reassess her image of both her mother and herself. Araki’s ending to White Bird is a radical departure from that in the source novel (which I haven’t read), apparently, and will not surprise anyone who’s seen any of his films before. What is unexpected—and ultimately moving—is the director’s deep empathy for and curiosity about the impossibly fraught nature of relationships between mothers and daughters. He may bungle the topic often in White Bird, especially in Eve’s outlandish caricature, but the final minutes of the film disclose a profound filial reckoning.

Melissa Anderson

White Bird in a Blizzard opens in limited release on October 24.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse, 1986–90, still from a TV show on CBS. Cowboy Curtis and Pee-wee Herman (Laurence Fishburne and Paul Reubens).

PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE ran for five critically acclaimed seasons on CBS Saturday mornings from 1986 to 1990, producing a grand total of forty-five episodes. The third season was limited to two episodes by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. After the fifth season, burned out by the workaday grind of the production, Paul Reubens, the creator of the Pee-wee Herman character and star of the show, put the character on hiatus. (The attrition is even evident in the product—the series finale is a clips show!) When, in the following summer of 1991, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure while leaving the XXX South Trail Cinema in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida, the widely circulated mug shot showed that he’d grown Pee-wee’s close-cropped black hair out long and ratty.

Reubens’s career as a children’s performer was ignominiously ended, and in the aftermath of his public yank, his show, winner of twenty-two Emmy awards, was unceremoniously yanked from reruns. Nevertheless, the dear, sweet, vulnerable children couldn’t be retroactively protected from the deviant entertainment that they’d already been submitted to, and the influence of the Playhouse on impressionable minds has in subsequent years proved to be inestimable. In 2010, Reubens returned to the stage as Pee-wee, playing for an audience undoubtedly comprising in large part grown-up kids whom he’d helped to raise, and in a recent Rolling Stone interview, he alluded to Pee-wee’s forthcoming return to the big screen. And now, courtesy of Shout Factory, the entire run of Pee-wee’s Playhouse is available with heretofore-unseen image quality on eight Blu-ray discs—a fresh opportunity to contemplate what a strange and remarkable thing this show actually was.

Shortly after the story of Reubens’s public humiliation broke, Dennis Miller, manning the desk of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” cracked that “Pee-wee Herman finally reached puberty.” In his gray glen plaid suit and red bow tie, Pee-wee had the aspect of a boy who’d been dressed up as a little gentleman by some doting parent with a bizarre idea of decorum. He was, of course, a grown man, though his waxy make-up job gave him a preternaturally smooth complexion. (While removing a whipped-cream beard: “I’m shaving just like daddy.”) He lived in the titular Playhouse, where darn near every object from floor to chair to window was anthropomorphized, with no real adult supervision but with a pet Pterodactyl, Pterri, and Jambi (both John Paragon), a downright swishy genie in a box.

While Pee-wee was distinctly presexual, the show was rife with elements associated with gay camp. In a 2012 essay, “Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp,” the queer writer and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce places Pee-wee Herman in the category of “Subversive Camp,” alongside “Roddy McDowell’s Tam Lin” and “Brett Anderson of Suede.” In the first season of Playhouse, Pee-wee is keeping company with Dixie, a butch lady cab-driver; Mrs. Steve, a houseboat-size neighbor woman made up like a drag queen (Shirley Stoler, star of family-friendly fare like Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties and The Honeymoon Killers), and an absolutely ripped pool boy named Tito, never seen with a shirt. (In the second season, when the show moved from New York to Los Angeles, he was replaced by the no-less-handsome-but-slightly-more-clothed Ricardo.) In the show’s 1988 Christmas Special, a veritable parade of gay icons stops by the Playhouse to pay homage to Pee-wee, including Joan Rivers, Grace Jones, Little Richard, and k.d. lang.

On the inside the Playhouse looked like a cluttered vintage shop, on the outside, a roadside attraction. The show appeared in the midst of a Golden Age of weird Americana, when the symbols of 1950s car culture and suburban prosperity were reemerging in distorted form, a phenomenon which was occurring simultaneously in the gallery (the paintings of Eric Fischl) and the funny pages (Gary Larson’s Far Side). Playhouse arrived on the air in the year of David Byrne’s True Stories and Blue Velvet—when Pee-wee’s lip-synchs “So long and goodbye for now” to a scratchy record at the conclusion of one episode, he recalls nothing so much as Dean Stockwell in David Lynch’s picture. With Pee-wee, Reubens was doubling down on the inherent oddness of the Eisenhower-era kids’-show hosts that he’d grown up with—Pinky Lee most particularly—while adding an element of Jerry Lewis simpering and just a sprig of Mister Rogers’ Gayborhood.

The camp element was lost on child viewers, this author included, and probably many an adult as well. I’m not sure what my father, also a regular viewer, made of it, but I do remember that he impressed upon me the sheer amount of work that went into each episode, chock-a-block as they were with all manner of animation. The average Playhouse is a cabinet of curios, full of self-contained “features” like little drawers to be pulled out, their contents examined, and then closed again. Arranged as a sort-of variety show, each episode was a weekly history of animation techniques—“I wanted to try to use every kind of animation that was being done,” says one of the show’s architects in an interview included in the Shout Factory set, and the contemporary fetish for the handmade and artisanal is very much present here. Pee-wee’s Ant Farm was rendered with a silhouette animation technique reminiscent of that created by Lotte Reiniger in the 1920s. The disoriented, possibly sloshed King of Cartoons came by to screen 1930s animations by the likes of Ub Iwerks and Max Fleischer. When Pee-wee would visit to his “toy shelf,” he was greeted by stop-motion creations as disturbing as anything in the Quay brothers’ corpus, while a distinctly Ray Harryhausen–esque Dinosaur Family lived in the Playhouse wall. The recurring “Penny” skits, which illustrated the free-associative ramblings of six- and seven-year-old girls in Claymation, were courtesy of England’s Aardman Animations, the home of Wallace & Gromit. There was even early computer animations: Pee-wee’s “Connect the Dots” adventures, courtesy Ellen & Lynda Kahn’s TWINART.

Reubens was the linchpin of the show, but he surrounded himself with talent, and the Playhouse was in fact a workshop that brought together and activated a plethora of creative minds. Wayne White, who just ended his show “Invisible Ruler” at New York’s Joshua Liner Gallery, won three Emmys for his puppetry and design on the show, and voiced J.D. marionette bully Randy. (Spazz Pee-wee probably would’ve been a punching bag in the schoolyard, but Randy was the only threat at the Playhouse.) The underground cartoonist Gary Panter was honcho of the set design squadron and created the Playhouse’s aesthetic of jaggedly clashing patterns and bric-a-brac business. The score was provided by a revolving cast of hip musicians—the Residents, George Clinton, Van Dyke Parks—with the reliable standby being Mark Mothersbaugh, who joined the show on a hiatus from his band Devo. (I still remember the wistful longing his closing theme created, signifying that you were now leaving Pee-wee’s world—you couldn’t wait until next week to come back.)

Reubens was an art-school kid who knew how to engender creative collaborations. He’d attended CalArts in the 1970s before joining the Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings, where he’d premiered the Pee-wee character and worked closely with Phil Hartman, who played sea salt Captain Carl on Playhouse before departing for SNL. Rounding out the show’s flesh-and-blood cast was future Law & Order star S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady, seen to best advantage in the “Playhouse in Outer Space” episode, and Laurence Fishburne as Pee-wee’s best friend Cowboy Curtis—the concept is a little Gene Autry, a little Gene Nabors, and a little Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse isn’t P.C.—Pee-wee’s pen-pal letters from around the globe all riff on national stereotypes, and there is a slanty-eyed egg roll with a Fu Manchu mustache in his freezer box—but the cast is, in an offhand, no-big-deal way, quite diverse. (I almost wrote “for the time,” before realizing that very little has changed. In an interview on the set, Fishburne confirms that this diversity existed on the behind-the-camera crew as well.) On revisiting the show, what is striking is its embracing, absolute decency—a decency that’s in no way at odds with the happy perversity bubbling under its surface, and which in fact makes the very thought of such a dichotomy seem absurd. Reubens, whose shyness when out of character has only been exacerbated by legal harassment, doesn’t appear on camera for any of the boxed set features. Which is to be regretted—but then, he’s already given us quite enough.

Nick Pinkerton

Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series is now available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory.

Camp Camp


Peter Sattler, Camp X-Ray, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 117 minutes. Ali and Cole (Peyman Moaadi and Kristen Stewart).

SO MUCH OF CAMP X-RAY, writer-director Peter Sattler’s first feature, is so thuddingly didactic and yet morally obtuse that my writing anything else about the film beyond this sentence may be a further violation of the Geneva Convention. But as bad as this dubious project might be, the two performances at its center elevate it: Kristen Stewart as Cole, a soldier stationed as a guard at Guantánamo Bay, and Peyman Moaadi as Ali, the detainee she befriends. Both actors impressively shade impossible roles with alert nuances.

Before it descends into facile metaphors, Camp X-Ray begins with startling, astute clarity. As a newscaster narrates, in Arabic, the events of 9/11, with footage of the burning twin towers behind her, a man (whom we will later learn is Ali) begins to pray in his apartment. His salat is interrupted by blurry figures who approach him from behind and place a black hood over his head. This chaotic action is immediately followed by a shot of a trio of similarly shrouded men, who are also shackled and wearing orange jumpsuits and noise-canceling headphones, being transported by motorboat to the infamous US-military prison where they will be beaten and encaged.

The scathing critique of Guantánamo so forcefully laid out in these first few minutes is then inexorably undermined by Sattler’s outrageously flawed feel-good premise: that Cole and Ali have something to teach each other and, more broadly, are in equivalent situations. Even worse, Ali serves as the catalyst for his captor’s moral awakening; Cole’s time at the detention center might as well be the extended, east-Cuba stop for “Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend” tour. “I wanted to do something important,” Cole tells Ali through the narrow, rectangular, thick glass pane of his cell, explaining why she enlisted in the army. “Yeah, I understand,” replies the man who’s been locked in a room no bigger than a veal-fattening pen for the past eight years, stripped of all liberties without ever being convicted of a crime.

And yet, even as Camp X-Ray builds to its preposterous final scene, Stewart and Moaadi remain fascinating to behold. This is the actress’s first role since the conclusion of the Twilight series in 2012; Moaadi has enjoyed international exposure on a much smaller scale, playing the irascible husband in Asghar Farhadi’s multiple-prize-winning Iranian marital drama A Separation (2011). Far removed from their earlier personae, both performers display a deep commitment not just to their shabbily sketched-out characters here but also to the push-pull dynamic between them. While Cole tries to make sure her flinty composure never drops during her patrol of D block, Ali—who, during one of their initial encounters, flings a cup of his shit at her—lures her in with his incessant questioning and haranguing. Throughout these cycles of repelling and attracting, and even during the more risible scenes, when the divisions between the two characters magically disintegrate, Stewart and Moaadi imbue each moment with agile reflexes: holding pauses just long enough, stiffening or relaxing postures to convey more about their characters’ backstories than Sattler’s prolix script ever does.

Melissa Anderson

Camp X-Ray is now playing in New York; it opens in Los Angeles on October 24.

Dead Alive


Bill Morrison, Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, 2014. 35 mm color, sound, 39 minutes.

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, Bill Morrison—a man whose ability to conduct archival footage like Toscanini could a symphony orchestra was never in doubt—has emerged as one of our premier screen historians, matching his established interest in film as the fading physical representation of collective memory to single historical milieus and events. This new stature is largely based on the strength of two short features, The Miners’ Hymns (2011) and The Great Flood (2013), the latter of which had successful theatrical engagements in New York and Los Angeles earlier this year.

Today Morrison’s visibility has never been higher, his films never more accessible. This September, Icarus Films released a five-disc set of his Collected Works 1996 to 2013, which includes sixteen films packaged together on DVD, and, beginning this week, the Museum of Modern Art is hosting the retrospective “Bill Morrison: Compositions.” (Morrison’s last New York stand was a weeklong run at Film Forum in February 2012.) In addition to screening the material compiled on Collected Works, MoMA’s program will include films having their domestic premieres and three live musical performances. Jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell will accompany The Great Flood live with a four-piece band, and Dave Douglas and Keystone will play along to Morrison’s 2010 Spark of Being, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein stitched together from sundry bits of archival footage, including images from Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition of 1915. (The subject matter—using dead matter to create new life—just happens to be matched to the technique.)

The live performance aspect is crucial, for Morrison’s background is in multimedia—most of his early 16-mm shorts were created for New York’s Ridge Theater group, which he joined in 1990, and were intended to play a part in a live productions. MoMA has arranged the shorts programs according to format, and so the 16-mm works of 1990–96 will screen together. In them, you can see early manifestations of what will be Morrison’s ongoing preoccupations. The Death Train (1993)—created to accompany John Moran’s opera The Death Train of Baron von Frankenstein—draws out an extended visual analogy between analog moving picture and railroad technology, rhyming spinning reels and spinning wheels in much the same manner that Morrison will match footage of film lab drying racks to whirling dervishes and Persian rug spinners in his Decasia (2002). Lost Avenues (1991) also has something of the quality of a requiem for a disappeared industry—images of harpooners at sea suggest the whaling industry as a subject, although it’s difficult to say for certain, for Morrison is already besotted with the particular textures of the film image in various states of decomposition, riddled with lacunae. This fascination with the imperiled image appears again in Morrison’s twelve-minute The Film of Her (1996), in which an unsung Library of Congress clerk recounts his having saved the library’s paper print collection from almost certain destruction. (The short is among Morrison’s most-beloved works, but it’s nearly undone by the corny voice-over performance.)

Morrison’s interest in the preservation of film history—or, conversely, with its ruination—would result in Decasia, a film comprising nitrate film images succumbing to spectacular putrefaction. Watching it flicker by, one descries all manner of patterns and textures in the riot of rot: fingerprint whorls, swirls of smoke, coral reefs, baked desert plains, networks of cracks like those on an Albert Pinkham Ryder canvas. Upon its release, Decasia was greeted with the sort of reviews that few filmmakers could hope to see in their lifetimes, let alone those working in non-narrative idioms. Morrison’s film appeared at precisely the right time for film culture, at a moment of unprecedented proliferation of archives and archivists, as an end-of-the-millennium obsession with the Death of Cinema had reared its head—both phenomena that continue to this day.

Composer Michael Gordon’s score for Decasia is a harried affair, like a sonic expression of the act of passing time chipping away at the integrity of film stock; more recently, however, Morrison has been sounding the elegiac note. The Miners’ Hymns opens with a flyover of the closed-down coal collieries of northeast Britain, while on-screen text gives their birth and death dates. (Morrison still avoids contextualizing dialogue or voice-over.) The director-editor has the help of some remarkable “collaborators” on this film—anonymous British cameramen shooting film for the National Coal Board in the 1940s and ’50s, in glistening black-and-white that gives working-class existence a luster worthy of Von Sternberg. Moreover, the film features a score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson—the most poignant that Morrison has ever featured—which is divided into distinctive movements like the film itself, and reaching a marvelous emotional climax in the reproduction of the annual processional to Durham Cathedral as part of the Miners’ Gala.

This is almost equaled for cumulative impact by the shot of dancers bumping and grinding to gutbucket blues at the close of The Great Flood. Morrison had previously harvested footage of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 for the last segment of his 2006 The Highwater Trilogy, and the historically catastrophic deluge, which sent thousands of displaced African-American sharecroppers to the cities of the north, including Morrison’s hometown of Chicago, is the subject of this, his longest film to date. The Great Flood, whose effect is appropriately submersive, is a mournful montage showing the destruction and displacement wrought by the flood—and the endemic racism which reflected in every aspect of the crisis response—and while the film ends on a mass forced migration, the shambling score always finds its way back home to “Ol’ Man River” (Morrison had twice used Frisell’s tracks on previous films, on The Film of Her and 2003’s The Mesmerist, but this was their first full collaboration.)

If Decasia, to many, announced Bill Morrison as the natural heir to Stan Brakhage, his newer work suggests that he has a dash of Ken Burns in him as well. Indeed, Morrison is among the more crossover-ready figures to emerge from the American avant-garde in recent memory—“Decasia is that rare thing,” J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice in the spring of 2003, “a movie with avant-garde and universal appeal.” He is more convincing when plumbing the sentimental associations of disinterred archival footage than when he employs it in schematic, formalist exercises, like the split-screen experiments in Outerborough (2005) and Release (2010), and has found a new clarity in drawing his material from a single period and place. One of the works making a stateside debut at MoMA is Beyond Zero: 1914–1918 (2014), spun together from (barely) surviving nitrate film shot during WWI. Ghostly figures move across a canvas pocked and rutted like a no-man’s-land, primitive tanks lugubriously lumber through a scrubby forest, and, in the final image, a lone parachute jumper swinging like the clapper of a bell is matched to a distant, keening knell. From the distance of a hundred years, Huns and Doughboys can be seen still scramble into their trenches, fighting a losing battle against the ravages of time.

Bill Morrison: Compositions” runs through Friday, November 21, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Nick Pinkerton

Laura Poitras, Citizenfour, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 114 minutes. Edward J. Snowden.

LAURA POITRAS’S CITIZENFOUR is an electrifying countdown to an epoch-altering event, unfolding in an antiseptic all-white room. Poitras had been working for at least a year on a documentary about the surveillance state—the final installment of her trilogy on the US post-9/11—when she began receiving, in January 2013, encrypted e-mails from someone who warned, “Assume your adversaries are capable of one trillion guesses per second.” Her correspondent signed off as “Citizenfour,” the alias of Edward J. Snowden, whom Poitras, along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, would meet in the mall of the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong on June 3, 2013. To watch the footage Poitras shot for the next week of Snowden in his cramped quarters at the Mira—incidents that constitute the middle of Citizenfour and make up roughly half its 114 minutes—is to have the extraordinary, dizzying experience of witnessing a man in the final moments of his anonymity before he changed the course of history and, in the process, became this country’s most wanted fugitive.

According to George Packer’s profile of Poitras in the current issue of the New Yorker, the director “filmed Snowden for some twenty hours” at the Mira—footage that I wish I could see every second of. Despite Snowden’s insistence early on that he’s “not the story,” it’s difficult not to be transfixed by every detail, no matter how seemingly banal, revealed in Citizenfour about this slight, pale, twenty-nine-year-old (“I go by Ed”); in the forty-eight hours since I’ve seen the documentary, I haven’t been able to shake the image of the small birthmark on the underside of Snowden’s right arm or his long nails as he types on his laptop while seated on a rumpled chalk-colored duvet. Abundantly on display here, Snowden’s preternatural calm and his speech-filler-less eloquence in explaining his decision to leak a trove of damning NSA documents will be familiar to anyone who watched the Poitras-shot twelve-and-a-half-minute video of the whistleblower that was posted on The Guardian’s website on June 9, 2013, the day his identity was revealed. (In Citizenfour, we see what essentially amounts to a dress rehearsal for this momentous clip.) When his equanimity breaks, however slightly—he softly mutters goddammit when his close-cropped hair, despite multiple squirts of gel, won’t behave as he tries to alter his appearance before leaving his hotel room—the moment has a seismic effect, underscoring this young guy’s inconceivable vulnerability.

In singling out this section of Citizenfour, I don’t mean to discount what precedes or follows it. Before the Snowden scenes, we are introduced to other vital activists and experts who have been speaking out against the government’s breaches of privacy for years, including William Binney, who resigned from the NSA in October 2001 after more than three decades of service at the agency. The post–Mira Hotel portion of Poitras’s documentary includes a number of equally revelatory moments, including one shot taken, at some distance, this past July showing Snowden and his girlfriend, whom he had last seen in May 2013, cooking dinner at his home in Moscow, where he has been living at an undisclosed location since fleeing Hong Kong. By virtue of Citizenfour’s comprehensiveness, Poitras, whose reporting on the NSA, along with that of Greenwald and two other journalists, received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, honors Snowden’s emphasis that he’s “not the story”—or at least not all of it. Taking us into that Hong Kong hotel room during that pivotal week, Poitras unforgettably shows us why Snowden was motivated to act: his belief that anyone, anywhere with a cellphone or an Internet connection was unwittingly—and illegally—the story.

Melissa Anderson

Citizenfour, which made its world premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival on October 10, opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 24.

Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Maria Enders and Valentine (Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart).

“IT’S A MOVIE in which you never forget you are watching these actresses,” director Olivier Assayas said at the press conference following the screening of his magnificent Clouds of Sils Maria, a film that explores the unstable boundaries between performing and being. “These actresses,” who were seated stage right from Assayas, are Juliette Binoche, who plays Maria Enders, an internationally renowned star, and Kristen Stewart, as Valentine, Maria’s personal assistant. Maria, who’s “sick of acting on wires in front of green screens,” is considering whether to star in a revival of the stage drama that launched her career twenty years ago, in which she played a cunning ingénue who seduces, abandons, and then drives to suicide her older boss. In the remounting, Maria is to portray the spurned middle-aged lover; the part she originally inhabited is offered to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising phenomenon with a Lindsay Lohan–like penchant for scandal and self-destruction. Though Valentine’s position requires constant deference to her employer, the helpmate, when not glued to her iPhone, iPad, or BlackBerry (“Maria Enders will not be doing Jakarta”), doesn’t hesitate to challenge her boss. In one crucial scene, she offers a passionate defense of blockbusters, the well-reasoned words emerging from the mouth of the young woman who, in real life, starred in one of the biggest movie franchises of all time.

Throughout Clouds of Sils Maria, the ingeniously cast performers refract and reflect their own offscreen personae—so much so that when Assayas, Binoche, and Stewart appeared onstage at the Walter Reade Theater, a line of dialogue from another sublime hall-of-mirrors production popped into my head: “I seem to have lost the reality of the reality,” says Myrtle Gordon, the mercurial stage actress played by Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1974), one of several key predecessors for Assayas’s movie. My disorientation during the Q&A ended, however, when I noticed, right around the time that Stewart said that Assayas’s script “was an interesting commentary on the world I live in,” a brawny bodyguard standing vigilant in the wings.

Another kind of “commentary on the world” that pivots on an actor completely effacing his celebrity, Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind stars Richard Gere as George, a homeless man bouncing from a squat in Queens to Bellevue to a Brooklyn shelter. The film boasts a dense aural collage—sounds range from an offscreen voice braying the words “vanilla half-caf soy latte” somewhere near a Lower Manhattan park to the unmistakable friction-generated noise of a guy jerking off during lights-out at the shelter—but George himself is largely silent. Though it was hard for me to suspend my belief, seeing only Gere the silver fox when I should have been caught up in his character’s abject plight, many passersby during filming, apparently, had the opposite experience: According to the actor, no one recognized him during the shooting of the scenes that show George begging for change on Astor Place. At the postscreening press conference, Gere, clutching a stainless travel mug, held forth eloquently on his role and his work on behalf of the homeless. The actor, in fact, gave a considered response to all questions, even the one posed by the journalist who stupefyingly demanded a “quick compare and contrast [between George and] Julian Kaye from American Gigolo.”

Melissa Anderson

The 52nd New York Film Festival runs through October 12.

Clouds of Sils Maria is scheduled for release in March 2015. Time Out of Mind screens as an encore presentation at the festival on October 12.

Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 148 minutes. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix).

AT ONCE IRREPRESSIBLE AND DOLEFUL, Paul Thomas Anderson’s terrific THC-laced comedy noir Inherent Vice, which screened for the press just hours ahead of its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, concerns both high times and end times. Based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name—the first of the author’s works to be adapted for the screen—Anderson’s seventh feature marks a return to the roistering, nutter-dense ensemble that defined his 1997 breakthrough, the porn picaresque Boogie Nights. But the director’s ambitions are much greater in Inherent Vice than in the earlier film, capturing an epoch, and a country, on the verge of nervous collapse.

It’s 1970 when Inherent Vice opens, just a few months after the Manson Family murders. The savage butchery that took place on Cielo Drive is merely one of several events responsible for the pall that has descended over Gordita Beach, the SoCal doper’s paradise where longhair private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is based. (The first word of this fictional location, reportedly modeled on Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived at the end of the 1960s, is Spanish for fatty—an accurate descriptor of the monster joints the hippie investigator smokes throughout the movie.)

Like those of many of the best noirs, the plot of Inherent Vice—involving possible kidnappings, a drug cartel, unholy alliances, rampant police corruption, and the “long, sad history of LA land use,” in the words of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), the movie’s sage-moonchild narrator—is deliriously convoluted and largely beside the point. The thick fog of conspiracies, in which even pizza parties double as sinister gatherings, betrays the era’s rampant paranoia—delusions that aren’t always the result of ingesting psychoactive substances (agents from COINTELPRO make an appearance). That these nefarious activities are often punctuated by sight gags or droll one-liners only enhances, rather than diminishes, the film’s deep melancholy. As he did in Inherent Vice’s immediate predecessors, There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012), Anderson has created another intimate epic about the failed utopias, broken promises, charismatic charlatans, and enormous contradictions that defined so much of the US in the twentieth century—a heavy noir trip that we’re still coming down from today.

Another film on national character and recent history, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army, part of the festival’s “Spotlight on Documentary” sidebar, traces the rise and fall of the Soviet Union’s hockey team, the powerhouse squad defeated by the US at the 1980 Winter Olympics. A breezy gloss on the outsize importance of sports during the Cold War, Red Army stops lobbing even softball questions at its main interlocutor, Slava Fetisov, the Soviet team captain, about his career off the ice. (Putin appointed the star player Russia’s Minister of Sport in 2002.) But the wholly reverential treatment shown Fetisov by Polsky could hardly be said to be reciprocated: The subject’s occasional displays of disdain for his director—to one question, Fetisov keeps his middle finger firmly extended while scrolling through his phone for messages with his other hand—prove to be Red Army’s most illuminating moments.

Melissa Anderson

The 52nd New York Film Festival runs through October 12.

Inherent Vice is scheduled for limited release on December 12; Red Army, which will have an Oscar-qualifying run beginning November 14, will open in January 2015.

Lewis Klahr, The Occidental Hotel, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 26 minutes.

“PROJECTIONS” IS THE NEW LABEL for the sidebar of the New York Film Festival devoted to film and digital works formerly shown under the rubric Views from the Avant-Garde. With fewer programs, none of which overlap, it is possible, were one inclined, to see everything. (The series runs Friday October 3 to Sunday October 5.) Many names are familiar from Views, and two rarely shown films by Belgian poet/artist/filmmaker Marcel BroodthaersBerlin or a Dream with Cream (1974) and Mr. Teste et La Lune (1970–74) will be projected in 35 mm. The selections vary in duration, format, and style, and at least three of the longer pieces—Harun Farocki’s Sauerbruch Hutton Architects (2013), Phillip Warnel’s Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air (2014), and Eric Baudelaire’s Letters to Max (2014)—could easily have been part of the festival’s documentary sidebar. Though few titles—in the festival’s main slate or elsewhere—are apt to rouse as much jubilation and hostility as Jean-Luc Godard’s exhilarating 3-D exercise Goodbye to Language, there is certainly inventive fare to be found amid the Projections programs.

It is always gratifying to see how artists working with minimal resources and familiar techniques manage to create works of lively originality. Consider the very different approaches several filmmakers have taken to create intensely personal mindscapes. In Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Sea of Vapors (2014), soft black-and-white images—both archival and original—flicker at more or less a constant rate before slowly dissolving into other images, the overall effect enhanced by the varying discernibility of shots, as well as by slight camera movements within them. Beginning with an image of the back of a woman’s head as the camera moves in, the film ends with a shot of what we assume is the same woman, raising to her lips, and then draining the contents of, a cup whose luminous round base conceals her face. Despite the teeming flow of images juxtaposed and superimposed in between—eye to mountainscape, face to fingernails, flowers to lips, rocks to sea, forest to child—we are struck less by associative or metaphorical links than by the sense that, with her simple gesture, the woman engages the phenomenal world, drinking in nothing less than the universe conjured throughout.

Janie Geiser’s The Hummingbird Wars (2014) is a dense collage comprising nineteenth-century photographs of stage actors, theater makeup, Japanese masks, flowers in various states of decay, an autobiographical text, and a World War I first-aid book. Unveiled via a dynamic deployment of cutout black mattes, whose flitting about the frame perhaps mimes that of the titular hummingbird, the images are both free-associative and recurrent, complicated through each new, interlocking cluster, as well as by an equally evocative audio track. Like the artist making her way through the paradoxical interrelations of history, art, and consciousness, the hummingbird gently traverses the clash of images that flesh out Geiser’s mesmerizing tapestry.

If Geiser’s film suggests an indirect portrait of the artist, Victoria Fu’s Lorem ipsum 1 (2013) constructs a digital portrait both more literal and skewed, cleverly composed of multiple, simultaneous, even contradictory angles. How this reflects its title—a phrase derived from an ancient text of Cicero’s and now used to identify a “filler text” in graphic design—is unclear to me. As we watch a woman walking into and through her house and gazing out of her window (Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon [1943] may come to mind), an uneasy tension invests the flow of fragmentary images as they flirt with and recoil from a fully integrated, intact portrait: We never quite see the woman’s entire face in a sustained composition—as if, like her work, the artist refuses reduction to a single perspective.

Sylvia Schedelbauer, Sea of Vapors, 2014, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 15 minutes.

To say that Jodie Mack’s two new works are homespun is literally to describe what she does. In both Razzle Dazzle (2014) and Blanket Statement #2: It’s All or Nothing (2013), this ever-resourceful artist shoots fabrics with such tactile sensitivity and edits with such rhythmic aplomb that her images shimmer before us. Bejeweled items flicker luminously between black leader, as if directed by some invisible cosmic law, while layers of wooly “color bars” are rewoven, through Mack’s editing savvy, into cozy but restless intimations of domestic comfort.

Standouts among the shorter films also include new works by Thorsten Fleisch, Mike Gibisser, and Paul Clipson. Fleisch’s Picture Particles (2014) begins as a rapid flow of film stock unreels on a smaller rectangle within the full frame. The burns, color flares, scratches, and sprocket holes associated with film flash by, preserved, as it were, by Fleisch’s digital time machine, enfolding its revered predecessor. As the work expands to full frame, the random colors and shapes fuse into kaleidoscopic patterns that seem to mourn the fading of the old even as it is reshaped by the new.

Gibisser’s Blue Loop, July (2014) is a miniature “fireworks” movie unlike any I can recall. We watch a piece of night sky, shot at what seems a fixed perspective and detached from any discernible communal context, as images of soaring, exploding pyrotechnics sinuate upward into the darkness at a preternatural pace, creating scattershot configurations, quite distinct from the usual, patriotically tinged fan-bursts of expanding stars.

With Light Year (2013), Paul Clipson proves once again to have a keen eye and a wonderful gift for lyricism. He begins with impressive shots around what looks to be a shipyard: iron fences, wooden docks, cargo ships, and the sea. Vertical, dividing columns in many images give way to horizontal pans rightward over ships, tugboats, cranes, pulleys, cables, and electrical towers, many of these superimposed, creating a seemingly seamless panorama, which then shifts into more abstract patterns of color and light. A nautical paean to Apollo, perhaps, Clipson’s movie celebrates the source, power, and reach of light as it passes over sea and material surfaces, wheedles between the narrowest crevices of a wooden structure, and penetrates the begrimed windows of a warehouse.

Inevitably, the creative possibilities of digital technology have also preoccupied such legendary filmmakers as Ernie Gehr and Ken Jacobs. Last year’s Views presented five exciting digital pieces by the former, and this year Projections includes a brief but thrilling new work by the latter. Canopy (2014) opens on a tunnel-like shot of a sidewalk with a lone figure in the foreground. Overhanging the space is an actual canopy extending the length of this “tunnel,” at the far end of which a police car and a taxi are parked on the cross street. While these tend to ground the work’s perspective, so to speak, they are visually upstaged by the shifting contours and curving fabric of the canopy, animated into a play of interchanging and overlapping undulations that convert the entire space into an exploration of surface, depth, and everything in between—the territory, in other words, where Jacobs feels most at home.

Victoria Fu, Lorem ipsum I, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes.

The predominance of place is explored in several works of distinct personality—from Luke Fowler’s Depositions (2014), a witty mosaic of present-day life in Scotland, and Fern Silva’s Wayward Fronds (2014), a palpably humid evocation of the Florida Everglades, to Lewis Klahr’s The Occidental Hotel (2014), a “city symphony” of sorts, and Baudelaire’s Letters to Max, an affecting if somewhat sketchy exchange between the filmmaker and the former foreign minister of the republic of Abkhazia concerning the latter’s efforts to win recognition as a separate state.

As its title denotes, the hotel in Klahr’s movie could exist in a number of European cities. Signs in English, Danish, and German identify sites in London, Copenhagen, and Berlin. Populated by Klahr’s familiar cutouts of businessmen and seductive women, the fluid interchangeability of locations and people are less indicative of narrative import (in the manner of Klahr’s 2011 feature The Pettifogger) than they comprise a catalogue of the elements of melodrama and film noir—the Hollywood genres that bear endearingly on Klahr’s aesthetic. Hotel rooms, with Klahr’s characteristic stress on beds and bathrooms, ominous alleys and doorways, dirty tile floors, cars, traffic lights, and cigarette machines are the props and backdrops of virtual encounters and events, most of which never seem to occur. As dice—one of Klahr’s favorite motifs—repeatedly roll across these images, we’re tempted to think they suggest bad bets on clinching significant links among them, despite the recurring insertions of concerned glances or erotically charged postures. However prompted by a persistent dramatic soundtrack, any effort to correlate the greater number of repeated images to greater narrative meaning seems futile—as Klahr himself seems to wittily acknowledge when he suddenly inserts the loaded word, “then…” about two-thirds in. More likely, Klahr’s slipping his cutout men and women in and out of his frames mimic the transient behavior of people passing through big cities, frequenting hotels and restaurants, and walking the streets—subjects and objects of thousands of individual stories, imaginary and real, that remain untold. What is extraordinary is the vigor with which Klahr still invests this form.

The documentary Letters to Max also exudes an air of existential disquiet, playing the virtual presence of the filmmaker behind the camera against his absence—his letters from Paris are inscribed on the screen. Compatible not only with Max’s restless cosmopolitanism and the question of Abkhazia’s identity, Baudelaire’s film, like Klahr’s, seems equally preoccupied with what it means to be in a place.

Tony Pipolo

“Projections,” a sidebar of the fifty-second New York Film Festival, runs Friday, October 3 to Sunday, October 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.