Daily | First Look 2015

Coming to Terms

James Benning in Jon Jost’s ‘Coming to Terms’

First Look, which New York’s Museum of the Moving Image calls “not just a festival of new films” but “a festival about new approaches to filmmaking,” opens tonight with Jessica Hausner’s Amour fou and runs through January 18. Though we gathered reviews when Amour fou premiered in Cannes in May, let’s note that, in the Wall Street Journal, Steve Dollar tells us that Hausner “revisits the 1811 suicide pact of the German Romantic dramatist, philosopher and novelist Heinrich von Kleist (The Marquise of O) and Henriette Vogel, whom he shot first before turning a gun on himself. History suggests that Vogel, a married intellectual, was terminally ill. Ms. Hausner (Lourdes) offers a different interpretation, turning what might be seen as tragedy into something more satirical as she explores highborn 19th-century European society.”

Surveying the program for Artforum, Tony Pipolo writes that, in Jon Jost’s Coming to Terms, “a terminally ill old man (played by the filmmaker James Benning) asks the largely estranged members of his family, two ex-wives and two sons—one gay and one a Jesus freak—to help him die before unbearable pain sets in. They do so and debate the consequences afterward. Jost, who has conjured a number of unusual visions of Americana since the 1970s, manifests the same straightforward, unadorned cinematic style—static shots, long takes, no camera movement—alternating impressive vistas of the Montana landscape with intimate, though dissociatively framed and edited, encounters between mothers and sons…. As Benning, close in age and cut from the same cloth as his director, dissolves into the landscape near the end, a doubly resonant experience comes to a close in this paean to the American pastoral filmmaking tradition.”

In the Notebook, Kyle Turner writes about Gina Telaroli‘s two shorts. “The first, called Silk Tatters, begins with kisses excerpted from films projected onto something that seems like flying cloth. Inconsequential it seems at first, and yet it’s hard to deny how well it serves not only as a metaphor for the transience of romance, but also for the everlasting power of cinema: Romance fades away, but film does not.” Starting Sketches #7 “seems like the jumping off point of what would become Silk Tatters, but where Silk Tatters was filled with luminous and gaudy color, Starting Sketches #7 is in black and white. In a way, with that fascinating convergence of different grey scales, blacks, whites, lines, etc., it’s even more entrancing.”

Omer Fast’s Everything That Rises Must Converge, “which glimpses a day in the life of several real-life porn stars, is an unapologetic tease,” writes Sam Weisberg in his overview of the program for the Voice. “Viewers can elect—from the four panels on display for most of the film’s just-under-an-hour running time—to peek at actual fellatio, actual penetration, or such minutiae as a woman primping her hair. But the somberness of the fictional bookending scenes, in which an erotica filmmaker and his star contemplate what would be the sensitive way to depict a rape, is just as unapologetically punishing.”

A slew of contributors to the L Magazine have each written up a selection. Here’s Sarah Salovaara, for example, on Denis Côté‘s Joy of Man’s Desiring: “After last year’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear Bear, in which there were no titular animals, only cruel punch lines, Quebecois filmmaker Côté returns to First Look with a pastiche of industrial workplaces and the otherwise backwards desire of a peculiar interloper. With its frequent stationary portraits and study of the observed and observer, the film in part makes for a nice companion to Côté’s 2012’s breakthrough, Bestiaire. Where that film derived an improbable narrative tension through deliberate framing, however, Joy of Man’s Desiring weaves its machinery-interrupted, monologue-heavy vignettes into a late-breaking rumination on naturally selective conveniences amongst the factory routine.”

Also in the L‘s roundup: Eli Goldfarb on Jeremie Brugidou and Fabien Clouette’s BX46, Glenn Heath, Jr. on Amour fou, Aaron Cutler on Rolf De Heer‘s Charlie’s Country, Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli on Yuki Kawamura’s Éphémères, Elina Mishuris on Everything That Rises Must Converge, Steve Erickson on Sanaz Azari’s I for Iran and Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi’s Our Terrible Country and Paul D’Agostino on Heinz Emigholz’s Two Museums.

In Reverse Shot, now the Museum’s official publication, Max Nelson writes about Ken Jacobs’s 3D films The Guests and Wire Fence, noting that Jacobs has called the second film “‘the first movie in which things actually move’ within a single frame, rather than only ‘appearing to move in a succession of frames.’ It’s a neat, if hyperbolic, description of the sort of eye-play that goes on in each frame of the movie…. The conceit of The Guests, a 73-minute 3D frame-by-frame exposition of a single, thirty-second fragment of the Lumière brothersEntrée d’une noce à l’église (1897), recalls both one of Jacobs’s best-known films—his monumental Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969-71), a two-hour riff on a 1905 Biograph short by Billy Bitzer—and one of his most notable recent works, Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World (2008), a stroboscopic video built out of a one-minute Edison short.”

Also, writing about the Canadians represented in the program, Adam Nayman sketches a brief history of filmmaking in Toronto. And Genevieve Yue considers a selection of nonfiction films from FIDMarseille, noting that “the growth of both FIDMarseille and First Look speaks to the increasingly diffuse spread of avant-garde approaches into areas that were once more rigidly distinct, namely documentary film and the narrative feature.”

Adam Schartoff interviews programmers David Schwartz and Aliza Ma on Filmwax Radio and, for the Creators Project, Benoit Palop talks with Jason Eppink, Associate Curator of Digital Media at the Museum, about First Look’s digital section, which “not only introduces emerging scenes and practices in the digital age, but also features some new non-film pieces including Common Areas, a large-scale office lobby by Montreal-based video artist Sabrina Ratté, a selection of commissioned GIFs” and “a video projection by the Undervolt & Co label (with founder Johnny Woods on-site on January 10 and 11).”

Update: Nick Pinkerton for Reverse Shot: “At once luminous and airless, Amour fou is not without a measure of deadpan humor in the view it opens onto its subjects’ passions—even the title has an ironic cast, for if von Kleist’s aim is ultimately mad, the methodology through which he goes about it is anything but…. In looking for a companion in death, he asks nothing more than for someone who will go along with his plan, and he only settles on Henriette after a cousin, Marie, has firmly and finally rejected him, having been married to a Frenchman. The horror with which von Kleist greets this news is in keeping with the fear of creeping Frenchification that is a consistent theme of drawing-room chatter here, a fear which is nothing more than a fear of freedom.”

Update, 1/10: At Buzzfeed, Alison Willmore‘s got the seven GIFs that’ll be projected onto the Museum’s big screen. “Some of the GIFs are the work of fine artists like A. Bill Miller, Lorna Mills, and Eva Papamargariti, and others come from creators on the birthplace of GIFs, Tumblr. In the democratic spirit of the internet, the artists hail from all over the world, including Argentina, Canada, and Turkey.”

Update, 1/11: “The late Aleksei German’s final film, Hard to Be a God, is surfacing in New York a full fourteen months after it was first unloosed on the world,” writes Michael Sicinski for Reverse Shot. And it’s “a mud-encrusted artifact, a work that, with its crisp, telegraphic black-and-white cinematography, nevertheless radiates a shit-soaked ambience of film brun. One could easily imagine German’s masterwork flickering through the gate in projection booths and then deposited in serpentine curlicues directly into a wet open pit, to be fermented like kimchi or composted like coffee grounds and eggshells. This is a film whose basic premise—a hypothetical alien future that mimics human civilization’s barbaric past—sadly only gains in sharpness as it, and we, decay.”

Updates, 1/13: Jesse Cataldo in Slant on Joy of Man’s Desiring: “Unlike most of Côté’s previous work, in which discrete private spaces are gradually intruded upon, the infringement of mechanization into human domains and craft and handiwork are long since complete; here, the pounding industrial environment the film portrays requires workers as monitoring bodies while pushing them increasingly to its fringes. This leaves Joy of Man’s Desiring as another tri-level chronicle of observation, of viewers watching workers watch over impassive automatons—and the insistent focus on inexorable factory processes, with robots occupying the primary spotlight while anonymous workers get relegated to subordinate roles, seems like the ideal platform for a director whose characters have always felt like didactically manipulated chess pieces.”

For David D’Arcy, Amour fou is “elegant understated absurdist portrait of crazy love—as duly pictorial as a German genre painting, as mysterious as Kafka.”

Updates, 1/15: “I go to First Look for the small and impossible to see,” writes R. Emmet Sweeney for Movie Morlocks, “and was stunned by Our Terrible Country (screening January 17th at 7pm), a portrait of Syrian dissident Yassin Haj Saleh and his fraught journey into exile. Yassin had been imprisoned from 1980 – 1996 by Hafez al-Assad’s regime for what Yassin described as his membership in a ‘communist pro-democracy group.’ Filmmaker/photographer Ziad Homsi wanted to capture Yassin’s experience in Damascus during the uprising against Hafez’s son Bashar, a rumination from one of the beacons of the revolution. But the film turned into something much darker, as the civil war created a vacuum of power that ISIS came in to fill, dreams of revolution getting snuffed by Islamic extremism. It begins in the liberated city of Douma, some 10km northeast of Damascus’ city center. Yassin and his wife Samira fled there after Damascus became too dangerous.”

“Epic in more ways than one, Our Terrible Country borrows as much from the poetic conventions of ancient Greece as from the ease and ubiquity of smart phones, selfies, and Skype,” writes Kaelen Wilson-Goldie for Artforum. “A prologue drops in on a battle unfolding in the heart of Ghouta, a wasted landscape, emptied of inhabitants, where only snipers remain. Homsi carries a gun, then a camera. A battalion of fighters poses, as if for a portrait, but instead of gathering, pausing, and dispersing, one of them begins narrating the story of the battle just passed, a Homeric account for the digital age…. Our Terrible Country is flawed, fractured, volatile, overwhelming, and unresolved because Syria today is all of those things.” More from Anne Barnard in the NYT.

Joy of Man’s Desiring sees a week-long run beginning tomorrow (January 16) at Anthology Film Archives. “No matter how humble, the tasks of the various laborers and artisans shown in Côté’s film have an inherent drama and spectacle that the assignments of brand-management specialists do not,” writes Melissa Anderson in the Voice. “Undeniably, the rhythms—of clanging machines, of humans at work and repose—seen and heard here are the tempo of the quotidian and the repetitive. Yet even in their mundanity, these factory routines are not without their exalted moments—much in the same way that those anonymous Lumière toilers, captured 120 years ago in the simple act of scurrying off to get home or to the café or elsewhere, became the first movie stars.”

John Oursler for the L: “Côté’s signature doc/narrative hybrid approach here illustrates the inability to delineate between man and machine. A grim vision of the future, and something of an intoxicating cautionary tale.”

Giovanni Marchini Camia introduces an interview for BOMB: “After the documentaries High-Rise (2009) and Housemaids (2012), which explored the domestic realities of Brazil’s privileged urban class, Gabriel Mascaro turned his camera to the periphery with August Winds. Set in a remote coastal village in northern Brazil, the film expands the director’s artistic exploration of social divisions in his country. Working within a fictional framework for the first time, Mascaro uses the central story of a young couple—a local boy working on coconut fields and a girl from the city caring for her ailing grandmother and dreaming of becoming a tattoo artist—to initiate a meditation on life and death, with the coast’s rising sea level and its inherent destruction acting as a powerful metaphorical backdrop.”

Updates, 1/16: “Few filmmakers have been as committed to a single long-term project as German experimentalist Heinz Emigholz,” writes Michael Sicinski for Reverse Shot, “and fewer have been able to derive as much subtle variety from what may seem on the surface like a rather limited set of procedures. Since the early nineties Emigholz has been concentrating on using cinema to explore and transcribe the spatial experience of architecture.” In Two Museums, “Emigholz focuses on two specific buildings: the Menil Collection in Houston, designed by Renzo Piano (best known for the Pompidou Centre in Paris), and the Museum of Art in Ein Herod, Israel, built by Samuel Bickels…. What Emigholz’s film shows us through comparison is that both buildings share a general orientation—the open concept, the integration of natural light into a cultural citadel—but history and location demanded different solutions to the same basic assignment.”

More on Joy of Man’s Desiring: Steve Erickson (Gay City News) and Nicolas Rapold (New York Times).

Update, 1/18: “First Look has rushed into the void left by the scaling back of New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde into the more modest Projections, and is now working along parallel lines with the amorphous, BAMCinématek-based Migrating Forms,” writes Nick Pinkerton at Reverse Shot. “It is also taking advantage of the particular unique qualities of the museum space with such features as the unveiling of Common Areas, a 50-foot wide wall piece comprised of sliding panels and wipe transitions created by Montreal-based visual artist Sabrina Ratté.” And:

Aside from the .gifs, the most prominent instance of new media art at First Look is a “mixtape” of work created and distributed under the auspices of Undervolt & Co., an experimental video label founded in 2013 that represents, per its website, a “new generation of video artists who grew up in the age of digital revolution.” These are works produced entirely on a computer, some taking aspects of web culture (implicitly or explicitly) as their subjects, and meant to be easily consumed on a laptop—which, in fact, is where I encountered them. Indeed, I suspect that the mixtape might be a little punishing in the “hot” theatrical medium, as several of the films aspire to summon and sustain an enervative assaultive energy.

Update, 1/19: “In I Touched All Your Stuff, Chris Kirk ends up in a prison in Brazil, a hell hole at what seems to be the end of the world—except for the fact that he has Skype.” David D’Arcy at Artinfo: “The core of this no-budget doc by two Brazilian filmmakers is Kirk’s memory of a love affair with an exotic woman in Colombia, a flicker of excitement in a dull life…. Is he a criminal? Is he simply a Walter Mitty adventurer who took a wrong turn, and embarks on what seems to be another one as the movie ends. Nothing is reliable—not the temptress, not the well-meaning traveler who tells you his tale of woe. Whose fiction is this? The filmmakers chose ambiguity over investigation.”

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