May 31, 2011
For the Migrating Forms festival, now in its third year at Anthology Film Archives, a moving image is a moving image. Whether it’s a supercut on YouTube or a gallery installation, programmers Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry have their antenna up for playful, provocative work regardless of origin. This edition, concluded on Sunday night, presented films and videos from 49 artists from 15 countries, along with 12 retrospective screenings and one-off events. It’s impossible to reduce this multiplicity of material (culled from museums and film festivals and viral videos), into a unified theme, but it’s this very impossibility that gives Migrating Forms its vibrancy and its mission.
First, the astonishing OXHIDE (2005) and OXHIDE II (2009). Young Chinese tyro Liu Jiayin was only 23 years old when she wrote and directed the first of these fictions starring her family in Beijing (both will be available on DVD in the educational market through dGenerate Films). Shooting in DV entirely in their apartment, it is composed of 23 static long takes that slowly fill in the back-story. Her father Zaiping is a struggling retailer of leather purses, which he makes and designs at home with his wife Huifen. Jiayin plays herself, nicknamed “Beibei”, who is mainly concerned about her short height.
Information is doled out through the intricately arranged compositions, in which there is a constant play with the frame lines and the surface of the image itself. The emphasis is on “play”. For such an intense formal experiment, it’s great fun, with often hilarious inter-family bickering emerging organically from the impeccable compositions. In the second shot, you get a sense of her mastery of off-screen space. In this high-angle shot, the camera looks down at a close-up of a desk, with the edges of a picture frame, pen holder, and a printer poking into the frame, with the center of the image a bare brown wood top. On the audio track, Zaiping is instructing Beibei to type something, although it’s impossible to tell what from the context. Zaiping is mulishly stubborn, and Jiayin endearingly indulgent, until finally he is satisfied. Then, where the printer mouth peeks over the edge of the frame, an ad for a purse sale slowly emerges downward, unsettling the balanced composition and revealing the content of their conversation.
The other major motif is surfaces. Most of the setups are in shallow focus, with characters and objects shoved right up to the lens, with no depth to the image. This is pushed to an extreme with a bird’s eye view of some leather that Zaiping is working on. The brown material fills the entire frame, with the father and mother’s hands ranging over it, rubbing in oils to smooth out imperfections. The surface of the leather is the surface of the frame, the parents trying to smooth out the image for us with their expert hands. But they fail, as some indentations are too deep to fix, an admission by Jiayin that she cannot control every aspect of her constructed frames. Reality seeps in, and Zaiping’s money anxieties have him stare wide-eyed into the night as the credits roll.
Oxhide II extends these puzzle box shots into chunks of pure duration. In this 132-minute film there are 9 static shots, each one rotating over 45 degrees (as David Bordwell notes) around a work table as the family makes dumplings. Now working in HD, the images bustle with even more detail in the increased duration, and Jiayin’s sound editing becomes more complex. It’s a rigorously orchestrated piece, which again shows off her parent’s remarkable digital dexterity. It begins with Zaiping stretching out a large piece leather. This is in a long shot in which his whole body is visible, the work table stretching from left to right, mirroring the length of the frame. He strains against the material. He pauses to straighten a picture, and Huifen enters, with the vegetables for the dumpling recipe. Ending his workday, and transitioning the table into a food prep site, he turns the table towards the camera, with the end perfectly lining up with the bottom frame line. This is one of the first wow moments, which continues in the dinner prep, when the sound of Huifen and Zaiping’s chopping recalls Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”. Zaiping later dazzles with a lesson in dough kneading, his meaty paws magically shucking off dumpling-sized spheres while his fidgety daughter struggles to learn his method. Above all, these are films about familial love, observed through work and the manner in which lessons are imparted and absorbed, no matter how slowly by the deliberate Beibei. If one approaches Jiayin’s films with a similar patience, the rewards, while not as satisfying as a homemade dumpling, are immense.
Not as much patience is needed for Laida Lertxundi’s Cry When It Happens, a 14 minute impressionistic short that I first saw at last year’s NYFF, but only came into focus with last week’s screening. In the abstract, it’s about enclosures and open spaces, and more specifically, about being lonely in California. Shot in luminous 16mm, it opens with a shot of two women spooning each other in boredom, followed by a bright blue sky impinged upon by a bar of sunlight. The basic inside/outside binary is established here. Then the shot of the sky is repeated, but it’s on a tube tv in a dingy hotel room, with a black bar scrolling down the frame. Imagery of boxes and enclosures proliferate. In the room, a wordless woman slowly presses her box-shaped accordion and eases out a few tones. An exterior shot of the hotel finds L.A.’s city hall reflected in its windows, trapped. When Laida returns to the shot of the real sky, the chorus of The Blue Rondos’ “Little Baby” plays on the soundtrack: “Little Baby/I want you for my own/I need to see you/See you alone.” There is a yearning for escape from these box shapes, and a need for human connection, expressed in the bouncy 60s Brit-pop tune. Then, a shift – the hotel TV is plopped outside a mountain range, the sky and the Rondos both enclosed in the plastic enclosure. It is freeing, but ominous. It’s like the movie turned itself inside-out, the interplay between freedom and enclosure never resolving. They need each other, after all.
Moving to the retrospective screenings, Migrating Forms booked an evening of Georges Perec-penned films, with the opener being Serie Noir (1979), a particularly nasty adaptation of Jim Thompson’s Hell of a Woman. Directed by Alain Corneau in gun-metal blues, it is a showcase for lead actor Patrick Dewaere, who gives a charismatically schizo performance as small-town nobody Franck Poupart. Lured into a robbery by a young, near-mute prostitute, Poupart is a fast-talking braggart who can’t manage to say no to anyone, with predictably disastrous consequences. Dewaere has a mop of stringy hair ringing a domed bald spot, a skeletal face hiding recessed weasel-beady eyes, and a chin cleft, like a tree ring, marking the time of his former handsomeness. He walks with a gangly stop-start, as if he only has control of one appendage at a time, and his speech abides by the same skittery pattern. At one point he flashes a smile as fast as a blink, as if a doctor had poked the right neuron. When he has his manic episodes, usually alone in his car in an abandoned lot, the words carom and pick up speed until he reaches a conclusion with a spectacular curse. Then he acts, usually irresponsibly. The movie is boilerplate noir nihilism, and the doting wife and manipulative whore characters are tiring in their offhand misogyny, but Dewaere’s live-wire act is constantly surprising. At a few points he reminded me of a violent Will Ferrell, with the way he never gets his body to work- especially his hands. Compare Dewaere’s use of his hands in hugging the prostitue Mona with Ferrell in Talladega Nights giving an interview. They both hang off at odd, rigid angles, unclear of how to use them in human company.
As I’m sure no one has read this far anyway, just a few brief notes on other titles:
Brune Renault (2009, Neil Beloufa): A clever experiment. A car sits still on a set, but Beloufa creates the illusion of speed by moving background props and having lights wash over the driver, like in Pierrot le Fou. Diminishing returns, but I didn’t mind.
The Observers (2011, Jacqueline Goss): Goss takes her 16mm camera to the Mount Washington Weather Observatory in New Hampshire. Loosely based on the Hawthorne story, “The Great Carbuncle”, Goss recreates the solitary work weather observers do every year. With static shots she captures the lonely grandeur of the job and the location, establishing the hypnotic rhythm of daily routine in a space outside of society, and it seems, outside of time. When tourists arrive in the summer it feels like aliens have landed.