Posted tagged ‘Views from the Avant-Garde’

Film Comment Reports: Lost Train of Thought

October 14, 2008

“For Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.” -Oswald Cabal in Things to Come

James Benning’s RR and Craig Baldwin’s Mock up on Mu are two films that seem as completely different as can be. Mu operates at a fever pitch of never ending climaxes, each moment constructed from B-grade genre footage and stylized C-grade newly shot scenes, which are acted out by Baldwin’s buddies. The fractured narrative (constantly on the verge of hyperventilation due to its attempts to cram a maximum amount of information, references and excitement into each second) tells the story of a maniacal L. Ron Hubbard and his dreams of putting advertising on the moon.

RR consists of 43 shots of trains transporting materials, products and people across the landscape of America, from Palm Springs, California to Bear Mountain, New York. The consistency of the formula and the muted action of the film allows it a level of drama impossible in Mu, making any deviation from the norm (the appearances of a work truck instead of a train, a human being on foot, added audio) become riveting in a way that all of Baldwin’s Morlocks, sex magic, psy-fi cowboys and the rest cannot be.

After watching the two films I found myself struck by what I saw as a shared theme in the two films, despite their differences.  I would not be alone in identifying our times as a paradigm change and each of these films deal with the concept of progress as it weathers this change. For an indication of previous liberal/progressive ideals of progress one should view Things to Come, (with a screen play written by H.G. Wells) a film that is highly sampled by Baldwin. Things to Come’s protagonist (several different characters all played by Raymond Massey) extols the virtues of industrial progress to bring a western sense of justice and peace throughout the world (and the universe). When the film was made this stance was a commendable position against the paranoid warmongering fears of films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But, as time has marched onward and issues such as nation building in Iraq, global warming, the WTO and multinational corporations came into the global psyche concepts of human progress are now more complicated.

Baldwin effectively uses a strategy of détournement with the clips from Things to Come, repositioning Raymond Massey’s previously heroic figure into the role of a maniacal super villain who seeks scientific progress in the name of advertising, enterprise and colonialism. What was once a film that very seriously prophesized human’s only hope for survival has now become “a speculative farce on the militarization of space, mind-control, subterranean intrigue, and the corporate take-over of spiritual fulfillment and leisure-time aerospace speculation” to quote Baldwin’s own description.

This connection between the progressive, utopian dreams of the past and the rightwing, globalization policies of the present are drawn in broad strokes by Baldwin but suggested gently by Benning as well. Where as Mu rethinks the cinematic persona that represented these dreams, RR aims its sights at the most iconic image of the industrial revolution, cinematic or otherwise: the train. Huffing and puffing along, the train is the perfect metaphor for human’s perseverance in the name progress (think The Little Engine That Could). The frankness of Benning’s camera accentuates the inflated absurdity of the call to arms in The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Revelations of the King James Bible when applied to the image of this laborious machine while at the same time sharpening the critique in This Land is your Land and Fuck the Police. The slow moving, smoke-belching train feels more and more redundant as it cuts through small towns, plods by snowy fields, rocky hillsides and barren deserts, and plows on over bridges and under tunnels, with no end in sight. When our hero finally comes to a vociferous stop in Palm Springs, under the watchful eyes of many silent wind turbines, the need for a changing of the guard becomes all to obvious.

Quick take: panel discussion on In Girum Friday Oct. 3

October 6, 2008

Greil Marcus and Olivier Assayas
“I wanted to give people the opportunity to see a film that is not only essential in terms of the history of cinema, but also the history of art, of reflection, and of radicality.”

-Olivier Assayas

Jean-Pierre Gorin

“How to talk after a film that spends so much time talking about itself?…[the film shows you that] you are a rat in a maze and how wonderful it is to be a rat inside the dream. It’s such an alive machine. It’s such a wonderful dream.”

-Jean-Pierre Gorin

Film Comment's Gavin Smith

Film Comment’s Gavin Smith, panel moderator

More photos in our Flickr pool.

Interviews at the Views

October 6, 2008

The following are interviews with Mary Helena Clark and David Gatten about their films that were screened at Views from the Avant-Garde.

Views from the Avant-Garde starts tonight!

October 3, 2008

Writing in the New York Times, A. O. Scott hails the “brilliantly challenging new work” in this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde, which begins tonight with a screening and panel discussion on Guy Debord’s 1978 work, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni.

From "The White Rose" by Bruce Conner, screening during a tribute to the influential filmmaker. A. O. Scott writes: “A reminder that the boundaries among collapse, sculpture, cinema and poetry are fungible and porous, and also that this country has occasionally produced artists whose imaginations defy limitation and convention with startling ease.”

And don’t miss special coverage of Views on the filmlinc blog:

Film Comment’s Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa sits down with some of the program’s contemporary voices: Ken Jacobs, plus Taylor Dunne and Joel Schlemowitz.

A preview of Debord’s In girum.

See the whole program, and buy tickets, on

Bookmark our continuing coverage of Views from the Avant-Garde

From "The Scenic Route" by Ken Jacobs, screening as part of the program "still wave" on Sunday at 6pm

i pallindrome i: Debord’s final film 30 years later

October 2, 2008

If at any time over the last eight years you’ve been haunted by the idea that the ongoing failure of our political leadership is just a symptom of our larger problems, then do yourself a favor and go see Guy Debord’s In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. While the government will change, we are stuck with the people who permitted them to get away with it: we are stuck with ourselves. That is to say, we all have some explaining to do.

Most famously in his 1967 book (and later film) The Society of the Spectacle, Debord presented one of the most incisive and damning critiques of Western society as we move from producers of goods to consumers of culture. Debord painted a picture of directly lived experience subordinated to and gradually subsumed into an omnipresent media culture.  With In girum, his final film, Debord begins with an unyieldingly negative assessment of society (and in particular the movie-going public) before turning to himself and his compatriots.

“I have merited the universal hatred of the society of my time, and I would have been annoyed to have any other merits in the eyes of such a society,” says Debord, and some viewers may be moved to hatred by a tone so self-aggrandizing that its veers into autohagiography. But rather than worrying how far short from justifying his extraordinary self-regard Debord’s achievements fall, we should be concerned more with whether our own justify our umbrage. It may be no longer possible to believe in Debord’s program, but we have failed to put anything in its place.

Barack Obama and many of his younger enthusiasts insist that it is time to move us beyond the stale debates of the 1960s and that their movement is at the threshold of something fundamentally new. Some things to consider while watching In girum: What, if anything, does it mean that their rhetoric echoes language from Debord? What, if anything, does it mean for us to be sitting at a film festival decades later viewing In girum?

In girum opens Views from the Avant-Garde, which runs October 3-5 as part of the New York Film Festival.

Interview with Ken Jacobs

October 2, 2008

I sat down with Ken Jacobs for a cup of coffee and a brief discussion about his up coming screening in the Views from the Avant-Garde.

Views from the Avant-Garde: filmmaker interviews

September 30, 2008

Taylor Dunne and Joel Schlemowitz discuss their work with Film Comment’s Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa. Their films will be shown in Views from the Avant-Garde, Oct 3-5, a part of the New York Film Festival.

Contact the Film Makers’ Cooperative here, and visit Joel’s site here.