Views From The Avant-Garde at the NYFF - Part I / by KirstenStudio

As I reflect on this year’s New York Film Festival (NYFF) which ended this past Sunday, I realize that this was a first for attending as many screenings and events that I did and there were a couple in particular that stood out. Although it was tough fitting everything between work and the rest of life, I’m glad I made the effort. Film festivals like this are truly inspiring. This month I was able to see Crazy Horse (2011), Ben-Hur (1959), The Gold Rush (1925), A Dangerous Method (2011), Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011), You Are Not I (1980) - pictured left, the Cabinet of Curiosities program from Views from the Avant-Garde, The Artist (2011) and Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011). I can already pinpoint my favorite events and not all of them were screenings.

NYFF offers free forums throughout the festival that take place both at the Amphitheater located at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, and at the Apple store, up the street from Lincoln Center.  The forums cater to a wide range of interests, from celebrity book signings to panel discussions. The night of October 6th a forum was held at the Amphitheater. It was a superb prelude to NYFF's  9P.M. screening later that evening.  Sara Driver's You Are Not I (1980) was screened as one of the festival's 2011 Masterworks.

Although Driver admitted she doesn't necessarily consider herself an avant-garde filmmaker, she was a willing participant on NYFF’s panel, Avant Garde Influences Mainstream Movies! The panel included Driver as well as other prestigious panelists who made an excellent case as to why avant-garde films shouldn't be separated from others, as it tends to limit the audience.  I can see their point. After all, I'm a big fan of experimental and avant-garde films but they can be intimidating. You often never know what you're going to get, or if you’re going to ‘get’ what you’re seeing, but for me that is part of the joy of the viewing experience. I understand there are those who don’t necessarily want an unexpected experience when they go to the movies, but maybe that's sometimes because they don't know what they're missing. Something unexpected can be a good thing.

Despite the separatism that sometimes exists with avant-garde films, which can alienate certain potential audiences, and in turn doesn’t serve the film or filmmakers, many festivals, including NYFF, does place them in a category apart. NYFF continues their annual programming of Views from the Avant-Garde but the festival and its category certainly doesn't seem to have trouble finding people to fill seats.  Whether a decent percentage of the NYFF attendees are first-timers or aficionados, is unclear. Either way, the October 6th’s Avant-Garde Influences Mainstream Movies! panel was an enjoyable start for Views from the Avant-Garde (which boasted a line-up of compelling, gorgeous and provocative work by both well knowns such as Ken JacobsSeeking the Monkey King, 2011, to new emerging filmmakers), and as I mentioned it was also a great event to sit in on before seeing You Are Not I at the Walter Reade Theater later that evening.

Drake Stutesman of Framework: The Journal of Cinema & Media as well as Co-Chair of New York Women in Film and Television's Women's Film Preservation Fund (WFPF) expertly moderated the evenings panel . The guests were Ina Archer, independent media artist, WFPF committee member; Sara Driver, director and producer; Roberta Friedman, independent producer and post production supervisor, co-chair WFPF; Jon Gartenberg, independent curator and president, Gartenberg Media; and MM Serra, executive director, Filmmakers Coop and also had her film, Bitch Beauty (2011) at NYFF's Views from the Avant-Garde, in the Bitches Brew program.  All panelists, with the exception of Gartenberg are filmmakers.

Stutesman appropriately opened the discussion with an example from a contemporary film which took direct inspiration from the avant-garde. A costume reference from the mainstream movie, Drive (2011) was sited. Ryan Gosling wears a white silk jacket with a scorpion symbol on the back. Apparently in an interview Gosling admitted the scorpion symbol is an homage to Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising (1964).  A perfect example of how avant-garde does have influence on mainstream movies, but of course avant-garde filmmaking also seeps into the mainstream in ways that often go unnoticed and uncredited. It can be more subtle. Avant-garde film can be incredibly inspirational and that inspiration can be, and has been, translated into more traditional narrative and documentary films.

Another point that Stutesman engaged the panelists on is how each artist defines a film as ‘avant-garde’. It was a good question and each panelist had different thoughts. Even NYFF divides films with avant-garde elements into various categories outside of Views from the Avant-Garde programming. Sara Driver’s film You Are Not I was screened in the Masterworks category at NYFF. Many consider it to be avant-garde or experimental. Certainly Melancholia (2011), which is played at the festival, could be considered as such in some ways. Panelist and Tribeca Film Festival programmer Jon Gartenberg mentioned The Tree of Life (2011), which could certainly be thought of as avant-garde.  These examples, are however still at least revered as ‘art house films’ and not in the mainstream.  Somehow I doubt Melancholia will be hitting Loews Cineplex in 2012 along-side The Avengers. Still avant-garde film remains largely an art and entertainment enjoyed by a subculture but as long as that subculture keeps growing, then avant-garde filmmakers will still be creating good work.

As far as defining avant-garde film, it's challenging and everyone had a different idea of what it meant to them.  I know many people perceive it as something strange, incomprehensible or just something they can't identify or relate to, but Gartenberg made a great observation.  He talked about his realization that what is often considered avant-garde film might be closer to representing reality in some ways than what we find in regular narrative works.

If I followed him correctly, I agree with this notion, as individuals don’t see and experience life through a series of logical shots and contextual and expositional information.  If we glance in one direction because maybe a sound catches our attention, we might stay on that image for a moment and wait for our vision to adjust and focus. Then we might turn our head quickly or look to the ground as we take a step.  We might overhear a conversation while we’re having another or checking out email or thinking about something from our past or an imagined future.  In other words our experiences are actually pretty fractured.  These random moments are what might make up a day in the life of anyone. That’s not to say avant-garde film is just a reflection of meaningless happenstance blurred or fragmented shots, but that juxtaposing imagery in a non-traditional storytelling approach really isn’t all that unusual when you think about it.

Sometimes non-traditional films can be more dreamlike than real though and that’s how I experienced You Are Not I (1980), based on the 1948 story by the brilliant writer Paul Bowles. Filmmaker Sara Driver gained permission from Bowles to do a film version of his short story in 1980 and I can’t imagine a more appropriate filmmaker to interpret a work of Bowles, while incorporating her own complimentary vision. The tale of how this film print was discovered in Morocco and then eventually preserved by New York Women in Film and Television’s Women’s Film Preservation Fund is almost as wild and poetic as the film itself.  See the New York Times article for the full story.

The film is a mystical delight, shot so beautifully by Jim Jarmush (also the co-screenwriter). The post Q&A and reception was also terrific with Driver, and lead actress Suzanne Fletcher talking about their experience of working together and they’re approach to the character and story. The black and white film seems to love Fletchers striking features, which she used fully to aid the character’s inner dialogue. Her ever quiet and subtle expressions speak just as much as her narration. It took a while for me to notice, but Fletcher does convey a lot, just as much from what she isn’t doing than what she is. You Are Not I and all its characters and scenes are wonderfully spooky and curious.

Conveniently, yet somewhat awkwardly, this provides segue into Views from the Avant-Garde program, Cabinet of Curiosities. I attended the second screening of this program October 10th. This was by far my favorite screening out of everything I saw at the NYFF, not because the other films I saw were less than, but because these films were so uniquely thought provoking and inspiring and I’ll tell you why…. Part II coming soon.