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Everything Avant-Garde Is New Again

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Vanguard cinema out front this fall; Anthology series, Whitney retrospective shine

New York City screens are ablaze this autumn with an exceptionally strong lineup of experimental cinema. Besides the “Views From the Avant-Garde” at the New York Film Festival, fall’s bounty includes retrospectives on Robert Beavers and Morgan Fisher at the Whitney Museum, tributes to queer icons Chantal Akerman and the late Derek Jarman at Anthology Film Archives, and the Walking Picture Palace series, also at Anthology, which anyone with more than a mild interest in film cannot miss.

Screening only on October 6, 10, and 11, the Walking Picture Palace materializes upon Anthology’s screens like the Flying Dutchman sailing into harbor—unpredicta­ble, fantastic, disquieting. Curated by Mark McElhatten and shadowing the more plushly appointed “Views From the Avant-Garde”—co-programmed by McElhatten and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Gavin Smith—the Walking Picture Palace pursues its own stealthy agenda and convokes evanescent happenings like Bruce McClure’s “Christmas Tree Stand (Parts I, II and III),” a mind-blowing suite performed on four projectors simultaneously.

A performative impulse percolates throughout the new edition, which opens with underground eminence Ken Jacobs premiering two new works, “Insistent Clamor” and “Spiral Nebula,” on his Nervous Magic Lantern. Jacobs hand-manipulates the signature apparatus, comprising two analytic stop-motion 16mm film projectors and various filters, to conjure mesmerizing optical effects on the screen.

The opening night’s second program includes a rare screening of Larry Gottheim’s “Tree of Knowledge” (1981), the culmination of his 1970s-spanning “Elective Affinities” tetralogy. Gottheim’s ecstatic images of sere autumnal orchards are plaited with found footage of delusional paranoiacs asserting that Hitler was unjustly martyred, in a dense weave of juxtapositions that yields a bitter fruit. McElhatten’s historicism is implicit in the programming, as Gottheim was instrumental in bringing Jacobs to the newly founded film department at SUNY-Binghamton, which would become a fertile nexus for the avant-garde.

The program featuring “Tree of Knowledge” also includes recent shorts by Ernie Gehr, Vincent Grenier, and Nathaniel Dorsky who describes “Threnody” as “an offering to a friend who died.” It is sadly apposite, then, that “Threnody” should accompany the premiere of “Lunatic Princess” by Mark LaPore, who died on September 11 at age 53.

An artist of great inspiration and integrity not widely enough known outside experimental circles, LaPore taught in the film department of the Massachusetts College of Art and lived in the Boston area with his second wife, the photographer Laura McPhee, and their daughter. Evolving from early efforts in Super-8mm, LaPore forged a practice at the unstable intersections between visual anthropology and avant-garde poetics. He often utilized continuous single takes from a stationary camera—in a lineage stretching back through Warhol and Bresson to the Lumière brothers—seeking a form of portraiture that reveals how subjects compose themselves, or come undone, before the camera.

Incorporating footage gathered on his extensive travels through Sudan, Thailand, Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka, LaPore’s recognized masterworks—including “A Depression in the Bay of Bengal” (1996), “The Five Bad Elements” (1997), and “The Glass System” (2000)—share a formal austerity that renders quotidian elements unfamiliar and intensifies the viewer’s perceptual acuity through his own distilled concentration. LaPore’s loss is a grievous one. It is well to remember him by seeing “Lunatic Princess” and two of his other films screening on Tuesday, October 11.

In the first program on October 11, Jim Jennings’ “Close Quarters” (2004), etches scaly textures and carves wedges of light into a silent, velvety shadowbox where a cat stands watch over a sleeping mistress. Jennings teasingly conflates the cat’s paw with the woman’s bare feet protruding from the covers, which tiptoe into the next film, LaPore’s richly sensuous “The Sleepers” (1989). A slumbering, hirsute faun awakens reluctantly to bad news from Nigeria, while voice-over fragments about “capitalist penetration” give way to pellucid scenes of a Chinese market, animal sacrifice, and a dying Indian elder on a thatched cot, the bed linens now a shroud.

Luther Price’s kinky “Dipping Sause” (2005), composed entirely of found footage, serves an emphatic wake-up call to the innocent. A flaxen-haired lad is suspended in a mesh sling above a glass tank, as a large mechanized contraption spits water at him, springs a pie in his face, then cruelly dunks him. The Southern Hemisphere’s underdevelopment limned in “The Sleepers” comes home to roost in Stom Sogo’s “PS When You Are Going To Die” (2003), a digital-video nocturne studded with oblique glimpses of trouble on urban streets. The program concludes with Stan Brakhage’s “Nightmare Series” (1978).

The Walking Picture Palace wraps on Tuesday with a program including the premiere of Leslie Thornton’s “Photography Is Easy” (2005), selections from Mark LaPore’s luminous, unfinished “Portraits,” and Rebecca Baron’s “How Little We Know of Our Neighbours” (2005), a hefty experimental documentary revisiting Britain’s Mass Observation movement, which used newly portable cameras surreptitiously to record and scrutinize people’s behavior in public.

Charting the history of the Mass Observation group in Britain from its quasi-ethnographic beginnings in the 1930s through its covert operations as a domestic spy unit during World War II and eventual mellowing into market research, Baron turns a vertiginous mirror on today’s surveillance society of omnipresent imaging technologies, Patriot Act data mining, and now our “so-called right to privacy,” in John Roberts’ locution, condemned to a slow death under his illimitable tenure as chief justice. The surrealism-smitten British documentary legend Humphrey Jennings, who figures prominently in Mass Observation and in Baron’s film, is represented with one of his own films, in a typically erudite McElhatten touch.

Up at the Whitney, the visionary American filmmaker Robert Beavers is canonized with his first full retrospective, “My Hand Outstretch­ed,” a 20-film survey including such sublime works as “Diminished Frame” (1970/2001), “Ruskin” (1975/1997), “Wingseed” (1985), and his latest, “The Hedge Theater” (1986–2003). A formidable artist in his own right, Beavers is revered by connoisseurs but has at times been overshadowed by his late partner, the avant-garde progenitor Gregory Markopoulos. This invaluable retrospective acquaints us with a major film corpus unavailable for decades in the US, and should encourage Beaver’s belated discovery by a wider cinephile public.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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