When the Film Society of Lincoln Center inaugurated its New York Video Festival fifteen years ago, the medium was just entering its middle child phase. Caught between venerable celluloid on the one hand and digital media in squalling infancy on the other, video acted out in all sorts of lively ways and the festival’s programming gained from this ferment.
In our precarious new century the baby has cannibalized its elders, video now sharing a liquid boundary with digital media and cinematic processes digitized from storyboarding to exhibition, even if the film image retains its undimmed aura. Sifting the output of an illustrious pool of artists, the festival in its keenness for innovation sometimes acquires an expo ambience, of maquettes unfurled and prototypes test driven on audiences, making for perhaps the most varied item in the Walter Reade calendar.
This year’s edition is the usual omnium-gatherum of shorts compilations, music video playlists, and artists’ rostra, with programs devoted to John Canemaker, NYU’s Oscar-laurelled animation guru, and digital diva Charles Atlas, appearing with guitar backup in an evening entitled “The Intensity Police Are Working My Last Gay Nerve.” Interactive programs include Julia Heyward’s “Miracles in Reverse,” exhuming a fundamentalist childhood in tweedy WASP purlieux; “Spectropia,” a digitally assisted improv by Toni Dove and programmer Luke DuBois; and “The 4th Screen,” which asks viewers to tag along on their cellphones.
Among the shorts a program of Japanese “alternative anime,” curated by Tony Rayns of the Vancouver Film Festival’s Dragons and Tigers section, promises excellent value. The selection available for preview, Kondo Hiroshi’s “Black Sun,” is a twitchy photo-based line animation, not unlike a stripped-down, decolorized nephew of “A Scanner Darkly,” centered on a teenage baseball fiend living in one of Tokyo’s hard-knock neighborhoods. Anxiously awaiting the season finale, he practices air batting on shift as a parking lot attendant, visions of trophies and adulation almost blotting out his boss’s stare, but on the eve of the game a brush with street toughs abruptly rewrites his hopes.
The festival’s cynosure attraction is the premiere of William E. Jones’ new feature “V.O.,” billed with “The Abominable Freedom” by Darrin Martin and Torsten Burns in a single screening on Friday July 28. “V.O.” syncopates audio outtakes from European auteur films, subtitled in English, with music tracks and visual excerpts from classic gay porn of the 1970s and early ‘80s. Notwithstanding the end credit source list, the clips might be gleaned from some akashic sphere unsubject to distinctions of modernist and minor cinemas, where Buñuel, de Oliveira, and Raul Ruíz consort freely with “L.A. Tool and Die” or “Nights in Black Leather.”
“V.O.” opens with a hypnotic invocation and sustains a spell well past its hour. A delivery boy listens to an antique phonograph in his customer’s foyer and is transported—the camera wafts down the horn as a subtitled French speaker commands, “You must clearly visualize the negative agent that is aggressing you. With all your strength, you are destroying it.” Fading in on the two men gauzily entwined upon cushions, an ample member slewed inside the brunet’s briefs, the narrator urges, “Feel your victory Don’t hesitate to smile, and let positive waves flow through you.” This warm exordium is followed by a lattice of knowing looks between musky rogues in what seems a hideout or cell, introducing the sexual outlaw mythos bolstered by quotes from a BBC interview with Saint Genet.
Jones adopts some of his Cal Arts colleague Thom Andersen’s method from “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” of deploying fictional film clips for their evidential value, refocusing viewers’ attention to the built or natural urban environments preserved in the backdrops of countless commercial movies as material data of bygone social worlds and political eras. The vintage clips comprising “V.O.” brim with documentary detail, like a curlicued billboard for Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s psychedelic gangland orgy “Performance” (“underground meets underworld”).
Jones’ own methods and preoccupations are synthesized and self-referentially bared. “V.O.” ’s pornscape builds from his earlier feature “Finished,” and its knife-edge caress from the short “The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography.” A scrap of sound early in “V.O.” tunes in a bilious radio preacher (“The Lord has his own ways of doin’ things, it’s not up to us to question why Mind yer own fuckin’ business!”), alluding to Jones’ debut “Massillon,” and pictorial details like a shelf of LPs or the opening Victrola recall the turntable motif in his recent “Is It Really So Strange?” Even the title points wryly to the Angeleno’s signature voiceover, heard in all his works before now.
One extended sequence will captivate Gothamites who may hardly recognize the pre-autoclaved Times Square, seen here as in a mournful snow globe, or the subway circa 1980, setting for a porno that has tomcats prowling the rails all night, the carriages ablaze with graffiti and stations slicked with soot and posters (Evita!). Enacting every gay male straphangers’ fantasy, one heavy-lidded stud cruises amid clueless commuters, tricking in a deserted underpass and following a mustached clone around a chained-off corner on the 28th Street platform, ingress to a dim warren laid open by sheer desire as refuge for their pleasure.
“V.O.” meets porn’s requirement of physical arousal but achieves something larger, a modicum of grace at confronting mortality. Arriving on the 25th anniversary of the detection of a “rare gay cancer,” and capping its excerpts at 1985, when HIV was isolated, “V.O.” treats AIDS as a structuring absence, signified in a vanitas, complete with yellowed skull, in a teenage stoner’s bedroom. Disillusionment—“rancor without revenge”—may overtake us in the end, but the French mesmerist’s promise heard at the outset still resounds: “You are an extraordinary factory of natural medication.”