A proposition, based on sampling three months of contemporary American cinema at the 2012 Whitney Biennial: from now until the final reel of celluloid is shot and projected, every film’s primary subject will be film itself. This year’s biennial, which ran from March 1 through May 27, was explicitly devoted to varieties of time-based art—memorable touchstones of the ephemeral—but only the films dwelt intimately on their own obsolescence.
The program’s opening presentation featured recent work by Luther Price, and it could have been titled “How to Die.” A Boston-based found-footage expressionist, Price treats celluloid as dynamic material. Inkblot #1 (2007), the first in an ongoing and seemingly infinite series, is a blistering string of Rorschach-like color codes that Price created by scraping the emulsion from previously used eight- and sixteen-millimeter film, which he also disfigured with a Sharpie. While many, if not most, of the filmmakers holding fast to sixteen-millimeter in the face of overwhelming pressure to make the switch to digital have taken a mournful stance toward material decay, Price engages in acts of righteous vengeance. His reconfigurations of discarded prints are accompanied by soundtracks of brutal, rhythmic feedback—amplifications of the mechanical noise of celluloid projection. Sprocket holes pop like machine guns. Sometimes the aural onslaught is given a direct visual corollary: in Turbulent Blue (2006), which segments the surfaces of a rotting, now unidentifiable Hollywood action movie, the medium seems locked in a battle to maintain its materiality in the heat of explosions and gunfire. For Price, images that persist through decay aren’t necessarily plaintive or melancholy, and at the biennial his work made for an auspicious beginning to an ambitious, ambivalent goodbye.
The Whitney has a long and storied history of film exhibition. In the 1970s and ’80s, its New American Filmmakers Series provided an invaluable showcase for iconoclasts like Ernie Gehr, Joan Jonas and Paul Sharits. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, only recently recognized and canonized by the Library of Congress for being the product of “a one man African-American New Wave,” premiered at the Whitney for one week in 1978—more than four years after its completion—before falling off the map.
The museum’s biennial has behaved differently, treating cinema as an afterthought, even allowing museum curators to oversee the film program. But this year the Whitney changed course, tapping two film stalwarts, Ed Halter and Thomas Beard, to act as the exhibition’s curators. An accomplished critic and veteran of the New York avant-garde scene, Halter is the former programmer of the New York Underground Film Festival, which has since evolved into the similarly adventurous Migrating Forms. He and Beard now operate the alternative art space Light Industry in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, where they program experimental film events that somehow almost always sell out.
In their most significant departure from past practice, Halter and Beard offered each of the fifteen filmmakers a weeklong run in the museum’s second-floor Film and Video Gallery, with films screened at scheduled times instead of running at all hours on a loop. In theory, this was meant to keep the exhibition from developing the hothouse atmosphere of a major film festival, with sleep deprivation nibbling away at attention spans. In practice, it meant that anyone except museum members planning to experience the entire film program needed to make fifteen separate visits—and pay fifteen separate admission fees.
Because most verdicts on the biennial were issued in the early weeks of the exhibition, art critics could only feebly engage with a film program designed to unfold over a three-month run. Roberta Smith’s rave in The New York Times only bothered to mention Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym (2010) and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), both of which also enjoyed conventional releases in New York City. Shouldn’t time-based art require a time-based criticism?
One can’t help but see the biennial’s recalibration of its film programming, which has revived the iconoclasm of the Whitney’s New American Filmmakers Series, as an acknowledgment of changing realities in cinematic exhibition. The deleterious effects of the digital transformation have been well documented, most assiduously by David Bordwell, whose essential overview Pandora’s Digital Box has recently been made available through davidbordwell.et as a $3.99 download. As Bordwell explains, the prohibitive costs of converting from celluloid to digital projection will likely force 20 percent of the theaters in the United States to close, leaving cultural redoubts like the Whitney—and, on a smaller scale, Light Industry—with a new imperative. (The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Views From the Avant-Garde, a sidebar to the New York Film Festival, will remain the country’s most consequential showcase of avant-garde cinema.) Anyone worried that the exhibition of new films within a contemporary art context smacks of elitism would do well to consider what other venues remain available.
* * *
Despite the Whitney screening room’s fifty folding chairs and a warning not to enter the theater after the projection starts, it was often hard to tell where cinema ended and art began. When I looked in on Dawn Kasper, the gregarious performer who spent all eighty-eight days of the exhibition as a full-time resident of the Whitney’s third floor, she was showing a documentary about Buster Keaton. Slides of Luther Price film strips were regularly shown on the second and fourth floors. The biennial’s centerpiece exhibit—and a source of some controversy—was a five-channel video installation by Werner Herzog. The museum held his anemic, weirdly inelegant Hearsay of the Soul separate from the film program and ran it on a continuous loop. In a public discussion with biennial curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, the art-cinema celebrity railed against his special treatment: “I’m not into museums and I’m not into this world of contemporary art either. I want to be a good soldier of cinema.”
Beard and Halter’s programming is steeped in a catholic understanding of American independent cinema, celebrating recent convergences between the art world and the moving image while preserving a responsible conception of film history. The visual artists Mike Kelley and Wu Tsang brought projects in the form of traditional documentaries, and their experiments were counterbalanced by recent work from established filmmakers like Wiseman, who essentially created the form.
The program’s inclusion of auteur Kelly Reichardt, director of the celebrated and nationally distributed Meek’s Cutoff, turned a few heads. But the curators seemed to be suggesting that at its most utilitarian, experimental cinema offers new perspectives for the viewing of “straight” cinema, reconfiguring filmgoers’ desires and expectations. And so Reichardt’s movies, viewed in tandem with their more exacting avant-garde peers, were reframed as structural epics, just as Wiseman’s direct-cinema documentary Boxing Gym was offered as a dance film. It’s a stretch, but one might wish to temper the realities of our national security apparatus by considering the numerous times Laura Poitras was detained by Homeland Security while making The Oath, her riveting 2010 documentary about Osama bin Laden’s former chauffeur, as a work of Kafkaesque performance art.
By dedicating a separate space to the film program, this year’s biennial also underscored an economic chasm between visual art and art cinema. While a visual artist selected for the biennial might expect a boost in sales, a narrative filmmaker like Matt Porterfield, whose microbudget Putty Hill was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, probably can’t bank on a distribution deal for his next project. (Nonnarrative filmmakers like Laida Lertxundi don’t dare hope for conventional distribution, but they also can’t sell their art at auction.) This has less to do with aesthetics than decisive marketing: because of her choice to distribute her work as a limited-edition print meant for gallery exhibition, past biennial honoree Sharon Lockhart’s No (2003), a thirty-four-minute fixed-camera exercise focused on a Japanese couple bundling hay, was priced at $30,000 in a New York gallery. Scholar Erika Balsom has lamented this tendency toward “enforced scarcity,” noting that gallery film boosts its exchange value by rejecting film’s inherent capacity for mechanical reproduction.
Nobody at this year’s biennial embraced this principle as seriously as Vincent Gallo, who failed to provide a single print of his new film, Promises Written in Water. A black-and-white sixteen-millimeter blow-up print of it does exist, assuming the reviews from 2010’s Venice and Toronto film festivals are not part of a more elaborate charade, but a much anticipated screening at the Whitney never materialized. Gallo is not only the most volatile and vulnerable actor in cinema, but also, on the basis of Buffalo ‘66 and The Brown Bunny, an American formalist who makes narrative films of uncompromising beauty. He remains a genuine menace while feeding his narcissism through a wringer of dark humor and self-abasement. For all kinds of reasons, Promises Written in Water was the closest thing to an Event Film in the program, and as the film’s Whitney premiere remained officially unscheduled a month into the biennial, Halter and Beard hinted that Promises would materialize as part of a hush-hush underground happening. It didn’t—or at least I wasn’t invited. As Gallo told a Danish magazine a few months before the Whitney announced the film as part of its program, Promises will be “allowed to rest in peace, and stored without being exposed to the dark energies from the public.” At the biennial’s end, curator Jay Sanders opted to play it like an honest CIA spokesman, offering to the Times: “There’s a way in which suppressing it from the public is fundamentally part of the point.” The film’s value, as an unseeable, unknowable repository of heightened expectations: priceless.
Gallo’s self-imposed—and petulant—sidelining of his film made me especially grateful for the democratic ethic of video artist Michael Robinson, a festival-circuit workhorse who posts most of his videos for viewing on his website. And they don’t suffer in that context. His films are televisual fever dreams, whacked-out aggregations of repurposed materials (Full House, Fleetwood Mac songs, “Nothing Compares 2 U”) that channel the affective powers of pop in a manner both abstract and unadorned. My favorite small-scale distillation of Robinson’s aesthetic is the five-minute video Hold Me Now, which overlays a karaoke track of the Thompson Twins’ eponymous New Wave hit on a seemingly agitated bedroom scene from Little House on the Prairie, interrupted by a perpetual and unsettling flicker. The lyrics scroll along the bottom of the screen, a voiceless, hollowed-out reminder to “let lovin start” as the scene turns ambiguously brutal. Robinson’s videos navigate a morass of tinny synthesizers and sixteen-bit video while avoiding an easy detachment.
Laida Lertxundi, a Spaniard who works in Los Angeles—and probably the biennial’s most significant discovery, if my excitement to revisit her work is any indication—treats pop-cultural artifacts from an earlier analog era with a similar elegiac reverence. She and Robinson, both born in 1981, traffic in a kind of warped nostalgia, but their reveries have no relation to kitsch. As a millennial and an avant-gardist, Lertxundi should know better than to bother with a sixteen-millimeter camera, but she uses the cumbersome equipment to think economically, displaying a preternatural gift for the revealing edit. Like the LA expat films of Wim Wenders and Michelangelo Antonioni, Lertxundi’s Footnotes to a House of Love (2007) and Cry When It Happens (2010) express languor and yearning by contrasting tight shots of close quarters with a vast backdrop of deserts and mountains. She keeps the viewer a step or two removed from any narrative that might animate the periphery. Cause and effect can see each other, even if they rarely communicate. Her principal characters often pluck or stroke instruments without necessarily eliciting any music. Pop songs are omnipresent, but they emanate from little boxes.
Lertxundi’s work is a compliment to her CalArts mentor Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, which salvages glimpses of Los Angeles’s effaced history from the re-edited footage of hundreds of Hollywood movies. The LGBT-friendly Latin bar at the center of Wu Tsang’s WILDNESS (2012)—a locale Tsang also re-created as part of a separate two-channel video installation on the Whitney’s third floor—stood well within the geographic vicinity of Andersen’s sphere of interest, and Tsang’s socially engaged nightlife documentary shares some of that other film’s fascination with the city as racially coded palimpsest. Shot in luminous high-definition DV, Tsang’s feature documents his engagement with the downtown bar where he and his friends, outsiders to the Hispanic community, staged a queer performance-art party on Tuesday nights from 2008 to 2010. With a magical-realist flourish, this unwieldy and properly self-critical movie absorbs the excitements and contradictions of a temporary “safe space” and identifies various categories of exclusion. Where is the border between safety and quarantine?
* * *
Biennial curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders officially dedicated this year’s exhibition to Mike Kelley, the eclectic, wildly influential Los Angeles–based artist who committed suicide this past January, at age 57. Kelley’s final project, Mobile Homestead, was an unusually personal one: he built a full-size replica of his childhood home in Westland, Michigan—a middle-class western suburb of Detroit—with the intention of placing it at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit (MOCAD) as a multipurpose community center and artists’ studio. The replica was not brought to the Whitney, but it can be seen as the roving protagonist of a three-part video series Kelley made about the sixteen-mile journey from MOCAD in midtown Detroit to Westland and back. The trip is stitched together with interviews Kelley did with the deli owners, prostitutes, used-car salesmen, motorcycle gangs, churchgoers, mosquegoers, barflies and restaurateurs of Michigan Avenue. I drive down the same strip of the avenue at least once a week, and seeing Detroit play itself—instead of being treated, at arm’s length, as an emblem of postindustrial decay—struck me as uncanny.
The videos reveal a geography rutted with socioeconomic disparity and ruin, though if Kelley had taken a route northbound or eastbound from downtown Detroit, he would have captured more stomach-churning, camera-ready inequalities of wealth. A lack of romanticism sets Mobile Homestead apart from the recent spate of “Doomtroit” documentaries like the Sundance award-winning Detropia and Julien Temple’s Requiem for Detroit. But Kelley’s project is repetitive, too ecumenical in its low-key evocation of common unhappiness, and non-Michiganders are likely to find it more wearying (and less charming) than I did. Suffice it to say that the videos of ordinary people addressing an ordinary camera have zero relation to what critic Jerry Saltz labeled Kelley’s “clusterfuck esthetics.” The documentary’s exhibition prospects are unclear—Kelley’s death put the larger project on hold—but MOCAD announced plans to complete the Mobile Homestead project this year and open it in 2013.
Cinema qua cinema, as an analogue for nothing but itself, received its most transcendent expression from Nathaniel Dorsky. The 68-year-old Zen Buddhist pioneer of “devotional cinema,” which might best be described as a temporary reorientation of consciousness, Dorsky makes work that requires a sixteen-millimeter projector running at eighteen frames per second, or “silent speed”—six frames per second slower than normal speed. To show his films to the public, Dorsky cannot do without a space like the Whitney. His specifications are exacting and based on a personal metaphysics, wherein the realm of black matter surrounding the screen is a significant component of the experience itself. In his writings, Dorsky updates the distinction made by the midcentury French critic André Bazin between an image-based and a reality-based cinema, and the resulting humanist ethic would seem airy and Platonic if Dorsky didn’t actually put it into practice:
In film, there are two ways of including human beings. One is by depicting them. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theater, and the latter is a form of poetry.
Dorsky’s films communicate through cryptic linkages, occlusions and odd angles, through edits both noncontiguous and graceful beyond belief—every puzzle piece tinged with a lyricism that transcends genre. It’s supremely difficult to see a Dorsky film, and what’s worse, it borders on cruelty to show one just once, to tease filmgoers with a glimpse of a sublime associational illogic that seems perfectly sustainable, given its proximity to the everyday. When making films that threaten to contain the entire world, Dorsky rarely travels far from his San Francisco apartment. The subject of his images’ immanent rhythms is the “accumulation of being,” and while his films can be screened only in specific locations, their materials can be found anywhere. (Dorsky’s closest cousin in the realm of narrative cinema is Terrence Malick, and his own Arbor Vitae anticipates Malick’s Tree of Life by ten years.)
At the Whitney, Dorsky presented Compline, the final film he shot in his preferred medium of Kodachrome (recently discontinued), and Aubade and The Return, his first films shot with Eastman and Fuji color negative, likely to become obsolete. Given that his films never acknowledge chaos, I can’t expect him to meet this eventuality with anything less than calm acceptance. In a public conversation with Halter, Dorsky described his pleasure to be working in “these last moments of film.” He struck at an alluring metaphor for his celluloid cohort, whose resignation was more straightforward and powerful than anything else in the exhibition: “We’re guppies in a puddle…on a dirt road…in the sun.”
Nation film critic Stuart Klawans reviews  David France’s How to Survive a Plague, Heidi Ewing and Rache Grady’s Detropia and Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage in the October 1 issue.