Two films in the Friday line-up at the NYFF’s Views from the Avant-Garde have had me flashing back to them the last couple of days. Both were puzzlers which kept audiences guessing on both the narrative and formal level. Both paid homage to the need to somehow move forward in an experimental state without clarity. Graspingly, stumblingly, failingly and yet wittily, continually.
French film director Nicolas Rey seems marked by destiny to make wordplay films which expose an absolutely foreign, cerebral and uncanny side of familiar, corporeal, and melodramatic fare.
In Rey’s wonderful anders, Molussien (2012), French and German culture wrap together like a piece of twine: the tone of the film is Brecht doing a riff on La Fontaine, the differently-colored, nostalgic intertitles are ornamentally bi-lingual. The premise from which the film departs is twisted, too: Rey is an avid reader of Günther Anders’ essayistic writings, but opted to make a film with passages selected by someone else from one of Anders’ novels which remains untranslated (and therefore inaccessible, at least directly, to Rey).
The novel, Die molussische Katakombe, is told from the bowels of a prison by individuals huddled together in the darkness, speaking of a world gone wrong that used to exist (if there is such a thing as a post-dystopian literary genre, this seems to belong squarely to it). In the film, the plight of this former world is given to us in snippets only–terse, aphoristic exchanges which begin with satiric wit and often end with a dull ideological thud in the pit of the stomach. In a further, ingenious complication of this philosophical game of telephone, Rey intends for the various reels of the film to be projected in a randomly determined order. Michael Sicinski’s review on cinema-Scope.com nicely describes the odd sensation of open-and-closed-at-the-same-time that the film’s structural and textual logic produce in its viewers:
What is interesting about Rey’s treatment of reel randomization in autrement, la Molussie, I think, is that it enfolds the passages of Anders’ novel within a filmic time that is “flattened” or relegated to a universally applicable principle—it could be the first, the last, or some floating middle, a slice of what Deleuze might have called “any time whatever.” In this regard, Rey renegotiates the narrative time of The Molussian Catacomb into a kind of thinly spread simultaneity, an all-over “time field,” not unlike the colour field of a painter’s canvas. Not only does everything happen at once, but in a theoretical timeframe of perpetual diegetic present. The inescapable historical resonances within Anders’ imaginary tale of Molussia—to Nazi Germany, but to various other times including our own—all become equally present through Rey’s unusual presentation.
This is, of course, the same effect (in very different intervals) that still photography accomplishes in Chris Marker’s La jetée(1962). Rey’s film is shot on hand-me-down, aged Agfa-Gevaert stock, telling its story in grainy, desaturated imagery.
Ferdinand Khittl’s Die Parallelstrasse (1961) is a nightmarish game show of a filmic conceit: five men have been charged with the task of ordering 300-something documents which appear to them and the film audience as audio-visual sequences of varying short lengths. The unknown amount of time the men have to complete this task is rapidly elapsing, and their feeble attempts at significational categorization break down repeatedly as the film progresses.
Their work is no match for the overwhelming richness of potential in the montage sequences, the most brilliant of which comes first, as a backwards “Kino-eye” revivification of slaughtered sheep, reborn in perversity by the magic of the voiceover. How can we make sense of this?” is the gist of one man’s complaint in response to the documentation. “It’s like asking directions and someone tells you to ‘go straight ahead until the path diverges into two roads, and then take the parallel road.'” The participants’ (and by proxy, the audience’s) dilemma becomes a formidable and triumphant testament to film’s ability to wheel and deal along with the most contemporary forms of new media.
Two or more separate thoughts linked together and juxtaposed with two ore more separate images: the possibilities, as both films show, are endless. Two roads diverged in a wood, and experimental film figured out how to take both.