This is the first of Ben Mercer’s dispatches on the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look series, which runs weekends from January 8-24; dispatches covering the second and third weekends of programming will appear here in the following weeks.
It seems like just yesterday that the late Chantal Akerman’s fly-buzzed Almayer’s Folly inaugurated the first First Look festival—at a Museum of the Moving Image then fresh off its $67 million expansion—breaking the ice for a raft of formally adventurous local premieres. But the January showcase isn’t so new on the scene anymore: This Friday, the Queens museum unveils its fifth-annual installment, which runs over three successive weekends through the 24th. First Look might have become something of a local institution—a kind of world-cinema intake clinic for cinephiles still recovering from their top-10 benders—but that’s not to say it’s lost its edge. If the nonfiction-heavy first-weekend slate is any indication, 2016’s mixtape of film-fest deep cuts—“filled with works that reflect on the medium itself,” in the words of the museum—might be the most restlessly experimental yet.
Only one of these movies is at this point gearing up for a little of the old “niche arthouse play,” as the trades like to call it: Opening-night draw Francofonia (Friday, 7pm), from Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov, comes to Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza on April 1. A rumination on the Louvre as a battlement of culture, Francofonia focuses in particular on the precautionary dispersal of artworks under Nazi occupation—Sokurov notes that such kunstschutz care wasn’t taken in Leningrad, home of the Hermitage, the subject of the director’s more majestic night at the museum, 2002’s single-take Russian Ark.
Here, the filmmaker has conjured another essay film out of a mostly fictional setup, but whereas Russian Ark glided through its Steadicam waltz, Francofonia takes a deliberately piecemeal approach. Sokurov himself appears as a character, Skyping with a man ferrying shipping containers full of art across a storm-tossed sea, the bad-connection video chat periodically dissolving into thick white pixels; color reenactments of sit-downs between Louvre director Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lenquesaing) and Hitler-appointed custodian Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) have a faux-antique flicker, the sine wave of the sound track visible right alongside the image; and some oil-painting close-ups call as much attention to the works’ cracked surfaces as they do to the subjects depicted. Even the act of preservation itself appears to be a fragmentary process: Sokurov shows drawings of the wartime Louvre, a museum filled with empty frames, the pictures having been temporarily removed to various chateaux for safekeeping. After all, what is war waged for, if not for the plunder?
Taking a more slantwise look inside a smaller-scaled national institution, Manuel Mozos’s João Bénard da Costa—Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved (Saturday, 1:30pm) commemorates the former director of the Portuguese Cinematheque, a stately theater and museum (and, of course, café) tucked off Lisbon’s arterial Avenida da Liberdade. Bénard da Costa, who also appeared in several films by compatriot Manoel de Oliveira, died in 2009, and here his son reads elliptical retrospections written down by the man, as the camera visits his old haunts.
Mostly, these words concern various blue-tiled splendors of Portugal, and the spectral power of certain midcentury motion pictures, Ordet, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Johnny Guitar among them. (The latter gets its own honorary First Look screening, Saturday at 4pm.) Heavy on abstract-concept poeticizing, and devoid of names-and-dates explanation, Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved can feel a bit hard to approach, but Mozos nonetheless manages to make the portrait transfixing. In one passage, he cues up a clip of Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold singing Gigi’s “I Remember It Well,” the purple matte sunset slowly deepening to red—matching, for just a few passing moments, the color of the digital time code ticking away in the lower left-hand corner of the frame.
Neither autumnal nor inward-looking, the remainder of First Look’s opening-weekend nonfiction takes up subjects other than the sustenance provided by—and demanded by—art. Dominic Gagnon’s Of the North (Sunday at 4pm) assembles snowmelt-on-lens YouTube videos uploaded from Inuit climes, patching together an in-absentia travelogue from the kind of Jackass-inspired footage where the person behind the camera can’t keep from laughing: Various drunken antics ensue, a baby says “fuck,” and a caribou eats raw sewage. (Gagnon recently pledged to remove material as requested by its creators, so this may be a substantially different film come Sunday.) Meanwhile, Anna Roussillon’s impressive I Am the People (Saturday, 7pm) shows us what the Arab Spring looked like for a family in Luxor, Egypt—a lot of waiting for something to happen in far-off Tahrir Square, whose demonstrations appear nightly on their little living-room TV. Come for the politics, stay for the playful bickering: From the other side of the camera, Roussillon argues with her subject over his stubborn support for then embattled president Mohamed Morsi; meanwhile, the man’s wife insistently teases the solo filmmaker about starting a family.
One wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a portrait of bygone New York among all these far-flung dispatches, but there’s nonetheless a superb one dropped into a program of new films by avant-garde legend (and son of Williamsburg) Ken Jacobs (Sunday, 1:30pm). Jacobs made his first short, Orchard Street, in 1955, and what was then 12 minutes of soundless street-market scenes has now been restored and expanded to 27. The filmmaker canvasses the carnival of wares at a syncopated clip, shooting on the awning-thick stretch of Orchard between Delancey and Houston, granting each image just a few seconds before moving on to the next. A girl blows bubbles past a potbellied man, a cardboard sign reads “My Dodgers,” and one very sad-looking carriage files past parked automobiles to we know not where. We can only assume he’s not coming back.