For the first time in history, works by three Duke faculty members appeared side-by-side at last weekend’s installment of the New York Film Festival.
“Views From the Avant-Garde,” a series of the festival which showcases experimental and innovative films from around the globe, premiered films by faculty members David Gatten, Erin Espelie and Josh Gibson. The “Views From the Avant-Garde” series is the most prestigious venue of its kind in the United States.
Visting professor and distinguished filmmaker-in-residence David Gatten’s The Matter Propounded, of Its Possibility or Impossibility, Treated in Four Parts is the most esoteric and erudite—a portrait of the director as a walking mental library—but the most pathologically engaging. A literary treatment of his film with various emulsion and non-traditional film-based methods characterizes his vision of the cinematic space.
“I’ve been showing my work annually at the New York Film Festival since 1999. It’s important to me to share my work there, as it’s the most prestigious venue in the U.S. for this kind of filmmaking. It’s a pleasure to have my work presented in such a well-programmed context, and it was a particular pleasure to share the screen with Josh Gibson and Erin Espelie this year.”
Particularly special for Gatten, who is also showing By Pain and Rhyme and Arabesques of Foraging at the festival, was sharing the screen with Espelie, a soon-to-be faculty member, and his bride. For her part, Espelie contributed her biophilic technical masterpiece Silent Springs, a disarming film wrought with scientific precision. Using her camera as a microscope, and working under the stark, smooth voice of poet Dan Beachy-Quick as her narrator, Espelie brings makes the film come to life. At its core, it is a visceral, abtract treatment of humanity, and the ways in which the human race interacts with its biosphere.
“Silent Springs stems from the work of Rachel Carson on DDT in the 1960s and also touches on the ongoing amphibian and chytrid fungus research conducted by Valerie McKenzie at the University of Colorado, Boulder,” Espelie said.
The early moments of the film are laden with photographic tableaus, vintage instruments and specimens. From there, though, Silent Springs transitions into a fragmentary environmental film that focuses on a mistreatment of the natural world.
As for the final of the three Blue Devil-made films premiered at “Views From the Avant-Garde,” Josh Gibson’s black-and-white documentary Kudzu Vine is a depiction of the herbaceous essence of the American South. The film is, both literally and figuratively, a one-of-a-kind work of art that prides itself on its austere craftsmanship. Gibson himself created each foot of the 35 mm film used in the making of Kudzu Vine, which ensures that only one cut of the film can ever be created. An analog marvel, Kudzu Vine mingles southern drawls with lush visages of the titular weed permeating the rustic Georgian landscape. The film is set, more so than the more mainstream documentaries to which it is indebted, on etching out a dynamic portrait. A chiaroscuro-laden masterpiece, it reaches full lushness as a sea of black and white gradients. Kudzu Vine, reveling in simplicity, comes out as the embodiment of Southern abstract expressionism.
Such a collective showing at the New York Film Festival accords Duke’s Arts of the Moving Image department considerable prestige within the school’s educational panorama. With the recently created MFA program for Documentary and Experimental Film accepting its first class this year, this milestone for the AMI program illuminates growing efforts by the university to stimulate the Duke film community at large.
“With the implementation of the new Documentary and Experimental Film program, and the soon-to-be-launched major in Arts of the Moving Image, Duke is poised to be one of the most important and vital institutions for innovative moving image work,” Gibson said.
Having Gibson, Gatten and Espelie on faculty doesn’t hurt, either.