DVD Review: Futurist Life Redux

Article first published in a slightly different form as DVD Review: Futurist Life Redux on Blogcritics.

What does an avant-garde cat video have to do with Fascism? The omnibus film Futurist Life Redux, distributed by Microcinema, answers that burning question.

This isn’t the first time Microcinema has brought its viewership the finest in 21st century cat entertainment. But this time the cat comes with a pedigree. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti launched the Futurist movement in 1909 with the publication of a manifesto that dictated his aesthetic concerns: mainly, the past=bad, the young and strong=good. Adherents of Futurism admired violence and Fascism. In 1916, Marinetti , Arnaldo Ginna, and other Futurist-aligned artists made the movement’s only official film, Vita Futurista, which consisted of eleven segments with titles like “How the Futurist Walks,” “How the Futurist Sleeps,” and “The Sentimental Futurist.” But the sole surviving print was lost decades ago, and only stills and a synopsis survive.

The Futurists influenced better known art movements like Dada and Surrealism, but remain fairly obscure today. The non-profit arts organization Performa celebrated the centennial of the birth of Futurism by commissioning eleven artists to recreate “Vita Futurista” for our time. The demographic of the selected artists is primarily female, which seems to fly in the face of the male-centric Futurist ideal. But if the past=bad, then the Futurists should embrace, if hugging is their thing, this more inclusive document, which looks forward and backward at the same time.

If the resulting work seems random, that’s because to a large extent it is. The video and film artists selected were given a challenging assignment: after accepting the commission, they received their instructions: a one sentence description of their randomly assigned segment of the film, along with surviving stills and a four-week deadline. Curated by Lana Wilson with Andrew Lampert, the eleven segments that make up Futurist Life Redux are a mixed bag, but the strongest of them are bursting with the kind of spontaneous inventiveness that you’d hope for from such a project, but which they seldom achieve.

A segment by the late George Kuchar will be of interest to fans of the legendary underground filmmaker, but the video effects make one long for the black and white film stock of his best known work. Martha Colburn’s “One and One is Life” casts Wonder Woman in a stop-motion paper animation that avoids the cheesy 80s video look of much of the work here for the more subtle look of 16mm film. The super-heroine battles flaming automobiles and civil war soldiers on horseback on a mirrored stage that disorients but also reflects back the vivid imagery in fluid ways that send the action out in all directions.

Production still from Ben Coonley's Why Cecco Beppe Does Not Die." Courtesy Performa.

Ben Coonley is the genius behind the viral video “A Valentine for Perfect Strangers.” In “Why Cecco Beppe Does Not Die,” Coonley takes a similar artificial speech-cum cute cat video approach, using the limitations of commercial video to hilarious advantage. The surviving synopsis of this Futurist segment revolves around smell, and the artist runs with it, praising “the illuminated smells of a new technology” with scratch and sniff ovals “embedded” into the screen. That the Futurist messages are delivered by a cat and a pair of toddlers in skeleton outfits subverts conventional narrative in much the way the Futurists would have liked. But Coonley also pokes fun at the received wisdom of avant-garde film, wondering if an awful smell is “Austria? Hungary? Essential Cinema?” referring to the established canon of experimental films.

Coonley explains as much in one of the DVD extras, which feature chats with several of the participating filmmakers, including Kuchar, Shana Moulton and Lynne Hershman Leeson. Leeson explains that she made her segment, which combines video game footage with fragmented videotaped joggers, in two days.  By contrast, she had just completed a feature film on which she spent 42 years.  This film is the documentary Women Art Revolution, her recently released survey of feminist art. Leeson’s feature is essential viewing for anybody interested in modern art, particularly the generation of women who paved the way for the artists like Miranda July. Futurist Life Redux is unlikely to add to the canon of essential cinema.  But despite some inevitable indulgences, if you add it to your queue, there will be a few gems in your future.

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