This time, duration means going the distance. Welcome to my
This time, duration means going the distance. Welcome to my
Post-Dated Selections from the 2008 New York Film Festival VIEWS FROM THE AVANT-GARDE "sidebar"
VIEWS FROM THE AVANT-GARDE "sidebar"
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
A QUICK INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Life is full of compromises, to say nothing of crushing disappointments. I
A QUICK INTRODUCTORY NOTE:
Life is full of compromises, to say nothing of crushing disappointments. I'll spare my readership the tedious details, but to cut a long story short, I was unable to attend Views this year. Although I doubt most people noticed, I did, since attending, and trying to provide as in-depth and sustained coverage of the films shown each year, is a responsibility I take very seriously. In fact, I consider it the single most important task I complete for this website year-in and year-out. But 2008 has been a year of changes, the most dramatic being a move from Syracuse to Houston. This has been overwhelmingly positive, since Houston is, despite its red-state situation, a bevy of arts and cultural activity, and the film scene is burgeoning as well. Sadly, my attempts to find employment over the last seven months have thus far proven fruitless. My trip to Toronto tapped out all my travel reserves, so going to New York was simply impossible. Luckily, other highly capable folks, such as Daniel Kasman, Darren Hughes, and the estimable Ed Halter more than adequately covered the event in whole or part, so analysis wasn't lacking by any means. But still, my plan for this page is to gradually track down some of the films and videos from this year's selection and post reviews as I catch up with them. (This is rather analogous to my pseudo-coverage of TIFF 07.) Hopefully readers will find some value in what follows, timeliness perhaps not ultimately being everything.
Also, had I known when I was in Toronto that I wouldn't be able to go to Views, I obviously would have prioritized James Benning's RR. Given that I ended up skipping it there for Tulpan, which was really sort of lame, I am just that much more filled with regret.
Reviews will be posted in order of my viewing. An alphabetical index can be found at the end. Thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading.
seen prior to the festival
-Dig (Robert Todd) [s]
TIFF 08. Review here.
-Horizontal Boundaries [2008 version] (Pat O'Neill) [s]
TIFF 08. Review here.
-Mock Up on Mu (Craig Baldwin) [v]
May 2008. Review here.
Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky) [s]
TIFF 08. Review here.
-Trypps #5 (Dubai) (Ben Russell, U.S. / United Arab Emirates) [s]
TIFF 08. Review here.
Winter (Nathaniel Dorsky) [s]
TIFF 08. Review here.
seen after the festival
Star Spangled to Depth, or, I got yer Patriot Act right here, pal -- It's by no means a criticism of Stark's new video to note that there's something oddly "retro" about it. It's a mash-up work that combines a silent, one-way textual assault from "Ray," the smug right-winger, with a raster-busting, multi-perspectival fragmentation of Old Glory in high-flappin' action across the San Francisco Bay Area. Stark's frequent method of mobile-striped, interlaced video images, which combine separate times, locations, and/or focal lengths within a single frame at regular intervals, achieves fascinating latticed effects when trained on the flag, since Stark's essentially got two striped systems going at each other at once, in various phases of motion. (Window reflections, disparate civic locales, and alternating wind-waving patterns add to the confusion, which Stark exploits with his usual intuitive sense of modular assemblage.) Meanwhile, "Ray" talks down to "Scott" (and the viewer) "with all due respect" (riiiight....), cutting into any possible formal appreciation of the flag as a post-Johns object of rhythm and tone. In fact, the pro-Bush 43 discourse takes us back to the standard Reagan Era claptrap of pro-defense and pro-Christianity (we never left the Reagan Era), and appropriately enough, Right harks back to the "culture wars" of the 1980s when senators wailed over arts institutions which took public funds while displaying artworks that "desecrated" the flag, like the now-forgotten Dred Scott's "What's the Proper Way to Display the American Flag?"
Stark, for his part, slices and dices this false idol, undermining "Ray's" dead certainties with a fragmentation and multiplicity more in keeping with the existential facts of 21st century "America." But Right also demonstrates, once and for all, that the proper way to display the American flag is probably not at all. It is an object that defeats abstraction, even as it itself is, properly speaking, an abstraction par excellence. Stark's use of the bunting in an intricate play of flatness and depth is pretty much always flattened out by "Ray" and his tunnel vision. "The flag" always wins. A 4D video rendering of Greenbergian 2D is reduced to Marcusian 1D. Stark's valiant effort at "saving" the American flag for aesthetic contemplation isn't exactly defeated. He does succeed in making it an infinitely more interesting, activated color field. But the sheer ideological power of the flag and its co-optation by the "Rays" of the world complicates Right's every formal maneuver. But will tis always be the case? Perhaps Right isn't the retro-80s object I initially thought, but a work for the future. For the American flag to ever be a suitable subject for a non-sullied formal exploration, much less a work of outright beauty, great changes will have to occur in our world. And so, ironically, Right might well be Stark's gesture of hope. [Right can be viewed online here.]
Simpler in structure and, paradoxically, harder to access than most any other Robinson film I've encountered, Hold Me Now was created for a special karaoke program at the PDX film festival. Many recent Robinson works have incorporated popular music selections as intermittently recognizable fragments within an overall network of formal collage elements. (The Hollies, Guns 'n Roses, and most recently Cyndi Lauper have all made the highly attenuated hit parade.) But here, the Thompson Twins are the absent center, Tom Bailey's vocals removed but all else right there as the main audio channel, and the lyrics zipping along the bottom of the screen. The primary visual information in this piece, however, comes from an extended passage of "Little House on the Prairie," wherein Adam comes to Mary in her bed as she writhes. Robinson mirrors the state of uncertain agitation -- at first it's unclear from the gestures and rhythms whether Adam is fighting with Mary, engaging in marital rape, or whether the two are consoling one another in shared anguish -- by introducing a persistent flicker in the image. When the chorus swells, a third element rises to the surface: a close-up of swimming seahorses. (This part of the film is particularly vague, although in context it could be read as a kind of logo for gender ambiguity, male seahorses being the egg-bearers. The domestic scene, Robinson could be hinting, is not as legible as it might appear.) One of the effects of this uncharacteristic reduction of elements is that we can observe the relative structural homology between the song and the TV scene as Robinson grafts them. There's a tension and release, slowly building to a crescendo that contains a latent violence that Hold Me Now makes manifest. The result is a kind of Adorno-like argument about popular culture and its "fetish character" or deep structural psychology, but it's hard to know where to go with this. If it's true, then virtually any two artifacts would reveal the same problematic content; if it's something unique to the Thompson Twins and "Little House on the Prairie," then Hold Me Now just displays a bizarre anomaly.
Ten years ago (wow, I'm getting old), Scott Stark made one of his very best films, NOEMA. In it, he used looped portions of porn videos, usually the "in between" moments when the performers were shifting position, or the films were zooming in or out of some random bit of scenery (a chintzy hotel painting, a potted plant, ice cubes in a crystal glass, etc.) to end a scene. Part of the hilarity of this film is the fact that no amount of formal rigor can ever really overcome the, um, nuts and bolts of what we're watching. Stark constructs elegant rhymes and uncovers graceful unseen gestures, and in a way liberates these meaningless moments from their perfunctory, points-on-a-curve existence. But we, the viewers, simply can't bracket out the fact that we're seeing excerpts from industrialized pornography, and this inability to achieve pure phenomenological seeing (that Great White Whale of a certain avant-garde tradition) is, to a large extent, Stark's subject. Now, with Speechless, Stark has outdone himself, providing the plangently poetic flipside to NOEMA's comedy of perceptual errors. This new work stands alongside NOEMA, Hotel Cartograph, I'll Walk With God, and in.side.out in the top tier of Stark's body of work to date.
First, a technicality: Speechless was not screened at Views from the Avant-Garde. It was instead shown at one of Mark McElhatten's Walking Picture Palace programs, and although I cannot be 100% certain, I suspect this has more to do with a reluctance to screen this work at Lincoln Center than any with question of quality as compared with Right. But for the sake of dialog, I have opted to discuss Speechless here, among other notable experimental films and videos of 2008. Working in the vibrating, stereoscopic mode that Stark sometimes uses to create pulsing 3D, Speechless combines original nature-study images with a collection of scientific close-ups of vaginas, taken from a study titled "The Clitoris." Stark has used this stereoscopy before, most notably in 2001's Angel Beach. Recent work by Ken Jacobs has also relied on this effect, but where Jacobs has almost exclusively employed it to animate images from the distant past, Stark's work uses vibrant color to generate a very different sense of space. Speechless opens with a clockwise tilt on an ambiguous, chemically decayed object, whose parched surface is a collision of corroded orange-red and sea-green surfaces. This flat composition serves as the basic introduction to the contrast scheme that will dominate the film, the work's chief hues presented here at their coolest temperatures. Soon, Stark is showing us a jutting red vagina, its pubic hair a wiry black tangle, the labia spread by fingers we cannot yet see. Soon, the soft vibration will give way to a kind of left / right splitting, a Rorschach effect in compressed time. This opening-out or flange effect, the interval between the differential views getting incrementally longer, will characterize nearly every view of vaginas we see in Speechless, turning these genitals into an active visual field.
Just as NOEMA introduced the idea of "seeing through" porn only to demonstrate its fundamental impossibility, Speechless is "speechless" precisely because it is the greatest possible visual realization of an untenable metaphor. Stark uses these vaginal studies as a compositional ground against which to juxtapose sumptuous landscape imagery, proposing achingly beautiful coincidences of shape. Rapid editing and the persistence of vision meld searing reds with complementary greens in the eye; the curvature and texture of the folds of a labia are positioned against a grassy meadow; eventually, the upward ridges of closed lips are played off against rock formations and moss-filled trenches. All the while, Stark's pulsating alternate views make both of these subjects, the women's genitals and the natural formations, operate as fully active subjects before the camera, rather than as passive profilmic objects. Eventually, Stark's slow tilting and panning, together with a low, rumbling electronic score, seems to propose that we are viewing nothing less than Courbet's "Origin of the World," or, with apologies to Michael Snow, La Region Nether.
But of course, it's not even close to being that simple. For one thing, at least since the 1970s (and probably before that, going back to the critical debate about the work of Georgia O'Keeffe), setting up some kind of parallel between "woman" and "nature," aesthetically or philosophically, has been a bit of a minefield, and with good reason. Since the Greeks and probably well before that, both the landscape and the female sex have been miscoded by the Western philosophical tradition as passive material, to be "shaped" by an active masculine principle. While certain so-called "essentialist" feminists (most notably Susan Griffin) tried to build on this tendency within the Western tradition in order to revalue it in positive terms, the fact is that historically, both art and science have overwhelmingly tended toward treating both the female nude and the landscape as objects for mastery, be it visual, clinical, or political. Stark understands this, and in fact much of the very source material from which Speechless is composed -- the studies of "the clitoris" -- are a product of this scientific gaze. Toward the conclusion of Speechless, Stark pulls back the frame to reveal gloved hands and a measuring stick anchoring one side of the composition. These vaginas, now broken into centimeters and reinterpreted as data, are most likely the genitalia of corpses, although the film never reveals this conclusively. So, in a sense, Stark's film may be "speechless" because its subjects no longer possess the capacity to speak for themselves. But the work is also "speechless" precisely because it boldly treads into intellectual territory so charged and tangled with interconnected ramifications as to practically slam the active mind shut. Other filmmakers (Anne Severson, for example) have taken vaginas as their subject. Still others (most notably Rose Lowder) have employed stop-motion photography to activate the landscape, turning nature studies into pulsating repositories of electric life, thereby making an implicitly feminist argument that "nature" (like "woman") has its own vibrant agenda. But Speechless renews the possibility of seeing natural forms, including vaginas, as having formal homologies the observation of which could (and does) yield astonishing beauty. All the while, the quivering of these forms, the low drone of the soundtrack, and the title's frank admission of being flummoxed before a gargantuan socio-sexual-aesthetic quandary, reveal that Speechless, and Stark, know they are attempting the as-yet-impossible.
One final note: Although some will no doubt disagree, I think the fact that this film was made by a man makes it an even more complicated work of art, and therefore a greater one.
[ADDENDUM: Scott Stark and Mark McElhatten both graciously contacted me in regards to this review to supply a factual correction. The original scientific material from which Stark appropriated the vaginal images actually featured live participants. So, I'm guessing, this examination of "the clitoris" might have been a human sexual response study. At any rate, it's safe to assume that the vaginas in the source material weren't moving in quite the manner that Stark depicts them here. Warm thanks to Mssrs. Stark and McElhatten for the correction.]
In his program notes, Worden brings the snark. "LSD is illegal. 1859 is not." Although this sounds like a trippy come-on, Worden promising that his new film will transport you to some psychedelic new headspace, it's also a kind of warning. Not all acid trips are pleasant, and 1859 can be downright punishing at times. However, not entirely for this reason but partly for this reason, I think it's one of the richest, most eyeball-exploding film experiences I've had in years. It's an 11-minute silent work, but that silence is deceptive. There's nothing peaceful about 1859, aside from some vague nostalgic inklings its title might momentarily evoke. (There are specific references to the histories of optics and astronomy in the title, but the piece in no way relies on this peripheral data. For me, it's hard to stop thinking about "1869," a brand of pre-mixed biscuits I used to eat as a kid. Point is, any and all literary content is far beside the point in this piece.) Built from a brief clip of a lens flare, which Worden shows in its entirety several times, 1859 plays like an earsplitting piece of experimental music, sort of a visual analog to the amped-up microtonal symphonies of Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham. It's well worth noting that Worden dedicates 1859 to Bruce McClure, whose audio-visual performance works frequently entail an aggressive but strictly modulated noise barrage. One's ears are seldom road-tested to such an extreme degree, and the same goes for your optic nerve in 1859. The single flare serves as a kind of bassline or refrain, against which Worden fragments, deconstructs, and zeroes in on select micro-moments of this pure-light phenomenon. He begins, innocently enough, with a pulsating dot in the lower right hand corner of the screen, the beginning of the diagonal flare's stippled movement across the black field of the screen. Through video editing, going frame by frame as well as with radical jump cuts within the 30-frame sequence, Worden generates piercing flicker effects, penumbras and scotomas on the viewer's sensitive eyeballs, as well as pure physical effects on the body. There is a push and pull, a shallow yet celestial space Worden provokes by circling these "spheres" of light one around another on the diagonal, as well as playing that shape against the all-over quasar of the flare whiting out the entire field of vision. In time, an entire white-hot / black-hole alternation of forms dominates 1859, forming a sort of luminescent eyeball of its own, staring back but also jabbing, puncturing anyone who dares look it in the "face." 1859 is frightening at times because it demands so much of its viewer's physical sensorium. But it also exhilarates the eyes, asking us to differentiate between the narrowest shades of hot white light and deep darkness, and then provoking the anxious question of whether what we perceive is actually "up there" or just Worden pulling magic optical rabbits out of our all-too-vulnerable skulls. In the end, 1859 shows us two small lights flickering next to one another at a slight tilt, slowly going out. Our exhausted eyes, ready to see the larger world anew.
A very bizarre work from Worden, and seemingly by design, When Worlds Collude is a montage piece that strives to defeat the inherent banality of its source material through a focus on shape, movement, gesture and tone. In a sense, the "lesson" of the work (although that sounds far too didactic -- it's actually a very funny video) is that it's usually impossible to defeat the lexicon of popular imagery, but it's also not exactly a fair fight. After several truncated aerial pans around a snowcapped mountain (about as "natural" as this highly processed film ever really gets), Worden begins with darting eyes, a waterscape in long shot, and a floating speedometer, all in rapid-fire alternation, and this looping sequential rhythm lays down the basic beat of the piece. But the audio track is remarkably consistent. We hear brusque, authoritative voices in a control room -- "Chevron One, online," etc. -- which imply that we're in some sort of military action film. So in a way, Worden's use of the audio baseline insures that these slick, seductive-to-some-hypothetical-someone images will never transcend their salesmanship. There are fascinating collisions which demonstrate aspects of the glossy lingo of junk-media production. For instance, the flickering back and forth between an exoticist, burnt-orange set of pseudo-Hindi goddesses in motion and a blonde woman on a jetski highlight both the disparity in color temperature between East and West, and the similarity in seductive pose. Other, more naturalistic material, such as apparent ethnographic footage from an urban center in the developing world, dramatizes the quick, stereotypical modes of "bustle" we're expected to associate with public life in places where cars and rickshaws intermingle, a hectic pace that is supposed to scan as spatial chaos and instability. At these moments Worden's work harks back to the high-synapse semiotics of Abigail Child and Henry Hills, although their work relied on jump cuts in the soundtrack as well. What's more, Worden's use of the loop tends to smooth out the thinking process, offering time for the brain to process these forms as objects in the world apart from any phenomenological reduction. By the end, when Worden is incorporating older found footage and organizing actual sound / image sync events, the hat-tip to Peter Kubelka is unmistakable, and so is Worden's implicit film-historical argument. There can never really be a "pure image" apart from signification, and if you're dealing with images taken from real life, maybe there shouldn't be.
A film that is all the more perfect for being utterly modest in intention, Origin of the Species is really just a portrait of a man ("the extraordinary S.") living in the wilderness, making his way and describing the world as he sees it. Rivers allows his subject ample room to opine on the natural world, evolution, the place of humankind in the universe, and the future of the planet, and although there is nothing particularly revelatory in his statements, they are clearly the thoughts of an intelligent man. Whether S. is an autodidact, or a learned man who dropped out of the larger culture, neither he nor Rivers cares to say. But the film is an act of generosity, and it is a rare pleasure to hear from someone on the apparent margins of society whose views are expansive rather than channeled into some pregiven demographic schema. Nevertheless, Rivers' achievement with this film is only minimally anthropological. From image to image, from shot to shot, there is an exquisiteness to Origin of the Species that is not only rare and phenomenal, but conceptually necessary, since Rivers has fashioned a film whose form feels celestially preordained, like the shape of a rock or the path of a stream.
The film opens a bit too rhetorically, with S. discussing the nothingness of the Big Bang. We see black leader, followed by a Mars-like red sphere with droplets of ooze emerging from the darkness. This "sphere" soon flattens, and we next see a green and red pool of similar plantlike gelatin. These moments are sumptuous, but are the sole passages of the film which do seem overly explanatory, Rivers using his camera to directly illustrate S.'s discourse. The third shot is an amber smoke, as if the earth's alchemical elements are now simmering on God's stove, as it were. After this, Origin becomes largely observational, setting about to claim the woods around S.'s cabin and the day-to-day processes of his life as a kind of radically particular microcosm for human life itself. These passages are never less than stunning in their cinematography and construction. The only real points of comparison for Rivers' achievement here would be Nathaniel Dorsky, in terms of his eye for grabbing the "popping" detail from life, and more acutely, Robert Beavers, whose poetic-Constructivist sense of space and editing is in full evidence here, wedded to a uniquely British pastoralist tradition.
Any number of examples from the film could illustrate this, so I'll just select my personal favorite. In shot 16 (counting two passages of black leader as shots), we see S. in long shot as he walks along the bank of a stream. Although it's not immediately apparent, he is pulling a rope over the water. It is connected to a pulley system, with a small conveyer over the stream. S. is pulling the suspended barrow along, but also pulling himself along the bank of the stream as he walks, although none of this is clear at first. Only the lower left quadrant of the screen is completely illuminated, in a speckled sunlight through the trees. Although the surrounding woods are visible in the distance, the rest of the frame is partly obscured by deep shadow, sliced by shafts of light that describe thin trees and sloping rocks. But S.'s motion and the rope produce an undulating diagonal from center to lower right, and S's sunlit back forms a mobile orthogonal to this off-kilter yet classical image, Turner by way of Corot. (During this shot, S. discusses the relatively rapid evolution of the human brain.) In the next shot, number 17, Rivers shows us a ripe meadow, full trees holding both upper corners. The foreground, up to the middle of the frame, is covered in moss and overgrowth, bulging up from the bottom in a gently rolling hill. This scene is as convex as the previous one was characterized by deep, ambiguous space, but both are anchored by the diagonal tension of the pulley and barrow system, now in the foreground. The wooden carriage hangs at a pitch by a slack clothesline, upward left to right, but has lower right hand tethers that suspend this "viewfinder" in the landscape. Shot 18, as it were, literalizes Rivers' apparent camera metaphor, since we see a quick flash-frame, and a goat materializes in the same exact composition, just beneath the wooden box. It faces us, looks away, and exits stage right.
Shot 19 plunges us into a dark thicket by night, with a compositional rhyme so subtle as to register only a second afterward. There are twigs and branches in the foreground, overgrowth and a small semi-lighted clearing in the center of the frame. We see what appears to be a pick-up truck, and hear a mechanical percussive sound. The window of the truck occupies the same central camera-frame position as the wooden crate. But now, following the "snapshot," the room is shuttered again. This shot is obliterated with an end flare of red, then yellow and white, and this takes us directly into shot 20. It's a close-up of a thicket of tall grass growing in all directions, but generally pointing inward, forming a triangle whose apex is the top center of the frame. This crosshatched green image is bisected by a thick rope, and the image itself is repeatedly interrupted by white-outs and flares before it fully stabilizes. The mechanical sound continues, and the top of the rope, and the screen, is filled with the wheels and metal frame of the pulley making its way across the image. What had appeared completely organic from a distance in fact has a fully mechanical basis -- metal frame, wheels and gears, rivets and slats. The rope bobs up and down as the conveyer car leaves the screen. The next image takes us out of the forest altogether; we see S. from behind, hunkered over his workbench. This sequence is conceptually rich, obviously, and Rivers is taking great care to transport his viewers from one place ("the natural world") to another (a person's dominion over it). But as I hope to have shown, Rivers is also working with a non-dogmatic, highly flexible command of shape and form, using it to build a web of associations that have the persuasive force of, well, nature itself. Origin of the Species is a graceful, dialectical film that both transforms our sense of a very specific corner of the earth, and is respectful enough of that space's life-world as to fundamentally attune its own aesthetic to its rhythms, rather than plunder it (and S.) as so much cinematic raw material.
Between this film, Ah, Liberty!, and McQueen's Hunger, 2008 is a banner year for British cinema. And while these new films absolutely confirm the promise shown by Rivers' excellent work from Views 07, they do much more than that. Ben Rivers isn't just one of the best experimental filmmakers working today. He's one of the best filmmakers, period, and certainly among Britain's very finest.
I have frequently compared Rivers' work to that of certain key figures in the early history of documentary, before genre-cops and petty ideologues severed the poetry and allusiveness from reality-based cinema. Flaherty is a major point of contact, of course, but with Ah, Liberty! I was reminded of the grand aspirations of John Grierson, who saw no incompatibility between Flaherty's more observational, Bazinian approach and the montage constructions of Eisenstein and especially Vertov. In fact, for Grierson and his acolytes, like Humphrey Jennings, a dialectical synthesis of these modes was an imperative, necessary if cinema is going to be up to the task of accurately representing reality in all its complexity. Ah, Liberty! is a beautiful work, and one that takes several viewings to fully absorb, because in certain respects it realizes the Griersonian aspiration even more than some of the masterworks that movement actually produced. While Origin of the Species is a perfect gem that completely explores its subject in miniature form, Ah, Liberty! resembles Grierson's Night Mail or Jennings' Listen to Britain, ideal, impressionistic tone poems around a subject that nevertheless provide a thorough (if objectively "incomplete") knowledge of the subject. In the case of Ah, Liberty!, we're observing the environs of poor British kids, living in a rural hinterland, about whom we know very little specifically. The film's opening voiceover makes an ironic promise of conventional, liberal activist documentary, a la the Buñuel of Las Hurdes, but of course Rivers sets out to undermine that dubious approach. But what Rivers actually provides, from the rich, hazy establishing shot of the cloud-capped mountains, to the tracking shot across the wire fence, through extended observation of the boys riding around in red wagons or jerry-rigged doorless cars, is something like a feature-length Flaherty film or an ethnographic entry from Michel Brault, with all the expository passages removed.
The first time I saw Ah, Liberty!, this subtle condensation was a bit unnerving, and struck me as a possible misstep on Rivers' part. I almost never grouse about "the length problem" with experimental films, but this one seemed cramped at first, as though Rivers really needed another 60 minutes or so to let this gorgeous material breathe. But now, I see what's achieved by compressing this expansive world into a select few gestures and transitions. There is more than just formal poetry, the deft arrangement of visual metonyms or gentle optical pulsations in the pivot between a dark, contrasty shot and the etched line quality of even daylight. Although Rivers' film has all those sensual rewards, in spades. It is also an attempt at separating the filmmaker's urge to receive beauty where he or she may find it (what, for lack of better words, history has labeled the aesthetic impulse) from the camera's tendency to acquire that which stands before it. Ah, Liberty! aims, as Trinh Minh-ha used to say, "not to speak about, but to speak nearby." In fact, Rivers' filmic "voice" eventually trails off altogether, into a cinematic night of tonal blacks and indistinct shapes, its open sequence of impressions eventually left running like an open tap. Ah, Liberty! could end three minutes earlier than it does, or it could potentially go on forever, a suspended jump to the next synapse, someone else's half-remembered dream of youth.
I'm Racer X, and I like that gesture! There are certain artists whose work contains elements intrinsic to the films' meaning, but which I find myself struggling time and time and again to articulate. Usually there's some pervasive mood in the films that I perceive but can't pinpoint, or sense that a key reference point is just out of reach, one that might potentially unlock some of the mysteries of that filmmaker's oeuvre. Typically this happens with film artists whose work I don't yet admire but will "click" for me at some future point, most often in a major way. (Befuddlements or outright 360s of this kind have included Jennifer Reeves, Phil Solomon, and Luther Price, whose work thrills me but I honestly still don't know how to write about.) Usually this scratching at the screen door accompanies some sense that language is breaking down before me, and that forcing the issue before some proleptically assumed aha moment takes on me will get us nowhere. I'm just beginning to feel like I have anything halfway useful to say about Lewis Klahr's cinema, although I've been taking it in, off and on, for well over a decade. But The Diptherians is a film that provided a piece of the puzzle for me, one that I feel like I should have seen right there all along. Klahr's films have a great deal in common with the Ontological-Hysterical theatre of Richard Foreman (to whom Diptherians is dedicated). When I and a bunch of other chowderheads were still trying to get past the "nostalgia" question regarding Klahr's use of comic book imagery in his animations, what was really going on? A broken, deep-sleep cultural unconscious at play in para-narrative shards, halted motion, bodies scooting through space in the rigor mortis of semiotically defined comportment. All along, Klahr's work has been offering the dangling, constrained pauses of our seemingly normal dreams, when we set out to act and discover that our legs don't work, our mouths are gone, our fictions no longer hold.
And so, here we have Klahr's "live action" film, a photoplay comprised of color images of Foreman axiom Kate Valk and numerous limb-bent, Longoesque pseudo-suitors, flashing like rabbit-hole reverie through empty four-star international hotels of the subconscious, strip-mall pharmacies on the outskirts of Berlin, and other psychological non-spaces. The Diptherians bears superficial resemblance to Lynch's Inland Empire (the presence of Willem Dafoe in Bono glasses reminds us that the Wooster Group / Foreman style frequently takes the uptown train these days), but Klahr's achievement is of a different order. By turning his living actors into paper puppets in a collage film, he retains total control over set, backdrop, and mise-en-scène; in fact, the performers are flattened against the blueprints or photographs, so Klahr has essentially reversed the terms of theatre itself, making the figures functions of the landscape as it were. And this material gesture, of course, is part of Foreman's post-humanist legacy, striving to generate a theatrical "world" in which language, bodies, and structural forms are assigned relatively equal weight, as per a Freudian modernism. If there's a drawback to Klahr's approach here, it's that his quick collage style is somewhat at odds with the moods that The Diptherians' environments could potentially produce, were we (and Valk) permitted to linger. Nevertheless, Klahr's latest is funny, frightening, and at least for me, provides stark new insights that I can't wait to take back with me into the rest of his work. Look out, Superman. We have found the kryptonite, and it is us.
Grenier's work always entails a very direct, very tactile engagement not only with the material potentials of digital video as a medium, but with its unique ways of registering the outside world, and Les Chaises is no exception. Program notes cite Renoir's A Day in the Country, and although I couldn't necessarily discern direct correspondences between Grenier's piece and that medium-length masterwork (not to say that VG was claiming any), there is a sense that Renoir's open frame and lack of closure in the face of nature's plenitude might be ways to understand certain indeterminate gestures within Les Chaises. Composed chiefly of a vibrant nature morte in the midst of an all-over, windblown al fresco sway, Les Chaises is first and foremost a color study. The titular chairs are deep red, just a shade or two lighter than crimson but resembling ovoid little fire truck cameos in the backyard landscape. Whether they are vinyl, hard plastic, or some glasslike material I'm not sure, but they reflect the light like burnished chrome, the form of trees, sun, and camera operator partially visible within this red field. Now, the main construction principle of Les Chaises, apart from Grenier either setting up or capturing unexpected juxtapositions of red and green (one trick shot of red through close-up leaves is a wry beauty), has to do with the meticulous use of fades and superimpositions.
This is a specific potential of video that Grenier has been a master at manipulating for complex phenomenological ends, in works like Tabula Rasa and North Southernly, and he's certainly on his game here, possibly working with new equipment. The movement from the first to second shot, which harnesses the normal movement of the sun behind clouds, seamlessly blending the light on the top of a house facade into a view of shadows on the ground. Likewise, Grenier employs the reflections off the chairs to create on-site superimpositions, so that we cannot tell whether we're viewing at-the-console video effects or "live" light distortions created by the chairs' placement in the wooded arena. It's a complicated situation that seems simple at first. In fact, if there's any criticism I have with Les Chaises, it's that from beginning to end, it isn't entirely apparent to me where Grenier is taking us by way of a conceptual or optical trajectory. That is, the piece demonstrates a series of dazzling effects generated by the situation, and Grenier's acute perceptual response to it, but as an 8 1/2 minute work, I cannot always perceive why one thing follows another, or why it begins and ends as it does. In fact, this isn't a "fault" per se but just gets my mind thinking in a different direction, that Grenier's work is beginning to pull in the direction of video installation art.
[UPDATE 8/12/09: At Vincent's kind behest, I took another look at Les Chaises, and I've very glad that I did. I generally feel confident in my assessments of films, but I also find it valuable in any case to go back and look again, and in this case I was quite off the mark in many ways. For one thing, I had been looking at the video in a slightly squashed aspect ratio, which my new monitor corrected. This made a world of difference. For example, when I saw Les Chaises squashed, the opening image of the circular portal at the top of the house was a perfect circle, and the chair backs were ovoid. Now, seen correctly, the house form is elongated and the chair backs describe perfect circles. This completely alters the movement of forms that Grenier was going for. What's more, seeing the piece for the first time on HDTV allowed me to observe the incredibly subtle use of controlled superimposition and fade, which in many cases was used to generate rhyming surface textures between the scuffmarks on the chairs and natural forms like the grass or the trunks of trees. These crosshatched lines combine in design but compete in color, and in so doing they seem to refer to video's unique ability to treat pixels like a drawing medium, to forge line quality and mottled textures out of purely synthetic and combinatory patterns. Grenier uses his editing patterns as a kind of tension and release mechanism in terms of relative density of the image, and I see that much better now. So there you go. I was wrong.
The Acrobat very much strikes me as a kind of stark farewell to the weatherbeaten ideals of the previous century. Using rephotographed imagery from early cinema (which lends the first part of The Acrobat a physical texture reminiscent of Ken Jacobs' Tom Tom the Piper's Son or Ernie Gehr's Eureka, which can't be accidental), Kennedy fixates on scenes of social anxiety and panic. We see people gazing upward, followed by billows of smoke. Then, groups of people are running in the streets from some out-of-frame threat, or in one quick set of shots a group of police subduing a suspect thrashing about for his freedom. These early passages are quiet, accompanied by high, metallic notes that fade almost instantly. A short poem is printed over this footage, and it ends, "begin falling." Immediately afterward Kennedy offers a tight, Constructivist montage of girders and laborers, great feats of engineering set against a boundless sky. These shots of bridges and skyscrapers in the making are obviously from a later era (historical knowledge, as well as the cleaner film quality, puts them somewhere in the 1920s or 30s), and the juxtaposition seems to imply a shift from fear to reason, the lost dream that modernity could carve a secure place for humankind in the world. The men we see moving along these steel beams were, of course, often the human sacrifice to these grand schemes of government and capital. Many gave their lives for these efforts, working as they did, without a net. But Kennedy, manipulation of these images also displays a critique borne of historical distance, a skepticism and perhaps a melancholy desire for that unbridled ambition. (In this regard, The Acrobat shares certain intellectual terrain with Michael Robinson's film Victory Over the Sun, although the works are otherwise quite different.) The exacting construction of the film bespeaks an admiration for the order this modernist worldview promised, while Kennedy's superimposition of girders and sea (the teeming expanse and that which aims to dominate it, melded into one), or the washed-out, overexposed quality of many of these shots (light reclaiming solidity), point to the quixotic character of the modernist dream. The soundtrack eventually consists of an hollow, pounding sound which could be hammers on metal, or footsteps echoing in a giant, empty hall. Either at construction or upon completion, the same existential quandary remains.
I'll freely admit that I've always found Klahr's work to be a challenge. Now I must stipulate, the challenge is an incredibly rewarding one, since I find his films deeply evocative and richly allusive most of the time. But unlike the experimentalists with whom (I must admit) I feel a bit more comfortable, Klahr's work always dangles before my psyche the suggestion of content (call it "narrative" or "story" if you wish), and that hovering zone between Klahr's formal procedures and the evocation of both private and mythic pasts has always made me feel a bit like I'm less than an ideal viewer. It's not for nothing that my favorite Klahr film, far and away, is his Two Minutes to Zero trilogy, one of his rare works in which virtually all "meaning" is spread thinly across the surface like a fine Abstract Expressionist canvas. Other of Klahr's works, those made in his signature style of cut-out figuration, all too often leave me grasping at "symbolism" like an undergraduate. Frankly, it can be embarrassing when I attempt to wrestle with these films, but they are too self-evidently valuable to ignore.
False Aging is a beautiful but dark work which, among other things, seems to be grappling with either the regret of journeys not taken or, perhaps more likely, the desire for an impossible escape. As is often the case in Klahr's collage animations, mobile "actors" are minimally rendered commercial images that provide the necessary cognitive hints for three dimensions but they are nonetheless bound to the flat world of the backdrop, as if gravity were operating at a 90° shift. It has seemed to me that Joseph Cornell has long been one of the touchstones for Klahr's work, but aspects of False Aging come close to direct homage. In the first movement of False Aging, set to the theme from Valley of the Dolls, trapped, flightless paper birds are our most prevalent protagonists, staring helplessly out at us from pressed environments of trading stamps, library cards, wallpaper and fabric. Just as they are unable to move, suitcases shift about but cannot travel, a gray construction paper "road" with yellow stripes moves along the animation stand, scrolling nowhere. Inasmuch as motion occurs, it is to slice the backdrops, as when a metal object scores the stamps at the perforation. In fact, the only definitive gesture Klahr can afford these ensnared objects is the manipulation of focus, which allows them to "move" momentarily along the Z-axis, while losing all definition. Immobility is global and absolute, tied to infirmity or the torpor of a drugged existence; the first actual image set of False Aging, after all, consists of a small Earth revolving around a closed door, that Earth then turning into a blue ovoid pill. All "trips" are inward.
The second movement, accompanied by Jefferson Airplane's "Lather," is rife with Garden of Eden imagery, although it opens with a clock face redoubled with a rotating plastic dial and a stencil of an elephant standing before warning labels that read "Poison: Keep Out of Reach of Children." Throughout this segment, Klahr gives us passages which produce dialectical clashes between the naked lovers in a state of nature and talismans of an irreducibly profane world -- balance ledgers, Warholian news photos of car crashes, illustrations of random objects in the style of 1950s Boy Scout manuals. The mostly comic-book Adam and Eve are suspended between holy, suspended non-time and the nagging pull of common temporality, a tension which, come to think of it, tends to typify Klahr's systematically teasing engagement with cinematic narrative. In this midsection, we see a half-skeleton with meat on the scapula, which pulls back to the right like a curtain, revealing a hazy Ben-Day caucasian hand offering a pink pill from Squibb. Again the film forces us to consider a state of suspension, an atemporal narcoticized consciousness. A recurring motif in part two finds the false Garden of Eden depicted as a flat backdrop (the perforated backs of stamps) held in place by metal weights. It's clear: the gravity you lose in a moment inevitably returns to you tenfold.
The third and final part of False Aging spirits us away to an urban setting. The Green Stamps show a bus arriving through them like a map or a city street, and after an interlude of a Jimmy Olsen figure changing in a makeshift Klahrian bathroom (a toilet against a textured red cloth), we receive comic-book establishment shots of a metropolis. In between, though, again Klahr gives us an image of an elephant, which flickers with another pill. By now we might think that drugs are "the elephant in the room," but at the same time this is far too literal for a Klahr film. More to the point, this pairing of elephant and pill exemplifies False Aging's central dialectic of weightlessness and gravity, of free flight and the ineluctable pull of a tether. The third segment is scored to "A Dream," a music-and-spoken-work track from Lou Reed and John Cale's album Songs For Drella. This album is comprised of songs written in tribute to Andy Warhol not long after his death, and the project was conceived as a kind of speculative biographical opera about their pathologically self-effacing friend. The lyrics feature Cale speaking in Warhol's voice, in a style based on Warhol's diaries. It is a death dream, one which begins in the social (Warhol's friends, including Reed, snubbing or ignoring him more and more), and concludes with actual death, at which point "nobody called, and nobody came."
Visually, this final segment is the most distinct in the film. Recurring motifs include rectilinear grids and half-formed buildings, and more surprisingly, some gestures of purely abstract beauty, such as Klahr tinting a scene with a hand-held filter of deep red, or the movement of textured fields against one another. But the dominant element is an isolated male figure, always staring out of the frame, the significant elements of the collage action happening behind him. Frequently we see him offset by an architectural feature; at the start they are those upright modernist boxes but eventually they take on a more classical, even sepulchral mien. He is at times bisected by dotted lines that imply bodily scission (evocative enough on the face of it, but more so when considered in light of Warhol's agonizing post-shooting surgery) or the ambiguous redirection of his gaze. In one late collage set-up, against a mottled granite "sky," the man hangs on in the lower right hand margin, a white cabinet-like tomb dominating the center of the composition behind him, and in the upper left hand corner, the earth, placed as the sun or the moon ought to be. A dotted line slices from the center top of the frame through the middle of his head, effectively gouging out is left eye. Where is this man? What is left of him?
As False Aging nears its conclusion, with Cale's Warhol trying to justify himself in the face of mortality and the indifference of those around him, Klahr's imagery becomes both more direct and more fragmentary. A ragged belt and buckle snap in half over an open yellow envelope with a white document in it. (I can't help but think of Foucault here, his Birth of the Clinic and the age of the autopsy, "opening up a few corpses," but that also going hand in hand with the legal and juridical business of the end of human being.) In one of the film's only shots of complete spatial clarity, the lone man moves past a curtain -- clearly a hotel window -- to look out on the bustle of 1950s New York. If we compare this situation with the earlier space / time coagulations with which Klahr confronted us in the first two parts of False Aging, we can see that we are now in the midst of a kind of perfect memory. We can place the time and space with some precision. But this is not our present; memory and desire have dislodged us from linear time even as they have returned us to the fundamentally quotidian zone of human existence, of a single life.
The next thing we see is a clean sheet of graph paper, and the shadow and blur of Klahr physically removing it from the copy stand, to be replaced by those strange, out-of-date trading stamps.Like so many Klahr images and motifs, those stamps evoke a particular time and place in American history. (I remember being a child in the 70s collecting them, and I remember the two long-defunct store chains that dispensed them. Lewis & Coker gave out S&H stamps, and Weingartens gave Big Bonus.) In replacing the white grid, Klahr, as he often does in his films, is wielding concrete material history like a plastic stanza in a physical poem, overcoming what Deleuze called the "any-space-whatever." Against this, Klahr posits spaces that, however culturally shared, are just for you. The empty general subsides at the end, perhaps, to be replaced by the idiosyncratic, the unplaceable, the irreducibly particular? (That's Heidegger's contention, that the moment of death is the human subject's assumption of his or her "ownmost," that in the most radical manner imaginable we all die alone.)
Following a close-up of mattress ticking, with a collaged square of snubbed out cigarettes in the middle (a doubled image of absolute "goneness," the total past of occupancy), we see the stamps even closer up, a compressed background for this lost, spent man, head down, walking away. And then, in a truly astonishing gesture, the pages of the stamp book begin to flip backwards. The curtain closes on the old city street. And a telephone is fossilized in a plastic ice cube, embalmed as if in amber. The final image, all the more powerful because it almost seems not to fit, is a blurry picture of a blue car's fender with a glowing taillight, the form receding into almost instantaneous blackness. The phone, of course, directly engages the Reed / Cale material on the soundtrack. ("And nobody called. And nobody came.") And although this is certainly not the extent of what we get from seeing the telephone, it seems crucial, both formally and in terms of emotional engagement, that Klahr ends on a defiantly anti-literal image, another oblique emblem of departure.
There is a question, though, here and throughout Klahr's films, regarding the extent to which Klahr's music cues are intended to be taken as direct content elements. As we see an approximation of the Velvet Underground bananas, or an old chipped red vinyl 45, are we actually sifting through Andy's old memories? It's possible, but False Aging has so evoked a human trajectory -- the loneliness of an existence spent struggling to escape the shackles of the self at all costs -- through poetic condensation and visual catachresis that it seems needlessly literal minded to try and mark through the film toward some absolutely specific meaning. But, in the fascinating dialectical maneuver that makes False Aging such a dense whirlpool of signification, the film points toward specificity, one we need to recognize as present but that, for full visceral impact, we must accept as withheld.