November 3, 2007

NYFF. Views. 4.

Following the first, second and third parts of his overview of the Views from the Avant-Garde series of this year's New York Film Festival, Michael Sicinski here considers the work of Lewis Klahr, Luther Price and Ernie Gehr. One note follows.

NYFF 07 As November looms and the rest of the (sane) film world has long since moved on, I struggle to complete this cycle of essays on 2007's Views from the Avant-Garde, a writing project that has become much more involved than I ever anticipated. This is due in no small part to the sheer breadth and richness of the work on display, and the relatively short amount of time in which to absorb it. But it's also a testament, for good or ill, to a certain compulsive streak in my own nature, as both a writer and a viewer. In addition to the usual anxieties that keep any given writer in line, such as the drive for accuracy or the race against the clock for preserving timeliness, I often feel saddled with a sense that there is far more to see than I ever actually could, and much more to say about those films I do see than there's ever time (or brain-power) to achieve. This is only compounded as Views recedes into the rearview mirror, and its specific weekend nexus of concentrated art-shock gets thinned out into the bloodstream, rejoining other strands of life such as (in my own case) teaching, chasing after a toddler, and sneaking in the occasional new film. It gets a bit maddening.

Arcades Project / Mnemosyne Atlas So unsurprisingly, I've been thinking about obsession and compulsion. These are states of mind that are routinely trivialized in our culture, reduced to a punch line about Tony Shalhoub having to tie and retie his shoes 47 times. We tend to favor the relative stability of the generalist, along with a multi-tasking ability that implicitly signals a somewhat blasé attitude about any given activity, a diversification of our libidinal portfolio, as it were. Don't get fixated on any one thing. However, there's a particular breed of artwork that tends to emerge from the headspace of obsession. We sometimes misunderstand it, slotting it into available cultural tropes about "mad genius," which is really beside the point. Actually, the obsessive artwork is usually a perfectly reasonable response to a set of data in the world that just don't add up. It can be a doomed effort to retrieve a lost paradise, real or imagined (cf. Stan Brakhage's elusive "untutored vision"); an attempt to transmit impressions of a trans-temporal world of the spirit through available material remnants (Joseph Cornell's curio-cabinet sculptures as little time-machines); a record of an altered consciousness the visual description of which was already a "coming-down" (the psycho-molecular film world of Harry Smith); or a philosophical inquiry into the gaps and silences that secretly organize our thinking, and possibly the entire culture around us in its catastrophic decline (Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, or its tremulous, paranoid twin, Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas).

Works such as these are both illuminating and at times intractable, perhaps demanding of our temporary submission to a total vision. A drop-in visit won't really illuminate anything; we have to stay for a while, sift through the clutter and find our own ordered path. This is often hard. I personally don't always know what to make of individual works or even entire careers steeped in this form of obsessive creation. This is partly circumstantial - how many of us have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the oeuvre of a particularly challenging experimental filmmaker? But it's also a sensibility issue, one I struggle against. I feel more comfortable with clean lines and strict parameters, even as I know that in the long run it's the unruly, the schizo-expansive, the tendril-like, the images that quiver and ooze beyond the careful confines of the screens in our minds - the films that threaten us - that most possess the capacity to change who we are and how we see.

Lewis Klahr The radically singular cinema of Lewis Klahr is a case in point. It seems like I had seen nearly eight or nine of Klahr's films, all of them thoroughly confusing to me, until it finally clicked... sort of. Klahr is our preeminent master of cut-out animation film, a daunting and powerful sub-lineage in avant-garde cinema that encompasses the great works of Harry Smith, Lawrence Jordan, and certain aspects of the work of Robert Breer. Klahr is virtually alone in continuing this heritage; among his contemporaries, only Martha Colburn works in remotely the same register. But whereas Colburn's work exhibits a grungy, paint-slathered punk vibe, Klahr follows the Jordan road - clean lines, careful layering, resulting in highly composed chamber works of image and texture. Upon encountering earlier works such as Pony Glass and Downs Are Feminine, they struck me as accomplished but rather hermetic, speaking to a set of private concerns I could not entirely access. And, as with Jordan's films, Klahr's work tantalized its viewers with a barest hints of narrative cohesion - often a single semi-humanoid protagonist in an enclosed world with rules all its own - but withheld the usual signposts that made narrative films "go." Diachronic development above all was an intermittent trickster presence; vertical time relationships were far more common, leading to a deceptive density.

Two Hours to Zero These films looked as though they should be open and inviting, drawing as they did on a recognizable image-bank (1950s interiors, heterosexual pairings, and especially the world of classic comic-books). But more often they described inchoate, barely-defined anxieties and yearnings. In particular, his early magnum opus, the multi-film Tales of the Forgotten Future series, dangled clues before the copy stand but always held their secrets back, at least to me. In time, I realized that even though Klahr's work does indeed thrive on an esoteric, private-world quality, that world was clearly less accessible to me than to some viewers, since I had no personal history with comic books. It's ridiculously literal and painfully reductive to harp on this as some sort of passkey to Klahr's films, but I now think that perhaps the films, at least in part, represent tentative records of one (young) mind and its reading strategies, a visual and sonic compendium of the dreams and half-understood (grown-up) promises those comics may have stimulated - a half-fantasy, half-dystopia conjured under the sheets by flashlight. In this regard, it probably stands to reason that my own breakthrough with Klahr's work came with 2004's Two Minutes to Zero Trilogy, which in many respects is one of his most purely formalist efforts. A close-up series of whip-pans and zooms around the surface of a crime comic, the narrative nuts and bolts of which come through in tiny cognitive shards, the trilogy finds Klahr exploring Ben-Day patterns, the camera's kinetic properties, and the shifting temporal effects created by radically different soundtracks. (The second film, Two Hours to Zero, bears a particularly funky Rhys Chatham riff.)

Antigenic Drift

In a way, this rather abstracted version of Klahr's approach - using the camera to "cut and paste," really - helped clarify for me just how much of Klahr's artistry has to do with the unique collision of textures, surfaces and hues he uses to invoke not mere nostalgia but all-encompassing psychic states, alluding to particular historical moments while hovering in a non-time all their own. His newest work, Antigenic Drift, moves these concerns into the realm of video, and it's odd the extent to which it matters so little while at the same time being an unavoidable sensation, possibly an obstacle. Drift is every inch a Klahr film, treating the screen as a field of activity for unmoored images and fragmentary environments. The piece's title refers to mutations a virus undergoes to remain viable against increased immunity. This partly explains a sense of atmospheric quarantine, in particular an almost 2D Joseph Cornell propensity for pinning mobile objects down, sealing them under translucent blankets of rubber and plastic, giving hints of eminent travel but curtailing free movement at almost every turn. Bodies want to drift, and perhaps we are the viruses ourselves, forever trying to outstrip a world that wants to annihilate us at every turn. At the same time, Antigenic Drift self-reflexively addresses the medium of video, the unavoidable dominance of new image technologies in response to celluloid's alleged death. The hot-white glow of video projection seems strangely out of place, partly because the piece is mostly a study in matte surfaces, with video's electric glisten thrown incongruously into the mix. But the themes of mutation and virulence force us to consider how Klahr's own artistic practice has adapted to the changes we can no longer avoid. He is by no means alone. Video is a virus that, in the end, will probably infect every last one of us.

Still, a likely candidate for celluloid's Omega Man is Luther Price. Just as Klahr has adopted the cutout animation style and bent it to his own idiosyncratic needs, Price has virtually reinvented the found-footage idiom. Price's approach is difficult to describe; he produces dense, often terrifying filmworks that turn both the material he appropriates and much of the history of found-footage cinema inside out. Most film-collagists attempt, in some form or another, to create new, integral contexts for the images they recycle, be they personal reverie (Cornell's Rose Hobart), social criticism (the films of Bruce Conner), rhythmic invention (Abigail Child and Julie Murray), or media jamming (Craig Baldwin). Price, in a sense, does the same thing, but in reverse. His films usually refuse to cohere, seeming to resist the clear meanings or interpretive semiosis that recognizable imagery seemingly should enable. But more than this, the physical filmstrip as Price assembles it frequently appears to be on the verge of snapping apart into its component parts, as though their coalescence into "a Luther Price film" were some sort of momentary aberrant clusterfuck of dirty celluloid.

Luther Price: Me Gut No Dog Dog In some ways this may be the case. Early work by Price, including lengthy Super-8 films and some documented performances, seemed to entail film-objects that came apart and went back together (sometimes) in radically different configurations, picking up where Jack Smith left off in terms of ephemera and gonzo queer aggression. But even the "solid" films bear traces of hard living - rough splices, deep gashes, the chug and thwap of soundtracks carved deep into the optical strip. The first Price film I saw, 1989's Sodom, exemplified this attitude and the visceral shocks it can provide far in excess of content alone. Although the film incorporates a fairly wide variety of imagery, all of it subsumed in darkness and a generally menacing, unnatural firelight, its primary refrain consists of a row of naked men sitting on the floor of an undefined dungeon-space and autofellating, a single leg thrown behind their own heads as they form some sort of perverse chorus line, a dark fantasy of the sort Gaspar Noé would have liked to achieve in the opening scenes of Irreversible but perhaps lacked the imagination. But even on the level of the filmstrip, Price perforates the celluloid colon with puncture wounds, cracked frames, and compressed and even interpenetrating image fragments. Sodom the object, then, is both dirty and delicate, and its run through a projector is liable to leave some shit on both partners. Far less shocking on the surface but actually even more diffuse and dilapidated as a piece of projectable film, 1994's Run is a Super-8 study of a bird on a wire, twitching and sputtering beneath scratches, crumbling emulsion, and a washed-out gray that flattens space to an almost absurd degree, the film image hanging there like a rained-on pencil drawing from another century left in the elements to fend for itself. Against this dominant aesthetic, Price inserts jagged, thrusting bits of suburban landscape, crisscrossed telephone wires against a hollowed-out sky, and other bits and pieces that threaten to form a tentative mise-en-scène but instead simply push the slightest compositional elements - thin lines, Scotch-taped patches, blotchy areas - around the frame like smoke.

Price has been prolific in recent years, working mostly in 16mm. According to those far more immersed in his work than I, his current work mode frequently entails assembling multiple copies of a given reel of found-footage material and composing several different films from that same image group. Having seen only one configuration-film of his last two Views works, I can't compare. But hearing this doesn't surprise me, since Price's recent work even in a single arrangement evinces a compulsive de-structuring of images and sounds, a tendency toward separation and coagulation in which groups of frames form single textural units while being kept apart from traditional montage forms which would coax parsed meanings from the blur. Last year's Turbulant Blue [sic] is a throbbing formal study in midnight blue and shadow black, as well as the staging of an embattled tension between total abstraction and recognizable content. Price takes bits of a Charles Bronson film, with its exploding buildings and cat-and-mouse shoot-'em-ups, and carves out certain formal and graphic commonplaces of the action / cop-drama idiom - a lurking, bald-headed white man striking medium-range, gun-toting poses against an icy environment filled with the alienated dread of architectural modernism - here, as if cutting out the middleman, done up in blueprint blue. Price frequently presents the images upside down but consistently segments them horizontally, resulting in a stuttered frame divided into thirds, these fraught masculinized spaces reduced to interpenetrating surfaces. In fact, Turbulant Blue clarified for me a possible connection between Price's work and that of another found-footage obsessivist, Michele Smith. What she does to mass media images horizontally and temporally, Price does vertically and spatially.

Price's film from Views 2007, The Mongrel Sister, moves in an altogether new direction while retaining a sense that the mere act of putting one image against another can generate a veritable vortex of doom. More so than in the earlier works of Price's I've seen, The Mongrel Sister makes use of the straight cut, the most basic form of cinematic decoupage. There are small hiccups of black leader, of chunky splices keeping the images separate, but still, in theory, The Mongrel Sister's straightforward construction should at least gesture toward a greater coherence. In fact, it is the most inexplicable Price film I've seen yet, a warped filmstrip from a combination science and health lesson in which the object is to invade the students' nightmares as a means of social control. Price gives us close-up shots of a bright green tree frog, intercut with a nervous looking young woman of what appears to be the 1970s, the two species hovering in mutual mistrust. As with earlier Price films, The Mongrel Sister seems like it could snap apart in the projector gate, but in this case the consequences are unclear. Would the young woman feel liberated from a gawking irrational presence? Or would both she and frog, faded culture and dead-eyed nature, crumble and fall to the floor in a heap of emulsion and dust? To paraphrase Godard, The Mongrel Sister is, like most of Luther Price's work, a film adrift in the cosmos, its hermetic yet visceral evocation of emotional turmoil bordering on psychosis. That's one menacing frog. After a single viewing, I barely recall the specifics of Price's film, only a set of flashes and jangled nerves, and this seems to be by design. Even in the mind, his films insist on coming apart at the seams.

Ernie Gehr As the paradigmatic examples of Klahr and Price demonstrate, filmmaking in the obsessive mode is not just about furtive toil on myriad little cities of a private universe. It also has to do with a particular way of shaping the object, a fussy perfectionism that nevertheless eschews the fine sheen of traditional presentation quality. Film-objects that are worked and overworked will often resemble the canvases of Cy Twombly or the drawings of Alberto Giacometti, with visible hashmarks and retraced lines demarcating the path that perceptions take as they shift across time. In short, the obsessive mode is deeply formalist, but that can sometimes be difficult to see. This works in reverse as well. After a nearly 40-year career, it might at last be possible to definitively state the obvious - Ernie Gehr is not a "structuralist" filmmaker. Yes, his earliest masterworks such as Serene Velocity (1970) and Table (1976) display an uncanny sense of mathematical rigor and precision. But as they've taken their place in the long, distinguished roll-call of Gehr's filmography, alongside deeply observational works like Still (1971), gentle materialist haikus like Untitled (1977), hypothetical autobiographies like Signal - Germany on the Air (1985) and visceral examinations of the toll of rootless cosmopolitanism in Side / Walk / Shuttle (1991), we can perhaps finally see them more clearly for what they are: quirky, highly personal expressions from a modernist film poet, for whom "formalism" is merely a means for skirting the solipsism that usually sinks less rigorous autobiographical art. Gehr's cinema is just as much about how its maker perceives his sensory and emotional life as Brakhage's cinema, or Ross McElwee's, or Abel Ferrara's for that matter. Shame on us if we confuse a fundamental modesty of approach with "cold" abstraction.

Before the Olympics Gehr's turn to video work has in some ways extended this personal element, since the trajectory of this second stage of his career is characterized by the artist learning what video can do. Ever since 2001's Cotton Candy, a study of pre- and proto-cinematic penny-arcade toys, Gehr's video work has explored his fascination with the optical world, particularly early technologies like the camera obscura (Glider, 2001), the thaumotrope (Before the Olympics, 2006), and early cinema itself (The Astronomer's Dream, 2004; The Morse Code Operator (or The Monkey Wrench), 2006). How can digital video both bring these distant formats and the dreams they represented closer to us, and how does digital simultaneously thrust them further into the past? These works exhibit humor and a dedicated intellectual inquiry, but again, they are also examples of Gehr bringing his own obsessions into a new arena, testing the current reality to see whether or not those long-gone preoccupations can make some different sort of sense. They are, in some significant way, self-portraits of a way of seeing, one that is increasingly cognizant of its mortality in a hostile, super-mediated present.

This year Gehr presented four new video works at Views, and although it may not have been readily apparent (especially to those still fixated on formalist categories), each represents an elaboration of this cumulative project of understanding the digital image-world and Gehr's own place within it. The most striking of the new works, Shadow is perhaps the most old-fashioned, which is to say, most cinematic in the 20th-century sense. A series of interiors, the video provides us with lengthy shots of light and shadow on blank white walls, the evening sun through the trees creating a dense magic-lantern play along the lengths of empty rooms. We see the shadows unfurl themselves and eventually dissipate. In conversation after the Views program, Gehr told the audience that this work was most concretely about loss and the passage of time, implying both on a personal and a filmic level that fixing those flickers on the wall that give so much meaning to our dreams and our waking lives is a futile struggle against the inevitable. If both we and film are dying, it seems, the best we can achieve is to be attentive, to watch and wait so as to retard time's decay.

10th Avenue

The three remaining videos represented varying degrees of intractability, leading me to more questions than conclusions. They may well reveal their secrets as their place in an overall trajectory emerges, or simply as they sit and unfold in my mind. The two videos entitled Cinematic Fertilizer use the rapid alternation of single images to create a highly kinetic thaumatrope structure, one which combines organic forms (most notably trees in various states of autumnal baldness) with manmade architectural features. Although the larger aims of the piece remain significantly less clear than other Gehr works (apart from the obvious - that cinema's enlivening power makes things go, and grow), they hint at greater possibilities. The longest of Gehr's new works, 10th Avenue (aka Work In Progress), is both the most complex and in many ways the most obdurate. The video, which consists of an at-first fragmentary but increasingly comprehensible spatial study of fixed-frame views around the titular avenue in Manhattan, harks back to earlier Gehr films such as Still and Signal. But whereas those films used structured repetitions and measured pans to orchestrate spatial ambiguities, 10th Avenue adopts a modular, serial pattern in which single views' connection to those that precede and follow remain difficult to discern. In fact, the rather uninflected video images, with their glossy televisual quality, tend to flatten out differences between the shots, so that even in radical dissimilarity, a surface haze of uniform light and texture emerges. Eventually, Gehr's straightforward medium-long shots give way to medium shots taking us into the spaces from which we've been kept so far removed, and at times he even peeks behind fences to give us close-ups of tar machines and other building equipment, resulting in strange eyeline inserts unlike anything in the Gehr filmography. What does it mean? Well, considering the fact that Gehr has recently returned to New York City after a 15-year stint on the West Coast, it's hard not to read the video as a revision of earlier work, as well as a kind of record of dislocation and discomfort. Like a stakeout, 10th Avenue watches and collects data, but the video conveys the sense that Gehr is not yet sure what that information will yield, or how he feels about it. Like a true obsessive, Gehr is recording impressions that will lead to other impressions, and will certainly reveal their meanings only after more and more fragments come into focus, to form the strange new world that is, indeed, a work in progress.

-Michael Sicinski

Gehr's Serene Velocity "invites a really intense viewer participation," writes Zach Campbell, and this leads to a few more generalized thoughts:

I would like to think... that those of us who advocate for a-g cinema, or specific a-g films, are not trying to reproduce a vanguard to which only a happy few may join (i.e., I don't want to be part of a recruitment campaign for an elite). I would like to think that those of us who watch, love, and recommend these works of cine-poetry do so out of affection and even, in a way, impersonal interest: the field may always be small or minoritarian; that's OK; the room can be small or out-of-the-way so long as the door is open to anyone. And the directions to that room, the advocacy for this kind of cinema, should not be openly or tacitly about building a clique, but about relating certain kinds of knowledge and experience even in an a priori limited capacity.

And yes, November can loom even after it's begun.

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Posted by dwhudson at November 3, 2007 3:46 PM