24 Hours of Avant-Garde: The Good Hours, Part III

 

NYFF 09

Still Raining, Still Dreaming (Phil Solomon) / Waterfront Follies (Ernie Gehr)

A perfect double feature. Still Raining, Still Dreaming continues Solomon's explorations of Grand Theft Auto, this time without the glitches, to make the film's background texture–the characters and shadows programmed to pass on-screen–his foreground; in Waterfront Follies Ernie Gehr tapes three sunsets in Brooklyn with a shitty decade-old camcorder that, as Daniel Kasman put it, “can barely register the image.” Gehr calls his movie a “manufactured universe,” which is what they both are: self-contained worlds that show natural phenomena to be a matter of artificial programming. On film, Waterfront Follies would just show three sunsets from the pier and unbearable to watch with the sun staring into the camera for 40 minutes. On video, the sun becomes a flat disc that lowers itself across the screen as the light of sky and the lapping water (heard lapping smoothly, but looking like it's being tugged up and down on a string) changes color in relation. At one point, the sun disappears behind an invisible cloud as if behind a groove in a paper. In other words, Gehr's made another of his digital magic lantern shows where it seems like each of the cosmic elements is a boy's cut-out he's assembled and puppeteered to give the illusion of depth and color as each element affects the perception of the others. The same goes for the openly synthetic Still Raining, which tracks film's “wind in the trees,” those ostensibly open-air spontaneities of flickering shadows and leaves a whole tradition of avant-garde artists (including Solomon) has tried to return to, and shows them as a Silicon Valley programmer's machinations in a hollow, digital city from the post-acopalypse where the images again don't always register fast enough for the camera. Buildings bend and catch up as mirages. Leaves fall, and children skate by, and any video-game player wonders, as usual, whether they're gone from the program altogether once they've left the screen. Solomon films only the urban after-effects of a natural world of seasonal and solar changes never seen. It's his best GTA film yet, as the portrait, like Robinson's films, of a world going on over the graveyard of an abandoned civilization. But the basic result is exactly the same as in Waterfront Follies. The whole universe appears as a closed system of some hidden force's string-pulling and programming. They're films that somehow show the world not at all what it looks like, or feels like, but, in their blatant artificiality, how it operates and is.

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H(i)J (Guillaume Cailleau)

There's a simple exercise, gotten from Jacobs or Brakhage or other old magicians, and performed by the lot of “artists” through the festival—to take a still image and distort it into fluctuating pools of blinking black and white. Two of the guys did it well. The first is Cailleau. H(i)J plays with the photo of what looks like a girl looking at the sea who then becomes it (the sea) in black and white puddles. What's at risk is her existence in this war avant-garde thriller. The film finds its form in formlessness, in the ying-yang push-and-pull of light and dark, as it tracks figures gaining in definite contrast what they lose in definite shape. They're the he and she of it, black and white. Like they say, the only thing you need to make a movie is light and darkness.

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Cong in Our Gregational Pom-Poms / Pie Pellicane Jesu Domine (Bruce McClure)

The other guy is Bruce McClure, a live performance artist who's probably the closest thing to post-punk in film. Lights flash and a drone pulsates in time; if McClure had left off the images, he might be a major musician. Cong plays on two screens, each with a single rectangle of light. The big bounces off the small like a reverberation, and McClure builds these pom-poms with their rah-rah rhythms to frenzy. It's also an avant-garde war film, and could pair with O'er the Land. What starts as teen spirit turns into a marching anthem with the half-imagined sound of tanks. McClure has gotten at something like a post-punk nationalist tract, impulsive, compulsive, repulsive, as hypnotic as apocalyptic. Even a guy who just shines lights has a subject, and his seems to be the total joy of terror. Pie Pellicane presents three riffs off clips of pelicans and blood, medieval religious iconography, as the sputtering forms come into focus and start to move; the images only start to come into focus, as in old Jacobs, once one's eyes have given up on discerning form at all in the bombardment of beating light. My friend saw naked girls everywhere. I saw a tiger mask and a giant pokemon.

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The Day Was a Scorcher (Ken Jacobs)

Jacobs, a self-appointed shoestring charlatan, and one of the best, invents techniques and tries them out on anything to see if the shoe fits. And he's still up to his favorite, the rapid shuttling between two stereoscopic photos of the (nearly the) same image with gaps of black to keep a two-dimensional photo in perpetual motion so that the whole world appears to spin around the cardboard subject. His political films that did this were brilliant in freeing mechanized cogs from their routine; now he's attempting it with personal photos. In at least one case he gets something Resnais-great as wife Flo and kids in Italy in the 70s seem to come alive out of ancient history in spurts, just beginning to inhabit their space (where the political subjects just started to reject it) as they were, before the film shuts down and tries to resurrect them again. This burst of nostalgia for a lost moment that's barely recovered is pure Jacobs: a totally genuine, moving hoax that never pretends to be anything else.

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Wednesday Morning 2 a.m. / Prolix Satori series (Lewis Klahr)

The usual comparison is to call Kalhr the Roy Lichtenstein of film. Both blow up comic-book stills until the most primitive and mechanized representational art becomes an abstract matrix of dots forming swaths of color, even as the form is measured in the most evenly laid and identical of pixels. Both, in other words, show up the overwrought comic cliches as a matter of mechanical design, then rediscover the impossible emotion in a form that is equally synthetic and just as powerful. It's the usual paradox of romantic ironists like Hitchcock that the sublime has to be accepted as objectively ridiculous to be accepted as subjectively sublime. I've mistaken Klahr films for kitsch before, because one minute or two of his stuff would be like just getting the waves-side kiss in Vertigo without the universe that's both enabled and repressed this moment coming. His ongoing Prolix Satori series, contextualized in a series of Klahr films with song-soundtracks, offers the full world in about 5 different styles.

Downs are Feminine, from 1994 and part of Klahr's Engram Sepals series, cuts and pastes porn magazine clippings against images of a house that looks to be from a 1950s furniture catalogue. In a way, this counterpointing of two types of fantasies is an obvious take-down of the bourgeois dream of pull-out tables, daisy-wallpaper, full plumbing, and religious blowjob genuflections. The porn stars, in extreme foreground, both cut-out and cut in stop motion animation movements, don't inhabit the space as much as they attempt to break out of an endless wallpaper of fantastically normal, normal fantasies of the home with the white picket fence. There's the standard melodrama critique of two people desperately trying to love each other who only know how to do so as capitalism's marketably healthy relationships: the girl of your dreams will only love you if you've got an automatic garbage disposal. But the real desperation plays as an outgrowth to the doll-house world. The perverts scrolling through the pages of the furniture catalogue in foreground are big-time losers and heros both.

It's a simple, effective movie that says what it needs to say and expresses what it needs to express in under 10 minutes, and receives its counterpoint in Klahr's latest film, Lethe (from Prolix Satori), an almost purely narrative film, also made of cut-outs, that does nothing to tear apart—literally, figuratively—a world of false lies, but instead strings together what's already blatantly false into some associative semblance of a love story.

Between these two poles there are Klahr's best films from the program. Two Hours to Zero (from the Two Minutes To Zero trilogy), with music by Rhys Chatam, swish-pans across the blown-up comic cut-outs in a visceral rush of single, mass-produced colors and forms alternating with one another. Nimbus Smile and Nimbus Seed (from Prolix Satori) replay the same imagery first with the Velvet Underground's Pale Blue Eyes, then with household sound effects (dripping water, closing doors). Both track a blonde who sputters across the screen lost in a collage of city lights and swirling circles that move with Klahr's usual handmade lo-fi stop-and-go. They look like home movies made in that all-American abstract world of popping colors, an anonymous city, adulterous affairs, and helpless blondes, and Klahr uses my underground high school anthem so that it might never be heard the same way again. Enchantment (from the Picture Book for Adults series) slows down two comic monsters in cosmic battle as they blink and stare at the apocalypse they're enacting. Wednesday Morning Two A.M., shown in Views independently of the series and as part of Prolix Satori, plays the Shangri-Las' “I'll Never Learn” twice, first over footage of a blonde tracking against abstract backgrounds as her flutters in the wind, then with simply the abstract backgrounds, shifting shades just slightly ever half-second. Like of all Klahr's films, the effect comes from the stammering, syncopated motion of the images against the smoothness of a pop song in back as the visions of girls who barely look like girls and barely move like people neither manage to penetrate nor escape a world of only dreams and nightmares that, in every way, barely cohere.

As in Solomon and Gehr, it's only a paper moon. Lichtenstein is a reference point, but Klahr's films, my own favorites from the 24 hours or so of new avant-garde, seem like modern extensions of Sirk and Minnelli melodramas. “Anyone who knows me knows how important emotion is in my work,” said Klahr. Klahr turns comics back on themselves, so that what was a totally impersonal rendition of totally personal feelings becomes personal again. These pop magic lantern shows, that never pretend to be anything but the detritus of a boy's private fantasy realized in splashes of color and mass-marketed cliches, are not just the product of someone lost in dreams and impossible feelings in a world twice reconstructed as purely abstract and material, but about him, or her.

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I certainly can't claim to be some sort of specialist on experimental film: Johnny Lavant Garde, alas, c'est pas moi. So I only wish I had some more thoughts to offer on these equally wonderful contributions: Luther Price's ink blot films, Pam Zwier's Sarah Ann, Cecile Fontaine's Holy Woods, Nicky Hamlyn's Quartet, Daichi Saito's Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis (the most thrilling film of the weekend), and especially equally, Laida Lertxundi's My Tears Are Dry, Laura Kraning's Vineland, and Alexandra Cuesta's Piensa En Mi.

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24 Hours of Avant-Garde: The Bad HoursThe Good Hours, Part IThe Good Hours, Part II | The Good Hours, Part III

Responses

7 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • KJ

    I would love to see both. Solomon and Gehr, and the experimental/avant-garde in general, are still relying on the museum/festival portals for distribution. Seems to me the audience for such work is to be found on the ’net. They must understand this. In the meantime, I hope that the Anthology Film Archives will screen each. Because in NYC, where else but there will one ever see them?

  • Mark M.

    Once again thank you for the review J.L.
    Just to be clear as there was some confusion in the order work was presented in the final Walking Picture Palace
    The Ken Jacobs work described above is entitled THE DAY WAS A SCORCHER (2009).

  • Johnny Lavant

    Thanks again, MM, and thank you especially for that clarification, which I needed. I’ve made the change.

  • Lewis Klahr

    Hey Johnny—

    a clarification on my Walking Picture Palace Screening: what belongs to Prolix Satori, my latest ongoing series, are only the 5 digital pieces that premiered at Views and in that particular Picture Palace show— Wednesday Morning Two A.M., Nimbus Smile, Nimbus Seeds, Mercury and Lethe. the other things included are from other, earlier series— Picture Books For Adults (1983-85) for Enchantment, Engram Sepals (1994-2000) for Downs Are Feminine, The Two Minutes to Zero Trilogy (2004) for Two Hours to Zero. i guess i didn’t make this clear enough when i introduced the films, but the show was curated by Mark McElhatten to chart my use of music over a 24 year span.

    best

    Lewis Klahr

  • Johnny Lavant

    Thanks for the correction, Lewis. I’m sure you prefaced well; I was trying to keep track of about 50 different specs, and realized I even misidentified Two Hours to Zero as Two Minutes to Zero, which I’ve now fixed above, along with attributing proper tags to the films. Obviously my organization of the piece doesn’t lend itself well to discussing Prolix Satori as an individual entity, but I hope that’s alright: it’s the program under discussion. Thanks again for getting in touch.

  • Phil Solomon

    Ernie was just visiting me here in my house in Colorado tonight, and I told him about your pairing our two pieces together in this very interesting and insightful take on both…Still Raining as depicting “the urban after-effects of a natural world of seasonal and solar changes never seen…” — precisely. Your take on Lewis’ work is illuminating, useful and…beautiful – in the sense of “apropos”. The form and rhythm of your response matches LK’s work in temperament and texture. Seems spot on…

    Thanks for paying such careful attention and for such refreshing takes here. Your contextual insights are consistently surprising and compelling. A new voice out there in the dark of the room for me, and one I will continue to track.

    Phil Solomon

    to KJ above:

    Right before Still Raining, Still Dreaming showed at Views, the curtains parted and opened up for (the anticipation of) a widescreen event of some kind (as the piece is in HD).

    It was an oddly magical and moving moment for me.

    That kind of theatrical conceit and the hushed agreement among the Saturday night audience to treat this videogame material as “legitimately” as one might a theatrical film is precisely what made it work for me, even in that hothouse environment of Views. These IN MEMORIAM (GTA) pieces, in my view, NEED that old, modernist theatrical paradigm to render them with such tender poignancy (as Johnny intimates). They so want to be of the cinema, even more than the world…I was indeed trying for a Dorsky-like delicacy of light, a quivering subtlety, knowing full well that the universe here, indeed, is “a closed-system”, programmed, as we say. This small and rather delicate work, which is rendered on a large (16X9) canvas (like the frame above) would simply die on the vine of casual, multi-tasked little box viewing on the web. The Tinkerbelled light would flicker out without a communal audience witnessing the same screen, making a leap of faith, against their “better judgment…”

    I haven’t been able to make work (yet) that’s tough enough to survive the casual reception mode of the internets…but I’m aimin’ to.

    Surf’s Up.

    PS

  • Bobby Abate

    Ha! I don’t know if I should upset or happy that I’m not included in this at all…

    -Bobby

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