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Lewis Klahr Introduces His Film "Circumstantial Pleasures"

"There’s a way the film becomes first person, and you, the viewer, become the protagonist."
Lewis Klahr's Circumstantial Pleasures is exclusively showing on MUBI starting June 23, 2021 in many countries in the Undiscovered series. Two quotes and an interview segment were sent by Klahr as an introduction to the film.
"Leaving the seductive mid-century imagery that he’s best known for far behind, 'Circumstantial Pleasures' looks at the raw materials of contemporary life and distills them into a demanding and powerful work of anxiety, alienation, agitation, and abrasion. The film consists of six short works (ranging from two to 22 minutes) that convey the experience of being alive in the 21st century in ways that few other films have…

When 'Circumstantial Pleasures' premiered at Light Industry just as the pandemic’s spread was becoming more evident, a common audience response was how prescient the work was. And it’s true that the images of folks in N95 masks and hazmat suits hit much differently now than they did when the work was being created over the past six years. For me, it’s the depopulated landscapes and nominal presence of humans in these vast open spaces that seem even more charged because of COVID-19. But I saw 'Circumstantial Pleasures' for the first time long before the pandemic was in the air and the work essentially had the same resonance back then. This isn’t a work that illustrates anything that the pandemic has wrought. This is a work that illustrates that the pandemic is a symptom of a larger and more systemic situation that humans have caused in the natural world."
    —Chris Stults, Assistant Curator, Film/Video, The Wexner Center for the Arts
"In 'Circumstantial Pleasures'—which opens with a quote from the fourth-century Chinese poet T’ao Ch’ien —Klahr shifts focus to the present and its ills without leaving the past behind. “In the eight directions,” the quote reads, “the same dusk.” This leads to the first short, “Capitalist Roaders,” which opens with a comic-book fist crushing a black slab while flanked by the American flag and the Capitol Building. The fist rises out of the frame and there’s a cut to an apocalyptic red sky over a clogged freeway, which is followed by close-ups of the face of China’s president, Xi Jinping, and the back of President Trump’s head, a juxtaposition that suggests these world leaders are two sides of the same coin.

This association reverberates through 'Circumstantial Pleasures,' which oscillates between bluntness and near-abstraction. Early on, Klahr folds in one of its most unnerving images: a photo of the off-duty Turkish policeman who, in 2016, shot to death the Russian ambassador to Turkey, shouting 'God is great!' and 'Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!' The assassin holds his gun in one hand while his other arm is raised, index finger pointing up. He may be gesturing toward heaven, but in a détournement as sobering as it is scorching, the image now echoes the giant cartoon threat that started it all: the invisible hand of the market turned murderous fist."
--Manohla Dargis, The NY Times
Excerpt of an interview with Klahr by Filmmaker Courtney Stephens in BOMB Magazine
Courtney Stephens What is pronounced is how many of these objects are packaging for other objects: discarded blister packs, security envelopes, pill foils—the things between things. It reinforces this sense of small parts, the anti-status of these disposables. Even the “this page intentionally left blank” sheets, to which we just say, “Ok, not for me.”
Lewis Klahr Yeah, there’s a catalog of messages that are inaccessible or irrelevant to the purchaser, the receiver. They’re only relevant to people involved in various aspects of production and distribution.
CS They are ruptures in a way, but weirdly also invisible. They are messages without meaning.
LK We’re so used to them, and they’re hiding in plain sight, but we’re not supposed to see them, only the products and services they contain. Though now we have this ecological catastrophe around plastics and other refuse, because for far too long the packaging was invisible, and we ignored how it multiplied.
CS Was this something guiding you when you started collecting materials, these empty husks?
LK. Very much so. In the early aughts by collecting packaging for contemporary products as source material, I started to shift my emphasis toward the present tense.
CS  This insistent presentness makes the films feel almost algorithmic. Does this replace narrative in some way?
LK  Yeah, it was really a sea change for me, because normally my features do involve some form of narrative—they explore the different gradients and opacities of narrative. They are often elliptical, smudged, if you will; but the feeling of story and character is present, even if their expositional particularities remain oblique. But as I worked on this film cycle, anytime I tried to insert story it wouldn’t take. The final film of the series, the title film, Circumstantial Pleasures, is set to Scott Walker’s opus SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter). The song’s lyrics do suggest a story, or at least toxic relationships between specific characters. I thought I might be able to finally depict a narrative, but even there narrative was like a graft that wouldn’t take!
CS  Do you feel the film accesses genre in any way, despite its generic materials? There’s a definite sense of paranoia that hangs over it.
LK  Sounds like you’re seeing through my filter, which is deeply anxious about the world—part of my Jewish heritage. This paranoia is also partially evoked by the music; David Rosenboom’s and Tom Recchion’s instrumental compositions are highly tactile—one rubs the fingers of one’s ears over their texture. But, more importantly, I think you are experiencing Circumstantial Pleasures as paranoid because you’re inserting yourself inside it. There’s a way the film becomes first person, and you, the viewer, become the protagonist. You’ve entered its world and populated its vacuum seal with your own subjectivity.
CS.  Right, and there’s that Kafkaesque horror of having no influence on your own outcome, just being destined for some mechanism.
LK.  Circumstantial Pleasures does something else like horror films too, genre-wise, because you’re waiting. That’s one of the central coordinates of tension pulling you through a horror film, right? This anxiety about what’s coming next. Pretty bleak. I never meant for it to be entertaining, and at some level I don’t care whether anyone likes it or not, just that it offers an experience that impacts. In that way it aligns with the transgressive side of my work, although most of those films are highly sexual, while Circumstantial Pleasures, despite “pleasures” in the title, is not.
CS.  In the end, do you find any sort of romance inside all this?
LK  Well, there is beauty and poetry inside its light and rhythm, but it’s a hard-edged kind of beauty. The light is hard even when it’s soft. The cuts are hard. There are more pop-ins and outs of single images within the duration of a shot than I normally use. I do think some of the packaging is very beautiful. There are things that I came to love in different ways, but that doesn’t mean I like them. They had descriptive use value.
Ultimately these works were demanding and very difficult to create. There were times when I’d think they were done, screen them publicly, and watch them come apart at the seams, realizing they needed major overhauls, that they hadn’t gotten at what I was trying to describe. I think all this volatility relates to how rapidly the world has been changing over the last decade. I read about William Gibson and the delayed release of his latest novel, and he described experiencing something similar—how volatile the world is right now, how quickly descriptions of it can seem out of date. Fortunately, as I learned during that fateful screening at the end of February, Circumstantial Pleasures is definitely not out of date. Now when people ask me that inevitable question all artists are now asked—“How are you responding in your art to COVID-19?”—I get to say, “I already have!”


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