Intro: Circumstantial Pleasures

Chris Stults, Assistant Curator, Film/Video

Jun 11, 2020

Hand holding pills from Lewis Klahr's Circumstantial Pleasures

For the first of two companion essays to Circumstantial Pleasures, which is streaming here through June 18, Film/Video Assistant Curator Chris Stults offers an introduction to Lewis Klahr's latest feature film and his thoughts on three of the film's segments.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, the Wexner Center presented a retrospective of the filmmaker Lewis Klahr in conjunction with his Wexner Center Residency Award and I wrote this about his work for Film Comment magazine:

Even the most dedicated cinephile knows what it’s like to fall asleep at the movies. The confusion upon awakening is akin to the sensation sought by the Surrealists who would walk into movies already in progress and leave once the plot started to make sense. In struggles to find his or her bearings, the viewer becomes an active participant—and since the subconscious is still partially engaged, for a time the movie theater becomes a place for lucid dreaming. 

The collage animations of Lewis Klahr can induce a similarly rewarding disorientation. Narrative is present to a greater or lesser degree in his films and videos, but it’s often submerged. The viewer has to search out and construct meaning. Klahr’s films unspool like Delphic visions or vignettes glimpsed in a crystal ball in which dream, memory, and history—and past, present, future, and phantom tenses—are indistinguishable. The necessity of interpretive engagement is crucial to the power of his work. 

The materials Klahr utilizes—objects and images culled from mainly mid-20th century advertising, comic books, and other ephemera of American commerce and popular culture—are often inherently seductive. But his lo-fi animation style ensures that his voice and relationship with the material is always foregrounded. Far removed from the smooth, illusionistic techniques of hand-drawn or digital animation, Klahr’s collages move in fits and starts. Shooting in his garage without an animation stand to create his arrhythmic visual cadences and elliptical narratives, the filmmaker doesn’t so much bring his subjects to life as turn them into hieroglyphs of myth or allegory. In Time Regained, Proust’s narrator remarks, apropos the difficulties facing novelists attempting to translate the inner life into art: “The book whose hieroglyphs are patterns not traced by us is the only book that really belongs to us.” Likewise, by basing his art around archaeological diggings from the recent past, Klahr fashions reveries that reveal the unconscious of what Walter Benjamin called the “dreaming collective,” providing a portrait of American materialism through its own images of itself.

Now, a decade later, the Wexner Center is happy to have the occasion to work with Klahr again to present the online premiere of his new feature-length collection of short films, Circumstantial Pleasures. The film had its world premiere (and sole screening to date) at the adventurous and esteemed Brooklyn microcinema Light Industry on February 29, 2020 (followed by a discussion between Klahr and the film scholar Tom Gunning), just before the whole country began its lockdown. Rather than wait for additional screening possibilities whenever film festivals are able to operate again, Klahr was eager to have the film more widely seen during this moment. The Wexner Center is honored to be able to provide a platform for audiences to discover this work at a moment when it’s especially resonant.

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. Here’s a guide to three of the standout shorts in the sequence.

Capitalist Roaders

A man wearing an n95 mask and hazmat suit in a scene from Lewis Klahr's film Circumstantial Pleasures

Circumstantial Pleasures’ curtain raiser acts as something of a prologue (or even mission statement) for the whole series. We enter into a world of smog, cheap electronics, cargo ships, envelope security patterns, cryptic cardboard box markings, and vape pod blister packs. Narrative is emptied out. Human figures appear on occasion but are backgrounded by the junk of the world that surrounds them. How goods circulate in the world is more evident than relationships between characters. Oil barrels and shipping containers in vast empty parking lots are closer to protagonists than the people who appear in the film. These are films about what it takes to have zipless consumption, not about the consumption itself. 

Klahr’s films have always contained critical looks at consumerist society and the empty seduction of marketing but we’re a long way from the beautifully printed and illustrated vintage materials he’s best known for. Instead we’re awash in the ugliness of the cheap, disposable (but non-biodegradable) materialist world around us (especially politicians’ haircuts). Forget about production for use, this is a world of production for landfill. 

But somehow, even though the short is a parade of images about the nihilism of capitalism, Klahr is still able to create a sense of play with the way he spotlights his images and juxtapositions. The pleasures of textures, shadows, light, and creation remain even if the objects themselves embody ugliness. The work of the artist can emerge as a generative force against the all-consuming anxiety of the era. The pleasures may be circumscribed but repurposing objects and images for uses other than what they were intended for is at the heart of collage.

Klahr has grafted together a soundtrack from two experimental music pioneers, David Rosenboom and Tom Recchion. Strings and gongs segue into hums and chirps and alarms; taking us from decadence to anxiety. An airplane flyover reveals behind us a jazz loop scored tour of a playground of destruction. Ambient squeaks and moans provide an acoustic tunnel that carries long ago echoes of hi di ho. This soundtrack provides a continuity and dramatic arc to the images and tenor of Capitalist Roaders that disappears in some of the subsequent films. The sparer soundtrack for later films in the sequence, such as Rachet the Margin, emphasize the isolation of images and flatten the emotional curve that’s within this opening film. 

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. Which leads us to…


Virulent Capital

A comic figure against an orange and green background in the Virulent Capital segment of Lewis Klahr's Circumstantial Pleasures

It’s all right here in the title of this short which, for me, is the centrifugal force powering the sequence of films. Capitalism is a virus. The title of Klahr’s first digital video was Antigenic Drift, another virus-related phrase, and it now makes perfect sense that Klahr’s first exploration of the properties of digital video are tied up with thoughts of viruses, circulation (human and global), and capitalism.

Made almost two years before this newest virus hit the US, Virulent Capital creates an overwhelming fever dream of fluttering drone tones and color flares and the textures of digital light. The intensity of the film begins to feel like 20 different low-grade anxiety attacks happening simultaneously, which escalate to an unsustainable level that then disperses into a state of Zen agitation. A solitary, wearied comic book figure appears throughout the film, seemingly the recipient of all these sonic and color-based aggressions. The effect of the assault of the world upon a person is portrayed as he is stripped of his skin, revealing the nervous system and tensed muscles underneath.

The credit for David Rosenboom’s music might come as a shock. This analog electro-acoustic music from the late ‘60s seems so ahead of its time. 


Circumstantial Pleasures

Still from Lewis Klahr's film Circumstantial Pleasures

After the nerve jostling Virulent Capital, the real world surreality of High Rise gives a viewer a chance to catch their breath before heading into the epic final (and eponymous) film of the sequence.

After the assaulted body in Virulent Capital, human fragility becomes even more apparent at the start of Circumstantial Pleasures. A shirt is opened to reveal a fresh scar, medical diagrams reveal the “thing-ness” of bodies, and then there’s the warble of the aged Scott Walker. 

It’s impossible to talk about this film without addressing the Scott Walker song that it’s set to. Walker, who went from boy band to baroque pop to monolithic sonic sculptures, pushed his songs to the limit on his final album and the 22-minute “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” is perhaps the end point of his late period career. The song careens from the harrowing to the hilarious with its off-kilter stumble. It helps to know about Zercon, Attilla’s court jester, and dwarf stars to suss out the song’s story but that’s not relevant to us here. What’s more important is the stark smack talk that stops just short of “yo mama” jokes and the sonic properties of the song. 

The song creates an overwhelming experience that changes the air in any room where its played. Rather than illustrate it, Klahr wisely creates his own visual environment that then overlaps but never harmonizes with the sonic atmosphere. The song may provide an elliptical narrative but Klahr never seizes the chance to build any sense of story into this world he’s built up. The eponymous segment features a similar visual palate as the preceding films, but the imagery also opens up a bit. More human figures appear, as do pulpier comic book images and more displays of opulence. But these figures remain more acted upon than actors. It’s a slightly more mythic and mysterious plane. The ultimate destination overrides the senses and sense-making functions, leaving a viewer spent and shaken. 

Images courtesy of the filmmaker

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