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Jun 11, 2020
J. Hoberman is one of the most esteemed and influential film critics of his generation. He visited the Wexner Center in January of this year for a talk and film series built around his most recent book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan. Hoberman, since his days writing for the Village Voice, has been a leading champion of experimental cinema, including the work of Lewis Klahr. In conjunction with our presentation of Klahr’s new feature Circumstantial Pleasures, we’re pleased to be able to present this new writing on the film by Hoberman.—Chris Stults, Assistant Curator, Film/Video
Weirdly evocative of an obsolete future, Lewis Klahr’s avant garde animations suggest a Space Age hieroglyphic alphabet—enigmatic yet drenched in mood.
Generally speaking, Klahr’s oeuvre has been steeped in the pop iconography of the 1960s. (Think The Jetsons.) However, his latest work, the six-film cycle Circumstantial Pleasures feels uncannily attuned to the present moment.
Klahr, a single-minded artist who for many years worked in spaghetti-thin Super 8 film, is the reigning master of cut-and-paste animation, a form of cinematic collage pioneered by underground filmmakers Harry Smith and Stan Vanderbeek. Fashioned from shards of magazine advertisements, comic strips, and other forms of print ephemera, his movies are personal to the point of idiosyncrasy but also universal. As Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times, reviewing Sixty Six, a Klahr cycle from 2015, his “work draws deeply from the collective narrative storehouse—from the myths of ancient Greece to those created by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and DC Comics—which he merges with images of midcentury modern interiors, poignantly generic women and bland men.”
Often ghostly, these archetypal elements are present in Circumstantial Pleasures, along with some highly recognizable figures. The cycle’s first film, Capitalist Roaders, opens with a mighty, disembodied fist pounding the Capitol building in Washington, DC, and, amid images of passports, airplane terminals, and traffic jams, includes cut-out images of international rivals Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.
Were one to assign it a specific genre, Capitalist Roaders would be a stringent, elliptical narrative of international intrigue. Midway through, however, an explosion steers the plot towards total abstraction. Objects replace images. Flattened cardboard boxes, freezer bags, and pressed aluminum foil serve as backgrounds for striped compositions and color fields. These collages recall those of Robert Rauschenberg who, in his 1960s silk screens, often incorporated newspaper clippings and photographs.
Klahr’s obsession is the alchemy that makes these banal textures and objects come alive. As opposed to an established gallery artist like Matthew Barney, the Cecil B. DeMille of avant-garde filmmakers, Klahr has remained doggedly artisanal. Despite the fact that he has been working on video for the last dozen years he eschews nearly all forms of digital movie magic. (His main special effect is the superimposition.)
Ramification Lesions (Microbial Stress), the second film of the cycle, is even more topical than Capitalist Roaders. Something of a news mashup, it references California’s wildfires as well as international politics. Trump and Xi are joined by Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung Il, Hillary Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg, and Robert Mueller, although the key figure is a bit more obscure: Recurring throughout, the revolver-brandishing young terrorist who in December 2016 assassinated the Soviet ambassador to Turkey functions as a trademark for chaos. It could hardly have failed to impress Klahr that the assassination took place in an art gallery.
Thereafter, Circumstantial Pleasures turns free-associational. The third film, Rachet the Margin, introduces elements from a hospital emergency room along with a number of drug-related images and vaping pods. These motifs are further extended in the fourth film, Virulent Capital.
The cycle’s fifth and most conventional section is the shortest. High Rise is a single, two-minute lateral tracking shot past an apparently endless vista of new Chinese apartment complexes. It leads into the longest and most complicated part of Circumstantial Pleasures, the movie that gives the cycle its name.
Here, all themes are reiterated in the context of the surreal juxtapositions. The most describable include a disembodied pair of blue gloved hands passing over a Los Angeles freeway, a pie chart floating by a couple from a mattress ad that also includes a chart showing the pattern of a landslide, and a giant apple descending upon a gold-plated living room, displacing a blindfolded man. Grids are ubiquitous images of power lines. So are tokens of exchange—ticket stubs, receipts, official documents and, most often, dollar bills.
The recurrence of themes and shapes is accentuated by Klahr’s soundtracks. Rather than the pop music that characterized his earlier work, he relies exclusively on repetitive, synthesized or spacy electronic compositions by avant-pop composers like David Rosenbloom, Tom Recchion, and the teen idol-turned-hardcore experimentalist Scott Walker who, in the film’s final movement, declaims disjointed phrases offering advice or consolation: “You should get an agent!” Indeed.
Still, taken as a whole, the cycle is quite coherent in anxiously conjuring a bleak, conspiratorial dystopia ruled by commodities and surveillance. Although the two artists could hardly be more different, Klahr’s cycle might be interestingly matched with Laura Poitras’s documentaries—both artists are looking to visualize the invisible network that binds the globe.
Klahr’s films are less narratives than reveries; his method is more intuitive than programmatic. As he told the audience at Light Industry, the Brooklyn microcinema where Circumstantial Pleasures was shown last winter, “I found out a long time ago about the way that I work, that my unconscious is a lot smarter than my conscious.”
Circumstantial Pleasures neither depicts nor refers directly to the virtual, online world that is our second reality. And yet, in their cryptic juxtaposition, Klahr’s discontinuous images are as familiar as they are disconcerting. To watch Circumstantial Pleasures, especially as streamed, is to imagine the internet as an archeological site or perhaps, as a sentient being, asleep and dreaming.
Images courtesy of the filmmaker
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