No Man’s Landa

Amy Taubin on the films of Manuel De Landa

Manuel De Landa, The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle, 1976, still from a color film in 16 mm, 8 minutes.

IN THE LATE 1970s, Manuel De Landa, while still a student in the film department of the School of Visual Arts, produced a series of movies that excelled as audience provocations. More than thirty years later, they still do. Anthology Film Archives, which has turned its attention to films made in the ’70s on both Super 8 and 16 mm and which, for lack of a better term, are dubbed “avant-garde,” has preserved De Landa’s five films and is screening them Friday to Sunday at 7:30. (De Landa will be present for the Saturday show.)

Born in Mexico, De Landa established himself as a commercial graphic artist while still in his teens. He arrived in New York during the city’s near disastrous economic downturn, which, against the odds, proved inspirational to adversarial artists in many media. Taking his graphic talent to the streets, he produced graffiti as witty as it was eye-popping, distinguished by its merging of subversive visuals—cubistically altered billboard faces—with injunctions from French linguistic and psychoanalytic theory splattered onto subway walls and building facades with dripping paintbrushes. Call it latter-day Mexican-American Situationism. Ismism (1979), De Landa’s most straightforward film, is a silent Super 8 (later transferred to 16 mm) documentation of this graffiti. It also serves as a decoder for the sound films, which share the street art’s Pop visuals; theoretical underpinnings; and combinations of sophistication and vulgarity, humor and anger.

To wit: The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle (1976) depicts an ugly quarrel between jealous lovers by transforming conventional shot-countershot technique with luridly colored optical wipes. The basic situation had already inspired movies by such artists as Vito Acconci and Hollis Frampton, but neither of them delivered the aggressive, obsessive-compulsive visuals that the situation deserved and that were, in De Landa’s hands, momentarily cathartic. (Steven Soderbergh, who recently remarked that he felt as if he would kill himself if he had to look at another over-the-shoulder shot, might enjoy De Landa’s brutal solution to the problem.) Incontinence: A Diarrhetic Flow of Mismatches (1978) extends the love-turned-to-hate situation with dialogue lifted from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and a delirious assortment of altered editing tropes repeated ad nauseum.

The longest movie on the program, the thirty-minute Raw Nerves: A Lacanian Thriller (subtitled The Libidinal Economy of Filmus Interruptus [1980]) is set largely in a toilet stall and a couple of stairwells and draws heavily on Robert Aldrich’s transcendently trashy film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955). What were dubbed the neo-noir films of the ’70s translated the expressionist black-and-white imagery of the original noirs into color that was either sun-bleached in the best of them or indiscriminate in the rest. De Landa’s stroke of genius was to gel the lights with clashing Day-Glo colors and project painted zigzags on the walls like some lysergic vision of noir’s signature window-blind shadows. The entire film is a maniacal alienation machine. It hits an assaulting groove of sound and imagery in the first five minutes and never varies or pulls back. It’s a tour de force that needs to be seen to be believed.

After Raw Nerves, De Landa pretty much stopped making films, although as a coda to his career, he turned a micro lens on cockroaches dying hideously after being sprayed with insecticide. This image is accompanied by a synthesized sound track of screams and groans. Titled Judgment Day (1983), the film is both spare and unsparing, eight minutes of what-you-see-is-what-you-get that nevertheless evokes myriad metaphoric readings. It will probably be the first film on the program, so you might consider putting your coat on a seat and waiting it out in the lobby. Me, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

During the past twenty-odd years, De Landa has published six books of philosophy, including the highly regarded War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991). He currently is a professor of philosophy in the architecture department of the University of Pennsylvania. Like his films, his lecture-performance style is like no other. I await his Saturday presentation with eagerness and trepidation.

Films by Manuel De Landa will be screened at Anthology Film Archives in New York March 4–6. For more details, click here.