Group Think

Amy Taubin on Ken Kobland

Left: Elizabeth LeCompte and Ken Kobland, Flaubert Dreams of Travel but the Illness of His Mother Prevents It, 1986, still from a color video, 20 minutes. Right: Ken Kobland, The Toy Sun, 2011, still from a color video, 32 minutes.

A CONCISE RETROSPECTIVE of film and video works by Ken Kobland, one of the least known and most accomplished American experimental moviemakers, has been scheduled as a postscript to Anthology Film Archives’ inclusive, fascinating series of movies made by and about the Wooster Group (as well as movies that simply feature past and present members, among them Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray, Kate Valk, and Ron Vawter). As a longtime media collaborator with the Woosters, Kobland codirected with Elizabeth LeCompte many of the pieces in this series, but his talent and skills as a film and video maker also stand on their own.

The three programs in the series, titled simply “Ken Kobland” (February 24–26), reflect the evolution of Kobland’s moviemaking from his early, lyrical, minimalist, 16-mm films, Frame (1975) and Vestibule (1978), to his most recent digital work, the dense, despairing The Toy Sun (2011). Kobland’s concerns have been remarkably consistent: the connection of memory to place; the layering and fragmentation of imagery; the mixing of actual interior and exterior places with theatrical backdrops and flats representing the same; the frequent use of oblique (“Dutch”) angles; the tension between image and sound and more problematically between image and language. T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) is a touchstone, with the opening of “Burnt Norton” (“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past. / If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable. [. . .]”) quoted and pondered in movies separated by decades: The Communists Are Comfortable (1984–88) and the aforementioned The Toy Sun, and others in between. A recording of “The Internationale” occurs with similar frequency. Marx and Eliot, that’s a hellish pair.

At least three movies should not be missed. In The Toy Sun (February 25 at 8 PM, on a program with the radiant travel diary Ideas of Order in Cinque Terre [2005]), Kobland turns a digital editing system into a philosophizing machine while paying homage to Gordon Matta-Clark. The Communists Are Comfortable and Flaubert Dreams of Travel but the Illness of His Mother Prevents It (1986) are, at the least, among the strongest, most moving experimental movies of the last two decades of the twentieth century, and the passage of time has if anything rendered them more potent.

The Communists Are Comfortable (March 1 at 7 PM, playing in a Wooster Group series although solely directed by Kobland) springs from the filmmaker’s early childhood memories of living in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, surrounded by communists and fellow travelers. The film combines clips of Hollywood melodrama and terrifying fragments of World War II newsreels with scripted sequences written by Jim Strahs and actual detail. (The repeated shot of a hand moving over a radiator grate while out the window one sees what must have been the limits of a child’s vision says everything about the complicity of touch and sight in activating memory.) American avant-garde film has had an uneasy relationship with acting, but here the Wooster Group performers, particularly Vawter and Gray, are stunning; their quiet discontent, not to mention their impeccable timing, are at one with the delicate, sensory fabric of the piece.

Flaubert Dreams of Travel (February 22 at 9 PM, on a program of three short films made for use in Wooster Group theater pieces) evokes an altered state of consciousness in ways that are both ecstatic and despairing. It’s simply the best LSD movie ever. The premise seems to be that the members of the Wooster Group are hanging out in some cheap motel room and have ingested some powerful hallucinatory substance, perhaps in preparation for a rehearsal of their theater piece Frank Dell’s The Temptation of Saint Antony (1988). The room vibrates, the walls threatening to dissolve. You hear what seems to be a barely audible radio/TV combo tuning in to all the frequencies of your life. Everything you believed in falls apart. Sexual difference is a macabre joke; communism has failed, and so has modernism. The movie is a twenty-odd-minute elegy for the twentieth century. Godard has done no better. I want the sound track played at my funeral.

The retrospective “Ken Kobland” runs February 24–26 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Some films noted above will screen as part of other programs at Anthology, including Flaubert Dreams of Travel but the Illness of His Mother Prevents It (February 22 at 9 PM) and The Communists Are Comfortable (March 1 at 7 PM).