Going Klahr

Tony Pipolo on Lewis Klahr’s Sixty Six

Lewis Klahr, Sixty Six, 2002–15, HD video, color, sound.

BASED IN LOS ANGELES, where he teaches film in the theater department at CalArts, Lewis Klahr is one of America’s most prolific avant-garde filmmakers. Drawn to narrative as well as short, lyrical “odes” of purely visual and audio associations, his style might be described as a form of mobile tableaux rather than animation—a term he rejects. Devising a highly original mise-en-scène, Klahr’s images, taken from popular culture sources—e.g., magazines, comic books, catalogues, photos—are cut out and placed against backdrops, then manipulated in various ways, at times inserted and withdrawn, as if they were entering or leaving a “stage”—or, in filmic terms, moving on or off screen—a kind of children’s theater with adult content. He photographs these complex designs frame by frame, conjuring such film conventions as fades, dissolves, superimpositions, long shots, or close-ups through palpable hand manipulations. Sound tracks are critical—whether individual songs, long symphonic pieces, abridged radio or television programs from his teenage years, or a collage of ambient sounds to evoke the atmosphere of a particular place.

His newest work, Sixty Six, comprising twelve short “chapters” produced between 2002 and 2015, is an ambitious attempt to view—and review—the iconography and themes of his cinematic fables through the lens of mythic archetypes. Sometimes the links are direct, as in “Mercury” and “Mars Garden,” in which comic-book superheroes are intercut with or superimposed on government types animating the physical combat implied in the original without erasing the latter’s graphic appeal. By filming the comics double-sided (both sides of a page simultaneously), Klahr creates a vivid palimpsest in which most of the bubbled dialogue is inverted and characters are willfully conflated. This conflation, arguably one of the series’ principal themes, invokes as well as frustrates parallels between ancient myths and the artifacts and personae of contemporary life. A simple example is “Ambrosia,” in which the food and wine of the gods is represented by a montage of black-and-white photos of banquet tables strewn with the remains of some festive event. Or “Saturn’s Diary,” which underlines the daily routines of a well-groomed corporate type with repeated images of a monthly calendar—where the number sixty-six makes one of its many appearances. In the spirit of Klahr’s absorption with popular culture, his allusions are to the most familiar aspect of each god, using their Roman names—like our planets—rather than their Greek originals.

As he does frequently, Klahr grounds his material, whatever its source, in personal biography, often through choice of music. The poignant lyrics sung over the images in “Mercury” suggest as much: A man, “listening to all the dissensions,” bemoans a failed relationship and tries to “heal” it with his song. It’s hard not to take this as a modest acknowledgment of Klahr’s earnest, perhaps “foolish” hope that his work can exert some impact on the world’s—or his own—dissensions. The contrast between the song’s tender delivery and the hyperactive mortal combat of his superheroes may reflect this contention. Titled after the alleged messenger of the gods, this first “chapter” of Sixty Six suggests that its “message,” however masked or muted, reverberates throughout the series—if only in the form of the lifelong disillusionments that accumulate as we lose confidence in the mortal “gods” of our youth, and long for whatever moral and psychological compass they were once thought to provide.

In some instances, with a mere nod to the myth, Klahr generates mininarratives of heartbreaking melancholy. “Lip Print (Venus),” originally titled “Turn It Back,” is, in Klahr’s description, “a feature-length melodrama compressed into three minutes.” As elsewhere, the protagonist, a “quintessential ’60s blonde,” is a composite of several comic-book figures. More potent, in my judgment, is “Helen of T,” in which a “party girl” goes from blonde beauty to wrinkled middle age in a cruelly compact seven minutes—a fate echoed by a lone saxophone wailing through the night. In this audiovisual torch song, no Adonis-like Paris abducts Helen, nor, it would seem, has she ever had a Menelaus to come home to: Images of a pair of chairs and a double bed merely stress the absence of another.

The blonde protagonist in “Erigone’s Daughter” fares no better. Hair pinned back à la Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak, she is assembled from several “Foto Roman characters” of the 1970s, clearly embodying a generation desperate to escape maternal and paternal figures, conjured here through an audio track collage of “Route 66,” a TV show of the era. The movie seems to fuse—or confuse—the behavior of the Greek myth’s Erigone—who had no daughter and who hung herself out of grief upon her father Icarius’s death—with the perhaps suicidal desperation of the young woman in the video.

That Klahr’s one-dimensional cutouts from comics or magazines yield such strong affect can only be because they resonate powerfully within him. Sometimes the feelings that drive a work seem purely nostalgic, as when he conjures a memory of a specific place in “August 1966 (Jupiter Sends a Message)” via the sounds of crickets and thunder over landscapes on Long Island where he lived as a child.

At other times, the material and the affect prove difficult to appreciate in one or two viewings. “Ichor” (in Classical Mythology, “the ethereal fluid supposed to flow in the veins of the gods”), for example, set in ’60s Los Angeles, involves an orange-suited man seen in various states—laid out, falling through space, or lying on a deck chair in a bathing suit—who may be a victim of crime or of a disease he may have brought on himself. Unidentified men and women, a wife possibly, detectives, and medical figures move throughout, along with social and privately coded symbols, dollar signs, and small shiny squares that resemble everything from gambling chips to Scrabble pieces or lethal pills. Concern voiced by doctors and nurses alternate with oracular voice-overs that warn against vague threats and advise close attention to the planets. It’s a woozy mix, which, given Klahr’s penchant for blending the arcane with the cultural and the iconic with the inchoate, seems bent on resisting a cohesive analysis, however detailed its examination of every object, character, color, and frame.

“Lethe,” the last “movement” of this cinematic tone poem, is named after a river in Hades, the water of which (see the Oxford Companion of Classical Literature) “was drunk by souls about to be reincarnated, so that they forgot their previous existences.” The narrative concerns yet another blonde in distress, and the movie’s duration is synced to that of the first movement of Mahler’s (once incomplete) tenth symphony, which, as described in notes for a BBC recording of 1993, invokes “death-haunted nostalgia” ending in “serenity.” As it has elsewhere (Visconti’s Death in Venice comes to mind), Mahler’s music overwhelms everything, so that the anxious mood of “Lethe,” with its own images of illness, near death, and loss of memory seem dwarfed. Watching it muted several times, I was better able to appreciate its pathos as well as its subtle wit. The theme of memory loss finds a visual analogue in one of the very last images—and one of the loveliest in all of Klahr’s work: Several of what seem to be artificial leaves slowly descend upon, then gently erase all trace of the protagonist, fusing, figuratively speaking, death with the possibility—or not—of rebirth.

The quotation that opens the entire series—“Let the dreams you have forgotten equal the value of what you do not know” (from Andre Breton’s and Paul Eluard’s “The Original Judgment”)—speaks to Klahr’s seemingly obsessive but nevertheless ambivalent exploration of the childhood origins of his feelings and desires. No search into the depths of the past is ever unqualified. There are as many confounding obstructions as poignant revelations in Klahr’s work to suggest that his desire to “know” is often undermined by the natural fear that any final knowing may not only disappoint, but may compromise the value of artworks driven by stirring embodiments of the search.

If there is an idealized lost “object” that once defined the insular world of the child and whose power he or she hopes to reignite, a clue to its identity and significance in Klahr’s case can be sensed in “Orphacles,” a “god” of his invention, whose name links two of Greek mythology’s preeminent figures: Orpheus, the archetypal figure of poetry and song, and Heracles, the archetypal image of physical strength, manly courage, and virtue. In fusing them, Klahr concocts not so much an incomparable god as the ideal man, whose physical superiority does not preclude a rich inner life. Are the dying, fluttering, giant mosquitoes that beset the characters in “Orphacles” metaphors for the stinging irritations that thwart such a wish? Or could this be the impossible dream of the sensitive, sickly child in Klahr’s The Pharaoh’s Belt, fighting for his life, young lord of a rich imaginary world that would yield a lifetime devotion to film art? If the gods and superheroes of Klahr’s mythography haunt the embattled dramatis personae of his movies or embody wishes never fulfilled, they are also enduring images that continue to beckon.

Lewis Klahr’s Sixty Six has its world premiere on Monday, December 7, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.