Owen Land

Owen Land (George Landow) during the filming of On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious or Can the Avant-Garde Artist Be Wholed?, ca. 1977. Photo: Friedl Kubelka.

FILMMAKER GEORGE LANDOW, also known as Owen Land, was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment on June 8 at the age of sixty-six. He was an exceptionally private, even mysterious man, and though he was a luminary of the American avant-garde cinema, little is known of his personal life or the circumstances of his death. Shortly after hearing of his passing, I happened upon an undated letter he had sent to Stan Brakhage, presumably in the early 1970s. It appears to be a response to a request from Brakhage for a summary of Land’s formation as an artist. He wrote:

The biographical data which seems significant to me concerns my continuing attempts to satisfy my curiosity about the apparent absurdities of the world. Perhaps this curiosity caused me to begin to make art—initially taking the form of deliberately absurd responses to situations in which one was expected to respond in a conventional way (though I still like the technique, the element of pride in it makes me usually refrain from using it). . . . Inspired by such writers as Joyce and Beckett, I thought that what I really wanted to do was write theater of the absurd type plays. Then I found myself in art school, on the road to becoming a painter—so as to be able to deal with existential material in a more concrete way—to make it visible. . . . If this were a traditional “testimony” and a not a biographical note, I would write about how I was actually transformed through a spiritual encounter with the Messiah. I will only say that I began to understand human history in the light of the truths revealed in the scriptures, and saw the resurrection as the event around which all others revolve. Making films is important to me, but I can only do it for at most about fifty more years. What is fifty years compared with all time (or no time)? If art is made in heaven (the bible tends to indicate that it is), I would like to make music for the glory of God.

The note makes no mention of the remarkable trajectory of Land’s career. He made his first films in 16 mm in 1961, when he was sixteen. By the time he was twenty, he had been recognized by Jonas Mekas, in the Village Voice, as an original genius, and today there are some thirty works in Land’s filmography, six in 8 mm and the last four, made between 1984 and 2009, in video. Perhaps his fear of the sin of pride prevented him from bragging of his precocity and of the range of his early work. At the time he began making films, he also experimented with distorting the images on a television (somewhat along the lines Nam June Paik was simultaneously exploring but would not exhibit until 1963), and he performed a self-destroying film, or “concerto for projector,” at Southern Connecticut State College in New Haven in 1961. He conceived of the structural film for which he is probably best known, Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1965–66), first as a found-footage loop that the projectionist would interrupt after eleven minutes with an advertisement—specifically, a shot of Rembrandt’s Syndics as it appears inside Dutch Masters cigar boxes; later he would reconfigure the work as a two-screen piece with the image on the left flipped so that the half face at the frame edge became a third figure when the two projections overlapped. Land’s pioneering performance art was stymied in 1965 when a street action he staged at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute nearly got him expelled. Pratt was, in fact, his second college. He had started at New York University as a classicist but left after a year. In 1993, on the threshold of middle age, he took an MFA in painting from the New York Academy of Art, where he had hoped to learn to “paint like Caravaggio.” He also studied acting, guitar, and Indian classical music. None of these endeavors met with any of the success of his films, although he did manage to stage several of his plays, including “Mechanical Sensuality” (1977) and “Schwimmen mit Wimmen” (1982) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Recurring medical problems played as large a role as shifting foci of interest in Land’s fragmented institutional life. He nearly died of colitis at sixteen (the first of many serious afflictions from what was probably as-yet-undiagnosed Crohn’s disease). After months in Yale–New Haven Hospital, he had a colostomy. His several attempts to live in New York, making films and studying painting (he tried the Art Students League as well), were frustrated when ill health forced him to return repeatedly to his parents’ home in Hamden, Connecticut. His desire to keep his medical problems private reinforced his constitutional secrecy; he would disappear for long periods at a time without informing anyone of his whereabouts. Nevertheless, I could usually find him. Our friendship predated our memory: We had been born in the same apartment building in New Haven, just thirty-two days apart, both the only children of parents in their late thirties. Together as teenagers we had pored over the films of Brakhage, Maya Deren, and Gregory Markopoulos; read Joyce, Beckett, and Ionesco aloud to each other. But there were many times when he retreated into his illness and refused to see me or any of his friends. After a convalescence, he would often move to a new location, find a new—often minimal—means of making a living, sometimes change his art medium. Later in life, complications of his digestive system forced him to retire early from his tenured position in the film department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

He was even widely believed to have died shortly before his suspended work in progress Undesirables (Condensed Version) (1999), a satire on the pretensions of avant-garde filmmakers, screened in the 2002 New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde program. But the British curator Mark Webber would soon track him down in Deerfield Beach, Florida, where he was living with his aged mother. In 2001, he had had a stroke that disabled half his body. Although Land was unable to attend the touring retrospective of his films that Webber organized for New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Tate Modern, London, in 2005, Webber’s efforts—which also included editing the book Two Films by Owen Land (Lux, 2005)—revitalized the filmmaker’s enthusiasm for cinema. He managed to move to Los Angeles, where he shot and edited what would be his final work, the two-hour digital film Dialogues, or A Waist Is a Terrible Thing to Mind (2009), exhausting his fiscal resources. He died destitute. Barely three months before his own demise, his mother passed away just shy of her 102nd birthday, but Land couldn’t afford to attend her funeral.

Four shots of Owen Land (George Landow) during the filming of On the Marriage Broker Joke . . . , ca. 1977. Photos: Friedl Kubelka.

His earliest films—Faulty Pronoun Reference, Comparison and Punctuation of the Restrictive or Non-Restrictive Element (1961), Are Era (1962), Richard Kraft at the Playboy Club (1963), and Fleming Faloon (1963–64), for instance—hold up remarkably; indeed, they look even more extraordinary after nearly fifty years. From the start, Land was unique in his subjects and in his relationship to the processes of filmmaking. Television, advertisements, linguistic confusions were the materials of his first films, and they remained his favorite subjects. Above all he used cinema as a means to explore the illusory nature of images. The betrayal of his body taught him to distrust the physical world: Three-dimensional space and sequential time were mere illusions to him; he saw material phenomena as hopelessly muddled signs of a transcendental order. The phrase “Oh, it was a dream!” which ends Wide Angle Saxon (1975), bespeaks the filmmaker’s sense of cinema as a tool for revealing the illusionary modality of experience. He once told me he planned a series of films to end with that expression. However, we do not hear it at the end of his next work, On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious or Can the Avant-Garde Artist Be Wholed? (1977–79), in which a woman awakens to recite an orgasmic account of a visionary experience Mrs. Jonathan Edwards recorded in the eighteenth century and Land found in William James. He wasn’t the first avant-garde filmmaker to explore the veil of illusion: Jordan Belson, who died shortly before this essay went to press, and Harry Smith preceded him in that. Land’s unique contribution was to focus on the detritus of television and advertisement as the signatura rerum—the more banal, the more spiritually immanent.

His sense of humor was at odds with his metaphysical beliefs, as mischievously demonstrated in films such as Thank You Jesus for the Eternal Present (1973) and Wide Angle Saxon. In that autobiographical account to Brakhage, he confessed:

I . . . developed the technique of fabricating fantastic stories about myself and relating them in a perfectly deadpan manner so as to convince my hearers of their authenticity. This was not done maliciously, but out of a sense of the absurdity of all phenomena and the arbitrariness of all information. This may be a form of poetry, which in Greek means making—as in “making it up.” Usually it is called “lying.”

This confession casts doubts on how seriously one should take his assertion a paragraph later that “the events in my life always refuse to happen in normal chronological order, usually occurring backwards.” His passivity in the face of uncanny occurrences would support the idea that he truly lived as if all phenomena were absurd. When two of his students hired masked men to kidnap him from the cafeteria of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he went along quietly, thinking, he later claimed, that characters from his films had come to attack him.

His cinema bears witness to “the arbitrariness of all information.” Seldom able to afford more than one roll of film in his early years, he disciplined himself to make the most of a few images. When what came back from the processing labs did not match his original intentions—and it rarely did—he would make a new film around the texture and colors of the footage at his disposal. He may have been the first important filmmaker to utilize unsplit 8-mm film for the two sets of moving images it rendered on 16 mm (in Fleming Faloon). But when a lab ignored his instructions and sent him back conventional 8-mm rolls, he made films out of those too. He was always an original, an isolato. He began in filmmaking at a time when the psychodramatic, autobiographical mode was dominant, but he wanted to film the most ordinary, least introspective people he could find, often overweight middle-aged men, obsessive television watchers. The central characters of Fleming Faloon, New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976), and Wide Angle Saxon are examples of this type. The paradoxes of representation, not the labyrinth of the self, fascinated him.

Owen Land (George Landow), New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops, 1976, still from a color film in 16 mm, 10 minutes.

The curiosities of religious inspiration can be found even in his first films (e.g., A Stringent Prediction at the Early Hermaphroditic Stage [1961]), long before his serial conversions. Landow was raised as a Conservative Jew in a family that observed neither kosher laws nor ritual practices. I recall him taking his bar mitzvah seriously, but a year or two after it, he spoke of himself as a skeptic and an agnostic. Nevertheless, as he wrote years later in that letter to Brakhage, though he remained a skeptic, his discovery of medieval organum—that first stirring of polyphony in plainchant—had “produced an experience which can be roughly called ‘mystical’ and ‘ecstatic.’ . . . I read biographies of saints and [William James’s] Varieties of Religious Experience and knew that the experiences I was having were related to those I read about.” By the late 1960s, he was flirting with exotic religions: Scientology, Hinduism, and Buddhism. He adapted the title of his film Bardo Follies (1967) from The Tibetan Book of the Dead and found the title for its successor, The Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter (1968), in the Upanishads. His major conversion occurred in the early 1970s. “As a result of a pharmaceutical experience,” he confided to Brakhage, he had “a glimpse of the multiplicity of the unseen world.” This gave rise to a series of mainstream and esoteric Christian affiliations in waves of enthusiasm and disaffection: Gnosticism, Messianic Judaism, Christian Fundamentalism (and a brief marriage to a scriptural literalist), and, finally, his own fusion of Christianity and Tantra.

His ancestors were Jews from Lithuanian Russia. When Mekas told him Landow sounded like the word for “doghouse” in Lithuanian, he considered translating his name to Farmer Doghouse. He sometimes called himself Apollo Jize or Orphan Morphan. By the late 1980s, though, he consistently went by Owen Land, the new Lando: The O or Ow was transposed from Landow and wen was new backward. (Land had always been addicted to palindromes and anagrams; his titles Are Era and “No Sir, Orison!” and the palindromes “Malayalam” and “A Man, a Plan, a Canal: Panama!” in Wide Angle Saxon are only the most obvious instances. He denied that his pseudonym encoded his passion for owning land, but I didn’t believe him. Not many others knew how often he purchased rundown properties, finagled students to make repairs, and flipped the houses. I heard stories of places he had owned in Bisbee, Arizona, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, and Tivoli, New York, but he rarely bought more than one at a time. There may well have been others I did not know of: He was particularly secretive about his finances, and his parsimony was legendary. Ben Lazarus, who worked the boom on Dialogues but wasn’t paid what he’d been promised, took revenge by posting online the pathetic yet hilarious documentary he made about the filmmaker’s exploitations and evasions (In the Land of Owen,

Although Land’s films of the second half of the ’60s—from This Film Will Be Interrupted After 11 Minutes by a Commericial (1965) to Institutional Quality (1969)—were among the earliest, most profound, and most influential instances of what I later identified as “structural film,” he never tired of satirizing the idea of that mode of filmmaking or his role in advancing it. He had no scruples about mercilessly making fun of his fellow filmmakers (and of me) so long as he prominently mocked himself and his own works, as he did with wry humor in films such as New Improved Institutional Quality and On the Marriage Broker Joke. His religious convictions never dispelled his fascination with the absurdities of human behavior. The drives for possessions, certitude, beauty, sex, money, and food—especially sex—make Land’s fictive humans ridiculous, confused, and devious. His ability to invent and to people his films with memorably ridiculous characters was unmatched, even by the late George Kuchar, among American avant-garde filmmakers.

P. Adams Sitney, the author of Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Film­makers and the Heritage of Emerson (Oxford University Press, 2008), is currently writing a book on cinema and poetry. He teaches at the Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University.