PRINT March 2013


Lewis Klahr, The Pettifogger, 2011, digital video, color, sound, 65 minutes.

It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.

—D. W. Winnicott

FOR MORE THAN THREE DECADES, Lewis Klahr has been among the most prolific and original avant-garde film and video artists in America, producing over seventy-five works to date. A perennial presence in the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde, Klahr has shown as well in three Whitney Biennials (in 1991, 1995, and 2006) and at the International Film Festival Rotterdam; in 2010, his work was the subject of a retrospective at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. A running loop of his films is currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through month’s end), and on March 9 and 10 the Museum of the Moving Image in New York will present a substantial program of his digital work, including The Pettifogger (2011), his first feature-length movie, and the world premiere of a new series, the “False Aging” trilogy (2008­–12).

Though he has made live-action and found-footage films—mostly in the 1970s and ’80s—Klahr is best known for his cutout movies, in which appropriated images of people, objects, and places culled from a variety of sources are inserted and manipulated in front of the camera, all within an area no larger than a standard sheet of paper. While his films in this mode resemble what other practitioners have labeled “animated collages,” Klahr does not consider himself an animator. He conceives of the screen neither as a painter’s canvas nor as the illusionary three-dimensional field beloved of photography and mainstream cinema. Set against a two-dimensional plane, typically with little perspectival depth, his cutouts are not animated like traditional cartoons but maneuvered into place by hand, their interactions, entrances, and exits controlled moment by moment. Klahr exploits the flatness of his images, though their contextual positioning—e.g., small equals far, big near—often alludes to a “pretend” screen depth. Occasionally, his sound tracks suggest an aural dimension, evoking proximity or distance, but he prefers to keep sounds lo-fi to match the flatness of the visuals. Even popular songs played in their entirety—e.g., those of Frank Sinatra or the Velvet Underground—and excerpts from pieces by Igor Stravinsky or Alban Berg are often treated this way without diminishing their importance to a film’s meaning or mood.

Now based in Los Angeles, where he teaches film aesthetics and production at CalArts, Klahr takes most of his material (visual and aural) from popular American culture—comic books, magazines, catalogues, photographs, movies, and records of the 1950s and ’60s, the period of his childhood and teenage years. (Born in Manhattan in 1956, he lived in Great Neck, Long Island, until he graduated from high school.) His most ambitious films teem with so many images that to enumerate and describe them completely would be a daunting task. Unlike visual artists who ransack pop culture to deconstruct it in accord with a cultural theory, Klahr sees it as a genuine, affecting looking glass into American middle-class life. Indeed, one of his most appealing characteristics is his refusal to parody or treat such material condescendingly. Even more impressive is the deftness with which he shapes his appropriations into a deeply personal if sometimes covert chronicle of his childhood.

More than any other contemporary avant-garde filmmaker I know, Klahr invites us to play, to take hold, with our eyes and imaginations, of his carefully crafted cutouts, as if they were so many toy soldiers defending a fort, or miniature structures around which a model train must make its way. At the same time, we sense the delicacy of the films’ recurring images, taken cautiously from his cabinet of dreams and fetishes, joys and nightmares, and offered as if with a child’s blind trust. To re-create the world of one’s fantasies and fears is the driving force of many serious artists. To do so while reproducing it as child’s play for adults is uncommon.

A recurring image that speaks to Klahr’s endlessly inventive suite of culturally loaded tableaux is that of the playing card, which figures prominently in the phantasmagoric Pettifogger (as well as in numerous earlier films, such as Altair [1994]). One card or many fill the frame with vivid color and rich illustrations, or appear fanlike as if in a player’s hands, or are turned sideways. When linked to images of casinos and gambling halls, they flesh out the story line, which traces a year in the life of a traveling con man. But beyond this, they serve as a metaphor for Klahr’s deployment of images in general, which appear, disappear, and reappear, are repeatedly shuffled, dealt, and played in different combinations and contexts. In connoting that playful dimension, the cards foreground an important formal thrust of Klahr’s work: its rich and dynamic associational fabric.

This tendency also highlights the nature of Klahr’s found-film images, their capacity to operate within a structure as easily as they can free-float, unanchored to an overriding idea. Films such as What’s Going On Here, Joe? (1984), Pulls (1985), and Govinda (1999) exhibit the influence of Bruce Conner’s composites of footage of the real world. Klahr’s collages stress this dual potential, allowing both poles to exist simultaneously. His images and objects assert themselves as disparate signs of a world that can be harnessed into constellations of meaning or left free of all such restricting bonds. What does this quality reflect if not the amazing, limitless possibilities of the child’s world of play?

Lewis Klahr, 66 (work in progress), 2012–, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes 30 seconds. From the series “Prolix Satori,” 2008–.

TONY PIPOLO: When did you become interested in making films? Were you always drawn to the avant-garde, or did you consider making narrative films on the Hollywood or independent model?

LEWIS KLAHR: I wanted to make narrative films but found the Hollywood and independent models too intimidating. I first encountered avant-garde films in January 1977, through a four-week course I audited at SUNY Purchase, a touring exhibition organized in part by New York University. I swallowed the arc of American avant-garde film whole. I had favorite filmmakers—Kenneth Anger, Ken Jacobs, Joseph Cornell, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, and Bruce Conner—but was more smitten by the continuity of all the different periods. I was excited by how intimate and accessible this world was, and I felt this was something I could try. Experimental film was more like what I was used to doing—writing poetry and short stories, solo efforts performed daily. I became interested in the cutout genre because of Larry Jordan’s Our Lady of the Sphere [1969]. Paul Sharits, who was my teacher at SUNY Buffalo, had a strong influence on The Pettifogger, as did Robert Breer.

TP: What about influences other than filmmakers?

LK: Robert Rauschenberg’s silk-screen paintings from 1962–64 are touchstones for me. They intersect with my life. Newspaper imagery, depictions of New York City through its street signs and buildings, images of the Yankees, astronauts, JFK—all heroic icons of my childhood. His layered compositions; the messy, crude, textured informality of the paint itself gluing them together. I touch the paint with my eyes but can taste it in the back of my throat.

TP: In the mid-1980s you made “Picture Books for Adults” [1983­­–85], a series of eight Super 8 films you call “a media autobiography.” Six of these use found footage, sometimes juxtaposing “real” action from Hollywood movies with cartoons. Armies from different films ride against one another; live-action violence is crosscut with cartoon violence. Even though other filmmakers edited found footage, your efforts at this seem less like formal exercises than sprung from a primal impulse. The material is so furiously edited that it borders on collage, which you had already tried but which would become more dominant.

LK: Yes. The fury had to do with many things: driving a taxi in Manhattan, the danger and exhilaration of New York City, and my desire to emulate and translate into my films the passion and speed of the punk and new-wave music I was listening to. As I developed as a filmmaker, I was consciously working through other filmmakers’ styles, creating my own version of their films. I wasn’t a very good mimic, so I always got it wrong and, in so doing, broke new ground.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, collage was bubbling up everywhere in downtown New York. In 1979, when I first saw the Wooster Group, I came away inspired, convinced that collage was what I most wanted to do. Of greatest significance, however, was my age. I was in my late twenties. My sense of self and my masculinity were deeply embattled. I was in Gestalt therapy at the time. There was a therapist-guided exercise where I’d have a conversation with myself, but I’d have to literally switch seats (completely awkward and humiliating) to speak as different parts of myself. What inevitably arose was an argument between a strong and a weak side.

While editing What’s Going On Here, Joe?, this experience informed the montage and motivated the cuts. A successful cut had to satisfy two requirements: It had to have a visual link connecting two images from disparate sources, and it had to keep the dialogue going between these two warring forces of my psyche. Because I had amassed a collection of Super 8 highlight films—ten-minute synopses of Hollywood features that I bought in a junk store on Canal Street—I had a large enough image library to make associative connections between shots.

TP: One could see cutouts as another form of appropriation over which you have complete control, beyond the editing. Maybe your experience battling two selves and the “furious” nature of your montage of found footage led to this need for greater authority over disparate material.

LK: It was an issue of control. I wanted to select more of what was in the frame. With found footage, I was stuck with what was already there. Cutouts had limitations, too, but these excited me and became part of my work’s meaning. I made formal choices emphasizing these limitations, and this separated me from my predecessors. I shot not just for smoothness but to create staccato movement. I often emphasized stillness. I didn’t use glass to flatten the cutouts, so they cast shadows, which is considered a mistake even in the avant-garde. But I loved the way the shadows both enhanced and ruptured the sense of illusion.

Still from Lewis Klahr’s Altair, 1994, 16 mm, color, sound, 8 minutes.

TP: Can you describe what you do to create your images? How are they situated and shot in relation to the camera?

LK: It’s simple and lo-fi. I have a camera—presently a 35-mm digital still camera with a zoom lens—mounted on a sturdy tripod pointing down at my garage floor. I look through the lens to place my cutouts and build a composition. I use a clip light for illumination. My cutout universe is miniature, never larger than eight by eleven inches but usually smaller. Once I set a composition, I start to shoot frame by frame and choreograph the cutouts under the lens. I’m very open to accidents and their expressivity—the way the light can heat up a paper cutout and make it buckle.

TP: The balance between montage and collage seems especially important in your work.

LK: I see collage and montage as being intertwined, very integrated in my films. Most animators prefer to edit in camera. I shoot to edit and often have sequences in mind while shooting. Events unfold within a shot, and connections between shots create other meanings and associations. I’ve always valued both.

TP: When did you decide that “animation” was not what you were doing?

LK: When I first started to work with cutouts, I naively thought of myself as an animator, but eventually it seemed an inaccurate term. I came to understand myself first and foremost as a collagist and an experimental filmmaker. The expectations of collage, which puts the focus on my source materials, provide better entry to my films than do the expectations of animation. Since I was a boy I’ve been sensitive to what was disappearing. Once an object or image is outmoded, it is dead. So I primarily work with dead images, which makes me a reanimator, not an animator.

TP: Between 1988 and 1991, you made the multipart “Tales of the Forgotten Future,” a complex and fascinating series of films with many autobiographical references, a generous use of photographs, recurring images of suburban life and women’s apparel and sexual interactions. Did you have an overall concept in mind when you began this series?

LK: Creating that work was my leap into full-time collage filmmaking. I was spilling over with ideas and collected source materials. I had the title, but I had no idea the work would end up being twelve films divided into four parts. I improvised but couldn’t have planned the structure better for a series concerned with time and memory, with its clear numerical references to months and seasons. Each section focuses personal and cultural history through allusions to film genres. For example, part 2,5 O’Clock Worlds” [1989–90], combines 1950s Cold War sci-fi with allegorical fantasy. I was adding up the world I inherited, lived in as a child, and was living in as an adult. I was striving for an unreachable completeness. In the first film of the series, a skeleton crash-lands in the desert and searches for a skin to cover his bones, just as I was searching for as many facets of my identity as I could find. The journey circles back in the final image of the series, where a man in a coffin becomes a skeleton. This search took me through many dark, uncomfortable places. But the concluding, fourth part—“Right Hand Shade” [1990–91]—has a potent way of completely undoing all the mythologizing and hyperbolic illusion-making in the preceding films, especially in regard to the depictions of women. Everything that has come before is recontextualized and needs to be reconsidered; the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

TP: Given the way film genres enter your work, what are some of the stronger Hollywood influences?

LK: Favorite filmmakers include Jacques Tourneur and Vincente Minnelli, but genre itself is Hollywood’s biggest influence on me. Melodrama, noir, sci-fi, as defined by classic Hollywood, are endlessly useful as a kind of map of the world, a map that audiences know and can follow. For me, cutouts are a hieroglyphic form that relies on compression and shorthand. I, too, need this map to make my films.

TP: Many of the titles of your films are striking. Their connotations indicate a resistance to having your works pinned down to single meanings. Is
this deliberate?

LK: Yes. It’s not unlike my approach to montage: to suggest just enough to attach the words to the film but to leave an openness that creates mystery and another place for the viewer to ponder and interpret. The title Pony Glass [1997], for example, refers to a type of bar glass I saw listed on a place mat in a diner. Since the film is about the secret life of boy/man comic-book character Jimmy Olsen, the title felt right. The Pharaoh’s Belt [1993] came from a parenthetical aside in Janson’s History of Art, which explains that the bull’s tail was part of pharaonic ceremonial garb for three thousand years. When I read this at age twenty-four, the notion that anything could last that long was mind-boggling—especially compared with our fast-paced consumer society, where things pass quickly into obsolescence. The reference crystallized a central meaning of the film for me.

Still from Lewis Klahr’s Hi-Fi Cadets, 1989, Super 8 mm, color, sound, 11 minutes 16 seconds. From the series “Tales of the Forgotten Future,” 1988–91, part 2, “5 O’Clock Worlds,” 1989–90.

TP: The Pharaoh’s Belt is generally considered one of your best works. Do you see it as a culmination of a certain period of your life and work?

LK: The film so fully described my childhood that I thought I was finished with that theme. It marked my change from Super 8 to 16 mm. My increase in control was exponential. I could edit sound and image with precision and, most significantly, capture the full range of color in my source materials. More than any other visual quality, color has always most deeply evoked my childhood. The film’s scale was new for me. I always felt my Super 8 work was as viable on a video monitor as on the movie screen. But The Pharaoh’s Belt needed to be seen on the big screen, so that its detailed compositions could be appreciated. Its forty-two-minute duration allowed for a far-flung associative structure, which made it seem more “classically modernist” than my previous cutout work.

TP: There are so many wonderful juxtapositions and interactions—for instance, the miniature warrior figures in different domestic settings. One of the strongest images is of a big yellow birthday cake with green icing, ensconced in which is a black-and-white image of an ailing child. Is this you? If so, what should we make of the little mermaid figure who seems to extract a heart from this boy?

LK: Yes, the cake boy is me. I was often sick as a child and would miss weeks of school. The film can be understood as the cake boy’s fever dream. Illness is inscribed in the film in several ways. The cake-boy theme is based on a distressing experience I had as a child when I was left alone and was too sick to move or call for help and was afraid I might die. The image of the father’s heart attack is based on my father and my fear he would die just such an early death. But my favorite take on that theme is when the boy, now blindfolded, decapitates the father, but the father’s body lives on as a shirt, acquires new heads, and becomes more fun—a kind of wish fulfillment, because my father was a workaholic.

The mermaid draws that black heart from the boy near the end of the film. It symbolizes not only her curing his fever but also his lovesickness. My wife, the theater artist and experimental filmmaker Janie Geiser, and I became a couple just before I started to shoot The Pharaoh’s Belt. The fever dream is a journey to love and a way I wanted to inscribe my relationship with Janie in the film. I am describing more adult events in my films than perhaps people realize. I am just doing it through the lens of an adult adopting a child’s perspective.

TP: Which other films are about your childhood?

LK: 1966 [1984], the final film of the series “Picture Books for Adults,” was a first attempt to pull together in one film source material drenched in memory and nostalgia. Even though it’s not a cutout film, it’s a dry run of the terrain I would explore in greater depth and with greater maturity in The Pharaoh’s Belt. Daylight Moon [2002] captures a color experience of green that isn’t attached to a specific memory from my childhood but is rather an omnipresent essence. Both films represented significant leaps in my growth as an editor and the ruthlessness one must adopt toward one’s footage to make it effective.

TP: To move on to The Pettifogger is to leap over many works in the past decade. But it’s clear that this richly textured video is another threshold. The dictionary defines a pettifogger as an unscrupulous lawyer or “one who quibbles over trivia.” In addition to describing the comic-book character in the film, I can’t help wondering whether there’s also an ironic, self-mocking aspect to the title—perhaps reflecting occasional doubts about what you do.

LK: Actually, you’re onto something that I joke about but is aesthetically quite serious. I do mean The Pettifogger, a crime film, to evoke appropriation as theft. There is a collaborative but also parasitic reality to appropriation analogous to swindling or a confidence game. When does a work of collage become new and different from its sources? Does it ever? As a filmmaker, am I a fake or a poser?

TP: Neither, in my judgment. I asked the question because I think there’s a powerful, convincing, and valuable psychological dimension to your work—not only in the childhood films.

LK: I do take a strong psychological approach in both my thinking generally and my filmmaking. Some filmmakers are unhappy with this kind of interpretation, but I’ve always been intrigued by it.

Still from Lewis Klahr’s The Pharaoh’s Belt, 1993, 16 mm, color, sound, 41 minutes 50 seconds.

TP: The value you place on associative links confirms that. A great example of the way in which your images serve a linear purpose while retaining iconic strength is the journey the pettifogger makes. Progress north is denoted by a series of license plates—South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New York—alternating with gas stations, open suitcases, and so forth, as traffic sounds dominate. When the character goes west, a cutout steering wheel floats from right to left across a skeletal map of the United States. These images seize our attention culturally and optically beyond their fictional serviceability, partly because of the surprise and invention of your choices. Moved about methodically in each frame, the individual pictorial elements resist immersion so thoroughly that I can’t help but think of this trait as an effort to hold on to everything, including childhood memories—of preventing it all from slipping away into that obsolescence you spoke of earlier.

LK: I do want these images to be simultaneously inside and outside the narrative. The road trip is a hieroglyphic diary of the everyday, or ordinary lived time. Whole days and complete visits to various states are reduced to a breakfast, a boxing match, a cloud formation, the color blue.

TP: In taking dialogue from the television show The Fugitive [1963–67] and rearranging it to fit the story, you stripped it of clichés and lent it a mystery absent in the original. Can you speak about the sound track as a whole?

LK: I did want to make the dialogue more mysterious—also more open and evocative of the everyday. My experience as a Hollywood screenwriter helped me with this task. It required eliminating a lot of expositional dialogue. But I also create a new story with new characters. The fugitive on the TV show is an innocent man on the run. I’ve turned him into a criminal, a con man. In the original, he is not sexually involved with the young woman with whom he interacts in the episode, but in my film they are involved.

I recorded parts of the soundscape without going directly from machine to machine. For example, for the rainstorm that dominates the latter part of the sound track, I took a tape recording of a storm I had made in the 1980s, played it on the stereo in my dining room, and recorded it again so that it absorbed the ambience and noise of that room, adding a subtle secondary level to the original—a bit of 2011 added to the mid-1980s. I played the episode from The Fugitive on my bedroom TV and used a small tape recorder to capture its sound track.

The sound track is meant to suggest a realistic world at odds with the artifice and limitations of the cutouts, while at the same time filling them out. As I often do, I create a fictional universe while simultaneously puncturing, deflating, or destroying it. The sound does and doesn’t attach to the images; it syncs up, then drifts away. I also sought to create a perceptual address that climaxes during the rainstorm, with the flash frames and their afterimages heightening and cleansing the senses.

TP: In a way, the two final images capture the formal and thematic poles of your work. One is the black-and-white shot of a Christmas tree ornament, dimly reflecting what’s around it. The other is a light fixture set against a yellow “ceiling.” The magical world of childhood, though seen through a glass darkly, is countered by an everyday, utilitarian object. Yet rather than juxtapose them, you separate them with credits. In other words, though they suggest connection and contrast, their relationship is suspended by your intervention. Nothing could be more Klahr-like. But since this reading may seem too much like formal closure, I leave the last word to you to defuse or debunk it.

LK: You still got the juxtaposition despite the interruption of the credits. But there are other ways to understand these images. The Christmas ornament conveys that a fictional year has passed since the film began. It completes the film’s diaristic trajectory. The ceiling-light image after the closing credits is a grace note to emphasize that the pettifogger’s story is one of a life’s collapse but not its end. I mean it to be hopeful yet pragmatic. I also invite viewers to take the perception of the film out of the theater and perhaps see the small corners and fleeting aspects of the everyday world a little more vividly.

Tony Pipolo is the author of Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford University Press, 2010).