Collective Unconscious
[Originally published in Film Comment, May/June 2010]

Even the most dedicated cinephile knows what it’s like to fall asleep at the movies. The confusion upon awakening is akin to the sensation sought by the Surrealists who would walk into movies already in progress and leave once the plot started to make sense. In struggling to find his or her bearings, the viewer becomes an active participant—and since the subconscious is still partially engaged, for a time the movie theater becomes a place for lucid dreaming.

The collage animations of Lewis Klahr can induce a similarly rewarding disorientation. Narrative is present to a greater or lesser degree in his films and videos, but it’s often submerged. The viewer has to search out and construct meaning. Klahr’s films unspool like Delphic visions or vignettes glimpsed in a crystal ball in which dream, memory, and history—and past, present, future, and phantom tenses—are indistinguishable. The necessity of interpretive engagement is crucial to the power of the work.

The materials Klahr utilizes—objects and images culled from mainly mid-20th-century advertising, comic books, and other ephemera of American commerce and popular culture—are often inherently seductive. But his lo-fi animation style ensures that his voice and relationship with the material is always foregrounded. Far removed from the smooth, illusionist techniques of hand-drawn or digital animation, Klahr's collages move in fits and starts. Shooting in his garage without an animation stand to create his arrhythmic visual cadences and elliptical narratives, the filmmaker doesn't so much bring his subjects to life as turn them into hieroglyphs of myth or allegory. In Time Regained, Proust's narrator remarks apropos the difficulties facing novelists attempting to translate the inner life into art: "The book whose hieroglyphs are patterns not traced by us is the only book that really belongs to us." Likewise, by basing his art around archeological diggings from the recent past, Klahr fashions reveries that reveal the unconscious of what Walter Benjamin called the "dreaming collective," providing a portrait of American materialism through its own images of itself. Benjamin and Proust are not evoked lightly: Klahr's body of work serves as an Arcades Project for the advertising age and an In Search of Lost Time with a killer backbeat and dolorous melody.

Born in 1956, Klahr grew up in New York and studied at SUNY Purchase and SUNY Buffalo in the mid to late Seventies. Although he encountered the collage animations of Lawrence Jordan, Stan Vanderbeek, and Harry Smith, he was more profoundly influenced by the films of Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner, Joseph Cornell, and Ken Jacobs. His eight-part debut collection of Super-8 films, Picture Books for Adults (83-85), features only two cutout animations, Deep Fishtank Birding (83) and Deep Fishtank, Too (85), while the rest are collages of found footage and re-photography. Conner looms large. The montage collision of disaster, masculinity, and war in What's Going on Here, Joe? (85) feels like a pulpier version of A Movie from a child's point of view; and 1966 (84), a wistful, tender portrait of the year from the perspective of a 10-year-old, recalls Conner's gentle memory piece Valse Triste. Klahr's work in Super 8—the format of home movies and living room screenings—establishes a hallmark of his oeuvre: the refashioning of mass-produced industrial images into objects with a domestic, personal resonance. Picture Books for Adults shows how these materials could be used to mold identities and foster wonder and mystery for grown-ups who have not lost their childhood curiosity and play.

With its vivid use of Rodgers and Hemmerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening" and The Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee," Picture Books for Adults also provides an early glimpse of how integral music would become to Klahr's work. It's through his deep and sensitive engagement with the hopes, illusions, and emotions within particular pieces of music that Klahr most clearly emerges as an heir to Conner and Anger. His tendency to group films into series can be related to his coming of age during the heyday of the LP. Like a well-sequenced album, the individual films function effectively on their own but deepen when seen in context. Klahr's next Super-8 series, Tales of the Forgotten Future (88-91), is like an epic double LP, testing the boundaries and possibilities of its format: imagine the ambition and variety of the Beatles' The White Album expressed with the raw, impenetrable punk brio of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade. Consisting of 12 films, equally divided into four sections, Tales is a sprawling two-and-a-quarter-hour fantasia on the American Century.

Klahr sometimes refers to himself as a "re-animator," bringing "dead" imagery, fashions, and thought processes back to life, while also demonstrating that the outmoded and obsolete are still with us. ("The pastness of the present," he calls it.) Tales of the Forgotten Future conjures these ephemera from out of the past, uses them to travel through time, and arranges them with complete narrative freedom, to swooning, delirious effect. Klahr's material exists on (at least) two levels: as documentary artifacts of of whatever encyclopedia or advertisement they were taken from, and as pure images, which Klahr then places in fresh settings. In Tales, the new contexts often involve outsiders searching for identities in an alien America. Besides several pop songs, the soundtrack is primarily a collage of wind, crickets, mechanical whirs, and other ambient sound. Where music so often grounds Klahr's films, the protean stories of Tales have fewer signposts.

Klahr also overturns the usual flatness of collage by introducing subjective points of view for his protagonists and multiple planes of depth. Point of view acts less to establish greater identification with the characters than to incorporate the grammar of classical Hollywood storytelling. Klahr draws on film noir and melodrama throughout Tales and much of his later work, but genre in Klahr's films carries the force of the remembered, a factor that keeps them from inhabiting only the present tense. Stories are told in ways that mimic the processes fo memory; scene skip from one haunted and iconic scenario to another. Genre is pared to its intrinsic elements and presented as a fever dream. The films circumvent language and defy any attempt to make rational sense of their scenarios. These are truly tales that can't be retold.

The seven-part Engram Sepals (Melodramas 1994-2000), Klahr's most widely seen project to date, finds him at his peak in terms of capitalizing on the seductiveness and deceptiveness of his chosen materials. Shot in 16mm, the films are lusher, their color more vibrant, and their sting that much more sharp—aptly so given the theme and trajectory. Engram Sepals starts off with Altair (94), a film of almost unseemly beauty. A delirious swirl of enticing images from late Forties issues of Cosmopolitan traces the downward spiral of a befuddled woman drowning in vodka martinis as society mercilessly puts her through its paces. The resulting sense of lightheartedness perfectly sets up the rest of the series, which circles characters grappling with the American horn of plenty from the late Forties through the Seventies. Faced with the out-of-control materialism of postwar consumer culture, the figure in Engram Sepals seek oblivion through various forms of addiction that get increasingly debauched as the series progresses.

I've heard people describe Klahr's work as "kitsch" after seeing a single film in isolation, but he eschews the easy tactics of irony and camp that can be a temptation of collage animation. His work maintains a tricky and singular tone, and it often takes exposure to several films to get past the surface and grasp the deeply felt critical engagement of his larger project. No matter how far he deviates from the original focus of the materials, Klahr never condescends to their subjects. Engram Sepals reaches its lowest point of debasement and ugliness in Downs Are Feminine. But even in this shag-on-shag tone poem of aberrant figures (cut out from porn magazines) that sleepily violate each other in a Seventies-era domestic setting, the images are infused with a tenderness and empathy that offsets the bottomed-out goings-on with a paradoxical sweetness. At one point, the body of a drugged-out man is awkwardly disended across an eyesore of a living room, and a gloved hand enters the frame, not for carnal probings but to gently stroke his head. It's as if Klahr is inserting himself into the film from several decades' remove, trying to ease the pain of its self-medicating denizens.

In 2007, Klahr began working in digital video, and the change in media seems to have reinvigorated him: in less that two years he has created eight works that inaugurate a new cycle, Prolix Satori. This series differs from those previous in its open-endedness and ability to accomodate a variety of themes. Klahr has said that he could foresee making works for the Prolix Satori project for the rest of his artistic career. As the title implies, some of the series' most salient elements to date are duration (ranging from one to 22 minutes), repetition, and the motif of awakening. Klahr's methods and oeuvre have been described as obsessive, and with Prolix Satori he seems to have found a satisfying form that allows him to play and explore permutations endlessly. (Five of the eight videos are also classified as part of a sub-grouping, "The Couplets." So far these are primarily built around pairings of pop songs, but all deal with that favored subject of ballads: the vagaries of romantic love.)

One of the main developments in the initial batch of Prolix Satori videos is their investigation of repetition. Rhythmically repeating images have always been a central component in Klahr's films, but in recent years he has been increasingly incorporating other varieties of iteration. In Altair, a four-minute excerpt from Stravinsky's The Firebird is played twice, inducing a claustrophobic atmosphere that presents the protagonist's plight as preordained and inexorable. The neo-psychedelic musical backdrop for Downs Are Feminine is Mercury Rev's "Downs Are Feminine Balloon," which Klahr cues up a second time to mirror the character's insatiable hedonism, deflating the cathartic closure of the traditional pop song.

Likewise, Wednesday Morning Two A.M. (09)—one of the Prolix Satori couplets—runs the same song twice, back to back. This time it's the Shangri-Las' "I'll Never Learn," whose off-kilter, mournful syncopation dictates the tempo of Klahr's animation. First, the song accompanies a cutout tale about a woman lamenting a lost love affair. The second time, the visuals consist of a stream of abstract imagery, colors, and patterns. Now, rather than stasis, repetition suggests progress—even a form of mastery. Klahr optimistically rejects the defeat in the lyrics of the Shangri-Las: the film's protagonist is learning. Wednesday Morning Two A.M. has been enthusiastically received, perhaps not only because it's among his most visually ravishing works but also because it's one of the most hopeful.

Klahr's three "Nimbus" videos constitute an even more arresting and sensitive experiment in repetition and memory. Set in Sixties New York, Nimbus Smile (09) depicts the love triangle between a married woman, her husband, and her lover, its wistful action synched up with the lyrics of the Velvet Underground's iconic "Pale Blue Eyes." The second video, Nimbus Seeds (09), which is intended to be shown immediately after Nimbus Smile, uses exactly the same visuals but is set to an ambient soundtrack of rain, footsteps, doors, and snatches of classical music. It's astonishing how different the images feel when combined with a different soundtrack. In Smile, the music provides a narrative through-line that makes the video seem to take place in the present tense, but the Seeds soundtrack foregrounds the abstraction of the material. Its narrative moments now seem to unfold as memories—perhaps beccause the Velvet Underground song makes its absence felt, lingering on in the mind of the viewer. The third entry in the series, Cumulonimbus (10), sets the collage soundtrack from Seeds to entirely new visuals, and it recedes into the background as the visuals come to the fore. Cumulonimbus, like many of the best Klahr films, centers on loss, love, and memory. It recounts a new romantic relationship (taken primarily from Silver Age issues of the superhero comic book The Flash), leading up to what might be considered a surprise plot twist that brings the "Nimbus" cycle to a close on an appropriately ambiguous tone and temporal tense.

In small doses, Klahr's films may seem in a "minor" vein—to refer to Tom Gunning's pivotal 1989 essay "Towards a Minor Cinema," which contained the first serious analysis of Klahr's work. But when considered in its full depth and breadth, Klahr's oeuvre becomes a major excavation of American cultural and personal history. It also functions as a thorough investigation of the uncanny, the alienation of consumer society, and the power and poetics of narrative and music. Above all, Klahr's great subject is time, which certainly explains the exquisitely melancholy tone that pervades his work. He traffics in modes that are pitched just beyond the realm of reason. Somewhere between waking and sleeping, we can find that wavelength and achieve understanding—only to have it slip away as we enter one state or the other. Klahr's films and videos provide a rare opportunity for us to engage with a liminal state of consciousness with our alert mind and to reach those "infrathin" moments that Proust describes as existing outside of time.

ESSENTIAL KLAHR [sidebar]

Her Fragrant Emulsion (1987)
Klahr slices footage of actress Mimsy Farmer from the 1970 B-movie Road to Salina into strips of various shapes and sizes that initiate a chase after an ever-elusive object of desire.

Tales of the Forgotten Future (1988-91)
Greater than the sum of its diverse parts, this 12-film series captures the anxieties, dreams, promises, and disappointments of the American Century, culminating in the poignant 21-minute silent Untitled (The Life of Naomi Lang), which imagines the life of a woman and her milieu by animating images from eight family photo albums that Klahr found in a used bookstore.

The Pharaoh's Belt (1993)
Klahr's first 16mm film depicts the domestic odyssey of a boy seemingly in a hyperglycemic fugue state, his living room becoming an interstellar microcosm containing all the dangers and wonders of the mid-century popular imagination.

Downs Are Feminine (1994)
A cautionary tale without the moralizing, blurring the boundary between bacchanalia and torpor, and impishly investigating zonked-out lives with fascination and concern.

Pony Glass (1997)
Perhaps Klahr's best-known film employs a three-song, three-act structure for a melodrama in which Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen experiences all the anxieties that the Fifties and Sixties had to offer and, after a series of romantic traumas, ends up defending an entirely different type of freedom.

Govinda (1999)
The fulcrum of the Engram Sepals series is a melodramatic freak-out in three acts and one of the most remarkable portraits of the counterculture's rise and fall in the Sixties and Seventies. Built around found footage, home movies, and exploitation films rephotographed off TV screens, it examines whether you can go home again after you tune in, turn on, and drop out. You can, but you'll never see things the same way.

The Aperture of Ghostings (1999-2001)
A trilogy centered on photographic contact sheets of three different women from the mid-Sixties. Klahr builds imaginary settings for each: Elsa Kirk (99) has the trappings of film noir while Creased Robe Smile (01) is the closest the filmmaker has come to making a Hollywood musical.

Daylight Moon (2002)
Hints of a crime drama hand over the generally abstract proceedings in one of the most exhilarating explorations of light, shadow, color, rhythm, and melancholy in recent cinema. It's a virtuosic work of subtlety, seemingly composed of the types of memories Proust termed "impressions," which also carry the weight of existence. The music in the three sections comes from the soundtrack albums of Peter Pan and The Night of the Hunter, and Nick Drake's "River Man."

The Two Minutes to Zero Trilogy (2003-04)
Three films of dramatically decreasingly length retell the same crime story with identical imagery from issues of 77 Sunset Strip comic books that Klahr waves in front of his static camera. The first time around is a relatively leisurely 23-minute affair set to Sixties SoCal psychedelic folk-rock; the second time is an ecstatic nine-minute Ben-Day ballet accompanied by Rhys Chatham's monumental "Guitar Trio." The narrative compression reaches its end point in the third iteration, one minute long and set to music by Glenn Branca. Pure pop for noir people.

False Aging (2008)
Klahr's most recent three-act piece (the first of the Prolix Satori videos) is a powerful character study tracking the stages in a man's life, from innocenceand wonder to loneliness and bitterness. Perfectly calibrated musical selections reinforce the tragedy of time passing and the wasted potential of even a productive life.

Lethe (2009)
A straightforward narrative film by Klahr's standards, Lethe is a pulpy melodrama that incorporates sci-fi B-movie elements into a story straight out of a Vincente Minnelli women's picture. It also functions as one of Klahr's most sophisticated enactments of the intertwining of Thanatos and Eros, as if the inanimate materials that he is bringing back to life wish to return to their natural state of dead calm.

The Nimbus Trilogy (2009-10)
Three romantic entanglements play out in the three "Nimbus" videos, which extend Klahr's interest in constructing almost legible narratives—but doinog so in formalist terms that complicate and enhance the traditional pleasures of stories. The trilogy's closer, Cumulonimbus, is a movingly mature account of grief with a puckish sting in its tail.

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 Nimbus Smile   (Lewis Klahr, 2009)