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*** (A must-see)

Directed by Lewis Klahr

At the start of Lewis Klahr's The Organ Minder's Gronkey (the first film of Part Two of Tales of the Forgotten Future), a voice urgently shouts, "Evacuate! Evacuate!" A man is then seen to flee through urban landscapes, down highways where none of the cars are moving--presumably following some form of nuclear apocalypse. One image shows his hand covered with a gooey reddish substance; there follows a page from his notebook, in which he writes that he is searching for the "Organ Minder," whose "healing is legendary. If I can find him he can make me well." The film continues, in fits and starts, as both a flight and a search.

Almost all the imagery in this and Klahr's other films is created by cutout animation. No large cast was engaged; no highways were closed down--the cars aren't moving because Klahr filmed his cutout man over still photographs of highways. Eschewing the smooth, slick, transparent look that results from the use of an animation stand, Klahr might film on a table or wall in his cramped New York apartment, combining images from magazines, comics, and other pop-culture sources with cutouts of the actors taken from his own photographs. At times he lifts one cutout above the surface of another, creating an illusion of depth; in one film he also uses original drawings.

The effect of the irregular movements and jagged rhythms that result from Klahr's technique is extraordinary. He often uses objects that are powerful in themselves, whether for their elegant shape or sensual color or for their loaded subject matter--there are a number of nudes. One's eye is attracted to the material, drawn in by elegant compositions and effects of depth, and then confronted--even rebuffed--by the characters' stop/start motions. But in Klahr's cinema of ambiguity, in which the viewer often shifts between past and future, fantasy and reality, flat image and real object, the double vision created by this rejection of illusion is entirely appropriate. Indeed, each film depends on a series of such dualities.

Tales of the Forgotten Future is a projected four-part work, of which the first three parts have been completed, with three separate films per part--12 films in all. Klahr filmed in Super-8, and intends these works to be shown either on a small Super-8 screen or on video monitors; he says it's crucial to preserve the intimacy of a small screen. The two parts being shown at the Film Center on Friday will be shown on video, which is how I previewed them, and I can testify that Klahr's vibrant imagery survives transfer to the tube in a way that many films do not.

Perhaps the reason is that Klahr borrows so much of his imagery from pop culture. These films take as their reality base comics, magazines, photographs, pop songs, and television--the latter present only occasionally in imagery but always in spirit. But Klahr's ambiguities add mystery and depth to materials that might otherwise seem, despite their obvious sensuality, simply flat. Hi Fi Cadets, for example, juxtaposes collaged images of John F. Kennedy drinking with blacks at a bar with a teacher's attempt to teach Hamlet; the combination is enigmatic but evocative.

Images of journeys and transformation abound in Klahr's work. In Verdant Sonar, for instance, cutouts of ships appear to take us on a voyage, and sure enough we end up in a grotesquely colored fantasy paradise. The series title, Tales of the Forgotten Future, provides a clue to that preoccupation: in part it refers to the various futures, both apocalyptic and utopian, forecast by the 50s and 60s imagery that Klahr uses in most of these works. The future is "forgotten" because we have forgotten the past that predicted it, forgotten the way the 50s seemed to point simultaneously to nuclear war and sanitized suburban paradise. More generally Klahr's title suggests the kind of interpenetration of past, present, and future that pervades all these films, created by the imagery of travel across time and through space.

Cartoon Far, for example, sets a goggle-wearing race-car driver against a rapidly shifting background of black-and-white geometrical patterns, suggesting a space traveler more than a hot-rodder. Then in a flashback he recalls an encounter with a woman; when they try to speak to each other, objects emerge, rebuslike, from their mouths in comic-book speech balloons: the man replies to the woman's frying pan with car parts and a ring. The trip continues, now in front of eclipsed suns, now against a drawing of the solar system. Klahr replaces the flatness of the pop-culture images with the expansive vision of a Joseph Cornell, whose boxes and collages also combined disparate, often celestial images to suggest flights of the imagination. The transformative power of memory, or love, Klahr argues, can truly transport one to other worlds.

At the same time, Klahr's expansiveness has a very different quality from Cornell's. Klahr's works are less precisely articulated, closer to the mood of a suggestively poetic rock song than to the French symbolist poets who so inspired Cornell. It is work that depends very much on the viewer's subjective response to create mood, work with one foot in high art and the other in pop culture.

As befits the dualities within Klahr's films, he often organizes his series to accentuate contradictions. Thus the romantic Cartoon Far is followed in Part Three by Yesterday's Glue: in a strange, sci-fi-like interior, women's bodies undergo various sex acts, some involving inanimate objects. There are suggestions of space travel, and the black-and-white imagery has a dark, institutional coldness that, combined with the weird sex, is starkly dehumanizing.

Here we have another duality that threads its way through these films: the individual as warm, caring, sensual, and as an automaton who can unfeelingly undergo various forms of sexual torture. This is really but another form of the opposition between flatness and depth, between real object and simulacrum, that informs the work throughout. For the origins of these dualities, we must look to Klahr's technique.

A sensuous image of an attractive person is seen motionless against a carefully arranged interior of seductive depth. Suddenly, in a short jerk, the figure moves, stops briefly, then moves again. Our eye is energized by Klahr's peculiar rhythms, which seem to stop each thing often enough, or move it just slowly enough, to intensify rather than lessen our gaze. Indeed, much of the initial pleasure in viewing a Klahr film is the pleasure of looking: at forms elegant or erotic, at colors rich and sensuous. The oddly repetitive character of the movements, and the peculiarly cramped intensity of many of the compositions, engenders an almost fetishistic pleasure: the eye fixes on an object, and all energy seems to flow into, and out of, its physical form. Even when the subject matter is not the least bit suggestive, there's an erotics of the fixated gaze, a pleasure that seeks to repeat itself through repeated movements and repeated glances.

But at the same time the very nature of the cutout technique, and in particular Klahr's nonslick use of it, reminds us that we're only viewing scraps of paper. The striking depth effects Klahr achieves also cut both ways, heightening the illusion but reminding us with extra intensity that one scrap of paper placed in front of another does not a world make--except, of course, in the mind. And that is precisely the point: Klahr's dualities point less to a modernist exposing of illusionism than to a vision of the transformative power--and utter fragility--of the imagination.

Klahr's object fetishism is also a commentary on the materialism of our mass culture, a fact that's particularly clear in the last film of Part Three, perhaps my favorite in the whole series, Elevator Music. A view through a car windshield with road signs going by establishes the suburban setting. The woman in the film is later seen driving through a suburban landscape; audaciously Klahr cuts to an overhead view of the same or a similar setting, as if the viewer were moving between different views of an actual space. The woman is also seen in sanitized house interiors, her bright pink dress clashing with the different colors, such as a particularly thick green, of the background. Sometimes she's seen against solid colors, sometimes against abstracted, wallpaperlike patterns. Nudes from an erotic comic cavort in the same room with her; sometimes she notices, sometimes she doesn't. The music on the sound track--which is depressingly faithful to the title--creates a powerful contrast with the erotically charged imagery. Like some depressive drug plastered over everything, the music almost--but not quite, which is what creates the film's admirable tension--renders everything smooth and innocuous. The film as a whole suggests a formalist Peyton Place, a kind of fantasy expose of what goes on behind the well-scrubbed facades of suburbia. At the same time, the tension between the bland and the erotic can be seen as another form of the duality of flatness and depth: the suggestive erotic imagery opens out, but it's undermined by the clean, well-ordered settings and by the innocuous elevator music.

Klahr's films also relate to our mass culture in a way that far transcends any specific references. What he gives us is a cinema in which no form of representation is privileged over any other --a cutout of an actor he has photographed, a cutout from a magazine, a live-action hand are all placed in the same continuum. All are true; none is truth. I suspect that this postmodern relativism, hardly unique to Klahr's work but realized here with particular care and intelligence, has its roots in the character of most 50s childhoods--the mixture of pop songs, photographic magazine imagery, comic books, and above all television and TV channel switching.

By giving form to such relativism, Klahr causes me to reflect once again on what I find most troubling about postmodernism, which is its refusal to place any unique value on the physical, on any particular part of the natural world. Humans, who after all need oxygen and water and sunlight rather than ozone and benzene and darkness, nonetheless regularly provide us with visions in which all objects are created equal, in which a cutout can stand for the universe. But such musings are reflections on our culture, not on the truth of Klahr's depiction of it. Indeed, his work offers a pleasurable and compelling vision of a media-made universe, teetering on the brink of a kind of mental apocalypse in which past and future, real object and flat image, fantasy and reality, are all interdependent, all threatening to meld into one.


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