The University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center has been having a fantastic year so far when it comes to experimental cinema. Hot on the heels (-ish) of their “Troubling the Image” series, last night they booked Lewis Klahr’s twelve-part, feature-length Sixty Six (2015), for what is I believe its Chicago debut.
Klahr was there in attendance, taking part in a very animated Q&A after the screening. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a Q&A with such an extreme questions-asked-to-time-filmmaker-talked ratio, and while some might have accused Klahr of self-indulgent rambling, I really rather enjoyed his tangents, and found that he had quite a lot of fascinating points to make about his process.
I have never noticed Klahr’s films to be quite so three-dimensional as Sixty Six. I have marveled before at how many disparate paper-based elements Klahr can layer within a single frame, but what I have remembered, on the whole, is paper. Aside from some quick experiments in found footage—out of what I’ve seen, this includes only the “What’s Going on Here, Joe?” segment of Picture Books for Adults (1985)—Klahr is a filmmaker I associate solely with the collage of cut-out comics imagery, advertisements, instructional booklets, stationary, and the occasional unidentifiable photograph. But there is so much more noticeable depth in Sixty Six. Just a few minutes in, we are already seeing depth-of-field effects, with a clearly delineated out-of-focus foreground plane and in-focus background plane. From there, various three dimensional objects intruded into Klahr’s 2D world: marbles, evergreen twigs, Klahr’s own saliva, various flowers, and a dead mosquito that momentarily becomes one of the work’s central villains.
At first, I was sure that some influence from Janie Geiser was rubbing off on Klahr. Klahr, however, put this notion to rest. The depth, he insisted, had always been there in his films: it was just that new technology was making it easier to see. Shooting on high-quality digital video, and projecting via DCP, had made a long-standing technique of his more prominent and visible. (Just to pause: I do have to say that the DCP copy the Film Studies Center projected was one of the most marvelously beautiful things I have ever experienced, with texture of paper and plastic popping out directly into my brain. I am a longtime lover of the specific color and grain of 16mm, but if this is the future of experimental cinema, I look forward to it immensely.)
Klahr explained his reasoning behind the things like the mosquito, the marbles, the flowers. He wanted to give the audience time to get used to something, he said, before changing it up, as a way of having an impact. These moments of sudden depth, where we are no longer inhabiting a universe of pure paper, are moment where he can “break things open,” after we have acclimated ourselves to flatness.
Other wonders abounded in Sixty Six. The segment “Lip Print (Venus)” used varying degrees of focus to pull out and isolate hidden details from the comics printing process. Klahr proposed that his focus on printing imperfections, where ink spills into spaces where it oughtn’t be, was supposed to form a visual analog of “things not staying where they’re supposed to stay” to accompany its story of a woman’s awakening to same-sex attraction. Whether or not one picks up on the resonances, the segment is visually fascinating throughout, and, along with Joseph Cornell’s Jack’s Dream, stacks up as one of my favorite uses of Debussy’s Clair de lune as a film score.
Klahr billed Sixty Six‘s final segment, “Lethe,” as the moment when, as a filmmaker, he finally learned to tell a story coherently. I don’t think I agree with this—the first time I saw it, I remember the story of False Aging (2008) to be fairly easy to follow (though who knows if I’d have the same reaction if I saw it again)—but it is true that “Lethe” stands as a remarkable achievement. I also like the anecdote Klahr related, about coming to the realization that he was an incompetent cinematic storyteller, but that this actually made his films more interesting, by putting an elusive and evocative spin on them.
A few more things that Klahr said, worth quoting for posterity. First, on the importance of textural details in his work (whether that’s the texture of paper, or printing mistakes, or the mistakes he made when cutting out tiny figures—any of the things we notice when the camera gets very, very close to what it’s filming):
It looks like I’m going into abstraction. But that kind of molecular fabric is part of the details of the story. It’s part of the glue that holds things together.
On the use of found materials, in general, and the unique possibilities they bring:
I’m collaborating. It’s not me. And it is me. Those things co-exist, simultaneously.
Special thanks to Julia Gibbs for all the great work she does at the FSC, and to Tom Gunning for introducing Klahr and handling the first bit of the Q&A. A great night, all around.