What many non-narrative films lose with lack of conventional story, character, and performance, they make up for with simplicity. What may take a traditional narrative film anywhere from an hour and a half to 3 hours to express, a non-narrative film can relate in a matter of minutes. If you watched Puce Moment, highlighted in last week’s entry, and Sunset Blvd. back to back, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about. The two films tell essentially the same story, but Billy Wilder’s film is nearly two hours long, compared to Kenneth Anger’s 6 minute glimpse. Not to say Anger’s film is better, of course. It just has the advantage in one department.
In some cases, simplicity is more of an advantage than others. Without being bound to story and characterization, a filmmaker can be free to express an idea that may be too difficult to construct narrative film around. Lewis Klahr has made his career a constant reminder of this fact. I’m sure he’ll come up again here (his Pony Glass is one of my favorite animated movies, and one I’m excited to write about), but today I’d like to focus on his third film, 1995’s Altair.
Underneath the noir trappings and Stravinsky music of Altair’s collage of late-1940’s Cosmopolitan advertisements and images, astronomical maps, playing cards, and drink menus, Klahr critiques the idea of that women should conform to a beauty standard, and that for women, physical attributes are much more important than any personality traits for success in society. The tools he uses—the aforementioned media, music and mood—manipulate what we feel to reveal just how little the world had changed between 1945 and 1995—and 1995 and today, for that matter. He’s not merely making a film; he’s writing with images.
Klahr himself describes his process as a form of language. “It’s got a lot to do with hieroglyphics: this kind of visual shorthand, storing cultural memory,” Klahr told the Village Voice in 2000. “I’m the kind of person who used to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the Egyptian exhibit, because I was fascinated by the idea of this string of images forming a kind of sentence; I never took the step to find out what they meant, because I didn’t want to know. It’s the same with Hollywood: This image of a woman, this image of a car, this of a gun, you’ve got a noir in three images.”
In Altair, the woman, the car, and the gun are all there, and the noir is too. The women of Altair are both angelic and dangerous, both the typical good girl and the iconic femme fatale that would appear in many classic noirs. These women are cut from advertisements, and as such, both the victims and perpetrators of the beauty myth. The women in these advertisements are reduced to character types: the perfect housewife, the sex kitten, the concerned mother, etc. These were the only options Cosmopolitan and their advertisers presented to women in the 1940s.
The music Klahr chose is a part of his collage, an extension of the hieroglyphics he uses to speak to us. Beyond matching the noir feel of the film, the “Lullaby” movement in Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet, The Firebird, is a moment when the several of ballet’s characters fall into a deep sleep, bewitched by the titular Firebird. The women of Altair are hypnotized by advertisements, magazines, doctors, their husbands, and society as a whole to conform to the roles to which they were ascribed.
Images of liquor are repeated throughout Altair. Bottles of whiskey, half-empty rocks glasses, and drink menus share the screen with their female co-stars. In one of the first shots of the film, where characters—I use the term very loosely—dance in front of a list of different liquors and what part of the body they affect positively. This list appears several more times over the 8-minute course of the film, always as a partially obscured background to some sort of action. I can’t help but think this menu, joining liquor and the body, is as important to the feel of the movie as any other, suggesting the drunken, abusive husband, the leering barflies, and dulled pain.
There are very few images of men in Altair. In most cases, men are suggested rather than directly represented. However, there are three repeated male characters, who appear in succession several times in the film: a judge, a doctor, and what appears to be a pharmacist. I’m hesitant to assign any image in such a dense film a set meaning, but I looked at the judge as a representative of the government, the doctor as a representative of science, and the pharmacist as a representative of commerce, three bodies that constantly attempt to limit and control women’s bodies. Of course, they could just be characters in the story Klahr has in his mind, or mean something else, or be dadaist unrelated images.
I’m completely willing to admit that there are a lot of parts of Altair I just don’t understand, and may never understand. For example, several times during the film a telegram, the words unintelligible, appears on screen as a background to an action. The judge, the doctor, and the pharmacist frequently appear in front of the telegram. I’m less convinced the telegram has a meaning than that it’s meant to convey a feeling. The image of a telegram is never one that connotes good news to me. In my mind, I associate it with dead soldiers and other tragedies. The image is meaningless, but it still leaves an impression.
Playing cards have certain symbolic significances; they are somewhat closely related the tarot and can symbolize the inescapability of fate. They also represent the seedy underside of a culture based on possession, and the American dream that with one good hand your fate can change. Playing cards appear at random times throughout Altair, and they don’t feel, in this context, at all lucky. There’s no chance of a big break here. There’s no chance you’ll hit 21. There’s just the fact that the women in this story will continue down their terrible paths, without any hope of escape.
The Klahr films I’ve seen deal with conformity. Altair is about the horror of conforming to a beauty standard, while Pony Glass speaks to the anxiety of a gay man in a world still very unwilling to accept him as he is. There’s no more appropriate medium for a nonconformist message than the non-narrative films. Not only is Klahr unwilling to submit to what the society considers normal, he won’t use traditional plotting, character or media in breaking free of this idea. But his movies are incredibly watchable. Non-narrative film can be dauntingly inscrutable, but Klahr’s work never really feels difficult. Klahr focuses on mood, evoking a feeling using familiar images, and while you or I may not understand the meaning, we understand the intent.