In Which I Talk About Death Too Much

Cinema raises the dead. No other medium does that. Photographs, painting and sculpture can show us what someone looked like, music can tell us what they sounded like, but no other medium can make them live again. Every day, people that have been dead 60, 80, or 100 years walk and talk before the eyes of the living. From Lillian Gish and Humphrey Bogart to Heath Ledger, anyone with a Netflix account can see these people, who they’ve never met, just like they’re alive in this very moment.

Maybe that’s why Frankenstein is such a popular story in cinema. One of the most frequent subjects of film, as an art, is escaping time and its nasty cousin, death. From Resnais’ Melo to Coppola’s The Conversation, films that deal with attempts to escape death or preserve life in the face of the inevitable often show how futile this quest is. Every story ends the same way. Frankenstein is the purest expression of this. A man raises the dead, defeats the nemesis that no one can defeat, only to create a monster.

Bill Morrison is the Dr. Frankenstein of cinema. Most famous for Decasia (of which Errol Morris said “This may be the greatest movie ever made”) and Film of Her, Morrison has spent the last 20 years stitching together parts of decaying films, unrestored, to create beautiful collages of deterioration. He brings dead movies back to life, in many cases movies long past the point of restoration. Instead of monsters, though, Morrison has created some of the most fascinating, beautiful non-narrative films I’ve ever seen.

If 2010’s Spark of Being is any indication, Morrison himself buys into the comparison with Frankenstein. In the film, he uses pieces of films in various states of disrepair to recreate Frankenstein. Like Lewis Klahr’s Altair, there’s not so much a plot as there is a mood, but Morrison creates a loose structure using chapter titles from Mary Shelley’s novel which, along with our familiarity with the story, lends it some semblance of a storyline.

Spark of Being begins with images of life in its most basic form. Microphotographed footage of squirming cells and other single-celled organisms are soundtracked by a jazz-fusion score composed by trumpeter Dave Douglas. These images give way to the ocean, and our first chapter, “The Captain’s Story,” made up of footage from various arctic expeditions. The only life we see in this place is the sailors aboard the ship breaking through the ice, but we know that microbial life is teeming just below the surface of everything. Even here, riding over the ice on a dog sled, the doctor, the man who wanted to escape death, cannot escape life.

The jazz score is an important part of Morrison’s film. Many of his films are commissioned by or collaborations with musical artists, most frequently jazz musicians and minimalist composers. Jazz seems to be the most suitable music for Morrison’s work. Improvisation in film usually refers to actors making up their lines as they go along, like in Blake Edward’s The Party. Morrison’s films feel improvised in a different way. The deterioration of the film he uses in his collage takes on a life of its own. It’s beautiful, but it’s accidentally beautiful. Morrison is as much an editor as he is a director. What he does is closer to choosing the best take of a song than to composing it. Jazz, the most improvisational genre of music, fits Spark of Being better than any traditional score.

The next chapter, “The Traveler’s Story,” begins with the image of candle being placed into a phantasmagoria, and the lens being fitted in front of it. What’s projected through this lens is a fetus. The phantasmagoria was cinema in its fetal form. Before photography, before Muybridge, before Edison and the Lumieres, the phantasmagoria was the first step toward the greatest artform of the 20th century. From this still image of a fetus projected on a wall, the traveler’s story progresses to a baby, a child, a preteen, and finally shot looking out the window of a train as it leaves the station.

The next two chapters, “A Promising Student” and “The Doctor’s Creation,” present us with our first looks at the deterioration with which Morrison is so often identified. “A Promising Student” begins with footage from films on biology. The music takes on a more artificial tone (Dave Douglas’s band includes DJ Olive, who provides much of the music for this chapter). The chapter ends with footage of dead birds on decomposing film. It is the start of the doctor’s obsession with death. “The Doctor’s Creation” starts where “A Promising Student” leaves off, but instead of dead birds, we’re shown dead bodies being dragged through the mud of a warzone: the doctor’s models. The highlight of this section is a long, clear image of the titular spark of being. Electricity dances around the screen as a jazzy. patternless line. It recalls another non-narrative film, Len Lye’s 1958 animation, Free Radicals:

The free radicals sequence is followed by an explosion. The screen is filled with crystalline deterioration, constantly moving and changing, before a moment of quiet, dread-filled silent footage of destroyed lab.

One of the recurring themes in Spark of Being is the differences and relationships between learning and seeing. The preteen in “The Traveler’s Story” is shown learning from flashcards, and the image is followed immediately by the train pulling out of the station, which, in this context, is young Victor Frankenstein leaving his small village home to actually see the world. Later, four sections from the point of view of the creature are titled “The Creature Watches,” “The Creature’s Education,” “Observations of Familial Love,” and “Observations of Romantic Love.” As opposed to the doctor, who learns in more traditional ways, the creature’s education is a fragmented observation of the world with his own eyes. He does not experiment, read, or interact. He watches with a terrified distance through a lens of decay.

The four chapters from the creature’s point of view are the creative climax of the film, to my mind. Each of them are composed entirely of decaying footage. They are jumbled, fragmentary, and confusing. In “The Creature’s Education,” Morrison jars us with rock music, blasts of color, pieces of random text and images of insects swarming flashing through the storm of decomposition. Just when we’ve come to accept the style of Morrison’s film, we’re all of a sudden in a very different world than we were before.

As “The Creature’s Education” and the chapters that follow progress, the images begin to make more sense. “The Creature’s Education” ends with the image of a blonde girl playing basketball, and then a slow-motion shot of a basketball going through the hoop. For anyone who’s read Frankenstein, this will recall the little girl playing with the flower, who the monster, not understanding the game, drowns in the lake. We’re watching the creature’s logic, the gears of his mind working, in this scene. “Observations of Familial Life” shows footage of families, but it’s somehow unclear what sort of unit this family is. They all seem to be in different places in the world. There doesn’t seem to be any order. They are a family because they’re associated in his eyes.

The last chapter of this section, “Observations of Romantic Love,” is the simplest. It’s one shot, watching a nude man and woman running through a forest, probably footage from a long unseen softcore porn. Around them, the film burns, unable to stay on the reel. The creature seems so close to understanding this. It’s not jumbled or confusing at all, but it is somehow obscured. We see exactly what’s happening, and know exactly what’s going to happen next, but we can’t quite see the end of the scene.

After these kinetic scenes, full of of frantic editing and jazzy, uncontrollable decay, the rest of the movie is jarringly slow. The creature’s education and observation scenes are mostly in color, and the return to black and white in “The Doctor’s Wedding” would feel strange even if the chapter wasn’t composed of slow-motion footage from an early-20th century German wedding, with several looped scenes of men dancing at the end. The scene, one of inclusion, community, and happiness, is juxtaposed with the next chapter, “The Creature in Society,” the film’s shortest but most alienating. The camera pans across a large group of men, who turn and stare at it, probably the first movie camera they had ever seen. In this context, however, their stares are directed right at all the ugliness in the creature, and all the ugliness in us.

The next 3 chapters bring us back to the opening scenes, closing the loop of this circular film. “The Creature Confronts His Creator” is filled with images of ice and snow, both foreshadowing and recalling the end of this story, while “The Doctor Flees” and “The Creature’s Pursuit” physically bring us back to the arctic setting of “The Captain’s Story,” using much of the same footage. After the journey we’ve been through, though, this footage takes on another feel.

I wrote in my notes during “The Doctor Flees” that the footage here reminds me of Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta, considered by most to be the first American avant-garde film. Not necessarily in terms of technique, since in Manhatta the camera is still, and all the movement occurs within the frame, but in terms of intent.

Manhatta and other early symphony of a city films (most famously Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man With A Movie Camera) are so focused on the marvel of movement. The mere fact that the audience was looking at a moving photograph was still mind-blowing. The footage used in “The Doctor Flees” is a marvel in the same way. Icebergs moving among the waves, wonders that most of the world had never seen before and never would see with their own eyes. In a film that is as much about film as Spark of Being, footage like this transports us back into the mindset of an early filmgoer. We’re no longer watching something confrontational, weird, and alienating. We’re looking at a new part of the world we live in, and watching that world get smaller.

Of course, the idea of a smaller world becomes terrifying when you’re trying to escape something. “The Creature’s Pursuit,” the last chapter of the film,  is very similar to “The Doctor Flees,” but everything seems to be falling apart. The structures and distance we could put between us and the creature seem to be disappearing. The film is disintegrating on the screen. The doctor, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how far he runs, will never be free of the creature. The last shot of the movie, which appears to be footage shot in a desert, is a man in a cloak, slowly walking toward the bottom of the frame until he disappears.

Perhaps it’s the Beckett fan in me, but, as I said earlier, I’ve always read Frankenstein as being about the inevitability of death. The doctor is running to the literal ends of the earth, but he still can’t escape his creature, the image of living death. With the invention of cinema, the world found a way to preserve the world as it was. We may not be able to travel through time, but we can see what New York looked like, in a vividly alive way, in 1921 when we watch Manhatta.

What Morrison reminds us in Spark of Being and his other films is that even that can rot. Footage is constantly deteriorating. The world we once felt was necessary and important to record is disappearing. But it can still be beautiful. There’s beauty in death, and there’s beauty in decay. It’s appropriate that Morrison chose Frankenstein for a basis here, not only because it’s stitched together from dead bodies, but because Frankenstein is one of the most identifiable horror stories ever told.

Horror movies, more than any other genre, have pushed back against the notion that film preserves life. People go to see a horror movie to confront death, to be thrilled by the notion that life is fragile and can end in an instant. It’s the only genre where we know, in the end, that everything won’t be OK. The monster may be defeated, but we know it will be back. We’ve only had a temporary reprieve. In Spark of Being, Morrison shows us the same thing. The man in the cloak has walked off screen, but only for now.

How To Drive His Private Dick Wild

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.

Mystery, Tragedy, and Comedy: Three Takes On Celebrity

Celebrity has a strange position in contemporary culture. The cliche is that celebrities are our versions of the gods, complete with their own mythologies. But that’s superficial. We look down upon the stars as much as we look up at them. Their stories are as much about loneliness and fear as they are power and grace. For every Tiger Beat, there’s a Sunset Blvd. If the stories of immortal beings in mythology reflect our mortal existence, celebrity is the point where immortality and mortality meet.

Non-narrative filmmakers are often as fascinated by movie stars as the autograph collectors waiting outside Jerry Lewis’s studio in The King of Comedy. But instead of waiting for hours for a scribble on a piece of paper, they honor (or degrade) their idols in more creative ways. For the second entry in my introduction to non-narrative film, I’ll be looking at three films by three filmmakers who turned a fascination in celebrity into great works of art in three entirely different ways.

The first is Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, which is the classic example of the relationship between non-narrative and narrative film. Cornell worked in collage film, and his career is one of the hidden gems of non-narrative cinema. Cornell may be one of the most influential filmmakers ever, but his name and work are obscure even in comparison with those of underground filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Ken Jacobs (who would later work for Cornell and on whom his influence can most clearly be seen). Rose Hobart is his masterpiece. Reportedly, during its 1936 premiere, Salvador Dali was so jealous of the genius of the film that he kicked over the projector, which should give you some idea just how ahead of its time it was.

Rose Hobart is edited from a mostly forgotten 1931 talkie called East of Borneo, and takes its title from the lead actress in the film. Cornell pared down the original film from 70 minutes to 20 by removing all the action scenes and any footage that didn’t revolve around Hobart. He projected this chopped and shortened film through blue glass at silent speed, removed all the dialogue and replaced it with repeating samba recordings.

The result is jarring. Cornell turns a run-of-the-mill adventure melodrama into something mysterious and dangerous. The technique may be apparent right away, but the effect it has on Hobart takes a while to make itself clear. Through the churning rhythm of the film, we see Hobart encased in blue amber. Her body is rarely shown completing a movement and her mouth seems to move wordlessly, and the effect is that of some strange suspended animation. She is preserved in time.

Cornell would later make similar films focused on other actresses, including Hedy Lamarr and Lauren Bacall, but what makes Rose Hobart so singular is that it’s about Rose Hobart. Hobart made 48 appearances on film and TV between 1930 and 1968, perhaps most famously as Muriel Carew in 1931’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. She survived being blacklisted for standing up for other actors. She’s not a well-known actress. She’s not what you’d call a celebrity. But by making this movie, creating a mysterious, beautiful film just from 20 minutes of footage of her, Cornell turned her into a celebrity. Her name survives as the title as one of the most important non-narrative films of the 20th century.

Cornell’s editing is a form of characterization. Approximately 7 minutes into Rose Hobart, there’s footage from a scene in which Hobart’s character talks with the villain of East of Borneo. Each time the camera cuts to the villain, Cornell cuts back to Hobart after less than a second. He shows the audience to  that there is someone in the room with her, but reminds us that Hobart is the interest here. She’s the subject. The only things that are allowed screen time without Hobart are natural: an erupting volcano, the moon, a tiger stalking through the jungle, alligators being forced by natives back into a river, and an eclipse. Hobart joins them, in Cornell’s mind, as a force of nature.

13 years after Dali interrupted the premiere of Rose Hobart, a 22-year-old filmmaker who claimed to be a former child actor would attempt a different kind of hagiography. Originally planned as a film about silent movie actresses called Puce Women, Puce Moment is 6 minutes of technicolor kitsch introduced as “A Film By Anger.” Anger, of course, is Kenneth Anger, perhaps the most famous and controversial character of non-narrative film, who would go on to be the infamous author of Hollywood Babylon, a masterpiece of filth that presents the tabloid as the truth. Only two years after making his debut with Fireworks, which I’m sure I’ll discuss at some point, Anger turned his lens away from the black-and-white homosexual sailors and onto Yvonne Marquis, who would later become the mistress of the former president of Mexico, as a silent film starlet.

The film opens with opulent gowns shaking in front of the camera. Each one is presented to the audience, and then tossed to the side in a dance of the seven veils, until the final veil is held to the camera, a black lace dress, through which we can see hints of a face. For the first shot of the film, the focus is on the external, superficial details. The human behind these dresses doesn’t matter in these opening moments; what matters is the dresses, and as each one is thrown away, it is forgotten entirely. They only exist for the brief moments they are in front of the camera.

Puce Moment

Behind the last veil we finally see the starlet who owns all these dresses. She rubs the last dress over her naked body, but the look on her face isn’t sexual: it’s overjoyed. She’s simply happy in that moment, surrounded by perfume bottles and jewelry. The setting evokes the silent era, and her acting matches. Her bosom heaves, her eyes roll and flutter, and she expresses herself purely physically. The film is silent except for two folk songs with which Anger replaced an opera by Verdi in the 60s. After she is dressed, the starlet is shown standing outside her mansion in the Hollywood hills, holding three greyhounds on a leash. Gone is the ecstasy we saw in her dressing room, replaced with a vampy coldness that would fit Irma Vep more than Lillian Gish.

Puce Moment is a relatively obscure Anger film, and one that doesn’t fit comfortably alongside the rest of his filmography. If it has an analog in his work, it’s the aforementioned Hollywood Babylon. Puce Moment could be cut from Hollywood Babylon: the silent-era star, forgotten too soon, locked in her Hollywood house, trying on her gowns only to take her dogs for a walk on the grounds. The songs picked for the soundtrack are by Jonathan Halper. The first, “Leaving My Life Behind,” is played over the dressing room scene and has an Eastern, transcendental feel to it. The second, “I’m a Hermit,” is played over the footage of Marquis and her dogs and features a refrain of “I’m the hermit, my mind is not the same.” Rose Hobart preserves celebrity; Puce Moment presents it as something fleeting, something that is easily thrown away.

If Rose Hobart shows the ecstasy of celebrity and Puce Moment presents the sadness of its decline, George Kuchar’s I, An Actress explores the strange, interstitial identity of an actor striving for celebrity. George and his brother Mike worked for decades in their own strange, campy corner of the cinematic world. Starting before they even entered their teens, the Kuchar brothers presented campy little masterpiece after campy little masterpiece, complete with titles like Hold Me While I’m Naked and The Sins of the Fleshapoids, right up until George’s death in 2011. The IMDb director filmography for George lists 217 titles, but that’s probably just a fraction of the actual works he made on film and video between the early 50s and his death.

In addition to being prolific filmmaker, George Kuchar was a legendary teacher. His classes had a reputation for being as chaotic as the films that made it to the screen. When I had the pleasure of seeing a selection of his video works in February, Abina Manning of the Video Data Bank recounted the last time she visited him in the hospital only to be greeted by an ailing Kuchar directing a movie with his students from his bed. He insisted that his classes collaborate on creating a film. With 10 minutes left in a class one day in 1977, Kuchar had his class help one of his students, Barbara Lapsley, to create a screen test. The result is I, An Actress, one of the funniest and most inventive movies of the 70s and one of the least effective screen tests of all time (and Lapsley’s only onscreen credit).

Lapsley begins the film alone on camera, lit from the front against a wall with the words “Keep It Fonky” scribbled to her left. She delivers the first lines of a melodramatic monologue to a dummy wearing a cheap wig. We hear Kuchar yelling direction to her. As her monologue continues, Kuchar becomes more involved. He jumps into the scene and directs her, performing the monologue himself. He runs his hands over his chest as if he were fondling his own breasts. He presses his body against the wall and performs with all the intensity and drama of Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind. Lapsley can’t help but laugh at him. Lapsley and Kuchar’s gigantic shadows on the wall match their outsized emotions.

Lines are repeated over and over, by both Lapsley and Kuchar. To give you an idea of the tone of this monologue, the two lines repeated most are “When I cheat, it’s not for sex,” and “I’m on my knees, Harold. Do you like see a woman on her knees, or is it only on their backs?” An odd phenomenon occurs as the movie goes on: Kuchar becomes both director and actress. The “I” of the title isn’t Lapsley; it’s Kuchar. While I, An Actress may be a tossed off afterthought of a film that took 10 minutes to make, it shows how natural the genius of George Kuchar was. In those 10 minutes, Kuchar blurs not only the line between the actor in front of the camera and the director behind it, but the line between male and female. In 1977, performing this way was a major statement.

I, An Actress also presents us with its own take celebrity. To Lapsley, celebrity is something she’s working for. She wants to be an actress; she wants to be a star. To Kuchar, though, celebrity is something playful. He spent most of his career making tributes to the cheap and tawdry side of Hollywood idolatry, and I, An Actress fits into his career just as well as Hold Me While I’m Naked. Kuchar is comfortable in his relative obscurity. As long as he can play Douglas Sirk and Lana Turner at once, he’s content. Celebrity was never a dream for Kuchar, but a reality that he made for himself.

It’s interesting that the three movies I chose to look at for a post about celebrity only contain one actress that could really be considered a celebrity at any point, Rose Hobart, and even she is obscure today. Yvonne Marquis and Barbara Lapsley never appeared in another movie after their respective starring roles, and Kuchar is hardly well-known outside critics and cinephiles. It’s just the result of a three films I happened to pick this week, of course, but it also says something about the way non-narrative filmmakers analyze the idea of fame. From their vantage point, they have a different view. Cornell may never have had to interact with a star personally in his entire career, and from obscurity, he can see the glamor and mystery of fame in a way his narrative counterparts never could.