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.