It’s been too long since Madison film audiences had a chance to catch up with the work of Lewis Klahr, one of the world’s top experimental filmmakers.
Klahr, who visited the UW-Madison campus in 2006, is a master of collage animation. His films have been staples at experimental film programs at the New York Film Festival and elsewhere. In fact, when Film Comment magazine asked critics to name the top avant garde filmmakers of the decade ending in 2010, Klahr ranked fourth. Former Village Voice critic J. Hoberman called Klahr “the reigning proponent of cut and paste.”
On Dec. 16, UW-Cinematheque will screen Klahr’s feature-length anthology, Sixty Six, a compilation of 12 short films completed between 2002 and 2015.
General viewers might associate collage animation with Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python and expect madcap humor. While humor has a place in Klahr’s work, his films deliver short bursts of imaginative transformations and sublime beauty. The tone often remains contemplative, even meditative.
Klahr’s technique is deceptively simple: He places cut-out comic book images on multiple planes in front of the camera and systematically explores all of the possible permutations of the arrangements, creating a visual language unique to his films.
The images and objects retain their individual meanings and create new ones as Klahr juxtaposes them in new compositions. But they also retain their physicality as paper, toy blocks or buttons, casting shadows on the planes behind them.
One particularly mesmerizing permutation of his technique, seen in the first film Mercury and later in Mars Garden, bleeds together images from both sides of a comic book page. In Mercury we hear Leonard Cohen’s “Minute Prologue,” and the technique transforms mundane images from Flash comics into a dreamlike meditation on relationships.
While some of the shorts distill or transform the melodramatic narratives found in the comic book sources, the films are best approached as repetition and variation on a theme. Viewers expecting linear narratives might get frustrated with the repetition and not see the value in the variations, which are the key to Klahr’s work.
In Ambrosia, one simple variation on a series of photographs of disheveled post-meal dinner tables shifts our emotional response to those images from detachment to sorrow.
The magic that Klahr performs in the films of Sixty Six relies on the mystery that exists in images, even mundane ones.