Friday, February 11, 2011

Four 1960s avant-garde shorts (Jacobs, Levine, Mekas, Jordan)


Ken Jacobs' Little Stabs at Happiness is an aimless collection of vignettes featuring various friends and associates of Jacobs lounging around, playing goofy games or simply hanging out in various urban locales. Its aimlessness, one guesses, is part of the point, as the title suggests people just trying to live their lives, maybe find a little happiness along the way. The film is divided into about six rough sections, some of which are preceded by chapter titles and some of which aren't. In the first scene, Jacobs' fellow filmmaker Jack Smith plays in a bathtub with a woman, both of them dressed up in goofy homemade costumes of foil and thrift store clothes and paint, Smith with a blue line running down his nose and a hood wrapped around his head. They play with dolls, and Smith enacts both violent and sexual acts on the dolls, stubbing out a cigarette in the eye of one doll and enacting oral sex on the blank, molded plastic crotch of another, which he nearly shoves all the way into his mouth. It's a vision of childlike "innocent" play as destructive and outrageous, not so much innocent as morally undeveloped.

In the subsequent scenes, Jacobs adopts a more realistic, observational aesthetic, observing in turn two women sitting around an empty yard, a man and a woman hanging out by a dock, a man and woman talking in an alley, and a group of kids and adults drawing on the ground with chalk. In the final scene, Jacobs returns to Smith as a portrait of "listlessness," hanging out on a rooftop as a sad clown in a puffy outfit, throwing around balloons and looking discontented and sluggish.

The most interesting aspect of the film, however, is the second section, in which Jacobs delivers a voiceover that describes the structure of the film, self-consciously talking about how this section will be three minutes long, and how he is using music and other sounds to disrupt the potential for connection or conversation between the two women onscreen in this section. Most interesting of all is his admission that the people onscreen in this film are almost all people who he doesn't get along with or see anymore. He hints at an argument and falling-out with Smith, and describes all the other people as former friends who have moved away, or disappeared, or who just don't come around much anymore except if they want something. It's sad, and places the rest of the film in context as a nostalgic memoir for lost friends and broken friendships. Maybe that's why we see people talking here but can't hear them. Without this voiceover, the film risks seeming like a pointless, disconnected series of images of people hanging out, acting out typically abstract or surreal avant-garde film scenes or simply doing not much at all. But this simple, direct voiceover recontextualizes everything, and makes the film a scrapbook of happy or memorable moments from the past, rough portraits of people the filmmaker wishes to remember as they were when they were a part of his life.


Saul Levine's Note to Patti is a touching, evocative short film made for the absent friend of the title. Made during a snowy winter, featuring the friends and family of Levine's friend Patti, who was away from home, the film is an ode to the simple pleasures of the home life, a nostalgic portrait of loved ones having fun in the snow, playing, shoveling, observing the beauty of the natural world around them. The film is briskly edited, full of washed-out images that evoke a kind of nostalgic fading: kids in pale red snowsuits frolicking amidst the snowy whiteness all around; birds flitting from branch to branch in a bare tree, framed against a dull gray sky; adults trudging through several feet of heaped-up snow, digging out and watching the children have fun. Levine's cinema is irrevocably tied to the aesthetic and content of home movies. It is a personal cinema, assembled from tiny everyday moments, full of casual image captured on the fly, with a sentimental eye for the activities of the friends and family surrounding the filmmaker. The film's washed-out images evoke the past, despite being captured in the present: it is as though the film is already preparing for its future status as nostalgia, as a reminder of youthful fun.

The snow in the film provides a kind of blank canvas on which Levine draws his images in blots of color framed against the broad white stretches. The children running through the snow form streaks of rapidly moving color as they play. One boy's red hat provides a shock of bright color every time he appears. Levine is playing with the rhythms of the colors, editing so that flashes of bright color — sometimes an object within the frame, sometimes provided by filters that turn the image bright blue or yellow — alternate with pale snowy landscapes or stretches of pregnant, cloudy sky. At one point, Levine flickers back and forth between an image of a bird in a tree and a human figure walking along in the snow, so that the bird and the person continuously morph into one another, both dark blots framed against an expanse of blank nothingness, both living beings flitting around in the snow's cold solemnity. Levine is contrasting the stillness and quiet of the snowy landscape — embodied in his characteristic lack of a soundtrack — with the liveliness and activity of the people who interact with this snow, clearing it away or making games of running through it.

In its brief seven-minute span, Note To Patti communicates much, evoking warm, slightly melancholy emotional resonances from its simple images of a snow day. Levine is tapping into what's best and most noble about the home movie: the concrete capturing of a moment in time, the built-in nostalgia for this moment that will soon be over, the rich emotions of family life. But his film is far from a simple home movie, and it's his intuitive, agile aesthetic sensibility that allows him to swirl up all these feelings and ideas from this rapidly edited flow of winter images.


Notes on the Circus is one part of Jonas Mekas' long series of diary films, his records of events both prosaic and exceptional, which were eventually edited together into his diary epic Walden. The film was shot at the Ringling Brothers circus and attempts to capture the thrills of the circus through fragmentary images and fast-paced, elliptical editing. Mekas is not after a conventional documentary record of a trip to the circus: instead of chronicling the concrete events that happen during a performance, Mekas is after the feel and the atmosphere of the circus. It's a sensory record of what the circus feels like to an observer, capturing the dizzying array of sights that overload the senses. The opening section of the film seems to focus especially on the circularity of the circus, as animals are led in speedy circles around tight rings, while acrobats twirl in the air, hoops are lit on fire and spin around, and jugglers toss round balls in circular orbits above their heads. Everything seems to be spinning in constant motion, turning circles, creating a sensation of dizzy confusion, mirroring the circus patron's uncertainty about where to look, which sight to take in next.

What makes the film so charming and enjoyable is that Mekas obviously shares in this sense of wonder. One senses that the film's perspective is that of the dazzled patron, Mekas himself, gawking happily as the circus performers go flying and leaping by, their bright costumes blurred by their speed. The film often becomes nearly abstract, a stream of unclear images and fragments of discernible figures. Every so often, the frantic pace slows down in order to focus on a single image, like a tiger riding on the back of a horse or a group of acrobats tossing each other through the air and then precariously grabbing hold again. Such moments mimic the observer's temporary fascination with a particular sight amidst the chaos, before being distracted again by the overall spectacle.

Mekas is in particular fascinated with a solitary female acrobat who swings back and forth on a trapeze bar, hanging upside down by her feet, arching her back across the bar, pulling herself up and then letting loose to hang in the air again. Mekas stays with her longer than with any other individual performer, admiring her graceful back-and-forth swings, and the way she casually lets her body dangle upside down in the air, framed against a black backdrop so that she seems to be suspended above the void, holding herself aloft by barely a toe. Mekas then superimposes her gyrations over the general chaos of the rest of the circus, allowing this graceful individual performance to be absorbed back into the larger extravaganza. All the moments of grace, of humor, of absurdity, of death-defying bravado, are allowed to coexist as they do in the circus, emphasizing the emotional experience of witnessing so many different forms of wonder and magic. The soundtrack, consisting of old-timey jugband tunes, further emphasizes the childlike, slightly old-fashioned appeal of the circus. Mekas, with his Old World sensibility and wide-eyed love for the ephemera of life, is perhaps the perfect filmmaker to craft this unrepentant ode to the circus.


Larry Jordan's Hamfat Asar is a crudely animated short that uses cutout etchings and drawings as a foundation for a goofy surrealist pastiche. Against a static backdrop of a seaside scene, with a line drawn across the center of the frame like a tightrope, Jordan assembles weird collages of fish, butterflies, anatomy diagrams, naked women, various mechanical devices and pieces of scientific equipment, and other ephemera. The images are formed from collages of old illustrations, meticulously assembled into new hybrid forms that dance across the screen, coming together and then fading away or splitting apart. Jordan was clearly inspired by the wonderfully inventive collage novels of Max Ernst, like the 1934 masterpiece Une semaine de bonté. As in Ernst, there is no clear meaning to these absurdist, surrealist juxtapositions, with the emphasis on odd conjunctions of unrelated images, married into hybrid forms that improbably come to life and interact.

However, Jordan's approximations of Ernst's inventive visual sensibility rarely go beyond the level of homage. It can be fun to see these very Ernst-like creations in motion: a microscope hobbling across the screen, propelled by its hind "leg," or a butterfly with a mushroom sprouting out of the junction point of its wings as it flits across the screen. But too often the film seems to be offering up a simple stream of weird images without really digging deeper into the substance of the images. Ernst's images, though they too defy conventional interpretation, are packed with resonances and suggestions, intimations of psychosexual probing, hints of darkness and menace, submerged satirical jabs encoded in his weird constructions. Jordan's images, in comparison, seem shallow and superficial, their resonance limited to the surface, only rarely suggesting anything deeper beyond the playful impulses of combination and juxtaposition that drive the film.

Hamfat Asar is thus most satisfying in its flashes of humor and playfulness. At one point, a fish and a lightbulb dance to the beat of the hand-drumming soundtrack, traipsing along the tightrope at the center of the frame, giving playful little kicks to accentuate the beat. Towards the end of the film, a woman is chased across the frame by a hummingbird, hiking up her skirt as she runs, the bird's long, sharp nose pointed with obvious sexual intent at her hindquarters. The image mirrors an earlier and equally playful assemblage where a woman had been pursuing a fleeing piece of machinery, wagging her finger at it as though chasing down an unruly child or a misbehaving pet. In these moments of humor, Jordan's film is witty and entertaining, but he never really attains the richness of visual language that would allow the film to tap into anything deeper than a few chuckles.

11 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ken's films seem random and chaotic at first glance, but they actually aren't.

Ed Howard said...

That makes sense. The voiceover in the second section of Little Stabs At Happiness makes it obvious that there's a structure in place here, even if the individual segments just seem like semi-random snippets of footage.

Sam Juliano said...

It's quite a presentation, beautifully penned, and laid out and it's informational and eclectically fascinating. It leaves me, however, unable to add much, except to say that I do greatly admire Mekas in particular, whose association with Stan Brakhage forged the launching of the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan, a screening place and a film museum, which subsequently became Woody Allen's favorite theatre. Mekas is a film icon, but you've made a case for the others here as well.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. I don't expect too many comments when I do these avant-garde roundups; I know most haven't seen these films, though the ones I showcase here are all from the very nice Treasures IV DVD box set, a must for avant-garde fans.

I love Anthology, of course. I don't get out to the theaters as often as I'd like, especially in NYC, but I have many fond memories of screenings there (and a great concert in the basement there several years ago, my first exposure to the percussionist Sean Meehan).

Carson said...

Ed, great piece on the Mekas film Notes on the Circus. I saw it recently and was thrilled by it. Such a dizzying stream of imagery that I discovered to take on an almost hypnotic quality after a while in its abstractness. I love how Mekas titles his works in such a nondescript manner only to undermine that sense of simplicity. Yes, the film is technically "notes on the circus", but very personal, subjective notes indeed.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Carson. Totally agreed about Mekas. He presents these films as though they're documentary observations, and of course they are, but those titles don't come close to capturing the subjective, poetic sensibility he brings to this material. He's a great filmmaker. I always love seeing interviews with him, too; he has such joy about the cinema and everything.

Jacob W. said...

Very nice write-ups here, agreed on all accounts!...

Ed Howard said...

Thanks a lot, Jacob!

Michael C said...

Hi Ed,
I'm doing a big catch up on my reading, so I've only seen this post now. I loved your prose on these four films - I love the work of 3 of these four filmmakers, haven't seen Levine yet. I haven't seen any of the films you've mentioned, but your writing was evocative and has spurred me to seek them out (via the Treasures IV DVD set). Its always heartening to read about avant-garde film, I wish there was more writing/ blogging on it. Cheers!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Michael. That Treasures IV set is a great boon for avant-garde fans. Coverage of avant-garde film on DVD is spotty for so many reasons, so it's always great when something like that (or the Kino sets) comes along to fill in some gaps. I periodically try to cover whatever avant-garde stuff I can find, because there really isn't enough writing about these films.

I've seen a bunch of Levine, he's pretty inconsistent but this one and Notes of an Early Fall are really good and well worth checking out.

strongestweed said...

Jordan's short review loses credit for ignoring Jordan's experimental approach to unite sounds with moving cut out moving images, which was probably a landmark in experimental animation.