Sunday, 7 November 2010


PONY GLASS (Lewis Klahr; USA; 1997)

 “You can tell there is a story but can't always tell what the details are” - Lewis Klahr

When I was a teenager, I took an art history class at high school. Instead of listening to classes on Renaissance Art or Romanticism, I was always flicking to the section of the textbook that focused on the weird and wonderful art movements of the 20th century. One the pictures that always struck a chord with me was Richard Hamilton's photomontage, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? There was something about this image (see below), seemingly cobbled together from pieces of magazines, that evoked a sense of mystery and wonder. I loved that a sense of cohesion could be harnessed from a plethora of fragments, and how this cohesion made the collaged home feel conventional, yet belied it's true surreal character. OK, I also liked this image because I was a teenager and it had a nude woman in it.

I never had the nous to wonder what Hamilton's image would be like if it moved, but the first time I saw Lewis Klahr's work I was reminded of Hamilton's photomontage, and shazam, there's the segue between the two right there.

I've only had the opportunity to see four of Klahr's pieces so far, but that's enough for me to pronounce his work as utterly fascinating. If' you've never had the chance to see his films, then check out Pony Glass and Altair here. His works are entirely composed of fragments of magazine ads and comics, usually culled from sources from the 50's and 60's, pieced together to create elliptical narratives that usually riff on genres such as melodrama and film noir. It is the employment of these stereotypical mid-twentieth pop cultural genres that infuses Klahr's work with a sense of faux nostalgia, a melancholic resonance borne from an awareness that these images are culled from the ever-growing pile of detritus from the pop cultural past.

This is not to say that the films I've seen by Klahr are not humorous. There are many incongruous juxtapositions of images and odd moments that easily garner a smile. A character walks past a wall-paper composed of repeated images of 'appealing dinners'; a cocktail-party-attired couple crash from side to side inside a large cocktail jug; a woman sitting on cork shoots off into space. Although narratives are loosely infused into each film, essentially the movement of Klahr's work derives from evocative soundtracks (Stravinsky's Firebird Suite in Altair, Sinatra and Paul Robeson in Pony Glass) and the continual use of objects as impenetrable, mysterious hieroglyphics.

I'm not sure if I'm prepared to play favourites and choose one Klahr work as the best, but Pony Glass is certainly a work that sticks in the mind more than the others I've seen. It has the strongest sense of narrative, and a clearly delineated pop-cultural protagonist in the form of 'Superman's pal' Jimmy Olsen. Presented in three movements, what we see is the tragic fall of Jimmy Olsen, spiraling into chaos and insanity as he re-assigns his gender identification and his gender preference. Jimmy Olsen is transformed by Klahr into a neurotic, sad figure, seemingly prone to depression and confusion. He becomes the classic tragic figure a la ancient Greek tragedy. Like Agamemnon, he is a man whose fate seems to be preordained and inescapable, (he even visits a clairvoyant, who conjures up images of cross-dressing), yet he remains in control of his actions, allowing them to feed into his fate.

Jimmy Olsen is an odd, malleable character in the comic-book pantheon, enduring an array of odd transformations (briefly having an elastic body, being a nazi war hero, and, yes, on many occasions, cross-dressing – if you don't believe me, check it out here.) Klahr toys with this malleability, creating a 'what if?' scenario by pushing Olsen's superhero-worship into state where his repressed emotions unleash themselves and irrevocably alter his identity. But malleability also refers to painful self-awareness, as it almost seems as if the cut-out version of Jimmy Olsen is aware of it's status as a re-used fragment from pop-culture's past. Part of the plaintive tone lies in the (self)recognition of 'dead' images being re-animated and re-modeled.

I'm curious to know if anyone else has seen Klahr, likes him, doesn't like him so much, has a favourite film by Klahr, etc.

Some Klahr info online:

Pony Glass and Altair are currently viewable on the ol' interweb.

Fred Camper wrote about Klahr in the Chicago Reader

There's an old article/ interview from 2000 via Village Voice.

David Bordwell wrote on Klahr in 2006.

Interviews at Rotterdam Film Festival and at Dispatch.

And, some brief info from Wexner Center for the Arts (Ohio State University), for a retrospective of Klahr's work in May earlier this year.

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