A few days ago I managed to catch an evening of films paying tribute to three experimental filmmakers who died last year – George Kuchar, Jordan Belson, and Robert Breer. This was a rare opportunity to see work by these three on the big screen, so the event was a must-see.The evening started with a handful of films by Kuchar, starting with his most well-known film Hold Me While I’m Naked. Watching a series of Kuchar films is a little bit like listening to too much Wagner, black metal, or noise music in one sitting – in a small dose it’s fine, but too much and after some time your head begins to feel as if it’s dehydrating. Thus, after 70 minutes worth of constant intense orchestral music to back the lurid and comic faux-melodrama and by the end your head is kind of sore.
If anything, watching Kuchar is an opportunity to enter into the world of cheap shitty New York apartments from the 1960’s. In almost every film we get to see a grimy, mouldy, cramped bathroom, and focussing on the small details such as the horrid, dank atmosphere of these bathrooms becomes a small pleasure in its own right. This is unadorned filmmaking, dressed up through its overuse of melodrama to appear completely adorned. The most fascinating moments were observing the pockmarks and acne in close-ups on the face of the lead male character in Eclipse of the Sun Virgin, or the huge balls of dust gathered at the edges of the room in The Mongreloid.
The meditative unfolding of colour, patterns, and rhythm of Belson’s films come as an immediate antidote to the audio-visual bombast of Kuchar’s work. Belson’s films exude billowing calm. Of the five films presented, I’d only seen one before, Allures, as part of a compendium of 5 films released on DVD by the Center of Visual Music. Although a small-screen viewing of this was spellbinding, nothing prepares you for the journey experienced via the big screen.
The overarching effect of viewing Belson’s films is clearly stated in the titles – Cosmos, Meditation, Chakra, Cycles. The screen is filled with swathes and washes of gently-roiling coloured mist, smoke, water, and spiralling circles, and it feels as if the eye is being taught how to slow down. The effect is one of total immersion, a kind of submission to the constant drifting movement of colours and circular patterns. But this is not just a soporific experience – the films still have pace and energy, shapes constantly morphing from one state to the next, always in flux, never in stasis. The ‘real world’ even manages to break through into these films (a brief shot of a diver in Meditation; a naked figure, parachutists, and even what appears to be a cityscape in Cycles), but these fleeting images become a part of the seamless meditative fabric that Belson weaves.
Constant motion is also the heart of Breer’s films, although the pace is far more frenetic. Collaged scraps and scribbled drawings are constantly twisting and hopping in fits across the screen, appearing and being replaced by a new manic sketch in the blink of an eye. Yet, despite the pile-up of animated debris that Breer pumps out at a rapid rate, this is also an incredibly immersive experience, producing a different kind of meditation. If Belson is akin to meditating via the sound gently-chiming singing bowls, then Breer is like meditating via white noise.The most fascinating part of watching this small program of Breer’s output (16 films over 80 minutes), is mapping the chronological progression of his filmmaking. His earlier films from the 1950’s seem more likely to use cut-ups of newspapers and magazines, and the pace is rapid, buzzing, nonrepetitive. Later films introduce rhythmic cycles (like the start of 69, with a simple geometric drawing rotating through the screen, over and over), and become more like diary films, with the soundtrack composed of recordings supposedly from Breer’s domestic environment. Throughout, the insistent theme pulsing through Breer’s films is pure unadulterated spontaneity, stringing together improvised doodles and creating an animated cinema of pure ‘now’.