Ernie Gehr: Carnival of Shadows

Ernie Gehr
Ernie Gehr.

Another of the great pioneers of American avant-garde film is Ernie Gehr, whose fine Extreme Velocity (1970), which I first saw during my college years in 1980 or so, is a foundational work in structural cinema, a term coined by P. Adams Sitney. Perhaps the closest parallel to new music, this kind of film explored the very physical and visual elements of film itself (light, color, the mechanical and photochemical process), as some new music explored timbre, duration, psychoacoustic experience, and decay as central elements of the experience of music. Obviously there are parallels to theater and visual art as well. (I find a very close affinity between structural film and new music’s spectralist school, but that’s just me; Gehr’s own favorite composer is Charles Ives.) Scott McDonald said that Gehr demonstrates an “idea of using cinema as a retraining of perception, often of slowing us down so that we can truly see and hear” — about as good a definition of structural film as you’ll find.

Gehr is still going strong. This Saturday Gehr’s latest presentation, Carnival of Shadows, opens at the Museum of Modern Art for a run extending to April 30. “Ernie Gehr’s large-scale, multiscreen video installation is simultaneously a reflection on early animation and genre cinema, a playful exercise in moving-image graphics, and an extension of the artist’s interest in the abstraction, texture, and rhythms of visual material,” the museum says. “Its source is an early-20th-century shadowgraph toy, which used ‘paper print films’ in the form of sequential silhouette drawings that were brought to life as they passed before a stroboscopic screen. Gehr’s silent, digital video adaptation transforms five original paper subjects, all issued in France c. 1900–05 … “

Next Monday film historian Tom Gunning will moderate An Evening with Ernie Gehr at MoMA, at which Gehr will talk about this and other recent work. Four years ago Manohla Dargis profiled Gehr’s work for the New York Times, and in 2013 Gehr spoke about the relationship of philosophy to film with Peter Catapano of the same publication.

Flaming Creatures and the erotics of substitution

Nowadays everything trans is commodifiable — you can purchase commercial time on I Am Cait and RuPaul’s Drag Race and reach millions. We have it seems come a long way from Jack Smith’s 1963 Flaming Creatures — but Smith’s film remains a unique exploration of sexuality, identity, and media, and there are still uncommodifiable elements of the film that you won’t find on E! or Logo. There’s a distinctly Weimar feel to it, though it resists the gestures of Expressionism; I wrote about the film last March and republish these notes below.

Jack Smith.
Jack Smith.

Flaming_CreaturesJack Smith‘s 1963 film Flaming Creatures was filmed (budget: $300.00) on the rooftop of the Windsor Theatre at 412 Grand Street, only a block away from where I live now. It was soon lauded as one of the masterpieces of New York’s avant-garde, New American Cinema movement (call it what you will), and it retains its unique power and beauty.

The film is not driven by any particular narrative; it’s a series of sequences that depicts a cycle of life, death, and rebirth, the most compelling and fascinating of which is an orgy that brings the world to a standstill. (Smith himself described it as “a comedy set in a haunted music studio.”) What renders it unique is that it’s a retelling of this cycle through the unique qualities of film itself — both the filmed image in movement and the quality of the medium. Inspired by the careers of Maria Montez and Josef von Sternberg, Smith, a photographer and performance artist whose performances have become legendary, was particularly interested in the erotic power of the filmic persona and the texture of film. In Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney writes that Smith discovered “not only a plastic play of light and shadow but a revelation of sexual presence,” then quotes Smith on Josef von Sternberg, though Smith was of course describing his own film as well:

[Von Sternberg’s] expression was of the erotic realm — the neurotic gothic deviated sex-colored world and it was a turning inside out of himself and magnificent. You had to use your eyes to know this tho because the sound track babbled inanities — it alleged Dietrich was an honest jewel thief, noble floosie, fallen woman, etc. to cover up the visuals. In the visuals she was none of those. She was V.S. himself. A flaming neurotic — nothing more or less — no need to know she was rich, poor, innocent, guilty, etc. Your eye if you could use it told you more interesting things (facts?) than those. Dietrich was his visual projection — a brilliant transvestite in a world of delirious unreal adventures. Thrilled by his/her own movement — by superb taste in light, costumery, textures, movement, subject and camera, subject camera/revealing faces — in fact all revelation but visual revelation.

The Windsor Theatre at 412 Grand Street, New York. A Rite Aid pharmacy stands there now.
The Windsor Theatre at 412 Grand Street, New York. A Rite Aid pharmacy stands there now.

The cast of the film is populated by men and women, some of them transvestites (and it is usually, but significantly not always, easy to recognize them), and urgently sensuous through the elegant costumes and unabashed sexuality of their bodies’ activity. This is made much more apparent through Smith’s deliberate use of expired black-and-white 16mm film stock, which leads to both high- and low-contrast images, underscoring the binaries (man/woman, life/death, light/dark, white/black) of the film’s themes. The very mechanical and chemical composition of the art’s medium itself is already in a state of decay, calling attention to the passage of time and deterioration — a time and deterioration that the bodies of the performers also exhibit; they possess an eerie phosphorescence; the content becomes mythic. Nor is it possible not to be drawn into the film: the eyes of the performers are often directed at the viewer himself, inviting him into the sensuous heat of Flaming Creatures. Excitedly and chaotically, Dietrich substitutes for von Sternberg; female for male and vice versa; nightmare for ecstatic dream; pain for pleasure; object for subject; innocence for guilt and shame; Smith himself in his compositions and both the chaos and peaceful moments of the film (the shots of the lantern and diaphanous curtain, for example) — an erotics of substitution.

Flaming Creatures was both hailed as a masterpiece by Jonas Mekas, Susan Sontag, and other critics and prosecuted as a pornographic film when it was first screened in 1963; it was highly influential on the work of Richard Foreman. It’s still a masterpiece and really deserves to be seen on a big screen (it shows up on occasion during the “Essential Cinema” series at Anthology Film Archives). More information on the making of the film can be found in J. Hoberman’s essay “Up on the Roof.” A version of Flaming Creatures that lives on YouTube is below. It’s not safe for work — but really, that depends on where you work.

Lost lost lost

Jonas Mekas. Photo: © Boris Lehman.
Jonas Mekas. Photo: © Boris Lehman.

The diary film was one of the most significant streams of American independent cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, and perhaps its most accomplished artist is Jonas Mekas. The diary film, especially, exemplified the influence of Emerson and Thoreau on many of these independent filmmakers, who found significance and beauty in the most fleeting moments and objects of daily experience, elevating them to almost metaphysical significance.

On November 18 Kino Lorber will release on Blu-Ray a double feature of Mekas’s Walden and Lost Lost Lost, the two diary films for which he may be best known. Writes the distributor:

Walden (1969), Mekas’ first completed diary film, is an epic portrait of the New York avant-garde arts scene of the 1960s, featuring many of Mekas’ friends of that period, including Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and The Velvet Underground. Lost Lost Lost (1976), comprised of fourteen years of footage, documents Mekas’ early years in New York as he and his brother Adolfas build their new life in America, discovering the city and the burgeoning film and arts community of the 1950s and 60s downtown scene.

Films (Mekas would call them “movies,” of course) from American independent filmmakers of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s have been slow in coming to DVD and Blu-Ray, but this release and those of the films of Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton from Criterion promise that more may be in the offing. Mekas, now 92, was recently profiled in the New York Times and provides commentary tracks for the DVD, now available for pre-order from More on the release is available from DVDBeaver here; below is a short excerpt from Lost Lost Lost; it follows a short message from our sponsor.

Friday flashback: Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders

From March 2015

Rumor has it that when Elliott Gould secured the film rights to Jules Feiffer’s 1967 Broadway satire Little Murders (according to the Internet Broadway Database, it ran for all of 23 performances, including previews; Gould appeared in the play on Broadway), he tried to interest Jean-Luc Godard in directing the film; eventually Godard withdrew and the film was completed and released in 1970 in a version directed by Alan Arkin. The idea of Godard directing Gould in Feiffer is daunting, to say the least. But the film that resulted in the end is one of those products of Hollywood that makes you wonder how it was ever made in the first place, let alone released — and it’s very very certain that it would have been neither produced nor released had it been proposed today. Little Murders is an extraordinary work that retains a profound significance for 21st century America, and putting things like Richard Nelson’s Apple plays, presumably also a family-centered meditation on the conflicts in American culture, next to it is an indication of just how toothless American drama has become over the past four decades.

The play’s lead character, Alfred Chamberlain, the son of Chicago-area intellectuals, describes himself as an “apathist.” He is frequently mugged and beaten by strangers for no discernible reason, but he never fights back; if he puts up no resistance, he observes, the muggers get bored and eventually leave him alone. One day he crosses paths with a woman named Patsy Newquist, who becomes determined to introduce him to happiness and compassion, as well as the necessity of fighting back against whatever forces conspire to rob him of his dignity. It is an uphill battle. Late one night, Alfred reveals the source of his quietism to Patsy (and actors seeking unusual audition monologues, take note):

Having made this confession of his own paranoid cruelty, Alfred finally realizes the importance of fighting for what he believes in, of hope, of trust, and of love — and, in the next moment, all of these are cruelly shattered by a tragic act of random violence.

Feiffer was writing about the American culture of the late 1960s, but the violence, the surveillance state, the rapid crumbling of traditional values remain central dynamics of the 2010s. In Little Murders, he proved himself a far more observant and caustic satirist of the American scene than his status as West Village Liberal might have suggested. “It’s dangerous to challenge a system unless you’re completely at peace with the thought that you’re not going to miss it when it collapses,” Alfred says at one point — and he turns out, with terrible consequences, to be right. It’s a line that should echo through things like the Occupy movement.

Among Feiffer’s many targets in Little Murders are the upwardly-mobile middle class; the justice system; religion both old and new (the parson who marries Alfred and Patsy in a disastrously ridiculous ceremony is the head of the “First Existential” church); homophobia; both apathy and idealism (obviously); the art market and photography; and, as I mentioned earlier, intellectuals. Beyond all this, though, it’s a shockingly emotional and compassionate work. Patsy’s Upper West Side family seems oblivious and ridiculously hypocritical, but it’s revealed early on that their promising first son was killed in a random, unsolved act of violence on a New York City streetcorner (as their first daughter would be killed several years later); the revelation undermines an easy dismissal of their defensively bourgeois perspective. In many ways, the rhythm of the plot is cruel, not only to Alfred and Patsy but to the audience as well; and though the conclusion of the play appears facile at first glance, there is a poetic rightness to it that gives the play a cohesive shape. I know that a few artistic directors of regional and New York non-profit theatres read this blog; though I’m usually loathe to make recommendations, I would hope that they would take a look at Little Murders, a cruelly underrated and even forgotten American play that ranks with the most powerful work of Twain and Swift. (A 1969 revival at Circle in the Square, also directed by Arkin, enjoyed a more successful 400 performance run and won Feiffer an Obie for the play.)

“And of course it’s funny” is often a phrase used to encourage audiences to see a play that presumably has a darker core — and it’s usually wrong. But in this case it’s right. Little Murders is an extremely funny play, with gorgeous setpieces like the first meeting of Alfred with Patsy’s parents and the wedding ceremony itself. Somewhere about three-quarters into the film (and the play), though, Little Murders splits apart explosively and powerfully. The film is streaming free on Time Warner Cable this month via the Fox Movie Channel. It’s a remarkable piece of work, with standout performances from Elliott Gould as Alfred and Vincent Gardenia (who should have been given an Oscar or two for his performance, which is one of the most textured I’ve seen in this context) and Elizabeth Wilson as Patsy’s father and mother, but also memorable cameos from Lou Jacobi, Donald Sutherland, and Doris Roberts. (The director of photography, Gordon Willis, captures New York of the 1970s perfectly — not surprisingly; he later shot The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Manhattan.)

And screw Godard. Director Alan Arkin has a brilliant four-minute cameo towards the end of the film as an insane police detective that makes Joe Orton’s Truscott look like Lenny Briscoe; I doubt Godard would have been nearly as effective. Arkin’s cameo is below (and, again, actors seeking unusual audition monologues, take note):

Hulu dancing

rxv471_rearLate to the party as usual, yesterday I up and bought for less than $100.00 a later-generation Blu-Ray player than I used to have, this one equipped with the ability to access several streaming services. Until then I’d been limited to the offerings of Netflix and Time Warner Cable, something great for the kids (children’s programming appears to be among the most popular offerings of these services; I will kill someone, though, if I have to watch another episode of Uncle Grandpa) but less than satisfying for adults who have some sense of film history. So among the first things I did was sign up for Hulu, the main reason being that they carry over 900 titles from the Criterion Collection library. Rest assured, my evenings for the next few years are spoken for.

Netflix is the elephant in the streaming video industry, and it is, like Time Warner Cable, seriously disappointing when it comes to niche genres like foreign film. Not Hulu. For $7.99 a month I have access to great swathes of films by Kiarostami, Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer, and Bergman and Fellini and Truffaut, Godard, and Antonioni of course. There is a broad selection of movies from Eastern Europe and Asia, and even American avant-gardist Hollis Frampton can be found (though, alas, Hulu does not carry the Criterion edition of Stan Brakhage’s films). Off the Criterion brand, Hulu also carries a good selection of other programming, including the BBC Shakespeare series of the 1970s that I grew up with.

I suppose I could just lay there awash in this, celebrating my belated entry into the 21st century when it comes to streaming video. But there are inevitably drawbacks. Many of these films are licensed to streaming video services for only a limited time; what is there tonight may not be there tomorrow. Although streaming technology has improved a great deal over the past few years — to my aging eyes, the quality is far better than those of the 16mm reduction prints I saw when I first came across these movies in the 1970s and 1980s — there are still burrups here and there. And if you truly want access to films like Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Faces — films not available on either Netflix or Hulu — you need to sign up with yet another service. I suppose you can’t have everything, but there are also several important films (like those of Brakhage and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg) which remain unavailable on any of these services.

These, though, are clearly quibbles. Things have improved a great deal since the early days of cable networks like A&E and Bravo, which originally offered high-middle-brow “cultural” programming like many of the Criterion films; I don’t need to tell you want they offer now. And things may get better yet. I wouldn’t mind, say, if Criterion began its own streaming service; their library is certainly large enough, and with current technology it would also be able to offer things like the audio commentaries and documentaries that accompany their DVD and Blu-Ray releases (a few of the Criterion films on Hulu are already accompanied by some of these extras). “The real Criterion experience has always been a carefully designed and packaged edition of a film looking its best,” Criterion wrote when announcing its relationship with Hulu in 2011. “That’s what we’ve been known for more than 25 years. Today, the state of the art is our Blu-ray line, and if you want the full Criterion experience, that’s what you should be watching.”

But maybe not for much longer. People like me continue to fight the Kindle like we fight streaming video; we miss the fetishistic pleasures of the physical book, the physical disk. I wonder, though, if that’s like missing the scrolls that were in use before the emergence of the codex, or the cassette tape before the CD. Last year, Criterion re-upped its agreement with Hulu; it is a “multi-year deal,” which I hope means more than two, but it’ll be interesting to see where we’re at in several years. In the meantime, I’m popping popcorn and digging in.