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“I’m losing things constantly,” says Lewis Klahr. The slight, almost boyish, 44-year-old experimental filmmaker is sitting in a room in Los Feliz piled high with stacks of old books and pictures, and laughing about the fact that he sometimes finds little scraps of paper from one of his collage animations stuck to the bottom of his shoe. “Things,” he explains, “keep floating away.”
While a sense of casual disregard prevails when Klahr talks about the filmmaking process, his collages are actually complex treks through personal memory and social history, elliptical stories told through the debris of American culture. To imagine a Klahr film, mix the detritus of a Robert Rauschenberg collage with the music-imagery interplay of a Bruce Conner film and the excess and veiled social commentary of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Klahr constructs his very handmade collage animations from images snipped out of books and magazines, which he moves inch by haphazard inch beneath a camera, sometimes adding dramatic musical scores for another layer of emotional depth.
Klahr tends to make his films in groups, often finding a theme that unites the series only afterward. The films themselves are dreamlike, indirectly yet compulsively probing the weird corners of his psyche. They boast a florid excess alongside an obsessive repetitiveness — Klahr says he likes the state of reverie, and it’s as if each film is an attempt to resolve some eruption of the repressed or to uncover the roots of a fantasy in order to reach that more soothing state of trancelike meditation. His films forage around in the past, finding its secrets, and they carefully build mini portraits of an era, whether it’s the seductive romance and alcohol-steeped glamour of the 1940s, male angst emblematic of the early ’50s, or the faded and confused valor of comic-book superheroes of the ’60s. All these images function as direct links to our culture’s visual memory bank, but they’re sifted through Klahr, who boldly invites us to witness the lurid fantasies and obsessions lurking in his understanding of this history.
Klahr was knocked into filmmaking more than 20 years ago by a car, literally. The accident woke him up, shaking him out of complacency and fear. He discovered experimental film soon thereafter, “and it just clicked. This was something that I could do. This was a place where I could take a risk.” His unusual animations quickly entered the avant-garde canon, and he’s had innumerable screenings in the United States and abroad. His work has graced two Whitney Biennials, as well as the museum’s prestigious “Century” show, and he’s been a recipient of most of the major arts grants, including a Guggenheim. Klahr recently moved with his wife, experimental puppet-theater director Janie Geiser, and son to Los Angeles, where he now teaches at CalArts when he’s not hunkered down on the floor of his home, manipulating fragments of memory and history under his camera.
Klahr’s newest series of 16mm shorts is titled Engram Sepals. The word engramwas coined by a German biologist at the turn of the century to designate the place in the cerebral cortex where fragments of memory are engraved, leaving traces that can never be completely retrieved; sepalsnames the part of a flower stem that holds the petals in place. The phrase is an apt way of describing the seven-film series, in which Klahr moves, almost film by film, through the post–World War II decades in an attempt to discern the past and hold it in place, even if only momentarily. His 1994 film Altair, set in the late 1940s, follows a woman’s descent into misery and alcoholism, while Downs Are Feminine, also from ’94, is an effusive yet discomfiting pink-hued ’70s porn romp featuring torrid, almost violent gay intercourse with images torn from an illustrated porn novel.
“The pictures were so degraded-looking that I was taken aback,” says Klahr, who found the book on the streets of New York, a key source for many of his materials. “I was revolted both by the ugliness of the pictures and by the sexuality. It scared me, and that was exciting.” Klahr’s impulse is to find and focus in on his own hesitations when making art. “I kind of know what I’m going for,” he says, “but sometimes I don’t. That’s when it starts to come alive. That’s when the uncanny starts to get access.”
And this straddling of the known and unknown, both inside himself and in the world, is the key to Klahr’s films. “I grew up in a time when a lot of things changed,” he says, speaking, really, for a generation. “I expected one kind of world, and another kind of world came into being.” Klahr rifles through the discarded arcana of our history, looking insistently for the world he expected, but all he ever finds are its traces; from these traces, Klahr gives us rich, deeply moving and uniquely American portraits of loss, despair and desire.LEWIS KLAHR IN PERSON At Filmforum, 6522 Hollywood Blvd. Sunday, April 16, 7 p.m. | (323) 526-2911
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