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Movies Gone Bad 

Pat O'Neill's shattered, kaleidoscopic storytelling — and beyond

Thursday, May 6 2010

Artist/filmmaker Pat O'Neill's 1989 Sundance Grand Jury Prize–winning experimental feature Water & Power — a sort-of Chinatown-meets–Koyaanisqatsi-on-nootropics dealie — is rightfully recognized as one of the signal artifacts of late 20th century L.A. culture, not to mention a radical turning point in experimental cinema. Since making that splash, after a quarter-century toiling in the experimental-cinema mines (and the somewhat more lucrative special-effects fields), O'Neill has expanded his reputation into the art world with gallery and museum exhibitions of his sculptures, drawings, prints and projection-based installations. His double-barreled 2002 magnum opus film/interactive CD-ROM, The Decay of Fiction, took his ambivalent relationship with narrative into even more interdimensional realms (by way of Hollywood noir and the Ambassador Hotel), and marked his first artistic engagement with digital media.

But digital filmmaking as such has only recently surfaced as a primary medium in O'Neill's oeuvre, all his earlier work having been meticulously rendered on actual photographic stock using an optical printer, a now-obsolete mechanism for re-photographing and compositing layers of different films. This Monday, May 10, the fruits of O'Neill's recent embrace of DV will be debuted at REDCAT in Disney Hall, the downtown exhibition/performance facility of CalArts, where O'Neill co-founded the film and video department in 1970. I Open the Window, I Put Out My Hands and Starting to Go Bad (all 2009) are three short films — or videos or whatever — that translate the auteur's formal and conceptual obsessions into a decidedly more improvisational and diaristic medium than the meticulously composed collages-in-motion that have been his trademark.

Celluluddites will piss and moan, but many of O'Neill's aesthetic concerns — looping, layering, morphing, mirroring, sampling (of landscape, architecture, advertising, found and borrowed cinematography and the human body) — anticipated and mapped out the strengths of the digital-art vocabulary with uncanny accuracy, decades before the fact. And with uncommon skill. O'Neill's films — in spite of their seizure-inducing editing and hard-to-follow story lines — are nevertheless crowd-pleasers, due in large part to the artist's remarkable visual talent. I've seen skeptical stoners who would not sit through five minutes of Godard absolutely riveted as I showed them O'Neill's psychedelic abstract symmetry manifesto 7362 (1967), currently available on the National Film Preservation Foundation's amazing DVD Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF PAT O'NEILL - I Put Out My Hands
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF PAT O'NEILL
  • I Put Out My Hands

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7362 will also soon be available from O'Neill's DIY DVD label at lookoutmountainstudios.com — a self-preservationist strategy more noncareerist filmmakers would take heed to follow. The label is in the process of issuing a series of discs encompassing O'Neill's extensive undertakings, from 1963's By the Sea through his landmark Runs Good, Saugus Series and Trouble in the Image, his two feature-length experiments — still being remastered — and into his current body of digital work. This is a treasure trove of psychedelic eye candy of the most rigorous kind; poetic structuralism with a gee-whiz factor of 11.

A typical O'Neill sequence may incorporate fragments of vintage Hollywood genre films (or studio outtakes, or olde erotica); handheld landscape footage rotated and folded in half or quarters; close-up pans across woodcut illustrations and engravings; looped luminous abstract doodles featuring O'Neill's stock pictographic iconography of coils, springs, cones and streams and explosions of energy lines. All of this can be layered into one image, with landscapes peeping through the silhouettes of human figures, while other, borrowed figures — animated rotoscope-style — jitter across the surface. Sometimes portions of the central image are blocked by colored geometric shapes, as in the static images of O'Neill's CalArts colleague John Baldessari. Many of the picto-semiotic devices that surge through O'Neill's frame — the inversions, blockages, picture-in-picture superimpositions, layered transparencies with figures moving across multiple landscapes at the same time, and seemingly arbitrary fragments of textual narrative — presaged the concerns of so-called postmodern visual artists, whose work explored the limits and contradictions of the technology of communicating with images.

But O'Neill does it in time — a crucial distinction that propels his insights into another dimension (literally), while grounding their relevance to the primary modes of contemporary visual communication (TV and movies) in the actual media they address. Po-mo painters made work about the human relationship to the immersive bombardment of film and television images; O'Neill altered that relationship directly. Another important difference has been O'Neill's innovative manipulation of sound — often in collaboration with sound designer George Lockwood — which frequently results in a musique concrète sound track of intricately layered loops and fragments as conceptually and formally rewarding as the orgy of images it accompanies.

While the digital era poses enormous challenge to the underworld of experimental cinema, the access alone makes it all worthwhile. O'Neill's films — which one would previously have had to rent in (probably battered) 16 mm or 35 mm formats for a single screening from a beleaguered filmmaker's co-op — are now available for a fraction of the price, to keep and screen repeatedly. Or even continuously, as befits many examples of art cinema. Stan Brakhage shifted to the affordable medium of Super-8 in hopes that his films would insinuate themselves into people's homes and lives in this very way, but the Criterion Collection's 2001 collection By Brakhage — Anthology has done more to disseminate his visual virus and revive interest in his work than all the community networking combined — a momentum that should be further accelerated later this month, when Criterion releases By Brakhage Volume 2.

Similar releases of more talked-about than seen films by Maya Deren, Jean Painlevé, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jules Engel, Kenneth Anger, Norman McLaren, Oskar Fischinger and many others — as well as anthologies from Kino on Video (Avant-Garde), Anthology Film Archives (Unseen Cinema) and the aforementioned National Film Preservation Foundation have resulted in an unprecedented infusion of widespread public attention to the entire spectrum and history of noncommercial cinema. But there remain enormous untapped reserves of seminal celluloid awaiting release — the oeuvres of underground heroes Bruce Conner and Harry Smith remain mysteriously unavailable, while many contemporary film artists, like Matthew Barney, choose to keep their work isolated in the blue chip ghetto of The Art World, available only as high-end limited editions.

The range of what is yet to be rediscovered can be glimpsed in Art Cinema, a handsome volume recently issued by Taschen that attempts to grapple with the sprawling, century-long trail of nonmainstream cinema. Even excluding non-Western experimental traditions, animation and Internet video (now there's a can of worms!), the 190 pages just expose the tip of the Unseen Cinema iceberg. Written by L.A.-based writer and curator Paul Young (who recently — and almost single-handedly — pulled together Remote Viewing, a museum-quality survey of contemporary art film and video at the Pacific Design Center), Art Cinema runs the gamut from Emile Cohl's 1908 proto-surrealist stop-motion pumpkin race to Brakhage associate Phil Solomon's as-yet-unfinished American Falls, an epic hauntological "cine-mural" designed as an installation for the rotunda at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.

Along the lavishly illustrated way, Young manages to touch upon the usual cinematic suspects — Eisenstein, Vertov, Buñuel, Marker, Warhol, Snow (and O'Neill) — but also focuses considerable attention on recent art-world crossovers like Paul McCarthy, Marnie Weber and Jeremy Blake. It's the kind of book that in the predigital era could have been a solitary lifeline to an isolated Midwestern art freak, and would make a perfect gift for a nephew or niece who wants to get into filmmaking. Now more than ever, it's important to start them off in the wrong direction.

STARTING TO GO BAD: NEW NARRATIVES BY PAT O'NEILL | Mon., May 10, 8:30 p.m. | REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall | 631 W. 2nd St., L.A. | $9 ($7 students) | (213) 237-2800 | redcat.org

Pat O'Neill DVDs available at lookoutmountainstudios.com/store.php. Contact lookoutfilm@earthlink.net.

ART CINEMA | Taschen | By PAUL YOUNG | Hardcover, 192 pages | $30

  • Pat O'Neill's shattered, kaleidoscopic storytelling — and beyond

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