There’s a long, rich history of hand-painted films, from the intense paint-on-emulsion shorts of Stan Brakhage and Len Lye to the stories that emerge through paint in the films of Caroline Leaf. Brooklyn-based Ezra Johnson adds a new kind of entry to this history with his 22-minute What Visions Burn, a film composed of animated paintings that seem to throb like heartbeats, telling a story in staccato, as layers of paint move across each other abruptly. The film opens on a cityscape reminiscent of the melancholy urban environs lovingly depicted by Edward Hopper in the 1940s. There are warehouses, telephone poles, streets, and a line of skyscrapers in the distance. The day passes, with the sunny yellows burning darker, fading to blue, then dark gray. A story slowly unfolds, about a painter, a museum heist, a mysterious nocturnal boat ride and some furtive romance. Johnson uses only sound effects, eschewing dialogue altogether, such that something akin to a dream or memory emerges from the colorful fragments. Visually, the film references a noirish past, but we also see images of cell phones and neon. Several moments are stunning — a fire crackling slowly to life, the boat bobbing on dark waves, and a sex scene with the rumpled blankets and urgent thrusting suggested in quick, heavy brush strokes. The beauty of Johnson’s video, though, is in how things just don’t match up — everything seems vaguely familiar, but somehow distant. Storybook images reference exhausted ennui, the past references the present, painting references film, and we hover suspended between media. (UCLA Hammer Museum; thru May 6. 310-443-7000 or www.hammer.ucla.edu)
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