The Vulgar Classes

No such luck. Though Battlefield Earth may have some relation to the church's more arcane theories of alien control, its most disappointing aspect is the absence of subtext. No less than that of the industry that spawned it, the movie's main purpose appears to be making money from the suspension of disbelief. Its one moment of truth is Travolta's sneering reference to "stupid humans."

L. Ron Hubbard employed "engram"—abiological coinage meaning the permanent change wrought by stimulus to protoplasm—to characterize repressed traumas. In a different sense, Carl Jung used the word to describe imprinted "racial" memories. Collage filmmaker Lewis Klahr, who calls his latest cycle Engram Sepals, is an artist who traffics in both psychic scars and cultural remembrance, conditions he suggests are organic by attaching engram to a botanical term for flower stem.

Bauble heads: Allen and Ullman in Small Time Crooks
Bauble heads: Allen and Ullman in Small Time Crooks


Small Time Crooks
Written and directed by Woody Allen
A DreamWorks release
Opens May 19

Battlefield Earth
Directed by Roger Christian
Written by Corey Mandell and J. David Schapiro, from the novel by L. Ron Hubbard
A Warner Bros. release

Engram Sepals
Seven collage films by Lewis Klahr
Walter Reade Theater
May 22

An artist who nourishes his intensely private visions on the compost heap of collective fantasy (most of his images come from old magazines), Klahr could be described as a "small-S" surrealist. His evocatively low-tech animations are as free-associative in structure as they are elusive in meaning. Engram Sepals' feature-length suite of seven mainly cut-and-paste "melodramas" (all produced over the past six years) opens in a heavenly blue cosmos on a note of dreamy fetishism, then turns noirish, and goes on to evoke the fashion-model sophistication and cocktail iconography of the early '60s. Klahr's films are often quite specific in dating their images. Engram Sepals' lone live-action episode combines late-'60s 8mm footage of campus antics and hippie weddings with the murky psychedelia of counterculture exploitation films, perhaps shot off TV.

In every case, juxtaposition is key. Pony Glass, located at the heart of the cycle, is one of Klahr's greatest films—a convoluted romantic pentangle set in a sci-fi corporate world, starring Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen. Accompanied by an almost unbearably desolate-sounding Frank Sinatra, Jimmy loves and loses an airline stewardess (then shifts his sexual orientation altogether). Klahr lets these cutout creatures have sex, tenderly affixing their comic-strip heads to writhing bodies culled from skin mags. This tawdry, wistful effect, as funny as it is unexpectedly erotic, continues in less romantic fashion in Downs Are Feminine, which fashions a number of polymorphously perverse hermaphroditic constructions taken from an illustrated gay porn novel found in the street.

Engram Sepals comes more or less full-circle with Failed Cardigan Maneuver. Here, children in a garden of outsize fruit dream of food and love, then grow up to have unhappy office affairs in the glamorous Manhattan of the late 1950s. Sinatra sings another sad saloon song, but Klahr doesn't need him for the mysterious alchemy that makes these paper dolls so expressive, eloquent, and moving.

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