One of the most evocative, accessible, and culturally aware experimental filmmakers alive and working, Lewis Klahr uses what we—and our parents—have discarded to tap into the 20th-century American spine. Locating a lost, damaged dreaminess in the magazine illos, product ads, furniture catalogs, comic books, and porn of the postwar era that define, whether we know it or not, our shared past, Klahr’s films construct archetypal narratives and mood trances out of the middle-class utopia we promised ourselves and never got. In its cumulative effect, his new series, Engram Sepals, echoes his earlier Tales of the Forgotten Future: a visit to the secret closet of ephemeral life, of a pop culture bulldozed as landfill and then “reanimated” as collective remembrance.
“I don’t think of myself as an animator,” Klahr says. “I really am a collage artist, with all that implies: a need to explore the found materials, to explore history through those materials. It’s got a lot to do with hieroglyphics: this kind of visual shorthand, storing cultural memory. I’m the kind of person who used to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the Egyptian exhibit, because I was fascinated by the idea of this string of images forming a kind of sentence; I never took the step to find out what they meant, because I didn’t want to know. It’s the same with Hollywood: This image of a woman, this image of a car, this of a gun, you’ve got a noir in three images.”
A longtime New Yorker recently transplanted to L.A., Klahr points to Joseph Cornell, Douglas Sirk, Robert Rauschenberg, Jacques Tourneur, and Kenneth Anger as influences, much more so than collagists Stan Vanderbeek and Harry Smith, defining his own approach as not abstract nor manifestly ironic. “I occasionally try to be funny, but there’s a sneering quality to irony which I don’t feel. There’s no sense that I feel superior to my material.” For example, in the desperate sex-wreck Downs Are Feminine (part of the new cycle), Klahr uses depressing black-and-white porn images against photos of ’70s decor. “It’s profoundly ugly, my worst nightmare, and the people in the pictures never come close to mastering that confident, seductive gaze that you see in most porn. But in making the film, I developed a compassion and empathy for them. I found them beautiful in their self-destruction.”
Most of Klahr’s films could be characterized as portraits of deranged, unfulfilled consumerist lust, but he insists on a larger thematic picture. “My previous film, The Pharaoh‘s Belt, came from my reading about an Egyptian pharaoh’s bull-tail belt, which was passed on for 3000 years. But for us, nothing persists. When the ’60s came, I saw a very big shift away from the way I thought the world was going to be. The world looked different, I didn’t like the way it looked. With consumer culture, they always have to change product, and the past is always evaporating away around you. Cars, for instance: About 1965 I stopped caring about new cars, I liked the old ones and the new ones all began to look alike. Growing up, you feel like something escapes you. Everyone has this sense of loss. It’s a part of what it’s like to be alive. And what it means in the end to face death.”