The art world has recently engaged in a renewed fascination for the heady, rigorous experimental cinema of the late Aquarian age, reviving filmmakers like Anthony McCall, Owen Land, and Morgan Fisher. Perhaps galleries and museums wax nostalgic for the high intellectualism and materialist mastery of that era’s moving-image work, now seldom achieved by today’s video-art one-liners. Standish Lawder, the rightly lauded subject of an upcoming retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, serves as another welcome blast from our brain-stretching cinematic past. His haute-puckish short films tickle the human thalamus with their carefully crafted compositions of wry visual wit, technological reflexivity, and luscious celluloid textures, often set within envelopes of psychedelic soundscape. Some of his films work almost as conceptual art—like Intolerance (Abridged), which squishes Griffith’s two-hour monument into 10 brain-breaking minutes; others provide rhythmic photographic abstractions that verge on pure visual music.
Along with presenting his films, Lawder will showcase samples of the 3D stereoscopic slide shows he’s worked on in recent decades, produced with hijacked corporate pre-PowerPoint presentation machines and promising a cyber-graphic resurrection of Victorian magic-lantern shows. For Lawder, this newer work isn’t so much a departure as an extension of his earlier cinematic explorations. “I think of my films really much more as projected light art,” he says. “I’ve always been interested very much in the question of how do we see? How do the eyes think, how does the brain see? What is this mechanism that’s [composed of] retinas and lenses and stereo vision, that produces what we call ‘vision’? The optic nerve is an extension of the central nervous system. So it isn’t just visual—it’s cerebral or cortical.”
Lawder’s interest in such questions predates his filmmaking. Around 1960, while studying in Germany, he became a test subject at the Max Planck Institute for a neurologist researching “phosphenes”— imaginary visual patterns formed during hallucinations, head traumas, or other stimuli. At first, Lawder merely received “a very low-amplitude square wave through the occipital lobes of the cortex,” resulting in “roll bars and sparkling effects and so forth.” But inspired by Aldous Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception, Lawder suggested that they move onto more powerful stuff: LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin. “It was a very controlled laboratory experiment,” he recalls. “I was injected with a measured amount, spent a whole day in the clinic,” then described and diagrammed the visions that emerged; he thus became part of one of the earliest studies of psychedelics.
Later, while pursuing an art-history graduate degree at Yale and working for his father-in-law, Dadaist pioneer and avant-garde filmmaker Hans Richter, Lawder explored the more controllable tools of cinema. One of his early films from that period is Sunday in Southbury (shot in the mid-’60s and edited in 1972), which chronicles a summertime afternoon visit with Richter in the company of filmmakers Jonas and Adolfas Mekas. In Lawder’s short, Jonas Mekas can be seen shooting with his own 16mm camera; that footage ends up in Mekas’s autobiographical epic Walden, completed in 1969, which presents the same moment from an alternate perspective.
But Lawder didn’t specialize in the Mekasian diary genre, preferring more conceptual fare spiced with humor and emotion. His best-known film, Necrology (1968), consists of two long, vertically parallel shots: an unnaturally slow ascension of seemingly mundane New Yorkers (photographed on a Grand Central escalator, printed in reverse motion, and set to funereal music), and a deflationary faux credit roll, stuffed with fictional actors playing such roles as “divorcée,” “embezzler (at large)” and “pederast.” Color Film (1973), a powerfully dense three-minute visual pun, depicts the rhythmic patterns of a meticulously edited strip of multicolored leader snaking through a 16mm projector, set to a Frank Zappa electro-twang guitar freakout.
At 20 minutes, Corridor (1970) is Lawder’s longest and most complex film, bearing comparison to other trippy studies from its period. (Like Corridor, Michael Snow’s Wavelength, Ernier Gehr’s Serene Velocity, and Bill Viola’s early video The Space Between the Teeth all turn mundane architectural interiors into far-out explorations of deepest inner space.) Shot in grainy black and white, the film comprises a series of shaky tracks and zooms down a narrow hallway (inhabited intermittently by the apparition of a nude hippie-chick) that builds into a dizzying array of superimpositions and reprinting, which in turn builds into flickering monochrome fields, all the while interacting with composer Terry Riley’s synthesized warblings. Lawder has called Corridor “an occasion for meditative speculation” that invokes “a change in brain-wave activity . . . through the interface stimulation of alpha-wave frequencies.”
Academics today refer to Corridor and its ilk as “structuralist,” but Lawder isn’t satisfied with the implied pure formalism. “I think there’s something incredibly sensual about Wavelength, which is about as ‘structural’ as you can get,” he says. Form matters for its function: “Predetermined engineered rhythms or frame-counts measurements,” he argues, are a way “to measure and cut and edit, but have very little to do with the visual experience. How one reacts and sees and deals with a film has more to do with one’s own background and sensibility than the object itself. They’re profoundly subjective experiences.”