Era Extraña: Lewis Klahr on Sixty Six

cover image Sixty Six (red head)-1

By Jordan Cronk

“I’ve been listening to all the dissension/ I’ve been listening to all the pain/ And I feel that no matter what I do for you/ It’s going to come back again”––Leonard Cohen, “Minute Prologue”

An anthology film in 12 chapters, Lewis Klahr’s animated mosaic Sixty Six is both greater than the sum of its parts and grander than the scope of its one-dimensional decoupage. Any attempt to describe the film leads to a maze of contradictions. Largely a work of stop-motion collage (a term the filmmaker favours to distinguish his practice from traditional animation), it is at once Klahr’s latest feature and a compendium compiled from years of short-form experimentation. Beginning in 2013 as the attempted reimagining of an unreleased 16mm film, the project soon expanded to encompass a multitude of digital miniatures ranging from three to 20-plus minutes in length. Combining outré visual sources––comic books, newsprint ads, pulp literature, and all manner of Pop-Art ephemera––with classical music cues and allusions to Greek mythology, this composite feature is the strangest of hybrids: a personal work of universal provenance.

Klahr, who lives and teaches film in Los Angeles, had been producing handcrafted 8mm and 16mm collage animations since the ’70s before he began working with digital video in 2007. In the years since, he’s become ever more prolific, the ease and inexhaustibility of digital affording him a newfound creative freedom. Sixty Six and the films that comprise it were therefore able to evolve organically, with materials cross-pollinating across numerous experiments and works-in-progress until a chimeric final form could be conceived from myriad sources, shapes, and stories. Reformulating his career-long fascination with mid-century iconography through a mythopoetic lens, Klahr has woven a mobile tapestry of misbegotten memory and cinematic arcana. In the spirit of the work’s mythic lineage, many of the constituent films’ individual titles—Mercury, Erigone’s Daughter, Saturn’s Diary—make direct references to Greek archetypes; in other instances, as with Ichor and Ambrosia (the blood and the food of the gods, respectively), the references are more associational and evocative; while in the case of Orphacles, Klahr fashions a gloss on the Orpheus and Hercules legends from his own imagination.

Opening to a rueful lamentation by Leonard Cohen, Sixty Six immediately strikes a melancholy tone, a tenor reflected in its various characters––an ensemble of classic Hollywood types, including harried blondes, hard-boiled detectives, and distressed doctors––as they proceed, forlorn yet fervent, through a simulacrum of postwar Los Angeles, embodiments of an entire generation of disenchanted dreamers. The film’s portmanteau construction allows Klahr to utilize a number of disparate formal and stylistic strategies in interstitial passages between the episodes of cut-out animation (often with speech-bubble dialogue) that carry the film’s recurring narrative. Mercury and Mars Garden utilize a light box to illuminate superimpositions created by the two sides of a single comic-book page: in the former, two versions of The Flash (both the Golden and Silver Age incarnations) commingle in a dance of suspended movement; in the latter, characters from the less iconic Thunder Agents wage war through images of overlapping extremities and exasperated (e)motion. In Ambrosia and August 19, 1966 (Jupiter Sends a Message), two of Sixty Six’s most autobiographical chapters, repurposed photographs (from LIFE and a family photo album, respectively) are rendered as still-life tableaux that, divorced from their original context, become movable signifiers even as they retain their power as totems of personal memory.

These themes of aging and identity become personified by a handful of figures who materialize in various configurations across the film’s most ambitious chapters, which, by the conclusion of the film, have accumulated into a sort of metropolitan melodrama. By placing his day-glo dames and dapper gents against a stark landscape of mid-century modernist architecture and arranging them in Tati-like configurations within the frame, Klahr enhances the sense of solitude and ennui which permeates a great deal of the genre cinema with which he is so enamoured. The eponymous heroine of Helen of T is a former New York party girl whose younger days are set in stark relief in the film’s second half when, now suddenly older and living in Los Angeles, she must reluctantly resign herself to the exigencies of aging. The middle-aged scientist at the centre of Lethe, the film’s final, climatic movement, is able to revert back to his youth after being injected with a mysterious serum; nothing, however, can reverse the fortunes of his female counterpart, whose fate is summoned by the echoing refrain of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

From the commencing citation––“Let the dreams you have forgotten equal the value of what you do not know” (from Paul Éluard and André Breton’s Le Message Automatique text, “The Original Judgment”)––to the myriad numeric references both visual (vintage clippings of the Phillips 66 logo) and aural (sampled dialogue from the Route 66 television show), to the personal dedications capping a majority of the individual chapters, it’s clear that every element of Sixty Six is working in synchronicity with its maker’s greater curatorial vision. No mere exercise in nostalgia, Klahr’s film plays like a valiant attempt to reconcile the existential mysteries of the past with the enduring burdens of the human condition. As an act of preservation––whether of memories, materials, or both––Klahr’s career-long project exhibits a unique generosity; as an act of perseverance, it attains an even rarer vitality.

Cinema Scope: With such an intuitive approach to creating this film—first by attempting to “remake” an unfinished film, and then by creating and discarding parts along the way—how did you know what was Sixty Six and what wasn’t?

Lewis Klahr: I didn’t! I had to figure that out as I went, which is how I most like to work; when the sense of discovery is fresh for me then it’s also fresh for my audience. But I had plenty to contemplate for guidance just in the title itself. For instance, I knew I wanted 12 films or chapters to suggest the months of the year 1966. This in turn suggested I was working on a feature-length series, a duration that would require an overall dynamic range of difference, contrast, repetition, associational accumulation, and echo between the individual films. I also knew that each individual film would marry Greek mythology with ’60s imagery. In other words, even though I was working intuitively, there was a great deal of structure and thematic parameters that quickly fell into place.

Scope: There is a kind of overarching storyline, as well as recurring characters and settings and themes throughout the film. So as you were deliberating on these images and characters, a narrative began to take shape?

Klahr: I wouldn’t call it exactly a narrative, more of a “poetic shape,” and one that grew very gradually. Throughout Sixty Six’s creation there was a kind of call and response that occurred between the films that were already created and the ones in progress. For example, The Silver Age uses the same characters and iconic Los Angeles architecture as Ichor, Orphacles, and Saturn’s Diary, but being created after the other three, The Silver Age takes the imagery in a different, climactic direction. Before The Silver Age, I had employed my characters––which I’d culled from a comic book created from a ’60s TV show called Burke’s Law––to evoke a sense of mundane everyday life, but with very little reference to criminal activity. In The Silver Age I activated my characters’ crime-story origins primarily by including a series of open-doored and empty, looted safes. It is worth noting that the projection order of the above-mentioned quartet of films is not arranged according to their chronological creation order. So one of the things I was tracking as I created each film was where it might fit in terms of the overall projection order.

Scope: So the projection order is essentially an attempt to craft a cohesive narrative from the various individual films?

Klahr: A cohesive experience, an associational mindscape, a reverie that accumulates but that’s not something I would call a narrative, though narrative is certainly one of its registers.

Throughout Sixty Six’s creation the most challenging moments occurred when I broke a rule I thought I had established for myself. For instance, early on, when I created Helen of T, the third film in the series’ projection order, it was clearly set on the east coast and then its second half, as Helen ages, was set not in the ’60s but in the present day. Thus, I had broken two of my “rules,” that all the films would take place in Los Angeles and occur in the ’60s. I had to question this development, and ask myself if Helen of T was really part of this series. The answer of course was “Yes,” partly because this expansion supported my other aim of building the series’ overall dynamic range via difference and contrast.

The projection order was something that had to be successfully resolved to make Sixty Six a feature film, and to make it a work where the individual films could be experienced as chapters, a part of a larger whole. Once I had all the films last summer, I spent a lot of time looking at all 12 in various orders and trying out different sequences. It was a process of trial and error that required a lot of looking and contemplation. There were easy choices, like the fact that both Ichor and Orphacles have prophetic narration by the actress Andrea Leblanc, so it made sense to bookend them at either end of the projection sequence. Or the decision to include two films, Mercury and Mars Garden, in which I harvested the superimpositions from the double-sided pages of superhero comics illuminated by a light box. Then there were the more difficult decisions, such as whether Ambrosia or Lip Print (Venus) should even be included.

Scope: Sixty Six is very much a L.A. film. Have you sensed a shift in your interest or practice since moving to Los Angeles in 1998?

Klahr: A lot of what I’ve always created, collage-wise, has always had a strong relationship to Hollywood. So I was kind of already making L.A. films before moving here. What’s different about living here is that, obviously, I have a lot more first-hand knowledge of Los Angeles as a city now. In Sixty Six there are many shades of blue, because the city is so defined by its sky and how the sky sits over the buildings. There are also various aspects of nature that now creep in, like the lizard that crawls from underneath the flower in Erigone’s Daughter. I see those lizards every time I hike in Griffith Park. I also discover things in my backyard, or when I take walks—flowers, leaves, branches of thorns, dead insects––all easily insertable into my compositions. This is in contrast to when I lived in New York City, where I constantly found useful refuse, books, and magazines discarded on the street.

And then there’s the light. I now shoot digitally in my garage rather than on film, which requires a dark room. So I can leave my garage door open, which is quite pleasurable, and shoot a mix of daylight and artificial light. At sunset there’s this wonderful moment that occurs on this little tabletop I use to mount my compositions on—it’s a very brief moment, a few minutes max—where the sunlight comes in and strikes that little table and crosses it. In Helen of T, the final image of a lighter with a blue flame is a time-lapse shot where I’m just clicking off frames as the sunset light changes intensity and position. It makes a lot of sense for a movie about a character significantly aging that there’s this time lapse at its close, a literal compression of time.

Another place this occurs is in the credits of The Silver Age. The light has this really strong character––it is yellow and harsh, it’s real winter light. That it’s January light has this whole other personal significance for me related to my childhood, and what I then imagined California was like in the dead cold of a New York winter. But that’s obviously not necessarily available to anyone else watching the movie. Nevertheless, it’s an important mnemonic for me. Sixty Six is full of such veiled autobiography.

Scope: The city also seems to interest you from a physical standpoint: its architecture and civic complexion. There are multiple images of City Hall, for example, as well as various downtown landmarks, in addition to the domestic locations.

Klahr: In Erigone’s Daughter we do frequently see City Hall, which would have been one of the tallest buildings in L.A. in 1966. It’s certainly the iconic downtown L.A. building from that period. But yes, I’m also thinking about L.A. as a mythic place. So I’m using famous architectural photos of mid-20th-century houses, not only for their graphic juxtaposition as a ground for these very brightly coloured comic-book characters I’m using, but also because they’re mythological as well. Those houses were primped and made ready for the moment of their photographic capture just as an actor would be. And they still represent L.A. to a lot of people. They certainly did in my childhood. Los Angeles had––and has––a lot of utopic dimensions to it as an imaginary city for a lot of people.

Scope: Many of these mid-century homes now have these somewhat sinister connotations because of how they’re often portrayed in Hollywood crime films. But Sixty Six portrays them as something a bit more, as you say, utopic. You obviously don’t see these homes as sinister spaces.

Klahr: Yeah, they have many dimensions. For one thing they’re extraordinarily beautiful. In 1966 their design possessed this very strong utopic sense of the future. They were imitated widely in the suburbs all around the country. And I grew up in the suburbs. There’s a very rich national history around these houses as an idea, as mid-20th-century icons of promise, of progress and the new. But most of my characters are not criminals, actually. They’re detectives. That said, there is still an overtonal sense of the context they’ve been plucked from that isn’t eliminated or effaced by cutting them out and recontextualizing them. The perfume of crime doesn’t completely go away even though I only rarely activate it as I mentioned before.

Scope: Your previous feature, The Pettifogger (2011), is set in 1963. Sixty Six is set in 1966. You would have been ten years old in 1966. Do you feel a particular kinship with the ’60s, or what is it that draws you to that time period?

Klahr: It’s true I’ve been drawn to the mid-20th century most of my adult life, and most of my filmmaking life. But it’s an attraction that doesn’t stay in place. It’s not one thing. My relationship to it keeps changing. At first, in my 20s, it arose as a nostalgia for that period, a desire to relive it, or live inside it imagistically as a young adult since I’d only lived in it as a child. After I made various autobiographical works I thought I had or would exhaust my interest, I assumed I’d have cathartically liberated myself to deal with the present and the contemporary. But instead my fascination reasserted itself and I discovered the “pastness of the present.” As collage is my main medium of expression, the source materials I deal with are older; they have a certain freedom because they’re outmoded. I began to become interested, thematically, in memory and history, and the way those two things intersect: their inaccuracies, the amount of forgetting involved in the remembering. Right now, it’s been 50 years since 1966, and that period now feels mythological. The way I remember it has less and less to do with recalling specific memories and more to do with the compression one experiences through lived time.

A seminal experience for me in my 20s was reading Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths. There would be these half-page descriptions of the actual myths, followed by pages and pages of footnotes explaining what was buried inside these stories. They were incredibly compressed. I remember one footnote that described a single line as signifying the moment when the patriarchy took over from the matriarchy. And I just thought, “Wow, such a huge change represented by just one line?” That seemed wildly and ecstatically poetic. Compression has always struck me as a vital element of narrative and history—what gets selected and how it’s selected. How a sense of “lived time” is accumulated. So that’s some of what I’m evoking here in Sixty Six. Some of what I’ve done in every period of my filmmaking involves all of the above. It’s kind of an itch I can’t scratch.

Scope: What is it specifically about the years 1963 and 1966 that interests you?

Klahr: They’re both transitional years within that decade. They’re borderlines where the old and new overlap and have friction and produce fruitful flowerings. They’re years where a lot of things changed for me personally––1966 is a year where much of my relationship to pop culture or aesthetic consumption got set, absorption that still exists for me today. Although there were various challenges it was a year that was mostly joyous for me. Years are very distinct when you’re young, whereas they’re not very distinct to me now! Maybe what I miss most and want to recapture from my childhood is the vividness, so I’m choosing the lens of my childhood to deal with adult life and the present. Not that different from a lot of experimental filmmakers, actually––especially Stan Brakhage.

Scope: To go back to the Greek mythology conceit: When did you know this was how you wanted to structure and thematically develop the film?

Klahr: Once I created Lethe in 2009. This was the first time I coupled ’60s imagery with Greek myth and it became clear to me how I could construct my own versions of these stories. Before and during the making of that film, I read another deeply inspiring mythology book called The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso, which took me many years to read because it’s so dense and rich, and I could only absorb a little bit at a time. It contained all these fantastic fragments and descriptions that would spin off in my imagination. Helen of T is a name I’d already come up with for a character for an unfinished short story I was working on, but there is a whole chapter about Helen of Troy in the Calasso book where he describes what she’s like as a girl, the first time she’s abducted, when she loses her virginity, and her marriage in the afterlife—all these things I never read or heard about before. So Calasso got me thinking.

Scope: The mythology aspect seems to have opened up your storytelling, both conceptually and thematically.

Klahr: It opens it up, and it also connects it to an older tradition of things. But it’s not exactly history—it’s more like fictions that are useful, or long-lasting, elemental. They are competing versions of stories which all contain partial or paradoxical truth––in a sense, everything is true, so there’s a great openness and adaptability to these texts. Even though they’re thousand of years old, one can still find their particulars applicable in the mid-20th century or now. But then I’m also changing them, like in Helen of T, which is not about the Helen of Troy who was so beautiful she had a war fought over her. This comic-book character I’m using is attractive, but she’s no great beauty. My Helen of T is more Helen of Troy, New York. She’s kind of low-rent, a kind of bar-girl. Or Orphacles: Before I premiered this film in London at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery I went to look him up and discovered he wasn’t listed––I’d made him up and forgotten I’d made him up! So throughout I’m constructing different lines, like in the quartet of films we talked about earlier, where the characters recur. There’s also a balancing quartet of films in Sixty Six with a through line about blonde female protagonists: Helen of T, Erigone’s Daughter, Lip Print (Venus), and Lethe. They form a poetic mythology too, one that is more explicitly narrative and involves romantic regret, loss, and death.

Scope: There’s definitely a melancholy tone to the film.

Klahr: Yes, that feeling is central to most of my work. There’s a sadness to it, a sense of loss. But there’s also a sense of adding up time and looking at the bigger picture; it’s a kind of sadness that has wisdom in it, acceptance. Melancholy is a very deep kind of reverie that contains pain, sweetness, and eternity. I enjoy being in that state. Melancholy too often gets described as only containing sadness and loss, but there’s a huge amount of ecstasy in there as well, that for some reason doesn’t get talked about.

Scope: Let’s talk about the sound, both the music and the sound design, which are major parts of the film. There are backwards music cues and manipulated narration at certain junctures, and just a generally intricate sense of ambiance throughout.

Klahr: Music is always a big part of my films. For me it’s another collage element. I want the viewer to hear the music I include the way I’m hearing it, the way the imagery is modifying it. This is often different than the way one would normally listen to or hear this music. The backward music cues make the familiar strange. But I didn’t want Sixty Six to just be music-centric. To create the dynamic range and the sense of the everyday which is vital to Sixty Six’s descriptive power, I needed to use sound effects and voiceover and the swallowed and re-edited soundtrack to an episode of the ’60s TV show Route 66 in Erigone’s Daughter. The feature-length duration is a demanding one in terms of what’s required to keep the audience refreshed and engaged.

Scope: You take this approach one step further with Ambrosia, which arrives over two-thirds of the way into the film and is completely silent. It works especially well coming after a handful of such sonically dense pieces.

Klahr: I’m very happy that I was able to accomplish that. It’s always a challenge to successfully sequence a silent film after sound films. Ambrosia’s silence and primarily black-and-white imagery become a fulcrum in Sixty Six’s overall structure, a silent, austere climax that explodes Sixty Six in a new and unexpected direction. Many viewers have surprised me with descriptions of how they experienced a palpable sense of “crime” in Ambrosia. It’s as if the overtonal montage of the original criminal context of the characters in Sixty Six transforms these black-and-white pictures and turns them into crime-scene photos. This was certainly nothing I was intending or thinking about with the film’s sequence placement, but I view it as one of the fortuitous transformations that the collage aesthetic makes possible. Ambrosia, of course, is inspired by still-life painting, and I doubt it would have any of the power attributed to it outside of the build of Sixty Six’s sequence. But I needed to create quiet, a pause, a working rest that bridged the excitement of the middle films where music and sound effects are integrated, and the grandeur of Mahler’s Tenth in Lethe, Sixty Six’s final film.

In regards to Ambrosia’s imagery, I’m using very large photographs from my brother’s 1962 bar mitzvah album that I’m cropping to spotlight the banquet tables. These tables have a kind of opulence that still-life paintings often do—of bounty, or plentifulness. The colourful decay of the flowers introduced in the film’s coda comments on the ephemerality of this bounty. Meanwhile, the printing grid, or pores, of these photos, when shot close-up, become huge. The texture of these pores competes with the picture plane for the focus of your eye.

Scope: You do something similar in August 16, 1966 (Jupiter Sends a Message), where you’re scanning printed images and framing them in close-up.

Klahr: Those images are cropped from LIFE magazine, so they have a consistent look being from one source. And they’re all circa mid-’60s. I was out to capture the sense of a small suburban town at the end of summer like the one I grew up in. I was remembering the late summer of 1966, when the humidity in Long Island built to this insane level where the air was heavy and full of moisture for about five days straight before it was finally released in a thunderstorm. But I remember that feeling of the overwhelming, inescapable presence of the humidity. By shooting my source pictures so close up, the printing grid got magnified, and the dots become the palpable embodiment of this humidity. Like so much else in Sixty Six, they become texture for viewers to touch with their eyes.

Scope: How would you say your practice has changed since you’ve been working with digital?

Klahr: Because my materials are extremely analogue, they brought a different sensorial, physiological presence into the digital, which made it a more heightened marriage between the past and present than film had provided me. The other thing I discovered and was happily surprised by is that digital photography significantly enhances the sense of texture that’s always been an important part of my sensibility. Of the mediums I’ve previously worked in––Super 8, 16mm, and earlier forms of video––digital has provided the most accurate rendition of what I actually see when I’m shooting. All the printing mistakes in the various source materials I use are now not only visible, but emphasized. For instance, in Sixty Six, the policeman you see from behind a number of times in Ichor, The Silver Age, and Orphacles has this big red line on his blond hair directly underneath his hat, which is just a colour-printing mistake. In digital these mistakes are now affective tactile events in their own right.

Another thing digital has allowed me to do is project on larger screens and in larger spaces, spaces that typically show 35mm. Since I always shot too dark, my 16mm films would often be challenged. Audiences often didn’t get the full colour or texture impact of what I was doing. In Super 8 it was even worse. But now with digital, I can be in a large theatre and it’s all there on the screen—every exposure tweak. Digital also gives me much more editorial control. And it changes the way I animate and the way I work with single frames, because editorially I can easily alter the sequence of a shot—I can use the same shots repeatedly since I don’t have to worry about reshooting for a negative cut. This editorial flexibility is really satisfying. But the greatest benefit has been that I feel like a Super 8 filmmaker again in terms of cost. Hard drives are inexpensive, I can make an entire feature for as much money as it used to cost me with 16mm to make an eight- to ten-minute short. It would have been financially impossible to make a work like Sixty Six—a work of this durational scale—on celluloid. Digital has granted me economic freedom.