tumblr_m6g5jkbmiG1qf2my8o1_1280
By Chuck Stephens

To him who in the love of Nature holds

Communion with her visible forms, she speaks

A various language…

—Thanatopsis, William Cullen Bryant, 1811

A buzzsaw in turbulent neon; a heartbeat and a hummingbird; a flickering flame mistaken for a cosmic streetwalker by a god/man with the clammy, impassive stare of a regular patron in the go-go bar at the edge of forever. Thanatopsis (1962), 20th-century Renaissance man Ed Emshwiller’s 16mm cine-dance classic, may be titled after W.C. Bryant’s 19th century “vision of death”—in which nature organically reclaims and obliterates us all—but it remains one of the liveliest and most kinetic touchstones of ’60s cine-dance. A precursor to Bruce Conner’s Breakaway (1966), with one toe-shoed foot smudging Jules-Etienne Marey’s motion studies into modern dance-recital blurs while the other takes a space-booted step into the fourth dimension, Thanatopsis bridges the worlds across which Emshwiller travelled. A master illustrator of pulp science fiction long before he began his career in experimental film and video, the Michigan-born, École des Beaux Arts-trained “Emsh” (1925-1990) created more than 400 cover paintings and countless interior illustrations between 1951 and 1979 for s/f mags like Galaxy and Astounding Science-Fiction: ravening bug-eyed beasts, scantily clad she-demons from the far reaches of the universe, and human-like constructs revealed as remote-control vehicles for mastermind rodents. The debts that the imagery of science-fiction cinema, television, comic books, and record album covers during the latter half of the 20th century owe Emsh—winner of five Hugo awards and a posthumous Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductee—are uncountable. Documentary footage he shot of Bob Dylan ended up in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967). Oh, and he taught at Yale, Cornell, and UC Berkeley, and retired as Provost and Dean of film and video at CalArts.

In Thanatopsis, a man (Emsh’s brother Max) appears in a series of medium close-ups, staring not exactly blankly into who knows exactly what, his pitted complexion harshly lit, the sort of rugged and fascinating terrain upon which Brueghel the Elder, long before Tarkovsky or Tarr, might have trained a gaze. Around the man a woman (Becky Arnold) is pirouetting in constant hyper-motion, animated entirely into abstraction; we see only the chimerical streaks and smears of a tweaker Tinkerbell in a bright white leotard. His gaze never fixes her; barely seems to intersect with her movements, and though brooding seems wholly unimpressed. In any event, she will not be fixed. Her leotard changes from black to white, she merges with the neon squiggles of the night. The buzzsaw sings ever louder, then stops altogether; the heartbeat thumps dully on. If we could peer inside this man’s head, would we find a chittering rat inside? Could we slow her whorl, would we see beyond the stargate that separates their worlds? “Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past/All in one mighty sepulchre.” Dance, death, dance.

thanatopsis

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Issue 84 Table of Contents

    INTERVIEWS *The Act of Living: GianfrancThe Act of Living: Gianfranco Rosi on Notturnoo Rosi on Notturno By Mark Peranson*Reconstructing Violence: Nicolás Pereda on Fauna By More →

  • The Act of Living: Gianfranco Rosi on Notturno

    “The night scares me so much,” confesses a courageous Yazidi pre-teen girl to a therapist, remembering the period when she and her younger sister were captured by ISIS. Anyone who was seen crying would be killed, they were told; it turned out to be a vacant threat, but the sisters were still beaten, and now they are attempting to exorcise their memories by drawing pictures of them. Does it help? We never find out. More →

  • Reconstructing Violence: Nicolás Pereda on Fauna

    There’s a point in nearly every Nicolás Pereda film when the narrative is either reoriented or upended in some way. In the past this has occurred through bifurcations in story structure or via ruptures along a given film’s docufiction fault line. Pereda’s ninth feature, Fauna, extends this tradition, though its means of execution and conceptual ramifications represent something new for the 38-year-old Mexican-Canadian filmmaker. More →

  • I Lost It at the Movies: Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind and I’m Thinking of Ending Things

    “It’s all planned, but it isn’t thought out,” wrote Pauline Kael in her review of A Woman Under the Influence (1974), a nifty bit of critical jiu-jitsu turning John Cassavetes’ much-theorized—and, during Kael’s reign at The New Yorker, much-derided—technique of spontaneous improvisation within a dramatic framework against him. More →

  • Open Ticket: The Long, Strange Trip of Ulrike Ottinger

    One of the most surprising things about Ulrike Ottinger’s new documentary Paris Calligrammes is how accessible it is. Some cinephiles may be familiar with Ottinger based on an 11-year period of mostly fictional productions that were adjacent to the New German Cinema but, for various reasons, were never entirely subsumed within that rubric. Others are quite possibly more aware of her later work in documentary, in particular her commitment to a radical form of experimental ethnographic cinema. More →