Los Angeles-based filmmaker Lewis Klahr has just been named as an Artist in Residence at Ohio State University’s prestigious Wexner Center for the Arts. In recognition of this honor, Film Threat is taking a look at some of his recent films.
“False Aging” is a haunting, evocative, expertly crafted film by Lewis Klahr, using his signature style of animation made with cutout figures, often from comic books and other nostalgic sources, and a great variety of small objects such as plastic ice cubes and trading stamps. The physical movement in the film, with individual cutout figures moving in and out of the frame awkwardly, in a crude form of animation, effectively recreates the feeling of daydreaming, or the way one would mull through one’s deepest, least expressible emotional jumbles just before falling asleep. The fact that the imagery is not directly interpretable, not clearly and readily translatable into easily explained symbolism, yet every image in every frame clearly is a swirling vortex of powerful associations, is what gives this (and Klahr’s other films) their peculiar and transcendent power and beauty: they take you on a journey into a strange, powerful and beautiful place, without telling you where you are going or what you will find there, and so they open up many doors into hidden pavilions of feeling, without locking you into an overly narrow and intellectualized explanation of what you are seeing.
An obvious influence on the style of Klahr’s work generally, and specifically on “False Aging,” is Joseph Cornell and his surrealist box constructions. Klahr’s films are the films Cornell should have made instead of “Rose Hobart.” The imagery has a magical pull similar to the Cornell boxes: nostalgic castoffs from previous ages, characters from old comic books, trading stamps, old fashioned wall paper, fashioned into collages which speak of deep, dark emotional tides: fear, sex, anger, but muted and transformed, as in dreams, into a partly nostalgic form which hides and softens their dangerous edges.
A striking feature of Klahr’s style are certain moments when the cutout graphics suddenly go out of focus or shake in an agitated way. These moments seem like emotional epiphanies, as when one is thinking of something so dangerous or disturbing that the mind cannot hold the images steadily.
There is an underlying narrative to “False Aging,” but it has been fragmented and abstracted to a high degree, so that it will be apparent to few viewers on their first viewing. As a consequence, this first viewing of the film is a powerful experience: the feelings of danger, innocence, corruption, and crisis hover around the film, as if the teller of the story has just left the room and the echoes of his voice still cling to the walls, but without one being able to know exactly where these feelings are coming from.
On second viewing, however, the hidden narrative structure becomes fairly readable. The film is in three sections, with three different soundtracks, and the words from the accompanying songs often refer directly to what we are seeing, giving us strong hints to the story. The first section is set to the opening voice-over and music from the film “Valley of the Dolls.” The theme of aging is established, as we often see the earth in orbit and images of clocks, and pills and drugs clearly play an important role. The film’s protagonist is an innocent little canary on a trip to the Big City, where, like the heroine of “Valley of the Dolls,” she will face a danger closely related to drug use. We see trading stamps and library receipts: she can only hope that something of her ordeal will be salvageable.
The middle section is set to the Jefferson Airplane song “Lather,” which is specifically about how drug use keeps a person from growing up. The film’s title now appears to refer explicitly to the well-known phenomenon that drug addicts often remain emotionally immature, even as their bodies are getting older. There are explicit visual references to the Garden of Eden, seemingly made from cutouts from a bible comic book, and Adam and Eve’s shame is once again linked to the ever present pill shapes.
The final section is set to John Cale and Lou Reed’s (fictional) representation of Andy Warhol’s last thoughts. Warhol is the perfect image of the aging childlike addict, unable to form mature adult relationships. The song refers explicitly to Warhol’s drinking, and his resentment of those who have overcome their addictions. The images show a male figure, alone with a telephone and various castoff objects. The trading stamps which we have seen throughout the film have been saved for a lifetime, but there is no payoff for the addict who never grew up. The film ends with the Warhol figure dying alone and friendless: “…and nobody called, and nobody came.” In an act of pure artistic film alchemy, Lewis Klahr tells a story without telling it, and we are moved in our depths, without understanding where our reaction is coming from.