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Klahr's Film Sixty Six Explores American Mythology

by Nicole Fisher

October 10, 2016

In 1946, Nat King Cole extolled the free and easy virtues of traversing America on the open road that once linked Chicago to Los Angeles in the chart-topping, Bobby Troup-penned single, "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66." The tune inspired a classic TV show of the same name, and nowadays evokes a vanished era of hipster cool, a mid-20th century high-water mark for pop culture, social upheaval and dreams that once seemed boundless.

Filmmaker, animator and collagist Lewis Klahr draws on these potent notions in his latest feature, Sixty Six—and doesn't leave out the kicks, either.

"This an experimental movie for people who don't like experimental movies," says Ross Wilbanks, Film Curator for the New Frequencies series at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, which will screen Klahr's animated feature on Friday, Oct. 14, fresh off its premiere at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. Film buffs who find avant-garde movies boring, nonsensical or meandering will be pleasantly surprised by Sixty Six, Wilbanks maintains. Klahr's feature debut is especially for you, he adds, "if you like the visual kick of the unknown."

Wilbanks maintains a friendly correspondence with Klahr, who has been making films since the late 1970s. He contacted the filmmaker directly to book the 90-minute feature, a compendium of a dozen shorter digital films completed between 2002 and 2015, for its North Carolina premiere.

Dense, provocative and dreamlike, Sixty Six seems to dwell in a realm where mystery and memory collide. Writing in the January 2016 issue of Film Comment, Kristin M. Jones said "Messages and portents bubble up throughout (the) feature, which poetically fuses images and ephemera of the Sixties with Greek mythology," noting that black and white photos of modernist Los Angles architecture frequently contrast with richly hued, but often worn-looking, cut-outs.

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis also praises Klahr's "astonishing archive of material ephemera and personal memories that he reanimates with scissors, a camera and expressive editing."

Wilbanks cautions that we shouldn't think of  Klahr's magnum opus as "animation" in the classic sense, either. "(Klahr) prefers the word collage. Although objects are moving on the screen, they don't move in the  smoothly homogenized way we expect animation to work."

"The effect can be humorous," Wilbanks adds. "Exciting things happen, not unlike a surrealist painting or a Luis Buñuel film."

Because he draws from the iconic Sixties of Beatlemania, Mad Men and the generation gap,  Klahr is as much re-animator as animator. His astonishing magpie-like cache of mid-20th Century American ephemera is enlivened with frequently astonishing techniques. Speech balloons containing unreadable jumbles of text appear above characters, imbuing Klahr's vignettes with a sense of dislocation and unease. In Mercury, one of Sixty Six's dozen chapters, the messenger of the gods is depicted with a photographic light box, which gives the double-sided pages of a Flash comic book a superimposed look. In an effect that uncomfortably recalls The Picture of Dorian Gray, the older image of the 1930s golden age Flash seems to bleed through the visage of the newer, 1950s silver age Flash.

Audio is not neglected, either. Dramatic music by Gustav Mahler graces the soundtrack, and snippets of ominous dialog from the Route 66 TV show contribute a disjointed jittery feel of the segment entitled Erigone's Daughter.  

The number in the film's title is key to understanding Klahr's feature, Wilbanks maintains. It deliberately evokes the 1960s, perhaps the most potent and powerful social and artistic decade in American history, and lifts that era to the level of myth by having mid-20th century American ephemera rubbing shoulders with Greek gods. It's no accident that two of 12 chapters in Sixty Six are named Ichor and Ambrosia (the blood and the food of the Hellenistic gods, respectively).

"Klahr  may be touching on how in the 60s there is an explosion—whether it's riots or art," Wilbanks says. "Movies got faster and crazier. Jazz music blew up in a way where certain people felt it wasn't jazz anymore."

"(Klahr) has said in interviews that the 60s were important to him personally," he adds. "He came of age during that time, and you notice in his films (that) the 60s are always 'now.' The 1960s in Sixty Six are the present."

Filmmaker Lewis KlahrThis commitment to time and place distinguishes Klahr from other collage animators, says Wilbanks. "With (collagists) Harry Smith or Lawrence Jordan, there's a kind of whimsy. It's a dream where anything can happen. But with Klahr, he's constructing dramatic narratives." Wilbanks notes the filmic continuity and grammar Klahr employs in Sixty Six. "There are reaction shots and interaction (between characters)," as if Klahr's cut-outs were flesh and blood performers in a live action drama.

From bits of paper, Klahr crafts life-changing and thought-provoking consequences for his characters. 1998's Pony Glass, perhaps Klahr's best known short film, follows newspaper reporter and Superman sidekick Jimmy Olson through a series of disappointing romances, until he embraces his latent homosexuality.

"Jimmy Olsen can’t see the change coming and (is) surprised and overwhelmed by it," Klahr said in a 2010 interview with Film Comment. "Ultimately (Olson's) rational resistance to (his) transformation proves futile."

Despite its dynamism, an air of melancholy permeates the emotional heft and visual pyrotechnics of Sixty Six. "Klahr is very serious about melancholy, the ecstasy that comes from an extended period of sadness," Wilbanks explains. "(Watching Klahr) is like seeing a great performance of a Greek tragedy. The tragedy may make you cry, but it's also uplifting. You're filled with a sense of wonder."

With its focus on heightened drama and character development, Klahr's work has less in common with the iconoclastic imagery of underground auteurs like Kenneth Anger, says Wilbanks, and more of an affinity with Hollywood's golden age, particularly the lush 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Wilbanks cites the end of Sirk's 1959 drama Imitation of Life. "The maid dies and she's given a lavish funeral with a coffin covered with flowers. As her daughter repents and runs to embrace the coffin, the flowers fall and all she can do is hug flowers."

"Those moments of melodrama thread throughout Klahr's films," Wilbanks adds, pointing to the eponymous heroine of the Helen of T chapter in Sixty Six. Helen is a former New York party girl whose halcyon past is presented in sharp contrast with a harder edged present in a film noir-ish Los Angeles. A bittersweet sadness suffuses the segment as Helen comes to reluctantly accept the ravages wrought by aging and hard living.

Yet even here, Klahr's playfulness surfaces. A pop-art joke surfaces, Wilbanks notes, when the fading blonde Helen passes an "Art of the Sixties" poster depicting one of artist Roy Lichtenstein's iconic comic book blondes. It's a moment that marries Klahr's melancholia with his mythologizing of America's most tumultuous decade.

"The details are so dense and compressed in Sixty Six," says Wilbanks. "You have to stay alert to what is happening."

"There hasn't been (collage) animation like Klahr's before. It's like fireworks."

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Tags: Lewis Klahr, film, animation, collagist, Sixty Six, Route 66, Nat King Cole, cut-outs, architecture, mythology, Beatlemania, Sixties

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