L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Making films is not easy. Most people know this and almost as many find the difficulties of movie-making enthralling, which explains the proliferation of articles, TV interviews, and radio specials on the subject. Just last week, I nearly pulled off the freeway to better concentrate on radio host Elvis Mitchell’s interview with Oren Moverman, the directed of The Messenger (who, apparently, had 3 different directors, including Sydney Pollack, walk away from the picture before he took the helm himself), and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Quentin Tarantino’s story (told most recently on Tuesday’s Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien) about how his hands, and not the hands of Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, came to strangle Diana Kruger’s character in Inglourious Basterds.
This fascination with filmmaking has something, if not everything, to do with the fact that, while the production process may be a tangled mess of misplaced funding and last-minute game-changes, the watching process often feels effortless. Well-made mainstream features are meant to pull you through a seamlessly self-contained fiction that twists and turns, periodically threatening to derail but never actually doing so. They’re meant to leave you strangely satiated, even if you just witnessed an apocalyptic blood bath. Video art and art films, on the other hand, tend to be neither seamless nor satiating; and sometimes, watching them feels like it must be at least as difficult as making them.
On Tuesday night, in a crowded basement auditorium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I listened as Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer talked about, among other things, organizing experimental film events at a museum that has practically obliterated its film budget. Snaring potential backers can be difficult, since Comer’s programming has a reputation for being “aggressively avant-garde”—which is another way of saying films at the Tate require a bit too much of their viewers.
Before Comer took the podium, art historian Gloria Sutton spoke at length about Stan VanDerBeek, a graduate of 1950s Black Mountain College who built the infamous Movie-Drome, a grain silo turned multimedia screening room, in his Stony Point, NY, backyard. He filled his Movie-Drome with an assortment of projectors, so that multiple still and moving images could occupy the curved ceiling at once. VanDerBeek’s films, which resemble fugitively animated Wallace Berman collage, champion what he called the “aesthetics of anticipation.” They ask their audience to stay alert, trace connections between fragments and look for meaning that they will never quite be able to find. They’re demanding and rigorous, but, really, once you’ve decided to submit yourself to them, they’re mostly exhilarating.
In one of VanDerBeek’s best, Poemfield No. 2, a series of pixelated words punctuate the screen then disintegrate into blurs of light and specks of neon color. At first, you try to read the words for meaning, then the film starts to resemble a sort of absurdest nightmare in which the text becomes unreadable before it’s even materialized. Yet the constantly foiled desire to decipher still propels you through, and you’re always anticipating the moment at which the flickering screen will become legible again–it’s more suspenseful than anything Hitchcock ever made, because the suspense lasts indefinitely.
Note: LACMA will host two more panels on experimental film, one in March and one in May. The dates should be finalized and posted to LACMA’s website in the near future.