Tonight at 7 PM noted collage artist Lewis Klahr will introduce the local premiere of his 12-film cycle Sixty Six at the University of Chicago Film Studies Center. (Admission is free.) For Chicagoans who care about experimental cinema, this is one of the major events of the year, a chance to hear a leading voice in the avant-garde discuss one of his richest, most entrancing works. On a visual level Sixty Six is characteristically dense, as Klahr creates mosaics from layers of photographs, comic-book cutouts, and random objects; the soundtrack is no less accomplished, combining snippets of movie dialogue, new and old music, and field recordings. (Fred Camper, writing about Klahr in the Reader in 2002, aptly described him as a successor to Joseph Cornell.) The overriding theme is mid-60s American culture, with many of the found images and sounds coming from that era. While Sixty Six works as a poetic essay about consumer culture in full swing, it’s best appreciated as a subjective, dreamlike evocation of a particular time and place. A film to get lost in, it’s the most satisfying work of art I’ve encountered so far this year.
“My films are deeply melancholy,” Klahr explained when I asked him about his work’s unique emotional impact. “Most people think of melancholy as just a sense of loss, but there’s also a sense of ecstasy to it. In playing with narrativity, I suggest stories that are going on, and the audience has to fill in the rest of it.” The shorts that make up Sixty Six frequently contain hints of stories, with comic-book characters (usually presented in moments of worry or psychological intensity) inserted in front of photos of midcentury-modernist architecture. With vivid characters and settings, conflicts begin to take shape out of thin air. “[The characters are] detectives and lawyers, but since you don’t know the source, you might think they’re criminals. They bring the intensity of that kind of action, the kind of heightened activity that goes on in crime fiction, which is one of its attractions for us as a dramatic form. So I’m bringing that into daily life.”
Daily life in suburban Los Angeles is another principal theme of Sixty Six. Klahr makes domestic and office spaces seem tantalizing, hinting at the human dramas they might contain. Here the architecture under consideration is emblematic of early postmodern design—there are lots of right angles and open-air spaces, and these conjure a vaguely futuristic air. The clean, utopian look of the architecture provides fascinating juxtaposition with the messy emotions evoked by the comic-book characters and music selections, which range from free jazz to early folk-rock to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Fahrenheit 451. “Growing up in the 60s, those kinds of buildings felt exciting, but they also had this kind of promise of what the new would feel like,” Klahr says. “A really dominant idea in 1960s America was that science and technology could solve problems and make a safe, pretty world. Things could be figured out rationally, and this architecture went along with this notion of science and the future being good.” Sixty Six presents this worldview with an ironic tinge—that hope for the future is now a thing of the past.
Klahr renders this view of the past both personal and social, showing how individual memory intersects with that of the culture it inhabits. “Though I grew up in the suburbs of New York, I live in Los Angeles now and have for almost 20 years,” Klahr continues. “Sixty Six is a lot about Los Angeles, or an imagination about Los Angeles and California that manifested when I was growing up via media and the way American culture thought. Like the way music painted the idea of southern California—especially folk-rock, which I was deeply excited by as a ten-year-old. . . . So there are aspects of what I absorbed via media.” In addition to contemporaneous comics, architecture, and music, the film explores the influence of the space race on everyday life of the 1960s. In a characteristic moment that occurs in the final short of the cycle, Lethe, Klahr presents a comic-book woman standing in front of a photograph of a drugstore, then removes these figures from the frame to reveal a photograph of Saturn.
Sixty Six considers vast reaches of time as well as space. Most of the titles of the shorts reference Roman mythology—in doing this, Klahr feels he’s making 1960s America seem as distant (and as fantastic) as the worlds evoked by ancient myths. Klahr renders such considerations of the very big doubly mysterious by juxtaposing them with considerations of the very small. The sound design of Sixty Six often incorporates fleeting, everyday sounds like crickets chirping or urban street traffic. And Klahr often presents the found images in extreme close-up, making them come across as tactile objects as well as images. “Because I’m shooting super close-up on different magazines . . . the printing dots get really exaggerated. It’s like looking at these photographs through a microscope, in a way. Digital [cinema] is great at reproducing these analogue textures with great visual impact, by the way,” Klahr says.
Those dots are meant to simulate the humidity of a late summer day in the emotional centerpiece of Sixty Six, a brief interlude called August 19, 1966 (Jupiter Sends a Message). The most personal episode of the cycle, its content isn’t meant to be accessible to most viewers. “I have this very specific memory of about five days or so when it always felt like it was about to rain, but it didn’t. The air was just so moist. When I started to make [that film], I was out here and I was kind of nostalgic for the humidity, what east-coast summers were like. There were these five days in August  when my best friend was away on vacation with his family, and I was kind of lonely. My mother, for some reason, over those five days, treated me with this very explicit kind of love. It wasn’t always that apparent. I knew my parents loved me, that wasn’t the issue, but she was particularly effusive over those five days. And I remember at one point she sent me off to the toy store to buy a toy car, even though it wasn’t when I was supposed to get my allowance. It was just an extraspecial gift that she was giving me. And I knew at the time that the gift wasn’t what’s important, it was the love she was expressing to me. So that’s all wrapped up in the film.”
Despite its hermetic nature, Jupiter Sends a Message generates a strong emotional force—longing for lost childhood comes through. This sentiment is ultimately what Sixty Six is all about, using the lost dreams of 1960s America to conjure a timeless desire for what cannot be recaptured.