Engram Sepals (Melodramas 1994-2000)

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Lewis Klahr.

Lewis Klahr begins the description of his new series, “Engram Sepals (Melodramas 1994-2000),” with a quote from the iconic Hollywood director Douglas Sirk: “The word ‘melodrama’ has rather lost its meaning nowadays: people tend to lose the ‘melos’ in it, the music.” And though Klahr sets his animated cutouts of characters and rooms to popular songs, there’s more than music connecting his work to the 50s melodramas of Sirk and Vincente Minnelli.

Addressing a common theme in melodrama–the individual’s struggle for autonomy in the face of social strictures–Sirk and Minnelli tend to express confinement in terms of the surrounding decor, which is often overwhelming in its sensual excess. In Sirk’s Written on the Wind, the opulent surroundings chosen by the oil family seem to affect the characters’ actions, just as in Minnelli’s Some Came Running, the symmetrical arrangement of the furniture in Gwen’s bedroom seems to dictate her self-repression when she rejects Dave.

It takes the genius of a Sirk or a Minnelli to make the viewer feel that a lamp can influence a living being, but the cutout animator faces a different challenge. Klahr’s characters, many appropriated from magazines and comic books, are flat still images on the same visual plane as the objects he uses. Both people and objects move with the same jerky, stop-start rhythm (to achieve the jagged animated movements he favors, Klahr places his cutouts by hand on a table or floor). To give his characters some kind of life, he creates visually seductive stories mysterious enough to engage the viewer.

Klahr’s superb visual sense is very much in evidence here, where his seductive environments–sensuous interiors, suggestive objects–threaten to overwhelm his people, who are even more passive than the characters in 50s melodramas. Drifting through a pop-culture fever dream of hypnotic music and entranced spaces, a kind of inventory of wonders, a comic book cutout can take on the powers of a magician even as he fails to understand what’s happening to him or why. Indeed, while many artists have engaged with mass culture, few have rendered its mix of seduction, imaginative stimulation, and destructive smoothness as elegantly and precisely as Klahr does here.

“Engram Sepals” (which Klahr will present Friday only at Chicago Filmmakers) consists of seven short films, three of which have been exhibited previously in Chicago. Though the parts can be shown on their own, Klahr writes that the whole “traces a trajectory of American intoxication–both sexually and substance wise–from the second world war into the 1970’s.” References in the films to drugs and alcohol and to the intoxicating effects of romance and sex underscore the characters’ search for authenticity.

Klahr told me that some viewers have decoded his highly enigmatic narratives on their own, but I couldn’t untangle all of the six-minute Engram Sepals (2000) even after he outlined the plot for me. Second in the series, it’s about a scientist who cheats on his wife with a mistress who steals some sort of secret formula from him, as a result of which he commits suicide. The film does begin with a corpse lying on the floor and ends with an implied suicide, suggesting the rest is the scientist’s memory. And there are two women and a laboratorylike building, but the only evidence I saw of a secret formula was a grid of mysterious numbered buttons–which Klahr says are just the elevator buttons in the mistress’s apartment building. And why one of the women repeatedly brushes her teeth is never clear.

No matter, because the real power of Klahr’s figures is their mix of sensuality and insubstantiality, which not only allows the viewer to bring his own experiences to the action but makes Klahr’s key point about pop culture. Even though this stylish, provocative film, alone among the seven, is in black and white and uses the high-art music of Morton Feldman rather than pop, it makes the stuff of mass culture thoroughly alluring. The discontinuous overall design, inspired by 40s film noir, creates the sense of an incomprehensible labyrinth, and the depiction of some figures in white line drawings on black, Klahr says, was inspired in part by magazine graphics of the 40s and 50s, “where the whites against blacks are so luminous that they have a kind of eternity in them.” The figures’ insubstantiality suggests both universality and diminution: these are quite a bit less than flesh-and-blood humans. No character seems in control, and the viewer’s difficulty in threading his way through the narrative underscores the characters’ loss of autonomy.

Indeed, throughout the series the characters hover between existence as individuals and as gutless media creations. Pony Glass (1997) shows Jimmy Olsen with three Superman figures tattooed on his body–the individual as repository for received imagery. Suddenly one of the tattoos is covered by a bra Jimmy’s wearing, suggesting that the film’s environment has feminized him. But this isn’t altogether a bad thing: Jimmy’s bra is seductive visually, showing the intoxicating power not of alcohol, drugs, love, or sex but of imagery alone.

Born in New York City in 1956, Klahr was raised in Great Neck, an upper-middle-class suburb on Long Island, and “grew up on pop culture,” he says. His first major creative effort, at about age ten, was a comic book. That interest may have had a significant effect. Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics points out that, unlike cinema, comics of necessity contain significant gaps between panels, forcing the artist to choose what to omit. Likewise Klahr’s cutout animation doesn’t even approach the illusion of continuous movement or the realistic spaces of a live-action movie: we never get a whole view of the elevator that includes those mysterious buttons. Instead Klahr offers a collagelike ensemble of objects that the viewer connects, almost as if responding to a surrealist painting.

The Hollywood movies Klahr watched on television were another key influence: the intimacy of the home setting, he says, has affected his films–“the idea of private address.” But his biggest influence was Joseph Cornell, whose work he discovered at the 1980 Museum of Modern Art retrospective; Klahr attended five times, overwhelmed by “the emotion, the color, and by everyday things leading to a sense of eternity.” A more recent influence is the technical skill, among other things, of his wife, filmmaker-theater artist Janie Geiser.

One can see how Cornell is a more important influence for Klahr than most other cutout animators. Yet there are crucial differences between Klahr’s films and Cornell’s boxes and collages. Cornell’s enjambment of jarringly disparate forms, such as a wine glass and a map of the solar system, suggests the mind’s limitlessness. And Klahr says he was deeply moved by a Cornell box with a birdcage reference when he realized that “the bird had escaped.”

There are some Cornell-like astronomy references in the series’s first film, Altair (1994)–but Klahr’s characters never escape. The mundane fragment of a liquor bottle floating through Altair is quite unlike Cornell, who tended to avoid mass-manufactured objects. Indeed, Klahr’s Muzak-like worlds of prefab interiors and slow, repetitive songs are made up of objects and surfaces at once seductive and alienating, elevating and enervating. Klahr gets the peculiar power of American mass culture exactly right: sensually engaging, it destroys autonomy; brimming with implied gratification, it both allures and sickens.

Considering their surroundings, it’s not surprising that Klahr’s characters seem so at sea. Elsa Kirk (1999)–inspired by some 1963 contact sheets of a model apparently named Elsa Kirk–repeatedly shows Kirk in a curtained doorway as objects and images float by. Though Klahr hints at a crime story–he includes an empty safe, for example–the focus is on Kirk standing as if on a theater stage, barely able to move on her own, almost a victim of the images drifting around her. Characters throughout the series are often subjected to the phallic aggressiveness of objects, buildings, and interiors. The richly sensual colors of the intoxicating environments in Pony Glass, Downs Are Feminine (1994), and A Failed Cardigan Maneuver (1999) magnify this effect. In the face of Klahr’s collaged onslaught, his characters become curiously passive, even sexually vulnerable–males are penetrated by other males, for example.

The series is also haunted by references to time: clocks and clock hands occur throughout, and a calendar appears in Elsa Kirk. These combine with the retro objects and decors of various decades, the frozen look of the cutout figures, the stop-start movements, and the halting, ambiguous narratives to suggest the ambivalence inherent in nostalgia: our wish to enter the past is coupled with an awareness of the impossibility of doing so.

One aspect of melodrama that Klahr takes even further than Minnelli or Sirk is the way characters’ fates seem determined by the sound track. This is not at all akin to a music video, which subordinates the images to the music; Klahr’s characters seem to have some will, but their potential for self-determination is undermined by the way they seem forced to act out the songs. Frank Sinatra’s two numbers about broken affairs in A Failed Cardigan Maneuver are matched by fragmented images–a lone cocktail shaker, an inventory of magazine pictures of women–that separate characters from one another and from objects, and the many figures in Govinda (1999) seem automatons slowed by the droning sound of the opening song, produced by George Harrison.

This effect is especially striking because Govinda is not only the longest work in the series (at 23 minutes), it’s also the only live-action film. Using rephotographed Super-8 movies as well as exploitation and porn videos he filmed directly off the tube, Klahr constructs what he calls “a coming-of-age story for a countercultural person, but not one single character,” contrasting this film with those in the series set before the mid-60s. Klahr’s 1966 (1984) was filled with longing for that paradigmatic countercultural year, which he was too young to have experienced as an adult. And Govinda, he says, is in part about whether someone who’s stepped way outside social norms can ever fully rejoin the mainstream. Early portions of Govinda depict countercultural youth, including 60s or 70s footage of shirtless kids in an alternative high school apparently engaged in drug-induced carousing. The middle section is made up of exploitation films, and the final one shows the 1979 wedding of Klahr’s hippieish older brother (who had in fact shocked the family by returning from college with long hair in 1966).

Klahr’s choice of material–porn distanced by being filmed off a TV screen and the weirdly alienated wedding footage, which includes sections freighted with black and purple due to a lab mistake–creates an almost palpable feeling of loss. None of the characters in Govinda, or indeed any of the films, is free in the way Cornell’s imagined bird is. Seeming to bounce around to the stop-start rhythms of Klahr’s clocks, his characters resemble spastic marionettes playing out a devolution that acknowledges, as does much of Klahr’s work, that the 70s represent an incredible diminution of the aspirations of the 60s. But many different periods of American culture are reflected in his characters’ failed quests, their simultaneous entrapment and continued hope, looking for a revelation that never quite comes.