The Thirteenth Floor

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Josef Rusnak

Written by Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez

With Armin Mueller-Stahl, Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert, and Steven Schub.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

“I think, therefore I am,” reads the opening epigraph of The Thirteenth Floor, followed by the quotation’s source, “Descartes (1596-1650).” It’s an especially pompous beginning for a movie whose characters barely think, much less exist, but not too surprising given the metaphysical claims and pronouncements that usually inform virtual-reality thrillers.

This is the fourth such thriller I’ve seen in as many weeks, and if any thought at all can be deemed the source of these pictures cropping up one after the other–with the exception of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, a film with more than generic commercial kicks on its mind–it might be an especially low estimation of what an audience is looking for at the movies. The assumed desire might be expressed in infantile and emotional terms: “I don’t like the world, take it away.” In other words, for filmmakers stumped by the puzzle of how to address an audience assumed to be interested only in escaping without reminding them of what they’re supposed to be escaping from, virtual-reality thrillers seem made to order. They imply significance by indulging in glib self-referential hints that movies are just a form of dreaming anyway, imply that anything that suggests the real world is–or might as well be–a hallucination, and are usually “thoughtful” enough to include gobs of violence on the assumption that even if the world is no longer desirable, kicking ass for any reason at all is. And in the cases of The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, the two studio blockbusters in the batch (the other two are Open Your Eyes and eXistenZ), a worshipful attitude toward digital technology appears to be the only factor that justifies dressing up the conceits about alternative realities as science fiction instead of as some less prestigious and more hybrid form like science fantasy. As the press book for The Thirteenth Floor eagerly puts it, “Over 2,000 years ago, Plato postulated that the ‘real’ world exists only in our imagination. The technology of modern society has begun to prove Plato’s point.” Thanks a lot, modern society; tough luck, Kosovo Albanian and Serb civilians.

At the beginning of most movies, including quite a few bad ones, there’s a period of relative grace, when exciting possibilities still hover. Broadly speaking, the same experience of both mystery and potentiality presides at the beginning of film festivals, when a bunch of titles, directors, actors, countries, and catalog descriptions seems to portend all sorts of things. Disappointment generally follows when the promises aren’t kept and dreams go unfulfilled, except on those interesting occasions when expectations get revised on the spot and unforeseen pleasures start to emerge. More often, expectations gradually become narrowed down to accept familiar, shopworn routines–the kind that our experts inform us are the only things sure to sell (except for when they don’t).

I have to admit that The Thirteenth Floor kept me hoping for the first half hour or so, before it turned into another virtual-reality boondoggle. The press screening was held the morning after the prizes at the Cannes film festival were announced. Since I didn’t attend I still have months or in some cases years to wait before the movies showing there have a chance to disappoint me. You might say that this is my own virtual-reality game, playable in different ways in terms of both The Thirteenth Floor and the Cannes festival I didn’t attend, though the difference between waiting half an hour and waiting several months is not to be sneezed at: in the latter case, for instance, I have to worry more about all the misinformation that’s likely to gum up my expectations in the interim.

The Thirteenth Floor begins with Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) in a hotel room writing a letter, portions of which he narrates offscreen, then stamping and sealing it, leaving a wad of money for a young prostitute sleeping in a nearby bed. He exits the hotel in top hat and tuxedo and eventually turns up at a glitzy nightclub. The setting is Los Angeles in 1937. Fuller leaves the barman (Vincent D’Onofrio) the sealed letter, addressed to Douglas Hall, and as soon as he leaves, the barman opens the letter and reads it. As the opening credits appear, Fuller takes a cab home–a modest apartment in a dingier part of town. He arrives shortly before midnight, and his wife chides him as he gets into bed, “You’ve been smoking again.”

Next we see him waking up with a start in a futuristic (i.e., neocontemporary) room in contemporary clothes, exiting the building with an automated ID card and turning up at a bar, where he leaves a voice-mail message for Douglas Hall: “Listen, I’ve just discovered something, this changes everything.” An unseen person in the alley behind the bar asks him to step out, and when he does he’s stabbed to death. The action then shifts to Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), who wakes up in another futuristic or neocontemporary setting, his own apartment, finds drops of blood on his sink and on his shirt in a wastebasket, and then gets a call from LAPD detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert) summoning him to an interview.

Needless to say, he’s the prime suspect in Fuller’s murder but can’t remember a thing. He and Fuller have been developing virtual-reality technology to the point of creating a simulation of 1937 Los Angeles on a computer chip, and, as Hall shortly discovers from a technician (also played by Vincent D’Onofrio, for reasons divulged much later), Fuller has been periodically entering and spending time in this simulation. Things are further complicated when a glitzy young woman who professes to be Fuller’s daughter (Gretchen Mol), but whom Fuller has never mentioned to Hall, arrives on the scene. Predictably, to solve the mystery, Hall winds up making visits of his own to the 1937 simulation.

I haven’t read Daniel Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3 (also known as Counterfeit World), which this movie is based on, but it evidently belongs to the parallel-universe branch of SF that had a long and venerable history well before digital technology and virtual-reality movies became coin of the realm; Murray Leinster’s 1934 novella “Sideways in Time” and some of the more provocative sections in Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 Star Maker are two examples that spring to mind. Admittedly I might have been more receptive to a digitally enhanced contribution to this tradition if I hadn’t just seen three other virtual-reality movies. But even if I’d approached this movie more innocently, the flatness of all the characters, which becomes increasingly apparent as the generic violence and grinding plot machinery take over, and the derivative look of the visuals–Hall’s flat a recollection of Blade Runner, the 1937 nightclub a recollection of The Shining, Gretchen Mol disappearing and then reappearing as a gum-chewing working-class stereotype like Kim Novak in Vertigo–would have discouraged me anyway.

Even the presence of Mueller-Stahl seems predictable. He also turned up in The Game (1997), which might be pegged as the first virtual-reality thriller in the present cycle (unless one includes all those De Palma thrillers from the 70s onward in which gruesome climaxes turn out to be only bad dreams, a cliche revived in The Thirteenth Floor as well). And as a German actor in an English-language Europudding produced, written, directed, and shot basically by Germans–one of those stateless monoliths that “benefit” in their relation to contemporary reality from being neither American nor German–Mueller-Stahl seems right at home. Because the bottom line in these pictures is to say as little about the world as possible, it goes well beyond the lightness (or liteness) of a Star Wars movie, which at least has the temerity (or innocence) to plunder the rest of the world to create an all-American cosmos composed nostalgically out of colonialist and imperialist longings–longings that still have a history and some national identity.

I don’t mean to suggest that virtual-reality thrillers are the only form of virtual reality in our midst. The releases of all four of the recent crop–The Matrix, eXistenZ, Open Your Eyes, and The Thirteenth Floor–roughly coincided with the Cannes festival, and American coverage of that event seemed boxed in by a comparable set of assumptions. The ruling philosophy behind most of this coverage seemed to be that our only interest in new films from all over the world is in how they ratify what we already know. Why, the media kept wondering, didn’t they show Star Wars: Episode I–The Phantom Menace? Why weren’t there any more Hollywood blockbusters? (“Cannes picks dour pix, snubs H’w’d,” whined a Variety headline before the festival even started.) And, most important of all, how happy or unhappy was Harvey Weinstein, cochairman of Miramax, about the festival as a whole?

The happiness or unhappiness of Harvey has become the main theme of North American film festival coverage in recent years. It’s been prominent in reports from Sundance, and whenever Oscar night rolls around cameras are poised to discover how he’s feeling at various moments–especially those that reveal whether the Oscars he’s paid for get delivered or not. At Cannes, where the focus is supposedly on hundreds of movies rather than on a handful of box-office favorites, and supposedly on artistic merit rather than on in-house industry popularity, the American press typically gets indignant if Oscar-night results aren’t approximated, Harvey’s beam of approval included. This year the overall mood of the coverage appeared to be, “I don’t like the world, take it away”–a complaint seemingly addressed to Harvey, who presumably knows how to take it away and even where to take it.

Unfortunately for the American press, this wasn’t the year when Harvey could take charge. He seemed pretty unhappy when the Cannes prizes were being announced–most of them, incidentally, to filmmakers I admire a good deal more than most of the pets in his stable–and his fans in the press seemed incensed that his tastes weren’t being honored. But since Harvey’s displeasure invariably bolsters my faith in the future of world cinema, Cannes’ 1999 winners were a pretty invigorating bunch.

Weinstein allegedly dominates the stateside distribution of specialized movies–he’s supposed to be the Nero or Caligula with the thumbs-up or thumbs-down prerogative–but how he manages to maintain this dominance is not discussed much. Critics who call him the distributor most responsible for enabling us to see foreign films aren’t doing the most basic arithmetic. Because Miramax picks up more than twice as many films as it releases–keeping most of its unreleased pictures in perpetual limbo, shaping and recutting its favorites and marginalizing the others–there’s statistically less chance of the public ever having access to a movie if Miramax acquires it. (Why are all of Abbas Kiarostami’s recent features except for Through the Olive Trees available for rental on video? Guess which one Miramax “distributes.” And why did most Americans never get a chance to see either the color version of Jour de fete or the restoration of The Young Girls of Rochefort? You got it.) Yet if you follow the drift of the New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Variety, among others, Harvey’s disposition at any given moment appears to be a useful shorthand for the overall health and direction of world cinema. It’s certainly a lot easier to track than what a bunch of difficult foreign filmmakers have to say about the world and what an unpredictable international jury–headed this year, as it happens, by David Cronenberg–decides is most valuable, so why not conclude that Harvey’s mood is more interesting and important as well?

On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that Miramax conquers markets that true independent distributors are unable to penetrate. Visiting my tiny hometown of Florence, Alabama, earlier this spring, I discovered that Life Is Beautiful was playing even there. It might have been the first time a subtitled film had shown there theatrically in four decades, since those few years in the 50s when my family’s chain of theaters was independent. (Trying to show an independent film at a nonindependent theater is usually fruitless, though as long as you call Miramax a distributor of independent films the problem vanishes, and Reagan’s decimation of independent theaters gets elided.)

It might be argued, of course, that seeing a subtitled feel-good Holocaust movie is better than not seeing any foreign movies at all–just as one might argue that seeing a virtual-reality thriller is better than seeing no SF thrillers of any kind. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and if the bushwhackers at Cannes want to send home something ready for the microwave, they may feel they have to send a Harveyburger rather than anything more exotic. But if that’s the case, they have an opinion of their public that’s not dissimilar to that of the people churning out virtual-reality thrillers. What’s happening in the world outside of virtual reality is a lot more complicated than what’s happening inside, and if the inside is all we’re equipped to deal with, then we can’t be very well equipped.

We’ve certainly been judged unequipped to cope with the film that won the jury prize at Cannes, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Letter–his adaptation of the first great short novel in French, Madame de Lafayette’s La princesse de Cleves (not Madam de Cleeves, as the Tribune had it, or La princesse de Cleeves, as BRAVO’s Cannes coverage pronounced it). I haven’t liked all of de Oliveira’s films–even if he’s incontestably the greatest of all Portuguese filmmakers. He’s also the oldest filmmaker working, and the only one left who started out in silent cinema. His last feature, Inquietude, placed first on my 1998 ten-best list, but it’s theoretically possible that if I’d attended Cannes this year I might have concluded that The Letter was, as Roger Ebert reported he’d heard from colleagues, “the second or third worst film in the festival.” (Could it have been those same esteemed colleagues of his who noisily walked out at Cannes during the exquisite final shots of Terence Davies’s The Neon Bible muttering, “I already get the point,” or who chastised Jim Jarmusch for not letting Harvey recut Dead Man?) I also might have concluded that a jury including, among others, Cronenberg, Holly Hunter, George Miller, and Andre Techine might have something to teach me, so their verdicts might have at least pricked my curiosity.

And what about the other Cannes prizewinners? The Palme d’Or went to Rosetta by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who made La promesse; the grand jury prize, best actor, and half of the best actress award went to L’humanité by Bruno Dumont, the French filmmaker who made The Life of Jesus; the other half of the best actress award went to Emilie Dequenne for Rosetta (apparently increasing the outrage was the fact that all three acting awards went to nonprofessionals). Best screenplay went to the Russian-German coproduction Moloch, by Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, another major artist generally shunned or jeered at by the Miramax hounds. Relatively undisputed by the American press were the best director prize, which went to Pedro Almodovar for his Spanish crowd pleaser All About My Mother, and the best set design prize, which went to Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin. Chen’s presumably acceptable because Harvey distributed his last two features, Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon (reediting the latter into chopped liver).

Even if I haven’t yet seen any of these films, and bearing in mind that some Cannes awards are compromises rather than unanimous choices, the dominance of films by gifted regionalists draws a discernible profile that is clarified by some remarks made by Austrian critic Alexander Horwath a couple of years ago, to which I’ve added a couple of tentative amplifications:

“In the framework of film-cultural globalization two fake alternatives have evolved: the Miramax idea of U.S. ‘indies’ and the reduction of European and Asian cinemas to a few ‘masters’ who can transcend all national borders and dance in all markets (Kieslowski and Zhang Yimou might be two good examples [to which one might add Almodovar and Chen]). I am much more interested in filmmakers who speak in concrete words and voices, from a concrete place, about concrete places and characters. I like the image of the brothers Dardenne…standing somewhere in the middle of industrial Belgian suburbia, looking around and saying, ‘All these landscapes make up our language’ [which also might be said of Dumont standing somewhere in rural France]. Next to the filmmakers we’ve often discussed (like Ferrara, Assayas, Egoyan, Kiarostami, Wong Kar-wai, et al.) there are many more if lesser-known examples of such a kind of cinema. Their dialects are much too specific to fit into the global commerce of goods–in Austria: Wolfgang Murnberger (today), John Cook (in the 1970s); in Germany: Michael Klier, Helge Schneider. Or in Kazakhstan: Darezhan Omirbaev. And even in Hollywood: Albert Brooks.”

The fact that I recognize only the last two names in Horwath’s final list gives me further cause for hope, but from the look of things, this evocation of untapped pleasures beyond the Miramax radar would elicit groans and consternation from the American press. The tension between art and commerce at Cannes has always been fierce, but in past years a certain strained coexistence has been possible. I expect it’s still that way, but judging from all the American reports I’ve encountered from Cannes this year, it sounds like the art contingent has been reduced to the size of a pesky gnat. (Here’s Variety’s way of putting it: “If the Rosetta award was a jolt, things really got out of hand with L’humanité, a two-and-a-half-hour account of the slowest murder investigation ever filmed that provoked considerable critical derision from everyone except, perhaps, certain French critics.”) Last month the gnat bit Harvey’s ass, and that’s apparently what’s causing all the fuss.

But Harvey Weinstein’s a much safer mentor than David Cronenberg if all you care about is bringing home the bacon. And by the same token, The Thirteenth Floor offers an escape from the world that’s more complete than the escape offered by The Phantom Menace, even if it winds up putting you to sleep.

The Films of Christopher Maclaine


By Fred Camper

Whether one’s viewing a Hollywood epic or an avant-garde film poem, it’s natural to identify with the images on the screen: give us a human figure or a space we can walk through and we’ll bond with it, imagining that we’re up there with the action. This is one of the filmmaker’s primary tools: the commercial hack exploits it while the avant-gardist undercuts it, disrupting narrative continuity, for example. Most serious films lie somewhere in between, seducing the viewer and then turning away, startling one into thought.

Christopher Maclaine, a beat poet of the 1940s and ’50s living in San Francisco, made only four films in his lifetime; the first and longest two–The End (1953), which is 35 minutes, and the 14-minute The Man Who Invented Gold (1957)–present the profoundest challenge to viewer identification I know of. Avoiding the extreme (though brilliant) conceptual anticinema of such filmmakers as Maurice Lemaitre, Maclaine tells stories based in social reality but in a manner so profoundly fragmented, so unnerving, as to give even viewers who’ve seen the works many times a series of perceptual shocks. Among the greatest films I’ve ever seen, these twin fables of doom and redemption are also unlike any others I know. After perhaps 20 viewings of The End over the past 30 years, I feel as if I’m only beginning to understand its greatness.

Yet Maclaine and his films have received scant recognition. According to the films’ sole distributor, in the past decade The End has been rented twice for Chicago screenings and the other three haven’t been rented for showings at all. Chicago Filmmakers’ screening of Maclaine’s complete works (Friday night only) could include some Chicago premieres. Maclaine isn’t discussed in most standard film histories–no surprise, given their scant treatment of experimental work–but he doesn’t even come up in most histories of avant-garde filmmaking. And of the two books on beat filmmaking that I know, one doesn’t mention him at all and the other gives him less than half a page, mostly quoting the filmmaker Stan Brakhage and styling his name incorrectly, as Brakhage does, as “MacLaine.”

Perhaps it’s the extremely crude look of his films that puts people off. At first glance it doesn’t seem Maclaine has given much thought to the framing, lighting, composition, or camera movement. And his editing–arguably his greatest talent–can seem sloppy, with its jittery rhythms, mismatched cuts, and sudden tangents. An impatient viewer might attribute these films to a careless, naive speed freak–which, sad to say, Maclaine also was.

I know of only four treatments of Maclaine in print that go beyond a few sentences. Jonas Mekas wrote a very short rave review in 1963, Brakhage offered enthusiastic appreciation in his 1989 book Film at Wit’s End, and filmmaker J.J. Murphy has published two articles, one in Film Quarterly (Winter 1979-80) and the other in Film Culture (1983). What little is known about Maclaine’s life is the result of Murphy’s research. Born in Oklahoma in 1923, Maclaine graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1946 and soon founded a small literary magazine; he also published his poetry in other small magazines and in several books he had printed, the last in 1960. Frequently broke and dependent on friends, he cultivated the image of the mad artist; both Brakhage and Murphy compare him to Antonin Artaud. He became a drug casualty when methedrine was introduced into the Bay Area in the late 50s; much stronger than the amphetamines he’d previously taken, it caused permanent brain damage. When Brakhage describes visiting him in the early 60s, Maclaine sounds like the classic speed freak; at about that time he also made at least one suicide attempt. By the mid-60s he no longer recognized his friends, and in 1969, unable to care for himself, he was placed in a state institution, where he died in 1975.

Perhaps it’s meth that accounts for the decline in his films. The wonderful Scotch Hop (1959) is something of a letdown only after seeing his first two staggering, shattering masterpieces. In that film Maclaine intercuts a small band of bagpipers with other scenes, making the cheerleaders in a competition appear to dance to the bagpipes’ rhythms. Scotch Hop is animated by a tension between synchronicity and asynchronicity–the rhythms of the images and the music converge, then diverge. Each image feels as if it were perched on a knife-edge between a world of smooth, lyrical dance and a world about to be torn apart. Beat (1958) is weaker, an odd if sometimes powerful essay on alienation whose lack of emotional focus seems to prove that Maclaine’s films need some sort of center, if only for their fragments to fly away from.

The End certainly has a center: six stories of people on the last day of their lives. Most are about to commit suicide, or some metaphorical equivalent, but the mushroom cloud with which the film begins and ends reminds us that, as Maclaine’s voice intones on the sound track, we await “the grand suicide of the human race”–his conceit is that his characters have reached the end of their personal ropes the day before a nuclear holocaust. Throughout the film he compares the dehumanizing effects of mass culture to the dehumanizing effects of personal despair, weaving these two threads together until the mannequins he films in store windows, the anonymous people he films on the street, and his characters all seem variations on the same half-living, half-dead persona. In this film Maclaine bridges the longtime split between socially or politically engaged film-making and more poetic, self-referential work; The End simply takes as a given that societal and personal sicknesses are inextricably connected. Partly a response to the homogenized, white-bread 50s, the film has plenty of black humor (a murderer recalls his mother telling him again and again, “They’ll hang you yet, Charles”), reminding me of the dark jokes we used to make in elementary school about how hiding under our desks was going to save us from the bomb.

The film’s stories are told in six numbered sections, with Maclaine serving as narrator. Much of the editing is radically disjunctive, subverting the usual mode of narrative filmmaking in which characters inhabit continuous spaces we’re encouraged to enter, a universe disrupted only by the occasional dream sequence or other cutaway. The End constantly pulls the rug out from under us, but the editing is less intended to alienate the viewer than to reinforce the film’s push-pull dynamic. A shot may establish some empathy as the narrator tells us the character’s pathetic story, yet time and again a cut to a seemingly unrelated object breaks whatever connection Maclaine has established. Going beyond mere toying with the viewer, the film at once plays on our human sympathies and shatters the very possibility of such involvement. This formal effect is echoed in the narratives themselves: as we’re constantly reminded, these characters–among whom we’re encouraged to find ourselves–are all about to die.

Maclaine’s first story revolves around Walter, “our little friend,” who mooches off his pals until they dump him; like all the stories in The End, this one seems somewhat autobiographical. Shots of Walter running around San Francisco emphasize its hilly, spatially unsettling topography, a motif throughout the film. Years before Hitchcock took San Francisco’s verticality as a metaphor for inner turmoil in the great Vertigo, Maclaine made even more radical use of the city, tilting his camera to rotate a steep street into a vertical line, then going beyond it until it seems people and cars should topple off.

Still more disruptive is Maclaine’s editing. Film history offers many models of what a cut can do. In a conventional narrative, cuts between shots often represent sequential accretion, the visual equivalent of “this happened, then this happened.” In more poetic films editing can be additive in a different way, piling image on image as if weaving a tapestry–a metaphor made explicit in some of Brakhage’s films. In Eisenstein’s films, editing is often syncretic, fusing two shots into a new entity in the viewer’s mind: in October (1927), he cuts between Kerensky and a statue of Napoleon, fusing them into a single idea of a tyrant who would rule Russia. The editing of Eisenstein’s more radical colleague Dziga Vertov calls attention to the differences between shots, differences he called “intervals,” and what they tell us about each image.

Maclaine offers a style of editing unanticipated by previous filmmakers and rarely pursued since: a kind of “destructive” cutting in which the cut pulls two shots away from each other and pulls the viewer away from both. A cut from the first section, for example, shifts from black and white to color, from far to near, from the geometrical to the organic. In the middle of a black-and-white shot of a tiny silhouetted figure atop a huge mass of steps whose lines fill the frame, Maclaine cuts to a color close-up of pink flowers, then back to a black-and-white shot of the steps. A later cut in the same section juxtaposes two shots with more movement: a color shot shows one of Walter’s friends doing a handstand–seen close, her figure is sensual, but the shot also parodies the idea that Walter’s friends are adults. Maclaine then cuts to a black-and-white shot of Walter running away from us down a narrow street; the buildings that frame the street provide a geometrical contrast to the shot of the woman, a disjunction that underlines the split between Walter and his friends.

Maclaine’s editing constitutes neither accretion nor fusion but a kind of visceral tearing, questioning not only the unity of our culture but the possibility of a unified consciousness, anticipating many postmodern theorists who seem unaware of his work. For Maclaine, each character’s existence is a discontinuous flood of often unrelated thoughts. (Murphy quotes a psychiatrist who knew Maclaine on the effects of speed: “All the ideas come out” in a rush, he said, “like putting tomatoes through a strainer.”) But The End is a powerful, even ecstatic experience not because it’s disjunctive but because it establishes a tension between emotionally engaged and alienated modes of thinking, a tension that pervades the imagery, editing, and sound track. Just as the pink flowers pull us away from the concrete steps, so the first section ends not with Walter’s suicide but with his murder: the narrator tells us that the murderer, “for reasons we know nothing about,…decided to blow the head off the next person he saw.” And just as the pink flowers are compelling in themselves, so Maclaine speculates on the sound track that the murderer must also have a story worth telling.

The viewer is also divided by Maclaine’s often crude, sometimes hilarious, ultimately deeply affecting narration. Sometimes he explains the imagery, increasing our involvement by telling us stories that the images seem to illustrate; but just as often his narration pulls us away from the imagery and makes us aware of our presence in the theater. Some long sections of narration are accompanied only by a black screen; denied any imagery, the viewer is stuck in an uncomfortable self-consciousness made even worse by such lines as “The person next to you is a leper.” In what is perhaps the film’s most ecstatic moment, at the beginning of the fifth section, Maclaine asks us to “write this story” as he shows us an especially disjunctive group of images–the protagonist (Maclaine himself) with a knife, a woman’s feet walking over a street grate, a group of pigeons–accompanied by the “Ode to Joy” section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “Here is a character,” the narrator says. “Here is the most beautiful music on earth. Here are some pictures. What is happening?” In a characteristic shift, Maclaine then tells the story himself, explaining how this protagonist was “a good boy…up to no good.” Later in the section, but still to the strains of Beethoven, Maclaine cuts from a rather grand color image of waves crashing on rocks to a black-and-white shot of tiny dancing puppets, announcing a theme that will become more prominent in The Man Who Invented Gold: that magic can be found not only in grand things but in fleeting perceptions–a theme he also perpetually mocks.

The Man Who Invented Gold, very different from The End, is fully as masterful. It focuses on a modern-day alchemist whose zombielike neighbors think of him as “madman” while he aspires to become “goldman.” Again Maclaine narrates, likening the quest to create gold to a quest for the “world of light”; the editing is as disjunctive as in The End but arguably has a much more optimistic meaning, bringing to the forefront the gnostic longing to escape substance and recover light that underlies parts of The End (a theme of which I was first made aware by filmmaker Brian Frye in an unpublished article).

The filmmaker Jordan Belson, who shot The End, shot part of The Man Who Invented Gold before he tired of Maclaine’s antics and quit. Forced to operate the camera himself, Maclaine could no longer play the alchemist. His “solution”–fully worthy of the maker of The End–was to have not one but two other actors play the lead. Further, while Belson filmed Maclaine in color, Maclaine filmed his actors in black and white, later intercutting color, black-and-white, and black-and-white negative images of the “madman.” He also cut from one actor to the other as if they were the same man, even appearing to match motions across the cuts. Of course all these techniques undercut viewer identification with the alchemist, though they’re entirely appropriate to a film by and about a madman. The narrator’s references to alchemy are accompanied by cuts to abstract images, scratches made directly on the film or colored powders dropped on the floor in what look like abstract expressionist patterns–images that make it clear that destructive cutting can also transform. Maclaine realizes the alchemist’s gnostic goal not in the film’s story–the protagonist ultimately turns only eyeballs into gold–but in the film itself: abstract bursts of color, light streaming in through a window, or the tiny yo-yo a character carries near the end represent the brief moments of visual magic that lift us out of imprisonment in the material world.

This idea is most vivid in the final image of The Man Who Invented Gold. A “poet” who suddenly appears near the end holds up a sign saying “it’s hard to believe,” a phrase the narrator repeats, and then we see a piece of dark clothing hanging on a line, shot from below and perfectly aligned with a rainbow. A rapid camera movement makes the dark form seem to rise along the rainbow, quickly reaching the top of the frame. It’s as if the rainbow were emerging from the garment, as if the cloth–or, more to the point, the movement of Maclaine’s camera–were “writing” the rainbow.

Brakhage, and many other avant-garde filmmakers after Maclaine, have celebrated simple acts of perception that can reframe the world–our potential to transform the mundane into the magical. Maclaine does it here in a shot no one seems to have noticed, a little throwaway image that not only sums up his idea but anticipates a whole era of filmmaking. Even as he discovers this magic, however, he pulls away from it: this miraculous shot is undercut by the “hard to believe” line that precedes it and by the fact that it lasts a scant 21 frames–less than a second.