The Pharaoh’s Belt

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Lewis Klahr.

For almost 20 years Lewis Klahr has been making films that use popular-culture images. At once powerful and enigmatic, these films seem simultaneously secret autobiographies, untranslatable poems, and fragments from the outer fringes of rock video. His strongest and longest (at 43 minutes) film to date is The Pharaoh’s Belt, which will be given its Chicago premiere, along with three shorter films, this Saturday at the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute (Klahr will be present to answer questions).

The Pharaoh’s Belt is a kind of fantasy of suburban childhood; Klahr, born in 1956, grew up in a suburb of New York City. Like most of his recent films, it’s a work of cutout animation. He arranges figures and objects clipped from magazines and other sources on the floor, filming several frames at a time and then moving the cutouts a few millimeters and shooting another few frames. Most of the images set one or more figures–children, adults, comic-book heroes–against varied and shifting backgrounds. Partly because Klahr doesn’t use a fancy animation stand, the movements are jerky, creating an unpredictability that’s appropriate since the figures hover between being fantasy and being mere paper. Characters drift stutteringly through brightly colored kitchens, across abstract landscapes, in front of a giant sun–as if lost in a dreamworld that’s an inseparable mix of Eden and dystopia, heaven and hell.

This hypnotically beautiful film may seem puzzling at first, but part of the key to it is provided by one of the shorter films on the Film Center program, The Speed of Turquoise, which Klahr describes as “a psychedelic melodrama” offering “my most linear story line yet.” It’s constructed from cutouts of characters and spaces he photographed himself; the actors move in a jumpy manner to the accompaniment of their own dialogue. The main character, a young man named Rex, searches for “this place…that he always knew was his future,” in the words of a woman who becomes his girlfriend. Inspired by “a 12th-century Jewish mystic…who became enlightened by meditating on Hebrew letters,” Rex figures he can “update this approach” by meditating on TV through “nonstop channel flipping.” Out of money and facing eviction, he moves in with the woman, who supports his quest. They take a new hallucinogen together, and Rex becomes an apparent zombie, living in “the place” but incapable of communication or action.

Rex’s apparent mindlessness represents one of two extremes Klahr unites in The Pharaoh’s Belt. Here the possibility that the media world we are born into can, through its onslaught of images, destroy the self is balanced by the power of those images to seduce, to give pleasure, to add to rather than destroy one’s identity. The film is filled with, among other things, images of giant cakes with various colors of frosting. Early in the film a boy sleeps with his head cradled in the space where a slice was cut from a cake with green frosting; later a boy with a black bar around his neck is trapped in the chocolate frosting of another cake.

But it’s not simply that some cakes comfort and others entrap; rather the pleasures of imagery–the pleasures that transfixed Rex–also have the power to obliterate. Soon after the image of the boy and the green cake a second boy moves about blindfolded, arms extended as if sleepwalking or playing blindman’s buff. He’s seen amid different-colored cross sections of the earth’s crust, which look somewhat like the layers of a cake. The boy moves toward and eventually vanishes behind a large cake with multicolored frosting. He thus moves from image fragments that suggest mind-expanding textbook knowledge and disappears behind a comforting treat baked by mother–or is it merely an advertising image, prettier than anything mother ever made?

Boyhood fantasies of omnipotence in battle–the film contains several fights–are also played out against the shifting landscapes, in which inanimate objects come to assert a strange power of their own. In the opening image a Japanese warrior fights off masked ninja figures, each of which is surrounded by a red circle just before he’s annihilated by the warrior’s magic staff. Above the battle is an abstract forest of black-and-white cutout trees, each a separate cutout with a stubby base rather than spreading roots; nature, rarely present, is only seen once or twice removed. Soon green appears below the trees in the battle area, a carpet cutout that looks like a lawn or forest floor, but then various pieces of furniture–a chair, a table with a lamp, two sofa sections–appear on it. The battle site appears to be moving from forest to living room, and a few minutes later the battle reappears in a kitchen. These boyhood fantasies–the Japanese warrior always wins–are dwarfed by the colors and decor of the rooms they’re in; no matter how many villains the warrior exterminates, the kitchen’s rigid design remains unaltered.

Such dualisms form the basis of The Pharaoh’s Belt. Seductive images can seem fake, even absurd. Icons of power suddenly become images of powerlessness. In this jungle of colors and products, identity itself is unstable–which makes sense in a film in which the nature of the characters is determined by their setting. Among the characters are two boys in undershorts, one lean and one plump, both black-and-white line drawings. Klahr regularly jump-cuts between them as if they were interchangeable. The viewer observes how little his reaction depends on which figure is shown, but how much it depends on the different settings.

The film, which has no obvious narrative line, is structured as a series of interrupted quests. Characters move through complex clusters of objects as if searching for something; a character that leaves at frame right in one image will reenter minutes later from the left. Dotted lines and arrows superimposed over scenes appear to suggest direction and movement, but they too can freeze and entrap: a flashing red arrow points to the boy stuck in the chocolate cake.

As the characters move through spaces their fate becomes increasingly linked to the world of objects that surrounds them. A man stands in the center of a black-and-white living room, and dotted lines between the giant orange on his left and the huge lemon on his right meet on the floor where he stands, placing him at the apex of some bizarre citrus triangulation. But soon many other things happen in this shot. A small Moses appears in the background bearing his tablets, soon to be sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. In the sanitized rooms of modern suburbia, freedom, memory, learning, and history are all sacrificed to interior design and cleanliness.

In fact objects and rooms can create a new concept of human identity. In one image a shirt and tie unfilled by a human body drift across the room; suddenly the sleeve grabs a lamp shade and makes it the shirt’s head. Objects can seem human, and soon this ensemble drifts grandly in front of a galaxy.

Near the end of the film the words of a song by A. Leroy make some of Klahr’s themes explicit. A reference to the “wonders of the ancient world” is accompanied by a shot of an upside-down living room through which fish appear to be swimming. Upside-down furniture suggests a hanging garden as this interior decorator’s trap is transformed into a weightless paradise. The singer wants to “turn back the hands of time,” presumably to a more enchanted era, as here the film conflates the magic of childhood with the fabulous ancient world. She continues, “I’m on a planet held down by gravity / But there’s a big sky,” connecting the many images of stars and galaxies with the desire to escape the banality of the world’s givens.

The great strength of The Pharaoh’s Belt is that while it does not pretend to transcendence–there’s no suggestion of a realm utterly beyond imagery–it also does not simply reiterate mass-culture banalities made sweetly ironic, in the manner of so much recent pomo art. Instead we see the possibility of reimagining suburbia, mass-market-magazine images, and children’s books as a sleeping child’s dreamworld of terrors and joys–though we also understand the limitations of such imaginings. The lush, sensuous colors of the giant frosted cakes seem impossibly rich, even absurd. The child’s fantasies of battle conquests paired with images of helplessness in a sea of things parallel the animator’s knowledge that though he can make almost any image he wants, his images will always be cutouts.

Soon after the upside-down-living-room image the blindfolded boy is placed in a space full of moving cars. Some pass in front of him, some behind, giving a striking effect of depth. This hardly creates the illusion of a three-dimensional space: we can see that the cars pass very close to the figure. Yet the boy is lost in an imagined sea of vehicles, unable to see them while swimming among them, blindly threading his way between them. Here, as throughout the film, his outstretched arms suggest a search, one made harder not only by the blindfold but by the near-blinding profusion of cutouts that surround him–as they have other characters. It’s as if these characters (and we viewers) are being asked to approach these almost glyphic objects in the manner of the 12th-century Jewish mystic referred to in The Speed of Turquoise–seeking understanding not from Hebrew letters but from the stuff of 20th-century America.