Preeminent Titles from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection
There’s a lot of things in life worth living for, isn’t there? Is a program of seven titles from the Walker Art Center’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, which will be screened at the British Film Institute’s Southbank Theatre on May 30 as part of the Films in Experimenta series in collaboration with LUX.
Inspired by the closing words in George Kuchar’s camp masterpiece Hold Me While I’m Naked. There’s a lot of things in life worth living for, isn’t there? is a simple explanatory line, both affirming and fatalistic, that sweetly sums up the driving forces behind scores of bold creative ambition. The program focuses on titles from late 1960’s and early 1970’s plus a single title from 2016, where artists like George Kuchar make strong defiant statements in protest to the political, economic, and social anxieties of the time. And again, like George Kuchar, use humor, sexuality, family, and breaking with the status quo to utter the unspeakable, celebrate our “mistakes”, and center upon that which typically lives on the periphery. The often fragmented, cursory, and incomplete language in each film reflects gestures of the Avant-guard from it’s earliest pioneers, to artists working today.
Gunvor Nelson’s My Name Is Oona (1969, 10 min, 16mm.) was filmed in San Francisco at the beginning of Nelson’s film career. (Nelson worked at the San Francisco Art Institute together with George Kuchar.) My Name Is Oona is a beautiful and haunting piece that duly situates the Swedish-born avant-gardist as an essential figure of twentieth-century experimental film. Through the repetition of simple images and artful superimpositions, Nelson’s fluid camera work seems intent on composing a luminous, inner portrait of the titular protagonist (Nelson’s young daughter), exploring themes of childhood, memory, and female identity that have defined the artist’s work for over four decades. “Her ephemeral, dreamlike images are simultaneously tactile and almost tangible,” observed Jytte Jensen, MoMA film curator, and indeed the film’s deeply poetic, lyrical qualities are at once eerie and endearing—an effect underscored by the trance-like tape-loop soundtrack, co-designed by minimalist pioneer Steve Reich.
Allen Downs’s Love Shots (1971, 8 min, 16mm.) traces the overwhelming, colorful landscapes of Minnesota and Mexico: shots of lush, Mexican mountains and country roads are interspersed with Minnesotan lakes on a rainy day and aerial views of the city from a friend’s airplane. Downs also documents his family life; his wife, Anita, and daughter Lila appear throughout the 8-minute short. Distinguished by its frenetic pace—cutting sharply between saturated images and frequently showing scenes sped up to multiple times their normal pace—Love Shots also exhibits Downs’s fascination with conspicuous consumption, manifested in various images of advertising, shopping, and scenes from amusement parks.
When an artist decides to make a film document of his own museum exhibition, rarely is it so utterly peculiar as what Marcel Broodthaers created out of Décor. A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers. The Belgian provocateur is at turns laugh-out-loud funny, austere to the point of discomfort, and deeply thoughtful in his meditations on the legacies of colonialism and the institutions that grant legitimacy to art. La Bataille de Waterloo (1975, 12 min, 16mm.), filmed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (where Décor was being shown), is characteristic. Here the use of Wagner’s overture to Tristan und Isolde, for instance, lends a kind of ironic epic splendor to the images, as if to destroy the museum walls by overstuffing them with gravitas. Intercut with footage of a woman dismantling a jigsaw puzzle and the Trooping of the Color taking place on the street outside the exhibit, the film invites us along for a unique balancing act between cultural critique and outright mockery.
“In this video, I wanted these two characters to act as if there was meaning,” asserts filmmaker Uri Aran. Two Things About Suffering (2016, 16 min, digital) plays out in three acts during which Aran’s cast of characters interact without ever fully entering a dialogue. They accomplish this by performing alternating monologues simultaneously, underscoring Aran’s recurring preoccupation with the interaction of art and language, overlapping layers of legibility, and what Aran himself has called the “discord of meaning.” Concerns about meaning and authenticity are further underscored by a peculiar re-appropriation central to the work: the footage for Two Things About Suffering derives from a performance called Multicolored Blue that Aran created in 2015 for an artist’s exhibition project in Rome. In this way and others, Aran’s 16-minute experimental work challenges the artifice of performance and the inherent contradiction of negating the significance of art.
Pat O’Neill has long been a mainstay of the Los Angeles avant-garde film scene, blazing his own trail as a self-described “outsider” and creating work that most find challenging to categorize. Combining found footage, original cinematography, and various soundscapes, O’Neill’s films often have a spontaneous, even disorderly quality—achieved through an improvisational approach to editing and resulting in a unique graphic syntax that defies neat readings. By the Sea (1963, 10 min, 16mm.) a collaboration with Robert Abel, begins with a series of slow pans over static shots of an unpopulated Santa Monica pier. What follows is a long, live-action montage of various bodies on the beach, set to a disorienting soundtrack of overlapping voices, merry-go-round music, bicycle bells, and radio noise. One wonders what to make of the sequence, though it seems likely that the film intends to elude a clear explanation. As O’Neill explains, “I don’t intend meaning, it makes itself.”
Featuring Sally Dixon and Robert Jacoby’s then-lover, Warhol superstar Ondine, Dream Sphinx (1974, 8 min, 16mm.)—ostensibly “about” two nineteenth-century lovers—is set to operatic music and executed in a shaky, Nickelodeon-esque style. Oversaturated colors lend a vibrancy and blurry texture to the piece, and an undeniable campy overtone assures us that this is no ordinary love tale but rather an oblique exploration of the cinematic possibilities for self-expression and self-transformation. Directed by a seminal figure of queer experimental film, the piece, unlike Jacoby’s later work, does not confront homosexuality directly; instead, Jacoby seems to delight in a parody of Romantic tropes and the archetypal heterosexuality inherent in them.
The program concludes with the visually stunning and hilarious, Hold Me While I’m Naked (17 min, 1966, 16mm.) by George Kuchar, is camp elevated to art of the highest order. A satire of love, sex, fashion, and filmmaking, the film never ceases to remind us that it’s a film, and one that’s still being made. Thus, only a few minutes into Hold Me While I’m Naked, a steamy love scene is abruptly interrupted by the voice of the director: “The mysticism of the stained glass window and the profanity of that brassiere do not go well together!” And so on, as Kuchar guides us through his bizarre world of doll fornicators, sulking women and their cigarettes, and the ecstatic pop-soul music that at once encapsulates the exuberance of every frame while highlighting the phoniness of it all.