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Flash Festival Review, 9-6: The Alchemist's Pupil
Mash-ups with a method from Lawrence Jordan at Anthology
|A scene from Lawrence Jordan's 1991 "Visible Compendium." Courtesy Anthology Film Archives.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak
In Lawrence Jordan's 1957-78 "Visions of a City," a compact 10-minute portrait of San Francisco through reflected images that evokes Eugene Atget's display window mirror portraits
of early 20th century Paris, there's a moment when a corner of the marquee for the old Seals Stadium at 16th and Bryant, home to the Triple A San Francisco Seals baseball club for which Joe DiMaggio cut his teeth, flashes by. Between previewing some of the dazzling array of mostly 16mm films on view at Anthology Film Archives' retrospective of seminal San Francisco cineaste Jordan, screening September 6 - 10, I paused to take in the restored version of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 "Vertigo." It occurred to me that the film-makers who break through to the big-time and the popular imagination are just the most visible element of much larger universe of creators, with the more interesting experiments often happening at the Triple-A level. And Jordan, the former assistant to Joseph Cornell who went on to found the influential film department of the San Francisco Art institute in 1969, makes even the animated segment of Hitchcock's San Francisco masterpiece look predictably safe.
Of the short films screening in seven Anthology programs, the most elaborate is the 1977 "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which boasts that other great 20th century American cineaste Orson Welles narrating the epic Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, with Jordan mixing it up with his mobile collage effects overlaying and interacting with Gustave Dore's lavish illustrations. Here Jordan effects the animation not only by his cut-outs but by moving the camera around, fade-outs, changes in back lighting and hue, at times turning the Dore works into scrims. (The camera even shakes at "The helmsmen steered us through." Butterflies flit about the guests at the wedding where the ancient mariner has cornered a young man to listen to his woeful tale, and Jordan's ubiquitous sparkling wand's head alights on the top of a light house and around a smiling Sun. "He holds him with his glittering eye," Welles at his most spell-binding voice, alternatingly resonant and raspy, says of the sailor, but he could be describing Jordan with his glittering effects, or even himself, in a tour-de-force performance of varying vocal cadences evoking his salad days with the Mercury Theater. (Mark Ellinger's haunting sound composition and music also help.)
Both "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Visions of a City" play September 6 at 9 p.m., on a program which also includes the 2004 "Enid's Idyll," a 17-minute panoply of knights at battle in forests, cherubic angel fly-bys, planes, gigantic rabbits, bears, eagles, the omnipresent sparkling wand-top, torches, snakes, wrecked ships, and pinwheels, all of which are deployed with such mobility as to make the film look three-dimensional. Here too Jordan's camera is hardly static, descending on the cut-outs as if they were live figures, so that the effect of mobility is produced by the roving camera as well.
Preceding this assortment at 7 p.m. September 6, program 1 includes the 1973 "Orb," which had my white cat's own bi-color ovals riveted for its full five minutes to the globes, balloons, watches, dots, and saucers bouncing through Jordan's landscape to the soundscape of merry-go-round organ music. Clocking in at the same length, the 1979 "Moonlight Sonata," to *that* music, is a dancing film, with ballet dancers stretching to the six-o'clock position, a woman balancing on a ball as it cascades over rivers and mountains (at this point Mimi reached her claws up to try to catch the figure), and other characters tumbling around the stratosphere, balancing on balls, swords, and horse reigns. Maybe I'm just projecting my favorite San Francisco settings on this San Francisco cineaste's canvas, but the 1991 "Visible Compendium" seemed to be inspired by the Palace of Fine Arts, that permanent remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Hot air balloons surge over-head, a Belle Epoque woman cavorts among giraffes, monkeys, and rhinoceroses, bubbles pop up from trapdoors, with merry-go-round, player piano, and harp music adding to the ambiance; some of the towering arches and columns seem to be inspired by the grandeur of the Sutro Baths. A child rambles by on stilts. The canvas shifts to a Moreau-like landscape of ochre canyons. Then we're in a circus, with camels, horses, zebras, and bicycles being piloted by monkeys and parrots, and a turn-of-the-last century carnie show. Jordan's sparkling wand top is there again; it's his version of Miro's man with the handle-bar mustache and pipe.
My personal favorite among the films Anthology's selected, being projected September 9 at 7:30 p.m. as part of program seven, is the 17-minute 2006 "Blue Skies Beyond the Looking Glass," which Jordan describes as "an alchemical view of the land beyond death." And what a playhouse this land is, with cohorts like
Eric Von Stroheim, John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Conrad Nagel, Lon Chaney, Alice Terry, Joan Crawford, a girlish Lillian Gish, Eleanor Boardman, Renee Adoree, May Murray, Gary Cooper, Marion Davies, Marie Dressler, Charlie Chaplin, Marie Doro, a long-haired Buster Keaton, a youngish Lionel Barrymore, and of course America's original sweetheart, the curly-locked Mary Pickford, all sharing the screen largely in close-ups from their mostly silent films, with era-typical sub-titles added by Jordan. But it's hardly an indiscriminate, casual sampling. The most extended sequence has a pregnant-looking Pickford heroine, alternately sobbing and eager, picking out a hat as she summons up the courage to go outside and face the world, finally boldly settling on a sombrero-sized chapeau decorated with a stuffed bird. All of this is set to -- really, danced to -- a rocking '50s retro space age mambo beat, to which the animated figures ladled on by Jordan seem to be dancing.
Among these cornucopias of curios, the film on the Anthology programming that elucidates the film-maker the most is clearly "Cornell." Shot in 1965, when Jordan worked as Joseph Cornell's assistant, and completed in 1979, this studio view of the master of the box work packs a whole biography into a tight eight minutes, neatly connecting the master's modus operandi with the pupil's in the ladder's narration.
"This film came into being because Joseph really did want something of himself and his work recorded," Jordan says. "He was continually looking for people who could translate his intentions. That's one reason I took the camera to Flushing that summer of 1965.... I wanted to record something of this man who was my teacher and friend and incidentally one of America's great 20th century artists."
Stained paint-cans, myriad paper owls, cardboard boxes marked "scraps," faded French street sign lettering, watch entrails -- "Someone described his work as crystal cages, and sometimes they really looked like that," Jordan recounts while guiding us among this anything but discarded detritus. "I felt Joseph was never very interested in fantasy," Jordan explains. "His favorites were certain poets like Lorca, and among painters Juan Gris and De Chirico. His favorite composer was Debussy, and Proust was his favorite writer, and had a great influence on him. I paid
attention when Joseph talked about other artists. That's because his whole lifestyle was art. His concentration on the process of art was so great that he wasn't just expressing personal preferences; he seemed to know where there were some pretty serious wellsprings of creativity stored up...
"Joseph was not afraid of sentiment, he even insisted on it. So it was part of his belief system that there were moments crystalized in feelings from the past. The influence of Proust again, these moments could be re-focused and revitalized by the memory until a kind of epiphany of vision was reached. I heard him use that word 'epiphany' several times. It seemed to cause him real pain if one of these moments started to slip away.... And i think it was this matter of sentiment that was one of the primary reasons Cornell's work wasn't more widely recognized during the hard-edged movements of the '60s.
"One day he said that his working concern was only to bring certain threads of reminiscences together. The same was true of his collages -- he called it 'high collage.'" The same could be said of Jordan's celluloid pastiches. "I hope this humble style of film would have pleased Joseph," he concludes, "because his influence on me touches the very foundation of my life."
"Cornell" plays September 7 at 8:15 p.m., on a program which also includes "Carabose," a three-minute piece set to Satie, another circus ring-master.
Flash Reviews & Arts Voyager Article / Galleries