It can be hard to commit to an experimental film. Without the gentle push of a coherent narrative, the moving image assumes a totally different identity. Words like ‘avant-garde’ and ‘non-linear’ tend to push the majority toward the multiplex. But we should all reconsider that thought, because Lewis Klahr’s epic collage film, The Pettifogger, is amazing.
Collage has been enjoying somewhat of a renaissance these days. From collage parties like the one at last year’s Art Toronto event to a recently-launched Montreal magazine named Kolaj, all about – you guessed it – collage art, I’ve noticed a real surge in the activity of taking two or more paper images and sticking them together with glue.
But until I saw The Pettifogger, a mesmerizing film of old American pop images, I hadn’t really thought of collage’s possibilities in film. While you might say that film as montage is just another form of collage, Mr. Klahr quite literally makes moving mashups of the paper sort. And he’s a genius at it.
First off, The Pettifogger isn’t entirely abstract: in a piece from The Guardian, Klahr says that his film “chronicles a year in the life of an American gambler and conman circa 1963.” This is probably good to know before you start watching, because whatever story exists does so elliptically and obscurely. Klahr mixes cutouts of old illustrated noir characters – Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart lookalikes – with abstract textural backdrops made of wallpaper, envelopes, old postcard images or what have you. The characters might hobble a few paces with crude stop motion animation, but you mostly see one tableau after another in relatively quick succession. Some of these look like scenes, with a man and a woman by a bed or in a hallway, and some are totally abstract.
True to form, Klahr’s sound mixing uses the same principles as his image mixing: semi-abstract, found ephemera from American days of yore. We hear bits of conversation taken from old radio pot-boilers, from gruff men and socialite women, then atmospheric thunderstorm sounds followed by a particularly tense or melodramatic bit of old film score. The conversations are incomplete and suggestive, going for feeling rather than fact.
Don’t try to reconcile these obscure elements with Klahr’s one-sentence plot summary; you’ll just get a headache. Occasionally a sequential narrative flirtatiously begins to emerge before Klahr then inserts ten minutes of shapes and colours with no figures. I was reminded more than once of the Quay brothers’ bizarre stop-motion animations, which have names like The Epic of Gilgamesh and involve animated dolls and puppets moving around in dark, bizarre worlds. Things happen in the Quays’ films, but they make use of movement without literal objective or plot. You might not be able to recap the story with words.
But that’s the point. The Pettifogger is good and interesting because of its powerful mood. By mixing these old images and sounds freely, Klahr can evoke a nostalgic response to the products of a disposable culture. Once considered pulp, these symbols of a bygone era have retained an aura and a power of suggestion. In this light, it actually makes sense that the plot in The Pettifogger is half erased; whatever cultural zeitgeist the American noir film tapped into has been half-forgotten with the rest of history.
The Pettifogger may not be for everyone. There’s a reason experimental film is fairly obscure: it’s harder to watch than mainstream movies. But maybe I shouldn’t compare the two styles. Watching The Pettifogger is more like going to the symphony or a ballet, where you appreciate the beauty of art and think less about what it means than about how it makes you feel. So, in short, the best way to watch a dreamy collage film like The Pettifogger is to turn your brain off and let the sounds and images wash over you.
The Pettifogger plays as part of The Free Screen series at TIFF Bell Lightbox on April 11 at 7:00 pm.
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