Two Lesson Plans on Childhood and the Found

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Lost Motion (Janie Geiser, 1999)

Ian here

I have decided to collect two lessons together in this post, since they have a similar scope.

The first lesson is a guest lecture I gave when I was a teaching assistant for Tom Gunning’s winter 2015 course “The Post-war American Avant-Garde Film” at the University of Chicago. This lecture followed a screening of films by Phil Solomon, Lewis Klahr, and Janie Geiser. The second lesson is from my own course, “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art,” taught at the School of the Art Institute in spring 2016. This lesson centered on Geiser, Klahr, and Joseph Cornell.

Lesson Plan One: Lecture on Phil Solomon, Janie Geiser, and Lewis Klahr

The screening preceding this guest lecture included Solomon’s films The Secret Garden (1988) and Twilight Psalm III: Night of the Meek (2003), Klahr’s Day Light Moon (2002) and The Pharaoh’s Belt (1993), and Geiser’s Immer Zu (1997) and Lost Motion (1999). Since this was a lecture course, this lesson is more information-rich, whereas the second lesson in this post, which was for a first-year seminar course, is shorter and sketchier, designed to germinate student conversation rather than present a unified theory of the films in question.

For this lecture, I began with a question: what motivations do filmmakers have for working with found materials?

We can guess and extrapolate on this question all we want, but the fact of the matter is that many filmmakers have, in interviews or in artists’ statements, explained some of what motivates them as they embrace this practice. We don’t have to take these artists at their word (they may not be truthful … and, of course, there’s the intentional fallacy to keep in mind), but it at least presents us with a starting point. And so I’ve done the work of rounding up a number of quotes by filmmakers and video artists who use found footage and other found materials in their practice, where they explicitly discuss their motivations.

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I won’t reproduce the entirety of those quotes in this blog post (mainly because WordPress formats block quotes so large!). Those who are interested in the exact quotes can see them by following along with the Prezi presentation of this lecture. The six general categories I presented to the class, though, were this:

  1. Explicit Oppositional Resistance. Some filmmakers appropriate imagery from mass culture because they quite simply despise it, and want to fight against it in some way. Paul Arnold brushes against this possibility when he characterizes his work as a sort of “revenge” against “the star wars systems of Warners and Metro.”[i]
  2. “Immune System” Boosting. This is similar to oppositional resistance, but subversion here is analogized less to military action, and more to the workings of the immune system. The mass media are so ubiquitous that directly fighting against them is a lost cause. What is required instead is the careful cultivation of antibodies (or, perhaps, a homeopathic resistance) through strategic assimilation and re-deployment. We see this in the statements of artists such as Craig Baldwin and Sharon Sandusky.[ii]
  3. An Aesthetic of Disruption and Anti-Continuity. You tend to see this most in artists that appropriate from a wide range of sources. The idea here is to turn montage against itself, to surprise viewers by actively fighting their pattern-recognition capabilities. Abigail Child expresses this well when she states, “The mind wants to link. I want to unlink.” [iii]
  4. Forgiveness, and the Revealing of Latent Beauty. Standing in stark contrast to filmmakers who offer subversion-based antibodies to popular culture, this thread of thought focuses on redeeming these images. Artists such as Raphael Montañez Ortiz search for the positive meanings that lurk, unseen, within the original text. “There can never be a retribution that moves into grace,” Ortiz says in interview. “Retribution only moves one into further retribution.”[iv]
  5. Collaboration. Filmmakers who take this attitude see themselves as communing with their material, and being admitted into a specific relation with history through this act. They might still want to bring out certain aspects buried in the original, but there is no destruction needed to get there—only accentuation. Ken Jacobs is a key filmmaker espousing this attitude.[v]
  6. The Luxury of Distance. This attitude is central to Phil Solomon‘s practice, and perhaps best explained in his own words. Solomon writes that, for him, “the act of telling other people where to go (‘marks’), what to do (‘stage business’), how to feel (‘acting’), and what to say (‘script’) is thoroughly embarrassing and rather silly.” Working with found materials gives him a way to view filmmaking as personal excavation, rather than as directorial execution.[vi]

Solomon’s position is a good place to end on, because it emphasizes a clear dichotomy. Working with found footage comes with very definite constraints. It renders filmmakers beholden to pre-existing imagery, with a resulting loss of control.  Filmmakers must cede control over camera dynamics, for instance (and this, especially, renders the possibilities of found footage filmmaker far removed from those of something like structural filmmaking).

But Solomon gives us insight into the way in which these constrains arrive with reciprocal freedoms. By narrowing the scope of intervention allowed in an image, working with found footage shifts the types of decision-making involve in filmmaking. It allows experimental filmmakers to use human actors and narrative frameworks, if they wish, while releasing them from the pressures of fussing with live performers on-set. It allows filmmakers to work completely alone, if they prefer. (Elsewhere, Solomon states that he has “always identified much more with the experience of the single artist painting or writing a poem or composing music out of some private personal necessity rather than with the collaborative nature of the industrial filmmaking process.”[vii])

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Throwing a still from The Pharaoh’s Belt on the screen, I asked how we might contrast the freedom and constraints that Solomon dwells in to Lewis Klahr’s practice of cut-out animation. Both modes of filmmaking, I pointed out, are based upon the appropriation of pre-existing found materials. Klahr’s cut-out animation allows for more control of movement of figures in frame, but the tradeoff here is that there is an enormous increase in the amount of labor required. Because of this, although both are based on the borrowing of found objects, the two practices seem enormously removed. Cut-out animation doesn’t efficiently solve the problems Solomon wants solved.

But what if, I ask, there was a form that retained both filmmakers’ interests in pre-made worlds of things, the ephemera of popular art, that allowed for control of figures onscreen, while erasing much of the labor of animation?

From here, I dimmed the lights, and showed something from a period in Solomon’s filmmaking that Tom had left out of the week’s course screening: I played students Solomon’s Rehearsals for Retirement (2007) in its entirety. Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of Solomon’s Vimeo page:

To the practice of found footage filmmaking and cut-out animation, we can also add the practice of artists’ machinima: the use of commercially-developed game engines to create animated videos. Bringing Solomon’s game-imagery practice into the mix, and throwing in Geiser’s manipulation of toys in films such as Lost Motion, I plotted out an expanded mix of possibilities that these filmmakers illustrate:

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The imagery in Klahr’s cut-out animation films and videos is assembled from readymade pop cultural artifacts. The movement we see is constructed via labor-intensive animation. And, because of the format used, it allows for the possibility of collage: imagery drawn from multiple sources can freely co-inhabit the same frame.

Moving to Geiser’s stop-motion practice, we can again say that her films and videos are assembled from readymade pop cultural artifacts. The movement we see is constructed via a combination of play, puppetry, and animation—sometimes every bit as laborious as Klahr’s practice, and sometimes simpler. Again, in Geiser’s work, we see an aesthetic of collage. Different types of toys, bric-a-brack, drawings, and puppets freely co-inhabit the same frame.

Finally, Solomon’s appropriation of game imagery. Again, as with the previous two, the videos are assembled from readymade pop cultural artifacts. The movement we see is constructed via a combination of play and puppetry, enabled by a game controller—something that can be performed in real time, and is orders of magnitude simpler than the animation present in both Geiser and Klahr’s processes. With this simplicity, the possibility of collage drops away. Since this world arrives pre-mediated in video form, a unity of materials within frame is forced upon Solomon. There is no possibility of achieving the rich mixture of disparate elements that Geiser and Klahr both pursue.

Having laid out the freedoms and constraints of each artist’s practice, I moved back to the idea of revealing latent beauty, discussed in my overview of filmmaker’s motivations. All three of these artists’ work, I argued, engage with this sort of revelation. In these films and videos, we can see a movement from fascination (that is, falling prey to the perniciousness of mass culture) to a more detached, and more complex, respect for the material in question. The aesthetic of these filmmakers is one of careful distance, but not necessarily subversion or opposition.

Here, I turned to two short essays that Gunning had used earlier in the course to animate discussion of Jack Smith’s filmmaking—Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” and Walter Benjamin’s “Old Forgotten Children’s Books”—to draw a contrast. We should remember, I noted, that Sontag refers to camp as “a tender feeling.”[viii] What we see in these films and videos exhibits this tenderness. This is not the same blend of innocence and perversity that we see in Jack Smith’s appropriates of pop culture (for instance, the burlesque of Hollywood glamour in Flaming Creatures or Ken Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra) or children’s toys (when he plays with a doll in Jacobs’ Little Stabs at Happiness). It is not perversity that is being revealed in these films and videos. Rather, it is loss.

Loss of what? These works, I argued, are ruminations on the lost imaginative possibilities of childhood. Benjamin writes of children:

They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry. In waste products they recognize the face that the world of things turns directly and solely to them. In using these things, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship.[ix]

Surely, this is a recognizable trait to all of us. But how many of us still have it, like we did when we were children? Geiser’s, Klahr’s, and Solomon’s works, I argued, are about the impossibility of returning to the time in which we could take these toys, comic books, and games to be magical and true, without dwelling on their imperfections. Solomon once said that one of the reasons he dislikes working with scripts and actors is that he has “a difficult time suspending disbelief with my own contrived material.”[x] The “contrivances” of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas‘s imperfect models are widely on display in Rehearsals for Retirement. But, since they are not Solomon’s own contrivance, he is free to acknowledge them, displacing the sense of responsibility he feels into something else: a lament for our inability to ignore the imperfections of objects that captivated us in childhood and adolescence.

These works, then, are about the loss of innocence, framed in a very specific way: as the loss of our ability to construct one’s own world out of surrounding things, to accept and dwell within a realm of fantasy. We could say, referring to the found material that forms the basis of Solomon’s The Secret Garden, that they are a lament over the fact that we can no longer be scared by the flying monkeys in The Wizard of OzThat possibility is gone for us now forever. And perhaps, these works suggest, it should be mourned.

Lesson Plan Two: Seminar Discussion of Geiser, Klahr, and Joseph Cornell

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This lesson followed a screening in which students viewed Joseph Cornell’s Jack’s Dream (c.1930s) and Children’s Party (c.1930s), Janie Geiser’s Lost Motion, and Lewis Klahr’s Pony Glass (1998). For reading, I assigned selections from the chapter “Joseph Cornell: The Symbolic Equation” from Marjorie Keller’s The Untutored Eye: Childhood in the Films of Cocteau, Cornell, and Brakhage.

As I stated above, this lesson plan is shorter than the one above. Since my purpose was to get to student conversation about the films as quickly as possible, I limited my lecture to a loose, sketched-out history of aesthetics of the found. You can follow along with the visual presentation for this portion of the lesson here.

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I begin with Joseph Cornell, talking a little bit about how found objects figure in his larger umbrella of artistic practices. I discuss his experimentation with found object assemblage in the form of his “boxes.” I talk about his entrance into found footage filmmaking with Rose Hobart (c.1936). I recount the (if not apocryphal, then at least exaggerated) story of an enraged Salvador Dalí knocking over the projector during the film’s premiere, not because he disliked it, but because he had dreamed of making such a film, and Cornell had gotten there first.[xi] I point out that, although Cornell’s first found footage experiment is usually associated with surrealism, we could also in some way credit him being an early practitioner of fan art, since the film was a tribute to its titular star.[xii]

From Rose Hobart, I move on to Jack’s Dream and Children’s Party. I note that, in the versions of the films currently circulated, Cornell was assisted by Larry Jordan. Jordan was also a filmmaker in his own right. He didn’t make found footage cinema, but he did make a kind of cinema that also sits in the lineage of found object filmmaking: cut-out collage animation. I show them a quick clip of Our Lady of the Sphere (1972).

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With the figure of Jordan, I point out, we have someone who mediates between not only different traditions in avant-garde cinema, but also different figures in surrealist art. He worked closely with Cornell, but his own filmmaking output more closely resembles the collages of Max Ernst, particularly Ernst’s artist’s book A Week of Kindness (1934). Jordan follows Ernst’s fascination with appropriating and re-contextualizing Victorian-era engraved images. Both of them take advantage of the generally unified art style that we see across these engravings to build nearly-seamless surrealist juxtapositions.

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In the wake of Ernst, engravings became a popular medium to appropriate for cut-out collage animation (We see similar engravings populating, for instance, Harry Smith’s No. 12: Heaven and Earth Magic). But not all cut-out animators work with 18th-century engravings. Lewis Klahr adapts the cut-out collage style to 20th century pop culture, in particular comics. (I don’t make a big deal out of it, but if one wanted to, one could frame this as a transition from surrealist cinema to pop-art cinema.) Unlike in Ernst’s more seamless work, here we start to see a celebration of incongruity, as comics co-mingle with photographs from magazine advertisements and figures from instruction booklets.

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Finally, I turn to Janie Geiser, linking her practice to that of Klahr’s. Like Cornell and like Klahr, Geiser’s work shows a fascination with images and objects from childhood. Unlike both of those other filmmakers, though, Geiser’s practice actually more resembles Cornell’s boxes: rather than simply manipulate appropriated imagery, her films uniquely pursue actual found object assemblage, as she animates three-dimensional toys and bric-a-brac.

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With that short overview of styles laid out, I segue into discussion. In seminar discussions, I usually like to start from general student impressions and opinions, and then move out from there, allowing students to sculpt the shape of discussion. However, when teaching these films, there are a few major points that I do try to steer discussion toward, when possible:

1) Intra-frame collage vs. sequential montage

This is not a particularly complicated point, but it is one that I am serious about getting my students to fully articulate on their own, without my help. I tend to lead into this discussion by stilling the following frame from Pony Glass:

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Here, I ask students: What do we see here? The initial round of answers usually refer to the film’s narrative. Students will offer answers such as “the couple is making out in their car, as the police pass by.” Fair enough. But what I’m looking for is actually something more basic and literal. What we see here is a strange mishmash of paper elements. We have a picture of a police car, slid behind a partial diagram of a car with labeled components (perhaps from a “way things work” manual, or the instruction booklet for a model). The couple kissing is another layer of paper: they seem to exist only as very carefully cut-out black construction paper. And, behind it all, what is that background? It looks like wrapping paper Klahr salvaged from a child’s birthday party.

The point I try to get students to express here is that although Klahr has succeeded in putting something an image that we can coherently understand as part of his larger narrative, the actual elements he uses to construct that image are almost shockingly incoherent. Aside from the fact that they’re all made from paper, there’s very little that ties these elements together. There’s a disparateness of types that seems on the verge of pulling this image apart.

Next, I show some of Jack’s Dream. (The YouTube video embedded below is actually the entire film—I saw that no one had previously uploaded it, and decided to do the world a service. But you should feel free to watch only the first 45 seconds or so.)

Here, I ask: Cornell also juxtaposes different elements, but there’s a difference in how he does it. What is this difference? What I’m looking for is for students to point out that cinematic montage applied to found footage is sequential, happening across time, whereas Klahr’s collage can take place in a single frame. Again, this is a simple point, but I find it’s important for students to articulate it on their own, clearly, before moving on to other, more complex topics.

(One such topic: How do we know that the woman the plastic toy man in Lost Motion dreams of is unattainable for him? Because she is a drawing. Romance between toys and drawings never work out. They exist on entirely different planes of representation.)

2) The spectrum of coherence/continuity to incoherence/discontinuity

By the time they reached this point, my students had already watched and discussed Bruce Conner’s A Movie, so we had already gotten into the possibilities of ambiguityincoherence, and the breaking of pattern-recognition in found material filmmaking. Now that students had more found material films under their belt, I encouraged them to think of “coherence/continuity” and “incoherence/discontinuity” as different ends of a spectrum, which we could place these films on. From here, students brought up that Pony Glass and Lost Motion seem much more “coherent” than Jack’s Dream.

What are factors that contribute to this coherence? Well, narrative is an obvious one. Both Pony Glass and Lost Motion make more direct attempts to tell a recognizable story than Jack’s Dream does. (The puppet show in Jack’s Dream is a story, but the new footage that Cornell introduces disrupts it at regular intervals.) Music is another. I pointed out that Jack’s Dream would seem even more disjointed if it wasn’t for Debussy’s Clair de lune there on the soundtrack to encourage the sense of a mood or emotional palette that carries us through each unexpected image. Students pointed out that the fact that Pony Glass‘s music has lyrics allows it to do an even better job of alerting viewers to the film’s narrative themes. Another possible topic of discussion is color: would Jack’s Dream be more or less coherent if there was color involved? (Comments by Bruce Conner suggest that it would be less coherent.[xiii])

3) Why childhood?

Finally, the question that in some ways ties my entire class session together: Why do these filmmakers all use imagery and objects with such strong associations with childhood?

I have my own ideas about this, as already expressed in the lecture above. But I am always willing to let students draw their own conclusions. One idea that students had was that such objects can aid with the digestibility of narratives that are otherwise strange, uncomfortable, or hard to follow. And, of course, the issue of innocence came up. Keen-eyed students noticed that during the noir-like “descent” of our main toy character in Lost Motion, we gradually transition from plastic and metal figures that look like they could have conceivably be designed for children, to figures that are obviously “girlie” paraphernalia for adults.

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One student brought up the “potential energy” of childhood artifacts, marinated as they are in our early lived experiences. I liked this, because it tied into my own ideas about these films being elegies for the lost potentials of the imagination, while still being different enough for me not to fear that I had told students what to think too much. This talk of “potential energies,” of toys being our basic building blocks for how we play-act, and thereby eventually make sense of the world, got me thinking of an interview I’ve always loved with the filmmaker Guy Maddin. I’ll let this clip, which finds Maddin appreciating the Polish novelist Bruno Schultz, stand as the final word:

[i]. MacDonald, Scott. “Martin Arnold.” In A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Pg 351.

[ii]. In the Prezi presentation, I introduce quotes from Sharon Sandusky and Craig Baldwin here. See Sandusky, Sharon, “The Archeology of Redemption: Toward Archival Film,” Millennium Film Journal 26 (1992): 2-25 (quote is from pg 5), and Scott MacDonald, “At the Flaherty: Craig Baldwin,” in A Critical Cinema 3 (pg 177).

[iii]. Child, Abigail. This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005. Pg 207.

[iv]. MacDonald, “Raphael Montañez Ortiz,” in A Critical Cinema 3. Pg 343.

[v]. In the Prezi presentation, I use two quotes here, one from Jacobs himself, and one from Phil Solomon on Jacobs’ practice. See MacDonald, “Ken and Flo Jacobs,” in A Critical Cinema 3 (Pg 365), and MacDonald, “Phil Solomon,” in A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), pg 208.

[vi]. Solomon, Phil. “Why I Am Drawn to Using Found Footage.” In Found Footage Film. Edited by Cecilia Hausheer and Christoph Settele. Lucern, Switzerland: VIPER, 1992. Pg 131.

[vii]. MacDonald, “Phil Solomon.” In A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Pg 206.

[viii]. Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Partisan Review 31, no. 4 (1964): Pg 530.

[ix]. Benjamin, Walter. “Old Forgotten Children’s Books.” Selected Writings. Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Volume 1: 1913–1926. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap Press, 1996. Pg 408. Gunning originally discussed this quote in the course in relation to Jack Smith’s Scotch Tape (1961), and I think its relevance to these films, as well, is more than apparent.

[x]. Solomon, “Why I Am Drawn to Using Found Footage,”pg 131.

[xi]. A sedate version of this story is offered by Paul Hammond, who writes only that Dalí “was most miffed when he saw Cornell’s film”—Hammond, Paul. “Available Light.” In The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema. Edited and translated by Paul Hammond. Third Edition. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000. Pg 17. The more elaborate version is recounted by Julien Levi in Memoir of an Art Gallery (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), pp 229–231.

[xii]. I have been drawing this connection to students since I first taught Rose Hobart in 2013, when I screened it alongside some machinima videos. Now, however, there’s a good reading to pair with this juxtaposition: “Collaborative Spectatorship: The Surrealism of the Stars: From Rose Hobart to Mrs. Rock Hudson,” a chapter from Adam Lowenstein’s book Dreaming of Cinema : Spectatorship, Surrealism, and the Age of Digital Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). I have to admit, though, that I think Lowenstein asserts an erroneous transitive relationship: while I agree with him that Cornell was a fan artist, I do not think it follows that subsequent fan artists have also been surrealists.

[xiii]. In interview, Conner explains his attachment to black and white found footage: “If I’m cutting from one shot to another and I want to imply a continuous space, it’s harder to do if the sky in the background is blue in one shot and pink in another. Even skin color changes enormously. In black and white you can imply that a figure walking down a road is the same person who walks through the door of a house, even though the scenes may be from two different films—you’re not distracted by the color. Your attention moves in the direction of the action.” MacDonald, “Bruce Conner.” In A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Pp 248–249.

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