Tag Archives: experimental cinema

The 3rd Eye Group: Interview with Ori Drumer

A Woman's Case

Format: Exhibition and screenings

Dates: 12 October – 9 November 2013

Venue: Horse Hospital

Horse Hospital website

From October 12 to November 9, the Horse Hospital is hosting a unique exhibition celebrating the work of Israel’s only 1970s counter-cultural movement. It will give Londoners a rare chance to explore some of the seminal group’s subversive artwork and films, which were unearthed in a retrospective at the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art in Tel Aviv in early 2012. Led by visionary artist Jacques Katmor, the 3rd Eye group searched for revolution, free love, drug-enhanced perception and artistic experiments, shocking and angering Israel’s ultra-conservative, nationalistic society. Although the movement only existed for a few years and disbanded in the mid-70s, its impact on Israel’s left-field artists and musicians cannot be underestimated and the striking art and films it produced remain richly fascinating, a must-see for anyone interested in counter-cultural transgressions and innovations.

Below, Virginie Sélavy talks to Ori Drumer, the curator of the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art exhibition ‘The Third Eye: Jacques Katmor Is Wishing You a Good Death’, and former member of 1980s noise band Duralex Sedlex.

Virginie Sélavy: How important is Jacques Katmor to the cultural history of Israel?

Ori Drumer: Katmor was a pioneer then and is still misunderstood today. He represents a culturally repressed generation which was never researched despite its prolific output and abrupt end at the eve of the 1973 war. During that small window in time, the first left-wing counter movements were established and the first anarchist groups began to emerge – mainly by immigrants from the US, South America and France. It was the first wave of political dissent in the young state’s history and it broke on the shores of the Yom Kippur War.

The memories of Katmor and the Third eye, in the eyes of their contemporaries, carry a great deal of nostalgia. His effect on people was magical, although his works in art and cinema were forgotten.

He was the first artist to bring the influence of modernism and 20th-century avant-garde movements to Israel’s art, in particular American experimental cinema, Dada, Beat, Lettrism, Guy Debord and psycho-geography. In what way was he influenced by them?

In the 60s and in the beginning of the 70s, there were no venues for either foreign or alternative cinema and the 3rd Eye Group managed to obtain films from private collections. Katmor must have also been exposed to such types of materials during his frequent trips to Paris. In turn, he used what he saw: editing styles, sound and picture juxtapositioning, using modern pop/rock music as soundtracks, investigating the cinematic apparatus, film and screen as metaphors for the human skin. But as a painter who later entered the medium of cinema, he mainly tried to explore the transfer of painting to film. Hence his work with geometric shapes, particularly in A Woman’s Case. Katmor wanted to project an experience of expanded cinema and ‘films for the inner eye’.

Katmor studied art in Paris and Switzerland. Did he meet any important cultural figures while he was in Europe?

In Paris, he met the founder of the Lettrist movement, Isidore Isou and several of the movement’s members. He also revealed how in the 80s, Goddard made romantic advances towards his (Katmor’s) wife Anne on a Club Med vacation.

How many films did he make?

Katmor directed two feature films: A Woman’s Case (1969), and a documentary titled The Fool, which documented the Fools’ Festival in Amsterdam. Between these two films he also directed 13 short films, including documentaries about Israeli art, Israeli music as well as experimental films. Despite my exhaustive research, some materials may still be in private hands.

Despite its combination of experimental visuals and rock’n’ roll, its copious amounts of nudity and its violent undertones A Woman’s Case was chosen to represent Israel at the Venice Film Festival. What was the reaction to the film?

Film-goers in Israel rioted in the theatres, as they expected to see an erotic movie and were seemingly forced to watch an artistic film. The riots were followed by the appearance of the police, which, in the context of a Lettrist strategy, is exactly what Katmor wanted.

At the Venice Film Festival, the film was accepted warmly and its critics loved the beautiful women it portrayed as well as the innocence of its Eros & Tanathos theme. However, the public’s interest ended there. Maybe they were expecting to see more from this young and promising director, but that never happened.

Two of his short films, The Journey (1971), and Sign (1974), explore the work of two painters, Yosl Bergner and Michail Grobman respectively. Why did he choose film to explore the work of other artists?

For Katmor, cinema was a natural continuation of painting and drawing. In cinema he saw an evolutionary path from the paintings of the Renaissance to the present mediums: from the dialectics and spontaneity of painting to the intimate inclusion of film. Of course, time and motion were also an important part of that evolution.

Why did he pick those two artists specifically?

It was natural for him to choose artists among his fellow immigrants: Bergner from Canada and Grobman, who belonged to the second stream of Russian avant-garde. Jacques’s affinity with them stemmed from the exploration of mysticism and cosmology in their art. Both artists incorporated Jewish motifs with symbols from their personal world in religious visionary paintings.

Katmor’s inclusion of these artists in his films was, in fact, a journey into the private worlds of his friends. His use of music from the rock opera Tommy and the German Krautrock band Faust merged with the imagery, brought a new interpretation to both.

In The Hole (1972-74), he mixed Kabbalistic symbols and psychedelic drugs. How do those elements work together?

The Hole was part of a two-year project, culminating in the film itself. In the movie, Katmor, under the influence of LSD, draws symbols on the ground, digs himself a grave and enters it. The film starts even before the appearance of the title during the leader: Katmor flashes countdown numbers that alternate with images, combining the Kabbalistic Ladder or numbers with symbols and references to… Creation. The Triangle is a prominent symbol, appearing in his earlier and later works (brought to the Now of the film), in filmed imagery and in the movements of the camera.

He also refers to the actual physical medium of film through which we experience the movie; its transparency as it allows a blinding sun to obliterate the image with light. The film is an attempt to convey a personal experience, which, in hindsight, brought on a mental crisis.

Do you believe he succeeded in defining a new Jewish identity through his art?

Before Katmor, the Israeli art world avoided interpreting religious experiences either in secular terms or in their relation to the Jewish identity in ‘modern’ Israel. He was the first to create a visual language based on Kabbalistic symbols and personal semiology. He was especially interested in ecstatic religious visions. For example, in one of his early works he depicts Jacob’s struggle with the Angel in a homosexual context. He was heavily influenced by an ancient Kabbalistic story, ‘The Tale of Joseph Della Reina’, which depicts salvation through the gutters, cosmic journeys, drug use and art as a transformational tool.

Katmor saw himself as the archetypal Fool and Jews as such too. He saw the Jewish people as artists and the image of the Wandering Jew as The Fool. Despite his attempts at defining such a figure, he never succeeded in capturing the new Jewish identity. The Israeli art scene came to tackle these kinds of issues only later in the 70s, while Katmor preceded them by two or three years. It wouldn’t be surprising to see his influence on some of the younger artists of the time, who later became central figures of Israeli art.

Who were the other important figures of the 3rd Eye movement?

Several members of the group became central figures of the Israeli underground in the 70s and 80s. One member became a rock journalist (Michael Rorberger), another became a graphic designer (Michel Opatowski, whose exhibition I am currently preparing for in 2014). Katmor’s cameraman, Amnon Solomon, who died last year, became one of the most important cinematographers in Israel.

What sort of artistic activities did they engage in?

The group staged various shows in public spaces in Tel Aviv. Amongst them an art show at the first supermarket in Israel that sold imported goods from the US, which was the first sign of opulence in the country.

Other activities included art schools and Kibbutzim, in which some adopted drugs and orgies as part of the artistic act. Shows opened frequently to shrill sounds or motorbikes zipping through startled visitors, others opened with sexual performances.

How important was the book and record store they ran for a while?

The 3rd Eye group opened a store in Tel Aviv, which stocked rock records and musical genres that were unavailable anywhere else in Israel at the time: psychedelic rock, experimental music and such. Israel was in a cultural vacuum and the establishment had no interest in developing these avenues. (We should remember that The Beatles were not allowed to perform in Israel). The shop also carried contemporary posters, books (by authors such as Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, as well as books on Eastern philosophy), erotic comic books, mainly from France, and alternative magazines from San Francisco and London.

The latter were the inspiration for the group’s fanzine, Strip, designed by Michel Opatowski, who later became a successful graphic artist and political left-wing activist. Other members contributed texts, photography, illustrations and other works which were published in the only edition ever produced by the group. The fanzine was later revived in the eighties.

In addition, there was a small gallery which displayed the works of local artists. The shop became a centre of pilgrimage where visitors could drink Indian chai and candidly smoke marijuana and hashish but it never made enough money to get by. At one point the shop was burglarized, its contents stolen, which were irreplaceable due to the group’s low funds. Their ‘infamy’ also brought the police, which, together with the burglary and financial problems caused its closure only 14 months after its opening.

Why did the 3rd Eye Group disband in 1974?

Katmor and the rest of the members of the 3rd Eye were constantly persecuted by the police under the excuse of drug use. Their apartment was frequently raided and criminal records were drawn for every member. This kind of environment was impossible to operate in as Katmor saw his freedom taken away repeatedly. The tiny group seemed too insignificant to be a threat to the Israeli consensus. Furthermore, Israel at that time was in a state of post-war crisis and was grieving over its dead, with many broken families to mend. Why were so many resources diverted just to demoralize some hippies? We may never know the answer but a guiding hand is felt in these occurrences. The group, which had planted the seeds of Israeli communes and the Israeli New Age, left for London, Amsterdam and the Far East, either one by one, or in couples.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Shuji Terayama: Who can say that we should not live like dogs?

Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Courtesy of Kujô Kyôko and Terayama World)

Format: Cinema

Dates: 16-25 March 2012

Venue: Tate Modern, London

Tate Modern website

‘I sometimes wish words could be my friends… you can’t shake hands with words, but they possess a feeling of nostalgic intimacy that even words themselves cannot describe.’ Shûji Terayama

Despite expressing such affection for words, Terayama, avant-garde poet, essayist, screenwriter, director and critic, called out for his readers to discard them in his 1967 collection of essays, Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go into the Streets. In Terayama’s universe, words escaped from the pages and found themselves elsewhere – and one place they found a home was on the screen. Perhaps more famous in Japan for his poetry and abroad for his theatre, Terayama first ventured into cinema as a scriptwriter for Japanese New Wave directors, before directing experimental films. Some readers may have heard his words spoken by the character of Nanami in The Inferno of First Love (Susumu Hani, 1968), screened in last summer’s BFI season devoted to the Art Theatre Guild. Yet, despite his legendary cult status in Japan, Western audiences have had limited exposure to Terayama’s cinematic adventures, a deficiency the Tate Modern will remedy for Londoners in March with their film and performance retrospective, Shûji Terayama: Who can say that we should not live like dogs?’

The moving image was never a mistress for Terayama and nor was poetry ever his devoted wife. Bed-hopping between images and words, Terayama was also attracted to the spontaneity and liveliness of performance-art theatre, the capacity for sonic exploration in radio, and the bodily exertion in boxing and horseracing, for which he provided insightful public commentaries. He never kept these relationships a secret; in fact, what he preferred were chaotic cross-pollinations and rampant art form orgies, with him as the voyeur. The words in Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets were hurled onto the stage in his stage vérité theatre production, and tossed onto the streets, only to get lobbed back onto the cinema screen for his first feature-length film of the same title (1971).

There will be a day-long symposium entitled ‘I Am a Terayama Shûji’ at tate Modern on March 23. This symposium will bring together experts and collaborators, including Julian Ross, Nobuko Anan, Shigeru Matsui, Henriku Morisaki, Steven C. Ridgely, Hiroyuki Sasame and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, to reflect on the diverse media blend created by the Japanese poet, photographer and film-maker, whose stated profession was always ‘Terayama Shûji’.

Terayama not only spoke, but also graffitied his poems onto the walls of Shinjuku and, most memorably, chalked them onto a football pitch, only for the letters to disappear into dust when trampled on by teens. In A Tale of Smallpox (1975) and Les Chants de Maldoror (1977), words are written onto the -image to obstruct our view. If words were indeed his best friends, Terayama certainly found a way to mess around with them, with his art as his playground.

Just as he forced his words to escape from the pages, Terayama saw the confines of the proscenium arch and the cinematic screen as limitations to overcome. In Pastoral: Hide and Seek (1974) and his play Inugami (1969), the walls of the sets collapsed to reveal their artificiality, as if he wanted the cinema, as well as the theatre, to burst out of their illusionary space and invade the streets. For the TV film American, Who Are You? (1967), made for TBS, and screened outside of Japan for the first time as part of the Tate’s programme, unsuspecting passers-by were suddenly confronted with a list of questions, thereby mutating a film shoot into a performance-art ‘happening’, then in counter-cultural vogue. In projections of Laura (1974), performer Morisaki Henriku literally jumped into the screen and appeared as an image. In screenings of The Trial (1975), performers and audiences hammered nails into the screen, most infamously at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1984. Terayama’s cinema refused to stay static, and was never at home when simply projected. It’ll be exciting to see whether his screen experiments, always interrupted by words or actors, still hold any relevance for us today.

Close-Up members get concession discount at the Terayama season. More details on the Close-Up website.

Julian Ross

Barbara Hammer: Bolex Dyke

Available Space, 1979, at ASpace, Toronto - Barbara Hammer with rotary projector

Format: Cinema

Title: Barbara Hammer: The Fearless Frame

Dates: 3-26 February 2012

Venues: Tate Modern, London

Tate Modern website

Barbara Hammer website

Selina Robertson is one half of female-focused programming team Club des Femmes. She interviewed American filmmaker Barbara Hammer at the Berlinale in February 2009.

‘I love personal attention,’ says Barbara Hammer, the charismatic doyenne of lesbian experimental filmmaking. ‘That’s probably why I’m a filmmaker,’ she adds. Attention is not something this extremely energetic and inspirational 72-year-old woman has ever been short of, especially in recent years. This February, the focus comes to London with a major retrospective of her work at Tate Modern, entitled Barbara Hammer: The Fearless Frame.

The show marks the culmination of a remarkably creative and inspiring three years that began with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2009. That year, her digital video exploring the experience, A Horse Is Not a Metaphor (2009), won the prestigious Teddy Award for Best Short Film at the Berlin Film Festival. The video saw Hammer return to using film’s materiality, after at least a decade of making documentaries, to deal with her recent diagnosis. It is a deeply layered, intimate visual essay, reminiscent of Malcolm Le Grice’s structuralist film, Berlin Horse (1970). Hammer explains: ‘It is an emotional story: a document of my personal inner experiences of going through very strong chemotherapy and surviving, and then thriving, and even thriving with hope as I go through it’.

The film, and her experience, augured an aesthetic turn that has propelled her work into prestigious galleries. Three weeks after Berlin, she was showing off her award (which she described as ‘cute’) while presenting Horse and another new film, Diving Women of Jeju-do, to a 400-strong audience at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a month-long retrospective. This has also allowed her to bring her stories and unique style of presentation to a whole new generation. ‘I received a standing ovation,’ she says of her MOMA moment. ‘I got to walk up and down the aisle with a roving microphone answering questions! There is nothing I like more than responding spontaneously while standing and walking!’ This is classic Hammer and recalls when she was invited by Club des Femmes to the BFI Southbank in London in 2008 to present her new documentary on Claude Cahun, Love Other. After the screening she impishly acted out the ‘lesbian gaze’ to an ecstatic audience; in this way she always seems to leave a piece of herself in the room.

In tandem with her Big Apple retrospective, her highly successful memoir, published by The Feminist Press, has revealed to readers the world over a lot more about Barbara Hammer and her notorious sex life. The title tells it like it is: Hammer! Making Movies out of Sex and Life (it was Hammer who added ‘and Life’). It begins with a 50-page erotic novel she wrote in the 1970s in a log cabin in the woods outside San Francisco. She says it’s so dirty that she couldn’t even show it to her current partner. ‘It catches the spirit of the time,’ she laughs cheekily.

Born in Hollywood in 1939, but a New Yorker ‘by choice’, she came to filmmaking in her 30s, surprisingly late considering her staggering output, after taking a film history class and watching early avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). She recounts: ‘I was sitting with two feminist friends and finally Meshes of the Afternoon was projected. It was so different from the cinema I had seen that I was convinced, for those 15 minutes, that there was a women’s cinema that had not been told, and there was a blank screen, and this was where I could step in.’

With some 90 films and videos under her belt (she claims she has stopped counting), and a big heap of self-belief – ‘my mother thought I was great and that was all it took’ – Hammer has been unbelievably prolific. Always avant-garde in structure, her films have dealt with such topics as lesbian love, eroticism, age, women’s spirituality, radical feminist politics, lesbian and gay history, art and politics, feminism and technology, her own Ukrainian history and so much more. Her most famous work is the ground-breaking ‘dykes prancing around a field naked’ movie Dyketactics (1974), which is widely acknowledged as the first film to express lesbian sexuality on screen.

Following on from this, Hammer directed a whole host of films about lesbian sexuality – personal favourites include Double Strength (1978), Women I Love (1979) and Multiple Orgasm (1976). Her trilogy of documentary film essays on lesbian and gay history – Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fiction (1995) and History Lessons (2000) – received numerous awards and was given an international theatrical release. Nitrate Kisses famously broke the taboo on lesbian sexual desire by showing two older women making love as well as images of bondage, piercing and SM. The early 2000s saw Hammer draw on the politics of resistance in World War II, with Resisting Paradise (2003) and Love Other (2006).

Getting her life and work in order, partly because of her cancer and partly because of the book and retrospective, seems to have been very cathartic for Hammer, but it has thrown a few surprises her way. She has found some ‘orphans’: films that she has uncovered in her archive that have never been projected or seen the light of day. One in particular captures the imagination: in 1975 she drove to Guatemala – ‘on my 750cc white BMW motorcycle with my 16mm Bolex strapped on the back luggage rack’ – where she shot a local market place full of indigenous women. She wants to return to the same village and reshoot the film in the same locations. Sounds great, especially if that white BMW bike is dug up too. Apparently, there are more ‘orphans waiting to be embraced’, presenting an incredibly exciting opportunity for Hammer, and her audience, to consider this new work in her canon.

Jump to present day: Tate Modern’s important, month-long retrospective of Hammer’s work will be launched with the UK premiere of 2011’s Teddy Award-winning short film, Maya Deren’s Sink (2011), a tribute to Deren’s long-standing influence on the artist. Deren has frequently been cited by Hammer as her film mentor; similarly Hammer has become, over the years, a huge mentor to many women. She is of the ‘let’s get organised’ 70s women’s-lib generation, and because of this, feels like a breath of fresh air every time she enters a room. Animated, flirtatious and always curious, she is currently mentoring a young ‘pierced, tattooed, shaven-headed’ filmmaker, who is hand-processing a 16mm film that they have just made together called Generations – 2 Bolex Dykes.

The Tate retrospective will include screenings of early, rarely seen Super-8 films; her central body of film work; special events featuring artists and speakers from across Europe and North America; and, surely, the highlight, a free, live performance in the Turbine Hall. It will hopefully be a reprise of the outstanding event that saw Hammer literally shine at the 2009 Berlinale, where she performed an expanded, early cinema piece from 1979 called Available Space at the Hamburger Bahnhof, re-naming it The Changing Space of Film: Available Space and Bent Time.

It was interesting for a younger audience to see her in this new (but early career) context, and it was certainly clear that Hammer was in her element pushing around a 16mm projector on a trolley, while dressed in a reflective silver suit. ‘I was a performance artist when I became a filmmaker,’ she explains. ‘I was doing performance in Berkeley in a team, we called ourselves Double Strength. We performed on trapezes and often in the nude; we didn’t think that a costume could show what we were about, so much of which was the physical body.’

It is this physicality that is at the heart of Hammer’s practice – her lesbian aesthetic, as she calls it. ‘The development of touch and sight as my aesthetic, which comes from physically touching a woman whose body is similar to your own, reinforcing your sense of touch, made my cinema haptic, kinetic, sensational in the Jungian use of the word “sensae”, as a form of intelligence. I think that is what I have developed the most in my life, a physical ability to project a sense of touch on the screen.’

Hammer’s own connection with her lesbian sexuality happened around the same time as she started making films, and she put many of her partners in her work. ‘Sex with a woman changed my life,’ she states. ‘Making love with a woman directly influenced my filmmaking. My cinema followed with a desire to make the audience feel their bodies as they watched my films.’ As to what’s in store for Hammer in the years ahead, her cancer in remission, she says she wants to take up gardening, and draws on the example of avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka, who teaches cooking in his film classes. ‘Why? Because you don’t have to have cancer to know that life is so rich and has so much to offer, and to spend all your time in the dark room looking at the screen is taking away from the vibrancy of the growing life, and the sun, and the rains, and the seasons. This incredible global world and the people who inhabit it, that is so different culturally. Why stick to a one-screen studio?’

Hammer! Making Movies out of Sex and Life is available from the Feminist Press.

Selina Robertson & Jonathan Keane

Shinjuku in London

The Desert Archipelago (Katsu Kanai)

Theatre Scorpio: Japanese Independent and Experimental Cinema of the 1960s

12-31 July 2011

Close-Up Film Club

Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London

Close-Up website

Shinjuku Diaries: Films from the Art Theatre Guild of Japan

1-31 August 2011

BFI Southbank, London

BFI website

The Art Theatre Guild of Japan: Spaces for Intercultural and Intermedial Cinema

Two-day symposium

30-31 August 2011

Birkbeck College, London

The 40th anniversary of the events of 1968 was marked in 2008 by a resurgence of interest in the phenomenon and, ever since, there has been a wave of activities across the world that have celebrated the peaks of creativity and political activism that flourished in the surrounding years. 1968 was not just an event situated in the West, but parallel equivalents emerged simultaneously in many corners of the globe, Japan being no exception. What differentiated Japan’s 1968 was that it was situated in the wake of a failed revolution against ‘Anpo’, the renewal in 1960 of the US-Japan security treaty, which was vehemently opposed by the Japanese populace. For the Japanese, the 1960s were a decade that was defined by disenchantment and by a reinvigorated and necessary urge to focus on the issue in preparation for the treaty’s next renewal in 1970. The artists of this generation, many of whom grew up in a Japan devastated by the war, acted on their impulse to use artistic expression to contribute to the climate of social protest and avant-garde activity.

The screenings organised in London in the coming months, namely Close-Up Film Centre’s July season, Theatre Scorpio: Japanese Independent and Experimental Cinema of the 1960s, and the BFI Southbank’s August season, Shinjuku Diaries: Films from the Art Theatre Guild of Japan, demonstrate the best of Japanese independent cinema in the age of cultural and political revolution.

The programmes have been put together to counter the traditional auteur-driven notion of cultural productivity. Instead, they focus on the era’s creative spirit, which permeated the arts community. Close-Up’s Studies in Movement: Experiments by Three Filmmakers programme will screen Hausu director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s early shorts and New Wave titan Nagisa Ôshima’s photo-collage film Yunbogi’s Diary alongside collaborative experiments by a student collective, the young filmmakers of Nihon University Film Studies Club. The programmes intend to dismantle the boundaries that have been set up between experimental cinema and narrative features to prove the two modes of expression and their practitioners continuously infiltrated one another. Katsu Kanai, who will be visiting the UK for the first time to introduce his Smiling Milky Way Trilogy, was one of the key filmmakers of the period. He was able to merge fiction and reality, narrative and visual poetry, in a way that revelled in a joyous desire for experimentation. A nun with a machine gun and a man giving birth to his doppelgä;nger from his wounded back are just two out of many images that you will never forget.

Masao Adachi’s Galaxy, screening with English subtitles for the first time, is a masterpiece of surrealist filmmaking, where a sense of narrative melts into the protagonist’s subconscious. The inaugural film at the Theatre Scorpio, an underground art space where dance, theatre and screenings took place, Galaxy was instrumental in launching Adachi’s career as a scriptwriter and pink director. This is where he met his long-term collaborator, KÔji Wakamatsu, who walked past the venue in awe at the queues around the corner, and immediately got in touch with Adachi. The venue quickly became a focal point for all corners of the art scene and a space where artists shared ideas and established collaborations. Close-Up’s film programme is in celebration of this influential theatre, its name given by Yukio Mishima in tribute to Kenneth Anger‘s Scorpio Rising.

Located above Theatre Scorpio was the Art Theatre Shinjuku Bunka, the centrepiece cinema for the Art Theatre Guild, where a range of foreign art-house films, by directors from Glauber Rocha to Satyajit Ray, and from the Polish New Wave to world cinema classics, were screened to large crowds. One of ten ATG cinemas that were established across the country in 1962, the venue screened films ATG distributed and, from 1967, local independent films that the organisation helped to finance as co-producers. The space was also used for jazz concerts, rakugo comedy and late-night angura theatre. The BFI season in August showcases the early period of ATG productions with their 13-film programme, which includes films by luminaries of the Japanese New Wave, Nagisa Ôshima, Shûji Terayama (whose films will be screened at Tate Modern in March 2012), Toshio Matsumoto and Masahiro Shinoda, alongside prominent titles by lesser-known directors such as Kazuo Kuroki, Akio Jissôji and Susumu Hani. ATG continued to support productions until the late 1980s, a later period that is currently placed under the spotlight in a full-scale retrospective at the Maison de la culture du Japon in Paris.

Perhaps due to the interactive nature of the art spaces, where films were placed alongside other arts, the featured titles in the programme have become invaluable records of theatrical happenings and the visual arts scene, as well as testaments to the existence of a participatory environment that unabatedly crossed disciplines. The ATG encouraged prominent playwrights, graphic designers and composers to take part in the production of film: famed graphic designer Kiyoshi Awazu took charge of the art design of Double Suicide; Terayama scripted Inferno of First Love; theatre directors Kunio Shimizu and Jûrô Kara took on film directing; and Tôru Takemitsu, Yasunao Tone, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Takehisa Kosugi (whose work is exhibited at Spitalfield’s Raven Row Gallery until July 17) all provided radically innovative soundtracks for films of the period. The importance of the art spaces will be the focus of a free two-day symposium at Birkbeck College (July 30-31), an event that will include a talk by Katsu Kanai and keynote speeches by curators Go Hirasawa and Roland Domenig, as well as three UK premieres of rare films from the period.

Performance art and live art were documented on film, yet in characteristic approaches that emphasised the director’s personal vision rather than clarity in documentation. The infamous ‘rituals’ performed by Zero Jigen feature in Funeral Parade of Roses and The Deserted Archipelago, and Terayama’s theatre troupe Tenjô Sajiki appear in his feature-length ATG films and Double Suicide. Motoharu Jonouchi, an experimental filmmaker whose work is the subject of an entire programme in the Close-Up season, participated in live art events as a collaborator-filmmaker. His film Hi-Red Centre Shelter Plan, to be screened at Peckham’s Flat Time House as part of South London Art Map’s Last Friday events (July 29th), records the notorious live art event at the Imperial Hotel in which Tokyo avant-garde figures such as Yoko Ono, Tadanori Yokoo, Nam June Paik and a naked Masao Adachi participated. Jonouchi’s butoh dance film, Tatsumi Hijikata, which captures the co-founder of butoh dance’s contorted choreographies frame by frame, will also feature in Close-Up’s programme. Kazuo Ohno is the other leader of butoh and his flamboyant costumes will be displayed in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum this autumn. Both feature in Takahiko Iimura’s Cine-Dance films, screened as part of the BFI’s Essential Experiments strand, together with Yayoi Kusama’s body paintings, which feature in her film Flowers; her work will be the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern in January 2012.

These seasons, brought together especially for UK audiences, testify to and take part in a renewed interest around the world in Japan’s counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. The screenings and events are an exceptional opportunity to encounter these rare works of art, as many of these films are unavailable on home-viewing formats even in Japan. All screenings are accompanied by an introduction by the curators, filmmakers and experts in the field, who will provide a platform for discussion. If you thought 1960s Japan was only about Ôshima, think again; Japan’s avant-garde had many faces, and the screenings will provide vital occasions for an introduction to the exhilarating explosion of creativity that was the post-war Japanese art scene.

Julian Ross

Lewis Klahr’s Prolix Satori


54th BFI London Film Festival

13-28 October 2010, various venues, London

LFF website

The LFF Experimenta strand provided the first opportunity for UK audiences to see collage artist Lewis Klahr’s Prolix Satori series. Composed of mid-century American imagery such as advertising and comic books, Prolix Satori is loosely structured around a repetition of visual motifs and thematic threads: melodramatic cartoon couples, post-war interiors and pop songs are woven into variations on love, loss and death. Prolix Satori is an ongoing series, and the films presented at the LFF ranged from 8 to 23 minutes, the shorter ones being part of a sub-series, ‘The Couplets’. The Couplets explore the interaction of image and sound through the repetition of imagery paired with different soundtracks, creating surprising shifts in mood and feeling. Klahr was present at the screening, and the Q&A that followed the films offered fascinating insights into his elaborately constructed work.

As Klahr explained, the starting point for Prolix Satori was False Aging, a film he made in response to the suicide of his friend and fellow experimental filmmaker Mark LaPore (there were other works dedicated to LaPore in the Experimenta programme, by David Gatten and Phil Solomon). The film starts with a quote from Valley of the Dolls, as a woman’s voice talks about the climb up Mount Everest to reach the Valley and the feeling of loneliness during the journey, followed by her desire for new experiences. This segues into the ‘Theme from the Valley of the Dolls’, whose unusual lyrics imbue the first part of the film with feelings of longing, confusion and loss of certainties about one’s self and the world. The song colours our perception of the imagery, which includes quaint, flowery wallpaper patterns, a yellow bird cut from another wallpaper and coins – maybe small mementoes of home – as well as intimations of a journey: a cut-up globe, markings on a road, a suitcase and a car.

The next section, introduced by the label ‘Poison’, sees a cartoon couple, a bike, locks, doors, a medical diagram of a human torso and a chart for endowments at age 30 accompanied by Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Lather’, the lyrics of which revolve around ageing – more specifically turning 30.

The final section is constructed around a number of substitutions, using extracts from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, in which Cale quotes from Andy Warhol’s diary, voicing what Warhol once said about him: ‘What does it mean when you give up drinking and you’re still so mean?’ The recounting of a nightmare on a snowy night and quotes such as ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I died in this dream?’, ‘I’m so scared today’ and the final ‘Nobody called’ transpose the poignant sense of anxiety, bitterness and loneliness of Warhol’s diaries on to a cartoon blond man looking at an American cityscape. That character is Illya Kuryakin, from the Man from U.N.C.L.E comic, and this is another substitution: Kuryakin stands in for LaPore, as Klahr explained during the Q&A, ‘because he was a handsome man’ (the comic representation of the character is also a substitute for the actor David McCallum).

Klahr commented that False Aging initiated a new way of working with lyrics and images, with motifs that recur throughout Prolix Sartori; for instance, a caterpillar seen crawling in some of the earlier films finally turns into a butterfly before getting captured and killed in Lethe.

Lethe stood out from the selection not only for being longer at 23 minutes, but also for being more narrative than Klahr’s other films. Evoking the feel of classic Hollywood melodramas, this tale of doomed love in a sci-fi setting was fashioned out of 1960s Doctor Solar comics. The original comic centres on the impossible love story between the radioactive Doctor Solar and his blonde assistant. They also work with an older scientist, and the physical similarity between him and Doctor Solar prompted Klahr to twist the story line so that in Lethe, Doctor Solar becomes younger through the experiments they conduct. Doctor Solar’s transformation continues until he becomes pure energy and his lover has to shoot him, a scene that segues into her shooting at an eclipse, in one of the most poetic moments of the film.

The cold modernist décor and the recurrence of a strange clock throughout the film, with odd symbols indicating time, create an otherworldly atmosphere and the impression that we are in some sort of parallel world. After another scene replays the traumatic moment when the blonde woman shoots Solar (this time he has turned into a hairy monster) and then puts the gun to her head, she is seen driving around, lost. A police officer asks her, ‘Where did you cross over?’ reminding us of the underworld river evoked in the title. She then crashes the car and the strange clock goes backwards. Both she and Doctor Solar go through several deaths, as if the moment of death was constantly replayed, maybe to make sense of it, so that they finally realise they have been dead all along.

Lethe is set to a Gustav Mahler symphony, which guided the composition of the narrative through its dramatic moments; Klahr called these ‘peak moments’, to which he felt he had to respond. The filmmaker chose Mahler because the symphony reminded him of the score to Vincente Minelli’s melodrama’s The Bad and the Beautiful. This is another instance of the substitution process that seems so central to the construction of Klahr’s work, as well as of the use of music as a structuring device.

The Couplets use substitution in a different way. Nimbus Smile, loosely centred around the thematic motif introduced by the speech balloon, ‘I haven’t been sleeping too well lately’ (which recurs in Lethe), sets imagery of comic characters, a man and a woman, to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’. Interestingly, the film didn’t seem to work initially, because all the emotion just came from the song, rather than the imagery. This was followed by Nimbus Seeds, which sets the same imagery to rain fall and other sound effects. This completely changed the perception of the images, removing the pop video aspect of the previous film and making the visuals more mysterious and evocative. The third Couplet, Cumulonimbus, uses the same soundtrack as Nimbus Seeds, but with different imagery. Wednesday Morning Two A.M. uses this substitution device within the same film, the Shangri-Las’ ‘I’ll Never Learn’ initially accompanying cut-ups of 60s comic images of a couple, before it is repeated to score images of pure colour and abstract patterns. Across the Couplets, the variations of visual and aural motifs wove a remarkably evocative, intricate fabric that suggested a complicated web of thematic, formal and romantic interconnections.

Prolix Satori was one of the highlights of LFF, not just in the Experimenta section, but across the whole festival. It was great to see the NFT cinema packed with curious film-goers with appetites for unconventional, adventurous, poetic filmmaking. They were rewarded with a particularly rich and memorable experience that was augmented by Klahr’s engaging presence.

Virginie Sélavy