Animated Visions: Exploring Lewis Klahr’s Masterpiece Sixty Six

By Jeff Jackson

New Frequencies at McColl Center is proud to screen the new feature film Sixty Six by Lewis Klahr, “one of the most original artists of his generation” according to the New York Film Festival, on Friday, October 14, 2016 at 8 PM. A milestone achievement and fresh off its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art, Sixty Six is the culmination of Klahr’s work in animated collage filmmaking. The 90-minute film contains 12 short tales of sunshine noir and classic Greek mythology, inhabited by comic book superheroes and European pinups who wander through midcentury modernist photographs. 

Lewis Klahr

Here are 10 things to know about this multifaceted masterpiece:  

Sixty Six is one of the finest cinematic achievements of the year and a terrific introduction to Mr. Klahr’s work. He deserves a wider audience. At once accessible and ambiguous, his work draws deeply from the collective narrative storehouse – from the myths of ancient Greece to those created by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and DC Comics – which he merges with images of midcentury modern interiors, poignantly generic women and bland men who, with their corrugated brows and clenched fists, struggle with villainy and masculinity both. There’s a great deal of heart in this work and not a trace of condescension.” - Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

Lewis Klahr thinks of himself as a “re-animator” instead of a traditional animator. He breathes new life into pop culture ephemera, everything from figures cut from comic books, magazines, and advertisements, to bric-a-brac like marbles, buttons, and calendars. These items don’t just move around the screen; they often take on surprising new attributes. 

Klahr calls his work “stop-motion collage.” Many of the still frames of Sixty Six could work as ravishing and inventive standalone works of collage that could be displayed in a gallery. They’re artworks unto themselves. 

Sixty Six is broken into 12 episodes. While some characters and themes reoccur, each chapter generally has its own particular style. They may reference Hollywood melodramas or film noirs, or feature poetic and prophetic voiceovers or repurpose audio from films. Some verge into abstraction while others are anchored by stunning photographic backgrounds. 

Several episodes involve dazzling superimpositions of superhero comics, showcasing a battle between two Flashes, one from the Golden Age of comics and the other from the later Silver Age. It’s a kinetic and kaleidoscopic reverie full of punches, explosions, and narrow escapes. 

The music of Sixty Six continually morphs between swooning soundtracks associated with Hollywood tearjerkers, eerie soundscapes, and jazzy interludes. There’s even a Leonard Cohen song and backwards versions of several ‘60s pop hits. “Music is always a big part of my films,” Klahr said in a recent Cinemascope interview. “For me it’s another collage element. I want the viewer to hear the music I include the way I’m hearing it; the way the imagery is modifying it. This is often different than the way one would normally listen to or hear this music.” 

An image from “Sixty Six” by Lewis Klahr. (Lewis Klahr, via Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Klahr’s film evokes many moods, including surreal humor and sinister undertones. But the mood he’s most drawn to is melancholy. “Melancholy is a very deep kind of reverie that contains pain, sweetness, and eternity,” he said. “I enjoy being in that state. Melancholy too often gets described as only containing sadness and loss, but there’s a huge amount of ecstasy in there as well, that for some reason doesn’t get talked about.”

Sixty Six marries Greek mythology with ’60s imagery.  This was partly inspired by Klahr’s reading of Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths. “There would be these half-page descriptions of the actual myths,” he said, “followed by pages of footnotes explaining what was buried inside these stories. They were incredibly compressed. I remember one footnote that described a single line as signifying the moment when the patriarchy took over from the matriarchy. And I just thought, ‘Wow, such a huge change represented by just one line?’ That seemed wildly and ecstatically poetic. Compression has always struck me as a vital element of narrative and history – what gets selected and how it’s selected. So that’s some of what I’m evoking here in Sixty Six.” 

Lewis Klahr has been making films since 1977. He’s known for his uniquely idiosyncratic experimental films and cutout animations which have been screened extensively in the United States and Europe. His work has been shown at prestigious venues worldwide ranging from the Whitney Biennial, New York Film Festival, and Toronto International Film Festival. He’s won numerous awards and grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and National Society of Film Critics special citation.  

Sixty Six opens with an epigraph from Paul Eluard and André Breton: “Let the dreams you have forgotten equal the value of what you do not know.” It’s been described as both a fever dream of 1960s Pop and an archaeology of the American unconscious. Instead of delivering a straight narrative, the film offers suggestive gestures and charged tableaus. Situations constantly morph and shift. Viewers are invited to enter this hypnotic world alongside with the filmmaker. As Dargis writes in The New York Times: “Mr. Klahr knows that in the end we are in this dream together.” 

New Frequencies at McColl Center presents Lewis Klahr’s Sixty Six on Friday, October 14, 2016 from 8 to 9:30 PM. Advance tickets now available.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, and curator of the New Frequencies at McColl Center series.