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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
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Experimental films at EMPAC

I’m not too familiar with the work of performance artist/musician Laurie Anderson, but friends who are rave about her. Curious to learn more, I headed off to the Experimental Media Performing Arts Center in Troy last Thursday to see Anderson present a handful of experimental films — two of her own films, and two films by filmmaker Ken Jacobs.

Anderson is EMPAC’s first-ever distinguished-artist-in-residence, and in this interview on All Over Albany you can read what she has to say about that. On Thursday, Anderson showed “Hidden Inside Mountains,” a 25-minute experimental film she made in 2005, and a clip from her 1986 concert documentary “Home of the Brave.” Commissioned for Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, “Hidden Inside Mountains” has the feel of a collage, combining nature imagery, offbeat architectural spaces and dreamlike pictures, along with odd sounds and music. This film was OK, perfectly pleasant to watch and listen to, but I wasn’t exactly blown away. More intriguing to me was the clip from “Home of the Brave,” which made me wish the film was available on DVD so I could watch the whole thing and get a better sense of exactly what Anderson was up to in the 1980s. From what I saw of the film, “Home of the Brave” is a concert documentary in the same mold as the classic Talking Heads concert documentary “Stop Making Sense,” except weirder.

Next up were the two films by Ken Jacobs. I’ve been wanting to see his work for a while, but there aren’t that many venues that show short experimental films, and a lot of his work doesn’t appear to be on DVD, although some of it is. An equipment SNAFU delayed this portion of the show, which was unfortunate, but there was a silver lining: experimental musician Pauline Oliveros performed on accordion while Anderson attempted to get her computer back in working order, and she was awesome! Oliveros, I’ve since learned, is a leading figure in post-war electronic art music (who knew there was such a thing), and is highly regarded for her sonic explorations, which I’m hard pressed to describe. It was meditative and peaceful, but contained bizarre segues and sounds. So you could easily fall asleep to it, but it would also make for calming background music, which I’m desperately in need of.

Anyway, Anderson and Oliveros accompanied the Jacobs’ films, and Jacobs stole the show, even though he wasn’t present. His second film, “A Loft,” was amazing — an abstract tour of his New York City loft, defined by unusual camera angles, an emphasis on color and light and the piles of books and film equipment that fill up the space. (I think this loft plays a crucial role in the excellent 2008 film “Momma’s Man,” directed by Jacobs’ son Azazel Jacobs.)

Experimental film is not for everyone, and it’s something I’ve become more interested in lately. Given my fondness for narrative and story, experimental film doesn’t exactly seem like my cup of tea, but I’ve now watched a handful of films that I’ve found impressive, mainly because their unorthodox imagery and beauty has kept me engaged and eager to see more. I happened to watch a 2006 documentary about the seminal experimental filmmaker Marie Menken, “Notes on Marie Menken,” shortly before the Anderson program, which served as a decent primer on a very specific facet of experimental filmmaking.

Menken was a big influence on experimental filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol; she was married to the experimental poet and filmmaker Willard Maas. (The couple actually inspired the bickering husband and wife played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the film adaptations of the Edward Albee play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) Menken’s short films, which are excerpted in the documentary and available as extras on the “Notes on Marie Menken” disc, are pretty amazing: explosions of light, color and motion. One film, “Glimpse of the Garden” from 1957, is a stunning, vibrant tour of a flower garden in full bloom.

From Menken, it isn’t hard to chart a path to contemporary experimental filmmakers such as Jacobs and Anderson. The documentary, and the Anderson program, have inspired me to learn more about experimental filmmaking and what it has to offer.

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