Lawrence Jordan’s Road to Utopia
In pursuit of ecstasy, Lawrence Jordan created some of the greatest avant-garde films ever. What are they about? Wrong question. It’s about you watching, and falling into the dream.
Ecstasy is a forlorn quality in contemporary culture. Used to be, poets and composers and painters and even novelists, in and out of various avant-gardes since 1900, pursued ecstasy as an aesthetic principle and as a response (for artists and audience alike) with the heedless, lusty zeal of bees on the rampage in a summer garden. Today our intercourse with the cultural seems all too often to be too mundanely narcissistic, with texts and images engaging only insofar as they distract, or provide easy identification; melodrama in the key of “me.” Art had been the Way Out—the latchkey into Paradise. This was the sensibility seized upon by the Romantics, the Surrealists, the Expressionists, the Abstractionists, the Imagists, the Modernists, the Postmodernists, the French New Wave (and any cabal of writers and artists calling themselves “nouveau”), the Neo-Expressionists, even the Op-Artists. And it was certainly the reigning principle for the rise of the American avant-garde cinema in the ’50s and ’60s, from Maya Deren to Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Harry Smith, and Gregory Markopoulos.
Here was a genuine non-commercial art movement that actively sought out irrational, impressionistic, chaotic, transcendental bliss. The “New American Cinema,” as it has been otherwise called, is notoriously hard to describe or evoke for this reason; workaday film critics have always been stymied by these films, and the well-known texts written by the filmmakers and their acolytes tend to be nutty, myth-drunk, and wildly pretentious.
Figure out what ‘ecstasy’ means to you, however, and you might be halfway there. Lawrence Jordan could be your gateway drug. Nobody’s films come packing so many spontaneous ecstatic moments, in a recognizably and rapturously gorgeous context as Jordan’s.
Figure out what “ecstasy” means to you, however, and you might be halfway there. Lawrence Jordan could be your gateway drug. Nobody’s films come packing so many spontaneous ecstatic moments, in a recognizably and rapturously gorgeous context as Jordan’s. He was called Larry back when the movement was hot, and he experimented with various forms throughout his 55-plus-year career, but his prodigious output has been dominated by collage animation, a style of which he is the undisputed pioneer. His signature trope is the use of images from 18th- and 19th-century engravings, cut up and animated into ballets of semi-subconscious epiphany. Usually scoring his mashups with classical music, Jordan conjures dense, busy, unpredictable worlds cluttered with giant butterflies, automatons, angels, anatomical drawings come to life, Victorian damsels, flying orbs, hyperventilating stars, metaphysical light bursts, sentient balloons, disembodied limbs, phrenology figures, and so on and so on, layering on each other and connecting in physically specific but still mysterious ways, playing out cosmic dramas of unknowable tension before us. Because we never quite understand the laws that rule Jordan’s universe, we are children again, gasping at interpolations and visual explosions that defy our expectations and yet seem to make a particularly beautiful kind of sense.
Look at just one randomly selected flickering moment in Our Lady of the Sphere (1969)—on a dark moonscape, a giant engraved hand arrives from off-screen and casually drops an egg into a dark crater, as if into a waiting mouth—and you’ll see what I mean. Terry Gilliam couldn’t have happened without Jordan, and if you consider Gilliam’s Monty Python cut-out cartoons ingenious, then Jordan’s poetic hurricanes will make you dizzy. (Jordan began working in this mode at about the same time, the mid-50s, as acclaimed Polish animators Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, but because he was essentially a non-narrative filmmaker, he never received the same international accolades or festival play.) The exact manner in which Jordan orchestrates his defibrillating images, times their objects’ patient intercourses, and conceives of their eye-popping relationships is unique to him, integral to his achievement as an artist, and, for all intents and purposes, indescribable. You just have to watch.
Making film since he was an undergrad, Jordan became a major figure in the underground in the mid-’60s, with Duo Concertantes (1964), Hamfat Asfar (1965) and Gymnopédies (1965), and reached a dazzling state of unique fluency with Our Lady of the Sphere, Orb (1973), Once Upon a Time (1974), and his magisterial realization of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1977), which was narrated by Orson Welles and became a public-school English-class lynchpin back in the days when schools rented 16mm prints for classroom use. But his magnum opus is surely Sophie’s Place (1986), a feature-length, fin de siècle fever dream brimming with hundreds of inexplicable ascensions. Just the length, scale, and inventive mass of the movie places it among the greatest full-length avant-garde films ever made. What’s it about? Wrong question. It’s about you watching, and falling into the dream.
The 19th-century antiquarian world most of the films inhabit and evoke is both ravishing in its ancient distance and kitschy in its familiarity.
The particulars of Jordan’s aesthetic aren’t easy to parse—the 19th-century antiquarian world most of the films inhabit and evoke is both ravishing in its ancient distance and kitschy in its familiarity. Some of us are easily and instantly seduced by these textures—their historical sense, their graphic whimsy, their infinite variety, their manifestation of sheer artistic expertise—while some, I’m presuming, might not be. (Artist Norman Rubington, among others, utilized century-old engravings similarly in comics, including a long-running strip in the first 1970s issues of Heavy Metal.) In 1980, Jordan tried to answer the “Why old engravings?” question by in part saying, “They’re good actors, photograph well, and the original artists have paid enough attention to depth-illusion to give me an atmosphere in which to stage my visions.” Which perfectly sums up the graphic strength on hand. Jordan’s beatific combinations are even more confounding and proto-Surrealist—although it should be pointed out that his layers (of giant birds and skulls over vast atriums and Victorian dandies) are fascinating not because the textures contrast but because they meld so seamlessly, creating one moviescape after another where reason and scale are evaporated like foundless worries.
Consider any Jordan film you sit down to like you would to someone else’s daydream—a dictum for moviewatching in general. Jordan has worked with other strategies—personal documentaries like Cornell, 1965 (1979) and Visions of a City (1979), cultural studies like The Sacred Art of Tibet (1972); nudist James Broughton-ish impressionisms like Adagio (1981). But he’s always returned to collaging antique images, and has remained remarkably consistent in his vision. My favorite Jordan, in fact, might be Enid’s Idyll (2004), made when Jordan was 70. Why? Because it represents to me an ur-Jordan-ness, the epitome of the man’s magical touch. Which means, then, an expression of something fundamental and unquantifiable about cinema.