U.S. pop culture in the postwar era often presented a tidy world. TV moms vacuumed in heels and full skirts. Superman’s hair was always neat and presentable, despite flying around the city faster than a speeding bullet. And media preferred to avoid moral ambiguities.
Collage animator Lewis Klahr draws from mid-twentieth-century pop culture – comics, advertisements, magazines – to create his films. But in the true spirit of collage, Klahr’s repurposed worlds are not tidy. He transforms the idealized homogeneity of his source images into meditations on the vices or cultural anxieties that postwar society attempted to mask.
For example, Klahr’s most famous film, Pony Glass (1998), utilizes imagery from Superman comics and mid-century pornography to depict the sexual experimentation of Jimmy Olsen, who has affairs with both Lois Lane and Perry White. When we watch films like Pony Glass, we can easily distinguish between different types of source material, and the seemingly incongruous juxtaposition of 1950s Superman comics with explicit sexuality is part of the fun. Jimmy Olsen is this traditionally clean-cut, innocent character, and collage is a format that can preserve that clean-cut imagery (by drawing from the classic comic book iteration of that character), but pull it into a new context where Jimmy Olsen is discovering and exploring homosexual feelings.
Much of Klahr’s work is about how we remember the past. His films are both nostalgic for a previous pop culture era, but also suggest that the past wasn’t as wholesome as is sometimes portrayed. He stated in a 2000 interview with the Village Voice that he has a preference for 1950s aesthetics, saying, “Cars, for instance: About 1965 I stopped caring about new cars, I liked the old ones and the new ones all began to look alike.” So, Klahr repeatedly returns to mid-century imagery as the source material for his collage films.
In his latest film, Sixty Six (2015) – screening at the IU Cinema Friday, February 17 as part of the Underground Film Series – Klahr takes Route 66 as his inspiration, and like previous films, draws from 1960s photographs, comics, ads, and magazines. A collage film in more ways than one, Sixty Six is comprised of a series of short films made over a span of 13 years. Within the shorts, mythology meets mid-century Americana to continue Klahr’s longstanding interest in the complexities of cultural memory.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.