restricted access A Cinematic Alchemy: Lawrence Jordan and the Palimpsest of Cinema
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A Cinematic Alchemy:
Lawrence Jordan and the Palimpsest of Cinema

In thinking of the cross-pollination of poetry and cinema, the work of Lawrence Jordan looms large indeed. Since the beginning of his career in the 1950s, this Bay Area filmmaker has maintained a deep interest in making poetry an important part of his filmic poetics. Jordan's work is distinctive in that poetry and poetics are not just analogues for discussing his films and his sense of structure, useful tropes to draw upon in thinking about the ways meaning is formed within and between the celluloid frames. Poems and poets serve not just as sources of inspiration for Jordan; they act as prominent aspects of his films, constructing conceptual frameworks and narrative centers, and they even provide the focus for the camera's points of view. In this way, poetry is actually part of the work itself. Indeed, the interdependency of poetry and film in Jordan's work presses against the distinctions between these two art forms in such a way that each medium recontextualizes the other. That interconnection—a version of overcoming divisions in thinking and being—points to the ways that Jordan's films reveal an underlying sense that is, at its core, mystical in nature—a sense that the world itself is a shared aesthetic experience and that art reveals the ways we imbue that experience, again and again, with meaning and significance.

There can be little doubt that for the postwar generation of experimental filmmakers, particularly those living on the West Coast, mysticism was a galvanizing force; Jordan, born in 1934, is one of the most important, most productive, and most consistent artists continuing to work in this strain of contemporary American film. In a recent Artforum article discussing Jordan's oeuvre in light of the 2008 release by Facets Video of the Lawrence Jordan Album, a four-disc [End Page 360] selection of many of the filmmaker's most important movies, P. Adams Sitney points out, "The mask of the mystic or magus, a guise once prevalent in the American avant-garde cinema, is now worn by only three remaining filmmakers, all of whom happen to live and work in California: Jordan Belson, Kenneth Anger, and Lawrence Jordan."1 Jordan and these two contemporaries that Sitney names, as well as others of that generation, share with varying degrees of intensity a certain sense, in part inherited from (or at least authorized by) Maya Deren, that cinema's power lies in its ability to present the artist's interior vision in a public way.2 "If cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full-fledged art form," Deren insisted, "it must cease merely to record realities that owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument. Instead, it must create a total experience so much out of the very nature of the instrument so as to be inseparable from its means."3 This "total experience" offers a shared form of revelation and expression.

From the beginning of his career, Jordan's name has been linked most often with Stan Brakhage, and rightfully so. The two first befriended one another in high school in Colorado, and both spent barely a year at Ivy League colleges— Brakhage at Dartmouth, Jordan at Harvard—before deciding to devote their lives to making films. Although perhaps overshadowed at first by Brakhage, who made his mark on cinema relatively quickly and very decisively, the baroque, meticulous intensity of Jordan and his films has established his lasting influence on avant-garde cinema. Continuing to test the possibilities of a visionary cinema, Jordan's work crosses a range of practices. While he is best known for his breathtaking animated movies such as Hamfat Asar (US, 1965), Carabosse (US, 1980), and The Visible Compendium (US, 1991), all of which utilize collage and cutout techniques involving such materials as colored medieval engravings, Victorian-era illustrations, and pop images, Jordan has also made "live-action," nonfiction movies that engage the life of the filmmaker and those he knows. These latter are not exactly diaristic films, despite the fact that they draw from images of daily experiences. These films...