Saturday, August 17, 2013

Has-Been History: The Impossible Call and Response of Lewis Klahr's "Candy's 16!" (1984)

by James Hansen

This is the text from a paper presented at the 2012 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston, Massachusetts. It remains a work in progress.

A girl named Candy sits alone at her 16th birthday party. A pop record plays quietly in the background. It starts to skip. An untouched birthday cake rests on a table in front of her. Sixteen candles remain unlit. There is no need to light them. For Candy, they are already extinguished. Her friends didn’t come to her celebration. In fact, they couldn’t come. It turns out this party wasn’t today or yesterday. It was years ago. But, for Candy, it is tomorrow. It is always tomorrow. She awaits an event – a future – which will never come, although perhaps it already has. Instead, she lingers in a present moment, hermeneutically sealed off from the yesterday of her adolescence and the tomorrow of her adulthood. She isn’t on a precipice – she is locked in it. As such, she becomes a forgotten figure in her own world. A has-been in her own being. 

This is a vision extrapolated from Lewis Klahr’s 1984 short film Candy’s 16!, part of his “Picture Books For Adults” series (1983-1985). In this series, Klahr gestures toward history as both static and moving. Constructed of eight 8mm short films, Klahr uses a variety of techniques – found footage, splicing, as well as his well known cutout animation style – and creates collages from ephemeral, cultural fragments – home movies, comic books, advertisements, and pop music. with a career and signals many of the concerns of which he continues to work through – history, memory, and the recent past. Stripping objects from their specific contexts, Klahr’s films reference the outmodedness of their objects through a self-referential temporal lag – that is, they are lapsed historical objects. The objects and images enter into dialogic communication allowing them to intersect both historically and aesthetically; his films display a process of an ongoing, irresolvable dialectical history: a history of the present’s past and the past’s presence – or, as Klahr himself says, his films illustrate “the pastness of the present.” 

This paper will examine Candy’s 16! as a model of what I am calling, following Walter Benjamin, “Has-Been history” – a conception of history understood through outmoded, forgotten objects and commodities. For Klahr, objects are “has-beens” lying dormant in historical ruins waiting to be revived. The stakes of this revival is central to this paper and Klahr’s work in general. Klahr has become well-known for his cutout animation techniques, yet Candy’s 16! is a more traditional found footage film. This may make it a somewhat odd choice for extended analysis. However, I argue Klahr’s approach, even in the early stages of his career, indicates the mission of has-been history  – the purpose is not to pace an object historically, but rather to uncover the irresolvable tensions between the historical context and the cultural moment in which materials are extended. Candy’s 16! operates as a transhistorical exchange in which the images of has-been history are revealed as irretrievably fractured. Klahr grants them new visibility only to have them quickly evaporate and remain unrealized. Candy’s 16! questions how personal materials, cultural memory, and the audience negotiate such a schism. Is this all an introduction or a farewell? As Candy awaits her party, celebrating her passage from adolescence to adulthood, Klahr indicates that has-been history can be called, but it cannot respond. History reverberates. Klahr’s films gesture toward its incommensurable aftershocks.

As we have seen, Candy’s 16! begins innocently enough. After a title card written with chalk on a crinkled piece of black construction paper, it cuts to the image of a record with the title “Countdown Sixteen Featuring Candee Weinstein.” This record provides the soundtrack for the film’s brief running time. The sound starts to play even before the record spins. The audio quality is fuzzy. There is a heavy presence of static. As a man begins to sing, it cuts to black-and-white footage of the interior of a space ship. A large subtitle appears, reading “Approaching Venus” captain. As a group of girls sings Candee’s name, the image pans right revealing the exterior of the spaceship – a world up in smoke. Candee’s voice is heard. As she counts in the form of “new math,” more images are seen which will recur throughout the film – the interior of a car, the exterior of spaceships awaiting take off, [IMAGE 6] an animated suburban neighborhood, perhaps a school, a group of adolescent boys, and various images of collapsing structures. Immediately, Candee’s anxious anticipation is met with a pile of ruins. As the ship takes off, things are already falling apart. 

Klahr then cuts back to the cartoon, which we may recognize as a Spiderman cartoon. A teenager reads notes in a chemistry lab. The subtitle reads “I’ve got to test myself and find out the extend of my power.” Then, an image of outer space reads “Turning mass into matter” before it quickly cuts back to the boy with the title “I feel so strange.” He holds a spider and then begins flexing his right hand. Meanwhile, Candee tells us that this is a personal invitation, a limited edition record, pressed for to attend her Sweet 16 and Confirmation dinner dance. Her invitation continues to play out over several series of images. The astronauts explores the ruins of a forgotten city. A group of girls is seen waving at a camera – perhaps an image of the party to come. However, this is met with equal danger. A woman recalls being attacked by two men before urging the group to “Be careful.” The Spiderman character wanders the streets pondering what has happened to him. Eventually, he is in the street and a driver fails to see him. Unable to utilize his superhero powers, he is hit by a car. A police car, flashing its red light, parks on the sidewalk at the scene of the crime. And, in the distance, a phone rings and rings, but no one answers. Candee thanks us for calling and the film ends.

Thus, the viewer is provided a unique experience of history and aesthetics which pierces time and space. Placed in conjunction with one another, Candy’s 16! establishes a mode of fracture. In the film’s narrative, we hear Candy engaging the audience with an invitation to her birthday party with the promise of “a really good time.” However, in the images, we find a dangerous sense of collapse. The teen character, as he attempts to understand his new, strange power, is hit by a car. His life is taken from him, just as a new potentiality seemed to open before him. He was not the super hero he could have been, but is instead derailed by a purposeless accident. He won’t be attending Candee’s birthday party, nor, as in the film’s final images, graduating to his next stage of life. The sound of the ringing phone at the end of the film suggests a definitive unreachability. The final images, seen in silence, become not a ceremonious occasion, but instead a mournful, distant image of unrealized potential. Both adolescents – the male figure of the images and the female voice of the soundtrack – are locked away, hidden, and buried in outmoded materials, objects, and fading memories. Candy’s 16!, in a sense, allows them to become present again, but just as quickly reveals that they are always already vanishing into the past. They appear only as “has-beens” – to use the slang term – who surface again, years later, if only for a moment before burning out and disappearing into the far reaches, the outer limits, of time and space.

In a famous passage from The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin outlines the relationship between past and present. Arguing against historicism, Benjamin argues for a dialectical materialism which explodes the continuum of history and proposes a new form of communication between past and present. He writes "It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what it present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words: image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: not temporal in nature but figural."

This passage has been thoroughly emphasized for its provocative suggestion of dialectics at a standstill. While this is still useful to discuss, for my purposes, I want to shift the emphasis to the sentence just after this. It is in this sentence that Benjamin places emphasis on the what-has-been and now – Gewesnen and Jetzt in German – rather than simply “the past” and “the present.” He recognizes the strict temporality of the terms past and present, indicating a passive relationship in which “the past” is a mere historical outline for the present moment. However, in the “what-has-been” lies the potential for reemergence in the now through a unique dialectical process. To use the term “has-been” from a contemporary context in conjunction with the historical, as I am extending it here, does not suggest death but rather latency, not fixity but rather plasticity, not immobility but activity. At the same time, this image of the past is constantly fractured, its objects continually fracturing; or, as Derrida says of the trace, it is “always being erased and always able to be erased.” In this way, the life of a has-been, of becoming a has-been, is one that cannot be fixed or pinpointed, but one that is undergoing constant transformation. Thus, Benjamin’s movement from the past to the present to the what-has-been and the now infers not only a from the temporal to the figural, but also a move from the historically fixed image to gestural image – a gesture that, as Giorgio Agamben explains, “is a communication of communicability.” It speaks to its ability to communicate, or, in the case of Candy’s 16!, the motion of historical communication. By refiguring these terms as what-has-been and now, Benjamin frees the past and the present from their resolute temporality, in which dialectical operation is impossible, and allows them, through the what-has-been and the now, to enter into a mode of dialectical historicism.

For Klahr, while keeping in mind the gestural, it is equally important to note the importance of quotation.  Using found footage in Candy’s 16!, Klahr places himself in the model of quotation (or appropriation) which predominates the majority of his work. However, this process is not simple quotation as attribution, but quite the opposite. Specifically, in utilizing unknown footage, or, at least, placing the media works far from their context, Klahr alienates source from context and, in so doing, highlights the dormant quality of historical objects as always lying in wait, waiting to be used, waiting, once again, to function. In a famous passage from his essay “One Way Street,” Benjamin writes, “Quotations in my work are like wayside robbers who leap out, armed, and relieve the idle stroller of his conviction.” The quotation is a piece of history torn from an historical moment and placed in the now. For Benjamin, quotation is not a means of reconfiguring history, but rather destroying its context and blowing up the continuum. Agamben explains, “Alienating by force a fragment of the past from its historical context, the quotation at once makes it lose its character of authentic testimony and invests it with an alienating power that constitutes its unmistakable aggressive force.” This “aggressive force” interrupts historical understanding and establishes a modern “alienation value” by destroying “the transmissibility of culture.” He argues the creation of this alienation value (between tradition and the now) has become the preeminent task of modern artists.  He states that aesthetics, by turning intransmissibility into a value, “open[s] for man a space between past and future in which he can found his action and knowledge.” Nevertheless, “what is transmitted in [aesthetic space] is precisely the impossibility of transmission, and its truth is the negation of the truth of its contents.”

Undoubtedly, Klahr is one of these modern artists, if not an apotheosis of sorts. His artistic mode of gesture and quotation make essential the ongoing evaporation of culture and history. However, at the same time, this negation opens up a space for reconfiguration, reconsideration, and points to new possibilities even as it reveals the impossibility of their possibility. Thus, transmission itself is what is understood in Klahr as an impossible. This follows Benjamin’s demand that the historical materialist “dissociate himself from this process of transmission as far as possible.” However, he suggests “only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.” Every moment becomes a citation. It is in this process of citation and quotation that the what-has-been is torn from its context and reverberates with the now in dialectical movement. The quotation of the what-has-been in the now forces the two modes to confront one another and, through a dual process of intransmissibility, the historical continuum evaporates while the moments are allowed to speak to one another as never before. Quotation now occurs without citation. Though it is inherently citable, quotation reverberates in the opened space between the what-has-been and the now. It becomes a process of quotation without quotation marks.

Klahr quotes not only characters and media through the film, but he implicitly cites a moment of ephemerality through his late use of 8-mm film. The “Picture Books For Adults” series, created between 1983 and 1985, came about just as videotape was overtaking 8-mm as a medium for recording and watching home movies, not to mention the expansion of the home video market for Hollywood films. Aware of this moment, Klahr uses the ephemerality of Candee’s record to echo the similarly precarious status of not only the medium itself, but he uses this to reflect on the dangers in the film’s narrative world. He captures the very moment when the medium is caught between the has-been and the now – that is, the moment between adolescence and adulthood from which his characters cannot advance.  Stuck in this moment, the narrative of Candy’s 16! and the medium itself is caught in a standstill between use and non-use, transmission and intransmission, the what-has-been and the now. Both technology and mankind are perpetually caught in this reverberating standstill. Candy’s 16! exemplifies this dual nature and stands by as history moves toward an unstable, uncertain goal. The what-has-been navigates the now through a set of lingering catastrophes and endless ruins. Nevertheless, it keeps moving toward its own birthday party – a long awaited day that will never arrive. As such, the contemporary viewer bears witness to the intransmissibility of history.

As the film ends, Candee again asks for RSVP phone calls to her party. Just after this, a phone begins ringing. As the phone rings, two images appear and then repeat: first, a zoom towards the window of an animated suburban home, then,  a static image of the stars in outer space. The phone stops ringing when Candee says, “Thank you for calling.” Finally, there is grainy footage from a graduation ceremony as Candee’s theme song plays and drops from the soundtrack. The image continues for a few seconds before the film ends. 

This provides a fitting conclusion to the unresolved questions of Candy’s 16!’s historical and aesthetic devices. After all, who is Candee speaking to when she says “Thank you for calling?” Has she picked up the phone to answer? Or has she turned it off? Is she speaking to a distant friend and thanking her for an RSVP? Or is she thanking the now-audience for listening to her and what-has-been record? Are Candee’s birthday and the graduation ceremony beginnings or ends? Is this a venture into a suburban home or the far reaches of outer space? Klahr makes all these things present to the audience although Candee’s temporal dating makes it clear these moments and events belong to the has-been. They are recognizable, but, nevertheless, they have no direct, linear source. Candy’s 16! festers in the space between these modes and moments which flashes before present history as a historical constellation of what-never-has-been – a graduation into unrealized potential. This is not just Benjamin’s well known notion of “love at last sight” but, in fact, love before sight – a love which, paradoxically, only occurs after the object, the moment has vanished. Potential is understood before it appears, and, at the moment of its appearance, it loses its potential as such. Through this chaotic, perpetual motion of “has-been history,” Klahr conceptualize the past and the present – “the pastness of the present” – as simultaneously realized and unrealized.

Benjamin notes, “The true image of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again.” Through the flitting image of the what-has-been, Klahr reveals the melancholic impossibility of the has-been truly being seen again. There is always fragmentation. There is always loss. Through “has-been history,” Klahr shows that in the what-has-been lurks the static, buried, unrevealed what-never-has-been. And, for a moment, he lets us see the what-never-has-been for what it could be – what it still can be. Thus, potentiality is found through its own historical unrealization. Alienated from history and tradition, the what-has-been operates recursively – through and against itself – as a self-perpetuating system which negates itself and shows its process of transmission as an impossibility, instead revealing the intransmissable what-never-has-been, the transmission of a potentiality, the image of a past that never occurred.

And then there is Candee. Amidst a pile of ruins, she, always almost 16, sits alone at her birthday party. And, in the far reaches of space, a beyond she will never reach, her phone rings. Do we say hello or goodbye? Thank you for calling. 

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