Imposing Technologies: DAVID E. JAMES ON PAT O'NEILL
James, David E., Artforum International
AMONG THE VARIOUS "LAST" FILMS that have punctuated the transition from celluloid to digital media, Pat O'Neill's The Decay of Fiction (2002) has a singular authority. At once a metanoir and a portrait of Los Angeles's Ambassador Hotel, with its fabled political and showbiz ghosts, it mobilized some of the most sophisticated visual effects ever to hit the screen. In adding many kinds of magick of its own to the tropes of Surrealism and other European modernisms as they had been reconstructed in the traditions of US avant-garde cinema, The Decay of Fiction epitomized the narrow possibilities for avant-garde film at the turn of the millennium and summarized the multiple forms of its dialogue with the medium's industrial use. But as the summa of O'Neill's nearly fifty years of innovation in both experimental and commercial filmmaking, it found itself in a historical cul-de-sac. Over the decade leading up to the film's release, special effects devised by generations of industry workers and especially Linwood G. Dunn's techniques of optical printing had been reproduced by digital software programs. The procedures that O'Neill had used in a professional career that included work on Star Wars (whose success in 1977 inspired the revival of special effects in Hollywood) and which he had also turned to a uniquely personal avant-garde expressivity demanded hours of tedious manual labor; now they could be performed overnight on Final Cut Pro, and once-prized optical printers were stacked on pallets for the wreckers. O'Neill's two newest chamber works--Horizontal Boundaries (2008) and Starting to Go Bad (2009), which receive their world premieres at redcat in Los Angeles on May 10--reflect his encounter with this crisis.
More severe and hermetic than any of his previous films, the twenty-three-minute Horizontal Boundaries is composed from footage of Southern California landscapes: the beach, the desert, the Southern Sierra, and Los Angeles city streets and industrial suburbs. Some shots are stationary, some mobilized by long lateral pans, and some generated by computerized geometric camera movements of the kind that, inspired by Michael Snow's La Region Centrale (1971), O'Neill made his own in The Decay of Fiction and in his earlier feature-length 35-mm work, Water and Power (1989). Superimposed up to three deep or flipped into negative or drained of color almost to the point of appearing monochrome, the layers slip separately as if each were on a television with a faulty vertical hold, foregrounding the frame lines as a purely formal or abstract syncopation. Roughly in the middle of the film, super-impositions of more disparate imagery are introduced: a gorgeously colored industrial complex, a rising theatrical curtain, drawn animation of a person speaking on a telephone, and an extremely slow zoom into an abandoned house, backed by the shadowy silhouettes of downtown LA. None of these opens into the interludes of sunshine or narrative that buoyed the two features; and despite an Irish jig played by longtime collaborator George Lockwood on fiddle, the accusatory tones of Dragnet's Sergeant Friday in the sound-track collage augment the visuals' obscure ominousness, as if to suggest that the interpenetrating scenes of wilderness and urbanity somehow trace an awful historical crime.
Made up of 35-mm footage shot in locations similar to those used in Water and Power, Horizontal Boundaries stands as a retrospective coda to the two features and as a glance back at the summary achievements of O'Neill's engagement with film and optical printing. Starting to Go Bad is a compilation of three short works from 2009, I Open the Window, Starting to Go Bad, and I Put Out My Hands; shot and composed entirely on digital video, they are not dependent on one another but are nevertheless designed to be seen in a specific sequence.
Though O'Neill has been producing digitally composed, large-scale ink-jet still photographs since the mid-1990s, the digital moving-image works indicate a new direction in his technological reorientation. …