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The Lawrence Jordan Album

The Lawrence Jordan Album
Facets Video
1957-2006 / B&W & Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 465 min. / Street Date May 27, 2008 / 59.95
Directed by Lawrence Jordan

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Lawrence Jordan Album compiles fifty years of film work from a well-known experimental animator who dabbles mainly with "found" graphics. Jordan's personal style imparts fluid movement to collage-like cutouts. Hailed as a master of surrealism, the San Francisco-based artist was a frequent contributor to film festivals. While other animators experimented with new techniques, Jordan stayed with his 16mm film and simple optical printer tricks; his films from 2006 look more or less identical to his work in the 1960s and '70s.

The key to the artist can perhaps be found in his nine-minute piece called Cornell on disc #3. Jordan once worked as a personal assistant to Joseph Cornell, a noted multi-media surrealist known for his boxed assemblages of found objects. Jordan's film records the clutter of Cornell's home studio in Queens, New York; every once in a while we see a glimpse of the old artist puttering around the debris, perhaps looking for inspiration.

Cornell had been an experimental filmmaker as well. His 1936 Rose Hobart chopped a Hollywood feature into pieces and reassembled them in random order. One of Lawrence Jordan's latest short subjects is Blue Skies Beyond the Looking Glass from 2006. He alternates his familiar animation with shots of silent movie stars, backing it all with lively Columbian Cumbias. Jordan seems to be rummaging for inspiration through older styles of art.

Disc One:

Duo Concertantes (1961-1964; 9 min.)
Gymnopédies (1966; 5 min.)
Our Lady of the Sphere (1969; 10 min.)
Orb (1973; 5 min.)
Once Upon a Time (1974; 12 min.)
Moonlight Sonata (1979; 5 min.)
Carabosse (1980; 5 min.)
Masquerade (1981; 5 min.)
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1977, 42 min.)
Enid's Idyll (2004, 17 min.)

Disc Two:

"The H.D. Trilogy": (1990-1993, 115 mins.)
The Black Oud
The Grove
Star of Day

Disc Three:

Sophie's Place (1986, 86 min.)
The Visible Compendium (1990, 17 min.)
Blue Skies Beyond the Looking Glass (2006, 17 min.)

Disc Four:

The Sacred Art of Tibet (1972, 28 min.)
Visions of a City (1957-79; 8 min.)
Adagio (1981; 8 min.)
In a Summer Garden (1982; 15 min.)
Winter Light (1983; 9 min.)
Cornell (1965; 9 min.)
The "Odyssey: Three Romantic Films" Trilogy:
Waterlight (1957; 8 min.)
Tapestry (1988; 12 min.)
Postcard from San Miguel (1996; 10 min.)

Lawrence Jordan's collage films toy with images cut from old prints, catalogues and books of illustrations. They're animated in front of fine-art drawings and engravings by masters like Gustav Doré. The non-narrative processions of images sometimes suggest a theme but more often do not. Glowing lights replace human heads on images of costumed characters and statues. As in a dream pageant, cutout illustrations of moths and birds enter and leave the frame accompanied by classical music, often that of Eric Satie.

Jordan's films personal films attract reams of vaguely intimidating gallery and museum praise: if you don't dig it, your cultural receptors must be faulty. His strong suit is a technical consistency that sticks with what it knows. Like Cornell in his workshop, Jordan mastered the use of a 16mm animation camera, getting precise, sharp exposures and controlling variables like manual lap dissolves with remarkable skill. His animation is also very smooth. The cutout people and objects move delicately around the scene, and his quaint special effect embellishments match the tone of his artwork backgrounds.

After a few B&W short subjects Jordan moved into color and the added flexibility of optical printing. Cascading optical zooms and a clever masked matting process enable him to do even more complicated tricks. Once Jordan found a pleasing visual motif he stuck with it. For instance, his color fantasia The Sacred Art of Tibet (1972) consists largely of optical zooms into dreamy vignettes of Tibetan artwork, repeated ad infinitum. The films are best appreciated for their handmade quality, and not for technique alone. His painstaking matched dissolves will not impress viewers accustomed to decades of push-button video effects.

Not all of Jordan's films are abstract. His celebrated The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1977) sets Orson Welles' expressive recitation of the Coleridge poem against Gustav Doré's famous series of illustrations. As such it's basically an animated storybook along the lines of Louis Clyde Stoumen's Oscar-winning "animated book illustration" historical films The True Story of the Civil War and Black Fox: The True Story of Adolf Hitler.

The collection contains one of Jordan's most widely shown pictures, 1969's Our Lady of the Sphere. I remember that one being well received at a traveling experimental film exhibition that worked college towns in 1970. But more than one disc is devoted to Jordan's live action work, which isn't nearly as interesting. Disc two carries an epic three part home movie study of Jordan's companion, poet Joanna McClure. The soundtrack features poetry readings from noted imagist Hilda Doolittle. For nearly two hours we follow McClure around Italian and Greek tourist towns, and return with her to San Francisco to meditate. The orange-toned images are often attractive, but the movie is deadly.

Other short live action films are even less rewarding. Three short efforts called the Romantic Trilogy use indifferent visuals to separate the concept of Eros into glimpses of female and male nudity. Visions of a City is a promising B&W piece composed almost entirely of reflections in car bumpers and other shiny objects. The images aren't developed in any particular direction.

Facets' four-disc The Lawrence Jordan Album is the work of a genuine pioneer of the arts, a San Francisco based intellectual who takes his work seriously. The transfers are all excellent. Even the oldest of the pictures are clear and sharp, often looking almost too good to be 16mm in origin.

Included is a hefty program booklet that serves as a useful guide to Jordan's work; individuals better schooled in art criticism will find enthusiastic testimonials from film programmers and a kudo from Stan Brakhage. Quotes from Jordan's own screening notes indicate that his imagery was organized with very specific meanings in mind. Today's DVD-scape is flooded with visual arts discs of all kinds. This collection will catch the attention of the fine arts crowd that flocked to Jordan's films at L.A.'s Filmex and the San Francisco Cinematheque.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lawrence Jordan Album rates:
Movies: Historically important fine art Animation Films
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplement: 35-page "Facets Cine-Notes collectible booklet"
Packaging: Four discs in folding card and plastic holder in card sleeve
Reviewed: July 23, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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