For three decades, avant-garde filmmaker Lewis Klahr, a transplanted New Yorker now based in Los Angeles, has been widely regarded as a master of cut-and-paste animation. In his cramped garage, he collects images from old comic books, magazines and catalogues, along with the detritus of life – old keys, a leaf, a pack of playing cards – and assembles them into moving collages.
Although taken from comic books, Klahr is most interested in ordinary-looking characters from TV show comics or movies. "Now things go in the other direction. They go from comic books onto the screen," he says with a laugh.
Images appear in flashes for a second or two at a time. For example, in his hour-long 2011 film The Pettifogger, playing on Wednesday as part of Toronto's Images Festival, there are quick glimpses of an illustrated male cutout from a 1960s comic, placed askew and shot with a digital camera.
Next to the man, Klahr puts a female cutout, curvy under a tight jacket, yet drawn equally hard-scrabbled in classic comic-book fashion. Behind them is an old postcard from the Las Vegas strip, or a gas station sign channelling Kennedy-era Americana.
The soundtrack also consists of found tidbits, bits of TV dialogue or snippets of clapping from old jazz albums from days gone by. Klahr – who came into prominence in the late 1970s and '80s when found footage became the in-thing in experimental film circles – records each ambient sound in a room, accentuating the fact that it's coming from a TV or stereo.
That roughness is intentional. Klahr's deceptively simple technique is as much about the raw materials of our culture, the aging paper of comic books and magazines, the useless trinkets (like a cocktail stir stick adorned with a Pan Am logo) that we nevertheless might save. He used to shoot on 16-mm film, but now uses a digital still camera, which captures the textures of the material that much more clearly.
Klahr is after lost memories, including his own. "My relationship to these things is not about nostalgia. It's really about time," he says by phone from L.A., where he teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. "I think the most uncanny experience I've ever had is this inability to reconcile the past with the present on some level, the discrepancy between that," he explains. "How things decay and age or pass into a kind of scarcity through age. [That's]surprising to me on a very gut level, and that's what the work is exploring."
Klahr's films deal with serious adult issues, such as loneliness and longing, rendered as if in a dream. In his short Pony Glass, for instance, he uses cutouts of Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen to explore a young man's identity (including his sexual identity). In his masterpiece Altair, he does the same from a woman's point of view, using pictures from 1940s issues of Cosmopolitan magazine. With The Pettifogger, although it alludes to a Rat Pack-type story of petty crime, gambling and womanizing, Klahr notes that the emotions are more about the depression his own father felt when his business collapsed.
"This is imagery that I grew up with," Klahr explains. "It's fun stuff, but I'm giving this adult weight to things. And that's what I'm doing in The Pettifogger. I'm describing something that was quite harrowing to me as a kid."
He's achieved large-scale success – his films have screened at three Whitney Biennials and four of them are owned by New York's Museum of Modern Art – but Klahr says it's the intimacy of film that drew him to it in the first place.
"As opposed to the Hollywood model, it didn't seem like you had to marshal resources in a big way. It wasn't going to be expensive. It was something you could do [on your own] ... I aspired to be a writer. I wrote poetry, and it's a very poetic form. It's a very first-person form. So it had a lot of things going for it that interested me," he says.
Far from Hollywood blockbusters, most of his films lack linear plot. Instead, it is merely implied, and sometimes peppered with subtly hilarious details, like when a series of cutouts of 1960s dancing girls is followed by a split-second shot of an X-ray of a man's foot. ( The Pettifogger's protagonist clearly has a hard time keeping up with young women.)
"It invokes what dreams are like," Klahr concludes. "In dreams, all kinds of strange things happen, but it feels like it makes sense in the dream. I think that's what true about my films."
The Pettifogger screens Wednesday at 7 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox, in association with the Images Festival and the TIFF Cinematheque. The Images Festival of experimental filmmaking runs from April 12 to 21. Check imagesfestival.com for details.