Monday, February 6, 2017

Henry Hills | Porter Springs 3, Kino Da!, Money, SSS, Goa Lawah, Little Lietenant, Balic Mecanique, Porter Springs 4, Electricity and Failed States

dancing artists
by Douglas Messerli

Henry Hills Henry Hills: Selected Films (1977-2008) (Porter Springs 3, Kino Da!, Money, SSS, Goa Lawah, Little Lieutenant, Bali Mécanique, Porter Springs 4, Electricity and Failed States

New York filmmaker Henry Hills studied with James Broughton, Geoge Kuchar, and Hollis Frampton at the San Francisco Art Institute, and was influenced by Bruce Connor and Harry Smith. The other afternoon I watched several of his short films, including the 1977 silent short, Porter Springs 3, Kino Da! (1980), Money (1985),  SSS (1988), Goa Lawah (1992), Little Lieutenant (1994), Bali Mécanique (1994), Porter Springs 4 (1999), Electricity (2007), and Failed States (2008).

Let me begin my discussion by reiterating the general statement about Hills’ work: that it all very much deals with dance, in some cases, such as SSS encorporating the works of actual dancers (Sally Silvers, Pooh Kaye, Harry Shepperd, Lee Katz, Kumiko Kimoto, David Zambrano, Ginger Gillespie, Mark  Dendy, and others) and Bali Mécanique, which involves four traditional Bali sections of the Lelong dance (the Condong, the Bapang, the Penipoek, and the warning of the Guarda). But even works without dance, often appears, in his usually frenetic intercutting, to be a kind of dance—of images, words, figures, and color.

Charles Bernstein     Secondly, Hills often works with New York poets (such as my friends Charles Bernstein, James Sherry, Diane Ward, Ron Silliman, Allan Davies, Jack Collom, Bruce Andrews, and others), works with other filmmakers such as Abigail Childs), composers and audio artists such as Christian Marclay, John Zorn, and Zenna Parkins), and playwrights (such as Richard Foreman—in a work not discussed here).

Sally Silvers
      The humorous yet seriously probing Money, for example, sends almost all of the figures mentioned above to the New York streets to speak about and read works about their needs or disregards for money. Hills then chops up their comments into a manic mishmash of single words, short phrases, and slightly longer sentences which clearly express not only the freshness and energy of these mostly younger artists, but the importance and comic urgency of what that word might mean to them. I knew most of the people involved in this work, and was both delighted and a bit shocked to see these friends dressed in the style of the mid-80s and to revisit their then fresh faces. The  beautiful Ward looked more like a teenager, and Andrews, Sherry, Silvers, and Bernstein—all born performers, seemed a bit more like street hucksters and poets and dancers, but then that’s the point: in a sense they were, as Bernstein would later write of poetry, pitching their art.
      The earlier Kino Da! uses poetry in a different way to create a kind of zaum-like work similar to a mix of Russian poet Khlebnikov and the American poet Stein, read by San Francisco poet Jack Hirschman (also a friend).
      Little Lieutenant steals Weimar cabaret scenes, German labor footage, and images from Walther Ruttmann’s film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (see My Year 2015), combining these with John Zorn’s arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “Little Lieutenant of the Loving God,” along with choreography by Silvers and Cydney Wilkes to give us a stunning sense of what Weimar Berlin was before the Nazi takeover.

Goa Lawah      Goa Lawah focuses on the dance of the bats in the sacred bat tree in Bali, as their pitched-voices accompany their upside down antics; while Failed States represents the spin of machines and humans which end in their collapse, all accompanied by the poem “Guru Guru Gatha” by Jackson MacLow (yet another good friend). Electricity centers on the dance of the high wire trams in Prague set against the backdrop of other significant sites.

       Perhaps only in the more personal Porter Springs movies, which return the filmmaker to a Georgia mountain retreat where his family visited almost every August, does this pace let up a bit. Yet even here, in the third manifestation of those films, the trees weave in and out with wind in a heaving motion that seems to call up, once again, dance; and in Porter Springs 4, made up of family home movies shot over 20 years, family members leap into air and jump into water in a near ritualistic pattern.
      The short music video commissioned by John Zorn’s Elektra Records calls up both the film noir images of Jules Dassin’s film of the 1950s and scenes from Bernstein’s West Side Story.
       By the end of watching these 10 short films and 1 music video, I felt that I too was sharing an evening of marvelous home movie about friends and acquaintances from the present and years past. While some might define Hill’s “palette,” so to speak, a very limited one, in its very specifity, his films become almost a kind of time box for a group of talented, mostly New York-based artists. Just as Teju Cole recently described William Christenberry’s photographs of Hale County Alabama and his own works of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park as a way to capture time in images, so too does Hills’ use of the same poets, playwrights, dancers, musicians, and other artists throughout his career document a very specific history of time and place, a process he repeats in his return to a beloved spot in his four Porter Springs films.*

Los Angeles, February 6, 2017

*Teju Cole, The New York Times Magazine (February 5, 2017), pp. 14-17.

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