Words Table Of Contents

Download PDF file of this article

Paul Arthur "Permanent Transit: The Films of Pat O’Neill"

I had to admit to myself that I lived for nights like these, moving across the city’s great broken body, making connections among its millions of cells. I had a crazy wish that some day before I died, if I made all the right neural connections, the city would come all the way alive, like the Bride of Frankenstein.

– Ross Macdonald, The Instant Enemy

For the inaugural issue of the journal Dreamworks, Pat O’Neill filed a "Dream Report," dated 1977, that sounds remarkably close to a passage from one of his films. Indeed, like the elegantly uncanny moving pictures that anchor his career, O’Neill’s sampling of unconscious scenography operates in the gap between the hermetic and demotic, between image–fragments whose significance remains obscure and iconography familiar enough be lodged in our cultural memory banks. He describes a room with peeling walls, broken windows opening onto a view of pristine sky. There is a "desert spa built out of volcanic rock" in the distance, with a vintage Oldsmobile perched on the driveway. Removing a hubcap from the automobile, the dreamer discovers a secret cache of still photos. While examining a shot of a calendar pinup girl, the light begins to fade.1 As is true of O’Neill’s films, a sense of place and of architectural detail take precedence over human figures and their activities. Transiency, ostensibly the default position for all dream experience, informs even static views of quotidian objects. It is possible to read the decaying room as a camera obscura, for O’Neill a primal and recurrent site of fast–motion processions of light. Defying physical laws of gravity and mass, a landscape may be shown as nested with frames sporting divergent spatial configurations. Car, rock, photo?they are elements of a familiar dance in which machines couple with natural elements in spasms of categorical inversion. The almost irresistible temptation is to turn O’Neill’s report into a kind of rebus, which if carefully deciphered might illuminate his otherwise obscure principles of cinematic construction. From the sleep of unreason, an idiolect emerges.

Yet the trouble with this line of inquiry is obvious. Without recourse to the language of psychoanalysis?by which visual symbols are reread as symptoms–the superficial linkage of dream account and movie images results in merely reinforcing, not decoding, visual patterns observable in the films themselves. Moreover, the particular fabric of O’Neill’s work, especially its distance from canonical forms of expressive subjectivity, rebuffs the standard tools of psychoanalytic interpretation. To be sure, several less quixotic insights can be culled from the journal entry: that autobiographically–inflected dream material constitutes a surprising source for the filmmaker’s creative imagination; further, that his fascination with subconscious imagery taps into a legacy of Surrealism in art and film. Neither idea has been closely pursued in critical writings or in interviews, and neither will receive adequate treatment here. It is worth noting, however, that the desire to incorporate or imitate the condensatory power of dreams had been a key project in earlier avant–garde film styles, a project that gradually fell into disfavor at about the time O’Neill began to make films.2 While it would be unproductive to approach O’Neill’s work as, say, a late species of the Trance Film or experimental psychodrama, addressing it through modernist paradigms of material self–reference or ironic treatment of pop culture?heretofore the dominant approach?proves to be equally shortsighted. The point is that among the challenges, and substantial rewards, arising from the filmmaker’s forty–year trail of movie alchemy is difficulty in finding a consistent angle of vision, a stable historical or morphological niche, from which to address its inclusive achievement. That this is so despite ample evidence of recurrent visual patterns and enduring philosophical concerns is, paradoxically, part and parcel of the oeuvre’s larger significance. In this sense the films are at once attuned to, and examples of, deeply liminal objects–interstitial and in constant flux even within the arena of critical discourse.

A measure of their slippery status is glimpsed in responses that have little or nothing to do with issues of personal or social meaning, cultural allusion, iconographic or formal inheritance. Instead, the patent complexity and elusiveness of O’Neill’s images tend to elicit agonizingly detailed descriptions of what happens on screen at any given moment; how an image first appears then is transformed, rather than what it contributes to our understanding of the world. Although analogies are offered to the experience of perceptual testing or "puzzle–solving," the tone of such reports suggests a bout of ambient dreaming. It is as if the need to ratify in memory the dazzling surface of screen activity privileges one’s immediate, sensual impressions at the expense of broader motifs, themes, tropes. A typical conclusion holds that O’Neill’s films "pose to the viewer the general problem of finding a way through a discontinuous multiplicity of meaning."3 When not making a case for irreducible ambiguity or diffuseness in confrontation with the work, commentators have resorted to oddly misleading parallels: psychedelic tripping, TV channel–surfing, "dynamic graffiti."4

O’Neill himself has not exactly discouraged assessments grounded in indeterminacy. In program notes for Saugus Series, he writes that separate scenes in the film connect to form small stories, "recapitulations of remembered events and feelings told somehow from the vantage point of one who is half awake, on the magic edge of entering or leaving consciousness."5 He has, conversely, repeatedly called attention to affinities with factual cinemas, from archival history compilations to science lectures and industrial training shorts: "I conceive of films that are very close to documentaries, but they’re not."6 The straddling of generic options does not stop there: as early as 1976, O’Neill considered experimenting with methods of commercial storytelling: "One of the ideas was that I would begin to work with dialogue, begin to work with actors... knowing exactly how to finally get the lines down, get the story down."7 This impulse would finally reach fruition twenty years later. The common belief that procedures associated with Hollywood narrative, with documentary, and with the avant–garde are mutually incompatible is untenable, a gross canard perpetrated by a combination of marketing demands and film–historical blindness. Nonetheless, mapping the terrain of a film career for which established generic, technical, and stylistic boundaries are merely provisional?if not altogether illusory, like a desert mirage?requires at the least a point of departure and a willingness to court disorientation. In addition, it is helpful to bear in mind a mythic ground zero, whose coordinates dictate institutional as well as social possibilities. For lack of a better moniker, we will call this central region "Los Angeles."


Among supporters of the movement, the public anonymity of avant–garde filmmakers is a longstanding joke. An ironic acknowledgment of that anonymity can be gleaned from O’Neill’s stealthy appearances in his films, something like a disenfranchised version of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous cameos. In The Decay of Fiction, he takes a brief turn as a hard–boiled pulp writer, or perhaps gossip columnist, hunkered over an ancient typewriter. The opening tableau in Foregrounds casts him as an inert figment of nature, a recessive backyard monument. In Trouble in the Image, he pops onto the screen to scribble a glowing figure with a long stick, the incarnation of a cinematic sorcerer (or just an apprentice). Water and Power finds him, among other poses, with a bag on his head. Verbal references and iconographic "stand–ins" widen the metaphoric scope of role–playing to include an action painter, jazzman, detective, naturalist, and sandwich maker. Hence it is more than a cliche to suggest that O’Neill has worn a multitude of cinematic hats, several of which have received quite literal representation, like the floating porkpie at the end of Saugus Series. Mitch Tuchman once characterized his aesthetic presence as an amalgam of tinker, prospector, and magician. Born a century earlier, O’Neill might well have assisted the invention of the automobile, a prominent object among a cluster of surrogate movie–machines crisscrossing the body of his work. For all their gleaming wizardry, however, the films retain vestiges of a handmade, Rube Goldberg funkiness?the machine as unreliable contraption. Nor can we ignore avatars from the animal kingdom: dogs, snakes, and bugs are recurrent motifs, but the pack rat and chameleon are both appropriate, if unspoken, totems.

Looking beyond the screen, O’Neill’s personal trajectory is only slightly less steeped in allegory. While studying art and industrial design at UCLA, he began a transition into independent filmmaking that is itself emblematic of the period. Unwilling to abandon sculpture or still photography, he enacted a pivotal tenet of the nascent counterculture in which restrictive divisions among creative disciplines?indeed, among cultural initiatives in general?would be jettisoned in favor of more "organic," almost invariably multi–media, approaches. In O’Neill’s case, the idea of cinema as meta–practice surfaces, for example, in his association with the light show collective Single Wing Turquoise Bird and his early interest in gallery installations employing film loops, a means of extending or supplementing more linear exercises in moving light phenomena. Joining the experimental movement during an era of notable expansion, O’Neill contributed to efforts aimed at gaining greater public visibility for avant–garde film, mainly through participation in the "Genesis" project, two traveling programs of shorts that achieved unprecedented commercial distribution in the late sixties. Such attempts at developing new venues or formal templates for the display of unorthodox images foreshadow recent excursions into 35mm production and interactive DVD–ROM. For a filmmaker whose primal unit of articulation is the sel–limiting frame rather than the sequence or cut, his career exudes a quality of unslaked restlessness underwritten by a dread of confinement. That this dynamic reflects in part the plight of someone whose life and work have been moored to a single, notoriously contradictory geographic setting is a topic to which we will return. A dozen years removed from UCLA, O’Neill was leaving an imprint on practically every facet of the local film scene. He was a founding member of Oasis Cinema, a collective devoted to the exhibition and discussion of alternative cinema, one of only two such organizations in the area.8 His influence as formal and informal mentor, as well as frequent technical collaborator, acquired legendary status. A teacher and founding dean faculty member of the film and video program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), he tutored a younger generation of media artists for whom he functioned as a bridge between older avant–garde styles and fresh perspectives that cast aside entrenched oppositions of film versus video, narrative versus abstraction, self–expression versus technical polish. Frustrated by what he refers to as the "stop–start" rhythm of academic life, in 1976 O’Neill parlayed a growing proficiency at optical printing into a freelance special–effects business, setting up a small studio that hired and trained a number of younger makers. By the 1980s, this cadre was reviving the energies of a regional avant–garde that had ebbed and flowed since the late forties. As usual, Pat O’Neill generated a soft–spoken clout at the hub of disparate activities.

Although the postwar avant–garde can trace its semi–official inauguration to Los Angeles?courtesy of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Curtis Harrington?the sorts of centralized bohemian enclaves and institutional support structures that spurred the growth of alternative filmmaking in, say, New York and San Francisco failed to materialize in Southern California. To the extent that L.A. was later able to claim a distinct identity within the movement, it revolved around faintly derogatory notions of technical fluency, what by 1971 David Curtis had labeled "optical/kinetic" performance, a rough equivalent to the artworld epithet "finish fetish."9 As exemplary instances of this tendency, O’Neill’s films?at least prior to the release of Water and Power?had to contend with critical appraisals by which the formal investigation of filmic "surface" carried negative connotations.10 In the following discussions, I use the term as shorthand for a variety of discursive features with social and ecological as well as aesthetic implications.

A brief detour around the arcana of movie technology is necessary at the outset. The multi–planar composite image, as facilitated by the optical printer, looms over O’Neill’s work in a manner similar to the way camera movement undergirds the films of Michael Snow or the splice functions as epistemological nexus in the first stages of Stan Brakhage’s massive oeuvre. It should be clear that their films are in no sense about their signature technical operations; rather, for each artist a specific aspect of the production process served to epitomize creative exigencies of individual skill, materiality, and aesthetic vision. In this light O’Neill’s printer is at once a dream space and science laboratory geared to the mutation of extant images. The range of printing options recruited by O’Neill include stationary and traveling mattes, bi–packing, color modulation, looping, image enlargement and reduction, even subtitling. To compose with a printer is essentially to render images of images, a setup that retreats in precise increments from the photographing of external reality. Often considered a streamlined or semi–automated task, printing for O’Neill can be as spontaneous as diary recording and as labor intensive as cell animation. Since the material circumstances of projection and rephotography are intrinsic to the regimen of optical printing, it is not surprising that the films are studded with visual tropes referencing one or the other state?internal screens or vignettes are prodigious. The reflexive effect here is not simply to call attention to cinematic ontology, to strip the seductive veneer off movie illusions, but to immerse the viewer in a sinuous reciprocity of man–made and natural shapes, processes and environments. Nor is the rhetorical fallout derived from melding contrary elements uniform in mood or in social critique. Nothing stands still in this work even if the impetus to motion is understood as a force imposed from outside?at its most basic, the luxurious, inexorable progress of a filmstrip through the apparatus.

Exquisite Corpses, Mechanical Brides

The titling of O’Neill’s early work is instructive. Of nine films completed by 1976, four reference or allude to specific places while three evoke mechanical processes. His first film, By the Sea, made in collaboration with Robert Abel, gravitates to a site that in various guises?found footage, superimposition, optical deformation?constitutes one vector in a triad of richly symbolic settings, in this case the western edge where water meets land. Saugus Series, indicating a town in an outlying Los Angeles valley, summons a second crucial landscape encompassing the tableaux of brushy foothills and desert. The final location, discernible in the title Bump City, draws on commercial–residential zones etched by the region’s intricate urban–suburban design. Pertinent to his entire body of work, including recent features, the notion of "setting" does not assume a stable or even foundational space upon which human, animal, or celestial activities are mapped cinematically. Instead, topographic features are subjected to chains of transformation, leaving them not illegible but certainly penetrated and/or surrounded by alien phantasms. O’Neill, always a keen observer of his hometown, has consistently presented locations associated with leisure activities and tourism; in fact, it would not be far–fetched to imagine the films as warped travelogues or, more suggestively, oneiric tour guides.

David James, addressing the local topography in relation to O’Neill’s films, invokes Michel Foucault’s idea of "heterotopia," the coexistence of several otherwise incompatible spaces within a single real location.11 Rayner Banham’s well–known thesis that L.A. is comprised of four separate ecologies?beaches, foothills, central flatlands, and freeways?offers another model relevant to the filmmaker’s segmented, visually layered treatment of place.12 Among the idiosyncratic trademarks of O’Neill landscapes is their imbrication with technology, specifically with manual tools and the remnants of nineteenth–century steel–and–steam mechanics. Absent from this vision, however, is any hint of Romantic ideology, of nostalgic longing for the unspoiled pastoral amidst the wreckage of industrial society. For starters, even the most isolated locations have long since been colonized by representational technologies of still photography and movies. In addition, the recording of certain industrial products possesses for O’Neill a fascination and formal beauty no less compelling than that of a waterfall or red rock butte. Machines regularly appear as weird species of mutated flora; conversely, natural elements take on the attributes of internal combustion engines. In one vista, a hand trowel sticks up from the horizon like a national monument; in another, Old Faithful spits and wheezes in fast motion like a creaky air compressor; if the moon is tweaked to chug across the sky like a freight train, tiny paper projection screens on the desert floor are made to behave like tumbleweed. As was readily apparent to commentators a century ago, the movie experience provides an animated window onto exotic locales whose manifestation is governed by a series of mechanical operations. If O’Neill’s work, especially his later films, echoes with any yearning for the past, it is for a blue collar world of manual praxis, a realm inhabited not only by crankshafts and acetylene torches but by the optical printer, now a photochemical dinosaur in an age of digital CGI.13 It is in this register that the title Runs Good recalls ads for used automobiles?as O’Neill suggests?as well as the comforting chatter of movie equipment. Easyout is the name of a compound for loosening rusted engine bolts, 7362 the number of a Kodak print stock. The relationship between landscape and technology, as mediated by human or social desiderata, is a venerable theme in American literature and art. Leaving aside O’Neill’s highly personalized method of image construction, his version of this quandary is unusual on several counts: the opposed terms are never universalized, they are temporal and site–specific; technophobic impulses are rare despite overt and covert generic allegiances to science–fiction; the expression of anarchic breakdown as an alternative to repressive regimentation lacks patently liberatory or utopian connotations.

By the Sea opens a major thematic seam involving the mechanization of human movement. The first section lays out quick, close shots in black and white of denizens of Muscle Beach in Santa Monica?mostly men, with a few women?exercising on outdoor gymnastic equipment, flexing and stretching in front of sedentary visitors. Then a chunk of the same shots gets repeated in new rhythms, this time printed in high–contrast, a process that collapses the impression of depth and turns comely bodies in motion into grotesque, inky cartoon figures. The film has the feel of a simple demonstration: "see how strange these preening paragons can look when their images are zapped through rephotography?" Nonetheless, two important axioms refined in subsequent films make their initial appearance. First, the lines separating normal human locomotion, biomorphic movement, and abstraction are unstable at best. Second, the explicit segmentation of filmic structure almost inevitably raises larger, not exclusively formal issues of continuity, repetition, and cyclicality; these syntactical features, moreover, can be summarized by the broad notion of "looping" as endemic of the moviemaking process.

By the Sea, in its deflation of the body beautiful, sustains parodic reference to the second half of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 Olympia. Although linked by reputation to the psychedelic "head trip," 7362 revisits one of the cornerstones of the European avant–garde of the twenties, Fernand Leger and Dudley Murphy’s 1924 Ballet mecanique. O’Neill’s initial plunge into split–screen aesthetics, the film reanimates shots of an oil pump and a female dancer, printing mirrored variations of their movements split along a vertical axis. Besides being edited into aggressively strobelike patterns, the original images have been further denatured by intense color permutations?especially in the red–purple–blue range–and the flipping of foreground shapes from positive to negative. The result has predictably garnered comparisons to a high–speed Rorschach test, flashing abstract patterns onto which an individual subjectivity projects anxieties or desires. A stronger implication lies in O’Neill’s erotic coupling of female body and mechanical rig. In Leger and Murphy’s film, isolated fragments of a woman’s lips, eyes, and other body parts are juxtaposed with the movements of factory components and common utensils in order to secure their metaphoric identity: bodies are like machines and machines possess similar aesthetic properties to the human form. In 7362, the presence of machines requires no backhanded defense while the yin/yang prospect of categorical merging remains exempt from either horror or celebration.

The human–machine interface is a staple of Hollywood sci–fi. Among canonical directors, Stanley Kubrick mined this theme in a comically corrosive vein in Dr. Strangelove; shortly after the completion of 7362, Kubrick then capped his ruminations in another numerical title, 2001 (a film on which West Coast avant–gardist Jordan Belson provided uncredited technical assistance). Runs Good unveils a malignant, seemingly post–apocalyptic future in which "natural" prerogatives of human, animal, and mechanical life forms have been thoroughly confounded. As is true of sci–fi in general, envisioning the future is coextensive with dissecting the present. The shadow of Vietnam and a revulsion towards the triumph of American consumerism?what Guy Debord had dubbed "The Society of the Spectacle"?fuel an overall tone that uncharacteristically verges on anger. Engaging in the sort of sour fetishism that seeps from Bruce Conner’s collage films, Runs Good is constructed on a similar platform of quirky found footage, mostly bargain basement newsreels, educational science tracts, and Hollywood B–movies. A stentorian voice informs us that: "In the great cities, the legendary worship of the snake has degenerated into sideshows." Alarmingly, a repressive sideshow mentality has run amok, evident in not just in parades and magic tricks but in shots of wartime combat, a football game, TV ads, a wedding, domestic routines. From scenes at a dog show we gather that mankind has tamed, caged, and reprogrammed every animal instinct; on the other hand, a woman crawls on all–fours like a dog in an antique porn clip while another performs a looped, mechanized striptease timed to the countdown of a digital clock.

The soundtrack, by Cisko Curtis, is packed with electronic burbles, melodramatic mood music from the Forties and Fifties, and bizarre statements lifted from documentary narrations. Over time, O’Neill’s audio collaborations expand dramatically in technical and semantic sophistication, yet they have continued to reflect the same collage ethos underlying Runs Good. Like 7362, the film follows a loosely additive trajectory in which an image skein builds in complex interaction with sound?cued by the onset of techniques such as traveling mattes, alterations in speed or hue, superimposition?then reaches a point of intensification before tailing off. Unlike his first two films, discrete sections are not cordoned off by fades or, as in Saugus Series, by numbered episodes. Mitch Tuchman draws a helpful analogy between hybridized, multi–planar compositions in Runs Good and paintings by Larry Rivers, in particular the acclaimed "Washington Crossing the Delaware."14 In passing, it is worth noting that there exists a wealth of iconographic and formal congruities between O’Neill and a contemporaneous cadre of American painters including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist and, from a less mainstream perspective, Jess, for whom layered, heterogeneous image–fields ripened into an a emblem of late–sixties culture.

Easyout and Down Wind are slightly less hectic, or agitated, in design. Both percolate with moments of abstract animation and occasional strobe effects but also seem to contain more original footage and passages less prone to optical distortion. Junctures between shots are somewhat clearer and despite what was evolving into a marked preference for fast–motion and time–lapse recording, there are moments that tease odd juxtapositions in content or scale from relatively straightforward camera views. In one enticing shot from Down Wind, saggy male bathers wade in a shallow pond while in the extreme foreground an ominously large swan tends to its feathers. At first glance it strikes us that this conjunction must be the product of technical sleight–of–hand but that impression is vacated almost immediately. Awareness of the flow of time, and with it a sense of anticipation or memory, allows for a change of pace with imagery so concentrated it gives the impression of unfolding in a single prolonged instant, the lyrical avant–garde’s eternal present. Civilization and its discontents, as expressed through representations of anthropology’s raw and cooked behavior, is a subtext in both films. Shots of wild animals mating collide with scenes featuring domesticated rituals.

Easyout pays homage to yet another avant–garde classic, Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien andalou (1928), by way of humorous subversions of bourgeois settings and allusions to obsessional images, such as O’Neill’s superimposition of giant ants overrunning a humdrum suburban intersection. For good measure, he tosses in some nonsensical Surrealist subtitles: "Meanwhile," "Several days later"?talisman displayed to ward off linear narrative, the vehicle of middle–class spectacle. Perhaps a deeper bond to Surrealist aims is manifest in O’Neill’s accretion of disjunct sequences, a process with parallels to the fabled "Exquisite Corpse." Extending the intellectual parlor game, in which a figure drawing is produced by successive artists without knowledge of what was previously drawn, Dalí and Buñuel relied on "psychic automatism" for the scripting of Un Chien andalou: "When an image or idea appeared the collaborators discarded it immediately if it was derived from remembrance, or from their cultural pattern or if, simply, it had a conscious association with an earlier idea."15 The image flow in Easyout, as in most of O’Neill’s work, suggests a series of mini–movies grafted onto a tenuous thematic skeleton, a sort of animated, one–man Exquisite Corpse. Down Wind, freighted as it is with unprepossessing vacation footage, is largely devoid of the crowds that populate earlier films, signaling a renewed engagement with the spatial paradoxes and asymmetries of non–urban settings. Here as elsewhere, aqueous and barren landscapes are what remain when the thrum of human presence subsides. Frequent traveling shots, taken from car windows, are a perfect emblem of O’Neill’s transient screen doings. Deftly tapping into nonfiction codes evocative of the travelogue and home movie, Down Wind nudges intertextual affiliations toward far–flung, ostensibly antagonist, arenas. It is said that his films are unique in their idiosyncrataic application of recondite movie technology; nonetheless, it is impossible to relegate them to a "rustic" sphere of unbridled, detached subjectivity. Nothing cinematic is foreign to O’Neill. Eluding the snares of formalist reduction yet not satisfactorily housed under a postmodern rubric of ironic pastiche, his output circumvents polarities of hermetic indifference and transparent polemic.

Last of the Persimmons, by any criterion a minor undertaking, is still a witty reminder of the filmmaker’s inveterate contrariness with regard to dominant media. It resembles, on the one hand, a frothy, six–minute newsreel segment on the growth cycle and eating pleasures of an inconspicuous local fruit, a hermeneutic ditty invaded by stray, if hardly random, fragments of cartoons and animated drawings and buoyed by a pop song from T–Rex. On the other hand, it could be taken as a sly dig at the cascade of so–called Structural films making the rounds of avant–garde venues in the early seventies. The crux of the Structural method, akin to Minimalism in painting and sculpture, lies is its brandishing of a predetermined overall shape, the rational organization of which is intended to suppress subjectively–motivated image connections.16 O’Neill has acknowledged the influence of Structural exemplar Michael Snow but was, not surprisingly, a noncombatant in the period’s intramural style wars.

Of greater interest is how O’Neill avoided a principal aesthetic dilemma honed by the avant–garde of the seventies and early eighties. Briefly, the most diverse and responsive way of creating meaning in film?not coincidently, also the cheapest?is through the mobilization of editing. The imperative of shot–by–shot collisions, as advocated and practiced by poetic master Stan Brakhage, was sharply contested in the wake of Andy Warhol’s flagrant recourse in to unbroken camera takes, or single–shot movies. Structural filmmaking refitted the potential of editing to simple mathematical formulae or logical propositions. By the mid–eighties, a return to narrative was endorsed, in part, as a way out of the poetic/formulaic impasse. By the making of Saugus Series, and continuing through Sidewinder’s Delta and Foregrounds, O’Neill had found an alternative route around the issue of sequentiality. In program notes to the former, he explains that, "Each of the parts arose from some idea of discontinuity; each once of them features some confrontation between discontinuous units of space and time?in other words, contradictions."17 Saugus Series is composed of seven, semi–autonomous segments held loosely together by a group of interrelated formal gestures and a cluster of motifs. A few typically oblique allusions, to Van Gogh’s work boots and to Max Ernst’s hats, do not add up to a disquisition on art history, even though this is arguably O’Neill’s most "painterly" work.

To be sure, he has grappled with the conceptual torque exerted by editing: "My interest in relationships between elements in static shots has led me to make films that either have no cuts, or that have pauses between shots."18 Hence for him a reckoning of sequential meaning may not be "cohesive unless you can see it as a kind of journal, a collection of entries all by the same person but at different times and places."19 David James has used the term "dossier–like compilations" to describe the effect; an equally cogent trope is the filmic sketchbook. According to O’Neill, the source of enunciation for this activity is "an individual who wanders the land and from time to time stops to comment on it."20 Despite the films’ deflection of storytelling baggage, O’Neill’s comment suggests a sidelong relation to narrative as the allegorical inscription of places visited, inhabited, "studied," with the proviso that geographic locations are a priori overlaid with a backlog of cultural associations. Notwithstanding intermittent references to a claustrophobic, two–dimensional surface of TV shows and televisual "noise," the spatial drift in Saugus Series is toward open landscapes.

Sidewinder’s Delta was initially imagined as a kind of indirect Western, a meditation on the myth of wilderness. The title conjures a riverbed full of snakes?creatures that move by thrusting their bodies forward in a series of loops, recalling the mechanical gist of optical printer and film projector?but delta is also the scientific symbol for change. What exactly is being transformed is itself always in flux, always enigmatic: it might be a set of crusty pictorial codes, a perceptual reflex, or the conditions of genre. In several films, a reflexive agent of change is represented by giant hands posed in the middle of rural perspectives. Two pivotal locations, the artist’s studio and the desert, define the limits of O’Neill’s visual universe. As the films become increasingly ambitious, a sense of balance between these focal points evaporates.

In somewhat broader terms, a spectral itinerary moves O’Neill in restless increments away from the city’s social force field, a peregrination that eventually doubles back to take refuse in The Decay of Fiction’s condensed, history–haunted architecture. The Western, our culture’s favorite conduit for stories about men getting lost in and returning from the wilderness, is one of three Hollywood idioms that ripple across the skin of O’Neill’s work. Occasionally said to recalibrate the dynamics of the Western, film noir sports a distinctly urban agenda; it was notorious even in its own period for subjectivized treatments of violence and sexual betrayal. Science fiction, especially during its fifties’ cycle of mutant bugs, lizards, et al., narrates the traffic between urban and rural settings as mediated by?generally malign?consequences of uncontrolled technology. At the risk of oversimplifying the generic undertow in what is surely a multifaceted, irregular arc of production, O’Neill’s early films display the strongest affinities for sci–fi, the next group leans toward the Western, while his latest projects explore formal and cultural resonances attached to film noir.

In the Belly of the Basin

On a first viewing, the scale and polymorphic mass of Water and Power is likely to register as a summation?even a valediction?instead of just another fork in the road. It opens with a high–wire act, a defiance of natural law by human, or technology–assisted, daring. Then as in all new beginnings, there is a fall. A time–lapse low–angle panorama shows a trestle soaring over minuscule beach strollers. As dusk races in, a lone figure appears on the bridge, climbs the railing and plunges into thin air like a shooting star. This setup will reverberate through later sections of the film, the bridge giving way to a pipeline?the pipeline, bringing water to Los Angeles?and other metaphors of traversal just as the self–annihilating figure gets resurrected in a spate of disparate roles. Above all, O’Neill’s inaugural plunge into the hybridized waters of quasi–feature production–itself a format bridging two traditionally antithetical movie realms?unfolds as a cycle of visual ebbs and flows, accretions and declensions rehearsed as endemic to the region’s historical landscape. It is a location portrayed as echoing with corporeal, biological rhythms, a projected body as it were, rife with illusion. And outright deception.21

Among filmic discourses to which it pays explicit or indirect tribute, the City Symphony documentaries of the 1920s, including Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, undergird O’Neill’s vision insofar as they celebrate the urban matrix as gigantic machine. Predictably, images of mechanized movement work in reciprocity with modernist demands of cinema; it takes an industrial apparatus to capture an industrialized social space. Like Vertov, O’Neill adumbrates the nexus of city life and camera apparatus as a spectrum of functions ranging from image production to image consumption. Unlike Vertov, for whom the "film factory" was an apt model for the organization of society in general, O’Neill’s take on Los Angeles’s mimetic "dream factory" is tinged with regret, resentment, and ridicule as well as secretive pleasure. That his film is as technically polished as the tv ads and special–effects epics on which it literally depended for sustenance becomes inseparable from the allegory it constructs of a power–laden image unconscious engulfing the L.A. basin. A flickering network of quotations and allusions summons ghosts from Westerns and sci–fi, Cecil B. De Mille spectacles, early Josef von Sternberg dramas, film noir such as Detour. Audio composer George Lockwood inserts melodramatic mood music, dialogue clips, and stock sound effects into a nubbly fabric of tabla drumming, electronic noise, and jazz improvisations. Printed titles and voice–over narration unveil tantalizing fragments of more conventional storytelling.22 These gambits prod the film’s meaning in unexpected historical directions, with a given story scrap able to leap unevenly from verbal to visual expression, and vice versa.

At the resplendent core of Water and Power is a cluster of time–lapse views recorded with a specially designed, computer–controlled camera program. According to the filmmaker, footage was accumulated slowly, with durations of up to six hours compressed into a matter of seconds. Certain shots required solitary treks into remote regions while others were filmed from downtown buildings. Some scenes appear with scant material alteration; others undergo intensive renovation through mattes and superimpositions, accumulating as many as nine different layers in a single composition. A master trope involving the film image as simultaneous oasis and mirage surfaces frequently in O’Neill’s work. Here that idea is decked with unprecedented historical–political significance. There are references not only to tensions between Native American inhabitants and white settlers but to the 1910 laying of the Owens Lake pipeline that spurred the city’s remarkable growth. The resulting ecological disaster cum miracle, limned in Roman Polansky and Robert Towne’s Chinatown (1974), is refracted by O’Neill onto the desiderata of motion pictures. In particular, the transformation by the pipeline of a once–fertile valley into a wasteland, and the development of barren terrain into a lush human environment may be read as a process roughly analogous to the way elemental image traits are reordered in O’Neill’s films: how what we perceive as hard ground can be rendered as a liquid, how gassy effusions appear to congeal into a solid, and so on.

Within a complex calculus of elemental and man–made properties, O’Neill positions cinema alongside water, heat, and land as aspects of a single ecological system, in which technology is neither inevitably hostile nor naively redemptive. In this fashion fixed formal, symbolic, and topographic oppositions can start to bend and interpenetrate: abstract animation versus straight photography; interior versus exterior; industry versus culture; desert versus city. Once again, the lockstep designs of a mechanized order–seen especially in a series of right–angle time–lapse pans and tilts–are offset by emblems of freewheeling personal creativity, including various musicians and an artist’s model posing in a bare studio. Admittedly, figures zip through their routines at super–fast speed yet their presence is never entirely eclipsed by larger, sidereal movements of light. In O’Neill’s post–narrative (rather than non–narrative) Los Angeles, history has collapsed, time is definitely out of joint, and we can no longer parse substance from illusion. Regardless, human memory persists and so does the urge to shape an otherwise confusing welter of site–specific impressions.

Although it underwent a long and arduous ontogeny, the release of Water and Power at the end of the 1980s marked a culmination of sorts in the avant–garde’s pointed revision of film noir codes; examples of this trend include Manuel DeLanda’s Raw Nerves, Bette Gordon’s Variety, Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women, and Lewis Klahr’s In the Month of Crickets. Of the major Hollywood genres, noir has exerted perhaps the strongest appeal for independent media artists, and it has proved susceptible to radical reinterpretation on at least three counts. First, by critical consensus noir was for its time inordinately drawn to extreme visual stylizations. Second, it spawned Hollywood’s most dire, if also conflicted, dramatizations of the plight of America’s urban middle class. Finally, noir’s thematic blend of paranoia and rebellious sexuality is said to harbor an allegorical connection with the Hollywood studio system’s volatile Cold War ambience, and by extension with postwar Los Angeles itself. Mike Davis is one of many cultural commentators to view film noir as the city’s populist, perpetual anti–myth.23

In the wake of Water and Power, O’Neill would extend and refocus, in two sharply contrasting projects, the appropriation of noir as historical cipher for his birthplace. Trouble in the Image returns to a segmental, discontinuous method of organization reminiscent of earlier works, and it does so with a vengeance. Subtitled Works on Film, 1978?1995, it is possibly O’Neill’s most explosive, textually diffuse film, a collection of sketches, tests, outtakes from commercial assignments, and found footage, all of which are optically overhauled and leavened by George Lockwood’s intricate soundscape. It begins with an image of swarming birds whose chaotic yet cyclical motion reprises a motif previously associated with moths, abstract dots, and colored lozenges. The heavy, sexualized breathing of an outlaw couple, lifted from the swampy climax of Gun Crazy, instills an ominous tone. Scraps of equally portentous voices from the likes of Kiss Me Deadly and Criss Cross are filtered into subsequent scenes. In typical fashion, O’Neill draws from obscure cowboy movies along with tacky educational science docs, original landscape shots and one riveting time–lapse view of a cavernous Hollywood studio set in the throes of demolition.

Trouble is in several respects distinct from the more capital–intensive films that precede and follow it. Transitions between images have a harder edge, engendered by an unusual number of straight cuts. In addition, a barrage of split–screen compositions employing up to four separate rectangles of extant footage?tinted, solarized, or otherwise denatured?are juxtaposed in rhythmic or thematic patterns. Rotoscoped outlines of human figures or animals in motion are superimposed over rigidly divided frames. The effect is less dreamlike or uncanny than that of earlier hybrid images; it is as if the contents of a late–night TV lineup had been bombarded with subatomic particles, splitting them into toxic new arrangements. Spoken fragments from what seem to be commercial movie scripts, in fact written by O’Neill, waft through the sound design creating a verbal parallel for visual locations presented via an unstable array of quick notations. The "trouble" in the title has, predictably, a host of potential meanings: the criminal mayhem distilled from scenes of a TV series; the manner in which images are divided and repeated in aggressive cadences; and the "violence" with which cultural memories are embedded, as well as how they inflect, our waking consciousness.

The Decay of Fiction is as close as O’Neill has come to making scripted, hyper–controlled, feature–length genre narrative. He took his cues from a story type and a model of production redolent of the studio era but nearly extinct in current Hollywood practice, hence the aura of "decay." Paradoxically, the blockbuster paradigm that replaced Hollywood’s classical system was fueled by otherworldly stories trafficking in the very sort of special effects over which O’Neill had demonstrated mastery. Fusing setting with subject, Fiction hunkers down in L.A.’s defunct Ambassador Hotel, intent on treating the visual exploration of deteriorating rooms and corridors as a lever to pry loose an encrusted double history of actual events and Hollywood fictions, what the filmmaker calls "an intersection of fact and hallucination."24 Two widely scattered movie traditions inform O’Neill’s central location: industry films such as Grand Hotel and The Shining that cast hotels as emblems of social compartmentalization; and avant–garde works, from Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet to Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls, in which the strange occupants of individual rooms participate in scenarios of forbidden desire.

Fiction opens in a vacant, water–damaged chamber–another version of camera obscura?whose billowing drapes convey a spooky agitation. A moment later it becomes clear what, or rather who, is haunting this locale: dialogue from an assortment of film noir; the movement of time etched into walls and passageways; and a coterie of diaphanous black–and–white figures in forties period dress superimposed over full color views of present–day hotel architecture. As it happens, these apparitions are equipped with names, backstories, tangled relationships, even individual nightmares. Their well–worn roles include those of cop, gangster, entertainer, gambler, waitress, maid, floozie. There is a protagonist ("Jack") and a bunch of secondary players deployed in parallel narrative strands. In the course of the film they engage in argument, seduction, betrayal, coercion, and possibly murder. Their dialogues are interwoven with the voices of "real" film noir stalwarts like Robert Mitchum, Joan Crawford, Kirk Douglas, and Dana Andrews.

In conventional Hollywood fare, there is an unmistakable hierarchy of elements that begins with actors’ faces and voices and descends in importance through sets and costumes, camerawork, music, and so on. O’Neill has schemed to turn this hierarchy, as it were, inside out. Recall the venerable studio technique of back projection (now obsolete due to the ease of computer imaging) in which a moving exterior backdrop was displayed behind actors performing on a stage. Its purpose was to enhance visual realism yet, frequently, back projection created a phony, eerily disjunct meld of foreground and background space?an imperfect mirage. In Fiction, it is the characters that look awkwardly grafted while architectural details have a satisfying, if bedraggled, solidity. To be sure, the semi–transparency of foreground action is a metaphor for how old movies continue to circulate in consciousness; as the filmmaker proclaims, it is the "common condition of stories partly remembered, films partly seen, texts at the margins of memory..."25 The physical structure in which images are sedimented has, in fact, functioned as a common movie locale, a set used by literally a thousand films and TV shows; it was as well as temporary residence for dozens of celebrities, the home of early Academy Award dinners, and the site of the Robert F. Kennedy assassination.

In O’Neill’s Fiction, the Ambassador Hotel is, finally, a monument to the city it serviced, indeed to the entire region?an amalgam of Hollywood sound stage, real estate boondoggle, historical catacombs, and amusement park hall of mirrors. Within the context of his wider career, the geometrical spatial coordinates of the Ambassador, its inherent divisions and palpable signs of aging, may be adduced as the flipside, but also the symbol complement, of the desert?a domain of bewildering sightlines, oneiric contrasts, and irregular shapes. In this sense the hotel is the desert’s urban double, an oasis for the gathering of mythic as well as social significance. In a phrase coined by Carey McWilliams for his film noir era study of Southern California culture, it is "an island on the land." With benefit of hindsight, it is also the edifice around which O’Neill’s films have been moving, in a spasmodic arc of approach and avoidance, from the very beginning.


1. Pat O’Neill, "Dream Report," Dreamworks 1, no.1 (Spring 1980): 32?33.

2. For an analysis of the role of dream imagery in the early American avant–garde, see P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant–Garde, 1943?2000, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3?15.

3. Grahame Weinbren and Christine Noll Brinckmann, "Selective Transparencies: Pat O’Neill’s Recent Films," Millennium Film Journal, no. 6 (Spring 1980): 53.

4. See Mitch Tuchman, "Pat O’Neill: In All Directions," Film Comment (July–August 1976): 24, 26; and Tricia Crane, "Los Locals: Pat O’Neill," L.A. Style 6, no.6 (November 1990): 36, respectively.

5. "Some Notes by the Filmmaker," a handout at the Millennium Film Workshop screening, November 2, 1974, n.p.

6. Quoted in Tuchman, "Pat O’Neill," 26.

7. Ibid., 28.

8. David E. James provides a synoptic discussion of the history of alternative film institutions in L.A. in "Toward a Geo–Cinematic Hermeneutics: Representations of Los Angeles in Non–Industrial Cinema–Killer of Sheep and Water and Power," Wide Angle 20, no.3 (July 1998): 29–33. See also: Samir Hachem, "Now You See Them, Now You Don’t: Exhibition and Distribution of Avant–Garde Film in L.A.," Journal: Southern California Art Magazine 29 (Summer 1981): 59–64.

9. David Curtis, Experimental Cinema: A Fifty–Year Evolution (New York: Dell Publishing, 1971), 164.

10. Grahame Weinbren and Christine Noll Brinckmann argue that a concern for "surface" effects in O’Neill is critically obtuse; hopefully, I bypass this charge by elevating the idea of surface into something like a metacritical discourse: "The O’Neill Landscape: Four Scenes from Foregrounds," Millennium Film Journal, nos. 4/5 (Summer/Fall 1979): 103.

11. James, "Toward a Geo–Cinematic Hermeneutics," 26.

12. See Rayner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (New York: Penguin, 1971).

13. In James’s related formulation, the display of technology in Water and Power "bespeaks a longing for a world of mechanical reproduction...a nostalgia for visual precision, for full visual sensuousness, for vision itself." "Toward a Geo–Cinematic Hermeneutics," 49.

14. Tuchman, "Pat O’Neill," 26.

15. Bunuel is quoted in Sitney, Visionary Film, 4.

16. Once again, the best summary of the Structural film aesthetic is in Sitney, Visionary Film, 347–70.

17. "Some Notes by the Fimmmaker," n.p.

18. David E. James, "An Interview with Pat O’Neill," Millennium Film Journal, nos. 30/31 (Fall 1997): 121.

19. Ibid., 127.

20. Ibid.

21. For a somewhat jaundiced review of the claims for, and the obstacles faced by, so–called crossover avant–garde features of 1980s, see my "The Last of the Last Machine?," A Line of Sight: American Avant–Garde Film, 1965 to the Present (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2004). In the same volume, I position this film in a slightly different framework from the one I adopt here: "The Western Edge: Oil of L.A. and the Machined Image."

22. O’Neill has published two fragmentary glosses of the script: "Water and Power: A Fragmentary Synopsis," Motion Picture 3, nos. 1–2 (Winter 1989–90): 19–20; and "Water and Power," Millennium Film Journal, no. 25 (Summer 1991): 42–49.

23. Mike Davis, City of Quartz (New York: Vintage, 1990), 21.

24. "Film Synopsis," notes distributed for a screening at the New York Film Festival, October 14, 2002, n.p.

25. Ibid.

Words Table Of Contents