Dargis, Monohla. "In the Studios' Shadow, an Avant-Garde Eye," The New York Times, November 8, 2004.
Hollywood casts a long shadow, and nowhere does that shadow seem darker, more enveloping and inescapable, than in Los Angeles. Here, when people say "the movies" they invariably mean commercial films or, in the parlance of the film industry, "product," produced by the big studios and beamed across the world.
But Los Angeles has also long been home to artists for whom film is neither a blood sport nor the means to a very lucrative end, but a deeply personal expression. One such is Pat O'Neill, a filmmaker who has brushed conceptual elbows with such radically different personalities as the avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren and that consummate commercial moviemaker George Lucas.
A native Angeleno, Mr. O'Neill has been creating startlingly beautiful, technically virtuosic films since the early 1960's, many of which engage with the city as a subject. Like many avant-garde filmmakers in Los Angeles, he has also had a foot in the movie industry, having run a small special-effects company since the mid-1970's (hence the Lucas connection).
The artist is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, where his 16-millimeter and 35-millimeter films are projected in a gallery filled with his photographs, prints and sculptures, as well as a nifty interactive DVD-ROM installation. Programmed by Julie Lazar, "Pat O'Neill: Views From Lookout Mountain" - the show's name comes from the avenue where the filmmaker and his wife lived for many years - closes on Saturday.
Now 65, Mr. O'Neill began making films while a graduate student in design and photography at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 1960's. A few years afterward, he introduced optical printing into his work, a step that allowed him to maximize the medium's plasticity several decades before computer-based composition systems made image manipulation widely accessible. In an optical printer, filmed images are copied onto raw film stock, allowing the filmmaker to subject the images to an array of photographic techniques, including fades and multiple exposures. Optical printers have various industrial uses, but one distinct advantage for film artists is that they allow them to manipulate live-action images the way animators do.
Mr. O'Neill's 1972 short, "Last of the Persimmons," opens with a black-and-white image of a man inflating helium balloons in the shape of rabbits. Onto this image Mr. O'Neill places two mirror images of an old, Fleischer-style cartoon elephant comically licking its mouth as if in anticipation of yet another layered image, that of a ripe persimmon. During this six-minute amusement, a pair of human hands prepare the fruit (slice, add lemon) amid a riot of kaleidoscopic color and densely layered imagery. As the colors shift and deepen, turning the luridly red persimmon brown, Mr. O'Neill adds some pulsing animated shapes that look like doughnuts one second, flowers the next, and seem very much to be dancing to the accompanying song, "Is It Love?," by T.Rex.
Throughout the 1970's Mr. O'Neill continued to explore how film creates fictions, not in storybook terms, but through illusions of texture and perspective. His hypnotic 1974 short, "Saugus Series," begins with a finger tracing black paint across the bottom half of the frame, in essence creating a horizon line. This ephemeral landscape gives way to a series of images - rocks, a man sawing wood, a flower pot - that are seemingly disconnected from one another and from any obvious context. In the film's most enigmatic composition, a stream of paint pours on a bit of twig that looks as if it has pierced an animation covered with geometric shapes and confettilike specks of color. In a witty touch, a creaky disembodied voice explains that artists must introduce a "certain amount of variety" to remain interesting.
Mr. O'Neill's films evince a long-evolving pleasure and preoccupation with the materiality of film, with all the ways in which the physical object can be steeped in eye-popping color, scratched, flopped, layered, halved and quartered. While this attention to the surface of the image may seem like an extended exercise in form, the filmmaker has long been preoccupied with landscape and in exploring the tension between exterior and interior spaces, between the natural and built environment. In many of the films, nature often seems in play with Mr. O'Neill's abstractions, much like that stick poking through the image in "Saugus Series." Meanwhile, in other films, clouds scud through the air via stop-motion photography, stretches of desert floor become the backdrop for color studies and cactuses transform into hands reaching toward the heavens.
It was while a student at U.C.L.A. that Mr. O'Neill started attending screenings of works by avant-garde filmmakers like Deren, who shot her landmark film "Meshes of the Afternoon" in a bungalow off Sunset Boulevard. Although Mr. O'Neill's work carries traces of influences from other avant-garde pioneers, it feels closer in dialogue to both still photography and Hollywood than to any avant-garde film movement. In his sumptuous 1989 film, "Water and Power," his interest in landscape takes the shape of a story told in rather different fashion in Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." In Mr. O'Neill's version, the water that flows from the Owens Valley to slake Los Angeles's thirst doesn't lead to apocalypse, but a slipstream of human activity.
In Mr. O'Neill's most recent film, "The Decay of Fiction" (2002), he uses the old Ambassador Hotel to construct of powerful vision of Los Angeles glamour and decay that would make a terrific double bill with David Lynch's similarly hydra-headed "Mulholland Drive." Set in and around the now-shuttered hotel, a former Hollywood hot spot now mostly remembered as the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, "The Decay of Fiction" is at once a memento mori and a poetic metaphor. As the camera prowls through the Ambassador, taking in peeling walls and eerily billowing curtains, ghostly men and women in period costume drift past like extras from some long-forgotten pulp fiction. In Mr. O'Neill's eyes, even in a city that works desperately to erase its own history the past will not be denied.