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September 27 – October 25, 2015

Inescapable Anxiety - The Films of Paul Sharits

"I wish to abandon imitation and illusion and enter Directly into the higher drama of: celluloid, two-dimensional strips; individual rectangular frames; the nature of sprockets and emulsion; projector operations; the three-dimensional light beam; environmental illumination; the two-dimensional reflective screen surface; the retinal screen, optic nerve and individual psycho-physical subjectivities of consciousness." – Paul Sharits, 1967

The radical and highly stylized work of American filmmaker Paul Jeffrey Sharits (1943-1993) forever changed the landscape of filmmaking and art, and continues to reverberate within the history of cinema. Driven by what he described as “inescapable anxiety,” Sharits was extremely prolific throughout the 60s and 70s. His films exploded the conventions of both narrative and experimental cinema at the time and were a complete departure from what other “structural” filmmakers, such as Peter Kubelka and Tony Conrad, were making at that time. Perhaps some of the most powerful films ever made, Sharits’ mandala films of the 60s—such as the highly charged Piece Mandala/End War, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G and Razor Blades—all used the flicker technique to violently alternate between pure color film frames with sexually explicit and sometimes crude still images. Trained as a painter and graphic designer, Sharits “drew” his films first with colored ink on graph paper, as blueprints for the completed films, and then proceeded to meticulously compose them frame-by-frame like musical notes. Stripping the elements of narrative cinema—illusion and imitation—from his work, Sharits instead highlights the materiality of film while focusing on a complete exploration of the film frame. A goal of Sharits’ films was to obliterate the viewer’s perceptions by using flickering light, stark imagery and repetitive sound to deeply penetrate the “retinal screens” and psyches of the audience members, creating a powerful, profoundly visceral and participatory experience.

Paul Sharits grew up in Denver and attended the same high school that filmmakers Larry Jordan and Stan Brakhage did ten years prior. He eventually enrolled at the University of Denver to study painting, drawing and sculpture. Becoming close friends with Brakhage, Sharits founded two student cinema clubs, screening work by filmmakers like Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. Echoing the New American Cinema ethos, the films Sharits made during this time were narrative driven with actors and featured themes exploring sexuality, alienation and isolation.

Sharits’ mother committed suicide in 1965, forever altering his life and film work. This was also around the time his son Christopher was born, and both events marked a distinct turning point in his ideological way of working. From that moment forward, Sharits attempted to burn all of his early narrative-style works, mistakenly missing one film, Wintercourse, which fortunately survives as the sole example from that period. Also central to Sharits’ ideological shift in filmmaking was Kandinsky’s 1911 book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which helped guide and shape Sharits’ ideas of the “psychic effect” of using colors and the call for a “spiritual revolution” of artists to express their own inner lives abstractly.

In the early 1970s, Sharits was invited by Gerald O’Grady to teach film at the Media Study of Buffalo, a position he would hold for twenty years within a dynamic community of filmmakers that included Hollis Frampton and Tony Conrad. During this period, Sharits began working on gallery installations or, as he called them, “locations.” The extremely intricate and detailed locational works primarily featured multiple 16mm projectors of looped films, highlighting and showcasing the projector like a sculpture in the middle of the gallery. This allowed Sharits to explore and expand the durational aspects of his work in ways not possible theatrically, the loops extending the length of the films to durationsSharits could previously only imagine. Concurrently, Sharits worked on his Frozen Film Frames, a series of works in which strips of film are “frozen” in time and place, suspended between panes of Plexiglas and hung in the gallery to be studied like a painting.

For Sharits, the 1980s began with the death of his brother Greg; he was killed charging the police with a gun in his hand. Already battling the effects of severe bipolar disorder, Paul was devastated and never fully recovered from the tragedy. Throughout the decade, Sharits would complete several films and locational works, but spent the majority of his time painting, a preferred medium he had temporarily abandoned. Indicative of his tortured mental state at the time, his paintings concentrated on medical pathology, disease and decay. Sharits’ interest in the themes of his painting manifested themselves internally as well, as his body began to break down owing to a series of bizarre incidents that included being stabbed in the back and shot in the stomach.

In 1987, Sharits would make his first and only completed video and his final motion picture, entitled Rapture, a quasi music video employing early video technology, complete with scenes of Sharits writhing on the ground in a hospital gown. Six years later, on the weekend of his favorite holiday, the Fourth of July, Paul Sharits ended his life. His work lives on and in many ways is more popular than ever through the efforts of Christopher Sharits and the Paul Sharits Estate, as well as the ongoing work of Anthology Film Archives, whose staff is in the process of preserving his entire filmography, making it available to future generations. – Jeremy Rossen

Special thanks: John Klacsman, Andrew Lampert—Anthology Film Archives, NY; Christopher Sharits—Paul Sharits Estate; Antonella Bonfanti—Canyon Cinema; Filmmakers Co-Operative.

A very special thanks to Vera Alemani and Susanna Callegeri of the Greene Naftali Gallery and Arco Film & Foto for the loan of Paul Sharits’ Untitled (Frozen Film Frame), c. 1971-1976, which will be on display at the Harvard Film Archive through October.

WARNING: Though designed to produce an effect of internal peace, please be advised that the flickering effects used in these films may cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and (in a small number of light-sensitive people) seizures.

Program curated by Jeremy Rossen. All films directed by Paul Sharits

Sunday September 27 at 7pm

Wintercourse

US 1962, 16mm, b/w, silent, 12 min

The earliest and only surviving work in Paul Sharits’ filmography after a fairly successful attempt by Sharits to destroy all of his early efforts at filmmaking in “a rage of non-narrative commitment,” Wintercourse was fortunately rediscovered in 1985. Made while the filmmaker was a painting student at the University of Denver and close friends with Stan Brakhage, Wintercourse is heavily influenced by Brakhage’s Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959). Both films document the trials and tribulations of their previous marriages. With a light, lyrical style that stands in shocking contrast to later work, Wintercourse documents a relationship that is seemingly carefree yet full of apprehensions. Print courtesy of Canyon Cinema from a recent preservation by Anthology Film Archives, NY

Piece Mandala/End War

US 1966, 16mm, color & b/w, silent, 5 min

Originally made to be included in a program of antiwar films, Piece Mandala/End War occurs within Sharits’ period of what he referred to as his “mandala films,” which are flicker films containing very rapidly shifting color frames intercut with black-and-white representational images. In this instance, still images of a lovemaking couple, flipping from left to right on the screen, create an erotic tension with the color frames in order to form “a meditational-visionary experience.” In many ways, Piece Mandala/End War is very much a film of its time, of the Love Generation, with Sharits again making a film as a hopeful offering to humanity and his wife in what was a turbulent time in their marriage. Print courtesy of Anthology Film Archives, NY

T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G

US 1968, 16mm, color, 12 min

Made in collaboration with poet David Franks, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G uses flickering of pure color frames juxtaposed with positive and negative still images of Franks threatening to cut off his tongue with glitter-covered scissors and being scratched across the face by fingernails that leave a sparkling trail. Other rapidly alternating still images of eye surgery and a couple in the midst of intercourse are used to heighten the underlying violent, erotic and psychological undertones of the film and are recurrent themes that Sharits would repeatedly pursue in many of his films. The soundtrack is a continuous looped recording of Franks speaking the word “destroy” over the entire length of the film, which eventually becomes unrecognizable as it mutates in the viewer’s ear into other words or phrases. The first of Sharits’ mandala films to utilize sound in a powerful way, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G  was an attempt by the filmmaker to reconnect and come to terms with both his mother’s suicide and the birth of his son, events that would have a profound impact on his future films as well. Print courtesy of Canyon Cinema

Razor Blades

US 1966, 16mm, color, 25 min

A dual 16mm projection of side-by-side projected images, Razor Blades was the last work completed in Paul Sharits’ mandala cycle of flicker films, an exploration of many of his recurrent fixations on the elements of the cosmos, birth, life, sexuality, suicide, death and rebirth. A rapid staccato siege of flickering still images, influenced by Sharits’ involvement in Fluxus along with elements of Pop Art, appear and alternate in split-second succession. Fourteen loops are projected against each other on both projectors, with only the first and last loops repeating, thus ideally creating an infinite loop where “metric time is destroyed.” A powerful and hypnotizing cacophony of competing sounds and images is unleashed, with occasional moments of synchronization. Referencing the tools used by filmmakers to edit their films, Razor Blades also reflects the trauma of the act on Sharits, who referred to the editing process and its effects as “love wounds.”

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Saturday October 17 at 7pm

S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED

US 1971, 16mm, color, 42 min

S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED signifies a fairly abrupt shift and departure from Sharits’ previous mandala films; this was his first work in many years that did not employ the flicker technique and used moving images. Paul Sharits’ epic and groundbreaking work is composed of three repeated, fourteen-minute sections of a river current. Each repetition consists of six dissolving layers of a river flowing in a myriad of directions, broken up by horizontal tape splices acting as dams. Deep and precisely executed emulsion scratches—created by custom tools Sharits made—eventually appear in continuous sets of threes throughout the film until the entire screen is nearly covered. The resulting effects represent, in the words of P. Adams Sitney, a “powerful and beautiful act of vandalism.” Sharits emphasizes the scratches to draw attention to the constant motion of the filmstrip running through the projector, while simultaneously exposing the viewer to the materiality and hidden depth within each frame. Sharits describes the film as “[a] conceptual lap dissolve from ‘water currents’ to ‘film strip current.’” Meanwhile, a dynamic soundtrack consisting of alternating and repeated phrases of an imaginary word heard by Sharits in his sleep are combined with a series of beeps that add to the complexity of the sound and image relations. Print courtesy of the Film-Maker’s Cooperative

Color Sound Frames

US 1974, 16mm, color, 22 min

Beginning in the early 1970s, Sharits turned his attention from the mandala flicker films of the 1960s to concentrate his energies on investigating the film frame and film strip. An economical filmmaker owing to a continual lack of funding, he was the great recycler, constantly using and reusing the same strips of film and frames by repurposing them into countless new films. In Color Sound Frames, Sharits rephotographs film strips from his film Analytical Studies III, varies the speeds of the strips and reverses the direction and motion, superimposes sections to produce unique color sequences, and, in the process, creates an exhilarating abstraction of movements. The visible sprocket holes in the frame create the accompanying soundtrack of synchronous sound and add the repetitious sound of sprocket holes in this thorough examination of the film frame. Print courtesy of Anthology Film Archives, NY

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Sunday October 25 at 7pm

Declarative Mode

US 1976, 16mm, color, 39 min

Created in the bicentennial year, Declarative Mode was conceived in a similar revolutionary spirit and functioned as Paul Sharits’ own “declaration of independence from the tyranny of preconception of working from an overall structure of logic.” Sharits created eighteen scores on giant graph paper that were hand-scored and color-coded to map out the entire film—every frame, fade-in, fade-out and sequence—in advance like a music composition. Intending to transform the daily routine of life into a diary of consciousness, Sharits translates his experiences into hypnotic color rhythms. Declarative Mode is a dual 16mm projection of two identical film prints with one image projected onto another image that is slightly zoomed in and slightly smaller, creating an image within an image. The inner frame pulses with flickering frames of light, and, when combined with the outer frame, the bleeding of hues createsunique sequences of vibrating colors, the complex effects reminiscent of an Albers or Rothko painting. Print courtesy Anthology Film Archives, NY

Rapture

US 1987, digital video, color, 17 min

Ignored by curators, rarely screened and frequently omitted from many retrospectives of his work, Rapture remains significant as the only video work Sharits completed during his lifetime and his last moving image piece before he committed suicide on July 8, 1993. Sharits uses an Ampex Digital Optics (ADO) computer and early video editing techniques to make a quasi music video with a soundtrack by his friend’s band, appropriately named Hemorrhage. The result a fascinating mess, Rapture is, in Sharits words “an exploration of the similarity between ‘religious’ and ‘visionary’ ecstasy and psychotic states” and includes scenes of him writhing around on the floor in a hospital gown. Battling a lifelong bipolar disorder, his body broken down from several near-tragic incidents, and in the midst of a rather self-destructive streak, Sharits finds himself literally at a dead end in this final work.

Tails

US 1976, 16mm, color, 4 min

After a several-year hiatus, Sharits returned to representational imagery with Tails. Featuring a series of the tail ends of shots dissolving into light flares and appearing to run right through the film projector into eternity, Tails is a play on language and form, beginning with the title: “tails” is a term that may indicate the end of an entire film, one reel or a single shot. Rephotographed and edited together by Sharits, the result is a rather striking work of simplicity that taps into the psychological, ephemeral and nostalgic elements inherent in all endings. Print courtesy the Film-Maker’s Cooperative

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700