Experimental filmmaker Lewis Klahr issues a wakeup call with 'Circumstantial Pleasures'

Andy Downing
A still from "Circumstantial Pleasures"

Collage animator and filmmaker Lewis Klahr spent much of his early career “mucking around in the past,” as he termed it, crafting hypnotic, sometimes unsettling experimental films out of early 20th century cultural detritus and relics familiar to his childhood.

“And I was having a conversation about this, and I was thinking, well, I just don’t understand how the contemporary world is organized in the same way that I understood these previous decades, and it became kind of a crisis,” Klahr said recently by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “There was an article I read at one point, and it described the most populous cities, and there were five or six of these that were in China, and I had never heard their names, and it was like, wow, I know nothing about the world.”

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As a result, Klahr has made a conscious decision to wrestle more explicitly with the present in his more recent works, including “Circumstantial Pleasures,” which will be available to stream for freefrom the Wexner Center’s website beginning on Friday, May 29 (Klahr, a past Wex Artist Residency Award recipient, will also participate in a Wex virtual Q&A on June 5). It’s not always a pretty picture, either, reflecting on the ills of capitalism, consumption-driven culture, ecological crises and, fittingly for this COVID-19 era, global pandemics. At times, the film unfolds like a fevered nightmare. It doesn’t follow any sort of linear narrative, and the few recurring characters have limited dialogue, which Klahr said felt right, since he wanted to keep the focus on these outsized systems over which people have no control.

“The people are there and they’re part of the system, but there’s a sense that they’re small and generally overwhelmed by this, which is how I feel. They’re nodes within this system that just sort of operates,” Klahr said. “And we’re seeing that with the current pandemic, and with this idea of, well, we’ve just got to open the country back up because the economy is so bad and we can’t borrow money forever. … It’s like we can’t take a timeout. All the decisions of the American government, the conservatives have been making them my whole adult life and fucking it up, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s been with this whole idea that money is more important than people. 

“That’s really what’s at the bottom of all of this, and it’s horrifying and it’s cold and it doesn’t show any compassion or empathy. … People can have compassion or empathy, but the system doesn’t, and that’s part of what I was trying to describe [in the film], too. I wanted people to experience 65 minutes of that coldness.”

Klahr said he initially experienced a similar chill when he started pitching the film to festivals and curators last summer, which resulted in a steady stream of rejections. “I would get a very enthusiastic response from a certain curator, but then they would talk to their committee and the committee would hate it,” said Klahr, who started work on “Circumstantial Pleasures” in 2012. 

As the news cycle has grown increasingly ugly, though, Klahr has seen attitudes toward his film shift and soften. When he premiered the film publicly in late February, just prior to movie theaters being shuttered nationwide amid the coronavirus spread, there wasn’t a single walkout, which he described as a career first.

“It was kind of like people weren’t ready for this [film] until the virus got in their face,” Klahr said. “I think the virus has provided a kind of urgency, and a sense of the new realities we're entering. I look at [COVID-19] like, OK, this is just the first skirmish or battle in the ecological crisis that's been coming, whether through climate change or the other bad habits we have that we're not addressing. And it's the first one that really makes it clear that there are consequences to our actions ... and that it's time to wake up.”