Night Hunter, a fifteen and a half minute film by Boulder artist Stacey Steers, places silent film star Lillian Gish in an animated setting created from 4000 collages made up of black-and-white Victorian ephemera. Though the title seems to derive from the classic 1955 thriller, The Night of the Hunter, in which an older Gish starred with Robert Mitchum, the Gish that Steers claims as her own is the early Gish, D. W. Griffith’s Gish, whose waifish build and eerily doll-like face made her an emblem of female innocence tested and wronged in silent films one step removed from stage melodrama (the movies from which Steers has borrowed footage include Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and True Heart Susie).
Here, Gish finds herself amidst a riot of Freudian imagery – snakes, earthworms, and phallic blades of grass; mysterious pulsating eggs that seem to ooze blood. Among the few touches of color (added by hand) are splashes of red in Gish’s clothes (and oozing from those eggs). These, along with the old house deep in a tangled wood which forms the setting, evoke Little Red Riding Hood, perhaps the modern world’s favorite fable of sexual awakening and sexual danger. Flights of death’s head moths underline the conjunction of Eros and Thanatos.
Night Hunter, which has already been shown at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York City, and as part of a media show at Berlin’s Galerie Zink, can be seen through August 14 in the Denver Art Museum’s media installation space, The Fuse Box, along with individual collages used in its making and Night Hunter House, a three-dimensional realization of the film and its setting. The style and technique of the film strongly recall the collage novels of Surrealist Max Ernst, such as Une Semaine de Bonté, and the surrealist-inspired shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell — for many it will recall the animated segments of Monty Python as well.
It’s a style I myself fall for every time, and I find myself wondering why. It seems to be in the air these days, as a few minutes browsing on Etsy will confirm. On New Year’s Eve 2005, I saw DeVotchka (the Denver band best known for their work on the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack) perform at northwest Denver’s Oriental Theater, a silent-era movie house whose murals of Alhambra-esque gardens were then gently decaying without any interference by restorers. It was the perfect setting for DeVotchka’s mix of gypsy, mariachi, and Mittel European influences, and for the black-and-white film clips that accompanied the performance. I found myself reminded of the aesthetic of McSweeney’s, which also plays with the styles of the past.
But it’s not just me. I won’t explore the musical angle, as I am nearly perfectly ignorant of the subject and I would rather debate Irish politics with a mixed group of Sinn Féin and Ulster Unionists than weigh in on the indie music scene. I’m afraid I can’t offer any real conclusions on the visual front, either. Perhaps our cultural moment – if there is such a thing – favors ruins, fragments, and nostalgia, half-heard echoes of the past, over brave new worlds of ideal form.
I only know that I myself have always been drawn to those elements of modernism that favor memory and bricolage over starting from zero – T. S. Eliot rather than Gertrude Stein, Joseph Cornell rather than Jackson Pollock (classic “postmodernism” is a different story — too self-conscious). And Surrealism proper worked best in collage form, I’ve always thought – I’m inclined to agree with the art teacher in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin who calls Salvador Dalí “Norman Rockwell’s twin brother kidnapped by gypsies in babyhood” (though Rockwell is pretty surreal, if you think about it…). Whatever its appeal to our culture as a whole, I find this kind of art most powerful when, like our actual dreamscapes, it is made up of things half seen and half remembered, made part of a new whole.