Exhuming Sokoloff

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10/10/2008 9:00 AM |

By Henry Stewart

Tonight, Anthology Film Archives will be screening two programs of the late trans-media artist Beryl Sokoloff’s experimental short films, split up by theme, each roughly an hour long (with a wine and cheese reception in the middle): at 7 p.m., it’s “Art/Politics & Society”; at 9 p.m., “NYC/Travels.”

The longest film, at 17 minutes, is also possibly his best known: My Mirrored Hope (pictured). Part of the first program, it’s the highlight of both shows: Clarence Schmidt occasionally narrates footage of his dilapidated Xanadu (had Kane collected junkyard detritus instead of antique masterpieces), his "House of Mirrors" in Woodstock. It looks like ten houses smushed together into one unsteady behemoth (and makes the Broken Angel House from Dave Chappelle’s Block Party look as architecturally impressive as your apartment building), overflowing with wood, stone and glass — statues, windows, dolls, sculptures, paintings, door frames but, above all, mirrors.

Thus the title, though with Hope Sokoloff seems to suggest that he sees himself mirrored in the mad art-monk and his makeshift monastery, or at least finds inspiration in Schmidt and his palace; it’s a seemingly endless work of enormous creation that, taken wholly, becomes collective culture manifest, like that terrifying parade of pop culture in Paprika.

Sokoloff’s dominant aesthetic is drawing parallels through editing; like early Eisenstein, he derives meaning not through images themselves but through their juxtaposition. Ruben’s Nightmare, the first program’s other highlight, captures a Halloween parade (presumably the Village’s), sets it to garbled squealing, and then hits the streets to find ordinary freaks in the light of day — breakdancers, a man playing an upright piano in Central Park, Ronald Reagan — as well as their "haunted houses" — skyscrapers appear reflected in pools of shimmying water between red-tinted contact-sheet photos of municipal buildings. Interspersing Peter Paul Rubens paintings throughout, Sokoloff teases out the oddity of the everyday.

With its Big Apple street photography, Ruben’s Nightmare may have fit just as well into the second program. One of NYC/Travels’ highlights, Line, is fascinating in equal measure for its time-capsule cinematography as it is for its study of found lines and its clever visual correlations — puddles with Ferris Wheel pods; the trail of a skywriting plane with a queue of protestors — with which Sokoloff suggests that lines connect everyone and everything.

The other highlight, Fire, cheekily opens with the ebb and flow of the ocean before moving on to the titular element. Between firefighters unfurling fire hoses, Sokoloff wanders the city in search of fiery and fire-ish places and objects, as well as the fire-damaged, though he seems much more interesting in exploring, and illuminating, fire’s dialectical relationship to its opposite, water, particularly in shots of ponds, puddles and their jiggling, flickering, flame-like refractions.

A fixture in Chelsea and the New York art scene at large until his death in 2006, Sokoloff is better known for his paintings and photographs, even his cello playing, than he is for his films. Anthology Film Archives hopes to change that, starting tonight.