“The pioneer filmmaker of light projections,” as deemed by American avant-garde expert P. Adams Sitney, Jim Davis has never received the same attention accorded artists such as Stan Brakhage, even though both worked in a similar vein, using light as landscape, figure, and subject for their cinematic canvases — and even though the younger Brakhage was inspirationally indebted to Davis. Differences in personal mythologies may be responsible: whereas Brakhage incorporated light into the ongoing, pantheistic legend he created of his own life in multi-part “home movie” epics, Davis stuck to short-length “abstractions” (a term he hated) that played on mirrored and refracted rays, relegating his persona to the inconspicuously observational.But Davis’ vision was literally just as all-encompassing as Brakhage’s (and Jordan Belson’s, and Ed Emshwiller’s, among the many cosmos-seeking filmmakers the former may have influenced). At first a painter and a photographer primarily concerned with representing and capturing the incarnation of energy as light, Davis was interested in the overlapping pursuits of cinema, which he took up in the mid-40s, and science, comparing his films’ shifting swirls of colorful light to the universe-composing bands of invisible energy that were just being discovered by scientists employing the latest in tele- and microscopic technology.
Only recently unearthed, 1971’s Red Dances leads a program of classic Davis films this weekend at Anthology Film Archives and beautifully exemplifies the pioneer’s ideas while also retaining the immediate joy of ineffable movement and color. Filmed in 1960 and then re-edited three years before Davis’ death, the short ten-minute film features red, white, and yellow (but mainly red — thus the title) nerve-like and parabola-shaped nodes swirling, rotating, and swimming in a sea of black — the result is something like that of a free-floating light-mobile. Davis further employs rippling effects, superimpositions, flashing lights, and fade-outs at the edges of the frame — the short film only hints at the unending permutations of shaking, bending, and stationary light streams. Red Dances also contains some of the most rapid editing among Davis’ work, a radical anomaly in the career of an artist who was most concerned with making of his images a seamless flow. Though certainly relative (especially in comparison to Brakhage’s blink-length montage sequences), the fast pace of Red Dances evokes a violence and urgency that counters the tranquility portended by other Davis titles like Sea Rhythms and Like a Breeze, to be shown in the same program.