Milton Moses Ginsberg: The Private Life of Time
Thursday, August 2nd, at Anthology Film Archives
"The thing Kron truly hated about psychoanalysis," notes the omniscient narrator in Kron: Along the Avenue of Time, "was reducing his dreams to some dumb wish he already knew he had, and in the process destroying their lush colors and architectural schemes—their dreaminess, as it were."
This Sontag-like disavowal of Freudian interpretation at first seems groan-worthy. The film in which it appears, a new short from intermittent New York auteur Milton Moses Ginsberg, is replete with the faces and guts of mordantly ticking clocks we can't help but analyze. Kron, the photographer protagonist, considers early on that "making a film about time might actually make him immune to death"; the incessant clicks we hear are thus either the sound of time anxiously running out, or of an obnoxiously cheerful perpetuity. Examining Kron's preference for sensuality over symbolism more carefully, however, clears a bit of his aversion's mustiness. The character doesn't reject hidden meanings entirely; his beef is with big, honking signifiers that, once dumbly decoded, obscure essential surface patterns ("architectural schemes"). For Kron, understanding is arrived at not by digging through an image for what lies beneath, then, so much as by scrutinizing how its apparent pleasures are organized (its "dreaminess").
It is impossible to resist extrapolating Kron's assertion here to Ginsberg's own cinematic approach: his endlessly inventive films so often declare war on their own subtexts. Ginsberg's early features, made in the late 60s and early 70s, are unrepentant relics of the New York underground, but remain disconcertingly resistant to glossing. His Nixon-soothsaying debut, Coming Apart, was a Cassavetes concept played with the macabre, self-destructive rhythm of a Robert Downey Sr. film: As a paranoid psychologist (Rip Torn) secretly films his bizarre sexual encounters with women, both he and his A/V equipment break down simultaneously. Four years later, in The Werewolf of Washington, the press official (Dean Stockwell) of a fumbling, fictional president is bitten by a mystical Hungarian creature; what first seems a straightforward political satire gets abstracts into a hairy, Michael Reeves-like potpourri of sickening violence and crude jokes. Both movies are scathing in spirit, but lack clear targets. (Predatory males? Bureaucratic stuffiness?) As a result, the rhetorical significance of—in other words the justification for—their most transgressive content remains squirmingly ambiguous, as if to mock us.
Ginsberg dropped out of the film industry for several years after his acerbic debut and its loony follow-up, but returned in the late 90s to documentary work and short studies. His career's second half, separated from the first by a gorge of time, has been perhaps unsurprisingly fixated upon self-assessment—and the paltry extent to which introspection can be trusted, given the slipperiness of memory. In Kron, for example, a lugubrious freelance photographer known for his entomological portraits turns his lens upon his antique clock and watch collection; the act of watching time pass in this manner cracks open Kron's brain, and his personal, painful history drools out. The premise further becomes an excuse for a desultory visual essay on chronology's undertow, full of family photos (possibly Ginsberg's?), movie clips (from Blood of a Poet most tellingly), and synthesized images of grinding gears and cogs.
Kron is an unusually text-dense work in Ginsberg's oeuvre; along with the narrator, who relates a dizzying, third person stream of Kron-sciousness, superimposed quotes by William Faulkner and others appear on occasion. We sense in all this verbiage a desire on the director's part to achieve the semblance of thematic precision—afraid of death and bedeviled by flying vintage pictures, Kron keeps trying to nail down the past with words. By the end of the short, however, it naturally becomes unstuck, along with Ginsberg's thesis, as the narration veers wildly from rumination to rumination; with each relentless tick of Kron's clocks the meaning of his life seems to transform, until it becomes lyrically unreadable.
Ginsberg's second film from 2012, the as-of-yet unfinished Dark Matter, picks up exactly where Kron leaves off—at the edge of the abyss, into which Ginsberg then dives. A melting pot of NASA stock footage, famous film stills and clips, and digitally warped footage of praying mantis rituals, the movie presents a double-helix of ponderous philosophy and dadaist imagery. (A few examples: The goddess Krishna chides Marilyn Monroe as the two float through space; scurrying deep-voiced mantises, meanwhile, perform a few scenes from Hamlet.) Many moments are so silly that they buckle under the sheen of Heideggerian thought with which Ginsberg glazes them, but we quickly recognize in this madness the director's trademark aching bathos. We might even feel a bit like Rip Torn's psychologist in Coming Apart, rifling in vain through his own filthy pastimes for the essence of his being—Ginsberg's frequent unwillingness to offer any more than over-stimulating koans reveals to us the trick that experience plays upon our psyches. Human beings are hard-wired to interpret everything they absorb, without fail. The reason for this, Ginsberg subtly surmises, is that our hardware is faulty, a kind of spiritual handicap that keeps us from happiness.