“Necrology” (dir. Standish Lawder, 1969, 11:30)
Experimental filmmaker Standish Lawder died last week at age 78, after a half-century of writing, teaching, and making cinema. I have friends who knew Lawder, and who have spoken of him fondly; and it’s because of those friends that I know Lawder’s work in the first place. They’re the ones who introduced me to Lawder’s “Necrology,” a film significant enough to merit inclusion in the essential DVD box set Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986. “Necrology” is still among the most haunting avant-garde films I’ve ever seen, even though it’s also one of the simplest (and at times the funniest). Just by taking grainy black-and-white footage of New Yorkers on an escalator, and running it backwards in slow motion —with melodramatic music playing in the background—Lawder created a striking record of people on the go, which doubles as an impressionistic vision of beaten-down souls ascending into heaven.
Lawder has often been filed alongside the structuralist filmmakers of his generation, though he reportedly resisted such categorization. “Necrology” does bear comparison with other structuralist films (for example the recent Manakamana, which like “Necrology” films ordinary people in motion, in long takes), but almost as important as its fixed, “take whatever comes” perspective is the puckish closing credit roll, which identifies the people in the film as “Manufacturer Of Plastic Novelties,” “Jilted Lover,” “Man Returning From Dentist,” “Woman With Canker Sore On Inside Of Left Cheek,” “Embezzler (At Large),” and so on. That little joke—or series of jokes—is indicative of how artists see the world, as a neverending source for compositions and characters. Last week, the world of film lost just such an artist.
Previous “Short Cuts” columns can be found here.