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Gates of Horn and Ivory: reading Richard Myers’ dreamscapes today

Published June 29, 2022


The Ann Arbor Film Festival commissioned essays from the curators of our special programs for the 60th AAFF, and published them in our program book. Enjoy this essay by Julia Yezbick, curator for Gates of Horn and Ivory.


Dreams as a metaphor for film viewing have long fascinated film theorists, from both Freudian and non-Freudian psychoanalysis to oneiric film theory, named for the personification of dreams in Ancient Greek (Óneiros). Spanning decades and intergenerational perspectives as well as Afrofuturist and decolonial visions, this program invites a practice of collective dreaming that recognizes the power of “associative currents, daydreams, sensual experiences, and streams of consciousness," (1) to shape our realities today.


Richard Myers has been living and making films in northeast Ohio for over half a century. He has been called a “master of visionary cinema” (2) and his work has been aptly described as “carnivals of the unconscious.” (3) He often employed his family and friends as actors in his elaborate, imaginative creations that defied rational logic, sequence, and narrative, favoring densely layered theatricalities of symbols and images. In First Time Here (1964), one of his earliest works, we see images of the film itself appear in the film, folding back and inverting upon itself like a dream within a dream. Myers’s wife and mother play key characters who attend and perform in a carnival show that depicts the spectacular effects of an atomic bomb upon a village. A spiraling balance of contemplations of horror and whimsical fantasy, Myers has described this film as a “celebration of the absurd mess” that humanity has gotten itself into, yet themes of renewal are nested within its macabre content.


The films in this program read Myers forward into our contemporary moment yet defy any easy historical linearity. They confound causation and instead breathe the past and future in one breath. Angelo Madsen Minax’s Stay with me the world is a devastating place (2021) acts as a response to Myers call in First Time Here. The result of a deep dive into the Channel 8 News archive in Dallas, Texas, this film reimagines politicians, citizens, and news anchors as portents of late-stage capitalism. It is a trenchant indictment of the choices made and the choices we face today, where voices from the past dispassionately call out our complicities and complacencies.


Ana Vaz’s Sacris Pulso (2008) then takes us to Brasília where the unrequited love of mid-century futurism plays out on a dreamscape of intergenerational bonds. Addressing the twinned specters of colonialism and modernity, Sacris Pulso coalesces in dreamlike layers of appropriated images. Vaz resituates the 1986 film Brasiliários, which depicts writer Clarice Lispector (played by Vaz’s mother, Claudia Periera), and scored by her father, Guilherme Vaz, as Lispector encounters the city of her dreams. Lispector defines the Oscar Niemeyer-designed city as “a future that happened in the past” and from this ephemeral place Vaz crosses generations of speculation and fantasy.


In Kevin Jerome Everson’s July (2021) we experience a moment of respite watching fireflies meander through a piece of fabric netting, their lights illuminating their environment. It is a moment of a calm summer night amidst a tumultuous year; all the sounds of the day melt away to bring our focus to the singular macrocosm of beings whose existence goes on despite us.


Cauleen Smith’s 2015 film Crow Requiem returns to the imagery we started with in Myers’s First Time Here. The crow, often deployed as an omen of death or augur of ill fate, is taken up by both filmmakers as a talisman. Smith follows the migration pattern of a flock of crows between Syracuse and Auburn, New York, two cities that were key stops on the Underground Railroad and historic places of cinematic innovation, drawing parallels between the crows and the continued violence against black bodies. Smith connects these two histories to today to recuperate the crow as a symbol of intelligence and resilience, enacting what Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulations.” (4)


Mnemonics of Shape and Reason (2021), like much of Sky Hopinka’s phenomenal work, exists within its own structures of storytelling, bringing a decolonized and regenerative shape and meaning to places of significance to the filmmaker. In this short piece, land and sea merge to collectively decry a “humid world,” and figures walk among the clouds like sirens to awaken us to our truer senses.


It is in our dreams that past, present, and future collide, where the linearity of time is confounded and reworked, rearranged and reconfigured, and new possibilities for imaginative connections can emerge. These films are the works of people who live within and respond to a world that is still predominantly marked by the violences of its capitalist, patriarchal, and colonialist ideologies. The great power films provide is the capacity to both digest, churn, and regurgitate the residue of our waking days as well as shape our desires, infiltrate our thoughts, and manifest new realities. Like Myers’s films, this program aims to tap into our collective unconscious, to sit together (or apart together, as the case may be), and share a moment of simultaneous reflection, absorption, and hope.


 

Julia Yezbick is a filmmaker, educator, and anthropologist with a PhD in Media Anthropology and Critical Media Practice from Harvard University. Her creative work has shown internationally at festivals including the Berlin International Film Festival and the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film Studies and Production at Oakland University, Yezbick is also the founding Editor of Sensate, an online media-based journal, and co-directs Mothlight Microcinema in Detroit.

 

(1) Alexander Kluge argues that cinematic experiences have existed in the minds of humans through these forms for tens of thousands of years. See:Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin. Zur realistischen Methode, Frankfurt am Main, Surkamp Verlag, 1975.

(2) Vogel, Amos (2021[1974]) Film As A Subversive Art, New York: The Film Desk. p 190.

(3) John Ewing, Director of the Cleveland Cinematheque and Curator of Film, Cleveland Museum of Art, https://www.kentstateuniversitypress.com/2014/the-films-of-richard-myers/, accessed Jan 12, 2022.

(4) Hartman, Saidiya (2008) "Venus in Two Acts". Small Axe. 12 (2): 1–14.

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