June 7, 2011

"The Magus" reviewed in Border Crossings

In Issue 118 of Border Crossings, Tom Kohut wrote a fantastic piece on "The Magus" for the Crossovers section, the full review is below:

"The Magus"
by Tom Kohut

What is the link between art and magic? American Underground cinema made this connection explicit by means of the depiction and /or deployment of occult ritual in their filmwork. (Obvious examples include Kenneth Anger, but also Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, and Maya Deren.) However, this imbrication of film and magic – whether the film documenting the performance of an occult ritual or actually embodying ritual itself – has serious consequences.

From the perspective of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility”, the use of film as ritual is a recidivist maneuver directly contradicting film’s revolutionary potential. If film’s destruction of the “aura” (defined by Benjamin as the vestigal trace of art’s “cultic”, which is to say “ritualistic,” function retained as the artwork’s authenticity) is the source of film’s emancipatory potential, then it follows that the use of film in the context of magical practice must be a retrograde gesture, particularly when the political function of the non-auratic artwork is eclipsed.

At the same time, it is worth asking if this is necessarily the case at every historical moment. Certainly, the American Underground filmmakers were operating under completely different socio-political pressures than was Benjamin. Do Benjamin’s injunctions continue to hold the same force?

Jaimz Asmundson’s The Magus, by directly equating art and magic, asks this very question. The film starts off simply enough: C. Graham Asmundson, the filmmaker’s father and visual artist in his own right, wakes up in the morning, makes coffee, works on some paintings depicting Bacchanalian scenes before leaving his apartment. He walks into an ordinary entry and begins moving down stairs and through hallways. Things begin to happen; a low ominous drone takes up from the naturalistic sounds we had been hearing before as the underground hallways become increasingly sepulchral. Using a flashlight to guide him along a stone corridor, he approaches a door through which a strong light shines. At this point, the film shifts; the music becomes more oneiric and the dark shadows vanish, leaving Asmundson contemplating a wooden box in the middle of a clean, brightly lit white room. He removes his clothes, placing them in the wooden box and, taking up a brush, begins to paint four wall-sized pictures that combine the gestural techniques of Action Painting (dramatically emphasized in the film through montage and superimposition) with the figurative work seen earlier in the film. The paintings are completed to the accompaniment of a percussive soundtrack before the blur of superimpositions halt. Asmundson prepares a roller pan filled with white paint. Something extraordinary happens at this point: the paintings (which represented five months of real-time labour on the artist’s part) are effaced with the paint, returning the walls to their pristine emptiness. Asmundson then proceeds to screw mirrored lasers into the four walls. At this point, the magical ritual begins; the lasers are revealed to form pentacles, as Asmundson dances around them. The paintings that were effaced make dramatic reappearances, appearing as portals through which goat-headed figures appear. A frenzy of superimpositions develops with increasing speed and complexity as Asmundson moves faster and faster until the screen climactically goes white. Credits roll.

Clearly, Jaimz Asmundson is channeling Kenneth Anger’s explicitly occult works (e.g. Invocation of my Demon Brother), which means that the questions about the retrograde nature of the work of the American Underground pertain here. How is art (represented dually in terms of film and painting) related to the magic? That is, is the art merely the necessary preparation for the magical ritual or is the art the ritual itself? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the paintings and the film are little more than the remainders of the ritual, the paintings serving as the preliminary ritual objects and the film offering documentation. And yet, the flurry of montage and superimposition, which draws the film to its climax, suggest that art is inseparable from the ritual; the invocation of whatever daemonic impulse at the end of the film could only happen through filmic technique.

This necessarily leads to the conclusion that there is something deeply contradictory about an auratic film as practiced by the American Underground and their adherents. It is not exactly, pace Benjamin, that the work of art is embedded in ritual, but rather that they are in dialectical oscillation. (In this context, it is worth noting that Graham Asmundson makes the same gestures of command/invocation when he begins the initial painting as he does when he begins the occult ritual per se.) What is the point of mediation between the two dialectical modes? The answer turns out to be a surprising one: the destruction of the paintings. This throws an interesting tension into the auratic artwork as such; insofar as its alibi is the uniqueness and authenticity of the work, this means that it is, in principle, subject to destruction. This is the sense of the twin climactic annihilations in The Magus – the effacing of the paintings and the flashes of white that enunciate the film’s closure - that the aura retains itself in film in order to facilitate its own destruction. This is the paradoxically political point of The Magus.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting clue on the connection to creative power. Is it really in some kind demonic? Or only powerful? Does art lead to somewhere else far beyond "reality"? Have you to know or are you lead to knowledge by doing?