Movie Review: By Any Old Light
Today, when reading the work of ’60s era Jonas Mekas on the underground film scene, such as his influential Village Voice “Movie Journal” column, he really makes it feel that producing avant-garde / experimental films was a revolutionary act. Actually, he also makes it seem that just watching and screening underground films was a revolutionary act.
Sometimes that was true, especially when the films crossed local obscenity laws, e.g. the work of Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith. But one filmmaker who really embraced the true spirit of revolution in his filmmaking was British intellectual Peter Whitehead.
To be totally upfront, before watching By Any Old Light, I had no idea who Whitehead was. This new documentary co-directed by Dionysos Andronis and Ca Ca Ca is allegedly a filmed “conversation” between Whitehead and South African avant-garde filmmaker Aryan Kaganof, another artist I was previously unfamiliar with. The reason I say this is only an “alleged” conversation is that the majority of the film feels like a monologue delivered from Whitehead to Kaganof.
That’s not a criticism of the film or of anybody’s participation in it. In fact, I really enjoyed the film and actually appreciate its structure. By Any Old Light captures the first ever meeting between Whitehead and Kaganof and the younger filmmaker stands in total awe of a man who has had a major influence on his own work. Therefore, the film actually casts Kaganof as a student who earnestly absorbs a lesson from a revered professor, which, given Whitehead’s insights into his own work and the ’60s counterculture movement, it’s a great lesson for everyone to listen in on.
When I reviewed Andronis’ previous film, Pandrogeny Manifesto, I claimed it was just “dueling images” of its subjects, Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge. Although that’s what I thought upon the film’s initial vieweing, subsequent viewings have told me that I was wrong and that Andronis artfully inserts several visual diversions from the dueling monologue to keep the action moving.
Andronis does the same thing with By Any Old Light. The basic set-up is visually kind of dull: just Whitehead and Kaganof sitting at a long table in, what I think is, a bare white classroom. But, during the discourse, Andronis inserts long excerpts from Whitehead’s films as well as filmed performances by Kaganof. (In addition to making movies, Kaganof is a poet and novelist whose public readings are gutteral performance pieces.) Also, the last 10-15 minutes of the film drops all verbal discourse and mostly films Kaganof filming Whitehead. As interesting as Whitehead and Kaganof are, the film excerpts do a good job of breaking things up and expand the documentary’s visual vocabulary, which could have gotten monotonous. It also allows somebody like me, who wasn’t familiar with either director’s work to make me excited about it.
What also comes across in the film is why these two different filmmakers would get along so famously. First, they have the connection that they’re inter-disciplinary artists. Whitehead gave up filmmaking after the ’60s and focused on writing. He’s currently working on a cyber-novel, i.e. a novel that unfolds by clicking on various webpages, called Nohzone about a spy. He also says he plans to return to directing by adapting this online work into a movie.
But both directors here also have very radical, political edges to their work. Whitehead’s most famous film, The Fall, includes a sequence where he joined students at the infamous Columbia University sit-in in 1968. While that was a largely peaceful demonstration, Whitehead discusses here the evolution of early anti-Vietnam peace protests to the violent actions of the Weathermen.
From some limited research, too, I know Kaganof also made primarily documentaries under the name of Ian Kirkhof. He has since changed his name after meeting his biological father. His latest film, though, SMS Sugarman, is a fictional narrative about a pimp and was all shot on cell phones. However, what we see mostly of Kaganof in By Any Old Light is his poetry performances, which are very abstract pieces.
By featuring this intriguing meeting of the minds by two artists whose works lie at the intersection of art and revolution, By Any Old Light — and the title comes from a touching quote delivered by Whitehead in the film — is a very engaging film. Although we are witnessing a monologue cum conversation, it makes the viewer feel as though he is a participant in the dialogue.