Bas Jan Ader, the Los Angeles-by-way-of Holland artist from the 1970’s, is a bit of a mystery. His tiny, but exquisite body of work injected the macho, cold Los Angeles art scene with a much-needed dose of emotion and was cut short by his project “In Search of the Miraculous” in which he attempted to sail from the U.S. to Holland never to be seen again. In a rare event last night Anthology Film Archives screened four of his films and a work-in-progress documentary that a Dutch filmmaker Rene Daalder is making about Ader.
The films are silent, brief and captivating. “Broken Fall (organic)” opens with Jan Ader hanging from a tree limb with both hands above a shallow, muddy creek. He hangs there much longer than you expect him to, clambering down towards the skinny end of the branch, only to let go and plummet into the water below which you quickly realize is only a few feet deep. In the notorious “I’m too sad to tell you” the artist sits in front of the camera and weeps. Because there is no sound, each tear becomes monumental and watching them slowly crawl down his cheeks echoes the suspense of seeing him hanging from a tree.
After the simple visual poetry of the films the documentary was a bit of a let-down. Daalder tried to take a Werner Herzog-like approach and makes himself a central character in the film. However, his approach feels completely tangential. He didn’t know Jan Ader and while they may have a few things in common there is no real or significant relationship between the two men. And his adding of sound effects to Jan Ader’s films reveals a distrust that the artist’s work to stand on its own. Daalder was touted in his introduction as a pioneer of computer animation and takes it upon himself to “bring to life” the relationship between Jan Ader and Piet Mondrian in a series of absurdly hokey animations. Believing that Jan Ader’s work needs to be buoyed with cheap parlor tricks is something of an insult to an artist who made such simple, engaging work.