Devotional Themes in the Work of George Landow a.k.a. Owen Land
Guest post by filmmaker Heidi Phillips
Owen Land/George Landow’s films are featured at Anthology Film Archives December 2011.
The late George Landow, who from the late 1970s onward went by the name Owen Land, had a long history as a fascinating and elusive figure in the American avant-garde film world since the 1960s. He distanced himself from this scene in the 1970s, though Land and his work have been rediscovered and distributed around the world by LUX along with a book Two Films by Owen Land, which is assembled and edited by Mark Webber.
Owen Land’s work stands apart from other American avant-garde films because of its religious themes. He gives this reason for exploring religious themes in his work, “I’ve had conversion experiences myself, and I’m interested in observing them in other people; especially radical personality changes.”1 Gregory Springer points out that Land may be the only experimental filmmaker addressing Christianity with his work. (Springer, 1979) It is necessary to explore this theme in Land’s work.
P. Adams Sitney refers to George Landow as one of the most devout of the structural filmmakers and perhaps the most sublime. In On the Marriage Broker Joke as cited by Sigmund Freud in wit and its Relation to the Unconscious, or can the Avant-Garde Artist be Wholed? (1977-79) the question is asked by the First Panda, “What’s a structural film?” The Second Panda answers, “That’s easy, everybody knows what a structural film is. It’s when engineers’ design an airplane, or a bridge, and they build a model to find out if it will fall apart too soon. The film shows where all the stresses are.”2
Among Land’s earlier films, Bardo Follies (1967) is the most impressive. This film’s main focus is the melting of the celluloid on the frame of the projector. It seems more like a science project than an avant-garde art film; as if the filmmaker is discovering the properties of film itself. The visuals are stunning and the audience is captivated by the anticipation of the film melting. Still, beyond pushing the boundaries of medium this film has little content.
Land’s conversion to Christianity in the early 70s led to a change in his work. He begins to use his personal faith as a theme in his films. The first of these new films, Thank You Jesus for the Eternal Present (1973), has a preacher giving a sermon as the audio track. An image of a woman’s face appears superimposed throughout the piece. It starts off as black and white high contrast image, then is inverted, layered with itself, and goes to colour near the end of the film. The change from black and white to colour is like going from death to life and references a born again experience.
Land states, “Dealing with anything spiritual is like the tip of the iceberg. Most of it is below the surface and can’t be recorded by a camera. In a sense it’s an impossible thing to deal with in films.”3 Regardless, he attempts this impossible task in his films.
Wide Angle Saxon (1975) was originally based on The Confessions of Saint Augustine. The main character in the film, Earl Greaves, plays himself having a conversion experience in The Walker Art Centre. However, in reality he was watching Land’s film Thank You Jesus for the Eternal Present (1973). In order to make visible a religious conversion, Land decided to focus this event based on Greaves initial action of giving away his possessions. This idea in the film is planted by Greaves reading the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 19:21:
“If you want to be perfect, go now and sell your property and give the money to the poor, you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
The other moment in the film where Christianity is blatantly present is when one of the audience members says:
“There it is: sin. Now that’s what I want to be included in this film. It’s too important a concept to be taken for granted. Everything else depends on it. I mean, if there were no such thing as sin, salvation wouldn’t be necessary.”4
Land is not afraid of using Christian thoughts or ideas in his work, but he does so in an artistic way. He sees other forms of contemporary media as misusing the medium by simply inserting the Christian message into a digestible package for mass media. Here are some of Land views on Christianity and its use of media:
“Most Christian media work is highly conventional in an attempt to give people what they want. It inserts a Christian message into what is assumed people already like, which to me seems rather silly. Most American Protestant Christian attempts at art have been so much like their secular counterparts. Not like fine art counterparts, but popular imitations. I think that is really unfortunate because popular arts are in themselves so demonic, with purely selfish intentions, i.e., to make money. It’s taking something that’s totally inherently bad and trying to Christianize it. I think that’s the wrong way.”5
Rather than avoiding the mix of religion and media altogether, Land attempts to include Christianity in his avant-garde films. He even sees a connection between avant-garde art and Christianity.
“In that way I think there is a link or parallel between Christianity and avant-garde art. It’s interesting that it should come around to that, because there are two things that are almost considered to have no connection, but in a funny way there is one because they’re both anti-conventional, and in essence, although Christianity has become a convention, and so has avant-garde art in museums. Both have been academicized.”6
Owen Land’s conversion to Christianity affected his filmmaking drastically. Owen Land started a transformation in how Christianity fits into avant-garde film and media in general. Will other filmmakers continue this trend and possibly change the way audiences understand these thoughts and ideas?
Author HEIDI PHILLIPS sifts and searches through old films and found footage, lifting imagery and sound to recycle into her own layered and loosely structured narrative works. Increasingly, she is using old technology such as radios and television sets as sculptural objects within the space. Her film work has been screened in such festivals as Transmediale, Berlin and Images, Toronto. She completed her MFA from Transart Institute in Austria in August of 2008.
1. Springer, P. Gregory. “New Improved George Landow Interview, conducted by P. Gregory Springer, April 1976.” Film Culture 67-68-69 (1979): p87.
2. Land, Owen. Two Films by Owen Land. Ed. Mark Webber, Great Britain: LUX with Osterreichisches Filmmuseum, 2005, p54.
3. Springer, P. Gregory. “New Improved George Landow Interview, conducted by P. Gregory Springer, April 1976.” Film Culture 67-68-69 (1979): p91.
4. Land, Owen. Two Films by Owen Land. Ed. Mark Webber, Great Britain: LUX with Osterreichisches Filmmuseum, 2005, p22.
5. Springer, P. Gregory. “New Improved George Landow Interview, conducted by P. Gregory Springer, April 1976.” Film Culture 67-68-69 (1979): p89.
6. Springer, P. Gregory. “New Improved George Landow Interview, conducted by P. Gregory Springer, April 1976.” Film Culture 67-68-69 (1979): p90