Collective Dreaming: Amy Halpern
This article appeared in the May 4, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Invocation (Amy Halpern, 1982)
In Amy Halpern’s silent short Invocation (1982), two disembodied hands are surrounded by darkness. Just barely illuminated by a warm, honey-hued light, they pull and prod at the air in curvilinear motions that suggest the presence of an invisible orb. After a little over a minute of these hypnotic movements, the hands begin to expand outward toward the edges of the frame. Then they disappear, leaving the screen dark for several beats before a brief section of credits roll. Invocation is a poetic summoning of cinema at its most illusive and elemental, evoking works of early film—particularly Georges Méliès’s 1898 magic-trick short The Four Troublesome Heads, in which the filmmaker playfully decapitates himself and makes his disembodied head reappear three times. With its focus on Halpern’s own nimble and expressive fingers, Invocation is also an acknowledgment of the handcrafted nature of her films, the products of a career-spanning exploration of cinema as a medium that’s equally capable of documenting reality and conjuring magic. In her notes on the film, Halpern described it as “a temporary sculpture; an invitation and benediction.”
Appropriately, Invocation opened the first of three retrospectives in Los Angeles this past April, all dedicated to the filmmaker’s life and work. Halpern, who died unexpectedly in August 2022, was deeply involved in the city’s avant-garde film community as an artist, programmer, educator, performer, and collaborator. Her reach was remarkably wide: in addition to her achievements in experimental film, Halpern worked as an electrician, gaffer, and cinematographer on Hollywood movies like Tremors (1990) and Alien: Resurrection (1997). The memorial screenings, hosted by Los Angeles Filmforum, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures—all institutions she was connected to over the course her long career—took on a tone of reflection and celebration (one event, poignantly, fell on what would have been Halpern’s 70th birthday). Together, the programs spanned five decades of output, showcasing nearly 40 of Halpern’s films.
Born in 1953 and raised in New York City, Halpern made her formative works in the early ’70s, after spending six months at New York’s Binghamton College. The L.A. screenings included Roll #1 for Nancy (1972), the first roll of film Halpern ever shot, which features images of New York and Halpern’s family home captured on 8mm Kodachrome film later blown up to 16mm. In Filament (The Hands), a silent, black-and-white short from 1975, Halpern used a progression of film stocks—Plus-X, Tri-X, then 4-X—to make the wildly gesticulating hands of composer and political dissident Mikis Theodorakis, conducting an orchestra, appear increasingly halated over the course of six minutes to hypnotic effect. “This is energy for liberation,” Halpern wrote in her notes.
Halpern moved to Los Angeles in the mid-’70s to attend UCLA’s film school. Immersing herself in the city’s avant-garde community, she performed in Chick Strand’s feminist documentary Soft Fiction (1979) and did camerawork and lighting for members of the UCLA-based L.A. Rebellion movement, working on now-classic films by Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, and Monona Wali. She also co-founded the artist-run screening organizations Collective for Living Cinema in New York and the Los Angeles Independent Film Oasis, serving as a programmer for both and the president of the latter.
The feature-length Falling Lessons (1992), perhaps the work for which she is best known, was begun while Halpern was still a student at UCLA. She worked on the film for 15 years, and the finished product features countless L.A. filmmakers—in addition to Strand and Dash, avant-garde luminaries Michael Snow, Alex Cox, and Shirley Clarke also make appearances alongside nearly 200 other participants. The film is made up of individual shots of Halpern’s subjects looking directly at the camera as it pans upward, giving the illusion that they are falling out of frame. These portraits are interlaced with dramatic narrative scenes in which LAPD officers shoot a young Black boy in cold blood and beat his grieving mother. After the horrific event, members of the neighborhood descend upon the cops, literally disarming them with an anarchic dance party. “Under capitalism,” the voiceover says at one point, “everyone is a monster.” The score is a rich assemblage of sound effects, captured dialogue, and improvised music by vocalist Lakshmi Shankar, bassist Tony Dumas, drummer Billy Higgins, and others. With its massive cast of art-world denizens and the formal simplicity of its cinematic portraiture, Falling Lessons piercingly captures the sense of solidarity among its subjects and outrage at the racist violence of the LAPD.
Just a few months before her death, Halpern completed 13 new films for a showcase of her 16mm work at S8 Mostra de Cinema Periférico in A Coruña, Spain. Many of these consist of pieces of footage she shot over the course of the previous four decades. “Amy considered everything to be a part of a living body of work and would go back and dip into older materials, putting things into new contexts,” filmmaker David Lebrun, Halpern’s husband and frequent collaborator, told me in an interview over the phone. “She was a firm believer in Gertrude Stein’s idea that a repetition is never really a repetition.” Several of these works made their L.A. debuts in April, spread across the three retrospectives, which Lebrun co-curated with Mark Toscano, senior film preservationist at the Academy Film Archive and a close friend of Halpern’s.
One of the new films, 4 Fingers, 5 Toes, captures images of the Eastern spotted newt and California golden newt in their natural habitats. Halpern shows the amphibians walking, swimming, and even mating, their staccato movements redolent of stop-motion animation. Ma Sewing (2021), another recent work, features scenes of Halpern’s mother shot in 1991. Tender and intimate, the footage feels like a totem from the past, as Halpern’s mother repeats specific actions for successive takes. Repetition, and what Lebrun describes as “ritual, transformative gestures,” abounds in Halpern’s work, imbuing her films with a sense of the ceremonial, and bridging action and essence.
A sense of ceremony pervaded the L.A. screenings, which provided Halpern’s community occasions to commemorate her legacy as both artist and friend. Halpern’s films, rarely screened internationally before the program in Spain last year, hopefully will be seen by a broader audience: Lebrun says that screenings in Madrid, Paris, Frankfurt, and a number of other European cities are in the works. Numerous retrospectives of Halpern’s films have already been held in cities across the U.S. and Canada this year. Efforts are also underway to preserve this vital and historically significant work: one complete set of 16mm prints of Halpern’s films will be housed at the Academy Film Archives in Los Angeles, another will be distributed through Canyon Cinema in San Francisco, and the third will be distributed through Light Cone in Paris.
In a posthumously published interview with Senses of Cinema, Halpern said of her work, “It’s definitely first person and not diaristic. To me first person cinema is the opposite of being narrative or third person. It is an experience for the person looking, it is for the person looking, to be as intimate as possible.” Sitting in a darkened theater, surrounded by Halpern’s friends and family, I found that the images she created were an invitation to share in that most intimate of experiences: to see the world as she did.
Sarah Fensom is a writer living in Los Angeles.