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Paul Mintz in Cancer


Directed by Jon Bevers

At School 33 through March 9

There is a surreal golden hue to much of Jon Bevers’ short film Cancer, now playing in a loop at School 33. As it begins, an elderly artist (Paul Mintz) tacks overlapping images of the moon on the wall of his studio next to his easel and starts to create a charcoal drawing. Eventually, he comes to focus on several black-and-white photographs of a family and then one of a young man and a young woman, framed side by side. Avant-garde music swirls and swells behind him, and the gold-infused interior is simultaneously warm and sad. Then the artist begins to paint his face white in long, slow strokes until his face takes on a lunar pall. He looks at one of the photos and then in the mirror; he gets up and walks away.

Though a digital production, this silent film looks like it was made in the early 20th century. (Guy Maddin, Canadian director of the beautiful films The Heart of the World and The Saddest Music in the World, is the closest contemporary parallel.) And, in fact, Cancer was conceived as an improvised visual accompaniment to its musical score—specifically Erik Spangler’s and Brian Sacawa’s remixed version of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, a 12-part composition based on the zodiac.

“Erik and Brian approached me because I had an interest in alchemy and stars and astrology, and they asked if I’d be interested in working with them,” Bevers says.

Originally, Bevers edited live footage he had shot and collected for each of the 12 musical pieces at a Mobtown Modern performance of the piece. It was a fast project of filmic improvisation that matched the radically reimagined and sample-heavy version of Stockhausen’s high-modernist piece.

After the initial performance, Bevers told the composers he was going to continue with the project and actually make a short for each of the zodiac signs. “I spend about 50 hours a week working at MICA, where I teach classes, and it’s nice to have projects like this that I can basically work on without a large crew.”

Cancer is the first of these to be shown in a completed, non-improvised form. It is both simple and elegant. Bevers says that he wanted it to be filled with the sense of longing for home and family that characterizes the sign of Cancer. That sense of nostalgia comes both from the glow of the film and the score—especially when a melodeon and old music boxes mix to create and old-world lostness as he paints his face. But after the artist gets up, the film cuts to a cold, blue, exterior light and the film changes dramatically as the artist’s white face and shirt glow in the dark night. He does nothing but look out at the moon with a kind of sad resolve, but in this understated moment, we get more of the mundanely tragic longing that makes up much of human life than we do in all the pyrotechnic explosions of all the blustering Die Hard-ian blockbusters.

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