Jim Krell filming, Summer 1974, 3AM; Jeff Travers on sound. Photo: John Vasilik.
Jim Krell filming, Summer 1974, 3AM; Jeff Travers on sound. Photo: John Vasilik.

By Wheeler Winston Dixon.

One of the most original and iconoclastic personalities of the New American Cinema, Jim Krell created work that is simultaneously so important, and yet so unknown, that the news that his complete works are now being archived by Anthology Film Archives constitutes a major event, closing a significant gap in experimental film history. When screenings of his work will now appear is anyone’s guess, but the news that Krell’s original 16mm printing materials will now be safely archived is cause for a genuine sigh of relief.

Starting in the early 1970s, Krell created a series of mysterious and rigorous films that defy written description, visionary works that conjure up an entirely different vision of the physical universe. During that time, I had the opportunity to watch him at work on several occasions. What always impressed me (or perhaps “astonished” is a better word) concerning Krell’s shooting methods was the intrinsic speed and seemingly random technique he brought to his work, creating films with offhand precision that both challenged and engaged the viewer.

For one of his films, for example, Krell descended into a storm drain with a spring wound Bolex and a box of railroad flares; while shooting in the darkened tunnel, he threw lighted flares in front of him, illuminating the viaduct with rings of flaming red. For a projected film on the Patty Hearst kidnapping that was never completed, Krell shot two hours of sync-sound film in a single weekend, creating a film that, even in its unfinished state, worked both as a fictive narrative and a deconstruction of the events that led up to the affair.

In Paper Palsy (1972), one of his earliest films, archival footage of an amateur night performance at the Apollo Theater in New York is superimposed over blown up Super 8mm footage of scraped, baked, and chemically treated unexposed film stock, causing huge multi-colored blotches to interrupt the visual terrain of the Apollo Theater material at irregular intervals. The soundtrack is a recording of dolphins mating in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, played in reverse.

For his film Finally A Lamb, completed in 1976, Krell documented a performance piece by the German artist Hermann Nitsch of the Orgies/Mysteries Theater, which took place at Douglass College in the early 1970s, in which a dead sheep’s carcass was disemboweled in front of a stunned audience. For The Shoreline of China (1973), Krell shot two rolls of footage of a young woman walking up and down a beach on the coast of New Jersey at dawn, creating fades and dissolves in the camera during shooting. He then printed the color positive and negative images on top of each other in A and B roll format, with the images flipped so they cross over in the center of the frame, creating a disquieting vision of an alien landscape.

For yet another film, All Area (1978), Krell shot the shadow of a curtain on the floor of his New York loft for 30 minutes with ancient black and white Portapack ½” video equipment, then remastered the material on negative film stock with a professional film chain to achieve astonishing results in contrast, frame sizing, and the arbitrary duration of this reductive image. Soundtracks were composed out of found materials, or created electronically by Krell working with a homemade synthesizer. Running into many hours of finished work, Krell’s films would take several evenings or more to project, and have never received a fraction of the attention and critical commentary they deserve.

Other key titles from Krell’s extensive filmography include Coda/M. C. (1975), Wolverine Kills T. V. (1975), 30 Days: Speed Or Gravity (1976); Action Past Compassion (1976), Four Rolls (Rarely Pre-Dated) (Tribute to Marcel Duchamp) (1976), Fur (But Less Fun) (1976), Shame, Shame: Dallas Diary, 1964 (1977), Thank You/Your Receipt (1977), All Area (1978), (Kozo Okamoto’s Quote) (1979), and Second Thoughts (1980). But there’s a lot more on top of this, and I’m glad to see that his work will finally get the care and recognition it deserves.

Now living in Italy, Krell has long since moved on to other pursuits, but during the white hot period in which he turned out one amazing film after another in a veritable torrent of work, Krell created a singular vision that is all the more impressive because each of his films is entirely different from any other of his works; he never does the same thing twice. So the chance to see, and save, his work, is something that isn’t to be taken lightly; if nothing else, Jim Krell is a genuine original, in every sense of the word.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

6 thoughts on “The Films of Jim Krell”

  1. I seem to learn a lot throughout this blog! (I mentioned once I’m only recently obsessed with film history) I’ve honestly never heard of Jim Krell or any of his works, but I’m very curious to see them, particularly Paper Palsy.

  2. I have never heard of Jim Krell but I like how you described his filmmaking process. The film industry needs more resourceful minds that have a different approach and strive to craft stunning films.

    I’m curious how he decided to play the dolphin mating sounds backwards, this seem like a stroke of genius. Just imagine, filming a woman simply walking on a beach and then mutating this footage in something very different for The Shoreline of China…

    I know that now he has no interest in making any more films but from what I’ve read I truthfully think that we lost a very talented filmmaker.

  3. Great article! Jim is a friend of mine, though we have not been in touch since he moved to Italy. I showed several of his films at film parties in NYC back in the 1990’s with Jim in attendance. He also acted in several of my films. Really glad you are preserving and promoting his work. Well done!

  4. The legendary Hammerhead was a close friend of mine for 30 years. His squat on E. 7th street was the most intense furnace of living theatre I have ever witnessed. Every week his house parties sent the floor joists groaning. A nonstop churn of winners, losers, beauties, uglies, crazies, made his looping Peckinpah bloodbaths a respite.
    Krell was Brando in the Jungle, Ahab in his cabin, a poet at his manual typewriter crawling with plastic idols, and a builder by day. HIs appetite for living made us all seem misers set on doling out mouse sized portions of life. He would spy me in a restaurant with friends, march in, shove a hundred dollar bill in my shirt, give me that Krell smile and walk out. His art and toy collections and most of all his collection of friends had no parallels.

    1. David,
      Your account of Jim’s apt. is perfect. It was one of the real madhouses of NYC. I am sure we crossed paths there at least once.
      I have not seen Jim in quite sometime. As I said in my above comment, we made a few films together.
      All the best,

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