Chumlum: an analysis

In 1964, filmmaker and poet Ron Rice completed his fourth film Chumlum.  Rice had met avant-garde filmmaker Jack Smith the previous year, having cast the director in The Queen Of Sheba Meets The Atom Man.  Rice became intrigued with Smith’s own filmmaking process, and began shooting footage on the set of Smith’s now infamous film Normal Love.

Jack Smith’s films, like predecessor Kenneth Anger, dealt with the fantastic and metaphorical.  By filling the frame with brightly colored low-budget dreamscapes, Smith hoped to illustrate the psychological plain his mind inhabits, an approach to film having more in common with beat poetry composition than with Eisenstein’s theories of montage.

What Rice’s film successfully captures are not just the bright costumes, erotic dances, orgies, and skylines that make up Jack Smith’s films, but a sense of the filmmaker himself.  By this time in the sixties, a majority of the New York based filmmakers had been in regular contact since Jonas Mekas began writing for The Village Voice, and were therefore prone to “borrowing” different techniques from one another.  In favor of any barrowing, Rice simply endeavoured to capture on film an abstraction of Smith’s process.

But, as I said above, Rice’s film Chumlum does more than simply document the production of Normal Love.  Rice layers the film with extensive overlays, allowing the colors from one frame to bleed into the other.  Soon, a kaleidoscopic effect is taking place, and it becomes almost impossible to clearly label any component of the film (such as actors, locations, props, etc).  Rice’s film, emulsion and all, seems to break down into the bedlam of a Jack Smith production,

while also retaining the visual beauty and fantastic splendor that make the films accessible.  Hence, Chumlum simulates the experience of making Normal Love rather than just documenting it.

Chumlum focuses on the artist’s process rather than the artist who originates the process, which is the dominant trend of cinematic portraiture.  With so much promise and spark of originality as a filmmaker, it is a great tragedy that Chumlum was Rice’s final film.  The director died later that same year in Mexico of Pneumonia.

-Robert Curry

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