A scene from Alfred Leslie's The Cedar Bar. Courtesy photo.
ArtPace kicks off its 'On Screen' art film series with 'The Cedar Bar'

Alfred Leslie's The Cedar Bar (2001) is an experiment in parallel - a difficult visual and auditory amalgam intended to splinter the two primary senses of sight and sound. The film grabs its name from the Cedar Bar in New York City, a favorite watering hole of the Abstract Expressionists, a postwar circle of painters known equally for their creative success and personal excess. Leslie is alternately described as an Abstract Expressionist and a Beat painter due largely to his close personal ties with Kerouac and a pre-LSD Allen Ginsberg. He penned The Cedar Bar in 1952 as a play; its heated dialogue was extracted from ongoing barroom arguments and occasional brawls between artists and the then ubiquitous critic Clement Greenberg. Leslie later rewrote the play as a single conversation that took place in 1957, when the tight crowd in question was emotionally vulnerable and chemically addled, still reeling from the recent, violent death of Jackson Pollock.

Leslie's fractured approach to filmmaking preserves the retired style of revered experimental film artist and one-time collaborator Robert Frank. In The Cedar Bar, Leslie mingles video footage of a performance of the play with ultraviolent World War II newsreel clips of concentration camp horrors, Nazi propaganda films, snippets of hardcore porn, appropriated Hollywood film clips, and gratuitous Oscar ceremony audience shots - all set to the constant stream of his scripted barroom banter. Natural sound from culled film footage occasionally bleeds over and drowns out the narrative's central dialogue, making the viewer seem momentarily as guilty of surreptitious eavesdropping as Leslie was himself. Although initially distracting, this duplicitous technique is actually quite appropriate to the subject matter, weaving in and out of lucidity much like the play's world-weary, inebriated characters.

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In the primary play soundtrack, painters Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Teddy Moore, and April Yabolonsky join gallerist John Myers and critic Greenberg in an impromptu drink-a-thon at the Cedar Bar. A nearly civil conversation about aesthetic concerns and artistic practice quickly disintegrates into a world-class tournament of volleyed narcissism. Although the artists are enraged by the arbitrary authority critics wield in determining their professional success or failure, they cannot stop alternating between attacking Greenberg and needlessly taking cheap cracks at each other.

Leslie paints the evening as an infantile ideological pissing contest made relevant only in the haze of art historical retrospect. By the time people leave the bar, they are totally abased, snatched off their abstract artistic pedestals and reduced to mere vaudevillian players, delivering trite summations as a cappella solos or drunken soliloquies to an imaginary audience roaring with canned laughter. High art's embarrassingly low drama is visually contextualized as commonplace in the bizarre fold of history that girdled a collectively suppressed A-bomb aftershock with the vapid mainstream cult of Ozzie and Harriet. This was a cultural terrain upon which no one could legitimately hold the moral high ground. Artist and critic were equally emasculated, collectively neutered by a sexed-up, lowbrow Hollywood hallucination made glaringly apparent by Leslie's choice of re-appropriated visuals. •


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