For decades, colleagues and connoisseurs say, Chris Langdon was arguably the most interesting and important experimental L.A. filmmaker that most people had never heard of. Even many of Langdon's old friends and teachers from the California Institute of the Arts, including artist John Baldessari and avant-garde trickster auteur Robert Nelson, didn't know what had become of her over the last 30 years.
As it happens, Langdon is alive and well in Pasadena, where she's still painting and sculpting. Tonight, she'll be making one of her first public appearances in ages when she attends a retrospective of some of her work, "Now You Can Do Anything: The Films of Chris Langdon," at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles.
But Langdon acknowledges that old acquaintances may have trouble recognizing her as Inga, the female incarnation she assumed several years ago after a sex change. On a chilly afternoon last week at a Pasadena restaurant, the artist also indicated that no one was more surprised than herself when film preservationist Mark Toscano, who curated REDCAT's program, tracked her down through the Internet several months ago. "I guess I was just a little incredulous that anyone would remember those films, and a little wary about it, to be honest," said Inga, who asked that her surname not be used to protect her privacy. "But after awhile, I thought it was pretty cool."
Inga, who was born in 1952 and raised in Indiana, got a love of photography from her newspaper-photographer father and started making Super 8 films, including animations and scratch films, in her teens.
Inga said she was "always a rebel," leading her into student activism against the Vietnam War. That attitude also applied to certain parts of the CalArts instructional ethos. At the time she attended, Inga said, the Valencia arts college "was all about something had to be new and different, complex."
But Inga and a handful of other students gravitated more toward traditional figurative painting, which was then held in low esteem by much of the academic establishment. Although in retrospect, Inga believes that films were "a very good medium" for letting her tell stories, she came to realize that experimental filmmaking "was too expensive, and there really wasn't any money in it."
Eventually, she quit filmmaking entirely and went back to painting for private pleasure, not exhibition. Later, she experienced a second life, earning a degree in traditional Chinese medicine and living in China. "Having gone through a big healing process myself, I was interested in helping and healing other people," she said, referring to the challenges of her sex change.
The dozen-odd films in REDCAT's program showcase Langdon's penchant for gently but incisively puncturing artistic pomposity and popping the two-headed balloon of received opinion and dubious authority. In an interview, Toscano praised Langdon's films for what he termed their irreverent but never unkind wit and for their ability to find potency in "very powerful, single ideas."
He said Langdon's films also avoid the art-student tendency to fetishize their imagery. In Langdon's films, Toscano said, it's the clarity of the concepts that registers most.
Among teachers and fellow students in the early 1970s, Langdon's films were highly regarded both for their sophisticated yet unpretentious way of conceptualizing ideas as well as for their sheer quantity and the speed with which they were made. Although some students labored over a single film for a year, Langdon churned out up to 12 in that span. She also worked on two films each with Baldessari and seminal experimentalist Fred Worden.
Inga said that one film, "Picasso," was concocted in about four hours after the Cubist master's death in 1973. Her fellow art students wanted to throw a send-off party, Inga said, so she decided to bring a film to the postmortem bash.
The three-minute black-and-white work depicts an actor portraying Picasso drawing, in a deliberately unpersuasive manner, as a looped voice-over that Langdon got from a found scrap of stock footage rambles nonsensically in a Southern accent. Although a subtitle proclaims this is "the actual voice of Pablo Picasso," the film's patently false "documentary" style invites viewers to question assumptions about artistic hero worship and the creative process.
A similar sensibility, more cheeky than mocking, pervades a number of Langdon's films. "The Last Interview With P. Passolini" (1975) purports to be a serious Q&A with the Italian neo-realist master. But as the possible pun in the title telegraphs -- the director's name is correctly spelled with just one "S" -- it turns into a ludicrous spoof of film-crit gibberish and cinematic idolatry.
"Bondage Boy" (circa 1974) serves up sequential visions of a young man in a white slip, lashed to pillars and banisters, while "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' " blares. But the vision isn't played as camp sensationalism. You might detect a parody of so-called structural films such as Andy Warhol's "Empire," generally abstract, anti-narratives that emphasized formal qualities. "We were exposed to a lot of structural films, like Michael Snow's films," Inga said. "I thought often the imagery in those films wasn't very interesting. Nothing to lure your eye."
Other Langdon films display a tender reverence for the power of earnest simplicity. "The Gypsy Cried" (1973), depicting a 45 rpm record being cued up and played, is a concise homage to the mnemonic power of the throwaway '60s pop ditty that gives the film its title.
"I don't particularly believe in high art and low art," said Inga, whose favorite filmmakers include Werner Herzog. "If you get a lot out of a Sam Fuller film, it doesn't matter if it's high art or low art. I like it when those distinctions are blurred."
One of the unforeseen benefits of withdrawing from making art for several years, Inga said, was realizing that "art is very precious."
"I don't think I really understood that until I stopped doing it," she said. "I'm getting used to the idea that there still might be some of that energy left in me, from those times, waiting to come out."