Standish Lawder

Necrology is a wry work in which deciphering the mystery is part of the fun. In this grainy one-shot film, a seemingly endless human procession  rises heavenward to the somber strains of Sibelius. The people stand massed in a tight column, blankly facing the camera. What are we witnessing? Slowly as snatches of moving stairs materialize comes the realization that what the eye has "seen" is not what the camera has recorded.  With the unforgettable end credits, the serious turns comic and everything we've pieced together is called into question.

Standish Lawder (b. 1936) grew up in a Connecticut family that shared a passion for home movies. Drafted into the army, he began studying art history at the University of Munich and completed his doctorate at Yale University. His thesis, later published as The Cubist Cinema (1975), was inspired in part by his father-in-law, dada and experimental film pioneer Hans Richter, and grew from Lawder's astonishment that the motion picture, "an absolutely integral part of the mainstream history of modern art," was overlooked simply "because it was not made out of paint on canvas." An avant-garde-cinema convert, he used his 1969-70 sabbatical to pursue film-loop experiments in his basement

Necrology dates from this period. It is a single, uncut take of rush-hour commuters riding an escalator into New York's Grand Central Station. Shot covertly from a ladder, the film was run backward through the camera and then manipulated during printing to create the ghostly effect. A necrology is a list of the dead, and the exiting office workers, propelled upward by the mechanical loop of the escalator, suggest souls summoned to meet their maker. Beginning with the Lumière brothers' Workers Leaving the Factory (1895), filmmakers have documented the joyous release of employees at the end of their shift. Often in early films of this type, workers rush out, wave, or at least smile. Here they barely move -- an impressive setup that Lawder proceeds to sabotage.

Martial music signals an abrupt change, and the credit roll begins. Among the cast, in order of appearance, are Corvette Owner, Manufacturer of Plastic Novelties, FBI Agent, Embezzler (At Large), and Girl Who Looks Like Joan Baez, all listed with invented names. The identifications are bogus, except for a few ringers, such as Film-maker Standish D. Lawder, a bearded thirtysomething somewhere in the crowd.  What began as a grim comment on the modern rat race transmutes into a sly evocation of secret lives maintained beyond the camera's gaze.

—From the linner notes of the DVD Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986