A still from Razor Blades

The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called Paul Sharits’ experimental work Razor Blades the “Ben-Hur of structural films.” What is a structural film? And why is the screening listed as “a performance”? The answer to these questions gets to the root of what makes this remarkable work so powerful, and at the same time a bit elusive. Structural filmmakers were largely known for fixed camera positions, and their works often incorporated a projector’s flicker. This puts Sharits in the tradition of artists like James Benning, Hollis Frampton, and Michael Snow; Sharits himself was a protégé of Stan Brakhage. But did any of these artists put whipped cream on raw steak in the name of art? That’s just one of the more unexpected and unsettling images that strobe past you in a spectacle that earns the Ben-Hur comparison—even without any big-budget chariot races. And owing to the particular vagaries of this celluloid presentation, the listing credits this as a performance by projectionist John Klacsmann, archivist at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. Klacsmann, who used to work in film preservation at Colorlab in Rockville, worked on the restoration of this ambitious short film, ensuring that it’s presented in the medium for which it was made: film. As Klacsmann explains, “The film is shown by projecting the two reels, each from its own projector, side-by-side onto a single screen. Since the two reels are started at the same time, but the work does not use synchronized projectors, each screening is unique. The work embraces the ‘chance’ of analog film projection and, as such, it can really only be experienced on 16mm celluloid film with film projectors. It is not a work that can be accurately exhibited digitally.” So although there is an unofficial version of the film online, it doesn’t capture Sharits’ singular vision, at once anxious and a little Zen-like. Over the course of 25 minutes, the film packs a whole cycle of life from birth to death, and in between shaving and generous proportions of genitalia. Razor Blades is a dizzying visual bomb, the two frames repeating and echoing each other as if one eye can’t take in all the imagery in time. Razor Blades screens, along with other experimental shorts by other filmmakers, at 2 p.m. on Oct. 23 at the National Gallery of Art East Building. nga.gov. Free, registration required.

For more film recommendations, check out our calendar.