Light after darkness

Jenni Olson excavates the film life of late SF icon Weldon Kees
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johnny@sfbg.com

Cracked walls, peeling plaster, empty light sockets, patterns of wallpaper, and scraps of old headlines devoid of human activity, the shots within poet, novelist, critic, painter, and occasional filmmaker Weldon Kees's only solo directorial effort, Hotel Apex (1952), convey what biographer James Reidel deemed a fascination with "the pathos of objects." It's little wonder Jenni Olson feels a certain kinship with Kees: Her recent ode to San Francisco loneliness, 2005's The Joy of Life, also mines emotion from urban spaces some might consider empty or left behind. "He's very quirky about the banal and the mundane, and kind of poetic and melancholy," notes Olson, when asked about a bond. "He's a role model."

Because The Joy of Life's soundtrack features Kees's "The Coastline Rag," Olson's exploration of landscape and longing might seem like a direct tribute to Kees's film work after all, Olson's film deals partly with the Golden Gate Bridge and suicide, and Kees was fatally drawn to the landmark. That isn't the case, though: It turns out Olson only recently learned of Hotel Apex's existence, in the process of putting together a film program devoted to Kees, with some help from Reidel.

Such a project couldn't have been simple. A too-easy source like IMDb.com is definitely not the place to go to learn about Kees's links with film, as the site only credits his contributions as a composer to The Joy of Life and James Broughton's Adventures of Jimmy, an oft-hilarious short with ultra-fey narration by Broughton that resonates with the real-life sexual ambiguity of both its director and (perhaps a bit less) its music contributor.

In fact, Kees was involved in more than a handful of short films. Unsettling when one digs beneath its ordinary surface, the Gregory Bateson collaboration Hand-Mouth Coordination (1952) resembles a home movie of a mom and child that includes footage of the father figure who actually turns out to be Kees at work behind a Bolex. If the scenario seems a bit like the filmed experiments that distort the protagonist of Michael Powell's 1960 Peeping Tom as a child, the comparison isn't completely off base. "The film is meant to be a depiction of a schizopregenic a cold mother who doesn't properly bond with her kid," Olson explains while describing one of a few projects partly derived from Kees's links to the local Langley Porter Psychiatric Clinic. "Kees was very particular about the idea that the filmmaker should be visible, in a way that 50 years ago was new. He was influenced by Helen Levitt."

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