Celebrating Sid Laverents and amateur cinema clubs
"It's like he was waiting for someone to find him. It was overwhelming at first because I was just this little person trying to write a dissertation, and here was someone I thought needed to be recognized by history."
Filmmaker and University of San Francisco professor Melinda Stone is telling me about Sid Laverents, the backyard auteur whose Multiple SIDosis (1970) is unlike any other work enshrined by the National Registry. Laverents died last May, at 100, but not before receiving the Library of Congress honor in 2000 — the result of years of faithful barnstorming by Stone and other enthusiasts (notably filmmaker and preservationist Ross Lipman). The 35mm UCLA restoration of SIDosis screening at a Pacific Film Archive tribute fits with Lipman's ongoing historiographic missive to refurbish exemplars of Southern California's "minor cinemas." Charles Burnett, Kent Mackenzie, John Cassavetes, and Kenneth Anger are heady company, but then Laverents may yet be seen as San Diego's own Georges Méliès.
So then, what is Multiple SIDosis? Film archivist David Francis' description of the nine-minute short as a "technical comedy" is apt. The film opens in Laverents' conservative San Diego spread. It's Christmas morning, and his wife has given him a reel-to-reel machine. He records a little banjo jaunt and listens to the playback, grabbing a few more instruments. Partly due to Laverents' straight appearance, we begin to think we're watching an ordinary demonstration. We're not. Following a slightly psychedelic title card, Laverents' trusty metronome is telescoped into a masked, locket-shaped image in the top-left of the frame. His banjo, ukulele, and whistling parts are split into three other miniatures, Brady Bunch style. Then, an amazing geometric panoply of six Sids, nine Sids, 16 Sids; chimes over here, harp over there, Sid, Sid, everywhere.
Laverents created these pre-digital effects with a syncing system of his own devising (he honed his one-man band chops touring the Southern vaudeville circuit in the 1920s and '30s). Multiple SIDosis is not merely inventive; it is, in some real way, an invention. "It's so perfectly that confluence of aeronautical engineer and vaudeville performer," Stone gushes. Local film buffs still drunk on a month's worth of Jacques Tati screenings at various venues may well note a family resemblance in the way Laverents bends modern technology to his own idiosyncratic vision.
Multiple SIDosis is not your typical home movie, but Laverents didn't work in a vacuum — he was a proud member of the San Diego Amateur Moviemakers Club (motto: "If it moves, we'll shoot it"), a once-thriving community group that, like many such organizations, provided encouragement, tech support, and elevated expectations. In proper club fashion, Stone graciously brings out tea and cookies when we meet.
"I really came to believe in the cinema clubs and what they might tell us about the longevity of civic engagement," she muses. But the number of clubs is dwindling. Even before YouTube presented a virtual forum (but definitely no tea and cookies), film schools attracted the young, would-be filmmakers who might have replenished the clubs' stocks. Without wanting to disparage university programs, their emphasis on specialization comes at a cost — not to mention that the clubs offered a lifetime membership rather than a two- to four-year shot at community.
The Pacific Film Archive's "For the Love of It" program features a few recent selections from clubs in Cupertino, San Jose, and Los Angeles, along with one minor masterpiece from the now-defunct, SF-based Westwood Movie Club. Moods of a City (1972) may be the closest San Francisco ever gets to its Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). To make the film, the club split into different teams covering fog, architecture, the sea, public gatherings, and typical San Franciscans.