It's hard to fathom The End's originality now that so many of its techniques have become familiar avant-garde strategies. At the time, most experimental films strove for self-conscious lyricism, drawing on abstraction, silence, and psychosexual expressionism to articulate a space outside society. Maclaine dramatizes the break, never more explicitly than when he directly addresses the audience ("The person next to you is a leper!") With its strong conviction that death itself has changed, The End is often discussed as an expression of atomic-age nihilism. Even more radical is the way Maclaine channels what was then still a new mode of address: the live television feed, which Sen. Joe McCarthy was just then exploiting in his Voice of America hearings. A decade before Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, Maclaine intuits the connections between medium and message — the mushroom cloud and television being two sides of the same terrifying totality.
Maclaine made only three short films after The End, all of which will be shown Thursday night: The Man Who Invented Gold (1957), Beat (1958), and Scotch Hop (1959). None of these match The End's x-ray vision, although The Man Who Invented Gold and Beat both unfold the same vivid imagination of the San Francisco terrain. Scotch Hop is something different and, on first viewing, my favorite of the later works: the Scotsman's equivalent of Olympia (1938), with low angles and slow motion placing bagpipers, log-throwers, and fiercely proud dancers on a heroic plain. Brakhage claims it a masterpiece in his poignant remembrance of Maclaine in his book Film at Wit's End, but there's little doubt that The End had the more profound impact on his own filmmaking — specifically in the way it demonstrated the liberating effects of a film grammar built of "mistakes."
Meanwhile, the search for Maclaine continues in a serial analysis of The End on SFMOMA's Open Space blog by filmmaker and projectionist Brecht Andersch in collaboration with Hell on Frisco Bay blogger Brian Darr. As of this writing, "The The End Tour" has reached its 15th installment. All together, it constitutes a supremely dedicated work of media archaeology, and one of the liveliest works of film criticism I've encountered in some time. Andersch and Darr's spirited dissection of the film's psychogeographic dynamics has illuminated the film's subliminal operations as well as its creative mapping of the local landscape. Most remarkable is their discovery that a prominent patch of graffiti ("PRAY") that appears in the film is still tattooed on a China Beach wall — as if Maclaine's imagined nuclear blast fixed it there for all time.
IN SEARCH OF CHRISTOPHER MACLAINE: MAN, ARTIST, LEGEND
Thurs/31, 7 p.m., $10
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF