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Coming to fruition
Film Arts rolls out Robert Nelson's vintage prankster experimentalism.

By Dennis Harvey

A NUMBER OF movies in the 1960s underground film scene won notoriety on conceptual or censorial grounds, but very few were really popular – in the sense that people wanted to (as opposed to thought they ought to) see them, especially more than once. Definitely in the latter camp was Robert Nelson's Oh Dem Watermelons, an 11-minute explosion of energy and parody that became a minor sociopolitical phenomenon. Not all late '60s viewers got it or liked it, and the film was banned in Japan and Australia and seized in Colorado.

Watermelons was commissioned by the San Francisco Mime Troupe as a short entertainment to be screened during intermission for its rather infamous 1965 Minstrel Show (Civil Rights from the Cracker Barrel), which assaulted racial stereotypes by wildly exaggerating them – as performed by (mostly white) performers in blackface, yet. A relative latecomer to filmmaking, the 35-year-old Nelson had just begun fooling around with the medium, mostly in collaboration with then-wife Gunvor Nelson. To make Watermelons he drafted talent from the Mime Troupe and alma mater Mills College, where he'd also found a young composer named Steve Reich, later known (to his occasional annoyance) as the father of minimalism, and thus the person to be blessed or blamed for subsequent fellow travelers Philip Glass and John Adams.

Reich's raucously repetitive choral arrangement of a Stephen Foster oldie (in which a slave mourns his deceased master) adds another satirical dimension to the color visuals, which direct the campus era's mood of anarchy and impudence toward the watermelon. Aiming to explode stereotypes and their symbols, the film finds melons used as bombs, footballs, baseballs, shooting targets, even as sensuous love objects. Watermelons are cut-and-pasted onto existing images (from Superman to a NASA missle) and sometimes animated there, à la Terry Gilliam's Monty Python 'toons. Fruits are chased by white male hordes, then turn around (via the magic of reverse projection) to chase them in return. In spite of the controversy of its time – was it a suitable mocking of racism or a trivialization of the issue? – Oh Dem Watermelons immediately broke out of its Mime Troupe slot to become a long-running favorite at festivals and underground showcases. It's since been nearly canonized as a radical film intervention; playing alongside Born in Flames and Do the Right Thing in the New York Museum of Modern Art's year 2000 "Path of Resistance" film/video showcase.

Nelson, who receives a $7,500 Phelan Art Award at a Film Arts Foundation-sponsored event Nov. 23, a few days after the Film Arts Festival officially wraps, springboarded from that surprise success to log several years as one of the late '60s' most prolific and innovative experimental filmmakers. Nelson filmed performances by poet-playwright Michael McClure and the Grateful Dead. Such titles as The Great Blondino, Bleu Shut, The Off-Handed Jape (one of several he codirected with William Wiley), and War Is Hell were cinematheque exhibition staples for years, most distributed by San Francisco's own Canyon Cinema, which he helped found. But practically no one is minding the store insofar as preservation of underground cinema is concerned, so nearly all of Nelson's ouevre is now out of circulation – and many titles exist only in worn or fragile prints.

These days Nelson maintains a studio in San Francisco and at his home on a mountain north of Ukiah. His output has slowed in recent years – his "latest," 1997's Hauling Toto Big, includes thanks for an NEA finishing grant awarded in 1982! It also thanks the I Ching for "advice and counsel" and is based on a hoary poem by Robert Service, once known as "the Canadian Kipling." Service's death-in-the-frozen-Yukon epic "Cremation of Sam McGee" is the kind of verse whose tempo goes da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA (e.g., "The furnace roared / The flame tips soared / And danced a furious jig"). But Hauling Toto Big skitters and hiccups like an audiovisual beatbox with a mind of its own. This raffishly beautiful, obtuse, very funny featurette doesn't really "follow" the poem's story line – well, sometimes it vaguely does. But it also features an old cowpoke trying to get his Brahma Bull named Baloney (cuz "he's just a little hunk a baloney") to smile for the camera; a hypnotist lulling us into preparation to watch "a very fine film"; a little man pushing credits and intertitles around the screen; and a carny barker who introduces both one practitioner of "lowdown Transylvanian voodoo black magic [to] put the whammy on you" and two Girlie Show shimmy-shakers about whom he can only say, "By golly lookee, lookee, lookee!"

Images go streaky, go staticky, jump around the frame, superimpose themselves on one another; the soundtrack is an equally intricate (and funny) pastiche. Standing 43 minutes tall in ye olden B&W 16mm, Hauling Toto Big is vintage prankster experimentalism that'll put the whammy on ya for sure. (Dennis Harvey)

'Hauling Toto Big' screens Nov. 23, 6:30 p.m., followed by an awards ceremony and a cocktail reception honoring Robert Nelson, San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut, S.F. (415) 552-8760, ext. 354. Free; limited seating, reservations recommended.