Jenni Olson excavates the film life of late SF icon Weldon Kees
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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."
An acknowledgement, however unconventional, of the filmmaker's role — something troublesomely absent from Eric Steel's controversial, not-yet-released Golden Gate Bridge suicide documentary The Bridge — is something that unites Kees's and Olson's movie projects. Kees's physical presence within a 1955 film by William Heick, also called The Bridge, is the more subtle and historically engaged riddle about life, death, and the Golden Gate Bridge at the core of Olson's program, which she's put together in conjunction with San Francisco Cinematheque and the Poetry Center. In The Bridge, Heick and Kees draw upon Hart Crane's poem of the same name: Although the structure itself is no longer the Brooklyn but rather the Golden Gate span, Crane's words become an elegy not just for himself but for fellow poet Kees as well.
Beyond the films he was involved in, Kees's ties to film history are rich ones. Briefly a movie critic at Time, he was close to James Agee, and as Reidel's bio notes in passing, no less a talent than friend and fellow painter-critic Manny Farber praised Hotel Apex's unorthodox camera work for its "crawl" down a steam pipe "at the pace of a half-dead bug." (Kees also rubbed shoulders and butted heads with Clement Greenberg, Mary McCarthy, Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, and others.) Pauline Kael often cursed herself for not recognizing self-destructive signs in her friend, as she was one of the last people to see Kees with any regularity in the last year of his life. For those who know little about Kees's ties with Kael, or the role moviegoing plays in one of his most effective and contemporary poems, Olson's program might bring a surprise or two. SFBG
KEES KINO: THE FILM WORK OF WELDON KEES
Sun/11, 7:30 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF