Scott MacDonald traces Canyon Cinema's decades-long zigzag
LIT When filmmaker Bruce Baillie founded Canyon Cinema in the early 1960s, it was a backyard bohemia to show artisanal films and drink wine with neighbors. But it quickly took root as a cooperative serving the needs of a movement of underground filmmakers. In scholar Scott MacDonald's lovingly detailed history, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (University of California Press, 480 pages, $29.95), Baillie's early shambling is halcyon past, a sweet moment of spontaneous invention that then, rather surprisingly, begot a sustainable model for communal eclecticism.
Canyon wasn't the only game in town indeed, MacDonald describes the New York Film-Makers' Cooperative, which preceded Canyon, as "a single instance of an idea whose time had come." But the organization's underlying West Coast flavor, open channels of communication, and relatively clean distribution record put it at the center of an unwieldy film culture.
Drawing from a wealth of primary materials, MacDonald has woven a compelling narrative of American avant-garde cinema. One hardly needs to be aware of obscure corners of the underground to appreciate the book's lively mix of voices. MacDonald doles out generous segments of Cinemanews, Canyon's in-house clearinghouse for letters, critiques, advice, poems, recipes, and in later years extended interviews with the anointed giants of the avant-garde.
Among Canyon Cinema's five historical "portfolios," we get a full panorama of Canyon's burning personalities: Baillie's Zen road correspondences (describing pies that contain grapes and flowers); John Lennon's zonked fan letter to Bruce Conner; Conner's fierce riposte to Jonas Mekas' NY Cinematheque; Saul Landau's exposé of police pressure on a local Jean Genet screening; a photograph of the board of directors forming a naked pyramid; Stan Brakhage holding forth on etymologies; Robert Pike's thoughtful report on how programming avant-garde cinema in peep houses could be a profitable venture; a tender letter from Will Hindle worrying over teaching filmmaking in art institutes; George Kuchar comics; and last, a precious line from Commodore Sloat: "Maybe more bits of film history next letter: Hollis Frampton and my junior high astronomy book (which he won't admit he has and has refused to return)."
Canyon Cinema is wonderful in its particulars. It's a pleasure to explore the depths of an organization that was emblematic of the counterculture without being beholden to it. Of course, being located in San Francisco and Sausalito, it had a pretty good view. Canyon keeper and former Pacific Film Archive programmer Edith Kramer recalls of the 1967-69 heyday that "The East Coast people were coming out; everybody wanted to come out for the right reasons and the wrong reasons." Already in 1968, Robert Nelson writes of "the ever-growing dirge of psychedelica that in three years has gone from far-out to ad nauseam." Things dry up a bit with the intellectualization of the '70s, though there are passionate, nothing-for-granted debates over the currents of the co-op's milieu.
One suspects this overarching prudence is because, as filmmakers and co-op members, these people were intimately familiar with the economics of personal expression. Canyon is a romantic, idealistic group, but also a utilitarian one. Despite frequent brushes with insolvency, the amazing fact remains: "During the past 40 years, Canyon has evolved into the most dependable distributor of alternative cinema in the United States, and it has done so without betraying the fundamental principles on which it was founded."