I saw my first movie when I was four or five: it was a revival of 101 Dalmations (1961), and I liked it enough to ask my mother if we could sit through it a second time (we did). I saw my second first movie when I was 19: it was a nine-minute short by Bruce Baillie titled Valentin de las Sierras (1967), and after seeing it I knew film history must be full of secrets. It was only after moving to Berkeley a few years later that I began to contextualize Baillie's tactile daydream of a Mexican village — a singular vision, to be sure, but one emblematic of a regional avant-garde as difficult to survey as San Francisco itself.
Here's to trying: "Radical Light"'s ambitious ecology of alternative film and video in the Bay Area encompasses an invaluable anthology of firsthand accounts, secondhand appreciations, and historical overviews; a film series with many artists-in-attendance and restored prints (through the winter at the Pacific Film Archive and various SF Cinematheque affiliates); and a gallery show of ephemera at the Berkeley Art Museum.
To first address the question underlying the whole series: why here? Some of the book's contributors offer fanciful conjectures: it must be the ghost of Muybridge, an island ecology, a city that won't hold a straight line, the quality of light, or, more realistically, the influence of the Beats' vow of poverty. While I'm attracted to environmental speculations like these, it seems important not to let them overshadow the essential evidence of hard work without promise of financial compensation or art world status. This is clearest in the Bay Area's rich tradition of artist-run, self-reliant screenings: museum takeovers, backyard hoedowns, and basement salons.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Frank Stauffacher's post-World War II "Art in Cinema" series at the San Francisco Museum of Art (before it became "modern") in establishing this climate of creative investment. Handsome as hell and himself a fine filmmaker, Stauffacher audaciously placed cinema in an art context, colliding European avant-gardes, Hollywood outliers, and homegrown talent in a museum setting a few decades ahead of schedule. In essence, he prepared the audience for what became known as independent filmmaking (before that term was commoditized). Which is more remarkable: that Stauffacher showed Christopher Maclaine's still incendiary The End (1953), precipitating a chair-clearing uproar, or that he fronted Maclaine (a bagpipe-playing speed freak known as North Beach's Antonin Artaud when there was plenty of competition) the funds to make this unsellable thing? Most of "Art in Cinema"'s audience wasn't ready for The End, but one young spectator found it a revelation: his name was Stan Brakhage.
Less than 10 years later, after Stauffacher's tragic death in 1955, Baillie and his Canyon Cinema collaborators (notably, Chick Strand and Ernest Callenbach) came down from the hills over Oakland and expanded their bohemian screenings to include public production equipment, a journal, and the distribution co-op that is today run by filmmaker Dominic Angerame. The early Canyon group's ambitions were local, but nonetheless represented an alternative cinema practice as profoundly liberating as that of their Nouvelle Vague contemporaries — one taken up by the dozen or so major series (e.g. No Nothing Cinema, Total Mobile Home, Other Cinema) and college film departments (especially San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State University) detailed in "Radical Light."
Though wildly eclectic in form and content, the "Radical Light" films cohere around a widespread distrust of moral authority, whether political or aesthetic, as well as an abiding interest in the bending truths of portraiture, documentary, ethnography, and found footage. The anarchic and mystical are preferred modes, though not mutually exclusive ones. There is a long tradition of collaboration between filmmakers and, perhaps more strikingly, with poets, painters, and musicians. To cite but a few examples: Larry Jordan's Visions of a City (1979, begun 1957) is drawn from material shot to accompany readings by Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia; Bruce Conner did lightshows at the old Avalon Ballroom before making music videos for Devo and documenting the Mabuhay Gardens punk scene; and Brakhage made In Between (1955) while living with Robert Duncan and Jess (and set the film to a John Cage composition). Early "Art in Cinema" habitués like Jordan Belson, Harry Smith, and James Broughton all approached film from different mediums, and later artists like Nathaniel Dorsky, Warren Sonbert, and Konrad Steiner explored the poetic or musical resonances of moving images. It runs the other way too — unsurprisingly, it takes someone like poet Bill Berkson to get Dorsky's films in a (parenthetical) nutshell: "(Without being stupid about it, Dorsky really seems to put every conscious instant up against the growth chart of Eternity.)"
Indeed, all these films burn brightly as you watch. Witness all the different ways in which the makers seek to alter the cinematic experience, turning it into a Zen monastery (Dorsky), paranoid classroom (Craig Baldwin), troubled innerspace (Gunvor Nelson), innocent grindhouse (George and Mike Kuchar), confessional (Lynn Hershman Leeson), firing squad (Maclaine), astral plain (Belson), cross-examination (Trinh T. Minh-ha), beat street (Dion Vigne), all-night roadhouse (Conner), "unguided playground" (how Ernie Gehr described the images in his 1991 film, Side/Walk/Shuttle, two weeks ago), and on and on. If "Radical Light"'s chronologically-based film programs serve an informative purpose similar to the well-labeled sectioning of a botanical garden, the thematic programs come off more as a noisy farmers market where the full variety of produce jams a narrow aisle. As always, the fruit tastes best when you know where it came from.
RADICAL LIGHT: ALTERNATIVE FILM AND VIDEO IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA
Through April 30, 2011, $5.50–$10
(Book launch Fri/15, 7:30 p.m.)
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft, Berk.
Berkeley Art Museum
2626 Bancroft, Berk.