For a Fragrant Film History
There was obvious irony watching A Useful Life in the context of the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film, set around the Cinemateca Uruguay in Monetvideo, is deadpan in its portrayal of the unglamorous work and diminishing returns of cinematheque programming. We are far away from the heady charge of a Henri Langlois, and further still from the festival world. The SF Film Society has made great strides in year-round programming over the last several years, but nonetheless, the nature of the big event holds. The type of programming portrayed in A Useful Life is, by contrast, risked on an ongoing basis. This isn’t meant as any slant on the festival, but simply an observation of differences and a pathway back to my notes on the Radical Light “Timeline,” a gallery show of ephemera relating to the (now touring) survey of the Bay Area’s rich history of alternative cinemas. I intended to write about the exhibit before it closed last month, as it seemed to me then that it was being unjustly overshadowed by the film series and book release, but life got in the way.
The exhibit’s program announcements and calendars were particularly intriguing. Arranged as a chronological panorama, they told the story of a film culture busy being born. Several of these artifacts are reproduced in the Radical Light book, but I required seeing them in person to daydream over their contents (folded and faded with use). Film calendars are curious objects of historical contemplation. Scanning one from fifty years ago is not so terribly different from looking at one announcing next month’s listings: it’s all provisional. The ones from fifty years ago do reveal distinct film cultures, however. Many of the individual sheets were quite beautiful, but it was the whole menagerie of them that I found unexpectedly moving.
Above all, the documents represent the social and aesthetic conditions of the new filmmaking being done. In her fine appreciation for the Times, Manohla Dargis opens pondering, “Is geography destiny? Or, to put it another way, why did the San Francisco Bay Area became a humming hub for so many great avant-garde film and video makers, a veritable crossroads of the alternative world?” Yes, the relaxed social mores, bohemianism, sailors, island ecology all played a part in this liberating history—but it would be misguided not to recognize the primacy of Art in Cinema and the other artist-run film series that followed in its wake. Frank Stauffacher began programming Art in Cinema at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1946 in order to fulfill the promise of the series’ name. The story is often told that film noir was christened as such when French cineastes were suddenly inundated with several years’ worth of fatalistic Hollywood pictures after the war. Contemporaneously, Stauffacher exposed Bay Area audiences to the great works of the European avant-gardes, mischievously weaving in Walt Disney shorts and silent comedy. His programming cultivated a film audience that was well versed in traditions and open to new possibilities. This, more than any geographic destiny, set the table for a Bay Area avant-garde. Stauffacher’s own Sausalito, ZigZag, and Notes on the Port of St. Francis demonstrated how the lessons of Art in Cinema (e.g. city symphony, cinema as abstraction) could be applied in a local context . The first wave of Radical Light filmmakers largely arrived at cinema from other visual arts or poetry (Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, etc.) and one imagines they were inspired both by the material of Art in Cinema and its promise of an engaged audience. By the time you arrive at the calendar for the program’s Ninth Series running across five consecutive Fridays in October, 1953, you see the fruits of Stauffacher’s investment. Among other delectables, the “From Object to Non-Object” show advertises Charm of Life by the great French filmmaker Jean Grémillon; Lotte Reiniger’s silent animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed; new shorts by the scientifically minded Charles Eames and the mystically inclined Curtis Harrington; and “an experiment and an experience in 3-D” courtesy of local film artist Hy Hirsh.
These documents remind us that even taste has a history. Many of the European films included in the Art in Cinema programs retain historical significance, while only some of the “new” American works do—but the calendars remind us that the individual works were never considered in isolation. They were part of a program which was part of a series, and here we might note that the Art in Cinema calendars were not only calendars: they were also order forms. As with other membership film societies of the day, you could only purchase tickets to a full season of Art in Cinema. “(TEAR HERE)” the sheets instruct, asking you to go all or nothing. When I asked Scott MacDonald, who wrote the book on Art in Cinema, what impressed him most about the series, he jumped immediately to the size and hunger of the audience.
There were many other indicators of audience interest throughout the “Timeline.” I was especially struck by a poster advertising nine consecutive weekend shows of underground movies in 1966, both for the playful combinations (Kenneth Anger, Man Ray & Georges Méliès; Sidney Peterson & Charlie Chaplin; Richard Myers and Hollywood) and for their scheduling. Each program had Friday and Saturday 11pm shows at the Gate Theater in Sausalito and then moved across the Golden Gate for a Sunday show at Intersection. Today, the audience isn’t there to justify three weekend repeat shows of a Mike Kuchar and Gregory Markopoulos program. The poster provides some clues as to why there was then. It tells us the series was co-presented by Canyon Cinema and the S.F. Mime Troupe, a mainstay of the local counterculture. Further traces of the counterculture are evident in the lacy illustration of a woman and floating text (attendant to nothing: “magicians admitted free”). Though obviously distinct from Art in Cinema’s high-minded bohemianism or No Nothing Cinema’s punk inroads, the bills commonly place experimental film in a context other than itself.
More to the point, the calendars are never disinterested—and here we begin to get at the nub of what makes them special. More than simply listing the relevant information of time and place, they make specific propositions regarding the ideal nature of moviegoing. Whether the graphic layout is extravagant or ascetic, the mode of address utopic or dystopic, we are similarly invited to consider a cinema apart. The exhibit allowed you to trace a historical development of avant-garde attitudes, from the position staked by Art in Cinema that cinema could be Art (Stauffacher quotes icons like Henry Miller and Jean Cocteau for backup) to that of Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema that everything can be cinema.
Other Cinema persists, and the twenty-year old posters in the “Timeline” helped to situate its now deeply embedded worldview. For one, it’s high-wire programming, upping the ante of the intelligent, sometimes goofy correspondences drawn by Stauffacher and the early Canyon/Cinematheque programmers (Films of Brakhage and 3:10 to Yuma together at last!) to achieve something like a conspiracy of cinema, one which might take in Helen Levitt, Alexander Kluge, Robert Gardner, Germaine Dulac, Dziga Vertov, Peter Kubelka, Les Blank and silt in just a couple of columns. The poster design throws down this gauntlet. It’s black-and-white, oddly proportioned and jammed with text—enough to defeat even the most practiced calendar scanner. It’s the same riotous rigor we find in Baldwin’s own films.
Total Mobile Home, a 25-seat microcinema run by David Sherman and Rebecca Barten out of their basement in the 1990s, cultivated a very different aesthetic and politics of “small is more.” The postcard sizing, DIY photocopying and elegant logo all echo the proudly lowercase style of indie record labels like Olympia’s K. The programming was often iconoclastic, still showcasing local film traditions but also reaching out for experimental theater groups, the Lettrist Cinema of Venom and Eternity, and a rare print of Faces. This heavy lifting was dished out with a sense of humor: the description of Marguerethe von Trotta’s The Second Awakening of Christa Klages concludes in bold caps, “Come journey back with us to the leftist feminist West Germany of the 1970’s! Free turtlenecks if you don’t wear a bra!” Such levity was a consistent element in the “Timeline,” but the only object that actually made me laugh out loud was Total Mobile Home’s “Wheel of Film Fortune,” featuring such alliterative avant-gardes as Penniless Psychodrama, Very Vaginal, Never Rented, Bountiful Brakhage, Testosterone Travelogue, Swinging Structuralist, and Wetly Writing Water Women Whispers.
The most acerbic wit in the exhibit belonged to No Nothing Cinema, a breakaway group from SF Cinematheque led by Dean Snider and other “emergency filmmakers” (Steve Polta’s dossier history of this volatile split constitutes one of the most entertaining sections in the Radical Light book). Marian Wallace explains that the guiding principles of No Nothing Cinema were set forth on an “Independents Day” flier: “No censorship, no cross, no crown, hot barbeque, cold drinks.” No Nothing was also fixedly No Money, something reflected in the show bills: rough Xerox jobs with appropriated imagery and impolitic text. Ever poised to kill its idols, the No Nothing signs savaged the mystique of masters and a pure cinema. With its brilliant steal of a National Rifle Association shooting target, the “Help Keep Film Dead Show” poster epitomizes the organization’s “rip it up and start again” mandate.
In one flier from the mid-90s, the original No Nothing’s address is appended with the sardonic exclamation, “Soon to be a ballpark!” Indeed, the San Francisco Giants moved in, and the new stadium (originally Pac Bell, then SBC, now AT&T) definitely costs. It hardly needs saying that a venue like No Nothing Cinema exists in a very different relationship to urban space than an international festival, which, for better and worse, is part of the culture of development. Accordingly, whereas the festival catalog is, well, a catalog, the calendars and announcements in the “Timeline” show seemed more akin to pamphlets or placards. Today’s film festival catalog may be an important source of information for tomorrow’s historian, but the “Timeline” materials still glow with the power for their convictions.
Allow me one final detour. Casting a wide net, the Radical Light book links the local development of alternative cinemas to technical innovators like Eadweard Muybridge and Philo Farnsworth. Perhaps if the book’s purview had extended beyond 2000 to the present day, it would have weighed in on the Bay Area players who are once again transforming the means of moving images: Netflix, Apple, Fandor, MUBI and so on. They bring us a future streaming the past, and a different, immaterial vision of the membership film society—a place where film culture is simultaneously at our fingertips and ever more remote.
Thanks to Peter Cavagnaro at Pacific Film Archive for help with the images. The Canyon Cinema flier is by Steve Arnold, courtesy Lawrence Jordan. The No Nothing Cinema poster is courtesy Scott Stark.