PRINT November 2010


“Radical Light”

In 1968, the New York–based critic P. Adams Sitney—already a preeminent advocate for American avant-garde cinema but not yet the author of the canonical study Visionary Film—published a five-column article in the Village Voice titled “Underground Movies Are Alive Along the Pacific,” detailing a recent trip with Stan Brakhage to see new work in San Francisco. “There we discovered at least half a dozen good and relatively new film-makers and two old masters, both of whom seldom, if ever, show their work in New York,” Sitney reported.

Lenny Lipton was one of those mentioned; he was also a board member of Canyon Cinema, an organization that had long served as the hub of experimental film in the Bay Area. Shortly after the Voice piece ran, Lipton typed a vicious letter in response, excoriating Sitney for both his commentary and the visit he and Brakhage had made to Canyon while in the city. “When you and Stan confronted us at Canyon Cinema,” Lipton wrote, “you implied that you thought . . . that we of the West Coast felt ignored by the East Coast. I would like to point out that you flatter yourself. . . . As a matter of fact, it is the East Coast that is ignored by the West Coast. It is the East Bay–SF scene that is flourishing, not the New York scene as far as I am able to determine.” Harshly criticizing not only the article but the lack of West Coast representation on the committee to form what would become Anthology Film Archives, Lipton painted Sitney as a patronizing easterner. “Your attitude is preposterously provincial, to say the least,” Lipton scoffed. “Yes, filmmaking of great achievement exists along the Pacific, but you have been the last to discover it.”

Both Sitney’s report and Lipton’s missive are reprinted in facsimile near the middle of Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 (University of California Press/Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2010), a thick new collection of essays edited by Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid and produced in tandem with the eponymous exhibition they organized. “Radical Light” the exhibition has two parts: a gallery show of archival materials, currently on view at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley (through April 2011), and a program of some thirty screenings encompassing two hundred titles—including numerous tantalizing rarities—at the PFA and the San Francisco Cinematheque (through March 2011); the film and video program will tour nationally next year.

Though the remainder of the book dwells little on East Coast–West Coast rivalries, opting for a deeper investigation of the Bay Area itself rather than comparisons with other locales, this epistolary flash point of quasi-Oedipal anger nevertheless speaks to the unusual historiographic position the Bay Area has held. Anyone involved with experimental film knows well the long-standing importance of San Francisco, which, together with New York City, was and remains one of the twin centers of the American avant-garde, each rivaling the other in the cultivation of rich internal mythologies. Yet the significance of the Bay Area has nonetheless been downplayed in the written record, since many of the major chroniclers—from Jonas Mekas to Sitney to J. Hoberman—have been Gotham-bound. In this regard, Radical Light is not a truly revisionist project, as was David E. James’s study The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (2005) or the J. Paul Getty Museum’s 2008 exhibition “California Video,” which gave new prominence to heretofore ignored SoCal contributions. Instead, Anker, Geritz, and Seid seek to expand on known but downplayed histories, exploring complex interrelationships within the city’s venerable scene, like a crew of botanists having a field day in their own backyards.

An often overlapping narrative patchwork, Radical Light contains more than seventy contributions from critics, scholars, curators, and artists, many seeking to remedy perceived gaps—as in Seid’s notes on Philo T. Farnsworth’s first raster-display tinkerings of the 1920s and on the National Center for Experiments in Television of the ’60s and ’70s, V. Vale’s cataloguing of local punk film, Cecilia Dougherty’s personal account of the revelations of early lesbian video making, and Irina Leimbacher’s analysis of how activism, documentary, and the avant-garde come together in the Bay Area essay film. Many authors return to the idea of a genius loci, speculating that local geography may have influenced the development of such an unusually fertile community. Rebecca Solnit asks whether the San Francisco peninsula—“a long thumb of land hitchhiking the Pacific”—might function as an idiosyncratic island ecology, providing inspiration from “something in the air. Or the water, or the soil, or the culture. Or perhaps the fog. Something that generates the unlikely.” Anker likewise cites a “landscape of vibrant qualities and challenging extremes, a geographic region given to unpredictability and flux,” quoting an early bit of unpublished writing by midcentury filmmaker Sidney Peterson, who postulated that San Francisco’s topsy-turvy hills “violat[ed] that sense of linear perspective which is as much a part of most people’s way of viewing things as their ability to read and write.” Or one might speculate about the trauma of the 1906 earthquake and the unstable tectonics of the region. Could the Beat apocalyptic vision of Christopher Maclaine’s The End (1953) have emerged anywhere other than San Francisco?

Despite the natural beauty of the region, Bay Area artists have more typically been drawn to the qualities of urban existence, as Peterson’s quote implies. Think of the canted architectures in Ernie Gehr’s Side/Walk/Shuttle (1991) and the prequake archaeology of his Eureka (1974), or of the hippie-Victorian interiors of Kenneth Anger’s acid dream Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) and Curt McDowell and George Kuchar’s freaky sexcapade Thundercrack! (1975). And, as Anker notes in the first of the volume’s two introductions, the scene has been sustained by a web of mini-institutions that only a substantial metropolitan region can support—from Peterson’s Workshop 20 (which Anker calls “the first experimental filmmaking course, perhaps anywhere”) at the California School of Fine Arts in the ’40s, and Frank Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema series of the same period, to later organizations such as Canyon, Video Free America, Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema, the No Nothing (later New Nothing), Total Mobile Home microCINEMA, the late Film Arts Foundation, and the Pacific Film Archive and San Francisco Cinematheque themselves. (These last two exhibitors are given detailed histories by Geritz in a final essay.)

Thankfully, Radical Light avoids overemphasizing the well-trodden period between the Summer of Love and the Manson Family murder spree; the ’60s are here given equal weight with the ’40s and ’80s. In this way, the city’s deep countercultural roots are dislodged from their popular identification with the Haight-Ashbury moment and reemerge as an unbroken antitradition stretching from the postwar proto-Beats through feminism and the punk era to the identitarian activists and small-gauge geeks at century’s end. As filmmaker Bruce Conner notes in an interview with Vale, “all undergrounds are the same”—which he should know, having engaged with everything from North Beach Beatdom to Devo. Throughout all these generations, a peculiarly Bay Area confluence of sex, leftist politics, technophilia, and inner revelation persists, continually reemerging in new permutations. Sara Kathryn Arledge’s hand-tinted glass-slide transparencies of the ’40s and Jordan Belson’s Vortex Concerts at Morrison Planetarium in the ’50s presaged the development of the psychedelic light shows of the ’60s, parallel forays into expanded cinema of the same period, and later work by livecinema practitioners such as silt, Wet Gate, and Luis Recoder. The most surprising variant of these may have been the National Sex Forum’s Sexual Attitude Restructuring (SAR) program of the late ’60s, a series of events employing both available pornography of the era and newly commissioned films from artists such as Constance Beeson. “Similar to light shows and other multimedia events popular at the time,” scholars Eric Schaefer and Eithne Johnson write in a chapter devoted to the overlap between the avant-garde and the sexploitation industry, “the SAR was designed to bombard audiences’ senses with audiovisual material, which in this case was sexually explicit.”

A more elusive concern is whether any formal distinctions can be assigned to such a voluminous output of film and video from one region, particularly given how many of the major artists cited (Peggy Ahwesh, Brian Frye, Joe Gibbons, Peter Hutton, and Leslie Thornton, to name but a handful) have been only temporary residents. In his essay “From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link,” Baldwin, himself a significant local filmmaker, argues that found-footage manipulation—what he calls “Bay Area bricolage”—provides one such through-line, from the pioneering work of Conner to Baldwin’s own output to later figures such as Jay Rosenblatt, Michael Wallin, Phil Patiris, and Bryan Boyce. “The Bay Area is not nearly so driven by formal concerns as, say, the Buffalo of Hollis Frampton and Paul Sharits,” Baldwin argues. “Our ‘soft structuralism’ has it both ways: Instead of absolute refusal, or deconstruction to null-point, much of our work might be understood as a playful semiotic engagement with the ‘original’ authors.”

Perhaps the single greatest defining factor has been the economic makeup of the metropolis. Despite playing host to multiple decades of writers, painters, poets, and filmmakers, the San Francisco area has never hosted a commercial art market at the level of New York or Los Angeles, nor has it fostered the big-money mainstream film and television industries, the local outposts of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola notwithstanding. As Solnit notes, “The Bay Area strikes a balance between provincial and cosmopolitan, providing inspiration and benign neglect.” The point is made otherwise by filmmaker Scott Stark in “Rendering Outside the Frame: Film Performance and Installation Art,” an illuminating essay on the “disconnect” that experimental film and video makers feel from both the art world and Hollywood: “When you know that you’re not going to get rich from your films, or that they’re not going to be identified in Artforum as examples of some cultural trend, you can pretty much do whatever you want.”

The film and video program of “Radical Light” will travel to Los Angeles, winter 2011 (Film Forum, UCLA Film and Television Archive, and REDCAT); New York, spring 2011 (Museum of Modern Art, Anthology Film Archives); and other cities, dates and venues to be announced.

Ed Halter, a founding director of Light Industry in Brooklyn, NY, is currently at work on a critical history of contemporary experimental cinema.