TABLE OF CONTENTS

LENS ON LOS ANGELES: ALTERNATIVE CINEMA AND VIDEO IN L.A.

Ed Ruscha, The Back of Hollywood, 1977, oil on canvas, 22 x 80".

THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN on the hills that hover over Los Angeles figures an identification between a place and a medium without parallel in cultural history. So complete is the movies’ colonization of the city that other art forms, especially those that resist assimilation into the industry, have been given short shrift. And any notion of a nonindustrial culture, of a populist or avant-garde art not reducible to the valorization of invested capital, has been largely chimerical—or so the doxa goes.

But Hollywood, the place if not the industry, has not always been found inimical to art. In the 1940s, Man Ray, who made as many artworks in the decade he lived in Los Angeles as he had made in Paris in the previous two, remarked, “There was more Surrealism rampant in Hollywood than all the Surrealists could invent in a lifetime.” And twenty years later, Andy Warhol—in town for Irving Blum’s show of his “Liz” and “Elvis” paintings—would think in parallel terms about the ubiquity of Pop: “Vacant, vacuous Hollywood,” he said, “was everything I ever wanted to mold my life into.” Both of these artists were known for working in a wide range of mediums, and during their time in Los Angeles both involved themselves in filmmaking, not with the studios but with the avant-garde. When invited to work in the industry, Man Ray refused, declaring that it would be “like asking me to set up a new religion in a country swarming with cults and temples”; but he wrote a script that Hans Richter filmed for his Surrealist omnibus Dreams That Money Can Buy; with Luis Buñuel he wrote The Sewer of Los Angeles, a scenario about a girl caught in a dunghill between the freeway and the desert; and in 1943, three years after arriving, he made an amateur short, Juliet, with his wife-to-be, in which (as in Maya Deren’s seminal Meshes of the Afternoon, made the same year, also in Hollywood) two young lovers film each other. In Warhol’s dalliance with moviemaking in Los Angeles, he shot footage for a Hollywood parody, Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of . . . (1963), which focused on LA’s architectural features, from Venice Beach to the Watts Towers, and its artists, especially the group around Wallace Berman, within which Bruce Conner and other avant-garde filmmakers mingled with Dennis Hopper and the young turks of the industry.

As these examples attest (being obscure fruits of two famous artists’ activities), avant-garde filmmaking in Los Angeles has been marginalized even more severely than the city’s other fine arts practices. Jonas Mekas’s mid-’60s assertion that “American cinema remains in Hollywood and the New York Underground” was certainly grounded in the unique cultural vitality of New York at the time; but only historical amnesia would allow his binary first to be accepted as an accurate description of the state of affairs at that time and then to be generalized as holding true for the postwar period as a whole. For in the ’60s, Los Angeles filmmaking engendered and sustained a rich and unique interlacing of Hollywood and experimental tendencies: Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967), for example, which cast Hopper as a manic drug dealer, introduced Peter Fonda and drive-in audiences everywhere to lysergic visuals a year before Ira Cohen, an outrider even of the New York avant-garde, would make his psychedelic classic, The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda. And through all other periods, Los Angeles has had a longer and stronger history of experimental filmmaking than New York or any other city in the world: Witness the ’teens, when, as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and other epics proved, commercial and experimental filmmaking were one and the same; the ’20s, when avant-garde films produced on the margins of the industry culminated in Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey’s foundational Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (1928); the ’30s, a period of experimental interludes in Hollywood features (Vorkapich again and Busby Berkeley, both important influences on the postwar avant-garde), of Communist attempts to reform the industry from the inside, and of the Workers Film and Photo League’s guerrilla filmmaking outside and against the industry; the ’40s and ’50s, when Meshes’ innovations were elaborated by local, mostly gay artists, including Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington, Gregory Markopoulos, and Stan Brakhage; and the ’70s and ’80s, when the first issue of Women & Film (1972) inaugurated feminist film theory, and when Los Angeles proved to be the single most important source for filmmaking born of identity politics: gay, black, Asian American, and Chicano.

An occasion to revisit the disjunct and subterranean history of these and other Los Angeles–based nonindustrial cinemas is provided by “Pacific Standard Time”’s three moving-image projects: “Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles 1945–1980,” at the Los Angeles Filmforum (October 9, 2011–May 12, 2012); “Exchange and Evolution: World Wide Video Long Beach 1974–1999,” which explores Southern California video art of three decades, at the Long Beach Museum of Art (October 7, 2011–February 12, 2012); and “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” focusing on the African-American filmmakers at UCLA from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, at the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Billy Wilder Theater (October 7–December 17).¹ The full significance of these alternative cinemas becomes visible only as the reductive avant-garde/kitsch binaries of Greenbergian modernism that underlie Mekas’s position have been fundamentally reconstructed; we can now see noncommercial cinema, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, not as fundamentally autonomous but as standing in dialogic relation to Hollywood and industrial culture, to the geography it inhabits, and to the social groups that make it. The “Pacific Standard Time” projects explore these relationships.

Poster for Roger Corman’s film The Trip, 1967.

Filmforum’s screenings, which begin this month, build on important new research funded by a grant from the Getty Foundation: more than forty oral histories with filmmakers, and a symposium held in November 2010 that shone new light on numerous forgotten films and brought younger scholars together with artists, including members of the group Single Wing Turquoise Bird, which put on psychedelic light shows, and the important ’70s screening collective Los Angeles Independent Film Oasis. The first three of “Alternative Projections”’s twenty-plus programs (organized primarily by Filmforum’s artistic director, Adam Hyman, and film preservationist Mark Toscano) give a fair indication of the series’s historical reach and the richness of the material assembled. The exhibition launches with “Dream States: The Avant-Garde of the 1940s and 1950s”; opening with Meshes, it showcases the films by Deren’s LA gay paranymphs that established what P. Adams Sitney would later designate the “trance film,” the dominant mode of early-’60s underground film, as well as other surrealist gems, including the sequences Salvador Dalí made for Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), and similar avant-garde interfaces with the film industry.² The second (“Film/Dance/Music/Forms—Early Abstractions of the 1940s and 1950s”) features Los Angeles’s unparalleled tradition of abstract visual music, most notably works by Oskar Fischinger and James Whitney; John Whitney and Saul Bass’s title sequence for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) further instances the avant-garde’s engagement with Hollywood. The third program (“Messing with Hollywood”) makes this engagement even more explicit by assembling a series of amateur films about the industry, beginning with The Life and Death of 9413. Highlights of subsequent programs are evenings dedicated to the history of experimental film distribution and dissemination—featuring, among others, Bob Pike and his Creative Film Society and the exhibitor Raymond Rohauer, who braved censorship and maintained comprehensive screening programs at several theaters through the dark years of the blacklist—and to student films from USC and UCLA in the 1960s that opened the way for the New Hollywood; additionally, there will be at least two shows oriented to identity politics, one of which focuses entirely on Visual Communications, the oldest surviving Asian-American media center in the country and the single most important agency for Asian-American community filmmaking.

Though the first West Coast experiments in video were made in San Francisco at the Experimental Television Project (founded in 1967), Los Angeles very quickly took the lead. Soon after Bruce Nauman moved to LA in 1969, a series of videos of him performing simple actions, recorded on a Porta-Pak and exhibited at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, anticipated an explosion of activity at the new California Institute of the Arts (opened in 1970). All this energy found a focus when the Long Beach Museum of Art established a video program that eventually included a postproduction facility. LBMA curator David Ross’s two mid-’70s exhibitions titled “Southland Video Anthology” revealed a huge amount of activity, which he found distinctly “not similar to the way artists on the East Coast wanted to work with video as an alternative to conventional mass media.”³

LA artists’ negotiation with, rather than blanket rejection of, broadcast TV was elaborated in a seminal essay by visiting New York critic Kim Levin. In “Video Art in the TV Landscape: Notes on Southern California” (1977), she argued that a generation of young LA video artists (almost half of them women)—including Billy Adler, Chris Burden, Susan Mogul, and Ilene Segalove—had capped the LA Light and Space artists’ innovations in the dematerialization of the art object by turning to what was itself an immaterial medium.⁴ Levin’s proposal of a reciprocity between video art and broadcast television deviated polemically from David Antin’s now canonical high-modernist proposal—published on the East Coast in the catalogue to the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art’s 1975 exhibition “Video Art”—of a “very definite and predicable inverse relation” between them, itself an elaboration of Hollis Frampton’s observation (put forward in these pages in 1974 and quoted by Antin) that video art was birthed “from the Jovian backside . . . of that Other Thing called television.”⁵ Levin was especially acute in noting that both artists’ video and the Los Angeles urban landscape reflected television’s influence. On the streets, she observed, the “Taco Bells, Sambos, Jack-in-the-Boxes recur with predictable regularity, like commercials on the TV screen,” and she concluded that “television is the real subject of video.” Her star exhibit was Burden, who showed his 1973 TV Ad (in which he writhed on broken glass in an urban parking lot) and other ten- to thirty-second commercials, not in galleries but on the tube, purchasing advertising time on local broadcast channels. A similar triangulation of television, video, and the automobile-shaped landscape was efficiently achieved in Segalove’s summary TV IS OK (1979), a short videotape about her eponymous vanity plates.

Julie Dash, Diary of an African Nun, 1977, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 13 minutes 30 seconds. Sister Gloria (Barbara O. Jones).

“Exchange and Evolution,” unsurprisingly, includes no fewer than four screenings (in collaboration with REDCAT) that document the LBMA video studio. Its role in the history of distinctively Los Angeles video cannot be underestimated, a point driven home by the J. Paul Getty Museum’s huge 2008 exhibition “California Video,” which drew from the nearly five thousand videotapes and documents amassed by the LBMA. Perhaps as a consequence, for “Pacific Standard Time” the museum will address issues of spatiality globally rather than locally. Its major installations and single-channel works will feature international artists whose use of its facilities and resources was crucial in the development of the medium. Organized by Kathy Rae Huffman, an LBMA curator in its halcyon period between 1979 and 1984 but now based in Berlin, and CalArts professor Nancy Buchanan, a stalwart of the Los Angeles video world and an enormously influential teacher for more than thirty years, “Exchange and Evolution” brings together artists from eighteen countries worldwide, an appropriate representation of the museum’s achievement.

Though narrower in its focus than “Pacific Standard Time”’s other two moving-image projects, “L.A. Rebellion” commingles issues of identity, place, and relation to commercial filmmaking to reveal a skein of determinants immiscible with the axioms of aesthetic autonomy. The “Los Angeles School” of black filmmakers at UCLA was an outgrowth of the university’s Ethno-Communications Program, a late-1960s outreach that brought ethnic minorities (including the Asian Americans who created Visual Communications) into the film school. These African Americans, the filmmakers who constituted the LA Rebellion (from which this series takes its name), sought to intervene in popular film culture and assert their own ethnic cultural specificity by bringing to light aspects of the city and of their communities ignored by the media industries. Like Filmforum’s, UCLA’s screening program is grounded in oral histories, the gathering of ancillary materials and ephemera, and other extensive archival projects, many of which will be made publicly accessible on the Web. Many new prints have been struck, some films have been restored, and some of those beyond restoration on film have been digitized. Additional funding will support a scholarly conference, an international tour for select screenings, and the publication of an exhibition catalogue and a collection of critical essays.

“L.A. Rebellion”’s opening program gets at the heart of the Los Angeles School through its juxtaposition of two films by Julie Dash, Four Women (1975), a seven-minute dance film (based on a Nina Simone song tracing the history of black women from slavery on) that Dash shot in 16 mm while in UCLA’s MFA program, and Daughters of the Dust (1991), her remarkable 35-mm independent feature. Though since making that film Dash has worked primarily in television, her itinerary from student films to features (Daughters was, it should be noted, the first by an African-American woman to find general release) reflects the ambition that motivated the LA School: Whereas the Asian Americans from the UCLA program pursued community projects (their sole feature venture, Hito Hata: Raise the Banner [1980], nearly drove Visual Communications into bankruptcy), from the start the African Americans were oriented toward narrative features, in which the stories of black history could be told in a public forum. While “L.A. Rebellion” does contain experimental shorts (noteworthy among them is Barbara McCullough’s Water Ritual # 1: An Urban Rite of Purification [1979], a black woman’s LA-specific film poem in the Deren mode), the typical achievement of the movement—and it is one of the great achievements of American cinema—is avant-garde in being a radical contestation of Hollywood’s endemic racism and formal languages yet is also designed for a popular constituency. Among the pinnacles of the LA Rebellion are Bush Mama (Haile Gerima, 1976), Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977), Passing Through (Larry Clark, 1977), and Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, 1984), all epics of working-class life that hold their own with the best of Neorealism.

Though film aficionados will likely be the chief beneficiaries of the invaluable moving-image programs in “Pacific Standard Time,” it is to be hoped that art historians will also attend them. Filmmakers in Los Angeles who attempted to create alternatives to Hollywood while living in its shadow encountered the contradictions of capitalist culture in a prototypical, even archetypal form. Artists and historians of other mediums would doubtless find their own versions of these contradictions illuminated by the Los Angeles avant-garde cinema.

David E. James, a professor in the School of Cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, is the author of The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

Single Wing Turquoise Bird’s live light show at the Open Borders music, art, and digital media festival, Thousand Oaks, CA, August 6, 2011. Photo: Dana Ross

NOTES

1. I have been a Filmforum board member since 1980 and participated in several aspects of its “Alternative Projections” project, including the screening series here described.

2. As this essay went to press, the Filmforum programs were still in development and subject to change.

3. “Recollections: A Brief History of the Video Programs at the Long Beach Museum of Art,” in Glenn Phillips, ed., California Video: Artists and Histories (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008).

4. Kim Levin, “Video Art in the TV Landscape: Notes on Southern California,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., New Artists Video (New York: Dutton, 1978), 65–75.

5. David Antin, “Video, the Distinctive Features of the Medium,” in Video Art, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania/Institute of Contemporary Art, 1975). Hollis Frampton, “The Withering Away of the State of the Art,” Artforum, December 1974, 50. Reprinted in Hollis Frampton, On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters, ed. Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 261­–68.