TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 2021

film

PRACTICAL MAGIC

Neelon Crawford, Paths of Fire II, 1976, 16 mm, color, silent, 8 minutes.

NEELON CRAWFORD’S FILMS are at once deeply unfashionable and exactly on time. In making his old-school 16-mm productions in the days of cinepoetry, mostly with a Bolex, his principal concerns were light, movement, and texture, often in the natural world. Crawford’s first film, Freakquently, 1968, is pretty much the sort of movie you’d expect a twenty-two-year-old guy impressed by Bruce Conner and living on the outskirts of Haight-Ashbury to make—a try-anything Kodachrome sound-image collage replete with trippy effects, snatches of Jimi Hendrix, and a nude dancer gyrating in a mirrored cube of the filmmaker’s own design. His last, For the Spider Woman, 1980, features dancer Jane Comfort at various stages of pregnancy. In between, he made some two dozen 16-mm movies ranging in length from one to nineteen minutes. Withdrawn from distribution and unseen for decades, Crawford’s oeuvre has been acquired and restored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where, following an extensive series of screenings this past summer, to be reprised during the exhibition’s run, nine of the films have been installed in the galleries adjacent to the museum’s two movie theaters.

Positioned at the head of the stairs and thus functioning as a de facto marquee is the eight-minute Paths of Fire II, dated 1976 but begun in 1968 with footage of July Fourth pyrotechnics shot by Crawford and his Antioch College classmate Michael Mideke. After graduation in 1969, the pair relocated to California, Crawford to the Bay Area and Mideke to Big Sur. Over the next few years, they edited and reedited their separate camera rolls, passing the footage back and forth while Crawford periodically ran the material through the contact printer in the film lab where he worked. The hallucinatory result epitomizes hippie modernism. Superimposed and/or step-printed, the layered fireworks produce a cascade of light and color that the eye resolves as a frenzy of hypnagogic cosmic patterns suggesting a Tibetan Buddhist galaxy of demons and mandalas.

Many of Crawford’s early films are predicated on this kind of sensory overload. The silent nine-minute Skyjacker, 1969, a pleasingly kinetic barrage of solarized landscapes and stroboscopic superimpositions enlivened by glimpses of flower children gathered around a campfire, is more subjective or Brakhagian than Freakquently. The ominously scored Prison 1, 1969, eight minutes of everything from snowscapes to tennis games framed by a man’s face in close-up, continues on that trajectory. As suggested by its grim title, it seems painfully introspective.

Neelon Crawford, Mobius, 1971, 16 mm, color, sound, 18 minutes.

Rays, 1969, is the earliest of Crawford’s available films without an on-screen human presence. Pushing expressionistic montage toward abstraction, its nine minutes of peekaboo sunsets and high-noon skies are accompanied by what sounds like a bamboo flute and tabla. Crawford hit his stride with the even more focused Light Pleasures, 1970, a silent four-minute consideration of sun reflected on water. Alternately tranquil and percussive, more lyrical than rigorous, the film anticipates Andrew Noren’s longer, fiercer light-and-shadow manipulations as well as Crawford’s own nature studies of the mid-1970s. Before totally immersing himself in the natural world, however, Crawford produced several more films pondering human civilization, notably the eighteen-minute Mobius, 1971. A sort of negative city symphony, it begins in downtown San Francisco, the frenetic footage rendered oppressive by a combination of industrial noise and audio material apparently collected in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. (By contrast, a group of dancing Hare Krishna are shown in blissful silence.) Urban imagery gives way to a hellish wildfire in California’s Los Padres National Forest, the burning mountains accompanied by the sinister sound of overhead choppers—by 1971, a well-established sonic signifier of Vietnam.

In the final movement, the camera ecstatically swoops over and through dense foliage, usually in silence but sometimes augmented by a burbling brook. As in all of Crawford’s films, the level of craft is high, not least in the use of a vortex-producing kaleidoscopic lens. A sentimental coda, seaside at Big Sur, accompanied by faint guitar strains, clinches the film’s echt back-to-the-land ethos. Most of Crawford’s subsequent films could be considered what he calls “moving pictures.” He would eventually abandon cinema altogether, turning to still photography in the early ’80s. With the exception of Light Pleasures, all nine of the works chosen by curators Ron Magliozzi and Brittany Shaw for installation in the galleries were made between 1974 and 1977 in a variety of locations, including the Amazonian rain forest, where Crawford assisted as a soundman on ethnographic expeditions. The eleven-minute La Selva (The Jungle), 1974, is by far the longest, the closest to a conventional documentary, and the most reliant on certain of Crawford’s favored characteristic visual devices, mainly solarization. More scenic than compelling, the film begins with a plane taking off and segues into aerial footage as the craft passes over the rain forest. Trekking through the muddy jungle, oscillating between color and black-and-white, the camera comes upon an Indigenous woman washing clothes in a stream, another woman splitting wood, a large snake slithering through the bush.

MoMA’s curators have not only rediscovered Crawford but, of necessity and perhaps for the better, reinvented him.

Four shorter, more concentrated films are grouped together on the wall opposite La Selva. Two minutes long, Ship Side Steel Plate Lights, 1974, hearkens back to Light Pleasures, featuring the play of sun reflected on a boat moored in the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador. KMK Cane and Banana Leaves, both 1977, are more densely edited but no less contemplative. The former varies camera setups, but movement is provided less by the Bolex than by the breeze, as oscillating stalks violently diffract the sunlight. The latter is shot almost entirely in close-up and augmented by ambient insect buzz. Here, wind and camera movement are almost indistinguishable; the screen-filling verdant field produces the strongest example among Crawford’s extant films of a moving picture. Also shot in Ecuador, Lago Agrio Gas Burn, 1977, is even more abstract. Crawford repeatedly zooms in slowly on a fire in the jungle, the telephoto lens compressing space as the crackling conflagration rages.

The installation’s two remaining films, each given its own wall, turn from nature back to technology. Only two minutes in length, Laredo Sugar Mill, 1976, isolates the gears and other details of the titular machine. Passing, 1974, a somewhat longer film shot in Norway, records a snowy landscape that, viewed from a moving train, is transformed into pure energy smear. Precisionism, the first modernist visual-art movement born in America, is Crawford’s birthright—he is the second son of one of its leading exponents, painter and photographer Ralston Crawford (1906–1978). To some degree, his work, and his sense of the camera as a graphic tool, can be seen as a dialogue with his father (who himself shot 16-mm movies, seldom if ever shown and perhaps meant as studies). Neelon Crawford’s longest film, made in the early ’70s and as yet unrestored, is Ralston Crawford, Painter.

Paradoxically, the exhibition, titled “Neelon Craw-ford, Filmmaker,” is something else. “Neelon Crawford, Imagemaker” would have been a more precise way to characterize this installation of his now digitally restored work.

The exhibition is part of a process that began eighteen years ago when MoMA exhibited looped digital transfers of twenty-eight 16-mm Warhol Screen Tests. With the laissez-faire Warhol aesthetic thus turned against itself, there has been no going back. MoMA’s reconceived permanent collection has incorporated a number of digitalized films and film clips. Ontologically speaking, Crawford’s films join those by Man Ray and Maya Deren, among others, as well as clips that include excerpts from movies as varied as Warhol’s Empire, 1964, and Gordon Parks’s Shaft (1971). It is unclear whether these digitalized film-objects are intended to be seen as actual artworks, as copies, or as historical annotations to the “real” art on the wall.

Neelon Crawford, Passing, 1974, 16 mm, color, silent, 5 minutes.

Filmmaking enforces a regimen of pragmatism, and most filmmakers and film curators have come to terms with the reality of digital exhibition (and now distribution), although some do prefer to work on film and to project films as films. It would be unrealistic to complain that MoMA is not showing Crawford’s films as they were originally intended to be shown. But it is also unrealistic to pretend that certain material qualities are not lost.

Years ago, I heard 16-mm virtuoso Kenneth Anger complain that his work was the equivalent of painting with “real gold and jewels.” I doubt Crawford would be as grandiose, but it is significant that he came to cinema through an interest in an earlier technology of controlled light—namely, stained-glass windows—and that, in making still photographs, he chose to work in photogravure, transferring his negatives onto copper plates as a means to print or engrave the image. Medium specificity matters to him. In its granularity, rhythmic flicker, and subtle imperfections, founded on an odd mixture of toughness and fragility, the 16-mm moving image has a particular presence—of which Crawford, who spent years working in a film lab, would be acutely aware. His own reasons for deciding to concentrate on photography are twofold—he realized that, in the absence of institutional support, experimental filmmaking was economically unfeasible, and he recognized that Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 avant-garde blockbuster Koyaanisqatsi was in some sense the movie that he wished to make.

In effect, MoMA’s curators have not only rediscovered Crawford but, of necessity and perhaps for the better, reinvented him as an artist. Still, whatever has been gained by exhibiting his “moving pictures” as digital facsimiles, the nuances of Crawford’s craft have been lost. It’s a melancholy fact that the distinctive texture of 16-mm film—which is to say, a particular form of beauty—is an unacknowledged casualty of the digital turn, a development rendered all the more inexorable by the postpandemic ascension of streaming.

“Neelon Crawford, Filmmaker” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, though spring 2022.

J. Hoberman has recently completed a monograph on the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup as an artifact of the 1930s and the ’60s.