I lived in San Francisco once. It sometimes feels distant now because I have even lived another place between there and here. San Francisco occupies an interesting place in the American imagination. Even though high rents and a sort of institutionalized and self-aware weirdness pervade much of the city, it is still, in fact, filled with oddballs, Peter Pans and visionaries. Its role in American culture is as a provocateur, a laboratory and a refuge. I think this is true and the city certainly thinks it’s true.
It was stirring, then, to see so much of San Francisco last week at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema screening of Stories Untold, one of over 20 different programs of (mostly) shorts under the umbrella of the Radical Light project. The project, whose full name is Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, encompasses a large, brimming book, those 20-some programs of experimental media and a gallery exhibition at the Berkeley Museum of Art. The monumental exhibition was facilitated by curators/editors/programmers Steve Anker (now the Dean of the School of Film/Video at California Institute of the Arts, once of the San Francisco Cinematheque), Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid (Film and Video Curators at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive,). Over the course of a decade, the three scholars and exhibitors wove together a history of alternative and experimental media notable for the quality, diversity and energy of the work.
The book teems with interesting essays, artist pages, personal reflections and histories and, ecstatically, loads of ephemera from various screenings. Cinema is an event and even when large institutions are involved (SFMOMA, SFAI, KQED and BAM/PFA all having played interesting roles in the development of Bay Area media), the works and culture in Radical Light’s purview are scrappy, marginal and rule-defying. Flyers from shows, dispatches from seminal organizations and photographs enliven the text and remind young guns that the culture has always been suffused with polymaths—artists as curators as critics as janitors as flyer-makers as audiences as artists—and that making a show is as simple and as complex as making a show.
On Thursday February 16th, the excellent Conversations at the Edge series at the Gene Siskel Film Center brings Steve Anker and the New Preservation/New Prints program. The program features works from 1906 to 1984. A number of these films and some of their makers—for me, at least—fall under the “seen about but haven’t seen” category. Making this an even bigger treat is that these films have been well preserved and new prints have been struck. For all the great benefits of increased online visibility of canonical (and forgotten) experimental film history, the joy of seeing these works in a proper cinematic context and in their correct format is immense. You can watch Oh, Dem Watermelons by the recently deceased Robert Nelson below, but you’re better served just tasting it here and letting your interest be sated by real thing.
One week later, CATE brings us George Kuchar: HotSpell. I love Kuchar’s work, especially the video diaries he began to make in the 1980s. Ed Halter wrote this lovely piece on Kuchar for Artforum and I think it perfectly sums up what makes his work so endlessly watchable. The work is funny, smart and messy. It’s about cinematic representation and camp and biography and the weather while still mostly being about that moment. Halter nails it nicely: “cinema à la Kuchar pivoted on the dialectic between overblown fantasy and schlumpy reality, the films always working double time as documentaries of their own making.”
Then, on Friday the 24th, Chicago Filmmakers hosts Radical Light’s Found Footage Films program. The Bay Area has had a long entanglement with collage and appropriative filmmaking. This program is of particular interest to me now because of the (seeming,) (current,) wholesale mainstream embrace of borrowed images. The ease of digital editing and prevalence of moving image media has enabled entire new folk arts of super-cuts, stretched videos and detourned mass media. Bring a teenage friend who’s never heard of Craig Baldwin or who can’t imagine what a debate about sampling would even be and see if the works’ radical histories can still be felt.
(Thad Povey‘s Thine Inward-Looking Eyes)
I had the privilege of helping bring some of Radical Light to Portland last year and with it Steve Seid. Among the great joys were meeting Loren Sears (the book is almost worth its price just for the picture of him from Bolinas in 1973 sitting cross-legged in his Video Van, a mobile video editing and processing station replete with patterned rugs and a lingering hippie/techno-utopian/media shaman vibe that feels quintessentially Bay Arean), having the chance to learn even more secrets than were divulged in the book and, if it isn’t too horn-tooting to admit, to participate in Seid’s reading by doing a performative reading as Kuchar, one of the few impressions I can do. Kuchar’s presence was all over last week’s screening and remains one of the many vital personalities Radical Light teases into the large, varied, tangential and fascinating tape-stry of a half century of inventive cinema.
Bad at Sports first came on my reader radar for the interviews. Or, more precisely, the conversations. Beyond the accessibility of the medium, podcasting’s greatest contribution to broadcasting is the reintroduction of elastic time. Without the constraints of advertising and station breaks and schedules and all that, a program can last as long as it needs to. At least that’s the idea. I’ve found the long, wide-ranging interviews heard on this podcast and in others to be enormously instructive in thinking about the interview, in how conversational it can be and in what types of questions or prompts are most productive in elucidating the practices and personalities of those involved.
My feeling at this point is that a great deal of my output here at Bad at Sports will be interviews with artists working with moving images and in time-based media. In thinking through how I want these to function in the coming year, I’ve assembled a few smart, funny, strange or otherwise interesting interviews I’ve seen or heard in the last little while that have opened up the form to me a bit.
Felix Bernstein, a precocious 17 at the time of the interview, spoke with the late George Kuchar in 2010. I’ve experienced a lot of interviews with George and he’s always funny and sharp and excellently dodges whatever questions might seek to polish the stained, patinated scum skin of his cinematic cesspool. I am typically simultaneously in love with his responses and estranged by how they’re evoked. His best interviews were always those he performed on and by himself in his diary and weather films. Felix, though seems a nice foil for his quasi-serious, arch antics of a reclining George. This kid does well and it’s a nice glimpse into this period of his life.
Screening Room was a Boston television program that ran through much of the 1970s. Its host, Robert Gardner, is a filmmaker, visual anthropologist and academic who served as Director of Harvard’s Film Study Center for 40 years. The show featured long-form interviews with critical filmmakers of the period and is still a wonderful resource for learning about these makers and getting to know the texture of their personalities. Here is a short portion from his interview with Bruce Baillie. Or, at least, it’s something like that. The film shown is also quite extraordinary.
I think Charles Bernstein (no relation, at least to the best of my knowledge, to Felix) is simply terrific. I’ve long admired his poetry and his critical work in poetics is astounding both for its breadth and its depth. He’s a great critic in part because of how well he listens. He’s also very generous and enormously funny. As an interviewer, here are three examples of what he does well. First, from a series of commercials in the late-90s in which Jon Lovitz played the author of the Yellow Pages. I vaguely remembered these from when they initially aired but have gone back and enjoyed them tremendously. In this long cut, Bernstein’s mental agility and openness to the expansive nature of poetics enables the joke to take on a much grander scale. If only Lovitz could keep up.
Here, Bernstein interviews pioneering underground filmmaker Ken Jacobs on his excellent Close Listening radio show. My favorite moment is at around 25:40, when the weight of Jacobs’ Marxian humanism and empath(et)ic anxiety is revealed.
Finally, here is Bernstein in the video-maker role, performing seasick camera moves and asking the amazing Caroline Bergvall language questions. A button film, but a wormhole into longer discussions.
This is a weird one. Filmmaker and curator Tyrone Davies is on the news in Missouri, chatting up his traveling film festival and then…
This video has been seen almost two million times. Davies was able to parlay his infamy into a spot on the tosh.0 show on Comedy Central. Beyond all this, of course, Davies is a real artist and one who uses the medium of television in interesting and inventive ways. The way internet video and video commingle, antagonize and sometimes exist as one is the subject for a whole other post, but this is one in a long queue ripe for examination. Or at least “Like”ing.
Finally, here’s an interview of sorts with the great filmmaker, ethnomusicologist and lifer Harry Smith. This is from late in Smith’s life, but his ebullience, defiance and wit are still ferocious.
For whatever it’s worth, I cut this post in more than half, so let’s just call this Part One.
I think animation is very interior, very connected to writing for me and live-action is always, on some level, a documentary– something happens in front of a camera that is documented. I expect I’ll go back to animation soon, but this project was so much about waiting for something to happen, to point the camera at the land and sky and wait for it to perform in some surprising way and it always did. In Stranger Comes To Town I was starting to get to that by using World of Warcraft and I’d like to find other ways of courting the unexpected in animation.
(an excerpt from The Observers)
Jesse Malmed is brand new to Chicago. This is his second blog post for Bad at Sports. His activities as an artist and curator can be tracked at www.jessemalmed.net.
November 1, 2011 · Print This Article
Portland filmmakers, educators, programmers and film advocates Alain LeTourneau and Pam Minty are in the midst of a Midwest and east coast tour with their avant-doc Empty Quarter. The work is a decade in the making but even beyond that knowledge there is something very large feeling about it. Perhaps this weight is due to the scope of its subject: the three southeastern counties of Oregon (Lake, Harney and Malheur), its wide-ranging citizenry and their activities both quotidian and transformative. I imagine the openness with which a viewer can interact with the piece, though, has more to do with how large and multivalent it feels.
Empty Quarter is formally divergent from conventional documentaries in several obvious ways: its format—from camera to projector—is luminous black-and-white 16 millimeter film; the scenes are composed of lengthy, single shots for which the camera is fixed; the subjects—landscapes and the workers, families and machinery that people them—exist without a narrator’s context, without an onslaught of subtitular text; during those intervening interview portions where direct human voices are heard the screen is completely black (save for those occasional scratches or imperfections the film print will accrue as it makes its way through projectors across the country). It is, as such, in the tradition of other makers who take as their subject the real world. As a documentary, its polemic is apolitical (so far as parties are concerned), but deeply humanistic and with a strong feeling for the strange, beautiful landscape and the industries, families and outside communities with which they function.
Because the film is so open in its presentation, questions relating to urban and rural divides, race and ethnicity within agricultural sector and regions, land stewardship and labor are all invoked. While Pam and Alain were in Chicago screening the film (one hopes they’ll find time for us again on their spring tour of the film), we were able to speak at length about the decade long process of its making, the bold formal elements of the work and the nature of their collaboration.
It seems silly, but sometimes the easiest way to digest works that are formally inventive or distinct is to first think about those differences as an entry into the work. Empty Quarter is a documentary, but will never be described as such without a tag like experimental or essayistic or landscape or avant before it.
Alain LeTourneau: Empty Quarter attempts to create a cinematic experience closer to lived experience. That is, raw and undigested. The viewer would move through and make meaning of the spaces and activities presented. We wanted the relationship to the audience to remain open, allowing the audience to participate on some level. If we had presented a series of opinions or arguments, the viewer would be left in a position of agreeing or disagreeing with the information presented. As a portrait of a place, Empty Quarter is a series of recorded observations. The viewer can enter in to and inhabit the shots/scenes taking away a set of personal reactions, which can then be shared with other audience members, friends and perhaps family. The cinematic experience is intended to extend or ripple out into people’s lives, becoming part of public life.
One of the most striking (and I think best) choices you made in this film is the use of black during the interview segments.
Pam Minty: While all image-based shots are set to sync sound, audio interviews with residents from the area are set to black screen. Our intention in this approach is to give the audience the space to listen in a focused way not competing with the function of visual observation. Many of the issues discussed were repeated across several interviews, so it seemed more appropriate to allow unmitigated sound to convey these shared experiences, opinions and concerns. To some extent, the use of long visual takes informed the choice to give equal or similar weight to collected audio recordings. There was a decision in post-production to mix sync voices more prominently in an attempt to replicate being in the environment and give the audience the opportunity to experience what grabbed our attention most.
Though it seems to hard to imagine this film functioning otherwise the use of black & white seems to work on a number of levels here. It does something to heighten the notion of the work as intentionally produced (as art, as artifice), which seems counter to so much of how most documentaries are made, but it also seems to reinforce the work’s place in a historical trajectory.
AL: 16mm black and white can blur the distinction between seasons, times of day, and tends to focus one’s attention on the activity or landscape being framed, without presenting itself as “reality”. The black and white images are presented as a document or observed record. The texture or grain is also quite wonderful, the way it creates shimmering, almost impressionistic images, unresolved and lower in quality than color.
The whole film is filled with beautiful, evocative images. But without giving too much away, I feel like the final shot (above) is so elegant, so well paced and so well constructed that both times I’ve seen the work someone from the audience has asked whether or not it was choreographed. In itself, it’s an interesting question because the question is not whether the drivers of the farm equipment were directed, but choreographed, but also seems a good jumping off point to ask about how much was done to “direct” the participants in the film.
AL: The final shot in Empty Quarter came out of our experience of observing various patterns that occur in the process or routine of work, whether manual or machine labor. The camera was positioned to present a kind of symmetry with movement in the image, and to unfold in a very subtle way.
PM: We’ve found that audiences have used those terms differently to respond to different images. When machines appear to be moving in a planned way, we’re asked about whether we choreographed the scene. Conversely, when people enter a shot, perform an activity, and (in general) leave the frame, people tend to use the term “direction” in how they phrase the question. Ironically, the most choreographed looking scene, the closing shot, was one in which we had the least ability to manipulate how the corn harvest activity unfolded. Alain’s intuition about when to begin filming in relation to how much film was in the magazine for the tilling of the last row of corn, was critical. Also, his choice to frame the shot as he did lent to the power of that shot. Had he centered the final row tilled, the trucks would not have been symmetrical as they left the frame left and right, and it wouldn’t have happened simultaneously. In a post-film Q&A, he’ll call it dumb luck, but as a witness to that moment, it really comes across as good decision making, being aware of the frame, and keen observation about how the process unfolds.
There’s always something inherently quixotic to the project of documentary. The idea of representing another’s lived experience is always an impossible challenge, but the idea of representing such a gigantic amount of space and the wide-ranging experiences of those who live and work there is even more vast. There are always those in the moving image world who argue for a utopian concept of total representation, of a 360-degree, interactive cinema, and compared to these, the thoughtfully-constructed, single-take scenes of a place seem to argue towards the specificity of your framing and the intent inherent to leaving so much out of the frame.
AL: Total or complete representation sounds like an impossible project. Additional funding would have allowed the film to be longer, maybe three hours, but whether the film would have benefited from this additional material is hard to say. I think we would have enjoyed the opportunity to continue recording and documenting the work, recreational activities and landscape of the area, but even given more material and longer run time, I think it would be difficult to say that we could provide an exhaustive view of the region. We certainly could have shined light on more of what happens in the area. For example, we had an offer to record inside a one-room schoolhouse in a remote part of Lake County, but the completion schedule and our budget would not allow us to incorporate this into the film.
There are a lot of political, social and ecological issues that are hinted at in the film. Compared to most films, or even to most conversations, the film feels balanced (not simply right-and-left, but front-and-behind, top-and-bottom). What lead you to give this film this seemingly non-political vantage?
AL: While Empty Quarter is not overtly political, I would not say it’s non-political or does not on some level engage political questions. The film certainly does not provide any kind of dramatic conflict that is eventually resolved or persuasive argument. In acknowledging our distance from the region and our urban detachment from rural lifestyles, our approach was more of simple observation, which seemed of greater value than a more traditional approach. Looking at—and listening to—the region in an effort to provide a means of thinking about its place in the social and economic fabric of American culture was a critical aspect of our interest in the project.
The same people that have told me the idea behind making a film is to a tell a story also told me that film is the most collaborative of art forms. This concept is obviously based on a large studio system in which hundreds of people do their parts to manifest the vision of a director. The history of avant-garde film, however, takes a central (if sometimes only implicitly or out of necessity) interest in the single artist, the lone maker. Somewhere between these poles lies your own dynamic. Can you describe the process of working as a couple? How do you conceive of our collaboration?
PM: Our earliest experience as collaborators in the production of Empty Quarter was simultaneous to beginning our work co-programming an experimental film series now operating under the name 40 Frames. In 2000, we moved into a warehouse space that could accommodate screenings as well as house our film production facility. As we wound down the production process and moved into post, we transitioned out of programming into the advocacy role we perform now with 16mm Directory, which is the primary activity of 40 Frames. We’re both working on independent films now as we distribute Empty Quarter. Once these projects are complete, we plan to collaborate on a second film on the subject of work.
Jesse Malmed is an artist and curator. He is brand new to Chicago and Bad at Sports. His work can be seen at www.jessemalmed.net.
November 2, 2010 · Print This Article
An upcoming event worthy of special note: this Thursday, the Art Institute unveils a new exhibition focused on the work of Chicago experimental filmmaker Tom Palazzolo, who began making films about Chicago in 1965 while attended SAIC with painters Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, and Karl Wirsum, all soon to be known as Chicago Imagists. Palazzolo focused on the kinds of everyday goings-on that made the city and its inhabitants utterly unique. The show will include four important films made during 1967-1976, a key period of Palazzolo’s filmaking career, such as the nine minute long film Jerry’s (1976), which profiled deli owner Jerry Meyers, who was notorious for screaming at the customers of his South Loop eatery, and Ricky and Rocky (1972; 15 minutes), made with Jeff Kreines, which visits a backyard wedding shower in suburban Chicago for the Polish-American Roxanne (Rocky) and Italian-American Ricky.
The Art Institute’s website notes, “While Tom Palazzolo’s films feature distinctively Chicago imagery and subjects, they move beyond purely regional concerns to embrace archetypal ideas about American history, civil rights, and personal and political expression. They depict the spectrum of human experience and, as he noted, “are a celebration of reality even if there is no understanding it.”
Guest-curated by Kelly Shindler, the exhibition is on view through January 9th, 2011. All four films will be screened consecutively in Gallery 186 during the Art Institute’s public hours. For more information on the exhibition, click here. If you want to read more about Tom Palazzolo, check out this 1999 article in the Reader here, and the entry on his work at Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey here.