Afterimages of "Radical Light"


Here are some highlights of FilmForum’s recent six-part series “Radical Light” a companion piece, celebrating the newly published “Radical Light: Alternative Film And Video In The San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000.” The landmark mixed media book edited by Steve Anker, Co-Curator of Film at REDCAT, and Pacific Film Archive curators Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid, is the first publication of Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. Bay Area film enthusiasts have had the pleasure of 30 screenings (ongoing) and a national tour has been announced.

Highlights of “Landscape As Expression: UCLA Film and Television Archives”:
“A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire”-Archivist Rick Prelinger’s copy of the Miles Brothers’ time-traveling  “A Trip Down Market Street” exhilarates.  Watching it, I kept thinking of Ken Jacob’s mysterious “The Pushcarts Leave Eternity Street.” The Mills Brothers’ lively film influenced Jacobs and Ernie Gehr, who manipulated the footage for his 1974 found footage film “Eureka.”

Shooting from a cable car, the Mills brothers traveled Market Street from 8th Street to the Cable Car turnaround at the Ferry Building on the Bay (capturing reflections in the glass) a week before the great earthquake of 1906. We view the old wholesale district (now the financial district.) Shoppers and newsboys scurry out of the way. Pedestrians lean in to stare at the camera. Trolleys, horse drawn dray trucks, omnibuses and streetcars mix with circling ‘horseless carriages’ (early autos) which drive any which way. A child peeps out of his carriage window at the cameramen riding on the front of the Cable car. (A digital copy is available to watch on the CBS news site.  The film exists because it was shipped back east, days before the quake, which destroyed the Mills brother’s office.

Michael Glawogger’s “Street Noise” tours Oakland’s San Pablo Avenue circa 1981. Snatches of blaring Soul Music play under shots of early morning desolate streets. Glawogger’s moving camera drives past broken TV’s, barbecue joints, auto shops. A passing driver stares back at the camera. It’s a stunning document of un-gentrified Oakland back in the day.

Ernie Gehr’s ” Side/Walk/Shuttle” (1991)- Ernie Gehr’s hypnotic, vertiginous “Side/Walk/Shuttle,” celebrates camera movement with the joy and magic of early cinema. Shooting from one of the iconic outdoor elevators of San Francisco’s famed Fairmont hotel, Gehr fools with gravity to show a topsy-turvy cityscape. In essence the elevator becomes Gehr’s personal crane.  The film was a yearlong act of guerilla filmmaking. Gehr, who smuggled his 16-millimeter Bolex in under his coat, was removed from the premises several times.

Gehr’s vision is part-hanging gardens of Babylon, part Star wars. Buildings seem to hang sideways in space. In one shot that repeats, the camera crawls up the vertical side of a skyscraper, as it climbs, the cubist roofs of smaller buildings, decorated with water tanks, enter the right side of the frame.  Or the elevator descends, crawling back down the building’s vertical side. The structural details and the steady slow movement of the elevator suggest a huge space vessel crossing space towards us, or conversely the landing of a space shuttle. Giant structures hove into view and pass us.
 At the top of the ride (when we watch it right side up, there’s a kitschy, entry to the rooftop restaurant. Gehr flips his camera upside-down, sideways or splices in some of the shots backwards.

We become lost in his miraculous shifting perspectives. What was sky becomes street or reflections. This is an ultimate statement of the found art of reflective surfaces, and the altered perspective of movements; a sophisticated take on the wonders grasped by the child’s eye, a “play” on vision, or the miraculous revelations of the first filmed images.

In Gehr’s structural symphony, he captures a complex rectilinear grid of architectural detail, shadows and the shifting spaces between structures revealed in movement. In some shots, we see pedestrians, some passing cars. We overhear the sounds of a coffee shop, internal elevator noises and a growing montage of street noises. One shot slides along the reflective walls of the hotel. Distorted reflections are caught in the sheeny surface. Traffic passes below or stalls at an intersection. (It recalls the silent “Scenes from Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower (1900). Towards the end we are treated to a view of the bay, right side up.

Highlights of “The 1980s and 1990s:L.A. Filmforum Spielberg Theater at the Egyptian Theatre.”
Timoleon Wilkins’s “Lake of the Spirits” (1998)- The waves of a lake endlessly lapping, glowing in the sunset, beguile us, the colors as fruity as a classic Aida set. The wistful score is a mixture of a Cuban mambo, a Marty Robbins ballad and slowed-down accordion music.

A woman swims and looks at the camera.  Ancient coral structures and desert rock formations echo manmade apartment houses. A neon motel sign, at a juncture of a desert highway, is both plaintive and jarring, a reminder of civilization.  A feeling of longing suffuses the physical world burnished in Wilkins’s Kodachrome palette, which (like Baillie’s) creates a lyricism shot through with the mystical.

Wilkins portrays the desert, the repository of America’s past, using the near vanished tools (Bolex) of the avant-garde filmmakers who mentored him (Brakhage, Baillie, Connors).

‘Short Of Breath”-Filmmaker, teacher, and onetime therapist Jay Rosenblatt’s breakout film “Short of Breath” is a found footage psychological melodrama, a montage of 16 mm teaching films and a Hollywood 40’s-50’s imagery. The film is full of menace, like a TAT (Thematic Apperception Test) come to hideous life. (The TAT personality test was administered to jobseekers in high stress positions, students, and mental patients to judge the progress of their cures.  31 cards, showing people in ambiguous situations, were shown to the testee. Narrative questions were asked. The therapist evaluated the content of the stories as well as which pictures provoked anxiety, avoidance or defense mechanisms.)

A woman weeps loudly and copiously, endlessly; the sound of her gasping for breath is omnipresent. Suffering from post-partum depression, trapped in the woman’s role of the 50’s, she complains she’s a failure as a mother and a wife. The clinically condescending therapist watches her but offers no comfort.  She blurts out, “It’s silly of me to cry. I shouldn’t be making a scene in front of you. You must think I’m acting like a baby.”  A beat, he answers, “Yes, I do.” It’s shocking.

A baby is born. A boy wakes in his bedroom and creeping through the hall peers into his parents’ room to see them making love. Images of pumping loins in coitus. He runs back and hides under the blankets as their sounds continues. A woman runs to an open window and climbs onto the sill. The second time she jumps. A headless woman lies half buried in the sand, her head a few feet away.  Someone inspects a brain, dissects it, and classifies it.  The boy climbs on a ledge and stares at us, mouth agape. The narrator suggests, in a voice meant to be calming, “Everything’s going to be all right.”

It’s questionable whose nightmare we’re watching, the woman’s the boys, Rosenblatt’s, our own.  The film worms it’s way into your hypothalamus and sets off a panic attack.

Highlights of “Redcat: Beat Era San Francisco: 16mm films from 1949–1959.”

Prolific Beat poet Christopher Maclaine’s “The End”, a devilishly nihilistic piece, narrated with the spectral aplomb of The Amazing Crisswell’s radio spots, caused uproar when it was first shown.

Bagpipes music. A mushroom cloud. The first title reads ‘The End.” “Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, then we shall meet the cast. Observe them well, see if they are not yourselves, and if you find none of them to be so, then insert yourself into this review, for such it is.”

A running man (Walter) flees his friends, his life, throughout the first sequence, racing up and down the wide stairs which fill the frame.
The screen goes black. The narrator intones, “The world will no longer exist after this day. These are some of my friends I knew them well, they all have stories we shall be able to learn a little about each of them before our time runs out.” Walter races through empty streets. “Our little friend could not face the 20th century, so he went running … only there was no place to run to, all the exits were covered.”

In six ironic episodes, six characters come to or choose bad ends (like the wan esthetes in Edward Gorey’s macabre chapbooks). Three characters suicide or are killed, a day before the nuclear end of the world. The fearful characters, all future ghosts, wander through street scenes, to sprightly bagpipe music.  Feet appear again and again, dancing, running feet, and dancing puppets.  Life goes on, but not for long. The young bohemian cast, and the San Francisco of the early 50’s, charm despite Maclaine’s resolutely dark existential narrative.

Maclaine uses a poetic, deconstructing, associative edit, which is sometimes follows the character’s point of view and sometimes the viewers. “For reasons we know nothing about” is a repetitive trick of the narration, which, like the edit, encourages us to identify then disconnect from the images. Sometimes the screen is dark, and we are alone with the narrator, who near the end asks us to create the story, “Here is the most beautiful music on earth. Here are some pictures. What is happening?” It’s a mind-blowing moment. Still. 

Highlights of “1961-1971 (UCLA Film and Television Archives)”:

Robert Nelson’s antic historic “Oh Dem Watermelons”(1965-and Mike Henderson’s (1970) “Dufus” critiqued the African American experience. Journalist. Director Saul Landau (“A Minstrel Show”) and R.G Davis (the founder of the S.F Mime Troupe) caper to Stephen Foster’s inflammatory lyrics, kicking watermelons into pulp. A watermelon gets it’s revenge, chasing the men up a parking ramp.   Steve Reich’s early, chanted, phased soundtrack presages his future work.

Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley’s “Schmeerguntz” is a raucous, rapid-fire enquiry into the nature of beauty and the role of women. Made in 1966, during the second wave of the Women’s Movement, it’s funny and still a bit shocking. Both women were young mothers. Wiley was pregnant. Repetitive close ups of a baby’s shitty bottom, and scrubbing out a toilet bowl, intercut with beauty pageants, and fashion models. Nelson kneels before a toilet and vomits then the vomit reverses back into her mouth. In an interview with Scott Maconald, Nelson claims the humorous “and he kissed her again” that appears on the soundtrack, over the reverse vomit scene, happened accidentally. 

Larry Jordan’s classic “Duo Concertantes” is an animated collage of turn of the century steel engravings and illustrations.  In Jordan’s melancholy dreamscape, filled with symbols of regeneration, we tour a Centennial Exhibition (at the Crystal Palace?); a bouncing seed leads us through time and space to a Doré doorway, where a woman stares out at a changing vision of flight.

In the mid-fifties, Jordan worked with Stan Brakhage and surrealist assemblagist Joseph Cornell. Inspired by the Max Ernst collage books “Women Without a Head/Women with 100 Heads” and “A Week of Happiness” Jordan began collecting ephemera and engravings, which formed the raw material of his work.

Poet-filmmaker James Broughton’s “The Bed” is an earthy celebration of things carnal, pixilated like Richard Lester’s slapstick “The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film.” A traveling brass bed scoots its way up over hill and dale till it finds a perfect spot. Two naked lovers appear on the bed, posed in an overhead shot. The woman jumps up and leads her swain in a merry chase through the woods. This initiates pair after pair of trysting lovers, readers, a child, an artist, all using the bed. A naked Broughton perches in a tree, playing his pipes, than twists himself around the ornate head-board, inflaming the others.

Broughton had already collaborated with Anne Halprin, SF’s Dance muse, and dance is woven though the film. A dancing group, naked and clothed, circle around the bed. Occasional overhead shots, then dancing camera work draw us into the revels.

A woman hangs above a sleeping man like the Serpent in Eden, then twines her way over him.  Another woman dandles a spider before giving it a kiss. A lizard slides out of a man’s mouth. A woman, wearing fetish gear and a horsetail, is chased by an old duffer, and then rides him around before dancing out of the sacred grove.  A couple sleeps, a wedding party climbs into bed together. A biker rides up to the bed; a waiting woman undresses, climbs on and rides away. Alan Watts gives the last rites to astrologer Gavin Arthur. The cast includes famed SF artists Dame Enid Foster, Imogen Cunningham, Jean Varda (subject of Agnes Varda’s “Uncle Yanko”) and poster artist Wes Wilson.

The joyous polymorphously perverse film celebrates all kinds of bodies at all stages of life, capturing the ecstatic playfulness of its era.

Composer Warner Jeperson’s score lyric then rollicking score (featuring harpsichord, harp, piano, guitar, flute, oboe and Buchla synthesizer, abet the comic innocence of the images and typify the generational look at sex.

In Bruce Baillie’s haunting “Valentin de las Sierras”, and held images shot from horseback introduce a rural Mexican community. Extreme close ups of the horse’s face, a guitarist, a running dog, summon a vanished time in Mexico, reminiscent of the Mexico described in Juan Rulfo’s novel “Pedro Paramo.”

Cocks crow. The warm, ripe colors are Renoiresque. A mother’s face, lit from below has the rosy curves of a polychrome, wooden Madonna. Baillie shoots from horseback, the dog running ahead looks back. Sunlight dapples the horse neck. Blind Jose Santollo Nadiso serenades us on guitar, singing the famous bandit ballad “Corrido Valentin de la Sierra.” The sound of the horse’s shoes elides into the sound of hands scrubbing wash. The mother turns over colorful lottery cards, intoning, in a bored nasal voice each word for her little girl. ‘Si r ena, Ele phan te.” The camera tracks the shadow of the horse’s head through shrubs.

Timoleon Wilkins explained, “Bruce was traveling around Mexico when he met the family living in Santa Cruz de la Soledad, near Lake Chapala, Jalisco. He and fell in love with them” but It was nigh impossible to find 16mm film stock. Bruce eventually found no more than seven reels of Kodachrome ll in Guadalajara. He shot the magical 10-minute film in 2-1 ratio. In interviews, Baillie described using “a telephoto lens with an extension tube on the back, which gives you a very limited focal plane, a few inches.”

Highlights of “Small Gauge: Super 8 and regular 8mm films made in the Bay Area. L.A. Filmforum at the Echo Park Film Center”:

“Fragment’s”-Ellen Gaine’s 14 minute black and white super eight “Fantasia” is an entrancing painterly abstraction. Gaine uses the medium weakness (little depth of field) as a tool. The sensual surface of her film, a study of reflections on water is almost a survey of early twentieth century painting. The opening passage, which its dark moving blips, is a sinuous as Art Nouveau. Her close ups of waves, deeply cut in the viscous water, are a filmed equivalent of the Abstract Expressionists’ thick impasto (applied with palette knives). Some diffuse passages, as silky as Turner paintings, seem to imply color. A reverie.

“17 Reasons Why”; Famed filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky mastered the 8 mm camera, unleashing it’s unexpected potential. Using a double-sided eight mm stock (run through the camera twice) which he projects un-slit, Dorsky manages to time shots and images to create 4 multiple screens, editing in the camera. The diverse film stock adds texture, as the sprocket edges (perforations) create a median design. Occasionally he achieves a full screen texture.  Color suites and repeating images comment on their side-by-side frames.


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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