A word of explanation and apology:
Hello, first-time readers and, of course, the Faithful Seven. Below is my contribution to the Avant-Garde blog-a-thon, as instigated by Darren Hughes and abetted by Girish Shambu. This isn't exactly what I'd had in mind. I was going to post a much more ambitious essay on the legacy of flatness in Modernist painting and its application in experimental film, and in particular five works by criminally underrated / underknown artists. (For the record, they are Jim Jennings, Jeanne Liotta, Luther Price, Luis Recoder, and Scott Stark.) In fact, I even sort of have the whole piece mapped out in my brain, and I will compose it in the near future, since anything I can do, however meager, to raise the general awareness of these amazing filmmakers, I'll happily do.
But not tonight. Life intervened, as it often does. Last night, my writing night, I was laid out with a migraine. (This, after wasting the hours my daughter was with the babysitter to go to a doctor who clearly doesn't believe in "migraine," and advised me to pop a few Tylenol at the onset. No problem! I'll also shoot a little person-to-person call to Jerusalem and tell Prime Minister Olmert to lighten the fuck up. It'll do about as much good.) So, no flatness article. Oh well.
So what follows are two short pieces on two of my favorite films, ones which are actually quite well-known in avant-garde circles, by two acknowledged masters. Not that I have any problem whatsoever affording Bruce Baillie and Ernie Gehr any additional attention, even the scant bit I can throw their way. But anyhow, a while back I was asked by Kathy Geritz of the Pacific Film Archive to write an essay about the history of landscape and cityscape representations of the San Francisco Bay Area (my once and future home) in avant-garde film and video. She and former San Francisco Cinematheque director Steve Anker have assembled a large and no doubt awe-inspiring collection of essays exploring the history of Bay Area experimental film, and frankly I'm humbled and more than a bit confused at my inclusion. But anyhow, as it happens Castro Street and Side / Walk / Shuttle were both covered elsewhere in the book (no doubt by more capable minds than yours truly), so I excised these sections from the piece.
What follows, then, are in essence "bonus tracks" and / or "B-sides" to a long piece that is wending its way through the editorial process and into the world, most likely in 2007. Hope you enjoy them, and again, sorry the Grand Flat Plan fell through. Watch for it around the Hack, one of these days.
ps: As you can tell, I'm not a blogger, and therefore have no proper "comments" capability, but by all means, feel free to drop a line via email, and if it proves useful or necessary I can post (with permission) relevant emails somewhere on / in my site.
1966: Castro Street (Bruce Baillie)
This is Baillie’s most famous film, which regrettably isn’t saying as much as it should, since his immeasurable influence has yet to yield the wider recognition accorded to other avant-garde masters. When I’ve seen this film projected publicly, the person introducing the program unfailingly stipulates that Baillie is not depicting San Francisco’s Castro Street, but rather an industrial byway in Richmond, out near the Chevron refinery. This confusion is one of those tricks of history; the very words of the title connote the unofficial headquarters of gay and lesbian culture in the U.S., while the film is ostensibly more neutral in its geography. But what can we see in Baillie’s film nearly forty years on? While these Castro Streets are inevitably distinct, how does the film bridge their gaps in our mind? Baillie has said that he conceived of the meshing structure of the film (a right-to-left pan in color, blended with a left-to-right movements in black-and-white) as an analogue to “masculine” and “feminine” principles coming together. [See Scott MacDonald’s interview with Baillie in A Critical Cinema 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, pp. 109-138.)] This union is equally evident in the soundtrack, a collage of rumbling train sounds, gentle whistles, and pop radio. And even within the “masculine” passages of railroad space, Baillie lavishes a beautifying gaze on those conductors and brakemen. Outlying suburban spaces transcend their commercial utility. Grimy trackside labor becomes luminous. I am not trying to enfold Baillie’s film into a different history via an against-the-grain “queer reading,” but I am proposing that Baillie’s lasting achievement (in this and all his films) is his attention to the living surfaces of the physical world, the way he allows them to disclose themselves. The images of male beauty Baillie generates do not necessarily reveal desire, but a perceiver not as capable as Baillie of embracing the whole of the world might actively disavow that beauty, or merely pass it over in silence. As he did with his marvelous single-shot film All My Life from the same year, Baillie asks his audience to attend to the scenes unfolding before the camera as occasions for meditative contemplation of the rhythmic interplay of human and natural forces, the radiant beauty found in the humblest of places. Sometimes, good fences make great landscapes.
1991: Side / Walk / Shuttle (Ernie Gehr)
Gehr’s film is a masterpiece of cityscape filmmaking, and without a doubt one of the key films of the 1990s. It consists of 25 shots, each one representing a trip either up or down the glass elevator of the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. Some of the rides are filmed in slow motion, but each is a continuous trip. Gehr manipulated the camera in various ways. Sometimes it was as simple as holding it on its side or upside-down, resulting in the cityscape moving in unexpected directions. Even in these relatively straightforward cases, the image is not immediately legible, provoking considerable disorientation for the viewer. Side/Walk/Shuttle is a formal encounter with volumes in space, one that provokes phenomenological inquiry, a spatial “reality testing” against the viewer’s actual urban experience (whether it be of San Francisco in particular – which helps – or other large cities, many of which are heard in the dense mix of the soundtrack). But I also want to propose a parallel reading, one that pertains more to the political economy of downtown San Francisco in the early 90s. The film literally depicts an urban world turned upside-down, one that cannot be understood with our normal sensory skills. One need not call this space that of “ideology,” but Side/Walk/Shuttle does contain images which imply a world in which human agency is remote, and the power of motility resides with buildings (and perhaps by extension, those who own them). Early views in the film, such as a disembodied Coit Tower, allude to somewhat conventional tourist views – like Michael Rudnick in his 1982 film Panorama, Gehr has drawn inspiration from Muybridge’s San Francisco panoramas. In time, the film offers views of penthouses in the sky, remaining stable while the rest of the world revolves around them. Sideways buildings and cars resolve into circuit-boards. Smaller buildings fall away into the abyss, while skyscrapers blast off into the ether. As a viewing experience, Side/Walk/Shuttle is an unparalleled pleasure. And yet, along with its sensory charge, it seems to tell us something about the city, who controls it, and how our daily experience of it at ground level only tells us half the story. Gehr’s adventure in expanded perception (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) echoes Marx’s rumored reply when accused of having “turned Hegel on his head.” Hegel was already on his head, and Marx, like Gehr, is only turning him, and the world, right side up again.