Luminous Decades: Fifty Years of Canyon Cinema

A few weeks ago, my 16mm projector broke. It was something in the motor. The machine would rewind a film, but it didn’t have enough power to pull a film forward through the projection apparatus, and when a film stalls in front of the lamp it has a tendency to burn. This is exactly what happened to a film I was previewing for this article, Saul Levine’s 2017 abstraction Light Licks: Amen. (Luckily, the damage was to a single frame of leader, before the film itself began. Thank heaven for small favors.) Needless to say, there are no service or repair shops authorized to fix a 16mm projector left in the state of Texas, where I live. So I will simply have to junk it and buy a new (used) one.

This is the sort of scenario that is typically described as a justification for the eminent death of 16mm, or of celluloid altogether. It is too clunky, too unpredictable, too much of a 19th century machine. Time to go digital, we are told. But in fact, the resilience and physicality of the medium – the fact that it was in jeopardy and I was able to save it by turning off a switch – is matched only by the unparalleled richness and texture of projected light, the grain and color that can be approximated but never duplicated by digital media. Yes, there is a nostalgic romance of the clack and clatter of the projector, the rapid push and pull of manual focus, and the pops and thumps on the sound head. But above all it is that image, the way superimpositions have actual depth in 16mm, different shades of black can be discerned side by side, and the projector beam actually sculpts a series of pictures, over our heads and onto a waiting screen.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema, one of the premiere distributors of experimental film in the world. Mostly trafficking in 16mm prints but also dealing with a handful of Super- and Regular-8 films as well, Canyon (along with its East Coast counterpart, the Film-Makers’ Co-op) has helped keep artists’ cinema possible with its support of the physical medium of film – its upkeep, promotion, and circulation. Film scholar Scott MacDonald has produced a fine collection of interviews and documents detailing the organization’s history. But right now, Canyon is busily telling its own story through film.

The Canyon 50 tour, curated by filmmaker / programmer David Dinnell, is a four-part package of works from the Canyon collection, spanning nearly 60 years of filmmaking, from 1958’s What is a Man? by avant-pioneer Sara Kathryn Arledge, up through the aforementioned Levine film. The series contains a total of 43 films, encompassing well-trod classics of the experimental canon, such as Bruce Baillie’s Valentin de las Sierras (1968) and Gunvor Nelson’s My Name is Oona (1969), as well as items from the back corners of the catalog that are indeed due for reconsideration.

One such film is Saving the Proof by Karen Holmes (1979). A sort of cinematic answer to Michael Snow’s “Walking Woman” paintings, the film is a fascinating application of structuralist technique to a set of Expressionist gestures. Holmes shows silhouettes of women walking, passing by various scenes and items, displaying different gaits. But eventually the women become pure form and movement, accompanied by a series of abstract contrapuntal sounds. Holmes’ film finally resembles much of the advanced video art of the period. Likewise, Jean Sousa’s Swish (1982) offers a tip of the hat to Snow’s <- - -> (1969), using close-up swish-pans to abstract the filmic image. Eventually Sousa slows down a bit and starts moving the camera in other directions, and we see that her film is a study of the female body, rendered in painterly “brushstroke” by the mobile lens.

Dinnell’s choices are also notable for shining a light on Canyon films from the 80s and early 90s, a period that is often considered a fallow period in experimental cinema (or film in general) but actually saw the emergence of a number of key figures of the artform. Michael Wallin’s Decodings from 1988 is a film that adopts the surface affectations of Bruce Conner’s more wistful found-footage productions, like Valse Triste and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland, only to turn that language on its head. Wallin explores the fraught relations between mothers and sons, and within the subject himself. The subtext – locating one’s homosexuality within an unfriendly environment – never announces itself, because it doesn’t need to. Decodings is a masterwork that gradually insinuates itself into the viewer’s consciousness.

Likewise, Abigail Child’s Mercy is a film that manipulates our perception of the everyday. The film is largely composed of brief shots of women in the city, moving either normally or twisting and thrusting their bodies in awkward positions. Over a soundtrack provided by John Zorn collaborators Zeena Parkins and Elliott Sharp, Mercy fragments both space and language, focusing our attention instead upon the gestural and the smallest guttural phoneme. It is taut, funky, and above all very funny.

From 1982, Scott Stark’s Degrees of Limitation is a true San Francisco film. In it, the artist is shown running from behind the camera and up a hill. But with each shot, the film stops with Stark having run a particular distance from the camera. Each time, Stark is able to move a bit farther away from the apparatus, resulting in a kind of comic-performative variation on the structural film. With each camera wind, Stark is getting more and more exhausted, and the viewer is acutely aware that the artist is exhausting his own conceptual resources. This is a small gem from an underappreciated filmmaker.

Canyon 50 also includes samples of work from many of today’s most talented film artists, including Jodie Mack, Tomonari Nishikawa, Stephanie Barber, David Gatten, and Christopher Harris. Seeing these more recent films in the context of a broader film history serves to further demonstrate not only their vitality, but their position within a continuum of non-narrative exploration that has been thrumming with energy for decades.

For example, Jodie Mack’s film Point de Gaze (2012) is a rapid-fire sampling of various swatches of lace, photographed in extreme close-up. The effect is dizzying but at the same time structurally sound, demonstrating some basic commonalities within the warp and woof of these unique patterns. Mack draws on earlier models of the flicker film (Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad), but also those films that draw on signification pushed to its limits through extreme montage, such as Child’s Mercy. A less-than-obvious comparison like this is made possible by the wide-ranging programming of Canyon 50.

Another example is Christopher Harris’s 28.IV.81 (Bedouin Spark) from 2009. In it, Harris uses the silvery reflections from a child’s mobile to produce attenuated patterns of shadow and glint. It’s a film that maintains its representational qualities even as it lopes and glides into abstraction, and in this respect is has certain elements in common with the earlier films by Holmes and Sousa. Similarly, Tomonari Nishikawa’s Market Street (2005) uses canted angles and in-camera superimpositions to turn the camera’s movement down the titular street in San Francisco into a complex geometrical study. Although Nishikawa owes a great deal to structuralists like Ken Jacobs and Ernie Gehr, we can also see correspondences between his film and that of Pat O’Neill, whose Down Wind (1973) similarly examines landscapes and cityscapes from a subtly Cubist point of view.

But, while there is certainly pleasure in finding resonances and affinities between films, there are always those works that stand out from the pack. This is on account of their cleverness, wry wit, or outright strangeness. They are the truly bizarre, thoroughly singular filmworks that, in their own way, define the avant-garde in their freeform refusal to be assimilated. For instance, what to make of Standish Lawder’s Catfilm for Katy and Cynnie (1973), a goofball formalist exercise in which the filmmaker turns the camera’s frame over to a horde of adorable kittens, sacrificing rigor in the name of familial tenderness?

Or L.A. semi-structuralist Gary Beydler, whose Hand Held Day (1975) takes exactly one shot to turn the SoCal landscape into a pocket version of Robert Smithson’s classic “displacements”? And then there’s Greta Snider’s Portland (1996), a fragmented narrative based on recollections of a group of punks and indie types. They are describing an ill-fated trip to Portland, Oregon, during which their street smarts unexpectedly fail them. The moral of the story? Don’t ever go back to Portland!

The strangest film in the entire program, and quite possibly the best, is Associations (1975) by British prankster John Smith Bearing slight resemblances to the work of Hollis Frampton and the radical 70s films of Godard, Associations combines found images and spoken text in increasingly jarring counterpoint. The film is ultimately about linguistic comprehension, the breakdown of words into phonemes and these tiny morsels of meaning butting up against visual information that either confuses or clarifies the vocal track, and vice versa. Films like Associations, Portland, Hand Held Day, and Catfilm are characterized by their humor, which is often in short supply in experimental film circles. This appears to be a trait that Dinnell prizes, and good for him.

Lest I be accused of lavishing unreflective praise on this film series, I should mention that not all of Dinnell’s selections are top-shelf. Certain works seem to owe their inclusion less to their inherent qualities than the desire to have their makers represented. Some of those filmmakers, such as Thad Povey and Mark Toscano, are key members of the experimental film community. Some other works are not necessarily the best representatives of their makers. I generally like Lawrence Jordan’s work, but Duo Concertantes (1964) is a weak film. David Gatten’s Shrimp Boat Log could have been helpfully switched out either of the What the Water Said films. And the Cauleen Smith and Robert Breer selections, while fine, are certainly overexposed.

Other filmmakers are perplexing by their absence, but that hardly matters. There is no use in such arguments regarding curation, because they ultimately come down to microscopic differences in taste, and Dinnell’s taste is exceptional. To say that I or anyone else would have done it a bit differently is both obvious and disrespectful of the hard work Dinnell undertook to make Canyon 50 a reality. And, as the entire line-up shows, a premium was placed on reviving underseen films, returning underexposed filmmakers to the public view, and demonstrating the variegated offerings historically available from Canyon. I will say that I was surprised by the lack of inclusion of Diane Kitchen’s glorious nature study Wot the Ancient Sod (2002), until I discovered that the print had been withdrawn from Canyon’s collection.

As I hope my roving, rather scattershot coverage attests, Canyon 50 is a retrospective that is sprawling and alive, forward-looking and forward-thinking. It seems like every couple of years, someone declares the avant-garde (or film in general) “dead.” And yes, it’s not as easy to work in celluloid as it used to be, although it was never exactly easy. But Canyon 50 is a perfect example of old and new, tradition and innovation, mutually informing one another. And as for me, I will acquire another projector, because I am completely confident that someone, somewhere is making something exciting for me to thread through it.