Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Yes We Canyon

This weekend, I attended two out of three Frisco programs put together by experimental film writer/teacher/interviewer/programmer extraordinaire Scott MacDonald, in town for the first time since the publication of his book Canyon Cinema: the Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor. He proved to be, not unexpectedly, a very affable, approachable, and of course knowledgeable guest host at the 9th Street Independent Film Center where the legendary film distributor's Canyon Cinema's offices are currently located, and where the first two screenings were held.

The first screening was dedicated to the work of Canyon's two most instrumental filmmaker-founders, Bruce Baillie and Chick Strand. It's always a treat to see Baillie's Castro Street in a great 16mm print, and the other films were all new to me. In fact I'd never seen any Chick Strand film before now. MacDonald pointed out after the screening that though the two never collaborated on making a film together as they had collaborated so heavily on creating Canyon, some of their films seem as though they're speaking to each each other. For my part I noticed that Strand's Kristallnacht seemed to be connected in some ways to Baillie's To Parsifal- most obviously through the way each filmmaker photographs water. It was also interesting to see these homemade films speaking with the commercial cinema of their day as well; what does it mean that To Parsifal's images of seagulls are as crisp and full of movement as those found in Hitchcock's the Birds from the same year (1963)? Or that the man in the middle of a Mexican desert in Strand's 1967 Anselmo seems to beckon to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West from a year later?

MacDonald said he divided the second and third programs along gender lines in order to show how the women Canyon filmmakers were in some ways responding to the mens' films. This made me particularly regret that prior commitments prevented me from attending the third set, which other than Gunvor Nelson's amazing Kirsa Nicholina and an encore screening of Kristallnacht was a completely unfamiliar slate: films by Abigail Child, Diane Kitchen, Anne Severson and Shelby Kennedy as well as others by Strand and Nelson that I have not seen. But I did get to watch the Y-Chromosome informed set, including more films by Baillie, rarely-seen works by Larry Jordan, Will Hindle, and Dominic Angerame, a pair of gut-busting films by Robert Nelson (my first exposure to his work), and two favorites by the man who initially sparked my interest in avant-garde film, Bruce Conner.

This was my first time seeing any of Conner's films at a public screenings since his death four and a half months ago. It was my fifth or sixth time seeing Cosmic Ray but it always feels like a new experience. This time I hung a bit on a lyric from the Ray Charles song used as the film's soundtrack, "See the girl with the red dress on." The fact that the singer cannot literally "see" a girl with a red dress on, or without one (like the go-go dancers in Cosmic Ray and Breakaway, the other Conner film on the evening's program) doesn't prevent him from singing about her with passion and enthusiasm. Neither can the origin of the disembodied voice be seen on the screen. The filmmaker controls the sensory experience of the audience, even from beyond the grave. This is basic stuff, I suppose, but it's rare to be reminded of it while watching such an exuberant, upbeat film.

Conner's films have become difficult to see of late. They're no longer part of the Canyon distribution catalog- he withdrew them some time before his death, for reasons that MacDonald writes about in the Canyon Cinema book. The highly-pixelated video shrink-downs of certain of his films that were easily accessed streaming in cyberspace not so many months back have also scurried into their hidey-holes-- more information on that in these fascinating posts. So, though it's probably too late in the day for anyone reading this to act on it, it's worth noting that Cosmic Ray will play in 16mm again tonight, at a fourth Scott MacDonald-hosted event this time across Frisco Bay at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Most of the films on the program are repeated from one of the three Canyon screenings; for instance Kristallnacht, Castro Street and Robert Nelson's Oh Dem Watermelons.

And the PFA will also be tributing Conner with an evening solely dedicated to his films two weeks from tonight (December 9th). This is one worth purchasing advance tickets for as it spans a very diverse cross-section of his work: his debut a Movie, his longest film Crossroads, two rather rarely revived films Valse Triste and America is Waiting, and his last completed film Easter Morning.

Finally, Saturday, December 20th at Artists' Television Access, Other Cinema will remember Conner by including a clip from George Kuchar's Tempest in a Teapot, in which both filmmakers appear, as part of its program.


  1. Great write-up, Brian, thank you. I'm temporarily burnt out on film and have been cancelling out on most of my scheduled screenings so it's pleasant to have you take up the slack and offer back insight from these memorable events.

  2. Great stuff. Really glad you covered this. I was only able to make it to the PFA show--a treat, of course.

    Jon K.

  3. Jonathan, thanks for stopping by. I wish I could have made last night's screening too. Hopefully it was well-attended. I wonder if you'd care to share anything on a film that MacDonald said could only be shown at the PFA because of its fragile condidtion: Ernest Callenbach's Wildwood Flower?

    Michael, thanks to you as well. I hope you can recharge your batteries (after such a prolific autumn I can see why you might need to) and come back to fighting shape soon!

  4. Hey Brian,

    I thought the PFA turnout was pretty good, indeed. A mix of ages, and most of the crowd seemed fully engaged.

    As I recall, Wildwood Flower was a gently understated piece--not a deliberate dazzler or shocker like some of the others, but a powerfully simple sort of proto-music video, and very much an affirmation of Callenbach's connection with the natural world.

    I remember meeting Chick Callenbach at his home a few years ago. We sat out on the porch, at the foot of his lush and beautiful back yard, and he told me tales of the early days of Canyon and Film Quarterly. This is the life, I thought.