Thursday, January 31, 2013

The White Rose (1967)

WHO: Jay DeFeo, subject of a current SFMOMA exhibition which will be taken down in just a few days, is also the subject of this brief film, one of the greatest artist portraits I've ever seen.

WHAT: DeFeo's painting The Rose is among the most monumental art works created in San Francisco. She worked on it obsessively for nearly a decade, layering paint upon paint until it bulged off the canvas like a beautiful inflated gland on the wall. By the time a fivefold rent increase forced eviction from her second-story Fillmore Street apartment (a block up from the Clay Theatre) she had applied so many thousands of pounds of paint that removing the piece, which by now was as much sculpture as painting, required cutting away parts of the wall and bringing it down to street level by forklift. Her friend, assemblage artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner, documented her apartment, this surgical extraction of its most vital organ, and its visible effect on DeFeo, editing it into a seven-minute film with a soundtrack of Miles Davis's performance of the "Concierto de Aranjuez" from Sketches of Spain. The result is a masterpiece, both a perfect introduction for a newcomer to Conner's work and a piece that grows richer each time one views it.

WHERE/WHEN: The White Rose screens at SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater tonight as part of a 7PM program of Beat Era filmmaking that also serves as the opening of the 2013 SF Cinematheque season. It also screens, on its own, at the museum's Koret Visitor Education Center twice today, tomorrow and Saturday afternoons.

WHY: Whether you've already spent time with The Rose during SFMOMA's retrospective, or are planning to do so before it departs from view this Sunday (skipping this rare opportunity altogether is not an option), you will definitely want to watch Conner's film to enrich your perspective. Seeing it tonight as part of the Cinematheque program is for many reasons the optimal way to take it in. In addition to The White Rose, several key works made by other San Francisco Beat-associated artists during the year DeFeo began this painting (1958) will screen. Lawrence Jordan's Triptych in Four Parts, Christopher Maclaine's Beat, and Wallace Berman's sole film, begun in 1956 but like The Rose extended for about a decade after, and entitled Aleph after his 1976 death, are crucial works well-known to students of this era of truly independent filmmaking.

Poet ruth weiss's film The Brink came a bit later in 1961, and according to Kari Adelaide Razdow was shot on Super-8 around the San Francisco Bay Area that year. Local viewers ought to be able to recognize sites such as Baker Beach and Sutro Heights Park, the latter of which was also one of the locations which Brecht Andersch & I identified as used in Maclaine's 1953 The End. Like that film The Brink is anchored by a strong narration, in this case a recitation of a version of a poem of the same title that weiss had published in 1960. Whereas Maclaine is known for his filmmaking while his poetry languishes these days, weiss is fairly well-represented in discussions of Beat-era poetry, and has several books available at City Lights and at the San Francisco Public Library, but is relatively unknown as a filmmaker. Tonight represents a rare chance for a Frisco Bay audience to begin rectifying this, as weiss, now in her eighties, will appear along with her film at tonight's screening. She will also appear at a community tribute to Jay DeFeo this Saturday afternoon, also at SFMOMA.

HOW: I've been told that tonight's screening will be mostly from 16mm prints, including The White Rose. The afternoon screenings are digital video presentations however.

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