Experimental Film, pre-Nike

Ruben Cinemathéque:
Notes from the Underground

Walker Art Center

           I SAW THE best minds of a previous generation squeeze their talents and obsessions and visions into short little movies that made the meaning of that word seem pathetic by contrast. I slumped in dark rooms watching layer mix with layer, shock pile upon aftershock, and both the unprocessed world and Hollywood's version never looked the same afterward. And now I don't see these other movies much anymore except in the ghosts of a style ruling an ad-littered artificial landscape.

           Putting it a different way, it's time to give American avant-garde film a break and a new look and a guilty apology for not realizing how far it stretched the sprockets so long ago. The film avant-garde of the late '50s and early '60s was literally that: a bunch of people looking far (both ahead and inward), taking risks, redefining purposes, and shaking up a status quo. In simpler terms, if you thought radical filmmaking began and ended with Natural Born Killers, then it's homework time.

           This month's schedule of American avant-garde (or "underground," or "experimental") films at the Walker are being scheduled in sync with the Beat Culture and the New America exhibition, but it's unfair to think of these as "Beat" movies (just as it's unfair to think of those we call "Beat" as only that). They are many, many different things: anti-Hollywood is the most obvious.

           There's no way to sum it all up (this ain't your father's narrative paradigm), but one guide who can help in the orientation is Amos Vogel, famed impresario and historian of art film in America. From 1947 to 1963, Vogel ran Cinema 16, a New York film society that introduced Antonioni and Brakhage, DePalma and Van Peebles to their first American audiences. With sample films at hand, Vogel will chat with Walker Film/Video Curator Bruce Jenkins on June 4 (7 p.m.). To put the significance of this event in perspective, imagine the opportunity to hear Bill Graham reflect on acid rock at the Fillmore West, or Max Gordon talk about booking bebop at the Village Vanguard. If these are the movies the Beats saw or inspired, then Vogel isn't just someone who was on the scene at the time. He actually made the scene take place--he was an avant-garde godfather.

           There are 20-plus films here: I'll dodge elaboration by noting just two representative examples. You couldn't ask for a purer film experience than South Dakota native Bruce Baillie's 1966 All My Life, which opens the series on June 11. Borrowing tactics equally from Zen minimalism and Surrealist coincidence, he matches an Ella Fitzgerald ballad to a single tracking shot of a picket fence with roses. As Ella's notes soar in measured loveliness, Baillie's camera leaves the fence behind to merge with the blue sky--and a still-standing exemplar of the misunderstood concept "music video" is finished, in three sweet minutes. Today, such a sound/image conjunction is perfectly likely, and anyone would sit through it without question. But at the end, Nike or Calvin Klein would nudge themselves into that blue sky and any dreams of sublimity or the viewer's joy in figuring out the moment for her- or himself would be moot.

           On the other hand, would today's audiences even expect, let alone be able to handle, something on the order of Jack Smith's notorious 1963 Flaming Creatures? A 45-minute shaky-cam meditation on orgasmic ritual, in its day the movie drew lawsuits and lip-licking press like Graceland draws Elvis fans. Yet today, after years of theoretical "investigations of the construction of sexual ambiguity and identity," it remains a powerful, half-campy/half-scary vision of life as it might be if sex really meant everything, even death.

           The many films from 1950 to 1966 chosen for this re-viewing are in there for many reasons, and views of actual Beats (Ginsberg, McClure, Wallace Berman) or their environment are among them. But more than anything, these films cover the inner territory that "Beat Culture," whatever that was, also traversed. This was a cultural and aesthetic frontier, or at least an outpost, where a completely liberated mindset, wide-open eyes, and a willingness to improvise (even with materials; Jack Smith shot on thrown-away film stock) was common. Chief among the requirements to be really avant-garde at this moment was an ability to ignore the goatees and the Life magazine put-downs, and turn the medium inside out and backwards.

           Today, you can see more retina-rattling eye candy in 10 minutes of MTV than the average moviegoer would have tolerated during the entire Kennedy administration. These shaky cameras, superimposed images, and logo-ridden visions steal the surface of experimentation while ignoring its soul. Yet there was a soul there in the first place, and this series proves that it has survived. CP

           Ruben Cinemathéque: Notes from the Underground screens at Walker Art Center, Tuesdays throughout June.

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