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Radical Light: Bay Area Alt-Film
by Tony Reveaux
The Bay Area has long been the most active and productive area in the country for independent, experimental, and underground film. Only New York comes close to contributing as much motion art to the avant-garde. At long last, a substantive historical analysis is being co-published by UC Press, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archives. Edited by Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid, "Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000," is due this September.
As one of the contributing writers, I was gratified that my essay, "1967-1976: The Bay Area's Legacy of Light," would cover a period when the most wide-ranging creative exploitations of the mediums of film, sound, and projections were engaged. Here's a brief preview.
Crossover Minds and Technologies
The San Francisco Bay Area has thrived as a crossover station of interdisciplinary invention and technical fusion, from Gold Rush engineering to silent film production and the light spectacles of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.
Filmmakers such as Jordan Belson, Bruce Conner and Harry Smith were integral participants in those expressionistic and individualistic traditions, producing what critic Thomas Albright viewed as "Visionary Art." Imaginative and idiosyncratic risk-takers, they seized equally upon old, available and new technologies as workable means to personal ends, rather than idealizing them as conceptual paradigms.
To realize in film the 'painter's dream' of designed composition, they extended their imageries in the co-existensive embraces of the figurative and abstract, the objective and the non-objective. Some of their films can be seen as transcendent - opening up far vistas to infinite universes and even elevated states of consciousness - while others concentrated on the singular reality of the lens' view.
From 1957 to 1959, visual coordinator Jordan Belson and audio coordinator Henry Jacobs created and presented a series of 62 Vortex Concerts in the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. There, within the velvet-black void, forty stereophonic surround sound sources radiated electronic music. Belson's cosmic abstract imagery was illuminated throughout the theater by as many as 70 slide, film and strobe projection devices.
Since the '50s some Bay Area filmmakers like Jordan Belson, Hy Hirsh, Loren Sears and Will Hindle had been improvising their own tabletop light-bending rigs. By the late '70s, the availability of the $5,000 JK Optical Printer drew more experimental filmmakers to craft their own special effects.
An accomplished abstract painter, Jordan Belson mounted a 16mm Bolex camera on an optical bench comprised of a plywood frame around an old X-ray stand with rotating tables, variable speed motors, and variable intensity lights. This has been the technological basis for more than 20 of his films, such as "Re-Entry" (1964), "Cosmos" (1969), "World" (1970), "Phenomena" (1965), "Samadhi" (1966-67) and "Momentum" (1969) .
Hy Hirsh, who had served as a Hollywood cinematographer in the '30s, had a signature jazz-driven 'noir' sensibility that infused his short films. He used an early magnetic tape recorder to create sound tracks and built a 16mm optical printer to produce matting and color control, seen in his titles like "Scratch Pad" (1961) and "La Coleur de la Forme" (1961).
While serving as a lab technician at Leo Diner's in San Francisco, Loren Sears mated an old Kodak 16mm projector and a 35mm bellows to a 75mm lens on a Pathé camera. Working in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Sears shot revealing socio-political footage of the scene, reflected in his lively films such as "Be-In" (1967) and "Tribal Home Movie #2" (1967).
Will Hindle was another Bay Area film artist whose vision went far beyond the familiar. Using a 16mm optical printer of his own design, he could rephotograph and reshape moving images that were at once expressionistic, graceful and heroic. With its idealistic leitmotif of a flame igniting within an eye, "FFFTCM" (1967) was, he said, "A Promethean awakening, de-bonding of the human spirit."
Early Experiments in Video, Electronics and Computers
In Conner's A MOVIE (he insisted it be ALL CAPS) he deconstructed Hollywood and predicted post-modernism. photo: courtesy C. Conner
In 1967 KQED-TV was featuring a series on Bay Area arts. Bruce Conner was invited to direct a live session of poet Michael McClure performing a poem of his. McClure was seen reading the poem to his own image on the set screen, sometimes multiplied in the process of feedback going into the monitors. "So," said Conner, "it was a lot of visual effects and it also functioned very well with his poem."
It was just this quality of "bad" video which attracted filmmakers like Belson and Pat O'Neill, and then Scott Bartlett, to incorporate sequences of processed video within their works. They liked the glowing graininess, psychedelic phosphorescence, dramatic flaring and streaming, and the pop art posterization that were relatively easy to invoke on videotape compared to optical printing.
"The Empire of Things" by Phil Makanna and "Music With Balls" by composer Terry Riley with Arlo Acton were completed in 1969. They used Hi-Band Color VTR and strategies such as keying and de-beaming the gun of the film chain. These works exploited radical and often rhapsodic shifts of vivid color exchange, patterning, and texture that can be triggered by letting good video "go bad."
At KQED Belson collaborated with Stephen Beck on "Cycles" (1975), created with the custom-built Beck Direct Video Synthesizer, which yielded shimmering, chromatic atmospheres. With original music by Belson, "Anima" (1975) had the figure of a woman dancing through and then embraced by an abstracted and colorized aura of meditation.
Bartlett's OffOn was an explosion of different media and methods mixed together. photo courtesy S. Bartlett
The Audiovisual Impact of OFFON
Scott Bartlett enrolled in San Francisco State College as a film student and made "Metanomen" there in 1966. His "OFFON" (1968) stands as an aesthetic turning point between a summa of analog film and video and the digital media yet to come. According to Tom DeWitt, the title refers both to yin-yang philosophical duality and the binary logic of electronics. (While an industrial design student, classmate DeWitt was building his own animation stands and optical printers.) Combining many different media, "OFFON" was born in a complex collaborative process between DeWitt, Michael MacNamee and Glenn McKay.
Bartlett continued to combine and fuse natural, electronic and video imagery in films like "Moon 69" (1969) and "Serpent" (1971). DeWitt made "The Leap" (1969) using electrovideographics co-created with Bartlett.
The Beck Direct Video Synthesizer
With the tool-building and creativity of Stephen Beck, we see the fulfillment of the transition from analog to digital for expanded media, though it was still the very early age of analog computing. As soon as he arrived at KQED in 1970, Beck started to build a prototype video synthesizer. Collaborating with composer Richard Felciano, he designed high voltage range inputs to be compatible with a Buchla audio synthesizer, through which he began to produce imagery with videotape. The result was his analog Beck Direct Video Synthesizer. "Its an analog hybrid computer," he said, "a visual computer. I didn't really build the synthesizer for the technology per se. It was a way of being able to work with color and imagery."
This was followed in 1974 with the development of his Beck Video Weaver system, a real-time, digital image generation technique modeled after the warp and weft systems of traditional textile looms. "Video Weavings" (1975) is a continuous interplay of beguiling, chromatically geometric progressions. And thus, this pioneering era of enterprising analog originality was bridged to the digital future we inhabit today.
Tony Reveaux has been a Bay Area writer, editor, teacher and consultant since the '70's.
Posted on Aug 12, 2010 - 07:17 PM