Dipping into the archives: Scott MacDonald is uniquely situated to assess the import of SFMoMA's Art in Cinema series from 1945-54. (Maya Deren, Ritual in Transfigured Time still, 1946)

Scott MacDonald on Art in Cinema at SFMoMA

Max Goldberg February 7, 2010

As part of its 75th Anniversary celebrations, SF MoMA has commissioned three trios of programs surveying different eras of the museum’s history of film exhibition. The first of these considers the years of 1937-1960, though really we’re interested in 1945-1954, when Frank Stauffacher’s seminal Art in Cinema series hatched a Bay Area avant-garde. Filmmakers and critics are easily overlooked, but the programmer’s work is particularly subject to forgetting. In Stauffacher’s case this is most unfortunate, as his catalyzing work not only demonstrated the radical possibility of film as (local) art, but planted the seeds for a new, promiscuous way of seeing called cinephilia. When today’s enthusiasts dart between a Michael Mann blockbuster and a Ken Jacobs shoestring revolution, they are in Stauffacher’s republic. Art in Cinema took too much of Stauffacher–the series effectively ended when he died from a brain tumor in 1955–but his garden flourished well beyond those nine years.

As the preeminent historian of American avant-garde cinema, and the editor of the 2006 dossier, Art in Cinema: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society (Temple University Press), Scott MacDonald is uniquely situated to assess Stauffacher’s import. The Art in Cinema book is, like his related Canyon Cinema and Cinema 16 volumes, not just a necessary act of historical accounting but a surprisingly engrossing read. The three evenings he’s programmed for SF MoMA’s “75 Years in the Dark” series reflect the trajectory of Stauffacher’s vision, moving from the pedagogical “European Context” (February 11) to his championing of “Some American Experiments” (February 18) and finally to the proud moment when “The Bay Area Arrives” (February 25).

SF360: I’ve been going over the Art in Cinema book you put together, and I wanted to start by asking you to talk about some of the things that really made an impression on you when you started digging through these files.

Scott MacDonald: Well, I think the thing that impressed me immediately was the size of the audiences. In our time, if thirty people show up to avant-garde show, it feels like it’s not a disaster. Almost immediately, Stauffacher was attracting 500-600 people, and within the first months of Art in Cinema, there was a spin-off series in Berkeley that outdrew the San Francisco series. We fantasize about this, and these guys actually did it. I think partly it was because no one had seen any of the work and also because they didn’t show a lot. I mention in the book that any single season of PFA shows more than the entire span of Art in Cinema. So part of it is that they didn’t overdo it and that people were hungry for it, but it’s exciting to imagine 500 people at these events.

SF360: There’s that great passage in your interview with Stauffacher’s wife, Barbara, where she describes the audience. It sounds eclectic.

MacDonald: Right, that’s it. You know, we think of San Francisco now as one of the two or three major homes of [American] avant-garde filmmaking, but it really starts with this. The other thing that I found really interesting about Stauffacher is that he went into programming with a kind of mission, in the sense that he first created a context–a European context–to educate his audience. But he was clearly moving towards supporting Bay Area artists. That was really what he wanted to do, but he needed to create a historical context that they could fit into. Amos Vogel [founder of Art 16 in New York City] was more successful than Art in Cinema in certain ways, but the thing that’s interesting about Stauffacher is that he was really serious about making the Bay Area a place where film happened, and he won that battle.

SF360: I’ve never seen of any of his films before, and you’re showing a couple, right?

MacDonald: Yes. We might be able to show a film that I’ve never seen and that I don’t think has been seen for a long time. I emailed the folks at SF MoMA yesterday to see if they knew for sure if they were getting ZigZag (1948), which is an early film. I have no idea what it’s like, but Dominic Angerame found his way to a print and offered it, so I said they should definitely show it. We’re showing Sausalito (1948) which is probably the best known of his films, and it’s very sweet. Of course, now it will seem like a real fantasy–Sausalito before any [development] happened. And Notes on the Port of St. Francis (1951) is a really really nice city symphony of San Francisco. I think Stauffacher had influence both as a filmmaker and as a programmer, and I imagine Dominic would be glad to call Stauffacher the background for his own city films.

SF360: Once the program got some legs, you see Stauffacher fielding this new generation of filmmakers in his correspondences. I get the sense that he didn’t savor being the de facto judge of experimental film, and there are a few remarkable letters where he writes a full page explaining why he didn’t show someone’s film, offering this very constructive critique of the work, which just seems so amazing for a programmer to be doing.

MacDonald: One of the things he talks about in a number of letters is the fact that he wasn’t sure how much good work there was. He didn’t want to show bad work, and he had fairly high standards. It’s not like all of a sudden, once Art in Cinema started, there were fifty filmmakers ready with work. It was still relatively rare for someone to make a noncommercial film. There wasn’t a whole lot of it. He suffered himself, not having time to do his own work. I think the reason he did so little was because he was so devoted to this process. Of course, everybody in those days wrote letters in ways that we don’t. But still, that takes a lot of time to write a filmmaker about what he or she should do about a film. That’s an effort.

SF360: Are there specific filmmakers who spoke of him as being a key mentor?

MacDonald: Well, Jordon Belson, though he didn’t speak of Stauffacher as a mentor in the sense that he helped him figure out how to make a film. But in a little interview in the book, Belson says that if Art in Cinema wasn’t there, he would never have made films. It never would have occurred to him. He was really a painter at the beginning, and there was a lot of support of painting–or at least some support, with the Guggenheim people in New York who supported Belson, Harry Smith and other abstract artists. But I think the fact that there was this audience of 500 people made a huge difference. James Broughton also talks about Stauffacher as being important to him, as a collaborator. Stauffacher shot Mother’s Day (1948) which itself is a pretty influential film.

SF360: One thing you point out in the introduction to the book that’s pretty unusual about Stauffacher’s programming is that even though there was a premium placed on film as ‘art,’ he could be pretty adventurous about where he found that art, seeing connections between Harry Smith and Walt Disney, for instance.

MacDonald: That’s right.

SF360: When you were putting together these programs for MoMA, how did you try to pay tribute to that sensibility?

MacDonald: Well, I did it less than is probably accurate. In the second program, ‘Some American Experiments,’ I include Steamboat Willie (1928). But you know, the last two series Stauffacher did were all Hollywood filmmakers, positioned as artists, which made even them uncomfortable. I mean, nobody had done this. They were afraid to come up the coast, they thought they would get in trouble [laughs]. This was true of Cinema 16 too: both were champions of documentary and avant-garde film, but not as the opposite of commercial film. There are a lot of crappy avant-garde films, as we know, just as there are an incredible number of crappy commercial films. I don’t know what the reaction was to his devoting these series to Hollywood filmmakers, though hardly anyone could have complained very much because he had spent so much time supporting smaller work. But yes, he was very adventurous in the sense that he created this clientele and then–I mean, it’s a little like if Mark McElhatten [longtime programmer of Views from the Avant-Garde at the New York Film Festival] started to bring in Jonathan Demme’s documentaries or something. There would be a riot [laughs]. And that’s exactly what Stauffacher did. He wasn’t afraid to admit that he liked all this different stuff.

SF360: The other thing that was of course remarkable about all this was that it was happening in a museum. How did his relationship with the museum begin? Did they contact him?

MacDonald: I’m not positive, but I think he approached them. They were already showing films. What they had not done was show carefully curated programs of films. At some point, the people at the museum sent me a list of all the films they’ve ever shown, and it’s really a huge number. So they were on board very early with the idea of showing film, and I think Stauffacher saw that they weren’t doing things that made particular sense in an art context, particularly with all those 20s filmmakers who were painters or sculptors. I’d have to reread my own book because I don’t specifically remember this, but I think he approached Grace Morley and she was totally, totally supportive. The sense I get is that she was relieved to have somebody, not only willing to do this, but somebody willing to do it for–I don’t know what he got paid, but, you know, bupkis. In that way, it was sort of a premonition of the way things works these days.

SF360: Seven or eight years pass between the time Stauffacher died and the first Canyon screenings in the East Bay. Were [Bruce] Baillie and [Chick] Strand and others cognizant of Art in Cinema as a backdrop?

MacDonald: I don’t think so much at first, but there are transitional figures–Belson, in particular. He started to do light shows at the planetarium in the late ’50s, not so long after Art in Cinema was over. That’s a kind of bridge between those two moments. Broughton’s a really important figure, as well. The Art in Cinema series actually continued for a year or so after Stauffacher died, but I think what happened was that everybody remembered it. When you know something happened, and you know something happened in your own town, the idea of doing something else doesn’t seem so far-fetched. I don’t know whether the founders of Canyon knew Art in Cinema when they started, but certainly by the time they incorporated, when they decided to call their organization the Foundation for Art in Cinema, they consciously named that after Art in Cinema–that’s Edith Kramer’s doing. So it was in the memory bank of San Francisco that this thing had happened and had been important and had really pushed the local. I think that Canyon and Art in Cinema are very similar in this way–more than Views from the Avant-Garde or something like that, there was a feeling that there is such a thing as San Francisco filmmaking.

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