A grand Canyon: Scott MacDonald's book about Canyon Cinema, from UC Press, catalogues the life and times of the distribution company with irreverence, scholarship, and whimsy.

Scott MacDonald's 'Canyon Cinema' Book--Both History and How-to

Michael Fox November 17, 2008

In his overlapping careers as a historian, a curator, a teacher, and a critic, Scott MacDonald has arguably done more than anyone to champion the American experimental cinema. He is the author of numerous books, including five volumes of informed, illuminating conversations in his ongoing series, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (University of California Press). His latest work, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor, published by UC Press in January, details the formation of the revered Bay Area artists’ collective in the early 1960s and its subsequent status and ongoing success. Packed with fascinating source material, from memos to drawings to a fan letter from John Lennon to Bruce Conner, the book is a scintillating blend of artists’ philosophy, irreverence, scholarship, and whimsy. We posed a set of questions via email to MacDonald, currently a visiting professor at Hamilton College and Harvard University. We’re reposting the interview, which originally ran in early September, to mark his peripatetic visit to the Bay Area this week. MacDonald will introduce a quartet of shows honoring the films and makers of Canyon Cinema beginning Friday and Saturday, November 21 and 22, at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center, followed by a San Francisco Cinematheque show Sunday, November 23, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and a Pacific Film Archive program Tuesday, November 25.

SF360: I’ll begin by saying that one of my concerns and challenges as a critic, as has long been one of yours, is introducing experimental film to general audiences, and raising their curiosity and want-to-see level.

Scott MacDonald: I see this as precisely my mission—though maybe I’d put it ‘more-general:’ I doubt if a truly general audience could be likely to feel as I do about avant-garde film (it took me awhile to commit to it, and I had many opportunities), but I do feel that people who love Keaton, and Hitchcock, and the Coen Brothers, and Ratatouille can also love Brakhage and Conner—if only they are exposed to them. I’m living (and very grateful) proof.

SF360: What does Canyon Cinema represent in the vast history of American cinema? If that isn’t a useful frame of reference, what is its significance in the history of American avant-garde cinema?

MacDonald: Canyon represents a number of things. First, it is evidence that ‘counter-cultural artists’ can in fact run a business on the basis of ideals, and keep that business alive for going on half a century, serving both filmmakers and a devoted audience. It should be a model for younger artists. It is also an absolutely crucial nodal point for the accessibility of an immense body of work; without Canyon the field would be in danger of largely disappearing: a major portion of film history would no longer be available.

SF360: Instead of a critical, through-written history, your book is a kind of loving scrapbook, drawing on original source material such as letters, drawings and newsletters to evoke a perhaps idealistic movement. Why did you take that approach?

MacDonald: I wanted to create a sense of the life of the organization and of the film movement of which it was, and remains, such a crucial part. When it’s a choice of my describing what went on, or creatively presenting (I hope!) reproductions of the actual documents that are evidence of what happened, that are a part of what happened, I think readers are better served by the documents. At this point, I’m less interested in my ‘ideas’ than in the films Canyon was designed to serve and the filmmakers who made them. I think of myself as a kind of collagist, and something like an epistolary novelist—please excuse the pretentious sound of this!

This method was also my way of doing the two things that instigated the Canyon Cinema book: first, evoking the history of Canyon as a distributor; and second, making available once again some of the most interesting letters, essays, images, experimental writings, photographs, debates, etc. that were published in Canyon’s newsletter, the Cinemanews, which was a crucial ‘zine in the field for 20 years. The changes in the Cinemanews reflect fundamental changes in the field from the early 1960s until the early 1980s.

SF360: Should the Bay Area experimental film scene be accorded the same importance as major 20th Century American art movements such as Pop Art or the L.A. cool art scene or abstract art as embodied by Jackson Pollock? Has it been undervalued nationally and culturally, and is one of the goals of your book to revive its reputation?

MacDonald: This is the goal of nearly all of my work as a scholar and much of my teaching. Avant-garde film in general, and American avant-garde film more specifically, is a remarkable cultural achievement. Every museum in the nation should be as excited about exhibiting it as it is in exhibiting the Abstraction Expressionists. I never cease to be astonished at the double standard accorded modern painting and avant-garde film, even by those museums who see themselves (and rightly so) as crucial supports of avant-garde film.

For a teacher, the work provides endless fascinating opportunities for critiquing mass media and the audience it has created and sustains. And the best avant-garde films are not just critiques, but are remarkable works in themselves.

SF360: Would you assess, in a sentence or two, the artistic contributions of some of the key figures involved in Canyon’s growth and the scene’s vitality.

MacDonald: Bruce Conner: A remarkable artist and one of the major figures in American independent filmmaking. As Robert Flaherty did with the documentary film, Conner did with what is now called ‘found-footage filmmaking’ or ‘recycled cinema.’ That is, Conner didn’t invent this approach (the Russian Esfir Shub and the American artist Joseph Cornell preceded him in this), but he demonstrated its possibilities in a way that no one had before him-and in the end instigated no end of experimentation among avant-garde filmmakers (dozens of filmmakers are indebted to him and are happy to admit it), as well as a major acceleration in commercial television advertising, and ultimately, the music video. And he made a dozen or so films that are as exciting, as sexy, as moving, as funny as any films I know of any kind.

Chick Strand
: A courageous and always independent spirit, who made some lovely films, and was Bruce Baillie’s first important partner at Canyon Cinema.

Bruce Baillie
: A sweet and generous spirit, whose films earned the respect of filmmakers across the country, including Stan Brakhage who felt that Baillie was among the most underappreciated of American artists. Baillie was both a filmmaker and a sort of zen missionary for avant-garde film and for an avant-garde community of filmmakers and like-minded souls. He instigated Canyon Cinema and invested it with his belief in simplicity, honesty, humility, generosity and sensuousness. He provided letters, essays, poems and recipes to the Cinemanews, and worked to keep its original spirit alive, even when he was on the other side of the country.

Robert Nelson
: Nelson’s spirit of spontaneity and his high spirits (along with his immense charm and virility, and his movie-star good looks) not only produced some remarkable films (Oh Dem Watermelons, American cinema’s most impressive and funniest send-up of American racism, most obviously), but was the very spirit of collaboration. Nearly all his films were made with other artists (William T. Wiley, most often), and the pleasure of the friendship of these collaborators infuses nearly all his films. As a teacher he was formative on many filmmakers.

Stan Brakhage
: The most productive and accomplished and influential American independent filmmaker.

SF360: What is it about the Bay Area that allowed Canyon and the experimental film scene to flower and flourish here? Do those factors still exist, in your opinion, and to what degree?

MacDonald: You as a Bay Area person will need to find the reasons, but the Bay Area has been a central factor in the American visual arts since the late 19th Century when it was a center for photography. Art in Cinema, Frank Stauffacher’s immensely successful film society hosted by the San Francisco Museum of Art in the 1940s and 1950s was (along with the slightly later Cinema 16 in New York City) formative in making clear to Americans that an independent, local film art was a possibility and that there was an audience for it. Jordan Belson and other Bay Area artists helped to invent the light show. And several generations of avant-garde filmmakers working at the San Francisco Art Institute (Sidney Peterson in the 1940s, Nelson and others in the 1960s, and Ernie Gehr, George Kuchar, and so many others from the 1970s on) helped to maintain and feed an interest in independent media. So far as I know, San Francisco remains, with New York City, the best place in America for seeing avant-garde forms of film.

SF360: Finally, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor reads not only as a history lesson of how a ’60s film movement and community got started, but as a how-to for current intrepid artists who may be so inclined. Was that your intent?

MacDonald: Absolutely.

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