New Executive Director of S.F. Cinematheque on Experimental Film

Michael Fox May 29, 2006

Storytelling is the currency of the realm, from fiction films to documentaries to TV dramas to commercials. So experimental film — which embraces the notion of cinema as poetry, and frequently is not just non-narrative but nonlinear — receives scant attention these days. And yet countless music video and commercial directors, not to mention au courant filmmakers like David Lynch and Michel Gondry, make liberal use of avant-garde techniques such as extreme jump cuts, rapid-fire montage, overexposed frames, and distorted sound. New York and San Francisco remain the primary enclaves of experimental film, with the 45-year-old S.F. Cinematheque the main keeper of the flame in our town. The institution welcomed Caroline Savage a few months ago as executive director, joining stalwart programmers Irina Leimbacher and Steve Polta. Savage holds an MFA in film from the S.F. Art Institute (where she is a visiting artist this year) and has taught at both S.F. State and USF. In addition to her work as a photographer, filmmaker, and educator, Savage spent more than a decade as the program director of media, interdisciplinary, and visual arts at the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. We spoke on the phone a few days ago about her new gig.

SF360: Where do you see experimental film in our culture?

Savage: I don’t see it as separate anymore, frankly. I tend to be populist in my viewing, but with a discerning eye. Richard Herskowitz, director of the Virginia Film Festival, one of the things he talks about is looking for the experimental in all films. I tend to look at moving images that way. I don’t see experimental film as having a separate niche although it’s looked at by the uninitiated as unfamiliar, foreign and irrelevant.

SF360: So to what degree has experimental film infiltrated the mainstream?

Savage: Something like “Memento,” a Hollywood movie, was a real puzzler for people. But experimental filmmakers have used the idea of telling a story backwards. In Hollis Frampton’s “Nostalgia,” he tells us what’s going to happen and what you see is what happened. You’re seeing what’s past and he’s telling you what you’re going to see. That sound-image disjunction [conveys] the difficulty of time passing. Speeding up or slowing down time — these are conventions of experimental film. It’s the cinematic components — time, space, sound, color-that experimental filmmakers generally address; they’re in the forefront. In the conventional cinema, they’re at the service of the story.

SF360: The Cinematheque’s spring season continues through June. What kind of guidance do you offer students and others discovering experimental film?

Savage: Experimental filmmakers work with a cinema of time, light, and sound. That’s hard for people to embrace whose senses are dulled by mainstream cinema into looking for literary reference. When something is light for the sake of light, it’s hard to understand the structure. Expectations, too: If you’re used to having a beginning, middle, and an end, and a plot, that’s difficult. When you’re confronted with a film that is simply a series of light impulses and a minimal soundtrack and seemingly just starts and seemingly just ends, then you’re perplexed. You’re not sure what to do. You have to suspend your normal expectations. I approach experimental work like a Mark Rothko painting. You watch it and look at it, and the color and the shape of the painting reaches inside you and you find a connection.

SF360: It sounds like the Cinematheque aims for somewhere between a gallery and the multiplex.

Savage: The Cinematheque is not a place where anything goes, where we expect you to divine what the experimental is. The vision I see is a place where we present aesthetic experiences that center around cinematic apparatus — light projection and narrative questioning. I see it as a place for people to come who are curious abut images and sound moving in time, and what that might be. So it’s very broad. It’s kind of a paradox to me — so open, and yet inaccessible.

SF360: I agree that one of the elements that’s always defined Cinematheque audiences is adventurousness.

Savage: I don’t see the Cinematheque’s shows ever being in the mainstream, so they’re always going to be edgy. People may not like everything, but they’re curious: ‘What’s going to happen now?’ I think we need that now. Everything’s so predictable. Our mandate is to present shows that bring out a sense of wonder. Robert Irwin, who started as a painter and now does installations of pure light, you look at his work and you’re awed by it. Our mission is around the idea of presenting artist-made personal work. The hand of the artist is really important.

SF360: You mentioned that “Memento” had predecessors in the avant-garde. How can the Cinematheque call attention to innovators of the past who are unknown to supposedly “media-savvy” viewers?

Savage: I see our role increasingly becoming one of educator. We’ve always been that, but now we’re really looking at reclaiming the history of cinema and bringing back work that’s been largely unseen. I see younger audiences excited about these films that are optically interesting and narratively intriguing and explore the cinematic world in ways they find challenging. I’m thinking of “Entr’acte” by Rene Clair, which is one of the precursors for all comedic and absurdist chase scenes, and was made in the ’20s. Early works by Laszly Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Dziga Vertov, Robert Breer, Stan Brakhage, Marie Menken. I’ve shown them to students and they’re just astonished at the — in their minds — sophistication and invention.

SF360: What fuels your enthusiasm?

Savage: I’m an itinerant preacher. ‘This stuff is dazzling. It will really make you wonder.’ It’s not only about the cinematic form; it’s about the intellectual investigation. Taking on issues that aren’t popular. One of my friends uses the term ‘radical content/radical form.’ Lynne Sachs’ ‘States of Unbelonging’ [about a young Israeli filmmaker who was murdered with her children, and which screened in March at the Cinematheque] was not a conventional documentary, it wasn’t completely clear what was happening, but you felt something powerful. It makes you curious about what’s happening, and makes you want to go and ask questions about history, about current events, about what was hinted at or allusions that were made. It doesn’t give you all the answers, it makes you work at figuring it out and making meaning and understanding. We like that people have questions after a show.

SF360: Where does the Cinematheque fit in a world gradually being overtaken by digital technology?

Savage: The support system for film and celluloid is disappearing. Film stocks are being eliminated, cameras and projectors are being eliminated and people are transferring to video and DVD. You’re not always going to be in a situation where you’ll be able to show the original work [in its original form]. Soon we’re going to be one of the few places that actually has projectors and still shows film. We will continue to be true to the original medium and the artist’s intent and vision.