A handful: SF Cinematheque screens Robert Beavers' Amor Thursday, October 8, 7:00 pm, at SFMoMA and on Sunday, October 11, 5:00 pm, at CCA.

San Francisco Cinematheque Fall Program Underway

Max Goldberg October 3, 2009

A year after Jonathan Marlow took the helm as executive director, working in close collaboration with longtime veteran Steve Polta and program director Vanessa O’Neill, the organization is showing fresh signs of life. A smart new Web site design that corrals a grove of archival materials and useful pointers to kindred screenings is one indicator that the organization is recommitting itself as the public face of visionary film in the Bay Area.

P. Adams Sitney, author of the foundational Visionary Film study, himself takes part in the current Cinematheque calendar with a lecture-screening based on his new book, Eyes Upside Down. This time around, the Princeton professor convenes American avant-garde cinema under the sign of Emerson. His appearance confirms Cinematheque’s role in an ongoing conversation—one never far from San Francisco. It also speaks to the strong intellectual emphasis of Cinematheque’s programming. I realize the idea of the film intellectual is deeply unfashionable, but I mean it broadly, roomy enough to accommodate the visionary professor, amateur scholar, and hermetic sage—all those who make close, practical study of cinematic form and meaning.

Cinematheque’s ambitious fall inscribes filmmakers as curators, artisanal archivists, philosophers, historians and activists of the medium. Though one might argue that the series is in excess of American work, there is an educational, constitutive element here—it doesn’t assume you’ve seen the canon—that strikes me as being hopeful and, dare I say it, audience-friendly. Lest one think the calendar is simply staid, there’s a program dedicated to Finnegan’s Wake’s anticipation of film technique, a karaoke video salon, and a batch of 8mm restorations (when was the last time you read those words?) of the Kuchar Brothers’ early madcappers. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself: With the calendar already in full stride, a brief run-through is in order.

The first thing to notice is that Cinematheque is hosting two filmmaker residencies: a weekend for "saturnine independent" Yvonne Rainer (Manny Farber’s coinage), and a multipart program dedicated to Robert Beavers’ 40-years-in-the-making film cycle, My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure, presented in partnership with the Pacific Film Archive. The latter starts next week and is by any measure a special opportunity. Beavers left America with Gregory Markopoulos in the late ’60s as a teenager; the flush reels from Early Monthly Segments (1968–1970/2002) document this period with aquamarine eroticism. From the very beginning, Beavers exhibits a magnificent obsession with filmmaking’s less obvious relations to seeing in a way that is both self-conscious and sensual, suggesting a more corporeal Vertov.

Beavers works slowly and continuously (many of the films in the cycle were revised decades after their first incarnations), and, with Markopoulos, kept his distance from the avant-garde scenes in New York and San Francisco. Perhaps this self-imposed exile helps explain the impression one gets watching the films of seeing (and hearing) someone develop their own film language, keyed to classical architecture, painting, music and mythology. The use of in-camera effects alone marks Beavers’ ingenuity apart; his associative rhythms and synesthetic sound designs make it seem like the vast majority of films are only tapping a small portion of the medium’s phenomenological potential.

Beavers and Markopoulos kept exacting standards for the handling of their work, making exhibition rare. Whatever effect this worrying impulse might have had on Beavers’ renown—it’s evident from the films themselves that he takes a long view on the history of art—the prints screening at the Cinematheque and PFA screenings are pristine. The transparent grain of Bolex 16mm blown up to 35mm has the vibrancy of morning sunlight radiating a soft curtain; the closely mic’ed sounds, for their part, thump with a ravishing dynamism that compares favorably to the latest Dolby workouts. Beavers will be in town for two full weeks, attending all screenings in both San Francisco and Berkeley. The Berkeley series has the advantage of presenting the cycle in chronological order, but the San Francisco week sneaks in Beavers’ latest film, a portrait in proximity of his aging mother, Pitcher of Colored Light (2007).

The Rainer series isn’t so full an immersion, but then her reputation is more secure. Her weekend visit begins with a lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute, intriguingly titled "One Day When I Was Growing Up in the ’60s" The talk should help frame some of the extra-cinematic referents Rainer ushered into the film frame: modern dance and psychoanalysis are especially salient to her early films, which remain cornerstones of feminist film criticism. The Cinematheque calendar follows Rainer’s lecture by screening two of her most discussed works on consecutive nights, Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980) and Privilege (1990). As with the Beavers program, it’s another crack at an informal seminar—and with tuitions on the rise, the Cinematheque course looks like a bargain.

Moving on to the single-installment programs, the Cinematheque calendar offers fresh inroads to old favorites (Ken Jacobs, Hollis Frampton, the Kuchars, Chick Strand, Owen Land, Ute Aurend), a few new kids on the block (Deborah Stratman, Elise Baldwin and Kadet Kuhne), and several programs which happily resonate less with a theme than a guest curator’s private Idaho. Mothball stereoscope 3-D nuts will want to check out a new set of hauntological razzle dazzle from Ken Jacobs, longtime avant-garde pathfinder and recent screen star of his son Azazel’s wicked Momma’s Man (2008). Jacobs’ historiography of photographic representation carries the Shocked by Existence program (October 6, CCA)—I’m especially looking forward to his reworking of Edison’s randy short, What Happened on 23rd Street (1901). Not included is Capitalism: Slavery (2007), a short recently screened at the PFA as part of Kathy Geritz’s experimental animation program, but if its strobing investigation of two images of plantation slave-labor is any indication, Jacobs is as prickly as ever. Fans take note: the night after the Shocked by Existence program, Jacobs will present his patented Nervous Magic Lantern at the PFA.

Deborah Stratman’s acclaimed O’er the Land unfolds a similarly dense ecology of images, though her work marches to the beat of nature and nation. I still haven’t been able to see Stratman’s new film, screening at MOMA along with several of her earlier works on November 19, but its revelation of William Rankin—a fighter jet pilot who, according to the matter-of-fact Wikipedia entry, is "the only known person to survive a fall from the top of a cumulonimbus thunderstorm cloud"—intrigues. O’er the Land sounds like another interesting entry in the current cycle of essay approaches to American landscape and ideology (see James Benning, Profit motive and whispering wind, California Company Town).

For those wanting something more eclectic than the standard single-artist format, the two preceding programs on the Cinematheque calendar relinquish programming duties over to the filmmakers themselves, offering a unique vista on their aesthetic sensibilities. Michael Robinson’s visionary reconstructions of pop nostalgia have won plenty of admirers (Michael Sicinski’s article in Cinema Scope is a good place to begin); Cinematheque takes advantage of his temporary proximity as an artist-in-residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts for Running Up That Hill (November 6, YBCA), a series of shorts featuring Robinson’s latest, If There Be Thorns.

A few days later, filmmaker/theorist Daniel Barnett illustrates his recently published poetics of the moving image, Movement as Meaning in Experimental Cinema, with films by Stan Brakhage, Saul Levine, A. Keewatin Dewdney and his own The Chinese Typewriter (1978–83). My only exposure to Barnett’s work came courtesy of kino21’s rare screening of his 1975 film, White Heart, last May, but that film’s neurobiological precision and elegant loops would have made me think Barnett was on a whole other level of montage even if kino21 programmer Konrad Steiner hadn’t told me so. Writing about fellow traveler Nathanial Dorsky’s own book, Devotional Cinema, several years ago, Barnett approvingly noted that—Dorsky treats the word with the same care as he treats the image in his films—one expects the same from him.

After all this hopscotching, I still haven’t touched the most moving entry on the Cinematheque calendar: a two-part tribute to Chick Strand, a much beloved filmmaker and teacher who died this summer. Best known for her instigating role in Canyon Cinema, she was also a vital artist in her own right. I’ll submit a fuller treatment of Strand in a couple of weeks; in the meantime, enjoy these bright stars of the autumn film calendar.

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