The road ahead: James Benning's new Ruhr is a foray into German heavy industry and digital video.

San Francisco Cinematheque's Spring Action

Max Goldberg February 10, 2010

The spring edition of the San Francisco Cinematheque calendar is making the rounds, and my copy is already dog-eared with wishful thinking. Beyond the usual bounty of local premiers and filmmaker spotlights, it’s exciting to see Cinematheque continue to cultivate unusual collaborations, programming formats and venues–even the most seasoned Bay Area filmgoer may need to consult the key to decipher some of this calendar’s site abbreviations (Quick, what’s PTUSF? NNC?). So grab your datebook and get ready for a rundown.

There are several programs on the new calendar that can safely be called one of a kind–the kind of thing that no matter what the delivery system, will simply not fit on your laptop screen. Start with “Apparent Motion,” a bouquet of ephemeral projector performances running the weekend of February 20-21 at the Victoria Theater. The four programs are coordinated like a music festival, with out-of-towners headlining and then getting back in line with local talent as supporting acts. All promise to expand the sensorial potential of the humble, now outmoded film projector–harkening back, in part, to the secret psychedelic film history of San Francisco’s rock lightshows.

People travel far and wide to see Bruce McClure’s visceral audio-visual projector workouts (amplified sprocket holes figure prominently). Andréa Picard made a strong case for the Brooklyn-based maestro in a 2008 Cinema Scope piece: “McClure’s practice engenders both a leap forward and a leap back, to a time of analogue physicality. By using cinema’s basic (and mechanical) elements of light, darkness, and sound, he is forging a new language.” He’s joined on Saturday evening by local filmmaker/projectionist Paul Clipson, whose lyrical reveries will be accompanied by the heavy drones of a full-band Tarantel performance–if you miss it, see him along with another Apparent Motion participant, Keith Evans, at the Berkeley Art Museum February 26. Meanwhile, I still haven’t succumbed to Avatar, but I can’t imagine it’s going to displace my fondly frazzled memory of seeing Kerry Laitala’s three-dimensional Chromatic Cocktail Extra Fizzy at the PFA this past September. She’ll collaborate with San Diego projectionist Michael Proft for the Sunday evening program. The saucily named Abject Leader comes all the way from Brisbane for the event, and members Sally Golding and Joel Stern stick around long enough to present an overview of Australian avant-garde work March 2 at YBCA.

Fingers crossed the weather holds for Naomi Uman’s Ukranian Time Machine March 29. In 2008, Uman reversed the immigration course of her great grandparents and travelled to a rural village in Ukraine. After making a series of diary films, she set off across the country in a van to stage impromptu 16mm screenings of her work–she aims to recreate that kind of al fresco gathering with this free screening at USF’s Ovila Amphitheater. Also free is Douglas Katelus’s double-shot birthday tribute to the late San Francisco underground maverick Dean Snider March 3, one of the founders of No Nothing Cinema, an open venue for experimental work that, in its radical leeway, constituted an important counterweight to the institutionalization of the avant-garde scene. Katelus now runs New Nothing Cinema in SOMA and has arranged two programs of Snider’s pithy films from the ’80s for the Cinematheque calendar. Snider’s jagged, often funny 3-minute deconstructions are ripe for rediscovery in the YouTube era. Of the few I’ve seen, La Mer (1987) is an especially insidious blast–an epic five minutes with vaporous guitar trails, a Bruce Conner narration, and interstellar imagery, it’s something like a punk 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

If the New Nothing Cinema screenings channel the anarchic wavelength of San Francisco’s film culture, the ongoing “75 Years in the Dark” series at SF MoMA tracks a long, if intermittent history of adventurous programming at the museum. After a trio of programs curated by Scott MacDonald looking back at the Art in Cinema years (see interview), former Cinematheque director Steve Anker takes the baton for a stacked program of avant-garde monuments March 4. The program is roughly split between works that visited fresh attention on film’s materiality [Peter Kulbelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1958-1960), Stan Brakhage’s compostable Mothlight (1963), Ernie Gehr’s Reverberation (1969/1986)] and those that reveled in its hallucinogenic capacity for illusion [Bruce Baillie’s Castro Street (1966), Pat O’Neill’s Saugus Series (1974), Bruce Conner’s Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977)].

Scholar-curators Bérénice Reynaud and Irina Leimbacher chip in with the other two “75 Years” programs, both of them centering on little known features. Bush Mama originally screened at the museum in 1977 as part of its “Independent Black Cinema” series. Haile Gerima’s radical reconfiguration of neorealism dates from his time at UCLA, where along with Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Larry Clark, and others, he helped inaugurate a genuine alternative vision of American independent filmmaking. Burnett shot Bush Mama (1976), and one hopes that the unexpected success of the re-release of his Killer of Sheep (1977) bodes well for Gerima’s film. Another prominent alumnus of so-called the “Los Angeles Rebellion,” Billy Woodberry, introduces the March 11th program.

Exactly three weeks later, on April Fools’ Day, Irina Leimbacher presents a rarely screened early work from cinema’s great shape-shifter, Chris Marker. Echoing Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s seminal verité work Chronique d’un été (1961) and anticipating Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-Féminin (1966), Le Joli mai (1963) upends the idea of the survey interview for a moveable portrait of Paris in May of 1962. Marker’s essay-film originally screened in May of 1976, less than a year before Bush Mama. “75 Years in the Dark” may only be intended as a one-off, but how interesting it would be to recreate specific programs of the past on a regular basis–this kind of historical context is all too easily leveled by DVD’s discourse of accessibility.

Expect enlightening visits from James Benning and Lynne Sachs, two steadfast artisans whose vision hasn’t dulled over decades of work. The critical literature on Benning, in particular, has exploded in recent years, as his marked influence on a younger generation of filmmakers concerned with history and landscape has become readily apparent. The four Benning films screening February 26 (at YBCA) and February 27 (at USF’s Presentation Theater) span the CalArt’s professor’s lifelong engagement with the reverberations of culture and ideology. Two early works (1984’s American Dreams and 1986’s Landscape Suicide) turn over unexpected pathways of American dreaming ; their multivalent contemplation of landscape helps frame his new work, Ruhr, a foray into the foreign terrain of Europe (it’s set amidst Germany’s heavy industry) and digital video. The new technology alters the parameters of Benning’s signature long takes, recently demonstrated in RR (2007) and 13 Lakes (2004)–you may want a cup of coffee for this one. That surely won’t be necessary for Benning’s lecture at the Exploratorium on the afternoon of February 28, in which the CalArts professor will discuss the hermetic impulse in American life and letters by forging an original link between Thoreau’s Walden cabin and the Montana dwelling from which Ted Kaczynski’s terrorized the country. As Benning’s work always functions to question the social value of artistic introspection, one imagines this lecture will be, at least in part, a self-portrait.

For Sachs, this question of self is a challenge to constantly reframe her engagement with the world. Four packed programs attest to her circuitous routes through the personal and political. Connect the dots from Le Joli mai to Sachs’s revision of Chris Marker and Mario Ruspoli’s Three Cheers for the Whale (1972/2007) at CCA on April 14th, and you’ll see an American filmmaker who, in her freewheeling openness to collaboration, political engagement, multilingualism, diverse sources and running times, is very much in the Marker mold. Three Cheers screens with Investigation of a Flame (2001), a meditative unpacking of a Vietnam protest, and her recent film, The Last Happy Day, a sidewinding study in particularity, evoking a distant relation who survived the Nazis, identified human remains for the U.S. army and translated Winnie the Pooh.

There’s much, much more, including an inspired pairing of two neglected progenitors of American independent cinema (Stanton Kaye and Jim McBride), a mystical selection of transgressive shorts from Cinéma Abattoir and the much anticipated (or should be anyway) local premier of Ben Russell’s feature debut, Let Each One Go Where He May, which recently snagged the coveted FIPRESCI prize. The spring calendar wraps, at last, with Crossroads, a three-day experiment in festival programming. My eyes strain at the thought, but with work from Barbara Hammer, Ben Rivers, Lewis Klahr and Gideon Koppel already promised in advance of a full lineup announcement, I’ll make due.

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