"Kees Kino: The Film Work of Weldon Kees"

Jenni Olson June 7, 2006

San Francisco Cinematheque guest curator Jenni Olson reflects on her upcoming show, Kees Kino: The Film Work of Weldon Kees (Sun/11 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts).

My fascination with Weldon Kees began while I was researching the history of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge (for my film "The Joy of Life" — coming to DVD in July, by the way). His name, and his amazing life-story, just kept coming up. I’m proud to say that Weldon ultimately, posthumously, provided the soundtrack for my film. His instrumental piano piece, "The Coastline Rag" became my credits music (too bad he wasn’t alive for that call from BMI wanting to rep him when the film got into Sundance).

Weldon Kees was only 41 years-old when he became the official 88th reported Golden Gate Bridge suicide. He was last heard from on July 18th, 1955. Leading up to that fatal date, Weldon had been a veritable 20th-century Renaissance guy. In his day he was successful, recognized, and accomplished as a poet, short story writer, film critic, music critic, art critic, book reviewer, abstract expressionist painter, musician, lyricist, and composer, curator and event producer, newsreel screenwriter and documentarian. The list goes on. The actual details are even more fascinating than the laundry list could possibly convey.

My primary source of information about Weldon has been his biographer, James Riedel (who also provided direct access or shortcuts to all the sources of material in the Cinematheque Kees Kino program). His website is the best source of Kees info online.

Riedel’s book, "Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees," is a terrifically detailed page-turner sketching out the brief, jam-packed life of a man who has long been considered a cult figure among the cognoscenti.

When Maïa Cybelle Carpenter asked me to guest curate a program for the San Francisco Cinematheque last year, my infatuation with Weldon got the better of me, and, despite the fact that I had never actually seen any of his film work, and had only read vague references to some things he had been involved in, I confidently pronounced that I would track down all the films he’d ever had a hand in to produce the first-ever curated retrospective of his film work.

This program sprang from the archivist-curator lobe of my brain — the area that compels me to seek out obscure material that is historically significant, and yet of somewhat marginal interest; and then figure out a way to show it to people who are as weirdly obsessed as I am.

The process was more challenging than any other curatorial task I’ve ever attempted. I encountered a veritable gauntlet of odd personalities and frustrating dead-ends, alongside the triumphs and discoveries that make it all worthwhile.

The cast of characters I chased down included: The fascinating New York gallery owner, Gertrude Stein (probably no relation but I never actually asked). A volley of emails and phone calls to Gertrude proved very entertaining but turned up no actual films or footage. Though she has promised to FedEx some slides of Kees’s Abstract Expressionist paintings to be shown at the start of the program (take a look at her website to see them online). And then there’s the folks at the Heritage Room of the Lincoln Public Library who were helpful in providing a copy of the only film Kees ever completed on his own, the wonderfully bleak and contemplative reflection on urban detritus, "Hotel Apex" (1952). Dominic Angergame at Canyon Cinema provided the print of James Broughton’s whimsical biographical sketch about a country boy who comes to the Big City, "The Adventures of Jimmy" (1950) with a wonderful jazz score written and performed by Kees. And the legendary local photographer/filmmaker William Heick offered up extensive reminiscences of Kees, who collaborated with him on "The Bridge" (1955), a grand voice-over short which took the famous Hart Crane poem (about the Brooklyn Bridge) and substituted the Golden Gate Bridge as a visual backdrop. Heick completed the film after Kees’s death.

One of the greatest things about this Cinematheque program is that all of the films were shot in and around the Bay Area and feature prolific location shooting. We’ll see North Beach and UC Berkeley in "Approaches & Leavetakings;" Point Richmond in "Hotel Apex;" Skid Row in "Adventures of Jimmy" and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge in "The Bridge."

I’ll also be playing some rare recordings of the music of Weldon Kees, as well as some other audio material yet to be decided. I might play a clip of Weldon and his poet/novelist pal Vincent McHugh discussing their planned screenplay for a San Francisco spy thriller called "Gadabout" (which they were working on when Weldon died). Or maybe I’ll play a clip of Weldon and his friend Michael Grieg doing their KPFA film review show, "Behind The Movie Camera" (with special guests Padgett Payne and Pauline Kael dissing the Hollywood hits of 1954!). Or perhaps a poem or two.

There is something so bleak and foreboding in this strip of film (again, from William Heick’s "The Bridge"). Weldon is walking down a hill with a tripod in his right hand. His coat and hair are all windblown on a gusty day at the Golden Gate, and he is such a little matchstick of a figure. During this section of "The Bridge," director Heick has narrator Charles Levy reciting a particularly haunting section of the Crane poem. Offering up a sort of elegy to the late colleague and collaborator whose body remains lost in the dark waters of the Golden Gate: But now, draw in your head, alone and too tall here. / Your eyes already in the slant of drifting foam. / Your breath sealed by the ghosts I do not know. / Draw in your head, and sleep the long way home.

Kees Kino: The Film Work of Weldon Kees plays one night only at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, June 11, at 7:30 pm. The program will be introduced by guest curator Jenni Olson.