Filmmaker William Farley's Peripheral Vision

Robert Avila May 16, 2006

For the past 12 years, William Farley’s office-studio has sat just over the water, on Pier 9, along San Francisco’s embarcadero. It’s an apt setting, and not without some irony, because the veteran indie filmmaker, after 35 years of underground success, still hovers just off the shore of mainstream respectability. When you add that Farley is a former merchant seaman (he jumped ship in 1969 upon seeing San Francisco), and hails from a family of Boston longshoremen, the scene starts to feel downright cinematic.

Not that Farley necessarily sees it that way. He’s loath to refer to his life or his work as “romantic,” though the word keeps circling the conversation like an obstinate gull. He does, however, acknowledge a strong relation between his artistic process and his growth as an individual, even if the connections usually make themselves known only in hindsight. His four new works — screening tomorrow at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of Film Arts Foundation’s “True Stories” series — are no exceptions. These short works, some of them fragments or works-in-progress, are as disparate on the surface as the rest of his oeuvre, yet Farley is almost abashed when he takes note of their strong personal resonance.

“One of them is three scenes from a movie about my father,” he says. “Another is ‘The Stories,’ which is a story about a father. The third [‘Darryl Henriques Is in Show Business’] is about a comedian who is trying to hold onto the integrity of his humor and become more commercially successful. Then the fourth one [‘Arianna’s Journey’] is about a woman who’s following the inner voices she calls god, [in the name of] fully embracing her spirituality. Well, I realized in just the last couple of days, those are all my story,” he laughs. “There are other people in front of the camera, but they’re all my story. It’s kind of shocking, because it feels so — I was going to say egotistical, but it’s kind of embarrassing, actually, to be making these movies about somebody else and their journey, and realizing after you made the film that it’s your journey.”

Farley’s reputation as an artist ensured the FAF event sold out well in advance. Although he has made only two features, ‘Citizen’ (1981-1982) and ‘Of Men and Angels’ (1989), since graduating from the California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA) — where he went in as a sculptor and came out with more credits in film than anything else — he’s long been an integral figure in the development of San Francisco independent and experimental film, and has collaborated with many SF-based avant-gardists in other fields, such as Terry Riley (featured in 1986’s ‘In Between the Notes,’ about master Indian musician Pandit Pran Nath) and George Coates. Several of his short works were made while he was teaching at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College during its heyday in the 1970s.

The first film came soon after leaving CCAC when Farley, in need of money, shipped out once more with the merchant marine, this time bringing along his Bolex and about 20 rolls of film. He came back with images shot onboard, and a recording of a conversation he’d had with a shipmate burdened by the memory of witnessing an unreported collision with a small fishing boat. Editing it so as to protect the identity of the sailor, the footage became “Sea Space” (1972), an 8-minute black-and-white that made the rounds of international festivals, and which Farley calls “probably the most successful film I’ve ever made.” It was also the one that convinced him he had a definite ability with the medium.

True to much of the work that would follow as a whole, “Sea Space” has both story and image as its genesis, its canny arrangement of elements suggesting subtexts and countercurrents of varying degrees of complexity or abstraction — from a shifting tub of water in a seemingly stationary sink with the location title “South China Sea” superimposed on it to the heavy contrasts of light and dark, private and open space, seclusion and infinitude, which make the recesses of the ocean-bound ship the site of something like a post-Catholic confessional.

After nearly four decades of such idea-driven filmmaking, drawn often to the outer reaches of social life and consciousness, Farley hopes to reach a stage of visibility in the culture at large that might allow him to complete some larger projects, including the script he’s developed about life with his father, an alcoholic and inadvertent firebug, to relieve him of some of the burden of making art “on my own dime.”

“Making films became a lifestyle, because it didn’t ever generate any money,” he says, reflecting on a life spent, and focused, on the periphery. “When you look back at it, I’ve had the most impractical life, because I didn’t really think about the future. Basically, I was enchanted with the process of cinema. I consciously made the decision that I was going to work at making films. My heritage is Irish and I grew up with great storytellers, so I feel that film is storytelling. But I was always looking for new ways to deliver the story, which doesn’t make you a careerist, and it doesn’t really endear you to the power elite, because every film was different. It didn’t make them very comfortable.”

Of course, outsider status suited him quite well for a while. “I was very comfortable there, because I had the respect of my peers. I used to show all of my films at the Museum of Modern Art here, and the Cinematheque. It was just enough to keep me going on a certain emotional level. It’s been an interesting journey,” he acknowledges, “but it’s way out. It’s so extreme.”

Although a stalwart of the indie scene for so long, it’s not difficult to imagine Farley parlaying his craft into a more commercial success. He’s not only a natural storyteller, he’s a story sponge, deeply dependent on narratives that root themselves in his subconscious, gradually becoming inescapable. “The Stories,” in fact, which came out of a friend’s account of his experience with his dying father, is indicative of this recurring process, as Farley sees it. “It was just a conversation, but the story kept coming back to me. Ultimately, I wrote a script. It took quite a while to get it together; it took quite a while to get the actors. But I get entangled in an idea and somehow the only way to get through that idea, or story, is to make a movie about it. That’s happened to me several times.”

There should be a place in the mainstream for a William Farley picture. After all, who wouldn’t want to see what a $10 million budget does in the hands of a lifelong independent, for whom film has been much less a career than an absolute compulsion? “It doesn’t make sense to me when I tell you about it,” says Farley, on his four decades as an artist. “It doesn’t make me feel very sane. But it’s the trajectory of my life. The rewards have not been material, but the rewards have really enhanced my life. I’ve been all over the world making films and met extraordinary people. In some way, that’s been my wealth.”