Sunday, January 08, 2012

L.A. Filmforum's Alternative Projections @ Cinefamily

Notes from Wallace Berman's Underground + Sundry other thoughts, digressions, etc.

Throughout January, 2012, Los Angeles Filmforum steps out of its usual fancy digs at the Egyptian and pays a social call to the more living-roomy Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater. The occasion is Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980 , a continuing Filmforum project with various programing threads weaving throughout town, at MOCA, LACMA, the Armory and so on — the pertinents are linked above — as part of the massive SoCal arts mega-event Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. Check that website, because you'll want to see a photo of Ice Cube pretending to smoke a pipe in an Eames chair, no shit.

That all sounds like an overwhelming amount of, well, stuff, but rather than kick yourself (myself) for missing the "Community Visionaries" program (and "Film/Music/Forms" and "Puce Moment" I mean agrh oh god), look at all the neat stuff still coming! So, have you have any interest in avant-garde film and/or Los Angeles social history, do haul said interests over to the Cinefamily sofa, STAT (they got cupcakes, dude).

The January 7 program, "Wallace Berman's Underground", focused on films emerging from the Topanga Canyon art scene of the '60s — The West Cost assemblage movement, SEMINA group and associates, buddies and neighbors, and so forth. The entire Alternative Projections project is inspiring, because mid-century underground film discussion tends to focus on New York and, in California, the Bay Area. SEMINA magazine creator and assemblage master Wallace Berman served as the connecting spirit for the assembled films and his son, Tosh Berman, artists Russ Tamblyn, Toni Basil, George Herns were on hand to introduce and discuss their work. So yes, since this is primarily a pop movie blog, that Russ Tamblyn and that Toni Basil; if Los Angeles is good at anything, it is in the overlapping of high art and high glam, inspiring hip circles of weirdo legends to bump into each other like amoebae in a petri dish. So speaking of context, Tamblyn hilariously related the story of how his introduction to Berman via Hollywood pal Dean Stockwell effectively "ruined [his] life" and turned him to a second career of non-commercial art — collage, poetry, and handmade film.

The most familiar film on display was probably Bruce Conner's BREAKAWAY, but here it is in a particular context — placed in its historical Scene. That's what we're really talking about here, a social scene, an art community, which was, as art communities are, a group of folks making work for themselves and sharing it with each other. Even (especially?) the grungiest of art scenes end up as romantic legends for starry-eyed generations hence. The documentary qualities of a lot of this work help to demythologize the time, place, and personalities, and shape a coherent picture of that particular moment.

And honestly, with the Cinefamily series, it's also rare fun to see these films outside of a museum or academic setting. The guest speakers made fairly clear that these films were made to be presented at entirely private screenings, typically with audiences of one, projected on walls or, as Tosh Berman noted, refrigerator doors. The Silent Movie Theater is not, from what I understand, exactly the kind of rathole that screened undergrounds in New York, but it is undeniably of cozier charms than Cinematheque theaters.

SO! To the films:
Aleph (1956-66, Wallace Berman, 6 min, 16mm, color, silent)

Berman's only film, a pretty steadily frenzied collage, sliced and spliced and rephotographed from newspapers, home movies, other movies — even his own collages essentially collaged into a collage. The mystics in the audience may perk up when the Hebrew letters start to flash and Mick Jagger appears — those murky, secret links between underground film, Kabbalah, and 20th century magical movers-and-shakers are glinting through once more. Somewhere Kenneth Anger cracks his knuckles and Harry Smith strokes his beard. Tosh Berman relates the odd but completely perfect story that his father actually took him to the filming of The T.A.M.I. Show, where the lad witnessed the Supremes in hair curlers... but rather than shoot live footage of The Rolling Stones, Berman went to a theater when the film came out and shot the screen. Which is, as noted, perfect. P.S., Toni Basil is in The T.A.M.I. Show.

BREAKAWAY (1966, Bruce Conner, 5 min, 16mm [transfered from 8mm?], color, sound)
Pas De Trois (1964, Dean Stockwell, 8 min, 16mm [transfered to video], b&w)
A Dance Film inspired by the music of Jim Morrison (1968, Toni Basil, 2 min, color, sound)

A Basilana trio of sorts: Conner's ecstatic dance film of Basil, set to her 1966 pop single, Stockwell's expressive "making-of" document of the filming of BREAKAWAY, and Basil's own Dance Film. Crackling stuff, all. In BREAKAWAY, Conner's camera flails and motion-streaks and strobes and dances with/at/for Basil — plus if you dig '60s girlpop sounds, you already like this song. Just as the rock runs dry, the action reverses and the film and music play again backwards: Big Bang to Big Crunch with Toni Basil in between. Stockwell's film contains, apparently, the only footage of Bruce Conner in the act of filming. These are the moments that forge important links in our understanding of the story of film history; specifically, here is an "in" for hardcore AIP nerds, a connection for enthusiasts of '60s pop or of New York post-punk, here is a major link between experimental film and commercial cinema, concrete personnel crossover between Old Hollywood, New Hollywood, Camp Corman, early MTV, and... Grizzly Adams.

Basil's Dance Film (actually set to Hendrix) sees the inventive choreographer demonstrating an early knack for innovative possibilities in shooting dance. Dance Film triple-layers footage of ballerinas and street dancers, shot in a black-box void (black, not white like her stark "Mickey" and "Once in a Lifetime" videos). Screened with Basil's newly appended but vintage, original hand-lettered titles.

All of this has some added kick for those imagining Dennis Hopper somewhere nearby, trying to put together The Last Movie, and the shadows of Devo coming into focus in the distance. If I'm romanticizing again, it was bound to happen, this section being so rock-n-roll.

First Film (1966, Russ Tamblyn, 8 min, 16mm, color, silent)
Rio Reel (1968, Tamblyn, 6 min, 16mm, color, silent)

And then to the the Tamblyn portion. First Film is a snappy stream-of-consciousness rush through young Mr. Tamblyn's brain immediately after being warped by contact with Berman. As per the filmmaker's recollections, the films were originally shown with vinyl record accompanyment — rock or Bach or whatever was around Chez Tamblyn. So if this screens again, bring your iPod, I guess. We start with a tone-poem of grass billowing in the wind in crosscut weaving patterns and progress to drunken, blurring neon nightlife. The first-time film artist throws in every technique he's got, seen, and absorbed, from Berman-style flashframe editing to Sharpie-on-film animation (McLaren needn't have started looking over his shoulder, but it's charming).

A surprise highlight of the show, Rio Reel is rather like the city symphony films of yore, an impressionistic document of a time and place. Tamblyn edits with wit and some panache (spinning a sunbather around the beach by changing angles), but nabs an abundance of poetic or simply attractive images (a sapling palm black against a blazing red sky, a wasp crawling into a hole), and lets them flash by (thus: a lion's eyes turn into windmills). Again, per the filmmaker: shot while on location for an episode of the Tarzan TV show, the film includes two memorable but incognito cameos by that program's animal trainer, Dan Haggerty. In the second, his leg is clawed by a big cat. In the first, he moons the camera from a passing auto. Really, there are no words.

Evident Tamblyn trademark: shooting signage, type, titles, usually only in part, and bouncing the phrases, words or single letters off each other — they make puns, spell "L.S.D.," connect or collide. This starts in First Film, becomes more sophisticated in Rio Reel.

Selections from Topanga Rose (1960s, George Herms, 22 min, film transferred to video, color)

Sculptor-poet-etc, assemblage founding father, American Dadaist, more etc., the inimitable George Herms cut together vintage home movies of the community at work, play, meal, and living; the focus is goats and children and water and landscape and making art, always, and constantly. With an excellent clamorous bells-and-piano musical arrangement and Herms growling his fragmented poetry on the soundtrack, Topanga Rose is a shimmering, wistful sort of cap to the program, but it is also earthy, bodily, human. Some of the narration comes from Herms' Genesis theater piece: "The egg of night was floating on chaos, and out of the egg came love. And love, with his arrows and his torch, pierced and vivified all things."

Again, I want to single this series out, because it's the kind of thing with a lot of potential to bridge the unfortunate divide between audiences for popular art and fine art. There are "hooks" here, there are stories and history that flow directly in and out of commercial film history — this material can be entirely captivating and accessible to anyone with an interest in film, which is effectively everyone. So in a slightly esoteric way, Berman's Underground tells the story of how The Boy With Green Hair cast grew up, was dragged into a bohemian camp, emerged transformed into Lovecraftian wizards and Gargantua slayers, then worked with David Lynch.

If one single night of the series is bound to exemplify this nexus of studio product, modern art movements, multiple major film schools, fringe-dwellars and moneymen, future giants and old gods, it will be "Industry Town: The Avant-Garde & Hollywood" (Jan. 14). The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra is a cheat — it's from 1928: BUSTED!, but oh look, here's a George Lucas movie. And as it happens, of the Movie Bratz, Lucas easily showed the most promise at experimental films — better than De Palma, is what I'm saying. So that's my pick for those looking to wet a toe or being otherwise selective.

Experimental animation is a particularly exciting topic to me (also, ahem, psychedelia), so I point all like-minded to the "Psychedelic Visions & Expanded Consciousness" show; I am familiar with more of the films than in the other line-ups, but it is likely the most retina-dazzling program, unless the optical-printer-themed night has some thing up its sleeve. Optical Printer Theme Night, don't it just make your heart light up, folks?

Okay, one quick whine to remind us all to check the calendars on the reg: the selected Kenneth Anger films have all already screened. Could've made a whole night of it, even if that's a little obvious and unnecessary. Still, as this is about L.A. and experimental film, then one of his greatest magical works was in helping the city dream a mythology of itself — Kenneth Anger psychically terraformed Los Angeles.