RE-ENTRY: Thoughts on Jordan Belson: 1926–2011

Jordan Belson died in September at the age of 85. In his later years, Belson was an intensely private, almost hermetic, figure. The 30 films he made as an independent, artisanal filmmaker are suffused with mystery, navigating inner and outer spaces via slowly mounting flames of deliquescent light, shimmering starfields, and rainstorms of color.

The question of how he made those images was also a closely guarded secret. Throughout his life, Belson let slip few fragments of information regarding his filmmaking process. He was careful to distinguish his work from animation, for instance—even though his earliest films were made via traditional animation methods—insisting, “I don’t use liquids or models. I use mechanical and optical effects; and instead of using an animating table, I call my setup an optical bench.” The only extant description of that optical bench is in Gene Youngblood’s 1970 book Expanded Cinema. Belson’s primary means of image-making was a purposefully rudimentary, handmade apparatus, a cobbled-together array of a “plywood frame around an old X-ray stand with rotating tables, variable speed motors, and variable intensity lights.” New modes of vision required new techniques to depict them, and Belson continually sought to refine his methods in order to produce unique effects. Séance (1959), for example, provides one of the first cinematic examples of a flicker effect, predating the work of both Peter Kubelka and Tony Conrad. For Light (1973), he introduced cascades of flickering and undulating particles that had not appeared in previous films. One need only to see the pulsing galaxies of Allures (1961) (which may have, in fact, used animation techniques) or the celestial terraforms of Samadhi (1967) to acknowledge the yawning gap between the simplicity of Belson’s setup and the profound complexity of the imagery he achieved.

Still from Cycles (1974) by Jordan Belson and Stephen Beck. Courtesy Center for Visual Music.

That is, of course, if you can actually see those films. At the moment, Belson’s films are nearly as hard to come by as the details regarding their making, due to the fact that he withdrew his films from distribution four decades ago. Belson also explicitly stated that he did not wish to have them circulate online, so experiencing his films means watching a DVD that collects five of his works, or having been fortunate enough to attend the Center for Visual Music’s touring retrospective of his films, or the recent memorial screening presented at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley by CVM, the organization currently responsible for preserving and digitizing Belson’s films.

Having studied painting at the California School of Fine Art (now San Francisco Art Institute) and Berkeley, Belson brought together a keen understanding of materials, color, and form to his moving abstractions. Like his painter-turned-filmmaker friend Harry Smith, Belson was spurred to start making films after taking in screenings of Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren, and Hans Richter at the Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s. Belson also marshaled a number of systems of esoteric knowledge—Eastern religion, alchemy, Jungian psychology, and intoxication—to imbue those abstractions with meaning beyond the kinetic play of their surface beauty. While undeniably cosmic, Belson’s films are not without their representative qualities. Though he acknowledged the hallucinatory qualities of his 1960s films, Belson held fast to the idea that the flaming, spinning mandalas and spacescapes in his works were representations of an inner consciousness. He claimed, “I first have to see the images somewhere, within or without or somewhere. I mean, I don’t make them up.” At another juncture, Belson said that Samadhi “is intended to be a real documentary representation, as accurately as it was possible to make, of a real place and a real visual phenomenon that I perceived—just as I am looking at you right now.”

The otherworldly beauty of Belson’s private spectacle also caught the eye of Hollywood filmmakers looking to imbue their productions with the patina of the metaphysical. Stripped of their original contexts, however, Belson’s transcendental explorations transmuted into sci-fi effects fodder, even in such mildly enjoyable hokum as Robert Parrish’s Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), and Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), in which Belson’s imagery is the seduction tool employed by lusty A.I. super computer Proteus, who, upon acquiring sentience, also develops the hots for Julie Christie. While those examples merely repurposed older Belson footage, Philip Kaufman hired the experimental filmmaker to create special effects for his adaptation of The Right Stuff (1983), which recounted the origins of the American space program. Belson shot over 20,000 feet of footage for The Right Stuff—enough for a feature film—of which roughly three minutes were shown in the finished work. Belson was tasked with creating images of pilot Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier, the Earth, and starfields. He was also asked to recreate the mysterious shimmering “fireflies” that John Glenn reported seeing outside the cockpit of his Apollo spacecraft. (Not entirely coincidentally, Belson’s 1964 film Re-Entry had been inspired by astronaut Glenn’s post-orbit return to earth in February of 1962, and its soundtrack used snippets of Glenn’s radio communications.)

For The Right Stuff’s “fireflies” sequence, Kaufman intercut medium close-up shots of a bewildered Glenn (played by Ed Harris) surrounded by Belson’s light flecks with scenes of aborigines singing and dancing around a sparking fire. The camera follows the blaze’s embers as they lift into the night air. The resulting sequence creates the impression that the primitive ritual being enacted on terra firma is aiding Glenn’s journey in the heavens. Regardless of the fact that the film never mentions that “fireflies” were later determined by NASA to be light-reflecting ice particles outside of Glenn’s MA-6 capsule, the invocation of a primitive mysticism via a questionable portrayal of indigenous practices is far removed from Belson’s subjective investigations of human consciousness and perception in his own work. A director with a steadier aesthetic hand, Terrence Malick, studied Belson’s films while working on this year’s Tree of Life, and even approached Belson about creating new work for the project.

Surprisingly for such a cinematic individualist, some of Belson’s most significant innovations arose from collaborations. Working with electronic musician Henry Jacobs, Belson produced one of the earliest expanded cinema projects, the Vortex Concerts, at California Academy of Science’s Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco. From May 1957 to 1959, roughly 35 of these Vortex Concerts took place over five series. Jacobs would curate an eclectic musical program, including compositions by Stockhausen and Ussachevsky as well as selections of Balinese and Afro-Cuban tunes, which would be pumped through 36 loudspeakers arranged around the room. CVM’s Cindy Keefer, who has written the definitive account of the series, writes that Belson, meanwhile, operated up to 30 different projection devices that displayed on the planetarium’s 65-foot dome. His mix of intensely layered real-time imagery comprised slide projectors, a kaleidoscope, rotating and zoom projectors, various prisms, a flicker machine, a spiral generator, four interference pattern projectors, 16mm projectors, and the planetarium’s sophisticated starfield projector. This last item, called the Academy Projector, was a unique device capable of projecting a realistic field of nearly 4,000 stars.

The Vortex Concerts provided a new kind of audio-visual presentation and stimulation. Belson and Jacobs sought to disrupt the traditional gestalt of theater- or film-going by eliminating the physical and perceptual space between audience and stage/screen, in order that Vortex spectators received, or, in the phenomenological language of its program notes, were “reached” by, an overall display that is “living,” present-tense, and bodily experiential. A 1959 piece on the series in Time magazine attempted to relate the event’s delirious cacophony:

Image from Allures (1961) by Jordan Belson. Courtesy Center for Visual Music.

“B-z-z-up. Whoo. Whoo. Twitter. Z-o-o-om. MA-A-A-CHINE!” The sounds whooped and wallowed in the semidarkness, seemed to race one another, swooped head on into ear-splitting collisions. Under the domed ceiling, lights wriggled and flickered, reeled and burst in dazzling, flaky showers. A voice came booming in: “MATCHWOOD SPLITS INTO MATCHES!”

The type of immersive, all-over, perception-challenging environment that the Vortex constructed would, of course, become a hallmark of the psychedelic experience several years later.

Belson’s willingness to use myriad media to achieve his vision is also evident in his collaboration with video artist Stephen Beck. Made for the National Center for Experiments in Television, Cycles (1974) is a fascinating, intermedial conjoining of the two men’s respective techniques. Rather than using video to mark a rupture with film or television, Belson and Beck wanted to make a moving-image work that combined the best qualities of all three media forms. In a press release for the film, Belson states, “Technically it draws together film and video in a totally convincing manner . . . fusing them in an amalgam that overcomes any distinction between the two.” The 10-minute piece thus brought together 16mm film with Beck’s Direct Video Synthesizer imagery via a proprietary process Beck referred to as “editation.” Beck also composed the soundtrack to the film, which is made of one sequence repeated 12 times, with both artists contributing variations on each pass.

As with many of Belson’s and Beck’s other works, the film carried a metaphysical inspiration. Specifically, Cycles is based on Sri Yukteswar’s The Holy Science, published in 1974, which contains ruminations on the circular patterns of human spiritual development. As Cycles begins, a figure appears, reaching with palms upward—an image that gives way to Belson’s signature flaming mandalas. Light particles swirl toward the heavens, and the viewer sees patterns of what look to be revolving eyes, with retinas dilating and contracting. A brief image of falling bodies turns out to be footage of skydivers, followed quickly by footage of molten lava. The second cycle of the film finds Beck overlaying images, providing a grid of dots, and cascading descending electronic swirls with his video synthesizer. Beck changes the color combinations of the cycle and superimposes shooting stars and snippets of Belson’s representational imagery, including San Francisco’s Transamerica pyramid skyscraper. At the end of Cycles, the initial figure reappears, slowly raising arms out to her sides in a repeated motion that imitates flapping wings. This psychedelic Shiva appears as creator, sustainer, and destroyer. At the very end of the film, a white circle slowly recedes into a blue ether. Cycles thus simultaneously embodies a paean to transformation and change, yet holds fast to the idea of an eternal return.

Belson would go on to embrace the creative capacities of video editing in Mysterious Journey (1997) and his last work, the aptly-titled Epilogue (2005)—the latter piece commissioned for the Hirshhorn Museum’s landmark “Visual Music” exhibition that same year. In October, a never-before-seen work of Belson’s debuted at the memorial screening. Perhaps this rediscovery marks the beginning of Belson’s own eternal return, his re-entry into a mediascape that bears his aesthetic influence more than his physical imprint. Another DVD collection is in the works, and the tour of Belson’s films continues to numerous cities worldwide, including a NYC date in 2012, plus other NY screenings. It is a small comfort to know that the mysteries won’t end with his passing. 

Contributor

Gregory Zinman

GREGORY ZINMAN Ph.D., is an Adjunct Professor in the department of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is a curatorial consultant to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Yale University Art Gallery, and has written on film, art, and culture for the New Yorker, American Art, and the Guggenheim Museum online.