by Gregory Zinman
Pacific Film Archive's Radical Light
Recalling the genesis of her 1971 film Near the Big Chakra, Alice Anne Parker, a k a Anne Severson, says, “I started asking women friends, ‘Have you ever seen any vaginas?’” Such a seemingly innocent question regarding the very act of looking at the everyday led to the decision to represent the same—close-ups of 37 vulvae from women ranging in age from newborn to senior citizen, resulting in a film that provoked a riot when it was screened at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, during which a man climbed a ladder to the projection booth in an attempt to rip the film from its reels, only to end up wrestling with its unyeilding projectionist. That such plain-spoken inquiry provoked such outcry (Severson’s peers thought she was “crazy” for attempting to make the film) seems unfathomable now, in a mediascape where genitals-on-demand are a staple of many people’s daily viewing, but as a work made in the midst of a cresting second-wave feminism in which women’s bodies were increasingly the site of personal and collective politics, Near the Big Chakra constituted filmmaking of true audacity and bravery, and was heralded as a minor cause célèbre.
Severson’s lively reminiscence, balancing modest ambition and heightened cultural stakes is one of many animating Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-2000, the first book from the Pacific Film Archive. Lovingly assembled by Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid, the film and video curators at the Berkeley Art Museum & PFA, and Steve Anker, Dean of the School of Film/Video at California Institute of the Arts, this sprawling, dense tome is divided into six chronological sections which are nevertheless presented with a welcome disregard for linear historical narrative.
Instead, the book hopscotches between sustained overviews of movements and practices by luminaries such as Scott MacDonald, Craig Baldwin, and George Kuchar, interviews with artists, teachers, and programmers, palate-cleansing “cutaways” that reproduce flyers, posters, and letters of the day, and short “focus” pieces in which cinema studies heavyweights such as J. Hoberman, Tom Gunning, and P. Adams Sitney provide short, analytical takes on specific films. (That’s “analytical,” and not “critical”—this compendium is, more than anything else, a celebration and a monument.) As befitting a book published by a film archive, Radical Light also pays deserved attention to the institutions—Canyon Cinema, the National Center for Experiments in Television, and the San Francisco Cinematheque, among many others—that unflaggingly supported work (“Some of the films will be bad,” warns an early Canyon program) and fostered the social and scholarly communities that lent the work its meaning.
In early May, a six-part series, split between the Museum of Modern Art and Anthology Film Archives, provided a sampler of the months-long screening and performance program that accompanied the book’s launch out West. MoMA’s first program showcased visions of the Bay Area landscape, perhaps attempting to literalize Radical Light editor Seid’s musing on how the region’s topography carries an “unspoiled diversity [that] seems to nurture and promote the arts like no other region.” The museum also played some Left Coast hits, including Bruce Conner’s found-footage nightmare recreation of the Kennedy assassination, Report (1967), Robert Nelson’s literal and metaphorical explosion of a hoary racial stereotype in Oh Dem Watermelons (1965), art collective Ant Farm’s funnycar television demolition Media Burn (1975), Marlon Riggs’s musical collage of black male sexuality Anthem (1991), and Kuchar’s self-reflexive pocket exercise in camp direction I, an Actress (1977). Anthology, meanwhile, offered an entire program of Sidney Peterson’s homegrown surrealism, brought to pitch comedic-horrific effect in the eyeball-chasing antics of The Cage (1947), shot with an eye for the outré by Hy Hirsh. Its second set of screenings concerned the nature of mediated identities. At first glance, Lynn Hershman’s close-shot direct-address Confessions of a Chameleon (1987) brought to mind Rosalind Krauss’s condemnation of video’s “aesthetics of narcissism.” Upon further reflection, however, Hershman’s unreliable narrator and her fracturing of the video picture plane registered as a generative spark for Ryan Trecartin’s recent no-budget investigations of how technology so productively complicates our notions of personhood. It was also a blast to see Kuchar’s spittle-flecked screams of “I am a small bird!” blistering the lobotomized free-verse soap opera of Anne McGuire’s All Smiles and Sadness (1999). A final grouping took an appropriately harsh look back at West Coast punk, where the Residents cavorted in Klan robes fashioned from newsprint in Third Reich and Roll (1976), synthpunk pioneers the Units compiled home movie footage for their faux-anthropology lesson Unit Training Film #1 (1980), and Dale Hoyt (who, in the text of Radical Light, sums up the video-making milieu of the early 1980s with a Krauss-defying “Wheeeeeeeee!”) combined limited means and maximum yuck with the meat, blood, and auto-dentistry of Dancing Death Monsters (1981).
The screenings did a fair job of encapsulating the book’s refreshingly catholic sensibility, which includes encomiums to a host of moving image formats and practices, including 16 milimeter, video, small-gauge, found footage, installation, portapaks, DV, light shows, and even the vagaries of color film processing. While recognizing that specific media had historically contingent uses, Radical Light’s digressive nature somehow coheres into a compelling argument for the moving image’s ever-present intermedial past. The book traces this tendency back to local trailblazers such as Eadweard Muybridge, with his proto-cinematic devices and photography series at the end of the 19th century, and Philo T. Farnsworth’s invention of the television in the 1920s. Frank Stauffacher’s seminal Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Art followed in the ’40s and ’50s, stressing the relationship between artistic practices while providing a venue for a cadre of developing filmmakers such as Jordan Belson, Harry Smith, the Whitney Brothers, Kenneth Anger, Jim Davis, and Norman McLaren. Peterson’s Workshop 20 at the California School of the Fine Arts began as a filmmaking class for painters, and the book is rife with other examples of medium hybridity, such as Sara Kathryn Aldridge’s proleptically psychedelic glass-slide transparencies of the 1940s, Joanne Kyger’s hypnotic video-to-16 milimeter Descartes (1968), and Lynn Marie Kirby’s recent work, in which she digitally edits raw film stock that has been exposed to site-specific light sources, thereby creating abstract shifting colorfields that nevertheless evoke a sense of place.
Even if Anker and Seid’s introductory essays flirt with geographic essentialism, Radical Light nevertheless succeeds in puncturing S.F. shibboleths regarding a lack of aesthetic rigor (cf. the structural films of Ernie Gehr and the artisanally-devised videos of Steve Beck), and puts the lie to the area’s flowers-in-your hair reputation by remembering Christopher Maclain’s mushroom-cloud apocalypse The End (1953), the Newsreel Collective’s Black Panther films (1967-69), and the teeth-gnashing junkie paranoia of Joe Gibbons’s Spying (1978).
Lending a human scale to artistic endeavor is another of the book’s triumphs, so that stories about Chick Strand baking pies with Bruce Baillie to offer as door prizes at Canyon Cinema screenings balance out Conner’s (who repeatedly emerges from Radical Light’s pages as a rather prickly presence) self-mythologizing proclamation, “Although I wasn’t planning to be a filmmaker, by 1957 it had become apparent that there was no one but me to do the job,” and Lenny Lipton’s epistolary hissyfit to Sitney regarding the latter’s perceived slights to the SF underground movie scene, capped off with the indelible declaration, “I am a genius, and prefer not to be ignored.”
Flipping through the gossip, artifacts, and memories of Radical Light, it quickly becomes apparent how this wealth of material, much of it long forgotten or ignored, will be catnip to historians, practitioners, and programmers alike, providing fodder for reexamining—and inspiration for making—movies that matter. And yet in our current media culture of shoulder-shrugging indifference and faux outrage, the words of Stan Brakhage, interviewed near the end of his life about his memories of San Francisco film culture, ring loudly: “Who’s rioting these days? Who has enough passion to give a shit what happens in the arts?”
Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-2000, edited by Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid, is available from University of California Press.
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.