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Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980

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Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980 is a groundbreaking anthology that features papers from a conference and series of film screenings on postwar avant-garde filmmaking in Los Angeles sponsored by Filmforum, the Getty Foundation, and the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, together with newly-commissioned essays, an account of the screening series, reprints of historical documents by and about experimental filmmakers in the region, and other rare photographs and ephemera. The resulting diverse and multi-voiced collection is of great importance, not simply for its relevance to Los Angeles, but also for its general discoveries and projections about alternative cinemas.

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Chapter 1 Distribution Center for Experimental Films

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Curtis Harrington *

The postwar revival of the experimental film movement in the United States, which Lewis Jacobs wrote about in detail in the Spring, 1948, issue of the Hollywood Quarterly, has resulted in the formation of a coöperative distribution center to extend the distribution of these films through film societies, universities, art museums, and galleries, and all interested groups and private individuals. The organization has been named Creative Film Associates, and represents the attempt of the film makers to get together on a coöperative basis to insure the widest possible circulation of their work.

Already available for rental from Creative Film Associates is its Program I, which includes Film Exercises 4 and 5 by John and James Whitney, Fragment of Seeking by Curtis Harrington, Meta by Robert Howard, and Escape Episode by Kenneth Anger. Also available are a program of films by Maya Deren – Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, A Study in Choreography for Camera, and Ritual in Transfigured Time – and Kenneth Anger’s much-discussed Fireworks. Further releases are to be made in the near future. For the convenience of those who wish to rent an evening’s program of experimental works without facing the almost impossible task of assembling a group of films from a wide variety of sources – usually, heretofore, from the individual film makers themselves – several of the films have been put together by Creative Film Associates to form a balanced, forty-five-minute program, which is available at a rental rate lower than the total of fees for each film rented separately.

 

Chapter 2 Personal Chronicle: The Making of an Experimental Film

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Curtis Harrington*

“An art in which youth is barred from practicing freely is sentenced to death in advance. The moving picture camera should be like a fountain pen, which anyone may use to translate his soul onto paper. The 16-mm. film presents the only solution, and in this I think America should take the initiative. . . . It offers an opportunity of trying for miracles.”
– Jean Cocteau, “Focus on Miracles”, New York Times Magazine, 24 October 1948.

My new film, Picnic, which at this writing is completed except for the sound score, is the fifth film I have made in approximately seven years. The films that go before it include a version of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1942), Crescendo (1943), Renascence (1945), and Fragment of Seeking (1946). The first three were photographed on 8-mm. film, and Renascence was in color. Seen today in chronological sequence, they illustrate a kind of cinematic development that could take place only outside of regular commercial production and distribution.

 

Chapter 3 A Letter from the West Coast

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Robert Pike*

Apeculiar current of creativity is sweeping through San Francisco and Los Angeles and the results are exciting!

And there is an awareness in each city of what is happening in the other. Artists, poets, and film-makers are both writing and visiting one another. From this torrential flux of communication should come a deluge of new film ideas! The Art in Cinema Festival next year or in two years, when the first concrete results of this creativity are shown, is an exciting prospect.

Already, the new creative surge is being valuably channeled. In Los Angeles, Wallace Berman has begun a series of poetry readings by the rising poets of that city. The first evening was attended by Curtis Harrington, Cameron Parsons, Samson De Brier, and many others both interested and active in art and poetry. Berman is also starting work on his first experimental film.

And some of the early names in the experimental film movement are back at work. Curtis Harrington is completing his first film in four years: it deals with the paintings and personage of Cameron Parsons and is called The Wormwood Star. John Whitney, working together with Charles Eames, has just completed Toy Trains, and IBM has sponsored them in the making of an animated film for the 1958 Brussels Festival.

 

Chapter 4 Amateur vs. Professional

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Maya Deren*

The major obstacle for amateur film-makers is their own sense of inferiority vis-à-vis professional productions. The very classification “amateur” has an apologetic ring. But that very word – from the Latin“amateur” – “lover” means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity. And this is the meaning from which the amateur film-maker should take his clue. Instead of envying the script and dialogue writers, the trained actors, the elaborate staffs and sets, the enormous production budgets of the professional film, the amateur should make use of the one great advantage which all professionals envy him, namely, freedom – both artistic and physical.

Artistic freedom means that the amateur film-maker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words, words, words, words, to the relentless activity and explanations of a plot, or to the display of a star or a sponsor’s product; nor is the amateur production expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for ninety minutes. Like the amateur still-photographer, the amateur film-maker can devote himself to capturing the poetry and beauty of places and events and, since he is using a motion-picture camera, he can explore the vast world of the beauty of movement. (One of the films winning Honorable Mention in the 1958 Creative Film Awards was Round And Square, a poetic, rhythmic treatment of the dancing lights of cars as they streamed down highways, under bridges, etc.) Instead of trying to invent a plot that moves, use the movement of wind, or water, children, people, elevators, balls, etc. as a poem might celebrate these. And use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired. Physical freedom includes time freedom – a freedom from budget imposed deadlines. But above all, the amateur film-maker, with his small, light-weight equipment, has an inconspicuousness (for candid shooting) and a physical mobility which is well the envy of most professionals, burdened as they are by their many-ton monsters, cables, and crews. Don’t forget that no tripod has yet been built which is as miraculously versatile in movement as the complex system of supports, joints, muscles and nerves which is the human body, which, with a bit of practice, makes possible the enormous variety of camera angles and visual action. You have all this, and a brain too, in one neat, compact, mobile package.

 

Chapter 5 Personal State Meant

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John Fles*

The last few weeks of the Scorpio trial have made certain things obvious to my mind. Whether we win or not, I have been warned that this theatre will be under constant surveillance; in other words, de facto censorship. I went thru this once, at the beginning of my career, at the University of Chicago re: the Bill Burroughs Case. I could not then and will not now accept anything less than what Karl Popper calls “The Open Society”. And tho I believe that’s coming, as the pressure rises the enemies of the open society gather force, mainly strengthening what in our time we finally have to accept as, at least, part police state. I can not continue to run this program under any kind of censorship nor will I play that other, more dangerous, game and go to jail. Within a period of two to three months Movies ’Round Midnight may (& I emphasize may) cease to exist. Not necessarily, for this is up to those who own the theatre, the Saturday night screenings but, rather, my own somewhat naïve attempt to bring you those films which, without any kind of qualification whatsoever, I thought best or most useful or funniest or most ironical or most pertinent for our time. Now these films will, for the most part, be forced underground and/or be squeezed into some more or less institutional setting, with, again, the politics which imply censorship. To what extent I will ally myself with either or both of these efforts, future strategy will tell. In the meantime there is some hope in the possibility of a newspaper which would tie the entire artistic community, from Pasadena to Venice West, together. Its purpose would be to alert all of us to dangers the society, in the concrete manifestation of police, judges, all the paraphernalia of modern day justice, imposes on the increasingly restless need for total freedom. (This growing need for complete artistic freedom is not unrelated to the best elements within the negro movement.) We must remember, in terms of our own responsibility, that at the moment external law ends, the law, if such it may be called then, must come from inside. And those of us with any sense of history, see the only law coming from inside is love. Let us make no mistake: it is love itself, in all its manifestations, which the police state we find ourselves in, is engaged in destroying.

 

Chapter 6 A Statement

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Curtis Harrington*

The Tenth Muse still awaits its great patron. Until this person comes forth, and it has always been my conviction that such a person will eventually appear, the cinema will continue to be enmeshed in the tyranny of commercial expediency. Let us not fool ourselves: the experimental film, ostensibly free from the aforementioned tyranny, is too trifling, too in love with its petty effects, too introverted, too lazy, and most often ends as a victim, also, for its means by circumstance have been too transcribed. Ironically, the best films have been produced, whatever the consequences to the artist, and they have often been considerable (witness historically the systematic, exteriorly induced decay in the extraordinary talents of Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg and Orson Welles, as example), within the framework of the commercial cinema.

The world is like a great sea: only the few manage to walk on water. These water-walkers see far and when they manage to communicate their vision to us we receive a marvelous gift. The most marvelous gifts of which the cinema is capable have not yet been given us. Of the ways of communicating vision, surely the cinema offers the greatest challenge, and it is plainly too formidable for most. Yet I am convinced that its appeal should not only be to giants. There will one day be an Emily Dickinson of the cinema.

 

Chapter 7 Are Movies Junk

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John Fles*

To escape reality we go to the Movies. The better the Movie the more complete the escape. Until sometimes we wonder which is more real. Under LSD both realities are equal. Other times we know the sordidness and pain of this life must be replaced. We dream all our senses will be absorbed in the Ultimate Movie. Only then, in reflection, does any idea of Heaven come to us.

From the square hole of the projection booth beams a glimmer of the Post-Atomic Age. Mumblings about montage and acting remain profane. The critics of a Vision are always puerile. To watch men move, even without speaking, is enough.

We know then, transfixed by a ray of sunlight on a Sunday morning on 42nd Street after six days and seven nights of continuous viewing, that we can not end this meaningless existence. Even after the Final Bomb falls, our souls, bathed in light, endure. The Galaxies themselves are distant Movies. The screen exploits Social Reform as it would any other legend. Love’s message also is conveyed in its utter two-dimensionality. And the pure darkness of the Universe fades leaving stark Light and Shadow, twins of a sane mind.

 

Chapter 8 Los Angeles Film Festival

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Jack Hirschman*

Something more than a report of the second Los Angeles Film Festival has to be given, for in a very important way the festival did not end in the early morning hours of 13 February with the choice of a winner of the $250 first prize, but it continued for a couple of days more, unofficially.

As for the actual competition, some forty films were entered. Screening began at 7 p.m. on Lincoln’s birthday, and nearly nine hours later, less numbed and bloodshot than we thought we’d be, John Fles, Stan Brakhage, and I went off for breakfast to choose the winning film.

The choice we made was a fifty-minute work by Stan Kaye called Georg. The decision was a majority one, with Brakhage holding to his preference for a cameo (Jess-like) work by Larry Jordan, while at the same time fully in agreement with the other judges that Georg is a work of authority, imagination and prodigy (it is the twenty year-old Kaye’s first film).

Made on a shoestring of between three and four thousand dollars (for the most part up in a Topanga Canyon location overlooking the Pacific), Georg was written by Kaye as well, who also plays the part of the title-hero’s voice. I say voice, because there is an intentioned Pirandello device in this film which works marvelously well. The film purports to be a record (in moving pictures, stills, and tapes) of the life of an “unfortunate creature”. What happens is that the film opens with Kaye’s (Georg’s) voice announcing the record to come, but what we subsequently see is that record actually being filmed. Georg in fact is the director of the film, or so the illusion is given. The Georg we see is played by actor Mark Cheka, and Georg’s wife by Lynn Averil. Microphone and cable punctuate many of the scenes. In one scene Georg-Cheka puts a microphone in front of his wife and says, “Say something”. Moreover, as the film develops, the camera and microphone, i.e., the obsession of Director Georg to record his life, become another aspect of the sellout “outside” world intent upon crushing the simple relationship between the couple. When the wife gets sick of the camera, of its directions, the suggestion is that she is sickening of the “visual” Georg. In a memorable stop-action scene, Georg-Cheka attempts to seduce his wife (in the very late months of her pregnancy); and this scene is paralleled with another in which the wife is seen trying desperately to escape from the camera, scurrying behind shack and bush, as though the camera were no less her seducer-husband, which, in fact, by extension it is.

 

Chapter 9 Seeing Is Believing

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John Fles*

Epistemological slogans

“Calculated confusion of the senses.” Rimbaud

“Upsetting the equilibrium.” Gurdjieff

“The task I’m trying to achieve is above all to make you see.” D.W. Griffith

First, the almost purely physical aspect of film, i.e. the optics of images seen on the screen. Moving emotionally with film, say [The Cabinet of Dr.] Caligari, 1919. The impulse was quickly disordered: the theatricality of Caligari and the painterly perspective of Pabst, Lang, and Murnau’s early work led, as Kracauer has said, from Caligari to Hitlerian Cinema (notwithstanding these directors’ personal aversion to the Reich). With the Russians, and especially with Eisenstein, came the full intellectual flowering of cinema implied in Griffith’s pioneer work; and in particular in the process which Eisenstein called “organic editing” or montage. It was in Paris, tho, that the essential dichotomy of film history began: into photoplay (or the later novelist-journalistic forms of postwar European film-making) and, in Brakhage’s words, “film based primarily on vision”. From the ferment of surrealism and dada, in the late ’20s and early ’30s, two films, Cocteau’s Blood of A Poet and the Buñuel/Dalí Un chien Andalou, were the first to unequivocally manifest soul-content, i.e. to take the surrealist’s voyage thru the inner self and put it on the screen.

 

Chapter 10 Underground Movies Rise to the Surface

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Kevin Thomas*

The presentation of Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls at the Cinema Theater marks the surfacing of underground films in Los Angeles. For over three years this theater has shown much of this so-called New American Cinema at its Movies ‘Round Midnight programs every Saturday, and some of it has been seen at the Cinematheque 16 since it opened on the Sunset Strip last June. But never before has such a film been accessible in a regular art theater run.

Not all of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, or even Resnais will prepare audiences for The Chelsea Girls. A kind of contemporary Dante’s Inferno, it consists of eight reels of 16mm film, three of which are in color. Even though two reels are projected simultaneously, the film lasts three hours and twenty minutes.

Each section deals with people who supposedly live in Greenwich Village’s venerable Hotel Chelsea, and everyone seems either drug-addicted or sexually deviated or both. They are given parts to act out, but Warhol’s busy camera sticks to them until they start revealing themselves in all their self-indulgent misery. Virtually nothing is left to the imagination – visually and especially verbally.

 

Chapter 11 Students Reflect Future of Cinema

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Gene Youngblood*

Winners of the Third National Student Film Festival were announced last Sunday at UCLA following a two-day orgy of finalists from 152 entries and thirty-seven universities and colleges.

First prizes of $500 were awarded in four categories: dramatic, experimental, animation, documentary. Second prizes and honorable mentions also were designated in each classification.

The University of Southern California (at last) won two well-deserved first prizes. The other two were shared by UCLA and the University of Iowa. Three second prizes went to UCLA; the fourth was claimed by Boston University.

First prize winners were: THX-1138-4EB (dramatic, George Lucas, USC); Cut (experimental, Chris Parker, University of Iowa); Marcello, I’m So Bored (animation, John Milius, USC), and Keinholz on Exhibit (documentary, June Steel, UCLA).

Second prize winners were A Question of Color (dramatic, Richard Bartlett, Boston University); Now That the Buffalo’s Gone (experimental, Burton C. Gershfield, UCLA); An Idea (animation, Walton White, UCLA), and The Latter Day (documentary, Donald MacDonald, UCLA).

 

Chapter 12 Woman as Ethnographic Filmmaker

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Chick Strand*

I have never really thought of myself as a “woman in film” . . . as opposite from “men in film” . . . I am a filmmaker (although there certainly seem to be many more men in film than women). I am not so stupid as not to see that there are differences in approach, perceptions, values, motivations, and that these differences stem from the way our culture defines men and women and from the way that we are taught to see ourselves and as men see us. The questions and ways to find answers as to what is womanness underneath all of the cultural definitions are far too complicated and interrelated to have any overt meaning during the act of creativity (at least for me). I do it . . . I make the film . . . and of course, all the things involved in our concepts of woman and reactions to being a woman come into play in what I do, but I don’t stop to analyze my motivations. Neither am I careful to present my films or the women in them in any special light, or with any social significance or in any special manner . . . except that it’s all special in that it comes from me, a woman. I do it as I feel it. I am well aware that my own perceptions and the presentations of them contain many ambiguities which coincide with the difficulties of understanding what has gone on and is going on between men and women (I am talking about the new awareness) in our society. I am simply not an analytical person and have no real interest in sorting things out for the world at large through my films. But there are women who are good at it and should make coherent statements, define the general problems and suggest solutions through their work.

 

Chapter 13 Mouse Enigma: Auto-History Of A Film Person

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Peter Mays*

SEEING IS BELEAVING

The film person was urged into being at the prompting of Jean Cocteau.

Created for him such a compelling experience out of inexpensive ordinary objects that he decided to go into the business himself. He read and discovered to his astonishment that there were cuts in films! A person leaping off the top of a building, followed by, say, a shot of a taxi veering and the passenger looking up aghast, followed by a shot of the person’s body falling on pavement, looked like he jumped to his death. The nothingness of the cut nonetheless creates an invisible meaning believed but not seen on the screen.

My father was an avid cinematographer of his family, especially his children who were forever growing and disappearing. The record for both my sister and me is extensive, especially in the beginning, in stills and Christmas or Birthday movies made with a rented 8mm camera, processed by Kodachrome and shown on a rented projector until I was 8 and was given a Kodascope projector with variable speed. I was given several movies as well: a cowboy mob movie called Rustlers of Dry Gulch, a Simple Simon fair cartoon, and a Mother Goose and the Old Shoe cartoon.

 

Introduction

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David E. James

With the exception of two written specifically for this volume, these historical and critical essays have been developed from papers presented on the panels at the Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles 1945–1980 conference held at the School of Cinematic Arts, USC, 12–14 November 2010.

 

Chapter 14 Scarlet Woman on Film: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and The Wormwood Star: Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington, Marjorie Cameron, and Los Angeles Alternative Film and Culture in the Early 1950s

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Alice L. Hutchison*

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree . . .

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover! . . .

For he on honey-dew hath fed

And drunk the milk of Paradise1

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The last years of the 1940s and early 1950s was one of the most socially repressive times in American history. Nevertheless, it was a time when the visual and literary arts were more closely aligned and intertwined than ever, and avant-garde developments in Europe, especially Surrealism, were drawn upon by the two anomalous independent young filmmakers in Los Angeles, Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington. Both started making films as young as nine years old and fourteen, respectively, and both were admirers of Maya Deren, who came to Los Angeles in 1941 from New York, the same year the US entered World War II.

 

Chapter 15 Against Transparency: Jonas Mekas, Vernon Zimmerman, and the West Coast Contribution to the New American Cinema

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Josh Guilford

In an early, 1960 survey of the then-nascent New American Cinema (NAC) movement, Jonas Mekas warned independent filmmakers of a regionally specific danger faced by artists working on the West Coast: “the shadow-killing and all leveling California sun”.1 While celebrating the flashes of stylistic modernity shown by the low-budget Hollywood melodrama Private Property (Leslie Stevens, 1960), which Mekas considered “a very typical example of what the West Coast contribution to the New American Cinema will be”, Mekas nevertheless criticized this cinematic equivalent of “newsstand literature” for its superficiality.2 Attempting to understand the disparity between independent film productions shot in New York City and in Los Angeles, Mekas ventured that the sun in California must simply “[affect] one differently”, explaining: “basically, the West Coast film makers seem to take life as a plain, one-level phenomenon, without any shadows or nooks and corners. In this shadow-less sun all the proportions of life seem to have been bleached out. Death, Birth, Sickness, Sex – everything acquires the color of a wax-museum.”3 Mekas then extended this curious bit of meteorological essentialism into a critique of the Los Angeles-based docu-fiction The Savage Eye (Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, and Joseph Strick, 1960), arguing that its cynical representation of the human condition could “be explained only by the fact that it was shot in Los Angeles”, even adding that, had the same scenes been shot in New York, they “would have acquired a certain sadness, a certain humaneness”.4

 

Chapter 16 Vicarious Vicario: Restocking John Vicario’s Forgotten Shoppers Market (1963)

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Ken Eisenstein

We live with things. We perch upon them, claw and cradle them, raise them, and they raise us, grow us, throw us. One special site for such circular and confused interaction is, as Allen Ginsberg has memorialized it, the supermarket:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras? Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!1

Ginsberg’s shopping list suggests that visual artists should be equally struck by the grocery store’s “brilliant stacks of cans”, its glowing and darkening produce, and the people who place and purchase all this and more. And they have been. To register just two examples here, first take William Eggleston and his earliest successful effort in color. After staying up one night, the photographer decided to:

 

Chapter 17 Raymond Rohauer and the Society of Cinema Arts (1948–1962): Giving the Devil His Due

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Tim Lanza

In a letter dated “Late December, 1969”, and prompted by a reading of Parker Tyler’s book Underground Film: A Critical History1 Stan Brakhage wrote the following:

Dear Raymond,

I certainly never thought I’d ever be writing you any kind of fan letter; but I guess that’s what this writ intends, in a way, to be . . . I decided to write to you this morning, while listening to Straus’s “A Hero’s Life”, which had the effect of reminding me of many events in my own early living; and I remembered, amidst the music, one Los Angeles night, many years ago, when you drove me from The Coronet Theatre to my residence of the time: during the rather long drive, I remember I told you something about the kind of film I intend to be making many years hence – (amazing!, that I knew then so much about what I would be doing that the conversation was, in fact, accurate prophecy: you, of course, cannot be expected to remember it at all: but I did tell you, then, that I would eventually make a very long film about childhood: and I am, now, several years in midst of a prospective 8 hour film called “Scenes From Under Childhood,” and have for many years been making a number of films drawing their inspiration – as I then predicted in that conversation – from the daily activities of domestic living.)

 

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