By Dominic Angerame
Naked City was a television show that aired in the 1950s. Each episode ended with the statement, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
From 1980 until 2012, I worked as the Executive Director of Canyon Cinema. This position was very difficult, as I had to oversee the entire operation of the company. Duties included: writing grants; publishing catalogs and supplements; traveling as a representative for Canyon; rewriting articles of incorporation; developing an MTS computer system that could handle booking of films and distribution of funds to filmmakers; and moving our inventory of six tons of films to various locations in San Francisco.
Canyon Cinema is a distributor of more than 300 avant-garde filmmakers’ work. So it was necessary for me to communicate with literally hundreds of filmmakers and clients from around the world. Many of these filmmakers are no longer with us. The list includes artists both well-known and obscure: Chick Strand; Stan Brakhage; James Broughton; Bruce Conner; Robert Fulton (my first film teacher); Robert Nelson; Paul Sharits; Sara Kathyrn Arledge; Ed Safran; Scott Bartlett; Freude; Earl Bodien (a forgotten founder of Canyon Cinema); Tony Conrad; Michael Gray; Walter Gutman; Roger Jacoby; Owen Land; Standish Lawder; Curt McDowell; Peter Hutton; George Kuchar; Micael Wallin; and Coni Beeson, to name a few.
On a personal level, these filmmakers trusted me to distribute their films and pay them money owed as royalties for rental and sales. They confided in me and often told me stories of their lives and difficulties.
I had known the films of Kenneth Anger when I was attending the State University of New York at Buffalo in the late 60s. I also attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1971-79 and was enrolled in film history courses taught there by Stan Brakhage. He spoke highly of the films of Kenneth Anger, and I was able to view most of his work at that time.
Scorpio Rising (1963) was the only film Kenneth had in distribution with Canyon Cinema when I arrived. After years of communication, I was able to win his confidence, and he began to withdraw his prints from elsewhere and deposit them at Canyon Cinema. He had faith that I was at the helm and knew his films would be treated well, carefully inspected, and that he would be paid whenever he requested funds.
Kenneth told me horror stories about his other distributors. Either they mishandled his films or never paid him money that was owed. Canyon Cinema received more than ten prints of Scorpio Rising, five prints of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), and many prints of: Eaux d’artifice (1953), Lucifer Rising (1972); Rabbit’s Moon (1950); Fireworks (1947), and the rest of his print inventory. Some of the prints had original soundtracks that later were changed by Kenneth, and many of the prints were edited differently. I projected all of the prints of Scorpio Rising and Eaux d’artifice and realized that most of them contained minor changes. Each print either contained an extra scene or was missing a scene. They had varying colors, too, some being bluer than others. It appeared that they were printed from varied internegatives. Later when Ross Lipman asked for the best prints of Kenneth’s work for preservation, it became an enormous project.
One day I was leaving my apartment in North Beach and walking on Columbus Avenue when I ran into Kenneth walking down the street. Surprised to see him, I offered to buy him a cappuccino. Kenneth declined, but he said he wanted to show me something. We walked and talked for a while down Broadway past the numerous strip clubs until we stopped outside of an adult porn store on Kearny Street.
We walked to the back of the shop, where a massive porno video arcade was located. Of course there were several strange looking clients coming sheepishly out of the booths. The floor was cement and sloped downward and above there were portholes for the projection of the films. This was very curious, and then Kenneth told me this porno shop used to be a theatre called the “Art Movie House,” and it was where he premiered Scorpio Rising. I was standing in an historic building!
We walked around a bit, and I am sure we looked suspicious as we examined the ceiling, the portholes, and the walls. My filmmaker-mind imagined what films this theatre had shown in the past and what it must have looked like when Scorpio Rising was presented. When we walked outside, I felt like I had just had an extremely spiritual experience. Kenneth then pointed to a window on the second floor and said he lived there, directly above the theatre.
This long-gone porno store is now the home of North Beach Citizens, an organization that helps homeless people. Ironically, this organization was started by Francis Ford Coppola and funded in part by George Lucas. The sloped floors are gone along with the portholes, yet the spirit of the old theater remains.
Another day I was working in the office, and Bruce Conner walked in unexpectedly as he often would. He was carrying a book he wanted the office to have. It was the unauthorized biography of Kenneth Anger. I looked at the book, and the phone rang. I was conflicted since Bruce normally demanded all my attention and did not want to be interrupted. However, it was Kenneth Anger calling me! I answered the phone and Bruce was upset. Kenneth said hello and then went on to discuss the very book Bruce had brought. Kenneth went on to say angrily, “Do not buy that book, do not read it and do not accept it if given to you, do not even touch the book.” I said ok, hung up the phone looked at Bruce and said I cannot accept the book. Talk about MAGIK!
Dinner with Kenneth and George Kuchar sponsored by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was another interesting experience. I was asked to present Kenneth with the “Persistence of Vision” award given by the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2001. In my introduction, I quoted a very sensitive article Kenneth had written entitled “Angels Exist.” My dear friend Rebecca Barton had found the article and gave it to me for this introduction. I would describe it here if not for the fact that I am writing a book about my adventures and interactions with numerous filmmakers and the experiences that I so enjoyed during my time at Canyon Cinema. So that story and others I am saving for now. Stay tuned!
Working at Canyon Cinema was often very difficult and challenging since I had to deal with emergencies most of the time. But even those memories are dear to me. It has been a great honor and privilege to serve and interact with the hundreds of filmmakers that I met and talked with during my years at Canyon Cinema.
Dominic Angerame teaches Cinema Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has also taught filmmaking/cinema studies/criticism at the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of California Berkeley, Extension, New College of California. He has completed more than 30 short experimental films that have won numerous awards around the world. He’s shown his work at the Tokyo Museum of Photography; Northwest Film Center; the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano in Havana; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Mar de Plata Film Festival (Argentina); San Francisco Film Society; Bilbao International Film Festival, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao; International Architecture Film Festival in Graz (Austria); Wesleyan University; Warsaw Media Museum; Dokument Film Festival in Germany; and the Impact Film Festival in Lucerne among many other notable museums, universities, and film festivals around the globe.