Canyon Cinema 50 Film Tour

Beginning in November 2017 and continuing through 2018, the Canyon Cinema 50 Tour included four film programs and two digital packages, which traveled across the United States and beyond; reaching audiences in more than 25 cities, at venues ranging from universities to restaurants, major museums to microcinemas.

Studies in Natural Magic

These four 16mm programs, composed of 43 films drawn from Canyon’s circulating collection of more than 3400 titles, provided an opportunity for audiences to encounter some of the defining works of American avant-garde cinema as they were meant to be seen, while also recuperating forgotten voices and casting a contemporary eye on Canyon’s collection. Many of the films in the tour were recent restorations and new prints. Two digital programs built from new HD transfers are also available, allowing participation from a wide variety of venues and organizations.

As part of Canyon’s effort to renew its longtime commitment to sustaining a grassroots distribution network for alternative cinema, the touring programs were designed to be adaptable. In addition to the four set programs, area curators, teachers, and artists were encouraged to organize special programs oriented toward regional accounts of Canyon’s legacy. We were especially interested in supporting programs that featured local Canyon filmmakers in order to provide a platform for these artists to reflect on their work in relation to Canyon’s collection, history, and culture.

As a component of the Canyon Cinema 50 project, the touring program was meant not only to celebrate Canyon’s history but also to point the way towards the organization’s continued relevance as both a purveyor of and advocate for artist-made cinema, seeding the next generation of what founding filmmaker Bruce Baillie described as “a federation of willing devotees of the magic lantern muse.”



“In an era when it seems like most every piece of recorded media is available online, Canyon Cinema at 50 reminds us that there are still reels of film accessible only in the dark confines of a communal screening room.” (Matt Stromberg, Hyperallergic, July 10, 2018)

“Spread across four programs, this all-16mm showcase — curated from a larger touring retrospective — brings together a half-century of noncommercial moving image work by a variety of artists both recognizable and less heralded.” (Jordan Cronk, Hollywood Reporter, June 28, 2018)

“Rather than dwell nostalgically on the usual avant-garde tropes and traditions—or focus solely on the work of the distributor’s undisputedly illustrious founders—the programs here give a sense of Canyon’s capacious, ‘non-discriminatory’ character.” (Leo Goldsmith, 4columns, April 27, 2018)

The San Francisco-based cooperative Canyon Cinema is one of the essential institutions of American experimental film. The names in this 50th-anniversary retrospective — which is divided into four programs of shorts — read like a roll call of filmmakers any moviegoer interested in the avant-garde should know.” (Ben Kenigsberg, New York Times, April 26, 2018)

Canyon 50 is a retrospective that is sprawling and alive, forward-looking and forward-thinking. It seems like every couple of years, someone declares the avant-garde (or film in general) ‘dead.’ And yes, it’s not as easy to work in celluloid as it used to be, although it was never exactly easy. But Canyon 50 is a perfect example of old and new, tradition and innovation, mutually informing one another.” (Michael Sicinski, March 22, 2018)

“My favorite blast from the past, however, is Love It/Leave It (1973), Tom Palazzolo’s 15-minute satire of knee-jerk patriotism and a choice example of good old Chicago lefty troublemaking…” (J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader, January 26, 2018)

“Canyon Cinema will be presenting a unique evening of avant-garde cinema organized around Robert Nelson and William T. Wiley’s 42-minute The Great Blondino (1967), an anarchic ’60s experiment in freeform filmmaking…” (Jesse Ficks, 48hills, April 11, 2017)

Canyon Cinema proves the avant-garde, underground and experimental can and will survive despite political climates that would rather see such artistic practices discredited, defunded and dissolved. Long may it survive as well.” (Sarah Hotchkiss, KQED, February 15, 2017)


Silkscreened commemorative poster designed by Nathaniel Russell for the occasion of Canyon Cinema 50 (edition of 100, 2-color / 18 x 24 silkscreen prints), printed at Bloom Screen Printing Co. in Oakland, CA. A limited quantity is available for purchase.




As a part of the Canyon Cinema 50 celebration, artists and filmmakers Adrianne Finelli and Bryan Boyce created this mesmerizing trailer. It’s a kaleidoscopic tour through Canyon’s 50-year history and a testament to the continued vitality of our collection.


Celebrate the Middle Ages, Anniversary and Benefit Party took place on March 9th, 2017 at the Starline Social Club in Oakland,CA. The evening included performances by The Mutants, The Mike Henderson Band, DJ Phengren Oswald of the Saturday Night Soul Party, and projections by Paul Clipson. It was attended by many Canyon Cinema filmmakers, past and present staff, as well as our community of supporters. Included here are a few photographs (taken by Arielle Estrada) from this very special event.


The Mike Henderson Band

The welcome table

Volunteer Isaac Sherman at the welcome table

Guests watching the vintage 16mm Canyon Cinema leader designed by Bruce Conner

Among the attendees at the party were Anna Geyer, Joanna McClure and Canyon Cinema Co-operative co-founder Lawrence Jordan (image center, from left to right)

Canyon Cinema Foundation Board Member Jonathan Marlow introduces “Celebrating 50 Years” conversation participants Amy Halpern, Edith Kramer, and Mark Toscano (right to left).

Canyon’s Collection Manager Seth Mitter projects Chick Strand’s Anselmo. In front of him are Canyon Cinema filmmakers Jason Halprin, Paul Clipson, and Mark Wilson (left to right).

Attendees watching Chick Strand’s Anselmo.

Paul Clipson prepares his projections to accompany The Mutants’ performance.

The Mutants

The Mutants with Paul Clipson’s projections in the background.

The Mutants with Paul Clipson’s projections in the background.

The Mutants


On April 11, 2017 Abigail Child sat for an interview with Canyon Cinema’s Director Antonella Bonfanti at the Owsley Brown Presents offices in San Francisco, California. They discussed Child’s early years as a filmmaker, moving to San Francisco, working at Canyon Cinema, editing the Cinemanews as well as her contemporary moving image works.


Canyon Cinema 50 – Interview with Abigail Child (April 11, 2017) from Canyon Cinema Foundation on Vimeo.


A special thank you to Abigail Child, and the Owsley Brown Presents team (Anne Flatte, Lauren Veen, Tina Tom, and Owsley Brown).


Recently, our friend Gerry Fialka sent a questionnaire he had conducted with Robert Nelson shortly before Nelson passed away in 2012. Consisting of Nelson’s handwritten responses to 49 questions, the document offers poignant observations on art, film, aging, memory and quite a few things in between. Read it in its entirety here:





Audio recording from “A Tribute to Canyon Cinema: Founders and Beginnings” event at the Pacific Film Archive on July 5, 1983, in celebration of Canyon Cinema’s 25th anniversary. Includes an introduction by Edith Kramer and features James Broughton, the “grandfather” of independent San Francisco filmmaking, discussing the early years of independent filmmaking in the Bay Area, as well as cinema, art, and San Francisco in the 1960s.

This recording is from the Pacific Film Archive Audio Recordings Collection, was digitized from the original 1/8 inch audio cassette by California Revealed, and has been made public via the Internet Archive. Visit for more details.


Photographs taken at the Canyon Cinema Inc. office on 3rd Street in San Francisco for the July 1983 issue of the University Art Museum, Berkeley publication. These images were found in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive collection have been made available courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Appearing in these photographs are Michael Wallin and Dominic Angerame who were co-managers of Canyon Cinema at the time.





On February 13, 2017 Barbara Hammer sat for an interview with Tonya Zimbardo at the Owsley Brown Presents offices in San Francisco, California. They discussed Hammer’s early years as a filmmaker, moving to San Francisco as well as her activism as a pioneering lesbian filmmaker.



A special thank you to Barbara Hammer, Tanya Zimbardo, Kathleen Maguire, and the Owsley Brown Presents team (Anne Flatte, Lauren Veen, Tina Tom and Owsley Brown).


Canyon Cinema 50 launched its local programming with Barbara Hammer in person presenting a program of expanded cinema works. The Changing the Shape of Film event took place on Thursday, February 16th, 2017 at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.


By Samuel La France

…and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


When Charlotte Pryce won the Douglas Edwards Experimental/Independent Film/Video Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 2013, she explained her practice as follows: “I’m interested in the latent image, or the image within the film, within the chemistry.” I first understood this statement to intimate something about developing film, the act of bringing images brilliantly into being through photochemical processes that, in Pryce’s practice, are performed entirely by hand. I thought of the emulsion’s transformation into a discernible image through its exposure and chemical solidification, and the interim in which it must be kept in darkness, withholding during that time an image that exists but cannot yet be seen. I then began reading this interest in latency extending beyond the image’s initial development, which might include its further manipulation through optical printing, its presentation through projection, its interpretation by the viewer, and its inevitable distortion in the viewer’s memory. Seen in this light, the emphasis on latency seemed to be an invitation from the artist to abandon any presupposition that to make or see an image is to discover or capture it, to unveil its mysteries, or draw out its secrets. For much remains hidden in Pryce’s meticulously constructed images. With a form and significance that flow defiantly between exposure and concealment, her films suggest a rich gulf between what exists to be seen and that which can only be witnessed when mediated through fantasy, or dreams, or apparatus.

A CalArts faculty member whose work is part of Canyon Cinema’s collection and its 50th anniversary tour, Pryce’s interests extend well beyond the cinematic: she is fascinated by the living matter and puzzling phenomena associated with a variety of scientific and speculative disciplines, including botany, entomology, ornithology, natural philosophy, chemistry, magic, and alchemy. Her aim, however, is not limited to whatever truths or revelations can be gleaned from observing and manipulating the objects of curiosity within these fields. Her camera resists the cold objectivity of empirical observation—that tradition of documenting, and, in so doing, dominating nature through various perceptual and mechanical means—in order to try to glimpse the natural world’s unseen and unknown wonders, and to situate those wonders in relation to an array of historical media, from naturalist paintings and biological illustrations to fantasy literature and early experiments in photography. Using that repertoire as a point of departure for her perceptual inquiries, Pryce plumbs the origins of illusion to discover the world anew, and in so doing traces the genesis of new forms of making and seeing.

As evinced in one of her early 16mm films, Discoveries on the Forest Floor (2007), flora and fauna take pride of place in Pryce’s subtly grand project. We observe the unfurling of foliage, the dance-like time-lapse growth of sprouts or tendrils, and the intricate patterns of leaf veins and butterfly wings, all cross-cut in rapid succession to suggest a continuity of movement and matter shared by all living things. Optically printed lichen growths, flashed and filmed in close-up, form tiny, deeply textured topographies. Textbook illustrations of carnivorous butterworts are intercut with the beguiling blossoms of a living sundew, the drops of mucilage on the tips of its tentacles creating heretofore undiscovered constellations that swell in and out of focus: are these perhaps the last impressions of an insect trapped by the plant and struggling in vain to escape, to survive? The relationship between life and death resonates within this contemporary reimagining of sottobosco, 17th-century Dutch paintings of the forest floor that, as Pryce explains, “heralded a first attempt to place plant specimens into a ‘real’ environment as opposed to a vase.” That very question of what is real, or natural, and the underlying tensions between objective and subjective representation, seem at the very core of this early experiment. Incidentally, sottobosco literally translates to undergrowth, the title of a 2011 film by the late Robert Todd (another Canyon filmmaker) whose moving portrait of a blind Barred owl similarly revels in the beauty and cyclicality of the forest floor, all the while casting the artist’s attempt to “capture” the natural world’s subjecthood as something akin to predation. Though her perspective may seem far from the hunt and rooted instead in some idealized altruism, Pryce’s work shares similar concerns that loom large over the act of image-making, with its inherent inferences of things coming into (and, potentially, falling out of) existence.

Developing these themes, Pryce’s next film The Parable of the Tulip Painter and the Fly (2008) makes more explicit the linkages between being and not-being. She begins with a painting of clipped tulips in a vase, which weave and wave as if seen through liquid, an image descended from Joyce Wieland’s Water Sark (1965). We watch as the bristles of a paint brush break through the delicate membrane of a drop of water, pulling and distending it. Pryce juxtaposes her painted tulips with their ostensibly “real” equivalent, the red/white/yellow hues and gentle swaying of the flowers’ flesh conveying their unmistakable aliveness. And so the subject is matched with both its representation and the means of that representation’s creation, a dance between bristle, petal and page, with the camera serving as chaperone. The aesthetic admiration that Pryce shares with the uncredited (and likely long-dead) painter shifts away from these symbols of perennial awakening and life-giving once the film’s other central character—a humble housefly—is revealed. Nestled almost out of sight in the painting at the base of the vase, this painted fly is eventually paired with an image of its “living” counterpart. These twin pests, symbols of the transience of being, seem almost impervious to the trappings of mortality and subjectivity; born from decay, they serve as reminders of the fate shared by the petal, the painter, and the filmmaker herself.

Things can be made and unmade. They appear and disappear. These observations may seem simplistically axiomatic, but we’re compelled by the undeniable grace of Pryce’s work to consider their implications. Curious Light (2010-11) is a remarkably poised film, a beautifully textured portrait of a publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, complete with original illustrations by John Tenniel. Vivid colours from Pryce’s meticulous hand-processing give the gloss of the manuscript’s inked surfaces an incandescent glow; light slices through the shadows, the darkness flowing on and off the surface of the page. An illustration of fingertips cut against the fine edges of the book’s pages offers one of those rare tactile reactions to a cinematic image; watching this film, one practically feels the sharp contours of the sheets, the texture of the paper’s complexion. But it’s Pryce’s treatment of Tenniel’s images that are most instructive here: a tardy rabbit, ostensibly elusive but ironically trapped in the image; curious Alice peeking behind a curtain, an allegorical disclosure of the artist’s own inquisitive spirit; and, of course, the Cheshire Cat, revealed through an iris that opens and closes, making the cat appear and disappear, over and again, its body and mouth vanishing in tandem. No smile or trace remains—the artist controls this vanishing act and renders it complete. And with the image of a defiant Alice pulling the table cloth and upending its contents (actually the conclusion of her adventure in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass), Pryce achieves a symbolic harmony: resolution through disruption.

Though that last reading is an admitted stretch, it does reinforce the constant thread of existential tension that makes Pryce’s films so utterly compelling. Consider the artist’s own description of Looking Glass Insects (2012), which again engages with Caroll’s text and Tenniel’s illustrations, along with plenty of drawings of bugs too: “Delighting in the act and play of observation, the film finds a visual metaphor for the cinematic process in the antics of the original story; making use of magnifying glasses as an optical pun, pointing to the instruments used by both entomologists and filmmakers alike. Yet the insects of the story fade away, just as the observations that appear in the film’s magnifying glass dissolve into darkness when tilted to reflect the ‘natural’ world beyond the book.” As one looking glass sees through the other, the borders between scientific objectivity and personal expression, as well as those between what can and cannot be seen or represented, are thrown into flux. And, as always in Pryce’s work, we remain utterly compelled by what marvels may be lost or hidden as these twin lenses work together to turn the world to black.

Mapping the provenance of Pryce’s images, from texts to found footage to the images she shoots herself, has always been difficult given the heavy optical and chemical processing that the images undergo in her hands. As those distinctions between new and old material become blurred, Pryce’s discoveries become downright miraculous. Such is the case with A Study in Natural Magic (2013). We are, the artist tells us in her description of the film, witnessing an alchemist’s spell. Rings ablaze in gold curl upwards throughout the bottom of the frame, like halo halves tinged with gossamer light, their earthly materiality imbued with a greater cosmic or supernatural significance. Suddenly, a shape appears that recalls one of Lotte Reiniger’s silhouettes. As the aperture lets in more light, we recognize the forms of variegated flowers, sprouts, stems and petals, which drift in and out of view, are given and taken away. Pryce immerses her camera in leaves of grass, the multitude of their colours evoking Brakhage’s oft-quoted speculation about the countless shades of green perceivable to the untutored eye. An absolutely incendiary display of a dandelion seed alight in gold, as if on fire, gives way to the same cylindrical shapes of the film’s opening, this time set as ochre arches occupying the top of the frame, closing off some loop that we hoped never to fall out of.

All things must pass, but they can also be made anew. Pryce’s latest film, Prima Materia (2015), gestures through its title at the formlessness of primeval substances, the original stuff that brought the universe into being. In it we find more of the artist’s stupefying creations. Vessels and coils spin and bend into the earliest forms of light and organic material, giving way to a cloud of golden stardust, its particles exploding into view and then sinking languidly toward the bottom of the frame, thousands of infinitesimal suns setting on a dark horizon that delineates a realm beyond what we can see. That Pryce begins her film with the flash of an old, sepia-toned illustration of a human eye suggests the fulcrum of biological and representational processes that have led us to look both inwardly and outwardly in search of the mysteries around us. Philosopher Thomas Nagel evocatively described objectivity as “the view from nowhere,” a description that might, quite ironically, befit Pryce’s position in offering a radically subjective view of the natural world that pushes the boundaries of human and photomechanical perception. It is admittedly difficult to track those boundaries in a cinema as evanescent as Pryce’s. But no matter; by this point, she has grown comfortable bringing her visions into existence, offering up hints as to their meaning, and then allowing them to come apart and dissolve silently out of sight.


Samuel La France is an arts administrator, film programmer and writer based in Toronto. He works as the Manager of TIFF Cinematheque and has organized screenings and retrospectives for TIFF, Collectif Jeune Cinéma, Pleasure Dome, and Museum London. He serves on the board of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, and his writing on film has been published in Cinema Scope, cléo, and MICE.



By Jesse Cumming

For all its tactility and materiality, filmmaker Sandra Davis’ use of 16mm film is rarely left a question of form. Throughout a body of work produced from the late 1970s through the present – an oeuvre at once intimate and elusive – Davis has repeatedly returned to physicality and touch as key themes activated by her choice of medium. The body as it relates to sex, motherhood, and medicine are among her most resonant points of inquiry, spanning early major works like Maternal Filigree (1980) though Ignorance Before Malice (2002-2006), Davis’ cri de coeur directed against the exploitative and byzantine American medical system.

Having studied filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, Davis arrived at her chosen métier with an interest in painting as well as the baroque in art – two modes that have influenced several formal and thematic aspects of the artist’s approach to filmmaking. Less explicit, but also foundational, is an overarching commitment to feminism and feminist approaches to personal filmmaking, something especially evident in Maternal Filigree.

Described by Davis as “an exploration of life in the female body,” the film sutures glimpses of the filmmaker’s body with footage of her children and a variety of objects, from glass crystals to eggs and human figurines. Kaleidoscopic in its form – at times literally! – Maternal Filigree figures the human form as an assemblage of isolated faces, legs, arms, torsos, and hair, with the body’s occasionally rugged textures presented as a counterpoint to lithe fabrics and dancing light. In the most dazzling of the film’s many beautiful moments, Davis films an enrobed body underwater as textiles swirl around the figure. While silent save for a slow and consistent analog hum, the film’s kinetic, hypnotic cuts produce musical rhythms.

For all Maternal Filigree’s exquisite attention to various surfaces, a key extension of Davis’ concern with the body relates to concepts of self and subjectivity, in particular women’s subjectivity. In Matter of Clarity (1986), among other sources Davis incorporates texts by Helen Keller revealing certain assumptions regarding the nature of perception. The film returns again and again to ideas of physical connection, as Davis shows images of hands and bodies in various forms of contact, with fingers entwined or hands laid upon forearms. In the voice-over, the dynamic of touch between men and women (sexual or otherwise) is discussed. Elsewhere this inquiry into modes of human contact is further enriched through the artist’s continued concern with science and nature, at its most grand (sublime shots of clouds over a bay at dusk) and intimate (tightly framed footage of flower pistils and stamens, accompanied by fragments of voices detailing the mating rituals of plants). By shifting scale in this way, Davis shows the “matter of clarity” referenced in the film’s title to be elusive but ever-worth pursuing.

In the medium-length A Preponderance of Evidence (1989), Davis again gives voice to the experiences of women. In this case the film is structured around three different voices: a Russian Jew who lived through the revolution and World War II; another woman who recites her experience of an illegal, anesthetic-free abortion; and the filmmaker herself. Somewhat atypically, alongside her original fragmentary footage of nature and more abstract imagery – including a particularly gorgeous sequence of a church interior reduced to streaks of amber light – Davis incorporates and manipulates sourced footage. Chief among the found materials woven into the film are 1950s educational films: Father Knows Best-era clips rife with patriarchal lessons and images of woman’s subjugation that echo throughout the first-person testimonials.

Shot in 1991 and 1992 and finished in the late 1990s, the films Au Sud (To the South) (1991), À la Campagne, À Khan-Tan-Su (Into the Country, to Khan-Tan-Su) (1992), and Une Fois Habitée (Once Inhabited) (1992) constitute Davis’ French Trilogy. Somewhere between home movies and miniature, moving postcards, these three exquisite short works have been described by the filmmaker herself as “odes.” Unlike the longer, denser and more conceptual “big monsters,” Davis’ short pieces exist as a parallel but no less accomplished series. Elegant and inviting, the works are deceptively deft and considered in their use of editing that frequently plays with and against motion, shapes, and colours.

The isolated words “place, sea” open Au Sud, which plays like a staccato version of her Canyon Cinema peer Bruce Baillie’s All My Life (1966), with chanteuse Sarah Vaughan’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” layered over Davis’ thrilling, rapid glimpses of flowers, sand, water, facades, and other sights around the unnamed Riviera town. The sea itself, and the dance of light on its surface, occupies the latter third of the film, as the song ends and the opening voice returns to recite appropriately fragmented words: “though, place, sun, well.”

The marriage of elegant jazz with fragmented voice-over and fleeting, sun-dappled images echoes throughout the other two pieces in the trilogy. With One Fois Habitée, the filmmaker condenses her scope, splitting the film between images captured around a calm, sunny home and the sturdy bricks of a classical church. With À la Campagne, À Khan-Tan-Su, the shortest of the trilogy, Davis reduces her scope still further to introduce and examine the difference in textures and shape between flowers and stone steps. The style of these “odes” can be seen in some of Davis’ more recent work, including For a Young Filmmaker (2014) and Saisonnier (2016), each finely observed studies of environments, both in terms of the natural world and one’s chosen surroundings.

In the midst of these small works, marked by beauty and sunlight, one finds Ignorance Before Malice (2006), Davis’ darkest and harshest film. In 1993 the filmmaker was the victim of a serious automobile accident, which left her with severe injuries and chronic pain. Produced out of an immense frustration at the inefficacies, exploitation, and callous profit motive Davis encountered in the medical and insurance industry during her years of treatment, the film stands as a major work, a film borne out of challenges at once emotional, physical, and technical.

As a filmmaker whose work frequently returns to questions of surfaces, Ignorance Before Malice is notable for its concern with what lies beneath. Here we find Davis’ ongoing navigation of the healthcare industry’s byzantine bureaucracies supported by several visual parallels. Throughout the film, we repeatedly see MRI footage of skulls and other body parts, presented with bright, pulsing colours, while elsewhere Davis extends the concept of infrastructure in images of computer-processed architectural renderings. Davis also incorporates Renaissance engravings and portraits that connect her present debacle with historical considerations of the “healing arts.”

Sonically and textually dense, the film incorporates on-screen text of personal frustrations which detail selected incidents of condescension and a routine lack of medical transparency or compassion. In the voice-over, the film alternates between news reports regarding the failings of the medical system and personal anecdotes.

“For two years no one touched me apart from the necessary contact of physical treatment,” reads one of the film’s intertitles, a stark statement that feels particularly painful when considered in dialogue with the sensuousness and tactility of Davis’ other films. The isolation and physical limitation the filmmaker experienced during the period of course influenced the production of the film itself. Unlike the fluid handheld camerawork of other pieces, Ignorance Before Malice was produced (almost) exclusively with the use of animation stand.

The claustrophobic effect often feels miles away from the openness of Davis’ broader body of work, though as a filmmaker she is ever capable of finding and fostering points of connection, something clear from her profoundly moving Crepuscule Pond and Chair (2002). Produced as an elegy to Davis’ brother after his sudden passing, the seven-minute film would likely be considered an “ode” in the filmmaker’s nomenclature, albeit one that operates with a depth present in her ambitious and grand works.

Associating footage of the automated chair her brother used with a subtly shimmering lake, alongside added piano, voice messages, and intertitles, the film serves to link a number of themes Davis has returned to throughout her career: family, health, life, death, connections (both made and missed), and the mysterious beauty of the natural world. Appropriately, the only onscreen text in the film is a frequently repeated personal sentiment, one of tenderness and love directed towards another, often from a distance: HOPE ALL IS WELL.


Jesse Cumming is a film programmer and writer based in Toronto.



By Max Goldberg

In the first place, that’s what Canyon was—a place, which even now has a way of falling off the map. It was here, in 1961, that Bruce Baillie, Chick Strand, and other “devotees of the magic lantern muse” gathered to watch movies. Curatorially speaking—though surely that is not how they were speaking—these early evenings were all over the map, ranging across Flash Gordon serials, National Film Board of Canada documentaries, and early attempts by those in attendance. As Baillie recounted in an interview with Scott MacDonald, “Immediately I realized that making films and showing films must go hand in hand, so I got a job at Safeway, took out a loan, and bought a projector.”

Soon enough, Canyon came down the hill and began hosting screenings throughout Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. They also began printing the news. As described in MacDonald’s indispensable history, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor, Baillie initially envisioned Canyon’s news operation as a milder Kino-Pravda.1 It was Ernest “Chick” Callenbach, with his editorial post at Film Quarterly, who understood the need for an actual newsletter. The inaugural issue leads, “There is, we know, a large amount of fugitive information about movies which presently circulates, when it circulates at all, primarily through private correspondence … distributor announcements, and the like.” In terms of presentation, the first issues were on the level of a summer camp bulletin. Nevertheless, the advent of the News marked a decisive turn in Canyon’s history: it’s where circulation enters the picture. Five years before Canyon’s formal incorporation as a distribution cooperative, the participatory pages of the News demonstrated that there was such a community of filmmakers to be incorporated—and, just as important, a growing galaxy of exhibitors interested in showing their work. And unlike other related developments, such as a cooperative cutting room advertised in the first issue, the News activated a broader network of likeminded independents, in the process revealing a common set of interests, irritations, and inspirations that would eventually point towards greater organization. Like the poet says, in dreams begin responsibility.

Read today, the early issues of the News make for a spontaneous survey of an emerging film culture, humming with the special energy of things yet unnamed. Here in the first issues we find announcements from Baillie and Stan Brakhage, yes, but also from Emile de Antonio, Arthur Lipsett, Robert Gardner, and Kent Mackenzie (whose film The Exiles is described as a feature-length documentary).2 The signatories of the New American Cinema Statement were similarly eclectic, but there the driving logic of manifesto led inexorably to the purified ideal promoted in Jonas Mekas’s Movie Journal columns. The first issues of the News, by contrast, seem genuinely catholic, concerned less with advancing any particular aesthetic program than instigating participation. The terms of this participation were made explicit, with readers implored to submit salient news items via postcards and to subscribe for $2 per year—“no gratis list, no exchanges.”


Image: Back cover of Canyon Cinema News, May 1967.


Canyon’s vision of utopia was always more small-town potluck than urbane underground, and the News retains something of the country-fair quality of the early gatherings with how-to guides (Robert Nelson on how to hack a strobe light), giveaways (400’ feet of Ektachrome to the lucky winner), classifieds (“We would appreciate word about whereabouts of the serials BUCK RODGERS and FLASH GORDON”), classes (a filmmaking course at Lenny Lipton’s place in Berkeley), and awards both for achievement (e.g., to McKay Services in Oakland “for craftsmanship, Bell & Howell projector repairs; other audio, visual equipment repairs as well”) and non-achievement (e.g., to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs).3

Perhaps wary that Canyon could be mistaken as an authority or arbiter at a distance, the May 1963 issue begins an explanatory note:

A vicious nihilist threat to the Established Order?
A giant international syndicate of independent production?
A secret society dedicated to the overthrow of all that is decent in American life?

After recounting Canyon’s early history as a “floating underground theater also active in production,” the editors turn to the organization’s role as an information hub:

Canyon also, of course publishes this NEWS, in an effort to get information circulating quickly to similar groups and persons all over the country. There is surely a possibility of such groups as Canyon in a score of American cities, and we hope that independent filmmakers may gain a sense of common purpose and possibilities through reading of what goes on elsewhere.

At the very least, they commiserated over shoddy projection. An early note in the News advises, “Groups showing films should check to make sure their projectionists are cleaning the gate frequently…This is especially important for independent films whose makers cannot afford to replace damaged footage.” The April 1963 issue takes a more practical approach with a sheet of labels to be attached to film cans (“Projectionist: Please keep film gate clean. Emulsion and dirt in gate scratch print. Thank you”). Bad actors are duly impugned (“We recommend no films be sent to Detroit Institute of Arts”) and, more rarely, good ones praised (Robert Nelson tipping his cap to the Presidio for paying print damages). The fact that, say, the University of Oregon installed $4600 worth of arc projectors certainly merited mention.

Early issues of the News also cast out for funding sources and “solid information about those foundations interested in film-making and film study.” Especially poignant is the notice that Ron Rice is looking for $2000 to complete Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man.4 Baillie’s own description of a proposed film makes for an interesting counterpoint with his later catalog descriptions:

Bruce Baillie, of Canyon Cinema, is planning a long film combining current American events with extended, peaceful scenes from the Midwest, and also perhaps some foreign material. He is looking for a sponsor for this project, and notes that ‘it is motivated only by a desire to cross the land freely, with my camera,’ and thus may be amenable to special sponsor purposes.

By April 1964, there is plenty of “good news on the foundation front,” with Ford Foundation grants being awarded to Kenneth Anger, Jordan Belson, James Blue, Bruce Conner, Hilary Harris, Helen Levitt, Stan VanDerBeek, and Kent Mackenzie among others (it would be good to know what came of Mackenzie’s proposed film about a flamenco guitarist). Some kind of apex is surely reached by the September/October 1966 issue, in which readers are advised to follow Pauline Kael’s counsel: “Do not reveal your big foundation grant to police when interrogated for vagrancy, whippings, peepings (see list of outrages), etc. This was apparently one reason for Ford’s withdrawal of film support.”

Aside from the development of graphic covers and a proliferation of letters and polemics, the burgeoning page count of the News in the mid-1960s owed to an explosion of screening announcements. With the “fugitive information” initially sought for the News having long since lapsed into the stuff of fugitive history, the inventory of venues and film societies is fit for a time capsule. In the Bay Area, besides legendary haunts like The Movie and Mel Novikoff’s experimental series at the Surf, there are listings for the Straight-Ashbury Viewing Society; the Berkeley Cinematheque at the Questing Beast; the Firehouse Film Society; the Open Theater in Berkeley; and countless others. The Cedar Alley Coffeehouse is applauded in the January 1966 issue for “…showing three films of Robert Nelson February 4-10, with Fellini’s 8 ½. This is a very good kind of showing, with new arc projections, long run, proper rentals paid and proper advertising coverage.” Most intriguing to me is the Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein Memorial Cinema Institute (S.M.E.M.C.I.), a regular film society programming art films at the Anchor Steam Brewery.

This flowering film culture led to further grumbling about projection standards, or lack thereof, as well as new sensitivity to the potential for exploitation. In his Canyon Cinema book, MacDonald pinpoints the “somewhat paradoxical” economic outlook for avant-garde film in this era:

On one hand, this new cinema ‘movement’ had developed a substantial reputation; even mainstream magazines included features on it, and a number of its more outrageous partisans had become notorious. Yet, despite the increasing awareness that these films and filmmakers existed—an awareness that had created, for a moment in the mid-1960s, increasing revenues for film rentals and filmmaker appearances—the field was becoming as financially marginal as it was well known (69).

Most complaints were directed against the lack of transparency at film festivals, though Bruce Conner’s harsh response to Tom Chomont’s request that filmmakers waive rental fees for the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque surely rattled more of the readership. (A subsequent issue featured a special item on how to separate a dogfight.)


Image: Front cover of Canyon Cinema News, March/April 1967. “…cover photo by Roy Ramsing shows Robert Nelson demonstrating three positions for The Great Blondino Tee Shirt.”

Certainly, the expanding list of potential exhibition venues gave the News a new sense of purpose. The October 1965 issue notes,

There seems to be a kind of circuit in existence around the country for filmmakers on the move, or even for setting things up by correspondence – where the film-maker does his own advertising and usually appears in person to speak with the audience. Costs, if any, are usually for getting hold of a projector and screen and sometimes for nominal space rent. This ‘circuit’ partly includes a number of colleges and universities…If someone will remind us on a postcard, we will try to print a listing of these potential sources for showings in the next issue.

This circuit created the conditions for a new kind of filmmaker, one given poetic expression in Baillie’s frequent letters to the News. (MacDonald perceptively likens these dispatches to Basho’s The Narrow Road to the North, though I’m more inclined to see them in light of Baillie’s own Quixote.) These letters “home” are surely among the most fragrant literary artifacts found in the early News and ought to be gathered together and republished forthwith. Reading even just a few, it’s easy to imagine their powerful effect on a younger generation of filmmakers looking to pick up a camera and make a life of it.

A Baillie letter dated October 12, 1964, during his travels shooting Quixote, begins:

Los Angeles, Hollywood Hypodrome Paladium Cafeteria – Order peach melba; bell peppers bad. Saw the Queen of Hearts there, finally. Had my camera – enough light at 16fps – rested camera on my knee, aimed as close as possible with 75MM (focused on rug, same distance).

Same as old days; everyone on street waiting for his big break. Saw 3 Cesar Romeros.

“Lucky in Love,” the name for my Hollywood section if I decide to have one. Gliding by the store windows in a ballet leap at 64fps. Spent eve. waiting for 3rd L.A. Film Festival to begin, which had begun. Photographing QUIXOTE in store windows on Hollywood Blvd….

From May 2, 1966:

Address for a while, Box 25, Grafton, California. Working on several short films, and a new one – already shot and recorded, using outdated Ansco 100 and high contrast copy negative – will run about 9 min. – title CASTRO STREET – Editing will begin soon…living outside under circle of redwoods; renting nearby bldg. – have equipment set up there in few days. Having some good dreams. Best to everyone –

All these years later, Castro Street still does promise good dreams. The August 1966 issue commences with a longer dispatch:

Just finished putting together short films from spring and early summer here (ALL MY LIFE, 3min. Three short films: PLUM BLOSSOMS, HEALDSBURG. LITTLE GIRL OUTSIDE SEBASTOPOL. TWO WATERBUGS, GRATON – together as a collection of 10 min. long. And STILL LIFE, 2min…) Watched the black sky turn grey-blue, got up before the sun and went to San Francisco to do the sound tracks and then deliver the films to the lab. Two images that morning. A white dog showed up in the dark near my tent. I looked right at him but couldn’t see him till he moved. He made no sound on the path. Later, before dawn, the trees made the shape of a working man drinking the last contents of a cup.

The blend of information and epiphany is characteristic, as is the anarchic send off:

For the last, let me tell you about our new game where I am living – and then a code for our C.I.A. subscribers. We never mentioned to our readers that the CIA is a subscriber and that while folding and stamping we often used to make up a code for them. New game: 35’ rope…no, needs a diagram. Will tell you later. Code: THE APPLES IN GRAFTON ARE GREEN.

The December 1967 / January 1968 letter from Caspar, California, meanwhile, offers probably the single most beautiful statement of Baillie’s ideal for the News:

Good skies almost all the time up here. Entire sky available in Caspar area. Everyone has colds. I travel with my own bowl, cup and spoon and a big bottle of cod liver oil. No colds or flu yet this winter…Really like to emphasize in NEWS again for everybody to send notes on what they are doing, seeing, feeling. It’s odd when you discover it, how so many people give little value to who they are: hardly anyone seems to celebrate themselves by forwarding their thoughts…Tulley says the Medieval fairs took care of a lot of that…We ought soon to be having our own big fairs – people coming from all the different neighborhoods or communities in their own colors, with pies and vegetables, jewelry, clothes, pennants, poems, films, songs, dancing.


Image: Front cover of Canyon Cinema News, November 1966: the “Canyon Cinema Co-op Catalog Issue.”

For those with an interest in this neck of the woods, the very brevity of the News bulletins can be a kind of incitement: Stan Brakhage, unable to find work in the San Francisco area, has returned to Colorado to resume his former activities and develop his work; Adolfas Mekas is preparing a Mark Twain project; the Mendocino Peace Festival needs a movie screen and projector to go with the gospel singers; Bill Hindle is working at White Front, saving money for a new film; Chicky Strand and Neon Park preparing for Yucatan this fall; Ben Van Meter, Tony Martin giving light shows at the Fillmore dances; Jack Smith is beginning a new film inspired by Swan Lake; Bruce Conner seems to be here in San Francisco; Ken Anger is in New York; Bruce Baillie is starting a feature with Harry Smith’s mother; Chick Strand and E. Martin Muller preparing Ming the Merciless; greetings to Satie on his 100th birthday; Lenny Lipton is arranging a four-day Kuchar festival; Lawrence Ferlinghetti is making a 16mm film called Flesh Taxi; Marvin Becker is back from the Yucatan with color footage; Chick Strand needs info about filmmakers in Peru; Stan VanDerBeek is looking for footage for his Movie-Drome; Bruce Baillie has completed a film for the Brookfield School Recreation Center, made in four days, with a track by Ramon Sender of the San Francisco Tape Music Center; The Great Blondino cost $2000 to make and will open at for a two-week engagement at Cedar Alley Cinema; Paul Sharits is looking for a used 16mm Bolex Reflex with lenses, a 3-gang synchronizer with frame and footage counter, and a 3-gang rewind set, still finishing the last bits of editing on Illumination Accident and starting work on Lobotomy; Gregory Markopoulos, teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, invites any film-maker passing through Chicago to please visit with his classes; thanks to Margaret Kerr for doing the stencils and Mrs. E.K. Baillie for running the mimeo and keeping books; Taylor Mead writes from Italy, “I didn’t know so much was taking place nowadays.”

The seeds of the distribution cooperative are there from the very first issue of the News, with the announcement that “several films have recently been completed at Canyon Cinema; all are available therefrom.” A subsequent notice in the August 1966 issue, titled “Possibility of a West Coast Film Cooperative,” reports on meetings and asks, honestly at least, whether anyone would be willing to work for a few months without pay to administer such a cooperative. A little later in the same issue we read, “Tom DeWitt gone to NY – elected president here of co-op, should it come into existence.” The September/October 1966 issue follows up asking filmmakers to reply to a questionnaire for a catalogue listing and crediting Earl Bodien and Charles Levin for “doing the main footwork at this difficult beginning stage of the Canyon Cinema Cooperative.” The November 1966 issue makes it official, announcing that Canyon will begin distributing films with a 75/25 split in the filmmaker’s favor.

What’s remarkable is how little this major development altered the dispensation of the News. To the contrary, the very first listing of films available to rent through Canyon is appended by an inventory of films not being distributed by Canyon—thus foregoing the opportunity to leverage the News as a way of driving rentals towards Canyon titles. The organizers makes explicit that this is being done out of consideration for artists who cannot afford to deposit prints, though the February 1967 issue makes a good case: “Canyon Cinema Co-operative appears to be quite successful in financial terms; booking for 1967 run to over $2500.00. So, film-makers who have been contemplating sending prints for distribution, there is every indication that print cost can be made back in rentals over a fairly short period.” Viewed from our contemporary moment, in which we naturally expect all such cultural agents to press for every possible occasion for self-promotion and aggressive outreach, this casual indifference to market-share seems one of the most radical elements of the early Canyon Co-op.

The aversion to profit motive extended to anything smacking of self-seriousness—a disposition shared with many of the Bay Area counterculture groups that streak across these pages like so many shooting stars (the Diggers even received an achievement award for “unexcelled merit in the dispensation of free food”). As the News grew in size and circulation and became an undeniable fixture of the new film movement, the editorial goofs become more consistent and elaborate, almost as if serving as a release valve at the prospect of cultural capital. In practice, this meant that a bulletin from Dion Vigne requesting experimental films to be deposited at SFMOMA would be followed by an announcement of “genuine sleeping bags for dolls”; or that the very first catalog of film rentals would be followed by “Directions for Building a Simple Outdoor Steam Tent, American Indian Style.” (For those so inclined, “Canyon Cinema preference is for night baths; incl. small light in tent, candle or kerosene lamp. Pass cold water pitcher around when very hot. Either cold water or snow right after bath or bed.”) Regardless of whether or not the CIA held a subscription—and I don’t doubt it—we surely find ourselves in Pynchon territory reading bulletins from the Central Berkeley Anti-Aircraft Society or this report from Donald Sprinkling in the 1967 issue:

Chef FEVET of the EVERGLADES CLUB, PALM BEACH always enjoys having a few adventurous intellectuals on his INTERNATION STAFF of dozens, AS PASTRY waiters, during the SEASON. See American ARISTOCRACY at PLAY. DIVERTING SIDE TRIPS: While visiting with friends at the 11th AERIAL ASSAULT DIVISION WORKSHOP, Fort Benning, Georgia, our AGENT was TREATED TO HOURS of hair-raising ANECDOTES about the exploits of the division and various TRAINING TEAMS plus REVELATIONS from certain psychedelic grooves within the CHEMICAL WARFARE CAMP. Another batch of AMERICAN HEROES all set to go, this TIME loaded for KEEPS…

Elsewhere we read that the rodeo is every evening in Cody, Wyoming; that there is no shortage of smoked fish from the Blackberry Tart Division; Canyon Cinema Pharmacology Division findings on the effect of smoking dried banana scrapings (“Not only is there no beneficent effect, but one subject began growing a soft, hairy tail and three others noticed their breath attracting ants”); a sample from the Richmond Center for the Study of Palindromes (“Sex at noon taxes”); and frequent reminders that “Baths and kite flying always recommended by Canyon Cinema as few ways to recover from too much business and war.”

Spliced into otherwise earnest bulletins, these endearing oddballs preserve the “sweet, anarchic” spirit that MacDonald ascribes to Canyon’s early days. I would also offer that the most regular figures of fun—being the Blackberry Tart and Kite Divisions—furnish apt metaphors for the necessity of a catalyst. Pies don’t bake themselves, and kites don’t fly on their own. As for the News itself, there’s enough energy percolating in its pages to power a thousand films—many of them still in circulation thanks to Canyon Cinema.


Max Goldberg is a writer and archivist based in Oakland, California.



By Tess Takahashi

I came to Canyon Cinema with the project of researching little-seen experimental work by women made on 16mm between the 1960s and the 1980s. Having long wondered how the history of the avant-garde cinema might shift if a different group of filmmakers had been taken up by critics and scholars as the avant-garde “canon” was beginning to form, I meandered—with expert guidance and support from Canyon’s lovely staff and volunteers—through Canyon’s collection searching for overlooked gems by women, queer filmmakers, and people of color. This short essay surveys the work of six women filmmakers featured in the Canyon Cinema 50 touring programs. While experimental film enthusiasts likely know many of these names, their individual oeuvres are full of surprising works that we’ve all been missing out on.

Sara Kathryn Arledge’s stunning—and diverse—body of films span from the early 1940s to the 1980s. What is a Man? (1958), featured in the Canyon Cinema 50 Touring Program 2, is a tour de force said to have been made after the artist spent some time in a mental asylum. The film is structured as a series of absurdist vignettes between a woman and a car salesman, her psychiatrist, and her lover, in which double entendres produce a farcical critique of gender relations. Sharing an affinity with Owen Land’s On the Marriage Broker’s Joke… (1979), What is a Man? and Arledge’s What Do Two Rights Make? (1983) employ short skits and biting word play to comment on cultural mores. Arledge’s body of work also includes formalist and painterly abstraction, as in Introspection (1941), a beautiful, prismatic film featuring three male dancers, whose solarized forms are layered and manipulated through optical printing (the result gives Maya Deren a run for her money). Arledge also made a number of abstract, jewel-like films based on her translucent painted color slides, many of which are held by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. These include Tender Images (1978) and Interior Garden (1978), films that evoke Brakhage’s later hand-painted works.

Betzy Bromberg’s Ciao Bella, or Fuck Me Dead (1978) is a classic, bad-ass girl motorcycle extravaganza included in Canyon 50 Touring Program 1. It’s also perhaps her most screened film, but Bromberg’s other works at Canyon are a revelation. Soothing the Bruise (1980) is an associative weave of bright colors, beautiful girls, and everyday scenes juxtaposed with an allusive soundtrack (and striking final titles) that evokes the political, cultural, environmental, and gendered implications of ordinary conversation. Marasmus (1981), Bromberg’s collaboration with Laura Ewig is likewise beautifully shot in sumptuous color and layered with masterful optical printing. Described by Janice Crystal Lipzin as “full of seductive glamour,” Marasmus overlays a cis woman with a trans woman in full make-up, scarves, and glittery outfits pictured in a mirrored room, in the desert, and in the mountains. The film’s complex, essayistic amalgam of sound and voice, the poetic and political, is never didactic or heavy-handed. Canyon has a ton of Bromberg’s other, under-screened 16mm titles as well, including Petite Mal (1977), Az Iz (1983), The Body Politic (1988), Divinity Gratis (1996), and A Darkness Swallowed (2005).

Chicago-based artist Jean Sousa’s films are formally rigorous, sensually present, and always inventive in their explorations of different cinematic properties. Swish (1982), in Canyon 50 Touring Program 1, is a silent investigation of the medium’s relationship to motion, offering occasional, swishing glimpses of a young Sousa as she dances with her moving camera, her face close to the camera’s open shutter. Ellen on the Rope (1978) features multiple takes of the eponymous Ellen swinging back and forth across the length of a nearly empty loft apartment. The two artists, filmmaker and performer, work together to produce “a strobing rhythm by crossing the camera’s shutter speed with the rate of the rope traversing its frame,” in the words of B. Ruby Rich. Sousa’s The Circus (1977) is a colourful and elaborate optically printed film that edges its depictions of circus performers closer and closer to the bright abstraction of moving shapes and colors. Also check out Sousa’s Summer Medley (1977), What Am I Doing Here (1978), Spent Moments (1984), and Today is Sunday (1987). Her mix of structural and somatic investigation gives structural film a completely different feel.

Similarly, JoAnn Elam’s Lie Back and Enjoy It (1982), featured in Canyon 50 Touring Program 3 and Digital Program 1, is a knockout that mixes the structural, the critical, and the sensuous. I imagined a more didactic piece, which, as Claudia Gorbman writes, “examines the politics of filmic representation of women under patriarchy.” What I found instead was a fascinating combination of a visually pleasurable image, as the film’s close-up of a woman’s face is optically printed and transformed over the course of the film, juxtaposed against audio of a conversation between a male filmmaker and his intended female subject as she jokingly shows him that his simple desire “to make art” and to “tell the truth” is anything but simple. This is a sharp, funny, aesthetically compelling film that should have been an instant classic. It not only has the power to surprise veterans of the avant-garde film scene but also could be valuable in an intro film course. Elam’s other film in Canyon’s collection, Rape (1975), an explicitly feminist documentary that captures a group of women as they speak frankly about their personal experiences with rape, is very different in tone, and would be a particularly provocative historical document to screen in the #MeToo era. Check out Chicago Filmmakers for Elam’s other titles.

Greta Snider might be the punk inheritor of Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1959). I was most familiar with works like Quarry Movie (1999), her environmentally-minded collaboration with a number of other filmmakers to “document a place – not only its image as lensed, but its weather, its soil, and its toxins,” in Snider’s words. However, I was bowled over by the vigor and exuberance of her earlier work: their black-and-white images can be rough and grainy, but their structure is both formally precise and playfully engaging. Snider’s Portland (1996), which is part of Canyon 50 Touring Program 1, was one such revelation, with its charismatic characters (Snider’s friends), interwoven narrative, smart reflexive points, and youthful joie de vivre. It would be great for teaching an intro film class about narrative construction. Similarly, Hard Core Home Movie (1989) feels like a commentary on the semiotics of authenticity with its carefully constructed, quasi-anthropological assortment of punk kids, middle-aged tourists, and passers-by espousing their thoughts about what it means to be “hard core.” Canyon has a trove of Snider’s films on 16mm, including Futility (1989), Blood Story (1990), Mute (1991), Our Gay Brothers (1993), No Zone (1993), Flight (1996), Urine Man (2000), and The Magic of Radio (2001).

Finally, Cauleen Smith’s Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) (1992) should take its place alongside works like Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Reassemblage (1982) and Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory (1991). While Smith has made many, many films integrating disparate genres, forms, and technologies, Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (By Kelly Gabron) feels like a real find. It explores questions of race, history, gender, autobiography, documentary, and art-making practice through formal experimentation with layered images and a dense mix of voices. Smith takes the viewer through the same material twice, a journey that results in very different readings, before leading into a revelatory final sequence. This film makes me eager to explore Smith’s larger oeuvre.

So, then, to return to my opening question, what kind of avant-garde canon might we have if we looked more broadly across the body of films being made in that period – and deeper into the work of individual filmmakers? Perhaps not unexpectedly, the work of many women filmmakers between the 1950s through the late 1980s raises questions of film’s identity as a medium as it overlaps with questions of personal, political, gendered, and embodied identity. As in the experimental videos concerning identity politics produced in the 1980s and 1990s, some of this work might have been seen as edging into the realm of documentary despite a characteristically “avant-garde” attention to questions of form and medium. This essay only scratches the surface of Canyon Cinema’s rich holdings, but I hope it suggests some of the joys and revelations that digging beyond the usual suspects can hold for programmers, teachers, and curators. We should remember that canons are porous, contingent, and ever-shifting – produced in part by circumstance, geography, friend groups, and other vagaries of history. Established canons may be full of amazing works, but they ought to be questioned, argued over, and shaken up. In addition to the filmmakers noted above, the programs in the Canyon Cinema 50 Tour include great works by a number of other women filmmakers including Stephanie Barber, Abigail Child, Mariah Garnett, Janie Geiser, Barbara Hammer, Karen Holmes, Julie Murray, Gunvor Nelson, Charlotte Pryce, Emily Richardson, Chick Strand, and Naomi Uman that will shift your sense of the history of avant-garde film.


Tess Takahashi is a Toronto-based scholar, writer, and programmer who focuses on experimental moving image arts. She is currently working on two book projects, Impure Film: Medium Specificity and the North American Avant-Garde (1968-2008), which examines artists’ work with historically new media, and On Magnitude, which considers contemporary artists’ work against the backdrop of Big Data and data visualization. Takahashi has been scholar-in-residence at the Film-Makers’ Co-op in New York City (2015), at Canyon Cinema in San Francisco (2016-17), and the Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Center in Toronto (2017-8). She is a member of the experimental media programming collective Ad Hoc and the editorial collective for Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media. Takahashi’s writing has been published there as well as in Cinema Journal, the Millennium Film Journal, Animation, MIRAGE, and Cinema Scope.


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.



By Brett Kashmere


In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

– James Wright, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” (1963)


In America, fall is football season. An evidently irresistible cultural form despite our awakened comprehension of its traumatic aftereffects, the game’s popular appeal depends upon mediation. (This makes sense to me, elementally. Have you ever attended an outdoor football game in Ohio in October?) College football and NFL contests dominate the TV schedule from September to January, spilling further and further across the weekly grid: from Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the 1950s and 60s, to Monday nights (starting in 1970), then Sunday nights (as of 1987), and, since 2006, Thursday nights. Today, game footage is captured with high-speed cameras from every conceivable angle, repeated and dissected in slow motion replays, supplemented by torrents of statistics and a parallel fantasy football industry, in which players become interchangeable with, and reduced to, their data profiles. Mediated football’s affective, sensual pleasures are partly defused and redirected by its high-tech, scientific presentation.

As the media scholar Margaret Morse notes, “Football on television is a world of representation which has abandoned Renaissance space and Newtonian physics – but not the claim to scientificity of sport.”1 This recourse to scientific-investigative observation and statistical fixation is a means by which the erotic spectacle of football, wherein men are permitted to touch each other in a variety of aggressive and affectionate ways, is disavowed by its majority straight male audience. The anthropologist William Arens remarks that, while in uniform, “players can engage in hand holding, hugging and bottom patting that would be disapproved of in any other {straight} context, but which is accepted on the gridiron without a second thought.”2 And as the folklorist Alan Dundes observes in his psychoanalytic interpretation, the sexually suggestive terms of American football – “penetration,” “tight end,” “hitting the hole,” and so on – combined with the game’s structural goal, of getting into the opponent’s end zone more often than the opponent gets into yours, imply “a thinly disguised symbolic form by, and directed towards, males and males only, {that} would seem to constitute ritual homosexuality.”3

Few have lensed this symbolic ritual and pageantry of masculinity as sensuously as the film artist Nathaniel Dorsky. Even more remarkable, Dorsky’s delicate handling of the game and its defining season was made at the tender age of 21. The second film of a career-opening trilogy, A Fall Trip Home (1964), like its sister films Ingreen (1964) and Summerwind (1965), is restrained in its visual concept and skillfully executed. Partially inspired by James Wright’s football poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” Dorsky’s subjective camera interleaves Northeastern foliage with the tangled, swirling, and collapsing bodies of adolescent footballers as well as close-ups of rapt onlookers. The flow of images is modulated by montage editing, slow motion photography, and floating superimpositions. A Fall Trip Home’s fluid construction was achieved through intuition and simple means, using a synchronizer and A/B rolls: “At that time, I can’t tell you how much one was winging it,” Dorsky explains. “You’d imagine this over that, then this over that. You didn’t really see it, until you got it back from the lab.”4

The film begins with an extreme long shot of a train, echoing the title, with fog rising from the distant tree line. A progression of blue-green forested hills and flora follows, signaling early fall. Dorsky’s landscape impressions meld with snippets of kids playing pickup football in a grassy yard, a high school stadium, pieces of mundane game action, a marching band, pompoms, and a cheering audience in dissolving cascades. Throughout the film’s 11-minute running time, images surface, assemble momentarily, then vanish and reemerge. Outside of its initial framing, the film adheres to a nonlinear logic; documentation is suffused with qualities of remembrance and fantasy. A mixing of film stocks adds to this perception of disjunctive timeframes. Most of A Fall Trip Home is shot on Kodachrome II, “the greatest stock they ever made,”5 but a passage in the middle of film, of imagery we saw earlier in full color, appears in black-and-white. A grainier, high-speed color stock is used for the final nighttime sequence, accentuating the juxtaposition of exterior and interior scenes visually and temporally.

Dorsky describes the film as “less a psychodrama {though it is that} and more a sad sweet song of youth and death, of boyhood and manhood and our tender earth.”6 Dissolves between visuals of players and leaves emphasizes the themes of transformation and maturation. Tenderness is the film’s foremost emotional register7 until the conclusion, when A Fall Trip Home takes a sharp turn towards psychodrama. This shift in tone, from affection to anxiety, follows a move into the filmmaker’s family home. We see his mother at the kitchen window backlit by artificial light. It’s getting dark out, and Dorsky is seemingly being called inside. With this move, from public/social/day into private/familial/night, we are cut off from the reverie of male teenaged bodies inscribed in slow motion and layered assemblage. That spell has been broken by the domestic setting. Here we see black-and-white images of planes dropping bombs, connecting football to war, re-photographed off a television monitor. A sense of despair, claustrophobia, and unease attends this final passage. Returning home also entails a reminder of what one needed to leave in the first place.

Roughly speaking, A Fall Trip Home is what its title asserts: a return to the filmmaker’s hometown of Millburn, New Jersey, shot intermittently over the course of a season with his Bolex. At the time, Dorsky was living in Manhattan, a 35-minute train ride away, and attending film courses at New York University. What might be of visual interest to a young artist honing his craft, and, as Scott MacDonald writes, “coming to grips with the combined excitement and terror of gay desire,”8 upon returning to the autumnal suburban landscape of his childhood? Given the time, place, and circumstances of its production, it’s not surprising that A Fall Trip Home would focus upon the poetic and aesthetic aspects of football within the context of a seasonal rite, staged here as going home (crucially as a subject in flux). More accurately, it seems fitting that Dorsky would cast his eye on the male homosocial sphere of football, with its regiment of intimate male contact, as subject matter.

As Dorsky explains, “Like a lot of kids, I loved playing touch football after school. I was crazy about it. I mean, in the fall. You only played football in the fall, and you only played baseball in the spring. I loved playing touch football, but I was never on the level that I would want to play varsity high school football. In fact, I was in the marching band. {Laughs.} I was in the orchestra, and then the orchestra was the marching band during football season. So I did go to all of the football games, as a band member.”9

Dorsky’s recollections of football are framed within the pleasures of performance, looking, and accompaniment (as band member), at a remove from the competitive and violent physicality of organized tackle football. A Fall Trip Home mobilizes these personal threads into a fascinating counter-narrative of masculinity and erotic longing through primarily visual means – though unlike the majority of Dorsky’s films, A Fall Trip Home does have a soundtrack. Japanese flute music, discovered by the filmmaker in a record store in San Francisco’s Japantown, contributes to the film’s pensive mood and complements the slow-motion imagery. In eschewing the bombastic music most commonly associated with high school and college football – that of the percussive, upbeat marching band – for a solo performance of elegiac, non-Western music, Dorsky heightens his idiosyncratic presentation of this American game.

Image: Nathaniel Dorsky, A Fall Trip Home


A Fall Trip Home is also notable in the way that it anticipates formal advancements in sports media language. Dorsky’s film was shot at the same time that NFL Films was being conceived as a publicity instrument of the National Football League – the ultimate marriage of sports, advertising, and corporate media. Both Dorsky, working with film individually and noncommercially as an artist, and NFL Films, an institutional, large-scale documenting apparatus, used slow motion cinematography and color 16mm film to evoke distinctive visions of football: compassionate in Dorsky’s case, while mythic for NFL Films. The grainy texture of 16mm and the vibrant, high-contrast range of Kodachrome reversal convey a sense of romanticism and nostalgia. Unlike video, which imbues immediacy and “presentness,” film images carry an intrinsic archival effect, a sense of the past. And unlike the slow motion of the instant replay, an electronic process associated with analysis, Dorsky’s use of the technique affirms the theme of, in his words, “a melancholy struggle. I realized that if you slowed down the football players it would turn more into… not a bromance {laughs}, to use a modern word, but slightly eroticized.”10 John Fiske similarly observes that the use of slow motion in mediating sports functions “to eroticize power, to extend the moment of climax.”11

Dorsky’s film speaks to one of the foremost paradoxes of football. Forged in the culture of the late 19th century Ivy League, football has long been an emblem of white supremacy and heterosexual power, organized as a colonizing conquest of an opponent’s territory. At the same time, football is a homosocial enclave that authorizes the objectification of male bodies for a primarily male gaze: a fraternal exchange which belies the game’s homophobic culture and its racist practices. As scholar Thomas Oates describes, “From its earliest days, football has been a complex and conflicted cultural text, in which seemingly straightforward assertions of the power of white men consistently involve an undercurrent of uncertainty and anxiety.”12 In A Fall Trip Home this undercurrent is expressed by a desirous yet detached subjectivity. Male bodies are captured on film, slowed down, studied, but also obscured under layers of superimposition. The film’s specular gaze is complicated by aesthetic rather than scientific mediation. Here, a game in which masculinity is defined and affirmed unfolds in front of the camera, but its homoerotic traces are “masked by the (supposedly) hypermasculine setting of football.”13 The erotic undertones of A Fall Trip Home are circumscribed within the seasonal frame. “I always found … like the composer Mahler, there’s something erotic about autumn, because it’s a season of death, of dying,” Dorsky notes. “That kind of thing sometimes intensifies a kind of erotic compensation, of life itself, as opposed to death.”14

A Fall Trip Home’s sensuality circumvents the accepted mythology of American football and in doing so complicates the dominant image of masculinity as embodied and expressed in popular media coverage of the sport. By shifting focus away from heroism, winning, and depictions of physical strength, A Fall Trip Home offers a gentle queering of football’s construction of manliness. At the same time, it highlights – and savors – the homosocial conditions that football creates.

Homosociality provides an important context for understanding what goes on when men watch other men perform in the sporting arena. In Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explains that “‘Homosocial’ is a word occasionally used in history and the social sciences {to describe} social bonds between persons of the same sex; it is a neologism, obviously formed by analogy with ‘homosexual,’ and just as obviously meant to be distinguished from ‘homosexual.’ In fact, it is applied to such activities as ‘male bonding,’ which may, as in our society, be characterized by intense homophobia, fear and hatred of homosexuality.” Football’s sexually violent hazing rituals are an example of the fear (heterosexual panic) produced by homosociality. “To draw the ‘homosocial’ back into the orbit of ‘desire,’” Sedgwick continues, “of the potentially erotic, then, is to hypothesize the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual – a continuum whose visibility, for men, in our society, is radically disrupted.”15

Football, through its enforcement of homosocial but often homophobic behavior, adherence to male authority, and suppression of individual speech, teaches patriarchal thinking and practice. The consequences are considerable. As bell hooks notes, “To indoctrinate boys into the rules of patriarchy, we force them to feel pain and to deny their feelings.”16 Football’s culture of violence stems in part from this condition of denial. The tenderness and poeticism that underpins Dorsky’s representation draw, as Sedgwick puts it, the homosocial into the orbit of desire and the potentially erotic. If even for a handful of moments, the viewers of A Fall Trip Home are accorded “the ambiguity of sexual orientation in the liminal state of love for and identification with the object of desire.”17


Brett Kashmere is a media artist, historian, curator, and doctoral student in Film & Digital Media at University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also the founding editor of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media. His writing on experimental cinema, moving image art, sports media, and alternative film exhibition has appeared in Millennium Film Journal, MIRAJ, The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, PUBLIC, Senses of Cinema, Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable, The Films of Jack Chambers, and Coming Down the Mountain: Rethinking the 1972 Summit Series.



By Elizabeth Block

Describing the work of Lynn Marie Kirby is like trying to grasp a slithery snake sliding around to catch its newest art prey, always exploring and never easy to pin down. Lynn is one of the most rigorous and devoted artists I know. She was my advisor through two MFA degrees at the California College of the Arts and brought me into the school’s Fine Arts department to study film. I was working on my writing MFA, but she saw that I could not contain my filmmaker self and was a fierce ally of my creative process. Although at that point she had already moved into the interstices of video and installation, she recognized my urgent need to get my hands dirty with 16mm film and taught me without demanding that I follow her example as an installation artist (rare among graduate professors to encourage a student on a different trajectory).

Although Lynn is a master with technology who could work in any Hollywood studio or in Silicon Valley, she chooses a distinctly San Franciscan auteur film style. She breaks the boundaries of her tools, experimenting with writing, technology, sound, and the innards of computer machinations with utmost skill and ingenuity.

I never thought of her as a woman filmmaker, but her Canyon films deal with decidedly feminist issues. Her film Sincerely (1980) engages the unfortunately still timely issue of government limitations on abortion, while Sharon and the Birds on the Way to the Wedding (1987) questions the conventions of marriage—even using a parrot to mock these protocols. She places women in front of the camera, (wryly?) questioning female obligations and roles. She does not replicate a male gaze; her protagonists are not decorations to men’s pleasures (maybe even the reverse order). Just being a woman filmmaker with complete skill and direction of the camera marked Lynn as a radical, but she has never made this an issue. She simply loves doing her work.

She came out of the San Francisco Art Institute during an exciting period in its Film Department, studying with the Swedish filmmaker, Gunvor Nelson, and graduating with a group of tight-knit Canyon filmmakers (Sandra Davis, Stephanie Beroes, Jeffrey Skoller, Toney Merritt, Marian Wallace) who helped each other produce work at lightning speed. (This was when San Francisco was affordable, and film was cheap[er]). They eschewed conventional narrative, looking for ways to use film that highlighted the material aspects of the celluloid and drew attention to camera processes. They processed their own films, understanding the chemistry while most filmmakers sent off their negatives to the lab. They performed their own complex optical printing. They were intimate with projectors. They were engineers as much as they were artists. They wanted to use film to make people see and think differently—to change perception and consciousness.

Perhaps Chantal Akerman is one of Lynn’s greatest influences, Michael Snow perhaps another, Yvonne Rainer another. Akerman and Snow with imagery requiring enduring patience, suspense without a narrative resolution. Like looking at a detailed painting. That open space, in itself, is essential to looking, for it invites a subtle awareness, a meditation on image-making. Andrei Tarkovsky might also influence her work, his sculptural landscapes like Kirby’s compulsion for texture, sculpture, and interest in place.

Her close collaborations tend to land with other feminist artists and friends, such as Etel Adnan and Trinh T. Minh Ha. One unusual thread through Lynn’s work is that no matter the media in which she works, she constantly pursues the space of the glitch or the mistake, the mistranslation, to expose the complexity of the form and of the content.

Lynn is a master with sound. She deliberately undermines conventional audio in her early films, overlaying sound like double or multiple exposures. Starting and stopping sound off predictable beats, playing with it, like breaking apart standards of western musical theory.

These strategies compliment her formal image making. For example, Kirby deliberately loads a roll of film into a camera incorrectly, to create a shaking effect in Across the Street (1982). To accomplish this takes specific skill, patience, and a strong understanding of cinematography and how a Bolex camera works. Importantly, the shaky camera matches the content of the film, the story of a woman across the street jumping out of a window. (Even when Lynn tells what on the surface seem to be straightforward or essayistic tales, there is always something complex underneath.)

Upon revisiting Lynn’s Canyon oeuvre, one could wonder why she didn’t expand into narrative filmmaking or essay writing, particularly because Lynn’s Canyon films are beautiful experimental visual essay moments. They demonstrate that her knowledge of world cinema, film theory, cinematography, intellectual history, sound, and literature is encyclopedic.

Yet, Lynn, whose love of cinema and how it works is as promiscuous as mine, took a turn towards the space between film and the art world, or indeed her own site-based art. Perhaps also back to her conceptual-sculptural roots. While I made untrained offbeat films and a standard 30-minute documentary video before I met Lynn, she was the first person who formally taught me and gave me permission to dive into film, and that filmmaking resulted in my own entrance to the Canyon Cinema collection. While I have since followed my theater and literature background toward (and still becoming) narrative film, she has moved into a prestigious international museum world. I still think of her as a mentor. Our conversations about any cinematic form (art and mainstream, as well as new trends in technology) continue.

Recently, we met at her San Francisco apartment to discuss this essay. I talked about my new narrative direction. The conversation turned to streaming movie sites. I mentioned MUBI. She asked if I had seen David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot on Showtime. I paused. Yes. She said she loved his use of sound, how he worked with time, the slowness of the narrative, and that this type of work could now be on TV. And I thought, that made sense—Lynch did go to art school. The use of a hearing aid to subvert traditional broadcast audio standards is somewhat novel in narrative film. This reminded me of Lynn’s writing about room tone, that inaudible yet provocative space between sounds.

Yet, Lynn would never take any usual turn. Lynn knows the conventions of art and cinema. She’d rather ask the question “why”? I dare you, try pinning Lynn down. She will have quickly made a splice and edited a new scene.


Elizabeth Block is an award-winning novelist, a Canyon Cinema filmmaker, a produced playwright/director/actor, a poet, and a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail. Her novel, A Gesture Through Time was solicited for feature film adaptation by VOX3. She has presented her writing and film internationally, most recently at Cineinfinito, in Santander, Spain. She is a recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, a Djerassi Foundation Fellowship, and other awards. She was recently a visiting writer at The New School, NYC. Elizabeth has written several short and feature narrative screenplays. She is currently making a short narrative film, What Kind of Woman, under fiscal sponsorship of Film Independent, Los Angeles. The film is being produced by Debbie Brubaker, Daniel McGilvray, and Roselyne Chroman Swig.



By Gregory Zinman

You don’t need a camera to make a moving image.

You can paint, scratch, and chemically alter celluloid, as Storm de Hirsch did to make portions of her psychoactive paean to female power in Peyote Queen (1965). You can bury your film in irradiated soil overnight outside the site of a horrific nuclear disaster, as Tomanari Nishikawa did to create sound of a million insects, light of a thousand stars (2014). You can affix Zip-a-Tone directly to the filmstrip to create the image and soundtrack, as Barry Spinello did for his Six Loop Paintings (1970). You can use saliva and fingernails to scrape calligraphic loops into emulsion, as Stan Brakhage used to create his final filmic utterance, Chinese Series (2003). Or you can develop your own replacement for celluloid altogether, as Donna Cameron did in films like World Trade Alphabet (2001) in order to draw out the relationships between literature, painting, and cinema.

Rather than represent the world by photographic means, these and other kindred moving-image artists seek to create new ways of seeing, staging a variety of interventions into the material makeup of celluloid. Seeking media not normally found in a filmmaker or artist’s studio, they mine their own bodies and their backyards for things to make into moving images. My forthcoming book, Making Images Move: Handmade Cinema and the Other Arts (University of California Press, 2019), provides a conceptual and historical framework for understanding these handmade moving-image works, as well as the technologies and tools used in their making. Making Images Move reveals how this seemingly anomalous subset of experimental films, devices, and practices in fact illuminates cinema’s close relation to the other arts, and reorients our understanding of the moving image.

While there are numerous cameraless works available from Canyon Cinema, including those mentioned above, they are rarely considered as a conceptual whole. A brief survey of these films indicates both the panoply of methods and the wide-ranging effects associated with this hands-on approach to cinema. That much of the resulting imagery is abstract in nature offers a welcome invitation to consider the role of abstraction in the moving image more generally. It also points to the ways in which moving image abstraction can escape formalism, offering visual and aural reassertions of documentary practice, the environment, and feminism, among other concerns.

Cameraless cinema challenges our ideas about how films are made and how they make meaning. Even with the collection plethora of indexical indicators afforded by digital photography, such as geo-tracking and time stamping, a significant appeal of the cameraless film lies in its ability to provide a more immediately recognizable link between artist and world. The embedded materiality associated with this kind of handmade cinema—its ability to capture flecks of paint, seawater, acid, or sand—hews closely to the original conception of the index, as formulated by semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce. According to Peirce, a sign’s relationship to its referent is characterized as “being really and in its individual existence connected with the individual object.” Cameraless film contests the binary between abstraction and representation, arguably usurping traditional photography’s capacity to render the world. In this way, cameraless film can be understood as an indexical carrier par excellence—a form of documentary practice wherein the traces of an artist’s physicality are imprinted on the celluloid, thereby providing a guarantee of bodily presence in both space and time: someone has laid their hands on this material.1 For example, the hand-painted words, circles, lines, and grids populating Spinello’s ebullient Sonata for Pen, Brush & Ruler (1968) aren’t just geometric forms or linguistic signifiers, but rather, according to the artist, a form of self-portraiture: “It is my brain; for ten minutes I expect that the viewer’s brain functions as my brain.”2

Cameraless films can also harken back to earlier strategies for making images. Anna Geyer’s ARAPADAPTOR (I Feel So) (2003) brings together found footage and the artist’s photograms of “the caterpillars, cicadas and seeds of the herbal packages,” which she then painted over, tinted, and bleached. Her reworked images of the natural world result in apparitions whose hues evoke those found in botanist Anna Atkins’ British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, cameraless works which comprised the first published collection of photographic images in 1843.

The cameraless films at Canyon can help start conversations between generations of the avant-garde, as well as about how we imagine the place of humanity in the present world. The gathering hailstorm of monochromatic stipples in Ben Russell’s Black and White Trypps Number One (2005) sends viewers hurtling through an imaginary cosmos, recalling Brakhage’s similarly themed—and similarly hallucinatory—Stellar (1993). That film, which the artist dubbed a “visual envisioning of outer space,” makes extensive use of black leader to create striking contrasts in figure-ground relations, punctuating prolonged passages of darkness with flaming thickets of color.

Other cameraless films engage the elements even more directly. Take David Gatten’s six-film series What the Water Said (nos. 1–3, 1997–98; nos. 4–6, 2006), in which he placed unexposed film into a crab trap in the Atlantic Ocean off the South Carolina coast, letting the film rest in the murky depths as saltwater, sand, rocks, crabs, and fish had at the celluloid. Such methods suggest a Cageian relationship between enunciator and artist, one that promises an unfamiliar accounting. Gatten’s labile films burst with color and static. The stuff of the sea appears within the optical sound area as well as the image track, and so can be said to generate the music that is heard when performed by the projector. These are works that understand themselves as having entered into a series of relations, and, in turn, can be understood as a record of communication between the ocean, its organic and inorganic components, and humanity. When Gatten retrieved the unspooled films from their traps, he rinsed but did not develop the filmstrips. He let the work of the sea and its creatures on the film’s emulsion stand on its own—a series of reticulations like the veins of a leaf, entire pieces of celluloid torn from the filmstrip, and altered passages in tan, rose, and violet. When projected, the short films (the longest has a runtime of just over three minutes) are dizzying in their speed, and their throbbing displays of color and light seem simultaneously playful and mysterious.

Gatten’s films were made in a spot he has returned to many times throughout his life. Louise Bourque similarly imbues her 35mm Jours en fleurs (2003) with both biographical and biological meanings. Here, Bourque offers an example of the relationship between human reproduction and the reproduction (and destruction) of cinema. Bourque’s film takes its title from a French-Canadian expression for menstruation that she recalled from her youth. Bourque subjected images of sprouting trees to “incubation” in her own menses, darkening the image, and allowing the bloody agent to encroach upon and transform the photochemical emulsion, abstracting the original representation of flowering nature through an encounter with the real substance of the human reproductive cycle. Bourque’s film describes a media ecology in which her chosen materials create a play between the natural processes of fertilization, birth, waste, efflorescence and deterioration. Jours en fleurs, like Spinello’s Sonata for Pen, Brush & Ruler, stands as a kind of self-portrait. But its dual subject of trees and menstruation also, like Gatten’s films, opens its purview to consider humanity’s place in the larger natural world. In addition, by applying a distinctly female element of the human body to the film’s emulsion, Bourque offers a feminist counterexample—a true “woman’s film”—to the all-too familiar sexual objectification of the female anatomy found in commercial cinema.

A critique of that very objectification anchors Removed (1999), for which Naomi Uman took a dubbed European 1970s porn film and proceeded to erase the figure of the woman, frame by frame, using nail-polish remover and bleach. The writhing white figure that results from this erasure interacts, abstractly, with a series of leering men, providing a satirical take on the trope of the male gaze and the suppression of the female voice. Here, abstraction is put into service of an ironic feminist critique—a disfigurement to the point of erasure that denies heteronormative masculine visual pleasure in order to rethink the representation of women in film.

If Uman demonstrates a frustration with the male gaze, Jennifer Reeves’s The Girl’s Nervy (1995) invites a darker consideration of the gendered mind and body under duress. Reeves counts both Brakhage, who hand-painted dozens of films from the 1990s up until his death, and Carolee Schneemann, whose re-photographed and hand-painted Fuses (1964-1967) posits feminist erotics as personal documentary and as tacit anti-war protest, as critical influences, and their respective interests in probing mind, body, and identity through abstraction course through Reeves’s work. Reeves was institutionalized during her junior year of high school, and her explorations of mental interiority and medical imagery consequently carry a strong autobiographical current. The title of The Girl’s Nervy sounds like a glib diagnosis, while simultaneously playing upon historical and literary conventions regarding the ways in which women were thought to be prone to nervous illnesses. Visually, the film represents a case study in horror vacui. Reeves suffuses frames of densely painted clear leader and photographed images over a warped big-band soundtrack of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, which runs backwards at the film’s outset. As suggested by the work’s title, the color splatters appear like the synapses or nerve endings of a sensory skeleton. The music from a bygone age speaks to nostalgia and invites us to dance, while its reversal tells about the passage of time and the way memories can be warped. This theme is also apparent in the film’s images, which resemble brain dendrites rushing by like traces of memory that continuously slip away, a condition shared by the viewer who experiences Reeves’s film as a series of impressions, rather than precisely rendered moments. The resulting effect is a depiction of a troubled mind in motion.

Cameraless abstraction can also be understood as a reaction to and protest against the kind of photographic films that reach the broadest audiences. Jon Behrens, who has made a number of hand-painted films, takes up media preservation and re-presentation in his Recycled Realizations (2017), which repurposes 35mm trailers from Hollywood productions of the 1990s into an assemblage upon which the filmmaker could paint, scratch, and optically print layers of coruscating color, reversing the flow of the cultural industry from exploitation of the avant-garde to a reclamation that asserts its own hypnotic spectacle. Seen on a big screen, it’s both more mysterious and more awe-inspiring than any CGI explosion. (CGI being a rather more expensive form of cameraless imagery.)

Differently made, works like those described above not only confirm the horizon of aesthetic possibility offered by cameraless films; they also indicate how the techniques used in their construction, which run counter to conventional photographic filmmaking methods, can be vehicles for expressing counter ideologies.


Gregory Zinman is an Assistant Professor of film and media in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of Making Images Move: Handmade Cinema and the Other Arts (2020, University of California Press), and a co-editor, with John Hanhardt and Edith Decker-Phillips, of We Are In Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik (2019, the MIT Press).



By Holly Willis

This is what I study: an image in Julie Murray’s short film Orchard (2004), near the beginning: from inside a car, the black street tapering toward the horizon, the sky awash above, the trees a series of blurred black and grey brush strokes against sepia clouds, and there is a softness, a sense of the past – the image resembles nothing so much as early photographic imaging on paper – but also an auguring of the future, all of it collapsed into a single wisp of a moment. Soon, the windshield wipers will slap, the camera will turn, the raindrops will loom into focus obscuring the world beyond, and then we will lurch forward with the roving camera, ineluctable, looking, looking, looking.

care, attention, skill, thought

Orchard is a film about the world and our entanglement with it, about the orchard as a matrix of life and death and all that is in-between, about shape and form, story and history, the caress and ache both felt in a profound connection to the living world around us. As much as we long for pure access to these trees, however, Orchard shows us time and again that we come to that world through a set of preexisting concerns. The orchard is already an ordering of sorts, and throughout the film, Murray will remind us of this penchant for arrangement, framing one image through another with care, attention, skill and thought – indeed, hers is a form of study. The windshield wipers are but one in a series of things that will block or condition what we are able to see. The camera peers through one gap to see something beyond. The light above is glimpsed, but only through a break between rocks. The water, rippling in the breeze and purple in the dim light of the forest, reflects so many leaves that it is almost impossible to discern a surface. Experiencing this film, we learn how thoroughly our concept of the natural world is shaped not simply by cultural knowledge, but through a more complex relationality.

to push, to stick, to knock, to beat

Orchard is also about the body – of the filmmaker and of the viewer, a body signaled through small gestures and received through felt connections. We feel moved in an embodied way because the camera feels like it is held by a human body, the hands on the camera body, the eyepiece close to the eye, the repeated pans to the right attached to the curve of a body turning. We push forward through the trees, leaning. We look up toward the light, arching. We move in close, smelling the green of the plants. There is only one human figure visible in the film, briefly glimpsed as a dark shape behind trees. But the body is felt throughout, tying us to the world, pushing forward, sticking out, knocking against. Rather than self and other, we become part of the seeing and the seen, engaged in a form of study that refuses the dichotomy between the world and its viewer.

to strive toward, devote oneself to, cultivate

Indeed, Orchard presents a framework for a particular filmmaking practice that attends to sense rather than knowledge, to a form of attention that attunes with rather than analyzes. It strives toward; it is devotional; it cultivates a form of knowing in sensing. It asks, can we “know” through sensory perception? Can we encounter the world through touch, shape, contour, by the way a white branch in the dark feels like the bone of my leg? Can film provide a modality for study?

state of amazement or wonder

These questions are taken up by a bevy of experimental filmmakers in the Canyon Cinema family who share a similar fascination with the world as sensorium, and by extension, with filmmaking as a practice of study. From early Latin, study can mean a state of amazement. Of wonder. These films are such studies.

regard attentively

In A Study in Natural Magic (2013), filmmaker Charlotte Pryce’s exquisite hand-processed film presents light, color, and the shapes and contours of flowers, stems, and leaves. Bookended by two twisting half-rings of light, the film pulses in the intimate rhythm of the heartbeat and the breath, opening and closing, spinning in circles and then slowly revealing the lush colors of red, yellow and orange, and the hills and valleys of undulating flower petals and stamen. It is as if we inhale to see, and exhale into darkness. The breath reveals, then dissipates. In and out, an attention to the lungs and the heart. Another section of the film tilts upward along the stalks of plant stems, and I nod my head upward. Yet another pulses to reveal a dandelion’s burst of spikes and seeds. I lean back. The film embodies study, studies the body.

to be diligent

What can we make of this pulsing, rhythmic beat of movement? It invites the body, joins the body, begins to breathe the body. And again, the assumed rift between the viewer and the viewed gives way, and “to study” comes to designate not the scientist analyzing a world apart, but the intermingling of beings in a relational field. To view, to study, is to belong, to enmesh.

read a book or writings intently or meditatively

In her short film Terrace 49 (2004) Janie Geiser studies – intently – a collection of animated cartoons captured from television onto film, the logic of one mixed up in the logic of the other. Her frame is consistently divided, arrayed often in thirds, or striped with interlaced lines, a meshing of one set of imagery with another. The drawings are flat, diagrammatic. There is graph paper, pulleys, a telephone receiver off its hook, tentative footsteps, and, ultimately, a catastrophe. The clarity promised by the graphic form, its logic of order, is undermined. Rarely is an image presented for simple scrutiny; ways of looking are compromised, reframed, obscured, bracketed. As often in Geiser’s work, the figure of a woman seems threatened or compromised; there is menace, intimidation, with a truck and a rope wearing thin. Geiser reads these images intently; she meditates on them; re-frames them and places them in curious adjacencies; finds their rhythms and syncopation. And again, here too, there is a kind of pulsation, the images racing frantically before cutting to black.

pressing forward, thrusting toward

In Arbor (2012), Geiser’s material is a set of photographs discovered in a thrift store showing people lounging outside as if after a picnic. Geiser again explores and plays with the images, adding layers, cutting things out, placing shadows and shapes and generally engaging in a form of study through a working over of the images. It is not for lack of respect. It is not for play. The study here presses forward to contemplate memory. While “study” might connote an academic distance, for Geiser the act requires active manipulation, close attention, a profound shaping and handling, a reflection.

reflect, muse

In Saving the Proof (1979), Karen Holmes takes walking as her mode. She studies the gait of the woman walker, the texture of the landscape, the rhythms of the body with arms swinging and head tipping. She queries the relationship between figure and ground, the one producing the other. Her study recalls the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge in the later half of the 1800s (his iconic grids illustrating the locomotion of animals and people set the stage for cinema). For Saving the Proof, however, the artificial grid has been replaced by a series of prosaic backdrops characterized almost accidentally by their graphic capacities – a linked fence, lined steps on a cement stairway, orderly bricks stacked to make a wall, large boards crafting a gate, reflections in a grid of windows. We see the woman and her shadow as the camera tracks with her, moving steadily across backdrop after backdrop. The figure begins to double, and then disappear, and then reappear in matted imagery. There is a proliferation of figures and shadows, a blurring of the real and the conjured, of body and landscape, all of it set to the steady cadence of the woman’s gait. At a certain point, an oval shape connoting a mirror appears. But what is reflection and what is real in this layering of references? What does it mean to forego the subject of the image in favor of an assemblage of movement, of the co-constitution body and world? Is this a form of worlding? Holmes gives us an ecology of texture and sensation, a landscape and a body in motion, a motion study.

think, ponder

What does it mean, then, to study? In her book The Minor Gesture (2016), Erin Manning describes a mode of study that builds upon Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s use of the term. She writes, “Study is an act that delights in the activation of the as-yet-unthought” (12). She continues, “What emerges from study will never be an answer. What emerges will be patient experimentation. What emerges will be another mode of encounter, another problem, another opening onto the political as site as yet undefined” (13). The films gathered here are studies in the sense that they never asked a question that expected an answer. They never sought fixity or finality. They prompt an encounter, they stage another problem, they experiment. At their best, they delight in the as-yet-unthought, made possible through a practice of thinking, pondering, poking and pressing. In wonder and regard. In amazement.

another mode of encounter

This is what I study: the woman from Saving the Proof, clad in black, almost only a figure, walking through a field of dry yellow grass, the two co-defining each other, no road in sight, no path, no grid, no measure for a body. She is walking in a wide-open space. She is walking away.


Holly Willis is a Research Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, as well the editor of The New Ecology of Things, a collection of essays about ubiquitous computing. She is also the co-founder of Filmmaker Magazine dedicated to independent film and she writes frequently for diverse publications about experimental film, video and new media.


By Holly Willis

How long was I angry? Definitely all the way through the ’80s. There were a dozen good reasons why, and at least as many stabs at getting around that anger: drinking, prowling through the night, writing, or trying to write, and generally making a mess of things. It took a spate of films and videos by women to loosen things up, to make me even begin to feel something like whole again. Films by Su Friedrich and Barbara Hammer, videos by Joan Jonas, Lynn Hershman, and, a little later, Sadie Benning. And it was not simply stories by women for women. It was the way they were made, the scratching, scraping, scarring. The wrenching, the cutting and re-cutting, the stealing, pirating, pillaging.

It was the violence enacted on the medium itself that I loved.

Rather than fetishizing the polish of Hollywood or emulating the high sheen of video art’s mostly male canon, these works literally trash the medium they were composed within, scratching emulsion, distorting the image, wrecking the sound. Not interested in the intellectual juxtapositions of so much of the collage and montage of a broader avant-garde heritage, this work is adamantly political, fashioning scruffy, defiantly bedraggled imagery into biting commentary in and through a literal destruction and mangling of the moving image. Scratch, rip, destroy!

Take Naomi Uman’s short film Removed (1999). The filmmaker appropriated several sections of a 1970s porn film with a patently ridiculous plot: two couples fool around in two hotel rooms, which are connected by a two-way mirror. In room one, the man and woman argue, undress and have sex. In room two, the man narrates the action happening next door for his partner while pawing at her body. She twists and turns and, through gasps, asks for more details. “She’s studying her body,” her partner drolly reports, and indeed she is. And so are a bunch of us. Or we are trying to.

You see, Uman applied acetone to the emulsion, working frame by frame to etch out the writhing bodies of every woman in the film. All that remains are moaning white splotches. On occasion, there’s the flash of a nipple or an expression on a face where the bleach or nail polish missed their mark, but rather than titillating, the revelation underscores the flatness of the original, its utter banality. In contrast, the wiggly amorphous shapes shiver and shimmy defiantly, and we regard with gleeful satisfaction the damage done.

In Removed, we also contemplate Uman’s physical labor. It is impossible not to imagine her hands painstakingly doing their work, tangibly changing the texture and chemical composition of the image. Frame by frame, erasing, dissolving away the body. In her hands, the bleach becomes an unlikely salve for an enduring anger.

In a similar vein, JoAnn Elam inflicts her own kind of damage upon a piece of footage, making it vibrate with an uncomfortable flicker. Her film Lie Back and Enjoy It (1982) pairs a conversation on the soundtrack between a man and a woman discussing gender and power with black-and-white images of a woman’s face, shot from just slightly above. She looks sexy. There’s something going on, but you’re not quite sure what. In the verbal exchange, the woman argues, “You are trying to establish a power relationship here by filming and taping me,” and meanwhile, we watch the other woman onscreen, very much an object within a power dynamic. She performs a sense of pleasure, smiling coyly. In the audio conversation, the man objects to his partner’s accusation, explaining that he is merely trying to get to the truth. “I have a camera and you don’t,” he says matter-of-factly, and it is as if this simple truth is enough to stop the conversation.

It does not stop the conversation, however. Elam lets the arguing pair bounce back and forth as they try to parse how power is embedded in the image while we see evidence of that power through the way the woman onscreen is framed. Elam messes with the image, using a strobing effect, inserting intriguing intertitles and showing sprocket holes. There is no way to forget that we are watching a film as it becomes nearly uncomfortable to focus on the woman’s face through the flashing. And yet the power of the imagery is tremendous, and the pleasure in seeing her is unmistakable. Like Removed, this is a brilliant project that makes its point through a violent dismantling and disruption.

Rather than marring the emulsion or stuttering her images, Betzy Bromberg’s tactic in her 1978 film Ciao Bella is to fold things together, blending the act of filmmaking and the body such that the film becomes a means for knowing who you are in the work that you create. The film is set in the streets and interior spaces of 1970s New York, and Bromberg juxtaposes snippets of childish energy and the provocation of nearly naked women. She deftly contrasts vibrant exuberance with a sense of devastating loss, and the effect is at once brazenly personal and deeply political. One of the final shots of Ciao Bella is of a jubilant topless dancer caught in a reddish flare and sprocket holes; the picture merges the woman’s vivacious energy with film as a medium, and this is a perfect emblem for Bromberg’s work, which so often attends to the specific beauty and potential of film.

If folding names Bromberg’s tactic, for Abigail Child it’s collision that perhaps best describes her approach in the film Mercy (1989). While reminiscent of Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958) in the sweep of found footage images that bang and clash, Child’s film goes straight for the body. Kneading hands, pulsing biceps, bare breasts, coiffed hair: you can feel these bodies. At the same time, the bodies are forced into highly coded cultural practices – wrestling, taking pictures, waterskiing, marching in parades – or they try to find a way to be at home in curiously regimented spaces, such as the assembly line and amusement park. The bodies reckon with regimes of authority, even if these are conspicuously ridiculous enactments of that authority.

With her 1992 film Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron), filmmaker Cauleen Smith similarly skewers authority with an unorthodox autobiographical collage driven by an almost incantatory voice describing life events that cannot possibly pertain to a single person. In this way, the film cheerfully disrupts the unified self of Western philosophy, replacing the “I” with a chorus of voices and a collage of cut-out imagery and type-written texts. Together, these fragments of many lives weave a biography in flux across time and, perhaps most significantly, in relation to those who have come before the narrator, refusing clarity and coherence in favor of layering, doubling and mutability. It’s a struggle to keep up with the panoply of voices here, to make sense, to suss out the truth in the midst of the contradictions, and that’s the point: this is the celebratory and iconoclastic chronicle of a lying spirit.

Lying may or may not be an element in Greta Snider’s black-and-white short film Portland (1996), which tells the story of a group of friends who travel to Portland, Oregon, and endure a series of misadventures. It rains. They’re hungry. Their stuff gets locked up. One of them gets arrested and put on a work crew. Worst of all, a trip dedicated to drinking and partying includes no drinking or partying. The film is funny and raucous, with a kick-ass soundtrack. But what makes it for me is what I love about Snider’s work in general: an unlikely lyricism seeps through here and there. The camera swings out over the railway tracks, for example, and the lines slip into pure form for a moment. Or a door opens, blasting light and blowing the image into abstraction, a dazzle of glistening grey shapes. Or even just the narrow passage between two train cars, when the vertical and horizontal lines and the dark planes of each panel become momentarily a lovely composition in spite of the frenzy. These moments pop up in the midst of the general chaos wrought by a camera moving unapologetically with a body that’s relentlessly roaming around to see what’s what. There is no hallowed respect for the steadiness of proper cinema, and the framing is careless in the best sense. This is irreverence embodied, and that fierce defiance makes my heart sing.

The material destruction enacted by these artists shuffles notions of aesthetic value, refusing the hierarchy of polish. Better than that, the damage done to the image and sound is visceral. Each scratch, each blur, each flicker: we feel it and it feels damn good.


Holly Willis is a Research Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, as well the editor of The New Ecology of Things, a collection of essays about ubiquitous computing. She is also the co-founder of Filmmaker Magazine dedicated to independent film and she writes frequently for diverse publications about experimental film, video and new media.


By Claudia Gorbman

Revised and updated version of an essay originally published in Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 48, 70.

JoAnn Elam’s Lie Back and Enjoy It (1982) gets a lot done in eight minutes. It’s a dialectical film about the politics of representation of women under patriarchy. In the image, all we see is some pointed/printed titles and manipulated images of a woman or women, presumably taken from porn or old film leader. On the soundtrack we hear a dialogue between a Man (a filmmaker) and a Woman (whom he’s going to make a film about). You might see this as a feminist rejoinder to Poe’s short story “The Oval Portrait” or Godard’s film Vivre sa vie (1962).

Elam’s earlier film Rape (1975) similarly put together several kinds of film material: video-transfer, cinema-verité footage, studio-shot footage, handwritten title cards, and, on the soundtrack, a conversation among the women who are shown in the video portions. In opposition to “realist” cinema, Rape not only acknowledges but stresses the heterogeneity of materials that go into films. Lie Back’s formal strategy emphasizes diverse kinds of film discourse even further. It sets up a radical disjunction between soundtrack and image, such that the only way we can connect up sound and image is by doing a little intellectual work, rather than through fantasy dependent on an illusion of wholeness.

The image shows mostly head shots of a bare-shouldered woman. The shots become progressively more deformed and distorted through looping, flicker effects, reversing the image (L-R), showing sprocket holes and frame lines, running the frames by in a blur as if the film is slipping in the projector gate, high-contrast reprinting, superimpositions, and underexposure. All these devices make the image more and more difficult to read, and subsequently point to the image’s materiality, its status as strips of printed celluloid that run through machines. The point being made is that a woman’s image in films — no matter, or because of, how much we psychically invest in it — is just that: an investment, a product, and a commodity that functions in a certain economy. Lie Back chooses to use the pornography footage in order to draw these connections most unequivocally: the woman’s body on the screen is something desired, reified, invaded, paid for. The Woman’s voice in the film says, “… there’s no way you can use [sic] a woman without making her into an object and invading her space.”

On screen, titles appear on occasion, interspersed like Burma-Shave signs along the unsettling scenery of the manipulated close-ups. The first three read:

something to me

This kind of wordplay, which Elam already employed in Rape, draws thought-provoking connections between sexuality, popular culture and language, as well as the power relation between the artist and his model. What does the man do to the woman, and vice versa? How does the artist transform the “real” model? What violence might this include? How is this sexy?

The soundtrack consists of a dialogue between a Man’s voice and a Woman’s voice (let’s call them M and W). For those hooked on the pleasure of conventional movie storytelling, the conversation seems to exist in a believable space and has “characters,” and so it holds out the promise of rewards of auditory voyeurism — or let’s say eavesdroppeurism. As we listen, M and W are sitting in their kitchen. He’s a filmmaker planning to shoot a “personal” film about her and about their relationship. She has her doubts about the project. Increasingly, though, and almost seamlessly, their conversation passes from a believably fictional mode (in a fictional world we can imagine) to a critical mode. First slippage: W refers to the tape recorder. Why, if they’re discussing a film he’s going to make, is a tape recorder running in their kitchen? A character thus acknowledges the discourse, the fact of the recording — it’s a “mistake” no self-effacing conventional narrative movie would make. Soon after, W asks M, “You think the fact that this is a man’s voice and a woman’s voice has anything to do with how people are going to relate to it?” With that comment, it’s getting difficult to believe in the initial narrative premise any more. Toward the end, their discussion turns on M’s claim that in making his movie he’ll merely be filming “what’s really going on” rather than directing the material’s shape in accord with his fantasies. W socratically talks M into a logical corner; M then chuckles, “Uh oh, I think you’ve got me on this one!” We’ve moved from two characters — an ideologically innocent filmmaker and a recalcitrant protagonist-to-be — to two film theorists enjoying the interplay of their debating positions. In fact, the film ends when M refers to it — not the film he was going to make, but the one he’s in.

The discussion, then, proceeds dialectically. Each voice represents a position. M describes himself as an artist. At least at first, he claims a sort of innocent neutrality regarding the politics of representation. His art will get at “the truth” via his vision.

I’m just making a film about us. I mean, what does all this culture stuff have to do with that? I mean, that’s why I’m making personal films.

Art is subjective expression — the artist’s inner expression transcends history, politics, culture. (That privilege of self-expression has traditionally belonged to men — and still does.) But for W, representations are products of their culture and they are necessarily determined by it. Representation itself is a political issue also in the sense that a power relationship obtains between the person behind the camera and the person being filmed, and it’s irresponsible to deny or ignore this. As with the girl in “The Oval Portrait” and Nana in Vivre sa vie, the male artist “uses up” his female model, literally saps the life out of her. Lie Back’s W refuses this murder.

The force of the visuals, and W’s persuasive arguments in the face of M’s innocence, make it abundantly evident that Elam aligns herself with W’s position. At the same time, the movie works to caution against any hasty dismissal of M. For one thing, he sounds like a pretty nice guy. Second, he represents the dominant canon of artistic creation in the modern western world. It’s the one most people have inherited:

I’m an artist. I’m trying to find out the truth about things. To make (films) that will make people feel better and learn something of the world and give them more control over things, and I’m trying to enlarge people’s experience with my films.

It’s hard to deny the compelling “rightness” of his statements, even when the twentieth century so conclusively vetoed the possibility of such a thing as “the truth.” As for W, our sympathies waver when her radicalism carries her to the point of rejecting any attempts to make images of women.

I wish that these male filmmakers would stop, you know, putting all these women in their films. I wish that they would just give up … you should have no women in your films.

Finally, when W utters her last words, a strident “I’m right and you’re wrong!” it’s clear that Elam has set these characters up to receive equal consideration. Each has virtues and faults. What M lacks in intellectual sophistication, he makes up for in earnestness and personal charm. W’s ideological consciousness-raising is crucial, but her irritably uttered challenges threaten to obliterate human interaction from among the possibilities of progressive art. We’re not left to “lie back” but precisely to judge the positions that its voices have argued.

If you set up a dialectical situation in order to lead people to consider the possible synthesis of ideas presented, ultimately, you have a didactic purpose. Where does Elam’s film lead us? An undergraduate male student paid it a compliment in declaring that he can no longer look at a woman in a film without thinking about the consequences of the filmmaker’s use of her as a person and as a spectacle. Lie Back encourages analysis, all the more so since its own structure moves from positioning the audience in a (minimally) voyeuristic stance to a maximally critical one. The film conveys remarkable structural and rhetorical lucidity.

As Canyon Cinema showcases Lie Back and Enjoy It 36 years after it first appeared, I’m struck by how different my viewings of it in 1982 and 2018 have been. M and W, its two conversing voices, were the voices of filmmaker Elam herself and Chuck Kleinhans, the activist teacher, scholar, and co-founder and lifetime co-editor (with his wife Julia Lesage) of the unpretentious and indispensable journal JUMP CUT. The Chicago independent film people associated with Chicago Filmmakers and JUMP CUT enjoyed years of group movie screenings, dinners, and joyfully intense conversation in the 1970s and 80s. Elam died in 2009; Kleinhans just before Christmas of 2017. Lie Back’s soundtrack feels more like a documentary now: Chuck and Jo Ann role-playing over a tape recorder in a kitchen, enjoying the game they have set for themselves. And so a seemingly austere experimental movie becomes a tender postcard from a more idealistic and humane time.


Claudia Gorbman is professor emerita of film studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. She continues to write about film music and sound, and has translated several books by French critic Michel Chion.


By Dustin Zemel

A Tibetan Lama. His disciple. The disciple’s wife, young boy and terrier. An old tugboat crossing the Mississippi River. A man in his seventh month of solitude. His hermitage built by his own hands. The man’s bloodhound; his cat. Clouds crossing the Continental Divide. A mountain stream. A girl. The sun.

(Description for Starlight, Canyon Cinema catalog)

If you find yourself asking what a particular Robert Fulton film is “about,” you may be asking the wrong question—or at least setting yourself up for an unsatisfactory answer. Like other experimental filmmakers, Fulton challenges narrative and expositional conventions established by popular modes of film practice, opting instead to test the medium’s capacity for new modes of thought and expression. This is clear enough from the absence of any clear storyline or subject matter in his films, though understanding Fulton’s intentions with these cinematic experiments is not so easy.

Fulton, who died prematurely in a 2002 plane crash, left behind few documents to provide guidance on how to interpret his works. The few such items available, like the catalog description above, carry their own enigmas and idiosyncrasies. Currently, the best way to hear Fulton’s thoughts on his films are the Screening Room interviews included on a DVD collection released by Documentary Education Resources. Taped in 1973 and 1979, these shows feature Fulton conversing casually with his friend, mentor, and collaborator, Robert Gardner. Listening to Fulton speak in these episodes, however, can be wearisome. Those encountering Fulton for the first time might be inclined to read his long-winded explications as the heady ramblings of an overenthusiastic participant in 1960s psychedelic subculture. You see hints of puzzlement and incredulity in the faces of Gardner and Rudolf Arnheim (who appears alongside Fulton as a fellow guest during his first Screening Room appearance) as they gaze upon Fulton lost in his own bizarre Tai Chi-esque movement exercise illustrating how the natural movements of one’s body—twisting, turning, swinging, stepping, falling—can be harnessed for purposes of cinematography.

It would be easier to dismiss Fulton and his eccentric behavior had Screening Room not already demonstrated how these movements translate in the resulting films. However, from the opening seconds of Machu Pichu (1972, screened in full at the beginning of Fulton’s 1973 appearance on Screening Room), Fulton’s craft is already richly apparent. The film pummels the audience with unceasing hand-held camera movements, single frame edits, jump-cuts, and superimpositions to create a cinematic portrait of Fulton’s encounters with the people, animals, plants and architecture in and around the historical site in the highlands of Peru. These brief, fragmented images are both stabilized and complicated by a cacophonous free jazz soundtrack, which unifies the images without undermining the intensity of their disarray.

Despite this heavy-handed play with form, Fulton’s films also vividly convey the filmmaker’s own real-world encounters with his subjects. While many experimental documentary filmmakers were abandoning techniques (and corresponding ideologies) of Direct Cinema whole cloth in this same period, Fulton’s production techniques embrace many of the on-the-ground, direct-encounter shooting principles practiced by Leacock, Drew, Pennebaker, and the Maysles. Unlike these filmmakers, though, Fulton was not preoccupied with notions of the pristine observational image (seemingly) free from the biased stylings of the artist. The films he crafted in the late 1960s and early 1970s employ the same formal intercedings as Machu Pichu and, thanks to Fulton’s plane and pilot’s license, often cover vast distances over short stretches of screentime. Often these geographical and institutional environments are layered through in-camera multiple exposures. These stylistic choices would have been unthinkable to the Direct Cinema proponents who insisted that such stylistic flourishes sullied the purity of observational filmmaking and corresponding notions of truth such austere presentational models enabled.

Like Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Fulton’s films put on display exuberant and playful camerawork—but without the overt impetus to highlight the technological apparatus itself. What is apparent, and emphasized, in each shot is the filmmaker’s deep connection and attunement to the rhythms of the living environments he simultaneously captures and inhabits. When Fulton brings his camera onto the field of a touch football game in Kata (1968), the POV shot does not simply highlight the action through a novel vantage point, nor does it reflexively disrupt our engagement with the activity by drawing attention to the camera’s disingenuous existence in the middle of a game. What shines through are the real-time processes of assessment and response enacted by run-and-gun documentary filmmakers instinctively making decisions on the fly.

Whether filming, screening, or reflecting on his works, Fulton was devoted to the present moment. Without seeking to gain external validation from film festivals, critics or even his fellow experimental filmmakers, he mostly shared his work with those close to him: family, friends, and students.1 When he did show his works publicly, he would project multiple films simultaneously and sometimes accompany the visuals with an improvised saxophone music. Fulton explains to Gardner his second time on Screening Room, “I feel that the film screening is a performance, and…I feel inspired at times to play…to create a sound appropriate to the image.” This performative approach emphasizes Fulton’s dedication to extending the life of his films—not as commodities but as artworks with their own responsive capacity. Similarly, Fulton was reluctant to finalize his films such that segments from many shorter works like Machu Pichu, Kata and Swimming Stone (1983) would eventually find their way as constituent pieces folded into longer feature length films in the 1980s.

As such, there is perhaps no better setup than a list—like the one Fulton provides for Starlight—to characterize the filmmaker’s unique artistic endeavor. As Umberto Eco expresses, a list simultaneously discloses a semblance of finitude while at the same time its own infinite expansion through its implicit inclusion of an “etcetera” clause. Rather than using his images as tools for explanation or elements of a story, Fulton collects his footage in the moment without regard to any preconceived film—thereby privileging what he called the “zero state” of images. Liberated from the finalized form allows him to respond to the present moment, camera in hand.

Images upon images. Movements upon movements. The real magic of Fulton’s films lies in his uncanny ability to translate the synergy of his shooting style through an equally tenacious use of single-frame shots and multiple exposures in a way that maintains image discreteness while resisting rarefication. His accretion of images certainly “talk” to one another, but not for reasons related to continuity or Eisensteinian montage. “The editing is done in the moment,” Fulton reflected. “I shoot only when I feel it, and if I don’t feel it, I don’t shoot. I never have a feeling that anything has to be filmed, or should get a shot.” The modal force that holds Fulton’s films together is the prevailing sense of present moment negotiation faced by every filmmaker in the moment of shooting: a series of moments that naturally resist the stabilizing forces of predetermined form or meaning. Fulton instead risks doubling and sometimes tripling down on the contingent encounter developing unique ways to incorporate it into the form, content, and presentation of his films.

In this way, Fulton’s films operate as a moving-image analog to free jazz and other improvisational schools of music making waves around the same time. Some of the non-answers Fulton gives Gardner during his appearances on Screening Room echo sentiments voiced by improvisational musicians asked to defend an artform defined through its refusal to abide by established conceits regarding form and structure. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman once wrote, “Many people apparently don’t trust their reactions to art or to music unless there is a verbal explanation for it. In music, the only thing that matters is whether you feel it or not. You can’t intellectualize music.” Like Fulton, these improvisational musicians perform extemporaneously, hyper-attuned to the living world around them. Taking a cue from Coleman, I think we need to feel Fulton’s connection to the world before we can hope to understand his films.


Dustin Zemel is an award-winning video artist and scholar interested in exploring intersections between documentary and experimental media. His experimental films and multi-channel video installations have been shown and screened in galleries and film festivals around the world. He is the founder and former co-director of Grand Detour, a microcinema, curatorial group, and educational hub for experimental filmmakers and new media artists in Portland, OR. He hopes that his interest and writing on the films of Robert Fulton can play a small part in creating a newfound appreciation for this tragically overlooked filmmaker.