An interview that appears in Scott MacDonald’s book, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Distributor (University of California Press, 2008), contains an error (bottom of page 77), in which I misattribute the design and construction of Loren Sears’s optical printer (illustrated here) to Lenny Lipton. This is entirely my error, for which I sincerely apologize to Loren, Lenny (sadly, no longer with us), and Scott. My thanks to Canyon Cinema and Brett Kashmere for helping me correct the record.
Marked As Such: Feminist and Queer Visibility as Agency in Experimental Filmmaking (Excerpt)
By Susannah Magers
As is all too typical for female artists, Barbara Hammer is enjoying a major, extended moment of recognition later in her career, with a comprehensive exhibition, Evidentiary Bodies, realized at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in 2017. Her 1976 16mm film, Multiple Orgasm, graced the cover of the April 2018 issue of Artforum, an electrifying moment given the magazine’s history of snubbing women artists (according to artist Micol Hebron, as of 2015 the work of women artists has appeared on only 18% of Artforum’s hallowed covers). In this issue, critic Rachel Churner assesses Hammer’s overlooked contribution to feminist art and queer filmmaking and notes “the political urgency of representation” that Hammer’s work and ethos implores.
In 2011, writer and film scholar Greg Youmans and I discovered we shared a desire for and love of lesbian and queer cinema, with specific intersections around the work of Barbara Hammer. I had recently finished a graduate thesis—excerpted below—centering on feminist and queer agency through experimental filmmaking in the 1970s. I specifically compared the work of Barbara Hammer and Carolee Schneemann in the context of a curated film program by the late Freude Bartlett presented in the May/June 1974 issue of Canyon Cinemanews.
Corresponding with Hammer, Greg and I tried to generate momentum for a retrospective. Barbara was all for it, but funding and securing a venue—just a few of the precarities of an independent curator’s life—proved challenging. Greg and I were both juggling jobs and impending moves, and we ended up needing to shelve the idea.
Fast-forward to 2017, and curators Staci Bu Shea and Carmel Curtis are tapped by Hammer to take up the charge to mount a long-overdue reckoning with her work at Leslie-Lohman. In an August 2017 interview with Hammer, curator Jamillah James describes how she needed to take electives as a film student in the 1990s to see films by women, people of color, and queer folks, as they simply weren’t included in the curriculum. This mirrors my own experience as a graduate student in San Francisco. Aside from an undergraduate course on queer history for which I offered to be a teaching assistant (without compensation, just to take the class), there was only one such class, two hours or so as part of a core class on feminist and queer artists and their contribution to the art world. It felt, and indeed was, woefully inadequate.It remains urgent for us to advocate for recognition and support—critically, financially, curatorially, and myriad other forms—for women’s creative labor and contributions. Though it is now fashionable to espouse diversity, and despite the fact that women comprise nearly three quarters of art school students, one still sees serious opportunity gaps in museum leadership, boards of directors, and collection acquisitions and exhibition. Hammer has described how her work—and in particular, Dyketactics (1974)—was created to fill a void, a stand-in for the absence of references and touchstones, the possibility of seeing others like herself on screen. My thesis and my curatorial emphasis emerged from a similar place, to address and make a place for those whose lives and experiences intersect with and reflect mine.
The occasion of Canyon Cinema’s 50th anniversary provides an excellent opportunity to renew these conversations around representation and access. Touring programs like Associations, which in addition to Hammer include the work of Abigail Child, Stephanie Barber, and Sara Kathryn Arledge, endeavor to expand on Canyon’s legacy through intergenerational juxtapositions. Decodings, featuring films by Cauleen Smith, Mariah Garnett, JoAnn Elam, Jodie Mack, and Naomi Uman, actively engages with ideas concerning female and marginalized representation in filmmaking. Like Freude Bartlett’s Human Sexuality: Films By Women program, they exist as points in a vast, evolving, and intersectional filmmaking genealogy that we can continue to cultivate, lift up, and, perhaps most importantly, intentionally shape.
—Susannah Magers, 2018
Early issues of the Canyon Cinemanews possess an unconventional, even chaotic visual aesthetic anticipating contemporary zines. As Canyon founder Bruce Baillie stated, “The devotees have a policy of non-policy.”1 Beginning in the early 1970s, however, the newsletter began to adapt a more standardized format. Issues are smaller and less chaotic, though still lacking a table of contents. While the stream-of-consciousness style certainly lent the early issues a quirky charisma, the later issues are easier to read. Content is delineated so that the reader doesn’t need to jump between festival listings, editorializing, letters from readers, and new additions to Canyon’s film library. The May/June 1974 issue is one of the first to adopt this more traditional layout—and the first to surfaces a clear stance on and commitment to the coverage and distribution of women’s writing, ideas, and films.
The first page reads:
The single most important social change of the last decade has been the growth of the woman’s movement. Film, as a means of communication, is an important tool in organizing, educating and “looking inside.” Limited by space and time, this issue is only a sampling of the women filmmakers whose work is available through Canyon Cinema.
This was written by Canyon filmmaker Freude, formerly Freude Bartlett. She chose to go by first name only when she separated from husband Scott Bartlett, a prolific filmmaker in his own right. Her declaration marks a shift in tone for Canyon Cinema, making the egalitarian administration and ethos of the organization more visible through the kind of content being offered.
A self-described feminist, Freude’s curatorial selection of women’s films under the title Human Sexuality: Films By Women is marked by an attention to feminist content. No doubt a polemical offering, it gracefully avoids guiding its audience through a narrow lens of sexuality. Rather, it’s a program of films by women exploring and commenting upon all kinds of sexuality and feminist experience. Freude creates an intellectually and socially gendered space where sexuality is fluid, discovered, and celebrated. By turns satirical, self-reflexive, and intensely moving, the films of Human Sexuality: Films By Women are all profound visual testimonies to what it was to be a feminist-identified woman making art in the 1970s. Further, film programs like this one served a double purpose: to convene and engage communities through their artistic and cultural production, and, certainly for Freude, to engage them in a form of consciousness-raising through the content of these film screenings.
An Analysis of Freude’s Human Sexuality: Film By Women
In her groundbreaking 1975 essay, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,” film theorist Claire Johnston describes a collective production effort aimed at altering the ways in which women negotiate their presence in filmmaking.
The development of collective work is obviously a major step forward; as a means of acquiring and sharing skills it constitutes a formidable challenge to male privilege in the film industry as an expression of sisterhood, it suggests a viable alternative to the rigid hierarchical structures of male-dominated cinema and offers real opportunities for a dialogue about the nature of women’s cinema within it. At this point in time, a strategy should be developed which embraces both the notion of films as a political tool and film as entertainment.2
Along these same lines, it’s significant that Freude maintained a notable camaraderie and friendship with many of the filmmakers featured in her program. Often enough, they appeared in each other’s films. Up until the end of the 1970s, Freude was a distributor herself, forming her Serious Business Company in 1973: “I would take films because I loved them or I thought they were important, not necessarily because they were sellable.”3 She was directly involved in making sure these works were visible: “It’s a function of this business and my art to alter attitudes.”4
The Human Sexuality program grows out of this same generosity. To be sure, feminists at this time were extremely divided on sex: both in terms of its representation in media and what it meant for women. Freude wasn’t firmly in any camp, accepting films showing female nudity and only insisting upon female authorship.
The ten films in Freude’s Human Sexuality: Films By Women program signal an awareness of a new consciousness for the filmmakers and their audience, with each film addressing aspects of sexuality in these women’s lives—be it repression, objectification, or, in most cases, pleasure.
The first is Anne Severson’s (who now goes by Alice Anne Parker) I Change, I Am the Same (1969), a 30-second satirical commentary on the notion of gendered clothing. It features Severson’s then lover, Shelby Kennedy, and herself in various states of undress, in “each other’s” clothing. From the Canyon catalog description: “You in your clothes, me in my clothes, you in my clothes. Me in your underpants, you in nothing, you in my underwear…” Also included is Severson’s Riverbody (1970), a continuous dissolve montage of 87 male and female SFAI colleagues and students. When viewed in conjunction with I Change, I Am the Same, this film reads as a further meditation on what is left when we remove gendered and socially accepted norms from our visual vocabulary. It is also a collectively engaged production, with SFAI’s community brought together through a feminist-inspired desire to freely show the naked body, female and male.
The next two films have proved elusive, though Freude’s brief descriptions provide enough information to know that these films feature non-heterosexual explorations of sexuality. Penelope Spheeris’s I Don’t Know (1972) is described as a love story between a boy who wishes he were a girl and a girl who wishes she were a boy, while Virginia Giritlian’s Cumulus Nimbus (1973) is about a woman deciding whether to be intimate with another woman. Spheeris is an accomplished film and movie director whose work ranges from her 1980 documentary about the Los Angeles punk rock scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, to the cult classic Wayne’s World (1992). I Don’t Know seems to have been made while Spheeris was a film student at UCLA. The unfixed identity of the two characters presents what could be read as queer by contemporary standards, though it’s hard to speculate how this figuring of identity plays out between the characters, or how feminism informs this relationship, without any additional information on the film. Virginia Giritlian’s Cumulus Nimbus turned up little in research, but I did come across reviews of the film in the Canyon Cinemanews. One of these reviews, featured as part of a set done by San Francisco State University film students, states: “Most films only portray the surface value of speech and action. This film explored the thoughts and feelings of the people as a reality as valid as the activity of the people themselves.” Another review uses the definition of a cumulus nimbus cloud as a metaphor for the feelings of a character pondering her sexuality, a nimbus cloud being one that is about to bring rain. The complexity of this sexuality seems not to have been lost on these film students. In contrast, the review offered by the Independent Journal of San Rafael, reprinted in a 1975 issue of Canyon Cinemanews, reports on the Marin City College trustees’ viewing of Cumulus Nimbus [with Coni Beeson’s Holding (1971) and Barbara Linkevitch’s Silverpoint (1974), both featuring sexually explicit, lesbian content] and shows another cultural reaction indicative of the time period and feminism’s controversy:
The films were principal targets of attacks by several Marin clergyman at the trustees’ meeting. Trustee Robert Lee Grant emerged from the screening declaring that Holding is ‘pornographic – just like a couple of pornographic films I’ve seen in movie theaters. I don’t have a problem with the other two, except to ask why are they all about the same topic,” Grant added.
Grant’s reactions are telling about the social reception of these films and point to why Freude may have included her line about the films being “anti-pornographic” in her description. Grant is, unwittingly, illuminating feminism’s influence and impact on women’s filmmaking in the Bay Area.
Orange (1971), by Karen Johnson, is a close-up of the peeling and probing of an orange, “invoking orifice erotica,” in Freude’s words. One of the more humorous depictions of sexuality in the program, Johnson’s finger goes in and out of the orange to an upbeat soundtrack, her finger glistening with the juice of the orange. Many of the films of this 1970s filmmaking period invoke food as sexual metaphor or sexual surrogate, but Orange unfortunately doesn’t hold the self-reflexive poignancy of the rest of the films in this set.
Stand Up and Be Counted (1970), Freude’s own contribution, is a short series of long dissolves of nude couples set to the Rolling Stones’ “We Love You,” and is intended as a tribute to and wedding present for John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Like Severson’s Riverbody, this film features coupled, naked bodies to suggest a sexual freedom in representation. The women and men are smiling, kissing, talking, and generally happy. They hold a piece of paper between their bodies, the “screen” in which the next couple appears.
Crocus (1971) is a montage of scenes of the natural world, flowers, birds, and vegetables by Suzan Pitt Kraning. It is the one animated film in the program. It begins with a nude man “growing” from what is presumably a crocus bulb. Then, we see a woman (an animated Kraning) in a bedroom, touching herself, her breasts, moaning and sighing. A man (her husband) comes down the hallway, moving like Frankenstein. He enters the room, gets a massive erection, and starts laughing. She starts laughing too, he touches her face, and moaning sounds are heard again, softly, as they get into bed. A child’s call of “Mommy” is heard, breaking the scene. She gets up and goes to the child’s bedroom, where she comforts the child and puts him back to sleep. She goes back to the bedroom, turns on a radio, and music starts playing as the couple starts up again. The screen begins to spin. In a bizarre turn, a cucumber floats in through the bedroom door and leaves through the window. It is followed by a lit-up Christmas tree; a bird (swallow); roses, which circle the room before exiting through the window; then butterflies. A woman, of the same likeness as the one in the bed, suddenly appears in the mirror next to the bed, holding a film camera up to her eye, filming the lovemaking scene from inside the mirror. This addition, a deliberate assertion that Kraning herself has produced this picturing of her life and sexuality—as a mother, wife, and sexual being in her own right—marks its feminism.
Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967) is the longest and best-known film in the program. I will discuss this work, which Freude describes as “a classic, artful, and arousing treatment of lovemaking,” in comparison with Barbara Hammer’s Dyketactics (1974) later in this essay.
Women (1974) is Coni Beeson’s satirical montage made for the National Sex Forum about stereotypes. Sex sounds open on the soundtrack, with a female voice declaring, “I am woman.” A list is read of the various names by which women are marked: “bitch, mother, chick, philly, foxy, sow, cow, hooker, piece of ass, slut, two bit whore, sissy lady, stepmother, tart sister, Ms., dyke, baby, belle, lesbian, sweetie, sexpot, floozy, siren, vamp vixen, cherry, chicken, witch, doll, honey pie, femme, girl, softy, sweet, adorable, beautiful, earth mother, black magic woman, tomboy, kept woman, maiden, aunt, dame, frump, waif, heiress…” The list stops and then continues at points throughout the film, emphasizing the many derogatory names for women. Various women are panned up and down by the camera in a manner reminiscent of Martha Rosler’s Vital Statistics of A Citizen Simply Obtained (1977). Meanwhile, a lively 1940s piano riff plays as women dance. The list of female labeling terms starts up again: “vessel, receptacle…” A mother and daughter are shown talking on a porch about “losing virginity.” The conversation is doubled; the words tumble out, and jumble together, almost incomprehensible to discern, hinting at the fraught tensions surrounding talking about female sexuality in the 1970s. We see women’s bodies again, babies nursing, milk dripping from breasts. “Marm, nanny, old lady, temptress, FEMINIST.” Ocean waves. A man pleasures a woman with his hand. A man and woman are seen having sex, her on top, while a woman’s voice can be heard reciting breathlessly, “warm…so many things.” A country song begins, “I want a man who feeds the baby, brings me coffee in the morning.” Then: “Never trust a woman.” We see a stripper on stage, with music playing, an idea elaborated in Gunvor Nelson’s Take Off (1972): “We don’t need a man around.” A woman lays in a meadow, with flowers all over her nude body, being touched tenderly by other women. These women then roll around in the sand at the beach, rolling on top of one another. Women ends with a clothed woman, wearing a large diamond ring, running her hand listlessly through daisies. She blows on dandelions, making wishes about her life and future, we assume. The film ends on what is an intentionally ironic, socially acceptable and decidedly “un-feminist” (in the context of women’s portrayal in the other films chosen by Freude) picture of a woman: fully clothed, betrothed, and placing her future in someone else’s hands.
Take Off is “a documentary of a stripper with a punch line ending” by Gunvor Nelson. Burlesque dancer Ellion Ness struts to a sultry jazz soundtrack by Pat Gleeson. Ness slowly takes off white gloves and twirls around a fur stole as she starts to undress. The camera draws close to her thrusting hips and bottom jiggling in a fringed undergarment. As she shakes and shimmies, removing her stockings, shoes, she flashes her breasts, which have tassels attached, which she then also removes. We have just been treated to a traditional striptease—or so we think. Suddenly, the camera pulls away, and a light begins to strobe as a smirking Ness removes her curly blond wig, revealing a bald head. She then slowly starts to remove all of her body parts, beginning with her legs. Ears, nose, head, breasts, arms: all are gingerly removed until she is only a torso floating in black space and then spinning off into a cosmic universe, full of stars. In the May/June 1974 issue of Canyon Cinemanews, Freude interviews Nelson about the film. What began for Nelson as an absurdity became a pointed political statement: “Women that perform in front of men to delight them usually become very hardened. Sometimes they really enjoy it, but a lot of them don’t. What I see in the stripper’s final gesture is, ‘you can have it all and see, I’m still me.’” Though Nelson points to the problematic of objectification by the striptease, she is also allowing for the striptease to be a self-expressive act, one not done solely for the viewing pleasure of men.
How might Freude’s initial curatorial selection read now with contemporary film additions? Though same-sex desire seems to be articulated in Virginia Giritlian’s Cumulus Nimbus and Penelope Spheeris’ I Don’t Know, films that take a more definitive, or declarative, stance on other kinds of women’s sexuality could better round out the program. Restaging the program with Dyketactics would allow us to further reflect on Freude’s original intent of exploring sexual identity and representation—something I propose to do here by comparing Barbara Hammer’s Dyketactics (1974) and Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967).
A Hypothetical Pairing: Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967) and Barbara Hammer’s Dyketactics (1974)
A labor of love in all ways, Carolee Schneemann’s 16mm film Fuses (1967) took over three years to produce. It is a carefully crafted response to Stan Brakhage’s film Window Water Baby Moving (1963), about the birth of Stan and Jane Brakhage’s first child, and Loving (1959), which features scenes of Schneemann and partner James Tenney making love. Reference is also made to Brakhage’s Cat’s Cradle (1959), which features rapid editing, collage, flashes of sex between a man and a woman, a cat and the mirroring and inversion of images—all filmic devices that Schneemann incorporates into Fuses.
The film was shot over many seasons from 1964 to 1967. It is marked by fleeting but fluidly woven impressions of lovemaking, oral sex, the moments in between, facial expressions, Schneemann running on a beach, her cat Kitsch, the snowy outside from the interior of a car, a Christmas tree, a window, curtains, and night scenes filmed on the highway. It begins with a densely painted title leader crediting Schneemann, James Tenney, and Kitsch. There is no sync sound—only silence. Each shot of their foreplay and sex is fragmented, not in the expected order of foreplay, penetration and climax. The editing stays close to actual experience: stopping and starting, changing positions, engaging in different activities. The perspective from which we are privy to their experience varies as well. Schneemann alternately holds the camera herself while engaged in sex, props it up above, beside and behind herself and Tenney. Moments shot at other times and places are interspersed as well, introducing the idea that there is a relationship outside of the sexual component between Schneemann and Tenney. He touches her chin, lifting it up so that she smiles and looks into his eyes, a moment of non-sexual intimacy. The speed of the film is fast at points and then languishes in others. Body parts emerge from shadows: legs, backs, feet, arms, and torsos, leaving the viewer to fill in the missing visual details. Bathed in yellow light streaming in from the window, curtains gently blowing, the image lingers and then goes black.
Though sexually explicit, Fuses is anti-pornographic in the sense that Freude characterizes it: that is, against a picturing of women as consumable sexualized object solely for male pleasure. Deliberately, Schneemann has inserted her own pleasure as the beginning of the film, not the end. By being both the artist and actor—creator and participant—Schneemann closes the objectification loop. She is the bearer of her own image, the producer of the visual representation of her own body. She retains this control, in contrast to Jane Brakhage in Window Water Baby Moving or herself in Loving. Jane’s endurance throughout the childbirth process is certainly treated with awe, but the distance of Brakhage from his subject is felt. For Schneemann, this distance between filmmaker and subject is something she identifies as inequality and remedies in Fuses.
Like Fuses, Barbara Hammer’s short 16mm film, Dyketactics (1974), operates in an explicitly sexualized space. In Fuses, Schneemann engages with the ocean and waves; in Dyketactics, Hammer and other women bond in a meadow, by the river, and indoors for scenes of lesbian touching, socializing, and sex. Both films use the imagery of the natural world to draw out the fluidity of sex and life. Filming their surroundings also serve, as mentioned earlier, to disrupt explicit sexuality in explicating its complexity, making the film more about the entirety of intimate experience and not just the sex acts. Like Schneemann, Hammer incorporates montage editing, in various indoor and outdoor settings, in a variety of camera perspectives. The film starts out with the title, Dyketactics, filmed being painted in white paint, in capital letters, onto a rocky earth bank. By painting the letters on a literal ‘dyke,’ Hammer humorously reclaims the term from its negative connotations, firmly situating it within her own sex and female-positive narrative. Unlike Fuses, the film has a soundtrack: spacey and dissociative, a keyboard being played key by key in a sort of banal but bizarre and painstakingly slow melody. Hammer is trying to hint at a sense of discovery, the notes meandering and tentative. Nude women dance and cavort in a grassy meadow, bathe each other in river water, and lounge in the sun. It’s not a stretch to see why her work has been called romantic (or “optimistic,” as B. Ruby Rich has called her work, a term I prefer). But this is an over-simplification, glossing over the lack of lesbian images that were available at the time of the film’s production, not to mention the ubiquitous use of nature images in experimental film of this time.
In contrast to Schneemann, Hammer’s sex scenes were filmed in collaboration with a third party, Cris Saxton, not engaged in the sexual encounter. Hammer has certainly proved herself capable of filming while doing a variety of tasks in her other films, but it seems that the point of invoking another woman as the cameraperson was to get a more complete vision of lesbian sex, non-obscured, and not secret. While there are certainly close-ups and pans of both Hammer and her partner’s bodies, the sexual experience is less protracted than in Fuses. The film ends on the women’s naked bodies caressing each other, and we get the sense that this is somehow new, or different, and poignantly framed as such.
In the analysis of the film, I think it’s important to note that Hammer didn’t come out as a lesbian until she was in her thirties. It definitely alters how Dyketactics is perceived; she is exploring herself as much as she is presenting herself. Hammer recalls in her autobiography, Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, “The 70s was for me a time of locating filmic identity (my own) in lesbian/feminist content.” For Hammer, Dyketactics was her coming out vehicle.
A lesbian film artist births herself. There are no examples of lesbian filmmakers who identify themselves publicly as lesbians in the past. I was proselytizing my newfound place, my lesbian homeland.5
What is also of note is that the sex between Hammer and Asher is staged. Hammer notes, “explicit sexuality was not the moving internal force of Dyketactics. Sensual imagery that evoked physical sensations in the audience was its basic aesthetic principle.” Importantly, Dyketactics epitomizes what Hammer calls an active cinema, where the audience is engaged physically; “active cinema respects the physical and mental intelligence of its viewers by increasing rather than subduing self- awareness…[it is not] inaccessible to entrance…or intended to mystify.”6Dyketactics and Fuses register the liberation of women in a transitional moment in feminist discourse. Both feature an “erotic time that is edited kinesthetically…images were edited by and for the sense of touch.”7 Identity politics have acted as forces that have undeniably shaped how Hammer and Schneemann’s work and careers have been received and historicized. For Hammer, there is a clear intention to mark herself as a feminist lesbian maker: “my films made in the 70s, Dyketactics, Multiple Orgasm, Double Strength, Women I Love and Superdyke, as well as others, were made with this intention that grew from an unconscious impulse to a conscious insistence on lesbian naming.”8Fuses is similarly a feminist work in these sense that Schneemann actively asserts control of her own representation.
Conclusion: Naming and Suggestions for a Contemporary Screening of Freude’s Human Sexuality: Films by Women
If revisiting Freude’s film program today, in addition to adding a film like Dyketactics, I would also want to expand the exploration of sexuality to include a more intersectional and queered picturing of sensuality. For example, Liz Rosenfeld’s Untitled (Dyketactics Revisited) (2005) engages Hammer’s work in a way that advocates the visibility of queerness, updating Dyketactics by picturing notably queer bodies and an androgynous social space. Filmed by Rosenfeld in urban and rural areas of Chicago, this contemporary take reactivates a connection between the filmmaker and the filmmaker’s community, much as Hammer’s original did. Forgoing explicit sexuality for the more playful interactions of Hammer’s Dyketactics, various bodies in the film paint, wrap, and dance around each other. For Rosenfeld, Hammer’s work provided a jumping off point from which to facilitate and activate her own social spaces. In this way, Dyketactics still carries the active energies that imbue it with potential for reinterpretation.
Curating, as the example of Freude demonstrates, is and has always been an actively political position. As curator Lowry Stokes Simms and the late curator Marcia Tucker (founder of the New Museum) state in !W.A.R.: Women Art Revolution (2010): “the curatorial department is where you want to be because you can actually have power.” Staging Freude’s film program today would offer the possibility of reactivating a specific moment in 1970s Bay Area feminist cultural memory. Freude’s selection is marked by a particular but fluid identity politic, one that is actually quite current and unmarred by the rhetoric of her time. Freude’s idea of a feminist identity politic can thus be seen to offer a useful way to intentionally prioritize and curate the feminist, lesbian, and queer art and film of today.
Susannah Magers is an Oakland-based curator and writer. Recent experience includes curating at Rochester Art Center, in MN, and serving as Interpretation Manager for @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Magers’ 2016 exhibition, Amanda Curreri: The Calmest of Us Would Be Lunatics, was presented on a panel during Open Engagement 2016—POWER, at the Oakland Museum of California. A former co-director of Oakland project space Royal NoneSuch Gallery, she holds a dual BA in Art and History from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an MA in Curatorial Practice from the California College of the Arts, San Francisco, CA. Current projects include working with the Bay Area Lesbian Archives (BALA) and Sinister Wisdom, an intersectional lesbian-focused journal for which she is guest-editing an upcoming issue of the journal on the theme of transfer in contemporary art. She is co-curating a forthcoming exhibition on queer futurity at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.
Convenience, Lower Cost, Good Sound Quality, and Demystified Image: or, Why I Like Super-8 (A Testimonial) by Robert Huot
Make It News: Canyon Cinema in Print, 1962-1967
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.”
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:
WHAT IS CANYON CINEMA???
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.)
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.
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.