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.