in the grain

max goldberg writing on film

Available Light

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What am I — dreaming?

Some odds and ends here and there: words on Dennis Hopper’s rather astonishing The Last Movie (of which, the above still); Alain Tanner‘s films with John Berger; some favorites from the CROSSROADS festival; Lucrecia Martel’s Zama; and Nathaniel Dorsky’s crowning Arboretum Cycle. I was also delighted that SFMOMA could republish my remembrance of Paul Clipson for their lovely tribute to his life’s work.

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Paul Clipson

Along with so many others in the Bay Area and beyond, I am crushed by the news that Paul Clipson has died. This is something I wrote in 2010, a couple of years after first finding the pleasure of his company – offered here in grief and memory.

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Practiced Distance

The first time I met Paul Clipson, we quickly discovered that we shared an intense regard for Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952). I had just seen material that would become Clipson’s short film Union at a San Francisco Cinematheque screening a few days prior and found that its psychically charged shift from rural to urban spaces reminded me of the Ray movie (specifically, a single dissolve as Robert Ryan’s character drives back into the city). Union belongs to a different species of cinema, of course. It’s shot on Super 8 and 16mm, wordless, with a narrative situation (a girl running) refracted as pure kinesis. As became apparent talking with Clipson, however, his deep knowledge of film history is attuned to texture rather than taxonomy. The second time I watched Union, I realized that On Dangerous Ground was just a convenient name for the deeper, more elusive sense of recognition it stirred in me.

Since that first meeting, I have seen Clipson project films on a billowing screen under the stars; in the squat confines of the Café Du Nord for the On Land music festival, where his work expanded several performances; and on the sides of a dome structure atop Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There have been more traditional screenings as well, though Clipson’s eclectic live projections are drawing attention — he’s fresh back from a brief European tour and will be featured in New York’s Views from the Avant-Garde this weekend. Before then, he’ll present a ranging survey of his recent efforts at SFMOMA, where he works as head projectionist.

The shifting context of live collaborations and crystallized short subjects is crucial to understanding Clipson’s work, and so “The Elements” will feature both: a suite of finished films sandwiched between projections with frequent collaborator Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and an ensemble, Portraits. An open frame of performance is a crucial catalyst for the searching lyricism of Clipson’s cinematography. He shoots frequently, building long reels to run with the music. Clipson refers to these unrehearsed dives as his research.

The camera style is at once impressionistic in its technique and boldly graphic in its compositions, haunted by familiar visual forms that, loosed from conventional perspective, are revealed to carry unexpected resonances and rhythms. What do we see? A million suns, made multiple by the surface of water and the curve of the camera lens; neon signs; flitting vertical obstructions; telephone wires; vegetation; intimate, handheld disclosures of vast distances; architectural surfaces. As with Joris Ivens’ early shorts, Clipson’s films register the city in its minor variations. Within the frame, a storm of vision emerges of superimpositions, dissolves, rack focus, zooms, and the interlacing of color and black-and-white stocks. It often seems that the objects he films are bringing the camera into focus and not the other way around.

When I ask about this, Clipson says, “I’ve found that the pulpy intensity of the Super 8 film decides the subject matter in a way. It’s like the film is in your brain telling you to shoot this or that — you can just imagine the luster.” The intuitive nature of his in-camera montage meshes well with the aural landscapes of the live performances; a floating minimalism prevails. As a former member of Tarantel and co-steward of the Root Strata label, Cantu-Ledesme has been Clipson’s primary point of entry to this musical world. Speaking over the phone, he notes their easy camaraderie: “Once Paul is in the moment of filming, he’s just really responding to what is happening on the other side of the lens … and at least when I’m playing by myself, I try to have that same attitude.”

In concert, the physical waves of sound and Clipson’s disembodied images are rich soil for a trance. It’s only in the concentrated shorts, however, that one finds the full extension of Clipson’s lyricism. The elliptical Sphinx on the Seine (2008) is still my favorite. Only eight minutes long, its shots seem to trace a voyage. We see the golden gleam of the sun as reflected by criss-crossing railways and snaking waterways, the shadow-world of a sidewalk, a phantasmal vision of Mount Fuji. Each of these lucid views slides away just as it ripens. Clipson’s collation of different cities is formally embedded in his composited images, which here appear as the fragile clues of some unknown existence. Like Sans Soleil (1983) and Mr. Arkadin (1955), two similarly itinerant films, Sphinx on the Seineevokes a tantalizing sense of placelessness.

One afternoon, both of us a little scatterbrained from a long week, Clipson and I get hung up on CinemaScope. He expresses admiration for the anamorphic framings of Ben Rivers’ I Know Where I’m Going (2009), and then draws a zigzag of appreciation between George Cukor’s 1954 A Star is Born (“The first 20 minutes”), Vincent Minnelli’s 1958 Some Came Running (“When you see it in the theater, it’s so much darker than on a television. You see shadows under people’s eyes”), and Otto Preminger’s general mastery of the form (“To me, those aren’t even compositions; they’re movements of thought”). It strikes me again and again that Clipson’s acute observations regarding film aesthetics are very much part of his creative force — yet his filmmaking doesn’t feel overcooked. Ben Rivers’ films work in a similar way: betraying a cinephile’s intimate knowledge of the medium, but out in the world all the same.

“Sometimes a few seconds of a film can live with you your whole life,” Clipson tells me later that same afternoon, locating one such epiphany in the opening of Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948): “There are all these dissolves going through the witches’ cauldron. You see a smoke circle, a storm cloud, what maybe is the surface of clouds from above, the cauldron and hands … I could just make films entirely inspired by that for 10 years because it’s so intangible, with such a beautiful, dense logic of images that resists immediate understanding.” Indeed, it sounds like a Paul Clipson film. (San Francisco Bay Guardian, 2010-09-28)

Leading Lady

Lupino

Smart money says Ida Lupino never fell for a Hollywood ending …

Brakhage in Pieces

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I have a new piece on occasion of Light Industry and Anthology Film Archives’ crucial re-publication of Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision. The careening text is effectively doubled in this new edition, first as a facsimile, reproducing George Maciunas’s eccentric design, and then as a corrected text amply footnoted by P. Adams Sitney (who edited the first version as a teenager). Among these appendages is a bit of social history that helps square the book’s polemical energy. It’s clear throughout the book that Brakhage, whose bold forays into first-person filmmaking marked a new turn in the New American Cinema, looked to poets as his elders. The book recoups lessons learned when Brakhage, himself a teenager, boarded at Jess and Robert Duncan’s place in San Francisco, and concludes with an incantatory recitation of a meeting with Charles Olson. Back to that footnote: in number 192, Sitney observes how among other sources of tension between Brakhage and Duncan was Brakhage’s frustration that an advanced poet could hold such hidebound views of film art, which practically meant championing the work of Ingmar Bergman and expressing the view that Brakhage might hope to make it big in Hollywood. In the event, Brakhage took his vow of poverty and, one imagines, drew on Duncan’s dismissiveness of his medium of choice as so much fuel for the fire.

The Brakhage screening mentioned in the article plays as part of the LIGHT FIELD festival which runs through the weekend and in its second iteration is rare good news.

Spring Sprung

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Canyon Cinema 50 is in full swing, celebrating 50 years in circulation. The whole thing started as a ragbag gathering in Bruce Baillie’s Canyon backyard before there was such a thing as “experimental film,” with the better known distribution cooperative following in due course. A few months ago I was hiking alone in Huckleberry Park, and a young couple walking by asked if I knew the way to Canyon. Now and forever.

I wrote a little text for a salon screening last week featuring the Los Angeles filmmaker Laida Lertxundi, and it’s available here. Stay tuned to the CC50 website for updates on future events, including a special screening curated by Guy Maddin celebrating another 50th anniversary: of Robert Nelson’s imperishable The Great Blondino.

Nothing Doing

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Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing. – John Ashbery

I happened to be visiting Canyon Cinema when Collection Manager Seth Mitter was inspecting their print of N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968) a couple of days ahead of its screening in Oakland. As is often noted, this is a film that demands to be understood as both an object and projection. Viewed on the rewind bench, the mathematical precision of Paul Sharits’ montage is readily apparent. Projected, the flicker effect floods the rational faculties. What so impressed me viewing Canyon’s worldly print, which is nearly fifty years old and looks it, is the way this dual nature itself evolves with conditions. The film’s purity foregrounds the print’s impurities: tramlines imposing unintended continuity between the alternating frames of color, specks of dirt randomly affixing themselves to the very form of the film. But while N:O:T:H:I:N:G‘s hallucinatory force is undoubtedly compromised by these degradations, its clarifying effect remains. Each run through the projector leaves its markto be revived and compounded by each subsequent screening (living and dying being two names for the same process). In Sharits’ film, these antecedents take hold with an immediacy that feels uncanny rather than sentimental. I hope that Canyon receives a new print of N:O:T:H:I:N:G, certainlybut also that they retain this relic for the cinematic equivalent of the charnel ground contemplation.

(Image from Anthology Film Archives)

out on a limb

Saddened to learn of the passing of three humane observers, a writer (Bill Berkson), filmmaker (Peter Hutton), and photographer (Bill Cunningham). All three made work with good manners – inviting, occasional, light on its feet. Berkson’s criticism, in particular, is one of the places I go to remember why I write.

Aside from economic considerations, criticism is a public opportunity to be articulate about something that most people ordinarily let slip away into tangential mutterings: your supposedly silent, non-verbal, on-site responses to works of art. I think of it doubly as commercial expository prose and/or (as Carter Ratcliff once remarked) “language somewhere in the vicinity of what it’s talking about.” What makes poets’ criticism valuable, I think, is that they are interested in these situations of looking not as frames of judgment but as observation for observation’s sake: they write to find out what can be said in relation to what they see and hopefully to be communicative of some common pleasure in seeing. Can you say what you see? Can it be described? Or is the feeling of two-way recognition between the looker and the work more interesting to tell about? Pleasure in writing criticism is often connected with the surprise of vernacular – the words that sensibly spring to mind when the mind’s eye is on a sizable patch of orange paint seen some hours or days previous. Poets are less interested in evaluation and motive. They know that the best one can hope for is the equivalent vitality of a parallel text, and to that they bring a technical proficiency as befits the job. (“Poetry and Painting,” 1984)

There are, to be sure, many more direct instances of Berkson’s “parallel text[s]” I could have quoted from, but I am grateful that from time to time he arranged his thoughts into these kinds of statements of principles (though nothing so heavy as that). And then, of course, he can’t help himself: the “sizable patch of orange paint,” the pitter-pat questions (“Can you say what you see?”), the fresh-plucked Ratcliff quotation. (Looking through my own little notebook of quotations, I see that many were first sourced in Berkson’s essays.) I only ever met him on the page, but that meant the world to me.

around the world in a day

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The above image, an electrocardiogram that would serve nicely for an album cover, is from Laida Lertxundi’s Vivir para Vivir/Live to Live. I wrote about it and a few other titles in my piece on SF Cinematheque’s Crossroads festival. Local audiences have a chance to see two other highlights – Zach Iannazzi’s Old Hat and Jonathan Schwartz’s Winter Beyond Winter – at the experimental shorts program showing as part of SFIFF. How nice to imagine these kinds of films screening on a somewhat regular basis…

Discards (Jean Epstein)

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I like incorporating quotations into my articles, but with someone like Jean Epstein the temptation is just to string the pearls and leave it that. Feeling some obligation to provide context in my essay for the Harvard Film Archive’s forthcoming retrospective, I lost several choice excerpts from Epstein’s essays—sharp-tongued ones, especially. Although Epstein is rightly celebrated for its boundless faith in the medium’s potential, he could be corrosive when it came to particular films and movements. He had no patience for expressionism (“If you must say about a film that it has beautiful sets, I think it would be better not to speak about it at all; the film is bad”), nor the “pure” abstractions of dabblers like Viking Eggeling and Man Ray. Epstein reserved special animus for the studied effects of the surrealists:

The surrealists were slow to recognize that the instrument of de-rationalization of which they dreamt already existed well within their field of application; and when they finally took notice of cinema, they used it against its grain in such a literary, pictorial and artistic way that their attempts were immediately choked by its esotericism. (“The Delirium of a Machine”).

It’s possible this is just sour grapes from his falling out with Luis Buñuel, who got his start on Epstein productions like Mauprat (1926) and The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), but there’s no mistaking the language of a true believer.

The Lineup

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Before another bright afternoon falls away, I thought I would point to a few recent articles here and there:

A review of the latest installment of Scott MacDonald’s annals of the American avant-garde, this one a “nonfiction novel” recalling the period when giants roamed the SUNY Binghamton Cinema Department.

A preview of the China Now: Independent Visions tour, which included one of the yellowest films I’ve ever seen (I’m Not Not Not Chen Zhou).

My “year in review” for Fandor focusing on a handful of recent films spotlighting the extravagant gifts of non-actors. During the course of writing this piece, I found that my word processor autocorrects “nonactor” as “nonfactor.” This essay takes a contrary view.