in the grain

max goldberg writing on film

Leading Lady


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


Brakhage in Pieces


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


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


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


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)

jean epstein

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


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.

good 4 tune


There are several new articles posted on the “Criticism” page, including a review of João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s One Month Without Filming show at REDCAT, a report on the Wavelengths section at the Toronto International Film Festival, and, most pressingly, a short essay on Jerome Hiler’s beautiful new old film, New Shores. I encourage anyone back east to partake of Hiler and Nathaniel Dorsky’s dual retrospective at Lincoln Center. It starts tomorrow and promises to be a little pocket of sanity at NYFF.

solstice meditation


Dear L—,

I tried to photograph a wildflower for you on my way down the hill, but my phone couldn’t stand the drama of a low sun reaching through branches to pluck these petals out from a background already plunged in shade. The phone does not acknowledge the darkness of day, it wants everything evenly lit—“a bright and guilty place”—and so it cannot see the flower. Illumination always means passing through a darkness, doesn’t it?

As ever, —MG