in the grain

max goldberg writing on film

Category: Uncategorized

Fair Haven

Aug. 26. Tuesday. More wind and quite cold this morning, but very bright and sparkling, autumn-like air, reminding of frosts to be apprehended,* also tempting abroad to adventure. The fall cricket—or is it alder locust?—sings the praises of the day.
So about 9 A.M. up river to Fair Haven Pond.
I rest and take my lunch on Lee’s Cliff, looking toward Baker Farm. What is a New England landscape this sunny August day? A weather-painted house and barn, with an orchard by its side, in midst of a sandy field surrounded by green woods, with a small blue lake on one side. A sympathy between the color of the weather-painted house and that of the lake and sky. I speak not of a country road between its fences, for this house lies off one, nor do I commonly approach them from this side. The weather-painted house. This is the New England color, homely but fit as that of a toadstool.

*We see no effects of frost yet in garden, but hear a rumor of a little somewhere. First muskmelon gathered.

–Thoreau’s Journal (August 26, 1856)



Here in a new place, collecting a few recent pieces that have seen the light of day:

Punto de Vista’s gorgeous tribute to the filmmaker Jonathan Schwartz is now available (stateside via SF Cinematheque) and includes an essay of mine.

I contributed a short preface to a much-needed reprint of Paul Clipson’s REEL book from the stalwarts of LAND AND SEA. I am told the initial run sold out at SF Art Book Fair but that more will be available by the time of NY Art Book Fair in September.

A report, of sorts, on my reading of the early issues of the News — the newsletter that preceded the formation of the Canyon Cinema distribution co-op (not the other way around) and that surely merits facsimile treatment!

Keeping with Canyon, I sent a short piece on Guy Davenport and Stan Brakhage’s turbulent friendship for the latest issue of the Cinemazine, themed missed connections, that is well worth seeking out.


an absence once felt becomes – presence


There is an article of mine in the current Cinema Scope about this wonderful filmmaker and beautiful person, Jonathan Schwartz, and there is much more to come on Schwartz’s work via Punto de Vista.

To those who show films, show his.

Available Light


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.

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.


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


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.