The headquarters of The North American Ibis Alchemical Company is a vast, third-floor loft that looks like a studio out of the Mack Sennett days, resurrected into an era of advanced technology and more conscious surrealism.
The loft was a sparring ring back in the days of bare-knuckle boxing; the old building it occupies is said to have served as a temporary San Francisco City Hall after the 1906 earthquake; more recently, the third floor housed a factory that produced Annabelle candy bars. Today it is filed with strange light machines, costumes, constructions and Victorian furniture. The product is light shows, and some of the most exuberant, epic film-making on the current new cinema scene.
North American Ibis is headed by Ben Van Meter, 27-year-old filmmaker who has just completed his first feature-length picture, Acid Mantra. A trilogy that runs slightly less than two hours, the film is an "experimental documentary" based on the rock-flower children scene, but conceived as a "multiple projection cinema event" rather than a movie, and a document embracing "total experience." The film is subtitled "Re-Birth of a Nation," reflecting both Van Meter's sense of history and the monumental scale of his concept and material. "The acid was over two years ago," Van Meter said. "I think less and less in terms of acid, an more and more in terms of re-birth."
Van Meter is one of a new breed of artist-entreprenuer who looks somewhat far-out, talks supremely straight and neither seeks nor shuns such Establishment mainstays as money, which he accepted to finish his last film, or interviews, where he is personable, relaxed and articulate. He lives in an apartment partitioned off a corner of his studioloft, and is tuned in to its historic atmosphere. "Filmmaking in San Francisco now is like the days of Mack Sennett all over again," he said.
Originally from Oklahoma, Van Meter studied poetry at Antioch college, later transferred to San Francisco State College to double in poetry and film for a combined degree. His poetry is unpublished. "Film is the all inclusive medium," Van Meter said. "You can mix sound, pictures, words, everything."
Van Meter completed seven shorter films before beginning work on Acid Mantra. His first, "The Poontang Trilogy," was made in 1964. It combined newsreel footage, live documentary and animation in a college style somewhat like that of Bruce Conner to focus on the subject of anti-censorship. The film begins with footage of the Hindenburg explosion projected onto a nude body, moves into location shots of demonstrators, then returns to the nude model who dances with a flower over the proper place; when she throws it away, a "Censored" sign appears and chases her out of the picture.
Van Meter now considers the film "pretty literary," but it has won the status of a minor underground classic.
In later films, Van Meter has expanded live, location filming to a stage where both terms seem primitive. In a black-and-white film, "Oldsmobile," he first experimented with multiple exposures, using two and three levels.
Most of his recent films have been in color– — "A Color Film," using costumed dancers against natural settings; "Trips Festival," super-imposing film of the festival over scenes of the opening of the Haight Street Psychedelic Shop; "The World is Coming," the first reel of Acid Mantra, mixes as many as six different exposures, sometimes adding triple-exposed color to triple-exposed black-and-white, in a light-show-like spectacle of the rock sub-culture, Baroque texture, momentum and soaring sweep, over a sound-truck combined incessant drumbeats with electronic effects. The second and third reels of the film extend multiple images into double and triple projection.
Van Meter's technique is a mixture of choice and chance. "The old style of multiple exposure was all preconceived," he said. "I get much more interesting effects by mixing everything in the camera. Not that I don't make choices–after exposing a roll, I have a good idea of what I want to shoot over it. And I edit, of course. But the percentage of usable footage is surprisingly high."
He uses a similar technique for his sound tracks, "mixing and over dubbing until I get a flowing thing– — well enough to carry the thing." Parts of Acid Mantra include songs by Country Joe and the Fish, old Southern dance music by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, excerpts from President Johnson's State of the Union message. At its very end, an actor reads a quote from a Yoga text.
Van Meter thinks of all his films as "experimental documentaries," but transcending narrative or "literary metaphor" to embrace a "total experience." He says, "Acid Mantra is like a river of images, like the universe is a river of images constantly flowing in and out of each other."
He has been filming Acid Mantra for more than two years, most of which went into the first, and longest (45 minutes), reel. Shot mostly before he acquired his studio a year ago, it contains an extraordinary mixture of location rock dance and lightshow scenes, crowds on downtown streets, footage from a country party hosted by the Grateful Dead. They build a multi-textured, proculsive structure of sprawling power.
The second reel is titled "Lila," an Indian word referring to "the changing energy patterns and the creative play of the universe. It's the most documentary of the three, with a lot of scenes from the Human Be-In and other activities in Golden Gate Park," Van Meter said.
"Lila" uses double projection, but except for its first and last portions, the images are primarily the same on both screens, he said. "There is one sound track on both prints, so you hear the same thing coming from two speakers."
The third reel– — "Make Love, Not War, or Brown Rice," uses three projectors, and takes advantage of all the possibilities. Similar images with different superimpositions combined with single images or different images, images which appear simultaneously or recur at different times on alternate screens. The film mixes live location with studio shots –— "mostly lights and ladies, projections on nudes and semi-nudes," newsreel footage with set-up scenes, like one of a big boat which was built in the studio, filled with pretty girls and then floated on a lake in Golden Gate Park. "It comes near the end, as a spring, a re-birth image," Van Meter said.
Van Meter made all his early films "independently," meaning with money from light shows which The North American Ibis began two years ago at the Filmore auditorium. This included the first reel of Acid Mantra, which cost between $4,000 and $5,000.
The trilogy was completed with the backing of John Ury, Los Angeles producer of hip TV commercials and stock group promos.
"I showed him the first reel, and it really blew his mind," Van Meter said. Ury invested $8,500 for 30 percent of the film. Van Meter was able to pay a $6,500 lab bill which covered much of the exposed, but unprinted footage that went into "Lila," and he completed the last two reels of the trilogy over the past three months. "I edited all last week," he said. "I worked almost every night."
Van Meter, at deadline time, was waiting for prints of reels two and three to get back from his processor, and tentatively arranging for the world premiere of Acid Mantra at San Francisco's Canyon Cinema theatre. He plans presentations in Los Angeles and New York, and may enter it in the New York Film Festival. If a commercial distributor should show interest, so much the better, he said. "It seems to me to embody the message of this generation as I understand it more clearly than any other film I've seen," he said. "I want to get it into as many heads as possible."
Van Meter has long range plans involving both new films and light shows. Beginning April 18, he said North American Ibis will be producing light shows each weekend at the new Carousel Ballroom. "We are planning to take the light show much beyond the point that it's been taken," he said. "We're developing equipment and techniques that have not been used before–environmental sculpture pieces, things for people to play with and do.
"We also plan to work with much brighter lights, so we can film without having to add light," he added. "We can make feature films, television spectaculars, rock promos." He is also interested in getting into color video-tape, although the cost is currently prohibitive. Van Meter sums up his film-making credo by contrast to Andy Warhol. "We're complete opposite," he said. "Warhol's films are negative, static. Mine are positive, flowing. I hate to capsulize what I'm doing, but 'love one another' is the message."