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Top of the Underground: Reel Humor & Flashes

A look at the counterculture films the mainstream is probably going to miss

Students, underground, film

Students and creative individuals are using the underground film as an outlet for inner expressions on January 3rd, 1968.

The Denver Post via Getty

Among other things, The Rolling Renaissance– — which filled twenty San Francisco art galleries throughout June and gave the City a look back over more than a quarter of a century of its underground arts –— produced what was probably the first major retrospective underground film festival.

Organized by John Schofill, a young Bay Area film-maker, the festival ran four consecutive nights at the Light Sound Dimension theater. It included over forty films, ranging from “The Potted Psalm,” made in 1946 by James Broughton and Sidney Peterson and probably the first San Francisco underground film, to William Hindle’s 1968 “Chinese Firedrill” and Broughton’s new film, “The Bed.” Overflow crowds had to be turned away each night, there was probably not a person under 40 who didn’t see a few previously legendary films for the first time, and the whole program was probably the best and most successful survey ever presented in the Bay Area of the last two decades of underground film.

Let me say here that I consider the underground movement– — “experimental,” “avant garde,” “personal,” take your choice — –to be the only real thing happening in film, Blowup, Bonnie and Clyde and a few TV commercials notwithstanding. There has been a consistent integrity in underground film-making that these commercial efforts mostly lack– — the fads they touched off weren’t entirely the fault of the audience– — and there is an earthiness and vitality to American experimental film that is notably absent from the European product.

I say this because the rest of my remarks are going to be hypercritical. The festival and films, like most festivals and underground films, suffered from an Economy of Scarcity attitude: Because festivals are so rare, you have to cram each program with three or four hours of concentrated viewing, and because film is so expensive, you have to throw every inch of exposed footage into your flick. Time and again, one is tempted to charge the projector with a pair of scissors.

Strangest of all, though, were Schofill’s extensive program notes, generally quite good, but every so often reflecting an Underground-Movies-Are-Better-Than-Ever attitude which was not at all borne out by the four evenings, especially the final program, “The New Film Renaissance.” A good parallel to the difference between the underground films of today and those of ten years ago was offered in a large photography show that filled the theater’s lobby. It consisted about equally of shots of old Beats by old Beats and shots of new Hippies by new Hippies, and the contrast was striking.

The Beat photographers did scarcely anything new with the medium of photography, but they had all kinds of penetration into the people and atmospheres of their subject matter. The new photographers have developed all kinds of new techniques, and God, do they have style, but scarcely anything substantial to say. The medium may be the message, but by itself it can be a message of dreary uniformity. Or: Mankind is infinite in its variety, but when you’ve seen one technique, or one style, you’ve seen the lot.

The development of underground film in the past ten years was summarized in the festival’s two final programs. The old Beat film-makers– — Chris McLaine, Dio Vigne, Don Rice– — were extravagant with personal statement, and almost completely lacking in what is now considered style and technique. The new film artists have developed great technical sophistication, all kinds of style, and most of their work is in color; but the total effect is too often simply a bead-like chain of visual effects. And only a few of the finest film-makers, old or new, have grappled successfully with the over-riding problem of form, with its component parts of proportion, pacing and, above all, length.

The only real exceptions among the new films were by three filmmakers who are actually transitional figures, Broughton, Bruce Conner and Bruce Baillie.

“The Bed” is a superb film, even better than Broughton’s early Fifties “The Pleasure Garden,” and an infinite improvement over his earlier films that were screened the first evening. These were long and slow-paced, lingering tediously on effects that may have once seemed avantly shocking– — somewhat like the new films, although the effects were literary and surreal rather than visual and “psychedelic.” “The Bed,” by contrast, is brisk and highly visual, and, while still literary or poetic in tone, a sheer delight of whimsy, Edenesque innocence, witty perversity and ringing affirmation.

Conner’s “The White Rose” is a fine, brief, tongue-in-cheek “documentary” of a huge painting being removed from an artist’s studio, carried onto a Bekin’s moving van with a combination of cold efficiency and all the lugubrious solemnity of a state funeral. “The White Rose” has remarkable timing and pace, and an “artless” style which can only come out of a deep sense of what the art is all about. It has another quality that is too often missing from the work of other new film-makers: a sense of humor.

This does not necessarily mean that new film-makers are all profound and serious. In fact, it frequently seems that they confuse seriousness with a kind of grim, scowling earnestness. Alan Watts once recounted the story of an acquaintance who had just made his first trip on mind-expanders. He was bitterly disappointed; having expected a religious experience, all he had done was laugh. This classic example of missing the point seems true of all too many of the new filmmakers. Of them all, only Conner and Broughton provide this sense of holy laughter. There is a touch of it at the beginning of Hindle’s “Firedrill,” and elusive flashes in parts of Michael Stewart’s “The Gray Unnamable.”

Humor, holy or otherwise, is not an absolute essential in meaningful film-making; Bruce Baillie’s 1963 “To Parsifal” is more than enough to prove that.

Baillie is a great lyricist of the camera, but if this were all, his films would simply add up to so much glossy travelogue color footage. His films transcend this because his sense of structure, flow and human meaning are epic. “To Parsifal” is an entirely personal statement, but the structure of the Parsifal legend — –underlined by Wagner’s music– — gives direction and a sense of universal purpose; ships are not simply ships, but the symbols of a personal pilgrimage; a freight train steaming through a mountainous landscape takes on the meaning of a journey through the deepest layers of consciousness; close-ups of water, rocks and insects are not simply Walt Disney nature studies, but enlightenment.

The contrast between “To Parsifal” and “Off-On,” a 1967 film by Scott Bartlett, makes a case study of all that is wrong with “The New Film Renaissance.” Bartlett’s film was probably one of two or three most technically accomplished of the festival; it is a sequence of brilliant, semi-abstract effects in superb color. But that’s all.

Ben Van Meter’s “San Francisco Trips Festival” does more or less the same thing, using multiple exposures that produce a moving collage of photographic images. Van Meter calls his films “Documentaries,” but even a run-of-the-mill documentary makes some attempt to get into its subject. Van Meter has just completed a feature-length trilogy —– too long, no doubt, for a festival program– — which does get inside its subject deeply, and makes its statement from within. “Trips Festival,” though, is just so much footage, suitable, perhaps, for the “psychedelic” scene in a Hollywood hippie movie.

Along with Bartlett’s “Off-On,” the slickest product among the new films was Schofill’s own 1968 “X Film.” It has some beautiful frames, mostly the kind you expect out of Bruce Baillie — –a weird factory, a stark farm with a windmill, a flying airplane. But all too quickly it begins to show symptoms of Great American Filmitis; scenes from Mission Impossible and other TV images flicker across the screen in a haze of blue light, and then there is all the frenzy, excesses and artificial beauty of the American Way of Life, presented with the even greater frenzy, excess and contrivance of effects-for-effects’-sake filmmaking.

Films like this you simply have to more or less take as they are, and be happy that only a handful of brilliant scenes stick in your memory when they are over. The really frustrating thing is the way the whole hang-up with visual gimmickry has ruined some otherwise fine films. “Chinese Firedrill” has elements of greatness; it begins with the voice of a Chinese dryly recounting what happened to him when war first hit his homeland; he is philosophical and ironic, but the camera dredges up all the horror that his consciousness has buried in stark, fragmented scenes of ruins, uprooting and pursuit. But about two-thirds through the reel, Hindle seems to have run against a dead-end, and a powerful, moving, tremendously human statement is fleshed out with a melange of quick-cut visuals.

The Gray Unnamable” is another, lighter social comment film, more modest and more human than “Film” because it makes its point by concentrating on the faces and movements of the faceless, aimless crowds on downtown Market Street. It has some brilliant scenes, especially the ones involving slow and ultra-rapid motion shots, but it, too, ends with a Mixmaster explosion of meaningless images. It seems to be the thing to do when you can’t figure how to end the film.

One of the big surprises of the festival was that, of almost all the films, both old and new, the most memorable and durable were the old abstractions of the Fifties. This was true not only of things by the great master abstractionists, Jordan Belson and Harry Smith, but also the work of such secondary figures as Hy Hirsch, Jane Conger and Patricia Marx. Their films were infinitely more “abstract” in form than almost anything being done by the new film-makers, most of whom use various techniques of scrambled photography. But they unfold with a logic, and a meaning that eludes the visual effects of the new film-makers. When more of them figure out why this is, there may really be a new film renaissance.

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