Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000

I feel like I’m on an endless and epic journey whenever I dive into the details of the historical art scene. There’s too much to discover and learn about in the previous decades and it interferes with keeping up with what people are doing today and now. But if you don’t understand what went before, how can you grasp what is currently?

This is a hysterically excellent book that you are almost forced to read with a laptop nearby to look up all the referenced films, like When You Are A Pedestrian (1948) out of the Oakland film co-op Progressive Pictures or Tribune-American Dream Picture (1924) which turned people’s dreams into surreal silent films. Oh Dem Watermelons (1965) by Robert Nelson- they roll one down the truly crookedest street in SF at 3:55. Schmeerguntz (1966) by Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley (really wish I could find the whole thing but only an excerpt avail online)-a “long, raucous belch in the face of the ‘American home.'”- put together from shots of the unmentionable side of home life juxtaposed against advertising that glamorizes life. Chick Strand’s Loose Ends (1979)– Chick is “a great poet, transcending her material to create a surreal and sublime universe beyond reason.” Barbara Hammer’s 1975 Superdyke. Bruce Conner’s 1958 A Movie was pivotal, of course.

The book is a collection of essays and interviews, stuffed full of tantalizing film stills. Rebecca Solnit weighs in with the first essay, talking about how post-WW2 “there was a sense that no one was watching, that you could do whatever you wanted, that you’d escaped the rules. You moved to New York to enter history, to San Francisco to reinvent or subvert it at a safe distance.”

Bruce Conner includes an essay on how he got involved: he’d heard of Frank Stauffacher starting the Art in Cinema series at SFMOMA (which fizzled when Stauffacher died suddenly), in SF he rented 16mm prints from the Audio Film Center (with library of American mainstream movies, comedies, foreign, documentary, experimental and silent films) but it was hard to see films and there were no film societies. Conner helped build a theater on Kearney/Broadway called The Movie in 1957 then created Camera Obscura Film Society in 1958. His comment about his first film: “I had been waiting 10 years to see a movie that I was sure someone would make sooner or later. I envisioned that it would comprise pictures and sound tracks taken from many different movies. Every time I saw another movie I added another element to the vision I created in my mind. My involvement in film groups was to explore and discover obscure movies with the expectation that I would see this concept in a movie. Although I wasn’t planning to be a filmmaker, by 1957 it had become apparent that there was no one but me to do the job.”

Early heavyweights like Eadweard Muybridge (moving pictures) and Philo Farnsworth (TV) flowed through the area. Philo came up with the idea of rasterized images while plowing the family farm in Idaho but found investment in the idea in SF. His telegram back to his assistant gives an interesting glimpse in how people coordinated meetups in 1926: “Meet us corner California and Powell every day at noon until we get there.”

Terrific interview with Rick Prelinger about amateur film clubs. Learned that Headlands art center was inspired from an offshoot of CAI/CEIA which was an organization within SFSU; they occupied an SFSU-owned surplus WW2 submarine base on Tiburon and converted the barracks into galleries.

Tape Music Center on Divisadero was a location for showing some of the experimental films from Canyon Cinema in the early 1960s. They put out a newsletter called Cinemanews and discovered the CIA had a subscription; when the CIA renewed it they sent $1.60 instead of $2 so the group sent them a cryptographic message that was easy to break that said “CIA cheapskates impermissably took a discount for their subscription” and a check arrived for the remaining amount. They were terrified because if the Canyon Cinema folks were being watched, “it meant everybody was being watched.”

In the 1970s the community would gather in weekly salons and at No Nothing’s BYO-BBQs to watch “shorts pieced together with out-of-date raw stock, hand-held/available-light camerawork, and felt-penned found footage, playfully patched and scratched on like mad, then exuberantly unspooled with double-system sound, to the favorite tune of the moment. These were among the most joyful, most unconscious moments in the Bay Area’s found footage saga, treating original and secondhand shots as equally serviceable surfaces for Exacto knife doodlings, direct animation appliques, and rhythmic editing patterns.” Then the 80s came: “The mood changed, studios and labs closed, SOMA fell to gentrification (the original No Nothing site is now home plate in the SF Giants’ ballpark).”

Crystal Palace Market was one of Yvonne Rainer’s favorite places in SF: “a cavernous structure on Market and Eighth with a great arched glass roof housing innumerable stalls selling everything from produce to meat to steam beer. One of the treats of my childhood was accompanying my father on a Saturday afternoon to Joe’s lunch counter for spaghetti and meatballs and listening to them talk in Italian. Joe’s was an oasis of calm amid the smells and clamor of that vast expanse. It was criminal that it was torn down in 1959 to be replaced by an apartment block.” (That apartment block was torn down a few years ago and is bring reborn as fancier apartments with a Whole Foods at retail level.)

Robert Nelson, 2001: “There’s less freedom now to invest one’s full energy in art. Our culture produces so much stuff—entertainment, music, film, videos, everything—that it diminishes the importance of everything. I mean, should we add to that huge pile of shit? Art loses its specialness when it’s so pervasive and when there’s so much competition for people trying to make a career.”

World’s first light show? 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo:

Illumination from “Scintillator” on Morro Castle, Panama-Pacific International Expo, 1915