Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, Screening at YBCA

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Wednesday April 15, 2009- Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts

Curated and presented by Jeff Lambert of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

If I was wondering where all of the crushingly awkward, ultra-hip AV nerds were in this town, I need have looked no further than the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Similar in form and content to ACMI, YBCA seems like a marginally livelier place, being as it is, positioned next to the pretty Yerba Buena gardens. But they share a certain clinical design ethos that serves to make an already self-conscious visiting demographic of artists and boffins even more chronically so. We’re talking the neutrals brigade- brown, black, perhaps a lashing of grey here and there- a riot of winter tones…in spring time! Apparently this is a universal look for sound, film and video artists. Who could possibly explain why?

In any case, it’s a scene I’m well familiar, if not totally down with, and as the dour, earnest, sobre crowd began to file in, I got an inkling of what kind of screening this would be (a serious one). As suggested above, apart from a similar audience, YBCA also shares with ACMI a singularly awful, intimidating, alienating and instantly dated interior architecture- apparently if you want to be serious about film, you must enshrine it in an ugly, sterile space. And so it is written.

The “Treasures” series- of which this is the fourth edition- are DVD box sets of various curated  collections plucked from the archives of the National Film Preservation Foundation (of America).  Focussing on recently preserved and reprinted experimental films of the last 60 years, the fourth set has some 26 works, 7 of which were screened on this evening. The curators and YBCA programmers were present at the screening, hawking the product and taking questions, and it was a relatively relaxed, congenial and open affair. Apparently even in San Francisco experimental film is an intimate circle, and you got the sense people were separated by mere degrees, rather than it being a very disparate group. Everyone was invited for drinks afterwards to celebrate the launch of the DVD, and you have to be pretty confident you KNOW your audience, to do that. Unfortunately, I had no “in” here whatsoever, and being the delicate flower that I am, I declined. I digress.

The playlist:

Go! Go! Go!- 1962-64, Marie Menken, 16mm, Colour, Silent, 11 minutes

Little Stabs at Happiness- 1959-63, Ken Jacobs, 16mm, Colour, Sound, 15 minutes

Mario Banana (No. 1)- 1964, Andy Warhol, 16mm, Colour, Silent, 4 minutes

Chumlum- 1964, Ron Rice, 16mm, Colour, Sound, 23 minutes

Peyote Queen- 1965, Storm de Hirsch, 16mm, Colour, Sound, 9 minutes

7362- 1967, Pat O’Neill, 16mm, Colour, Sound, 10 minutes

Bad Burns- 1982, Paul Sharits, 16mm, Colour, Silent, 6 minutes

I definitely had my favourites- I loved the wild graphic effects and fantastic rythm of Peyote Queen and 7362- evidence of a film craft which has so influenced what I do myself, but which belongs to a now definitively past era. These are experiments I feel cannot be repeated meaningfully- with either digital or analog equipment- they can only be referenced or inspired by. I loved the sharp cuts and driving movement of Go! Go! Go! – it struck me as a really female way to edit- quick paced, and taking in and balancing countless different images, scenes and rythms and melding them into a larger beat. And  I loved the pulsating, lusty cross fades in Chumlum- an orgiastic, bohemian pantomime that was both hysterical and foolish.

Some of it left me cold- Andy Warhol’s Mario Banana (No 1) was unsurprisingly  vapid, but surprisingly boring because of it- especially when butting up against such a vibrant and diverse playlist. Bad Burns was a tedious example of process taking precedence over form and content- a harbinger of a whole stream of bad video art to come (IMO).

Over all, it was a great selection from what promises to be a great collection, which I plan to purchase forthwith! Experimental film doesn’t always do it for me. I’ve been to many a screening night that had me fantasizing about forging a rudimentary origami dagger out of the program and committing ritual suicide….just TO MAKE IT STOP. But these curators clearly have an eye for elevating the gems- the significant works that were truly pioneering and whose influence is still felt now in both film and video practice.

It’s easy to poo-poo experimental art- hell, I do it all the time. It’s not as easily engaging as narrative, it doesn’t come out to greet you with a warm, loving embrace. It’s difficult. It’s occasionally really weird and not that clear- even to the artist- what it’s all about. But without it, art, culture, film- they would stagnate and become irrelevant- and Treasures IV is a great reminder of this fact.

As Molly would say, do your self a favour- you will go to art heaven if you buy this DVD:

http://www.deepdiscount.com/viewproduct.htm?productId=60211817#

More info here: http://www.filmpreservation.org/dvd/frameset_dvd.html

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