This past weekend, the Film-Maker’s Co-op out of New York and MOCA at the Pacific Design Center teamed up for what they billed as LA’s first avant-garde film festival, three days celebrating the experimental and underground work distributed by the co-op from the 1960′s to today. Enthusiastically curated by film-maker MM Serra (that’s for Mary Magdalene) and academic of the underground David E. James, it also boasted the presence throughout of experimental legends Carolee Schneeman, Ken Jacobs and Jonas Mekas, each presented with some sort of over-sized commendation scroll on the opening night and treated to individual programmes dedicated to their work.
There’s few opportunities to see underground cinema in the theatre, so despite the fact that most in attendance were already familiar with titles major and minor of the form, it was a great pleasure, to be offered programmes of classics as the opening and closing events. The festival kicked off with Jack Smith’s staple, the legendary Flaming Creatures (1963), a bleached-out fever dream of transsexuals cavorting on a New York roof-top, a hymn to the trash glamour of Frances Francine, Mario Montez and others of their Factory superstar ilk and, for about half its length, an amusing advertisement for indelible lipstick. There’s also a tranny vampire, an ambisexual objet fétiche par excellence in the form of a hanging glass lamp and the mischievous use of flaccid penises which was the main bone of contention for the the authorities that perpetually called for the film’s suppression. Jonas Mekas was its first champion, defying the law with his screenings, but it soon boasted Sontag and Hoberman as supporters; if the film can seem rather underwhelming to the first-timer, its good humour and significance as a beacon for freedom of expression easily compensate for the featherlight nature of its artistic achievements.
Not all underground films are about drag queens, although it can sometimes feel that way. Flaming Creatures was suitably complemented by Jose Rodriguez-Soltero’s Lupe (1966) a hymn to tragic star Lupe Velez, again starring Mario Montez. It has that rough underground feel of grainy cut-off image and ropey sound, but is shot through with a deliciously filmic decadence lifted from von Sternberg, drenched in delirious color, and carried by a densely collaged soundtrack of pop, baroque classical and, naturally, Marlene Dietrich.
The opening night was rounded out by Carolee Schneeman’s dizzying Fuses (1964), a silent collage of love-making between the artist and her then-partner, musician James Tenney (long-time Brakhage collaborator) with occasional appearances by her cat, Kitch. Schneeman’s ambitious intention was to see if she could recreate on film her own feelings and sensations during sex without resorting to pornography or the objectification of the female, and employs an arsenal of editing and film manipulation techniques (much painting, burning, scratching and superimposition) to this end. Much of it is gorgeous – particularly recurrent shots of leaves and the cat sitting in a window – and pornography it certainly is not, but with recurring close-ups she does pull off the unusual trick of really making one wonder at the strangeness of genitalia.
Schneeman’s individual programme I had to miss, which was a shame as I particularly would have liked to see in the theatre her record of a performance piece Meat Joy (1964). I also had to skip the closing night classics, which would have afforded a long hoped-for opportunity to see Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) on the big screen, alongside works from Shirley Clarke, Stan Brakhage, Ron Rice and Tom Chomont. Missing the Jonas Mekas programme, however, I can blame squarely on Ken Jacobs – my brain could take no more after his epilepsy-inducing work. Jacobs’ recent style is a highly idiosyncratic pursuit of the illusion of three-dimensionality; his method is a secret – “alchemical”, as he puts it – combination of superimposition and movement, whereby an image is repeated on itself slightly out of place, and applied with a weird juddering effect that really does produce a remarkable sensation of three-dimensionality. Unfortunately it’s also killer on the eyes. Jacobs applies this method to footage he has shot, early 20th-century footage of street pushcarts and to still photos. This is mostly successful in Capitalism: Child Labor (2006) where an old stereoscopic photograph of children in a thread factory judders along to an unnerving electronic drone score by Rick Reed and blossoms into a series of picture-in-picture effects of the ghostly children’s faces and the ominous men who are present as overseers, mouldy with pixel death. The hammering of the point is effective.
The opening film of his programme, Krypton is Doomed (2005), however, was cut above: Jacobs uses the same technique with moving footage again, but here one can barely tell what it is, and it even takes a short while to realize it is moving at all, at the sludge speed of ooze, surrounded by distorted, fogged-out patterns like some galactic portal or time-space explosion, punctuated by regular, pulsating bursts of light. All this is accompanied by snippets of an old Superman radio broadcast interspersed with stretches of hypnotic silence. That the broadcast concerns the imminent destruction of the planet Krypton has obvious relevance to real-world eco concerns, but for much of the film’s 34-minute length Jacobs also allows the viewer to enjoy the inherently campy humour of the fifties radio style; selective audio editing of Krypton’s destruction however, coupled with the astonishing video, creates a genuine feeling of horror by the end. Mesmerizing.
All these programmes were interspersed with highly genial introductions from Serra and James, and Q&As with various of the film-makers. There was a recurrent and rather long-nosed dismissal of shock as a tactic – is it not the duty, or even definition of the avant garde to shock? As an element in such film-making it is surely best judged on the how and the why rather than condemned as something inherently vulgar. There was also much championing of the medium of film (and did you know that UCLA benefactor George Lucas paid for their cinema school with the proviso that *only* digital media be utilised? For shame) and if I learnt one thing from the festival it was that if you have a Q&A, Jonas Mekas will surely hijack it and it will be a long time before you can get a word in edge-ways. Even if he’s only in the audience.
Two other programmes: California Counter-Culture showed that underground film is by no means the sole preserve of its distribution centre, New York, with shorts including Thom Anderson and Malcolm Brodwick’s vibrant editing exercise — ——- (The Rock ‘n’Roll Movie, 1966-7), a lovely hymn to light and nature (Mexican folk song actually) from Bruce Baillie (Valentin de las Sierras), anti-Vietnam documents from Donna Deitch, Leonard Henry and Lenny Lipton and a record of the San Fransisco Be-in (Jerry Adams, 1967) complete with bearded Ginsberg and finger cymbals. Best of all, however, was the simply trippy exercise in psychedelic collage and early video, Offon, by Scott Bartlett (1968) a riot of form and colour to a throbbing electronic soundtrack which dissolves, appropriately, into rhythmic images of pretzels and the Rorschach test.
Somewhat less rewarding was the Unruly Bodies: Transgressive Appropriations programme, which I approached with needless trepidation. Requisitioned porn loomed large, cut, painted, scratched, but never so much so that the footage’s original purpose was truly undermined. MM Serra contributed with Chop Off (2009), a superficial call for acceptance of all things human via a brief portrait of a Coney Island sideshow performance amputee (cuts off his toes and finger joints with a chisel for the entertainment of a live audience) which was searching or illuminating on neither a specific nor a general level. Nor really was co-op director Anne Hanavan‘s I Love Jesus (2003), another of her auto-erotic self-portraits, wherein she spreads he cheeks for a bedroom mirror and cavorts in stockings and a horse-tail plug to a rather good Joy Division song.
Jack Waters’ 1990 The Male Gayze was a diverting voice-over tale of how a photo of his (dancer’s) torso found its way unauthorized onto postcards across Europe and America that winds up with the ever-intriguing proposition that pornography differs from erotica in that the former will always produce a victim. Best in show, however, went to the snappily-edited Mayhem: Is This What You Were Born For? (part 6) (Abigail Child, 1987), finely shot in noir style and nicely inter-cut with footage appropriated from anonymous programmers (though some of it looks like it might be a Rosselini war film). Portraits of femmes and well-chosen interstitial shots fizzle with an erotic excitement, coupled with some Flaming Creatures-style rooftop writhing and a gradual and effective building of tension from repeated snatches of action (corridor-running towards a canted camera, mounting a shadowy staircase). That it suddenly switches to some vintage Japanese porn seems entirely natural, somehow, but over-indulgence to the footage does dilute the film’s rhythmic power.
So all told a splendid and diverse festival, well-presented and passionately curated in the really rather nice MOCA/PDC theatre which I am ashamed to say I never before knew existed. I very much hope such a celebration will be repeated next year.