Originally published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, February 26, 2016
In the fall of 1975, Terry Cannon, a young man newly returned to Southern California from San Francisco State University, launched Pasadena Filmforum: a nonprofit film society that aimed to further the legacy of experimental cinema in Los Angeles. As various forms of risqué cinema (soft- and hardcore pornography, European sex films, etc.) rose to unprecedented levels of mainstream acceptance, Cannon took it upon himself to reestablish a sense of truly autonomous, non-industrial filmmaking in the shadow of Hollywood. Over the next eight years, under Cannon’s guidance, Pasadena Filmforum would dedicate itself to highlighting work from the margins of cinema, extending the 1960s’s experiments in underground and outré art culture into a less recognized but more self-sufficient entity. Four decades later, the since-rechristened Los Angeles Filmforum celebrated its 40th anniversary with the publication of Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980, a collection of essays and historical texts concerning this most fruitful of epochs in Los Angeles avant-garde cinema.
Alternative Projections originated from the Getty Research Institute’s citywide exhibition, “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980.” Initially of modest aims, Filmforum’s contribution to the exhibit grew into both an academic conference and a 28 program screening series — one of the most ambitious of the “Pacific Standard Time” projects. The writings in Alternative Projections are largely a result of these efforts. Over the weekend of November 12-14, 2010, Filmforum held a three-day symposium on the University of Southern California campus comprised of 16 presentations and a host of accompanying screenings. Along with a number of historical articles written by several luminaries of the Los Angeles experimental art scene, 14 of the papers presented at USC are preserved in Alternative Projections, an anthology edited by USC professor of cinema David E. James, and Adam Hyman, currently the executive director of Los Angeles Filmforum and now its longest-tenured administrator.
Hyman is but one of many who have managed the traditionally itinerant Filmforum since Cannon’s departure in 1983, when it moved from Pasadena to then-desolate downtown Los Angeles. Indeed, much of the association’s legacy was forged after 1980, the date bookending the PST project. What’s significant about Alternative Projections, then, is how it’s able to construct a continuum between these various eras, as well as between a number of disparate regions of Los Angeles and the genres of film — documentary, animation, nonnarrative, and subcultural cinemas — which helped define the city’s artistic identity. In keeping with this breadth of interests, the story the book tells about the rise of West Coast experimental cinema is one of liberal and holistic representation.
The volume opens with a selection of texts — largely first-person production accounts and creative testimonials — by filmmakers such as Maya Deren and Curtis Harrington, as well as a number of vintage periodicals that chronicled the burgeoning Los Angeles arts scene. Connecting the work of these regional forebears with the midcentury film school experiments of such storied names as Kenneth Anger and Gregory J. Markopoulos, these opening articles introduce us to an era of rapid creative advancement. The essays that follow are therefore free to cast a wide net in their consideration of Los Angeles’s cinematic accomplishments, which range from Ed Ruscha’s “para-cinematic” photography, to the “living murals” of Chicano performance art collective Asco, to the minority filmmakers who were part of the “L.A. Rebellion.” The art-historical spectrum the book attempts to cover is vast, but the volume deftly condenses this constellation of aesthetics and approaches, many of which continue to define the artistic temperament of contemporary experimental filmmaking in Los Angeles and the programming of Filmforum.
The key to approaching Alternative Projection’s history of localized, noncommercial cinema is to consider it in relation to its parent industry of Hollywood, which it has evolved alongside both technologically and geographically, and oftentimes in harmony. In his complementary study The Most Typical Avant-Garde, David E. James, co-editor of Alternative Projections, explains why the relationship between the avant-garde and Hollywood is so frequently misrepresented as a struggle between two completely opposed entities. Among other traits, James notes the avant-garde’s self-conscious filmmaking with regard to the “otherness” of its artistic and geographic character. Such self-consciousness is borne out in many of the subjects discussed in Alternative Projections, not only in the creative directive of the organizations which have traditionally programmed experimental film in Los Angeles, but also the professional practices of the filmmakers themselves, many of whom cross-pollinate between marginal cinema and Hollywood.
Historically, the study of the American avant-garde has followed the developments of the New York underground, and in particular the achievements of the New American Cinema Group, founded in 1962 by filmmaker, poet, and critic Jonas Mekas. This is an impression that The Most Typical Avant-Garde, and now Alternative Projections, push back on. The bicoastal evolution of experimental cinema is a noteworthy (if under-recognized) phenomenon, with New York and California informing and occasionally opposing one another. This tenuous dynamic was heightened early on by the writings of Mekas and avant-garde historian P. Adams Sitney, both New York intellectuals who at first only begrudgingly acknowledged the work of their West Coast peers. Josh Guilford examines the history of this contentious moment in his Alternative Projections essay, “Against Transparency: Jonas Mekas, Vernon Zimmerman, and the West Coast Contribution to the New American Cinema.” He outlines Mekas’s “late-modern anxieties” and how a fundamental resistance to not only the creative, but also the natural, environment of Southern California informed his criticism. Mekas only relinquished his anxiety upon the arrival of Zimmerman’s To L.A. … With Lust (1962), one of the first works by a Los Angeles artist to be overtly praised in print by the former Village Voice columnist and founder of the highly influential magazine, Film Culture.
Of course, the efforts of the Los Angeles avant-garde have managed to persevere on their own merits. Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) remains perhaps the most popular and abiding of all experimental films, just as Curtis Harrington’s The Wormwood Star (1956) and Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) are by now textbook classics. The virtues of the latter two are deliberated upon at length by Alice L. Hutchison in her article “Scarlet Woman on Film,” while Deren’s own words are offered in a reprinted 1959 Movie Makers Annual article titled “Amateur Versus Professional,” a manifesto which doubled as an inspirational note to her contemporaries. “The most important part of your equipment is yourself: your mobile body, your imaginative mind, and your freedom to use both,” she writes. Deren’s example reverberated in the work of Owen Land and David Lynch, as well as filmmakers who remain all but lost to time. It’s when one begins to take stock of these latter individuals that the vitality of the Los Angeles experimental scene truly comes into focus.
Ken Eisenstein’s analysis of John Vicario’s Shoppers Market (1963) resurrects one particularly crucial accomplishment. A student film made at UCLA, Shoppers Market played at a handful of international festivals, but has sat mostly undisturbed in the archives of New York’s Film-Makers’ Cooperative in the decades since. Described by Eisenstein as a “meditation on the supermarket as a site of social and psychic interaction,” the film represents the fusion of observational nonfiction and spatial study, a document of anonymous people in a most everyday place –– a universal portrait of a unique environment. The relative obscurity of Robert Wade Chatterton’s Passion in a Seaside Slum (1961), by contrast, can be attributed, in author Marc Siegel’s words, to its early placement “at the nexus of queer, Beat, amateur, and avant-garde film subcultures.” Starring underground icon Taylor Mead years before his rise to prominence alongside Andy Warhol and his Factory cohorts, the film is a key bridge between “the earlier homoerotic psychodramas of Gregory Markopoulos, James Broughton, and [Kenneth] Anger, and the later lush-exotic and minimal-realist depictions of queer subcultures we find in [Jack] Smith and Warhol.” Chatterton places Mead in a modest queer tragicomedy, following the actor along Venice Beach in passionate pursuit of a shirtless young fisherman. The effort and outcome of his endeavor is both ironic and ingratiating in its happy-go-lucky logic.
Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, and the other names alluded to by Siegel are among the most storied in the history of American avant-garde, and these, along with Ron Rice, Stan Brakhage, and Bruce Conner, helped usher in the mainstream’s brief curiosity with underground film art. The exhibitors who were brave and forward-thinking enough to program work by these artists have histories as fascinating as many of the films. A sizable portion of Alternative Projections is given over to these individuals and organizations which first helped bring controversial cinema to Los Angeles screens. The seeds of this early distribution network were sown at the Coronet Theatre, located at 366 North La Cienega, whose history is documented by Tim Lanza in “Raymond Rohauer and the Society of Cinema Arts (1948-1962): Giving the Devil His Due.” The programs put on by Rohauer at the Coronet, which included films by a number of the aforementioned artists, as well as works by forerunners to the avant-garde such as Sergei Eisenstein, Paul Leni, Man Ray, and Luis Buñuel, would set the template for many of the underground and art house associations of the 1960s and ’70s. When the theater was raided by police on October 11, 1957, following a screening of Anger’s homoerotic touchstone Fireworks (1947), the truly subversive nature of these experimental endeavors was once-and-for-all revealed.
A similar incident occurred on March 7, 1964, at the Cinema Theater on Western Avenue, when a double bill of Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Adolfas Mekas’s Hallelujah the Hills (both 1963) prompted an unwelcome ransacking of what was then the most popular venue for avant-garde, camp, and otherwise subterranean cinema in Los Angeles. Run by Mike Getz and co-programmed by John Fles, the Cinema Theater and its “Movies ’Round Midnight” program likewise represent what is arguably the most influential showcase for transgressive cinema in the city’s history. Fles, a staunch proponent of curatorial discretion, who had previously run experimental film screenings at the Unicorn Book Shop on the Sunset Strip, put forth his philosophy in a 1964 self-published article, “Seeing is Believing,” in which he anoints programmers “the primary force in guiding the audience’s perspective and shaping cinematic meaning.” Even when the Cinema Theater eventually buckled in the early ’70s under the growing weight of the demand for more risqué fare, Fles’s conception of the curator as artistic lodestar would shape the ideals of many future nonprofit film societies and exhibition centers. These include the artist-run Los Angeles Independent Film Oasis, the Theatre Vanguard in West Hollywood, and, soon enough, Los Angeles Filmforum itself.
At the same time as these raids and ransackings, Los Angeles witnessed the rise of films produced by members of nonwhite, ethnic, and feminist communities through channels not generally supported by even the experimental sector. Preservationist Ross Lipman’s chronicle of Kent Mackenzie’s production of the Native American neorealist feature The Exiles (1961) offers an account of both the film’s radical reflection of a marginalized culture and its genesis as part of a growing subset of minority cinema students. One of the most productive examples of this student effort was realized years later with the Ethno-Communications collective at UCLA, whose resource program provided the means for what would come to be recognized as the second wave of the L.A. Rebellion. Elsewhere, the Chicano troupe, Asco, was creating and incinerating DIY films in near-equal measure, just as the feminist community and equal rights advocates were organizing around the Woman’s Building, the Feminist Studio Workshop, and the Women’s Graphic Center. Even in the 1980s, at the point of its lowest influence, the scope of activity arising from these left-of-center circles endured.
Though certainly the most ambitious of Filmforum’s attempts to narrate its own history, Alternative Projections isn’t the first undertaking of this nature. In 1994, under the leadership of Jon Stout, the co-op launched Scratching the Belly of the Beast: Cutting-Edge Media in Los Angeles, 1922-94, a two-month survey of a near-century’s worth of developments in local experimental film and video art. Through a combination of in-house screenings and off-site collaborations, the series touched on nearly every aspect of the history of avant-garde cinema in Southern California. This included evenings dedicated to independent animation, Latino and “black experience” films, video work, and retrospectives dedicated to a handful of Los Angeles’s most storied film fraternities, of which Filmforum remained the sole surviving representative. But while a notable success, the event also marked a spiritual transition in a certain era of Filmforum’s narrative. Following the celebration, Stout stepped down as director, leaving the organization in a far less stable state. Later that year, a large-scale program of Andy Warhol films hosted at the Pacific Design Center nearly sunk Filmforum’s fortunes, an incident which took a number of months, even years, from which to fully recover.
In early 1995, with a lack of funding and an increasingly disorganized creative directive, Mark Rance, a local documentarian, and Thom Andersen, the veteran essay filmmaker behind Red Hollywood (1996) and later Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), stepped in, respectively, as director and lead programmer. Together they effectively saved Filmforum while ushering in a unique period of creativity. In the latter half of the decade, Rance and Andersen would help reestablish Filmforum as a haven for experimental film, hosting programs of wide-ranging work from James Benning, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jean-Marie Straub, Ernie Gehr, and Kira Muratova, among many others. A teacher of film theory and history at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Andersen is just one of many representatives of the enduring association between the private arts university and the local cinema community, one whose list of faculty and alumni would account for a substantial portion of any future survey of contemporary advances in the Los Angeles avant-garde.
But as is typical with any venture supported primarily by the goodwill of its staff and volunteers, the enthusiasm to keep Filmforum operating has waned over the years as funding and audiences have withered. “It drove me crazy,” says Andersen. “I was egotistical back then and thought everyone should come to our shows. Adam [Hyman] is more even-tempered. We had our triumphs, but it still wasn’t good enough for me. I always thought we should get larger crowds.” These sentiments are echoed by Hyman, successor to Rance and levelheaded enough to now be approaching his 13th year as executive director, far longer than any of his predecessors. “Filmforum has never paid me a living wage,” he says, adding that, while attendance has been up the last couple of years, it is still difficult to maintain an audience.
A documentary filmmaker himself, Hyman has attempted to keep Filmforum’s vision inclusive as they highlight nonfiction films, works of hybrid cinema, and experimental animation, as well as the efforts of local artists, alongside past masters and foundational works of the avant-garde. Nowadays, few, if any, media outlets are willing to engage with what Filmforum and new, likeminded organizations such as the CalArts-affiliated REDCAT and the nonprofit media arts workshop Echo Park Film Center are attempting to cultivate. As a result, many of the exciting developments in the local cinema scene continue to reach only specialized audiences. But Alternative Projections, both the series and the resultant book, is an unalloyed triumph of passion and a testament to the organization’s perseverance. Indeed, there are enough examples of ingenuity and achievement contained in this volume to unite a new generation of independent artists, exhibitors, and audiences in maintaining a viable outlet for cinematic creativity in Los Angeles.
The author would like to thank Adam Hyman, Terry Cannon, and Thom Andersen for their contributions to this article. ♦