Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980
Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980

Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780861967155
Publisher: John Libbey Publishing
Publication date: 03/13/2015
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

David E. James is on the faculty of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. His books include The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles.

Adam Hyman has been Executive Director and Programmer for Los Angeles Filmforum since 2003. A documentary filmmaker, he has produced and/or written a variety of historical and archeological films that have aired on PBS, the History Channel, the Learning Channel, and others.

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Alternative Projections

Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945â"1980

By David E. James, Adam Hyman

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86196-909-8


Distribution Center for Experimental Films

Curtis Harrington

The postwar revival of the experimental film movement in the United States, which Lewis Jacobs wrote about in detail in the Spring, 1948, issue of the Hollywood Quarterly, has resulted in the formation of a coöperative distribution center to extend the distribution of these films through film societies, universities, art museums, and galleries, and all interested groups and private individuals. The organization has been named Creative Film Associates, and represents the attempt of the film makers to get together on a coöperative basis to insure the widest possible circulation of their work.

Already available for rental from Creative Film Associates is its Program I, which includes Film Exercises 4 and 5 by John and James Whitney, Fragment of Seeking by Curtis Harrington, Meta by Robert Howard, and Escape Episode by Kenneth Anger. Also available are a program of films by Maya Deren – Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, A Study in Choreography for Camera, and Ritual in Transfigured Time – and Kenneth Anger's much-discussed Fireworks. Further releases are to be made in the near future. For the convenience of those who wish to rent an evening's program of experimental works without facing the almost impossible task of assembling a group of films from a wide variety of sources – usually, heretofore, from the individual film makers themselves – several of the films have been put together by Creative Film Associates to form a balanced, forty-five-minute program, which is available at a rental rate lower than the total of fees for each film rented separately.

Creative Film Associates has also established the Creative Film Foundation, which will attempt to preserve and make available as many of the earlier experimental films as may be recovered (for many of the negatives and prints of the experimental films made in the '20s and early '30s have since disappeared), or obtained through the kindness of the film makers who still own their negatives. In the latter category, the films of Man Ray – L'Étoile de Mer, Emak Bakia, Les Mystères du Château de Dé – and Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich's Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra are soon to be released by the foundation. A further activity of the associates has been the establishment of the Creative Film Press, which will publish a series of monographs on various aspects of the creative film.

As Lewis Jacobs concluded in his article, "the future for experimental films is more promising than ever before", and the organization of Creative Film Associates represents one of the first concrete steps taken by the film makers as a group to implement the promise by making experimental films readily available from a central source. As a nonprofit organization, developed and operated on a coöperative basis by the film makers themselves, Creative Film Associates will return all revenue from the rentals to the artists, in order to insure the production of new films. It is hoped that by this method enough films may continually be produced to create a steady supply of new works, so that film centers and other interested groups may expect to have regular experimental film showings throughout the year. This will, of course, contribute to the continued development of the cinema as an independent art form.

More detailed information about the films available from Creative Film Associates, and the activities of the organization, may be obtained by writing to Creative Film Associates, 6215 Franklin Avenue, Hollywood 28, California.


Personal Chronicle: The Making of an Experimental Film

Curtis Harrington

"An art in which youth is barred from practicing freely is sentenced to death in advance. The moving picture camera should be like a fountain pen, which anyone may use to translate his soul onto paper. The 16-mm. film presents the only solution, and in this I think America should take the initiative.... It offers an opportunity of trying for miracles." – Jean Cocteau, "Focus on Miracles", New York Times Magazine, 24 October 1948.

My new film, Picnic, which at this writing is completed except for the sound score, is the fifth film I have made in approximately seven years. The films that go before it include a version of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher (1942), Crescendo (1943), Renascence (1945), and Fragment of Seeking (1946). The first three were photographed on 8-mm. film, and Renascence was in color. Seen today in chronological sequence, they illustrate a kind of cinematic development that could take place only outside of regular commercial production and distribution.

At the beginning, my attempt was simply to film a dramatic, literary subject in an effective "cinematic" way. Stimulated by Paul Rotha's exciting critical history of the silent cinema, The Film till Now, I sought to emulate the extension of the creative means of the cinema exemplified by the films he wrote about most favorably. Instead of going to a primary source, such as the Hollywood film, which seldom stirred my imagination in the direction I had elected to follow, I gathered inspiration from Rotha's account of the most remarkable efforts in the motion pictures of the past. I set out to investigate the possibilities of the medium on my own, influenced only by the suggestion of the critical essay. After The Fall of the House of Usher I deserted the literary subject altogether, as the later films indicate.

In retrospect it appears most significant that I was especially impressed by Rotha's comment on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: "... [it showed that] a film, instead of being realistic, might be a possible reality, both imaginative and creative ... and the mind of the audience might be brought into play psychologically". Practically without exception, film historians and critics, having noted the great historical importance of Caligari, pointed out that it turned out to be a dead end, an admittedly interesting but wholly isolated work leading nowhere. Only now, exactly thirty years after its production, is the lesson of Caligari being applied: most of the motion pictures of the experimental film movement since World War II are concerned precisely with the construction of the imaginative filmic reality – a direct extension of the creative principle of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The postwar experimental film movement, now gradually gaining momentum and strength, results partly from the fact that a generation has grown up to whom the motion picture is as natural a creative medium as the other, older, more well-established arts: this serves to provide the cinema, for the first time in its short history, with a group of creators unprejudiced by theatrical conventions and other distorting preconceptions of film. The growing movement also results from the fact that these young artists at last have accessible to them the means of realizing individual, independent films: the inexpensive 16-mm. equipment that was brought to a point of perfection and became fully accepted only during the recent war. It is possible now to produce the creative film and even make a small profit from its distribution through art galleries, universities, museums, and private homes; that an unexpectedly wide audience for these films exists has already been proved. Until distribution has become more stabilized, however, the individually realized film must continue to be made with an absolute minimum of means. For me the necessary restriction of means has served as a kind of challenge to my ingenuity and powers of invention. As Josef von Sternberg recently stated, "Films can be made cheaply ... the idea is to 'trick the eye'.... Expensive details aren't any more necessary in film than details are in painting." Picnic, which I produced in the Summer of 1948, may serve as a good example of how an experimental film may be made on the most slender of personal budgets – and at the same time with a minimum of compromise.

The first and undoubtedly the most important single step in realizing a creative film is the preparation of a detailed shooting script. This requires the film maker to have the whole film, cut by cut, firmly set in his mind and on paper immediately before the shooting and long before the cutting. The internal rhythms of the film must be fully planned in writing the script, so that the completed work will not suffer from unanticipated, misplaced emphasizes or unbalanced tempo. Because the budget will not allow enough footage for taking cover shots of important action in close, medium, and long shots – common practice in making a commercial film, in order to protect the director – the experimental film maker must be certain of his conception: he must see his film in detail on the screen as it will finally appear, even before he has written down the exact sequence of shots on paper.

Another primary consideration in writing the shooting script must be the settings that will be used in the film. The script must anticipate camera angles in relation to the settings that will be used. The locations for the film must, for obvious practical reasons, be chosen before the script is written, usually concurrently with the conception of the film.

The shooting scripts, even much of the inspiration for the content of both Fragment of Seeking and Picnic, grew out of photographically interesting settings with which I was familiar and to which I had easy access.

For the same reasons that every young creative writer is cautioned to write about those people and locations with which he is most familiar, I suggest that the most effective experimental film results when the film maker uses settings that he knows well. It is not necessary for him to reconstruct the city of Babylon; he can find in the settings of reality about him – his own or his neighbor's house, a garden, the ruins in a vacant lot, the desert or the mountains – the most evocative of settings, real backgrounds which will lend their aura of actuality to the imaginative event that he causes to take place in front of them. Such use of a real setting instead of one artificially constructed is necessary not only because these locations may be photographed free of charge, but, which is more important, because this essentially "documentary" approach serves to give the execution of an imaginative conception a validity which is quite impossible to obtain in any other art form: an immediate juxtaposition of reality and imagination, each lending strength to the other.

In Picnic I used only five basic settings: an isolated, rocky strip of beach slightly north of Malibu; a wooded area with the ruins of an exploded (faulty gas main) house nearby; a small room with only one window; a long, skyward-leading outdoor cement staircase; and the living room of an acquaintance's house. While on a Christmas trip to the Imperial Valley, I also photographed the protagonist of the film walking through desert wastes and a landscape of burnt trees; this material was then used for a visual timespace bridge in his journey from the beach to the ruins in the forest.

In content, Picnic begins as a genre film comedy of American middle-class life and ends as a minor tragedy in the same milieu. But in between the opening and closing sequences, with their filmically objective reality, lies the subjective adventure of the protagonist, who is caught up in a false love. His quest after the object of his love is necessarily doomed because of the influences surrounding her, reinforced by her own true nature. His love is false and empty because it is being expended on an idealized dream image rather than a reality. Recurrent images throughout the film serve to emphasize the forces of actuality, forces that also appear significantly in the subjective, entirely personal adventure. The imagery of the film is self-contained. All meanings, suggestions, symbols, and ideas are immediately present, if not always immediately perceivable (the layers of meaning must be reached, perhaps, through repeated viewings of the film, in the way that many books must be reread, or music reheard). No special outside frame of reference is required in order to understand it. Of course, already established associations with the predominantly bourgeois pastime of the picnic will serve to heighten certain aspects of the film in the minds of many spectators; this is, to a certain extent, expected and hoped for by the filmmaker. However, the fact that the film is directly inspired by certain forces in the American culture pattern – and, therefore, has a more immediate significance to Americans aware of that cultural pattern and its implications – does not, in my opinion, obviate the basic, universal validity of the images. With this and many of the other films of the postwar experimental film movement, we may once again regard the cinema as a truly international language.

Once the conception of the sequence of images that would constitute the finished film was complete and on paper, and, consequently, the settings and actors chosen, the first day's shooting was merely a matter of plunging in. The young man who had accepted the role of the protagonist (not quite realizing how arduous the task was that lay ahead of him) drove the girl who had agreed to play opposite him, my assistant, and myself to the beach location, and in a state of inevitable confusion we took the first shots, scenes that would appear somewhere in the middle of the completed picture. The film was processed on the following day, and when I looked at the footage I knew that I had successfully begun the actual production of a new film: both the photography and the performances were better than we had dared hope.

With this first assurance behind me, I could move ahead with more confidence; the initial plunge had not been as cold as I had braced myself for, and the sudden warmth gave me the courage to go on to attempt the realization of the more difficult scenes, scheduled to be taken in the following weeks of the all-too-short summer vacation period.

The picnic sequence itself, which we photographed next, presented the most difficulties. On a week-day afternoon, in order to avoid the possibility of a crowded beach, I had to assemble four actors, two assistants, an automobile (none of the people directly involved in the film owned a car), and a picnic lunch. I had to coordinate such details as the correct costuming of the principals. It was difficult to find two middle-aged persons (to play the parents of the protagonist and his sister) with an indulgent enough spirit to consent to spend one whole day at the seashore – especially when that day turned out to be cold and windy and, as we discovered at the last minute, the car we were to ride in had no top. However, we managed to reach the location, and I proceeded with a minimum of complications to film the rather long sequence of the picnickers' perilous descent to the beach. The first part of the afternoon was not without its hazards, however, the wind whipping sand into the picnic lunch and, more dangerously, into a relatively fragile European camera.

After we had finished shooting the picnic scene, I set out with some determination to film a scene of the protagonist falling from a rock into the sea. The shooting was delayed interminably. Falling from a rock into the sea did not, somehow, look as dangerous to me, with my legs sunk securely into dry sand, as it did to the young man who was called upon to do the falling. He saw the danger keenly. After about an hour of watching the tide and making certain that there were no jagged rocks hidden under the surf, the young man fell gracefully into the water. We really hadn't been able to see a thing beneath the foaming water, but I had felt a sort of spiritual certainty that all would be well. A breathless moment, and then his head bobbed above the surface, and he waved to us. The image had been successfully recorded.


Excerpted from Alternative Projections by David E. James, Adam Hyman. Copyright © 2015 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword Adam Hyman,
Introduction David E. James,
Introduction David E. James,
Chapter 1 Distribution Center for Experimental Films Curtis Harrington,
Chapter 2 Personal Chronicle: The Making of an Experimental Film Curtis Harrington,
Chapter 3 A Letter from the West Coast Robert Pike,
Chapter 4 Amateur vs. Professional Maya Deren,
Chapter 5 Personal State Meant John Fles,
Chapter 6 A Statement Curtis Harrington,
Chapter 7 Are Movies Junk John Fles,
Chapter 8 Los Angeles Film Festival Jack Hirschman,
Chapter 9 Seeing Is Believing John Fles,
Chapter 10 Underground Movies Rise to the Surface Kevin Thomas,
Chapter 11 Students Reflect Future of Cinema Gene Youngblood,
Chapter 12 Woman as Ethnographic Filmmaker Chick Strand,
Chapter 13 Mouse Enigma: Auto-History Of A Film Person Peter Mays,
Introduction David E. James,
Chapter 14 Scarlet Woman on Film: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and The Wormwood Star: Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington, Marjorie Cameron, and Los Angeles Alternative Film and Culture in the Early 1950s Alice Hutchison,
Chapter 15 Against Transparency: Jonas Mekas, Vernon Zimmerman, and the West Coast Contribution to the New American Cinema Josh Guilford,
Chapter 16 Vicarious Vicario: Restocking John Vicario's Forgotten Shoppers Market (1963) Ken Eisenstein,
Chapter 17 Raymond Rohauer and the Society of Cinema Arts (1948–1962): Giving the Devil His Due Tim Lanza,
Chapter 18 For Love and/or Money: Exhibiting Avant-Garde Film in Los Angeles 1960–1980 Alison Kozberg,
Chapter 19 Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles: Reinventing the Real of Cinema Ross Lipman,
Chapter 20 Taylor Mead, a Faggot in Venice Beach in 1961 Marc Siegel,
Chapter 21 Ed Ruscha's Moving Pictures Matt Reynolds,
Chapter 22 Asco's Super-8 Cinema and the Specter of Muralism Jesse Lerner,
Chapter 23 Inner-city Symphony: Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification Veena Hariharan,
Chapter 24 Not Just a Day Job: Experimental Filmmakers and the Special Effects Industry in the 1970s and 1980s Julie Turnock,
Chapter 25 Storm, Stress, and Structure: The Collaborative Cinema of Roberta Friedman and Grahame Weinbren Juan Carlos Kase,
Chapter 26 Nun Notes and Deviant Longings Erika Suderburg,
Chapter 27 Currents Direct and Alternating: Water and Power and Other Works by Pat O'Neill Grahame Weinbren,
Chapter 28 Alternative Projections Screenings Series Adam Hyman,
Program Notes,
Notes on the Contributors,

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