Oddball, at work and play: Stephen Parr, whose 'Euphoria' plays YBCA this weekend, speaks about his massive archive of histories and eccentricities.

Stephen Parr's Oddball Films

Sean Uyehara September 21, 2008

Stephen Parr licenses film and video footage, and currently presents some of the best film screenings in town with his Oddball Films series. He has also invented a wide variety of after-hours venues, owned a small press, and run burlesque shows. I shouldn’t be surprised that entering Parr’s office at Oddball Films is not quite, well—normal. Upon arriving at his Capp Street office, and having been instructed NOT to ring the bell, I call a cell phone number and someone happens to be leaving the building. I am told to walk in and go to the top of the stairs. As the outside door closes, I find myself in pitch darkness. Stairs? After feeling the walls, I fumble my way up to a carpet-covered door. One step in and I am surrounded with 6,000 sq feet of floor-to-ceiling film cans and the ’30s era 17 Reasons sign. Parr’s work is currently being appreciated in the Bay Area Now 5 series at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in a screening of Euphoria this coming Thursday.

SF360: Are you from San Francisco?

Stephen Parr: No, I am from upstate New York. I’ve been here 30 years. I came here right after Jonestown.

SF360: What brought you here?

Parr: I just always wanted to live here. I liked the music, the art scene, the film scene, and I knew there were a lot of interesting people here.

SF360: Before you came to SF, were you already into film?

Parr: Yeah, I shot a lot of video in ’74. I shot everyone from John Cage to The Ramones. In fact, I just located a video that I shot with a guy in New York about 30 years ago. He had these tapes sitting around in his apartment. But I hadn’t seen him in over 30 years, so I just kept asking around to see if I could get a hold of him. A friend of mine said he would see him on the subway every once in awhile. Finally, I said, ‘If you ever see him, just get his phone number.’ And last year when I was in New York, my friend tracked him down. So, he gave me this tape. It didn’t have a label on it, and I took it to my friend Angelo Sacerdote at BAVC. He’s the senior preservationist there. He transferred it, and it is interview footage and rehearsal footage of The Ramones. It was shot in ’77.

I shot the Cage performance ‘A Lecture on the Weather’ at the Albright Knox Museum in Buffalo. It was preserved with funding from the National Television Preservation Foundation.

SF360: This was done with a Portapak?

Parr: Yeah, 1/2-inch reel-to-reel. I also transferred some other things, some live performance footage from a media piece called ‘Earth Atrophy’ that I worked on with some other people and live footage with Ed Sanders who used to be in The Fuggs. I shot a lot of 1/2’ reel-to-reel in the ’70s. I studied video with Woody and Steina Vasulka; they started The Kitchen in New York. I also studied with Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits as well as Nam June Paik whose work I exhibited in my gallery. I was really much more interested in video than film at the time. Because it was really immediate. In ’67 when the Portapaks came out, it was the first time that you could literally shoot something and play it back instantaneously, in an affordable way. I mean, those things were about $2,500 of real cash then, which would be about $5,000 now.

Then when I got out of school, I moved back to upstate New York and got together a performance space in Syracuse called The Café Bizarre. It was in a big warehouse downtown. We had a huge building right across from the Armory. It wasn’t actually a café. It was just a space where we put on events. There were other people in the building, like Terry Noel, who is usually on page-one on any book about DJs. He had been in the club scene since the Beatles and spent years at the Chelsea Hotel. He would throw these huge parties for people like Grace Jones, for instance. So, we would have between 800 and 2,000 people at these events and we would shoot video in the warehouse and have it playing back throughout the building on different floors. We did video installations in our window and for events Terry was producing at the Everson Museum.

After we moved out we started another space called Performance Gallery. I did some of the same things, working with dancers, video artists, performers, and some laser light experiments I started while at Media Study in Buffalo. I spent some time as an artist-in-residence at the Experimental Television Center in Binghamton, NY, working on installations and synthesized video investigating altered states of perception.

When I moved to San Francisco, I started an after-hours nightclub. It was called Club Generic. It was on Leavenworth between Turk and Eddy. I ran it from ’79—‘82. It was a time when artists were breaking down the barriers between galleries and clubs. Every week we had performance artists like Karen Finley, Christian Marclay, some Fluxus people from Germany. In fact the Fluxus people left behind two lithographs by Joseph Beuys! We screened a lot of experimental cinema by Bruce Conner, George Kuchar, and even Warhol films Like Vinyl. I documented a lot of it. I always had video and cine images playing, most of it’s still in my archives.

SF360: So, this was during The Mabuhay Gardens days?

Parr: It was a little bit later. The heyday of the punk scene was really ’77.

SF360: What kind of crowd did you draw?

Parr: It was a real mix of people. It was kind of a mix of pseudo-punks—It’s always been a middle class ideology anyway—and artists, kids from the Art Institute, and cultural misfits. Anytime you open a place at 2 a.m., you are going to get a mix of people. A lot of intoxicants, a lot of euphoriants. But, we had a lot of innovative performance artists, and all of our events started late, like 3 or 4 in the morning. So in some respects it brought out the best in people, and the worst in people too.

After I was evicted, I started another venue off of Valencia on Clinton Park, where I curated a midnight movie lounge with filmmaker Craig Baldwin. We screened everything from gender-bending films like Glen or Glenda? or horror noir like Island of Lost Souls.

SF360: What was that place called?

Parr: New Generic.

But, I did that for only about a year. And when I moved out of there I moved to South of Market, and I ran a private gallery space and went in a new
direction. I took that time to build my media collection and I created ambient visuals for nightclubs. I still hosted screenings in my place. I’d show different artists, like Gavin Flint and Scott Williams, who still does a lot of stencil work around town.

Also, back then, a lot of people used to hang out at this place called Café Babar over on Guerrero near 21st. It’s called something else now…. There were a lot of crazy poets that used to perform there. I started a small press and published and recorded many of them-David Lerner’s American Book of the Dead and Dominique Lowell’s Women Are Hungry with producer Lemon DeGeorge. Later I started putting them together in my live events like Sin City, Smut Fest (which I produced for Jennifer Blowdryer), CyberSex, A Golden Shower of Stars. I produced live events with video, and transgender strippers, Butoh dancers, poets, performance, and dancers-raw and unadulterated events I patterned after The Living Theater.

At the same time I was working with different artists and making background visuals for clubs and Ridley Scott came into town to shoot a commercial. I think he was shooting at the DNA Lounge and he licensed some of my footage. That was really my first client, Ridley Scott.

SF360: For a commercial?

Parr: Yeah, I think it was a Michelob commercial, this burlesque footage.

From the mid-‘90s when I moved into this space, I started spending more time building my archive and licensing stock footage. We’ve provided footage for a number of feature films, documentaries, television programs, and music videos. Our clients run the gamut from docs like Sam Green’s Weather Underground to the television program ‘Myth Busters.’ We’ve worked with Spike Lee on three or four projects. We’ve worked on commercials, A+E projects, HBO shows on erotica—the whole thing.

We just finished providing some critical news and lifestyle footage for Gus Van Sant’s Milk feature.

SF360: How many titles do you have in here?

Parr: About 50,000 film and tape elements.

The majority of our collection contains educational films from the 1930 through the 1980s. We also have a lot of rare materials including amateur films and home movies, ethnographic shorts, news reels, TV news footage, and over 6,000 television commercials. We have hundreds of movie trailers, TV promos, public service announcements, military and medical films-the list goes on. My collection encompasses a sort of global vision of pop culture. Well, it’s a mix of pop culture and high culture.

SF360: You have so much here, how do you know what kind of stuff you have? How do your keep track of it?

Parr: It’s all in our heads, though we have a customized FileMaker Pro database that tracks everything.

Providing footage is very labor and technically intensive. Lots of research as well as analog and digital work.

Let’s say someone wants to do research on Vietnam. We’ll get all our footage, transfer everything to tape, edit a preview tape, burn a DVD, and maybe make QuickTimes for the client. It used to be everything was shot on film, edited on film, distributed and screened on film, but now it’s different. Things are much more complicated. It takes more time, more skill, and the mediums have less longevity.

Before if you had a film, you would be able to screen it for years. But, now you have an Mpeg2 or Mpeg4 that’s going to have to be migrated again at some point. You are going to have to have to migrate the media to whatever medium is the flavor of the month. The good thing about film is that you are always gong to be able to scan it. With proper storage a reel of film will last three hundred years at least. I have some films that are 75 years old. They play back fine. I have software that’s three years old that won’t play. If you have a floppy disk or something you made ten years ago, there’s a pretty good chance that you won’t be able to play it back. As technology speeds up, obsolescence tends to speed up as well. You spend at least as much time migrating your information as you spend recording it initially.

We have maybe a dozen different formats here: film—35mm, 16mm, 8mm, Super 8. We have Beta Sp, Beta, 3/4", 8mm, Hi-8, SVHS, VHS, 1", MiniDV, DVCAM, and then all of the digital formats as well, Mpeg, QuickTime.

SF360: And still your put on screenings, right?

Parr: I have been screening in this space for about five years. I try to screen things from the archive though I have guest curators from around the world.

SF360: What kinds of screenings do you try to present?

Parr: I curate a wide variety of genres. I enjoy ethnographic programs. I am very interested in the Indian subcontinent, so I often present programs on that. We have an ongoing program entitled ‘Trance Cinema.’ I recently did a program on Cine-music, music with its roots in film. I like to present comical programs, like presenting monkeys in stage acts juxtaposed with a film with Jane Goodall. I am interested in contrasting the high and the low. I just programmed an evening of Czech Visionary Cinema presenting the films of Czech animation master Kael Zeman who directed The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and Jiri Trnka, who made The Hand. I’m working with musicians in NYC to score and present some of this work as well as my own. Every month I also present a screening called Strange Sinema. In October I’m hosting writer/curator Jack Stevenson who’s curating two propaganda/protest film programs Spirit of ‘68 and Know Your Enemy.

SF360: That’s ‘Sinema’ with an ‘S?’

Parr: The reason that I did it is that there is a certain kind of Sin-like quality about the things that don’t get archived. We have a lot of old adult films, some medical outtakes. It’s a little sinful, heady, a little thick. I have a lot of films from a podiatry school, and some of them are really fetishistic. Body enhancement clips. Films that were made for unusual reasons. Like films that are supposed to sell different products or inventions that will cure different diseases by procedures like passing light over a person. A lot of tests of industrial machinery, where you don’t know what they are testing or why though it’s visually very compelling. And then a lot of ethnographic pieces that I just happen to like. And, with my new film, Euphoria!, I am going to present everything from African Bush devil dancers to Armour Bacon commercials to women’s hair removal products to people bathing in the Ganges. It’s all about euphoric states. People with a higher consciousness having their brain waves being tested to people losing their minds over a piece of bacon.

SF360: So, when you put these shows together, it sounds like you take a single theme and try to explore it from as many angles as possible.

Parr: I like a mix of humor and sadness, tragedy and trauma. I like looking at the dichotomy of cinema. I like the idea of someone laughing so hard their stomach hurts and then just crying.

Dr. Irwin Moon, who started the Moody Institute of Science would create these spectacles called ‘Sermons from Science.’ It was all about bringing the word of God through the use of science. Many of his films were made utilizing surplus military equipment. The films kind of ended up really being a precursor to Intelligent Design. He was kind of a crackpot, but the films were all unique. He would do things like present time by showing himself now and then three days later with a beard. He would create giant Tesla coils. He would show how electric eels could shock people, and he would use people who worked for him and shock them right on camera. So, I like the idea of strange science. And, still, it’s not always the most shocking things that have the greatest effect.

SF360: So you’re going to NYC?

Parr: I’m premiering Euphoria! at the Anthology Film Archives as part of their festival 1,2,3, 4, 8…Unessential Cinema: Numerical Madness with America’s Foremost Film Collectors. My program is almost entirely composed of stock footage though I utilize several short children’s films. I call it ‘a surreal and effervescent insight into the high conscious states of cinematic perception and pop culture sensation.’

SF360: Are you screening it in San Francisco?

Parr: Yes, I’m doing my West Coast premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on September 25th. It’s part of the Bay Area Now festival curated By Joel Shepard.

SF360: So what’s next in your screening series and your own work?

Parr: Well curator/collector Paul Etcheverry’s is screening ‘Wine, Womanizing+Song,’ September 26th. It’s a program of partying-nightclubbing-carousing-hallucinating and philandering mayhem from 1930s and 40s classic Hollywood cartoons, double entendre-packed comedies, and musical ‘jukebox’ Soundies.

I’m starting work on a new body-based film entitled Whiplash [that] I plan to screen in the Spring.