For more than 50 years, Lawrence Jordan has been one of the leading lights of American avant-garde cinema. His work as a maker, exhibitor and advocate of filmmaking and art was and remains essential to a filmmaking movement in the ’50s and ’60s that writers such as P. Adams Sitney refer to as the American Underground Cinema. Throughout and across his films, Jordan developed a cosmology that seems all his own. Gallery Extraña presents an exhibition of film still prints and a diorama created by Jordan beginning June 5, a date that just happens to coincide with the maker’s 75th birthday. The gallery also presents a preview of the documentary Lawrence Jordan and the premiere of Jordan’s newest film, a 12-hour collage epic, Circus Savage June 13. Jordan was kind enough to talk with us by phone, where he proved to be extremely open to discussing any topic with candor and modesty. His sly brilliance is masked a bit by his disarming charm.
SF360: How long have you been in the Bay Area?
Lawrence Jordan: I first came here in 1954, and I have lived here ever since except for one summer when I lived in New York.
SF360: What brought you here?
After I left Harvard, I was at a summer theater in Colorado with a high school friend. We heard that all of the painters and poets were in San Francisco, so we decided to go there.
SF360: This high school friend is Stan Brakhage?
Jordan: Yes. Stan came about five or six months before me. I think Sidney Peterson was just finishing teaching film classes at the San Francisco Art Institute. When he stopped no one taught film there until Robert Nelson and I did in ’68 and ’69.
SF360: There were so many influential artists and filmmakers in San Francisco then. You must have known a lot of them. What was it like to be here at that time?
Jordan: People always want to know about that darker period of the mid-50’s to the mid-60’s. Bruce Conner and I founded a film series called Camera Obscura. And then I was involved in constructing a theater on Kearny that would show 16mm prints. It was an after hours theater called The Movie. It’s a porn house now. We were modeling it on Pauline Kael’s Berkeley Cinema Guild. I knew Pauline and thought her series was great, and I thought that San Francisco should have something like it. So, we tried to bring it to the city, but we included more experimental work. Pauline showed more narrative feature film.
SF360: What was at stake for you in experimental film at that time?
Jordan: It always seemed to me that there were sputterings of a movement. I think that you can take a camera and object and use them like a painter uses paint and a canvas. So, that’s what we were after expressing. And we showed work from the first European avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s. I was looking at the artistic approaches that Kenneth Anger, James Broughton and Maya Deren were taking. In San Francisco, Chris Macaline was making terrific films. Jordan Belson had Vortex. So, there were these sputterings. And, I was teaching and interested in other filmmakers. I wanted to participate by creating space not only where I could show my own films, but also to help other filmmakers.
SF360: Did you think of what you were doing as an oppositional practice?
Jordan: That’s funny. At that time, yes. Whatever you are into at that moment seems like a big deal.
I was asked to be on the board of the AFI. There were only two experimental filmmakers on there. And three of the heads of the four major studios were on the board, as were two of the heads of the three major television networks. So, we were right there with these people, and I thought, ‘OK. This is it. I am going to bring it to them here.’ And, I thought this is going to be a clash. And, it was a funny thing. I told them all about our plans and communities, and they became quite interested and wanted to know all about it. They were fascinated and engaged. They had no idea who we were and didn’t know a thing about what we were doing!
SF360: How do you see your work now?
Jordan: Now, this kind of work has been institutionalized. There’s a whole network that one can access. It’s not like it was back then. In the 50’s and 60’s people didn’t really go to our screenings for the art—they went for social change.
Now, I am what I would refer to as The Establishment. I can get grants and funding. I can get screenings. There is a DVD of my work that has just come out. But, that’s all exterior. Inside, I still feel the same way that I did at the beginning. I am working with my personal symbols. One always wonders how an artist feels about his or her art. I enjoy it. And, that’s what I do.
Take this new 12-hour film we are screening on June 13th. I got a new KEM, and I just took out old outtakes and snippets of film that I had. I started collaging them, and the reels just kept coming out. Now I have thirty-four twenty-minute reels. Early on, I showed a few of the reels to people, and they enjoyed them, so I just let the work keep coming. Then we started to show the film in two-hour increments, and that seemed to work too.
Now I have a 12-hour film. I was talking with P. Adams Sitney, and I asked him. ‘What do you do with a 12-hour film?’ And he said, ‘Show it.’ So, that’s what we’ll do. There will be live music and people can come, leave and come back. Stay or go. They can do what they want. It reminds me of the 60’s, when film screenings tended to be very loose and even uproarious.
I am thinking that at some point this will be shown on four screens simultaneously. I work in 16mm, but in order to do this, I will transfer everything to a digital format and surround a space with four images.
SF360: In the recent article written by Sitney that’s in Art Forum there is a recurring idea that your work relates to time and the self. Many of your films are animated, and in that way your hand is present—we can imagine the manipulation of the cutout imagery. The films seem both fictional and nonfictional at the same time. Do you think of your work in those terms: ‘time,’ ‘self,’ ‘fiction,’ ‘nonfiction?’
Jordan: Well, yes and no. I started in with animation after discovering the collage novels of Max Ernst. You couldn’t buy them, but I borrowed one and photographed every page. I went to develop the photos. I put them in solution, and an image would come into being. Then, another was sitting in the solution and another image came out—and another and another. It felt like watching a movie. And, that’s when I thought, ‘I can make these things move!’
I don’t think of my films as fiction, but rather as imaginative. They are not a record of anything that has happened previously. These films take place directly under the camera. So, of course they happened in that sense. But, to me, these films are very in the moment. They emerge during the process. The animations are my interface with my own inner world. And, then I make poetic documentaries. And, those films are my interface with reality.
When I start out on a project, I work intuitively. And, I reject about 9/10ths of it.
I was able to write something about how I think about this, and boil it down. And, what I wrote is, ‘The soul yearns for the infinite through symbols.’ That really is boiling it down, but it’s as close as I can get to why I do what I do.
Every culture has a relation to symbols. Every culture has their ways of getting at the infinite. I especially like Egyptian culture in that way. So many of their symbols and practices are about getting in touch with an afterlife. Everyone has an inner personal place, a yearning. And, most artists get at that through representation. I don’t mean this in a religious way.
Of course, the word ‘infinite’ has to be taken with a grain of salt. That’s the closest I can come to explaining it.
SF360: And, the gallery opening comes on the occasion of your 75th birthday?
Jordan: (Laughs.) Oh, yes. I never intended to celebrate my birthday at the opening, but that’s what is happening. I am not sure if 75 is something to be celebrated. Well, maybe it is. Just for making it, maybe.
SF360: In any case, Happy Birthday!
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