For a decade and a half, multi-hyphenate David Sherman was a major figure in San Francisco’s vigorous experimental film scene. A probing artist, Sherman’s numerous films included the 1997 Whitney Biennial selection Tuning the Sleeping Machine. A tireless curator, the Tucson native and his future wife Rebecca Barten founded the 30-seat Total Mobile Home microCINEMA in the mid-‘90s, presenting more than 120 shows during its five-year run. Sherman was also the administrative director of venerable Canyon Cinema and—yes, there’s more—taught at California College for the Arts. Marking his first trip to town with a new film since he and Barten moved to Bisbee, Arizona (80 miles southeast of Tucson) shortly after the millennium, Other Cinema unspools the underground premiere of Wasteland Utopias in a rare Sunday show December 6. He gave us the scoop on Wilhelm Reich and other shadowy figures on the phone and via email.
SF360: How’s the filmmaking climate in Bisbee compared to San Francisco?
David Sherman: It’s an ex-mining town/artists community near the border of Mexico. There are some unexpected culture connections here—one of the founders of the Wooster Group lives here, for instance, some urban art refugees from New York, Portland and such—but in terms of my practice as an experimental filmmaker there is very little going on in the entire state of Arizona. I sometimes find myself driving pretty far to see experimental film. There is a great festival called Experiments in Cinema that happens in Albuquerque; it only takes seven hours to get there. San Francisco has an amazing film culture but after 15 years in the center of that swirling tangle of celluloid, I was in need of a change. Getting away from the extreme cycles of consumption that characterize big-city life helped to put important things back in perspective. The desert is good at stripping away the unnecessary.
SF360: Place is a recurring theme in your work. How was Wasteland Utopias informed by your return to Arizona?
Sherman: I had to confront my response to the hyper-development that has turned great swaths of the bio-rich Sonoran Desert into a sprawling retirement suburb for the rest of the country. So the film started as an almost psychic quest to try to understand what had happened to the desert of my youth. Del Webb was a mega-developer who, starting in the mid-1950s, almost single-handedly changed the perception of the desert from a scary, snake-infested no-place to a green, golfing retirement oasis. It was by pure fate I stumbled on the other main figure in the film. Wilhelm Reich was also in the Sonoran Desert in the mid-1950s working on weather modification experiments, using his ‘cloudbuster’ invention. I started tracing how each man had engaged the desert in individually visionary ways. While most historians are concerned with direct causal links, as an artist I’m more interested in what surprising connections arise from the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate narratives within in a specific place. Of equal importance for me as a filmmaker is the notion that the subjective creative imagination (that’s a place, too!) needs to be acknowledged in the construction of any alternative history.
SF360: I imagine the economy was strong and development was booming when you started the film. Did the tone or themes change when the economy cratered?
Sherman: Wasteland Utopias was started in part as a desperate critique of development and sustainability, because for a time there it seemed like the whole desert would be solidly covered by tract housing and golf courses in no time. So on one level I was extremely excited when the housing market and economy collapsed, because all of a sudden I was freed to address more subtle psychic connections relating to how we interact with our environment and how we construct histories about those interactions.
SF360: Let’s talk about history, especially forgotten history. What have you concluded about what and who gets buried in the past, and why? Should we follow the money for the answers?
Sherman: No, I don’t think we should follow the money because that’s an extremely limited lens with which to see the world. Take the issue of found footage, which is a significant part of my palette. For all the libraries that dumped their 16mm film collections, it was an economic decision—making way for new media. On another level there’s a subconscious psychology of fear at work that seeks to eradicate that which was perceived as unflattering or dated. Reich called this response "the emotional plague." In the same way, following trails of some forgotten history of Webb or Reich, I’m constantly asking myself what it means for information to be considered conspiracy theory, speculative or suppressed history or metaphor. I find the flow between those categories really fascinating.
SF360: You don’t describe your work as documentary or even experimental documentary but as essay. Do you start from a different point than traditional doc makers? And what responses does an essay, as opposed to traditional docs, invite in audiences?
Sherman: I consider myself an experimental filmmaker, but this film in particular is an essay film. The root of the word ‘essay’ comes from the French verb essayer, which means "to try," so this type of filmmaking entails subjectively trying to figure something out by utilizing all the means of cinema. This film started out with my anger over the ecological destruction running rampant here in the Sonoran Desert, but as the film progressed conditions conspired to reveal more complex correspondences than I had imagined. I came to understand the paths of Del Webb and Wilhelm Reich to be far more similar than I had anticipated. They shared overlapping concepts that were not causally related, For example, the atmospheric flows of energy supposedly being released by Reich with his cloudbuster correspond quite interestingly to energetic youth (and economic!) energies liberated by retired Midwesterners in Webb’s Sun City. While it’s important for me to startle viewers with shocking and subversive "truths," I’m just as concerned with how our personal histories inform the constructions of broader historical narratives.
SF360: It’s bizarre how mythic figures like Wilhelm Reich turn up in unusual places like Arizona. Set the record straight: Who was he and why is he important?
Sherman: Reich was an Austrian psychoanalyst who believed that mental and physical health was based on allowing "life energy" or a materialized libido, which he termed "orgone," to flow freely through the body. His theories of orgone energy connected all life systems together; he saw the human body as functionally the same as environmental and cosmic bodies. Most famously, he invented a large box-like device called the orgone accumulator. People would sit in the box and the body’s natural orgone would be amplified, allowing the body to heal itself. In light of contemporary holistic paradigms of energy and vitality, he was way ahead of his time. He was persecuted by everyone from the Communists, Freudians, the Nazis, the Norwegians to, finally, the U.S. government—so you know he must have been doing something right! His biography is fascinatingly complicated but in this context all I can do is drop a few hints at his importance: William S. Burroughs, character armor, weather modification, anarchists, Gestalt therapy, sexual liberation, UFOs, Human Potential Movement, Albert Einstein and the New Age. Reich died in Federal prison just two years after his expedition in the Arizona desert, a victim of a sensationalist press, FDA injunction and conspiracies both real and imagined!
SF360: I expect that you’re looking forward to returning to The Other Cinema. As someone who knows and misses S.F. film culture, would you like to admonish us for taking curator Craig Baldwin and The Other for granted?
Sherman: Yeah, The Other Cinema is one of the great cine-cultural projects of the past quarter century! And besides, there is more Orgone Energy swirling through that place than all the multiplexes in California combined!
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