"Alternative Visions" at the PFA

Johnny Ray Huston February 15, 2007

Where else but the Bay Area for an “Alternative Visions” film series? While San Francisco’s avant-garde film culture may have always been sleepier than those in New York or our angelic neighbor to the south, it was still a locus of activity in the early ’60s, when Canyon Cinema was formed and post-beatnik filmmakers like Bruce Conner and Bruce Baillie were already doing major work. Yet avant-garde film — despite being hugely influential on modern film technique — remains a somewhat obscure realm, without the traffic of major museum exhibitions or the cachet that comes with up-and-coming gallery shows. Bay Area aficionados are fortunate to have several venues programming avant-garde work — SF Cinematheque, Artists’ Television Access, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and, crucially, the Pacific Film Archive. I say crucially because the Pacific Film Archive’s standing as a cinema-centric educational institution — not to mention a hub of Berkeley intellectual life — brings the avant-garde into conversation with a broad program of film history.

The first film in this installment of the ongoing series, Bill Brown’s “The Other Side,” very much represents an alternative vision, in this case of the rhetoric surrounding immigration at the Mexican border (“The Other Side” screened last week, before this article could be published). He’s much more likely to ask questions than orate, with the plaintive quality of his meditations on citizenship poetically cast against deep compositions of the open desert. It’s an unforgiving landscape, haunted by memory — monuments of American expansion are considered alongside abandoned, possession-strewn migrant camps — and Brown seems genuinely enthralled by the land’s moral wreckage.

Photographer/filmmaker Sharon Lockhart’s “Pine Flat” (Feb. 27) is wrapped up in a different vision of the open West, though it’s one no less spooked by an engulfing landscape. Lockhart moved to Pine Flat (a rural town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada) to escape Los Angeles, and over the course of a few years got to know some of the local children; “Pine Flat,” the film, corresponded with a series of photographs, all portraiture of kids off in the great American nowhere. Lockhart continues to be inspired by structural form here (her best known film, “Goshogaoka,” was likened to the work of Michael Snow), composing the film with 12 10-minute shots, each one from a fixed position, none too close to the subjects. In his famous experiment “Rope,” Alfred Hitchcock also made a movie with 10-minute takes (the time it takes to run out a reel of film), and his trademark knack for dramatic emphasis suffered for it. Lockhart is going for a very different type of dramatic emphasis, and though naysayers will balk at any claiming of drama in this very slow, sometimes blank film, there is everywhere the suggestion of narrative: a girl crying out for a lost friend, a boy waiting for a bus, blustering friends roughhousing with cap guns. Some of the shots are menacing, others are poignant (a girl reading in the soft brush, two couples kissing on golden hills). Sometimes Lockhart gets lucky — as is the case when a passing burst of fog deepens an intense portrait of a boy in fatigues — and other times there isn’t even the smallest payoff. The landscapes are unquestionably beautiful, by turns morose and wispy-white; whether ten minutes per shot was really necessary will depend on how far the audience is willing to stick with the filmmaker.

Lockhart’s distanced, hands-off approach to her subjects is worlds away from “v.o.” (Feb. 20), William E. Jones’ unexpectedly tender mash-up of ’70s gay porn with a soundtrack culled from art cinema classics, philosophical musings (in French, mostly), and music ranging from classical lilt to electro-funk. Collage like this is naturally given to reflection, with a new vision being made both from and of collected materials (mostly dubbed tapes, judging by Johnny Ray Huston’s interview with Jones in the San Francisco Bay Guardian). The filmmaker is preoccupied with the idea of the loss of an authentic gay subculture of which he finds twilight remnants in pornography like “Nights in Black Leather” (starring San Francisco’s own Peter Berlin) and “LA Plays Itself.” The clips — mostly seduction (“This neighborhood is a tissue of looks,” one line goes) and foreplay; Jones leaves out the hardcore stuff — play over moody, baroque dialog from films by directors like Buñuel and Ruiz, as well as prophetic interviews regarding the conservatism of homosexual culture with Jean Genet. This romantic yearning for a particular culture’s past is inextricably wound with a view of the urban landscape: of the city as labyrinth, dangerous and alluring, pristine in its filth. As the characters pursue one another through secret subway passages and abandoned lots and Jones’s soundtrack weave blurs in the ghosts of Europe’s past, the effect is something like reverie.

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