For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.
Legend has it that Canyon Cinema’s first shows in 1961 were projected on a sheet in Bruce Baillie’s backyard. Let’s print the fact, since it takes little away from the DIY attitude Baillie espoused: It was an army surplus screen. Canyon quickly grew from those ad hoc gallon-jug beginnings into the exhibitor and distributor of Bay Area experimental films, providing crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene that came to rival New York in inspiration, ingenuity and influence.
Half a century and various filmmaking formats later, Canyon Cinema continues to hold serve as a distributor, thanks to the dedication of filmmaker and longtime Executive Director Dominic Angerame. For its remarkable legacy and contribution, on its 50th anniversary the organization is saluted as a 2011 Essential SF honoree.
“Immediately I realized that making films and showing films must go hand in hand,” Baillie recalled in Scott MacDonald’s introduction to Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (University of California Press, 2008), MacDonald’s fascinating and colorful compilation of the group’s history. “We’d find whatever films we could, including our own little things that were in progress—‘we,’ there really wasn’t any we, just myself for awhile—and show them.
“So I made a thing of it,” Baillie continued. “I had no occupation. I couldn’t get a real job anywhere. So I thought, I’ll invent my own occupation. I set up a little part of the house as an office. I put up a little sign and it turned out to be ‘Canyon Cinema’ with a light bulb next to it. Fairly soon, we had weekend showings…. I let it be known immediately that I had a place to show films, if any filmmakers were coming through town.”
This modest start in a quiet East Bay town soon led to a roving series of screenings in Berkeley and San Francisco. As the community of personal filmmakers grew, Chick Strand (a gifted filmmaker in her own right) furthered the cause by launching a journal, Cinemanews, which Canyon published more or less regularly until 1989. And at the height of the heady ’60s, a group of filmmakers that included Bruce Conner, Larry Jordan and Robert Nelson established Canyon Cinema, Inc., as a cooperative to distribute the films of, initially, 25 members. (For more about the early days, visit canyoncinema.com/about/history/.)
In a few years, San Francisco Cinematheque became the exhibition entity while Canyon focused on distribution. The organization’s membership gradually and naturally expanded beyond the Bay Area community to where it now encompasses nearly 350 filmmakers worldwide and more than 3,000 films and DVDs.
That’s right: DVDs. The digital revolution rattled Canyon, along with every other distributor. “Until the major explosion of DVDs, our business was rising 10 percent a year,” Angerame says. “When the Brakhage Criterion DVD series came out [in 2003], we saw a big decrease [in film rentals]. Now we’re at sort of a plateau.”
That leveling off is due to teachers and curators realizing—after a flash of forgetfulness—than a relatively small amount of Brakhage’s great body of work has been digitized. (This is true even after the release of a second Criterion volume in 2010.) The vast majority of Brakhage is viewable only in its original format, celluloid.
The films of other members, including Baillie and Strand, are either available on DVD through Canyon or will be soon. Those films that have been digitized, including some of Angerame’s, have been licensed to Fandor and MUBI. “It’s an experiment to see if there’s any interest in our work and if it can help generate income,” Angerame says.
He points out that about half of the Canyon filmmakers can’t bear the cost of the digital conversion. And, notably, there are those who flat-out refuse to allow their work to be presented any way other than on film.
“Michael Snow’s Wavelength: You see it on 16mm or you don’t see it at all,” Angerame says. “The same is true of Peter Kubelka’s work, and Tony Conrad’s.”
You have to admire that kind of integrity, and fidelity to artistic vision. Unless, that is, you’re one of the nefarious individuals posting bootleg versions of Kubelka’s work (and others) on YouTube or Vimeo. Angerame made a practice of sending take-the-video-down letters until, he says, “I had to stop doing it because it was consuming almost all my time.”
Along with the Internet, another ticking time bomb is the aging generation of professors who regularly show Canyon films to their students.
“Our financial future is a murky crystal ball because there’s no way of predicting our market,” Angerame explains. “There’s no way of doing a business plan. Some of our biggest renters of 16mm celluloid are university instructors, and as they retire their replacements are not renting films. When Chick Strand ran the film department at Occidental College, she was giving us thousands and thousands of dollars. Now we receive nothing.”
But Angerame, who’s headed Canyon Cinema since 1980 with a Chandleresque blend of hard-earned pragmatism and dogged idealism, says it’s far too early to write film’s obituary, even in 2011.
“There’s still an amazing interest in 16mm film, especially among the younger filmmakers, here and abroad,” Angerame attests. “My employee and all the interns are under 25 and have no interest in working solely in digital.”
The degree to which that attitude prevails around the country, especially in academia, will have a crucial effect on Canyon’s fortunes.
“We count on newer crops of younger filmmakers coming up, graduating from film schools and taking on teaching positions to carry on this tradition,” Angerame says. “And that’s really the hope for this entire field [of experimental film on celluloid]."
In a small-margin business, Canyon is perennially walking a financial tightrope. Angerame sold the paper archives — which included filmmaker correspondence and the entire run of Cinemanews—to Stanford University four years ago for a substantial sum, which kept the organization going in the near term. The publication last year of Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 (University of California Press, 2010) triggered renewed interest in the work of Curt McDowell and George Kuchar, among others, and a corresponding bump in rentals.
But Angerame has had to take subsequent steps, such as moving Canyon out of the Ninth Street Building this past August to cheaper offices in the Bayview District, not far from Candlestick Park. He’s also in the process of filing for nonprofit status to allow Canyon to qualify for (admittedly scarce) state and federal grants.
“What we’ve realized is that Canyon Cinema cannot really sustain itself through earned income,” Angerame says. “We really do need a patron.”
Canyon returns to Ninth Street this fall for a series of 50th anniversary shows, including a tribute to “Women in Avant-Garde Film,” Friday, October 28, with works by Coni Beeson, Greta Snider, Barbara Hammer, Chick Strand and Jennifer Reeves. A program of Brakhage’s hand-painted films unspools November 18 with “Salute to George Kuchar” primed for December 16. (For more information, visit canyoncinema.com/category/news/events-and-screenings/)
Angerame has also curated a 70-minute program for Cinema by the Bay featuring films by Shirley Clarke, Carolee Schneeman, Robert Fulton, Lawrence Jordan (his new piece, Solar Sight) and Angerame himself (The Soul of Things). The show is set for Saturday, November 5 at 4:30 p.m. at SF Film Society | New People Cinema.
The Essential SF honor from the San Francisco Film Society represents hometown recognition of Canyon Cinema’s half-century of service to the Bay Area film community. Another tribute awaits in December, when Cuba fetes Canyon with a 50th anniversary celebration. It will mark Angerame’s fifth trip to the island nation, a testament to his skill as an ambassador for Canyon Cinema’s filmmakers.
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