This summer’s 40th anniversary of the Bay Area’s champion of avant-garde film art, the San Francisco Cinematheque, will be celebrated with screenings of selected favorite films at the San Francisco Art Institute and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Joining in the anniversary will be the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, which will show a special program of experimental films, circa 1967.
Tonight at 7:30, the PFA will screen films by Bruce Baillie (“Castro Street”), Stan Brakhage (“Songs 6,7,8 and 16”), Bruce Conner (“A Movie”), Robert Nelson (“Oh Dem Watermelons”), and Jud Talmut (“Turn Turn Turn”). This program is significant because it is a re-creation of a film program 34 years ago, at a pivotal time in S.F. Cinematheque history.
First, we have to go back a few years further, to 1960.
Bruce Baillie was an artist discovering film, living rent-free in a room in Canyon. “I had no occupation,” he said in a 1989 interview. “I couldn’t get a job anywhere. So, I thought, I’ll invent my own occupation.” He landed a job at Safeway to pay for a projector, set up an Army surplus screen in his backyard, and began to hold weekly screenings of his films, his friends’ films, and just about anything made of celluloid that he could thread through the projector. He called it “Canyon Cinema.”
The screenings slowly became more popular, at a time when the avant-garde community became more and more at risk. This is the era when Michael McClure’s risqué stage production of “The Beard” was nightly raided by police in San Francisco’s North Beach, when Jack Smith’s campy romp film “Flaming Creatures” couldn’t be legally screened in New York City, and when Lenny Bruce’s obscenity battles began. The climate was frowning upon those on the fringe.
“This was prerevolution times,” Baillie recalled. “Berkeley was quite conservative in the early ’60s. They just didn’t like the spirit of it.” With his partner Chick Strand he began holding screenings of local work and feature-length narrative films at a variety of places around the Bay Area, wherever a host would have them.
As the community of filmmakers surrounding Baillie’s screenings grew and their energy gained momentum, they realized Canyon could evolve into a distribution organization. In 1966 Filmmaker Robert Nelson spearheaded an effort to found an organization modeled after a New York City distribution co-operative called Filmmaker’s Co-operative. The Canyon distribution co-op was designed to safely and cost-effectively get films into screening venues that would have them. “Your films are made of love,” Nelson wrote in the Canyon newsletter, “Cinemanews.” “Don’t put them into the hands of people who are in the business of selling love.”
Which brings us to 1967, when Edith Kramer was hired as the manager of the Canyon Co-op. The organization had just moved into the basement offices of a desanctified church on Union Street in San Francisco and Kramer noticed the unused space above. She got the idea to exhibit films in the church.
Tonight’s film program at the Pacific Film Archive represents the first film series – named “Canyon Cinematheque” – at the then-newly opened Intersection Theater.
In the coming years, Canyon Cinematheque and the distribution co-op would split. Edith Kramer would eventually become the director of the Pacific Film Archive, and Canyon Cinematheque would become San Francisco Cinematheque.
Kramer said she is proud to have been a part of Canyon. “Not much has survived from the ’60s,” she said of Canyon’s longevity. “It’s vital.”
Tonight’s re-visiting of the 1967 program shows a body of work that attests to the serious technical and emotional intent of film artists. Bruce Baillie’s “Castro Street” was lauded in art and film circles as a tour de force of filmmaking virtuosity in the service of cinematic poetry.
A 10-minute film of images gathered from a train-switching yard in Richmond (not the Castro Street of Gay Pride fame), “Castro Street” uses abstractions of overlapping and image matting to achieve a metaphysical consciousness. In Baillie’s words, “the strength or conflict of becoming.”
Filmmaker Larry Booth wrote to Canyon’s Cinemanews in 1967: “Although most would deny it, many films are technique games, that is, the art of the technical. In the case of “Castro Street,” the images appear to be very carefully thought out and techniques used only as an instrument to bring them to the viewer. This is as it should be.”