By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Anne Fishbein
The very classification "amateur" has an apologetic ring. But that very word -- from the Latin "amator, lover" -- means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity. And this is the meaning from which the amateur filmmaker should take his clue.
--Maya Deren "Amateur Versus Professional"
WITH THE RECENT RISE OF SHORT-FILM NIGHTS -- like Group 101's at the Knitting Factory, the Super-8 showcase Flicker at Spaceland, the Five-Minute Film Festival at Mr. T's Bowl, the Nihilist Film Festival at Zero One Gallery, Exploding Cinema at Orsini, or the American Cinematheque's international Custom Shorts program -- it's easy to forget that L.A. has always been at the epicenter of amateur filmmaking. Before the rise of film schools in the 1960s, the passing on of filmmaking skills and technique largely took place in private clubs, among groups of hobbyists and homegrown craftsmen who met regularly to show their own 8mm, Super-8 or 16mm films. Dating back to the pre-Depression 1920s and the rise of the leisure class, and as part of the same recreational boom that popularized model-train building and the like, the clubs reached their heyday in the decades following World War II, as returning servicemen with a creative bent embraced the new, more affordable technologies.
As noted by USC academic and film historian David James, author of an upcoming book on the avant-garde in Los Angeles, Maya Deren's first film, Meshes of the Afternoon, made just after her arrival in Hollywood in 1946, was very much part of an experimental tradition that had crested with Gregg Toland's camera work on Citizen Kane five years earlier. (Toland himself authored several articles in amateur-filmmaking magazines of the era.) By the time of her 1959 essay "Amateur Versus Professional," Deren had been championed in Movie Makers, the official journal of the Amateur Cinema League, which represented most of the nation's amateur clubs, and found common cause among the avant-garde movement and the one filmmaking constituency that remained staunchly nonprofessional.
Amateur films, which number in the tens of thousands, if not more, are rarely exhibited, and are generally unknown to popular and scholarly audiences alike. If it's true that some kind of homogenization occurs whenever the goal is to reach an extended audience, then, in one sense, these films are the truest expression of pure cinema -- even if what's foregrounded is consistently overwhelmed by what collects at the edges of frame.
California was home to many of the largest of these amateur groups, including the San Diego Amateur Film Club and the Westwood Amateur Film Club in San Francisco, both established in 1949, and both still in existence. (There are some 30 to 40 amateur film clubs still active nationwide, compared to approximately 250, with more than 200,000 members, at the height of the Great Depression.) The Los Angeles Cinema Club, the largest of the more than a dozen local film clubs that once existed here, is currently in its 71st year and still meets regularly on the last Wednesday of every month at the VFW Hall in Burbank. The majority of active members are in their 60s, with the oldest -- Howard Lindenmeyer, the club's four-term president -- a spry 81.
ESTABLISHED IN 1931 BY AN EMPLOYEE OF THE Eastman Kodak Co. looking to expand the demand for black-and-white 16mm film equipment, which had only recently been introduced to the market, the L.A. Cinema Club (known before 1934 as the L.A. Amateur Cine Club) alternated its monthly meetings between the Eastman Auditorium at Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue and the Bell & Howell Camera Co. offices on nearby La Brea Boulevard. With the introduction of 8mm in 1932 and color Kodachrome film in 1935, the club's ranks swelled. Members shot footage of both the 1932 Olympics (in Los Angeles four years before Leni Riefenstahl filmed them in Munich) and the construction of Hoover Dam, some of which is still shown at the visitor center there.
"It consumes my whole being," says Lindenmeyer today of four decades of filmmaking that yielded more than 100 of his own films. A retired electrical engineer who joined the club in the mid-'60s, he produced four industrial films on electrical energy, for which he still receives royalties. "I spent 25 years with the [California] Public Utilities Commission. I wanted to go to New Zealand and write off part of my expenses, so I bought a 16mm camera from a guy I worked with at the commission and did Geothermal Power -- part of it, anyway." When asked what he's taken away from the amateur-club experience, he replies, "Make mistakes, do it over, do a little better next time, try not to mix up the continuity. And listen to others, listen to your peers. Ideas are hard to come by."
The L.A. Cinema Club currently has more than 80 members on its roster, although less than half that number routinely show up for meetings, and the number of core producing members may be as low as seven or eight. Dues are $20 per year, or $25 per family, and much of the group's activity is generated by contests held three times a year. These include a music-video contest (albeit one in which That's Entertainment is cited as a guideline), a competition in which all films must incorporate the same five props and one in which everyone shoots the same two actors running a scene.