In Chick Strand’s1979 Soft Fiction, female subjects talk directly to camera on topics ranging from the desire to “become” a curved railing in a Pasadena art museum to the simultaneous pleasure and terror of delivering backroom blowjobs to cowboys at a rodeo. Not all of the film’s chapters carry an erotic connotation: Near the end, there is a harrowing account of Holocaust survival, followed by a moving performance of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” and there are occasional flecks of an unresolved narrative involving a woman (fellow filmmaker Amy Halpern) making a journey by train. But regardless of subject, almost every frame of Soft Fiction overflows with women expressing their fears, dreams and desires with an emotional — and sometimes physical — nakedness rarely seen in movies.
Some of Strand’s speakers draw upon personal experience; others appear to be actors. Yet it hardly matters. For as the film progresses, it deploys multiple dissociations between text and speaker and text and image — in one scene, a Golden Age of Radio–type program accompanies the image of a woman cooking breakfast in the nude — that threaten to vaporize the film’s already liquid barrier between fact and fiction. The startling candor of Strand’s meetings with these remarkable women, be they real or imagined, remains the unassailable constant.
Soft Fiction, along with Halpern’s own Falling Lessons(1992), concludes a seven-week screening series inspired by film historian David James’ new book, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles. And like the programs that have preceded it, this final installment reminds that the word “minor” in James’ title shouldn’t be taken as a measure of merit.
Though it premiered some 13 years after Soft Fiction, Falling Lessonshad in fact been in various stages of production since the early 1980s, when Halpern began filming friends and colleagues in what can best be described as a series of portraits-in-motion. The camera continually tilts up through the frame (and across a subject’s face), making you feel as though the cinema itself is rocking back and forth. Like many Los Angeles avant-garde filmmakers since the dawn of the studio system, Halpern — a founding member of the late, lamented Los Angeles Independent Film Oasis — has spent her career moving in and out of the Hollywood sign’s long shadow, taking “industry” jobs (as a gaffer and electrician) as a way of supporting her personal projects. The 186 faces of Falling Lessonsare partly a record of that journey, encompassing a who’s who of experimental-filmmaking contemporaries (including Strand, Pat O’Neill and Halpern’s husband, David Lebrun) and elder statesmen (Michael Snow, Shirley Clarke), with even a few representatives of the more mainstream “American independent cinema” (Alex Cox and Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore) added in for good measure.
As in Strand’s work, narrative fragments — here eerily prescient of Los Angeles police corruption scandals to come — pierce through Halpern’s sleek, structuralist surface. But Falling Lessonsis, above all else, a meditation on that relentless enigma of which Picasso said: “What is a face, really? Its own photo? Its makeup? ... That which is in front? Inside? Behind? And the rest? ...”
THE MOST TYPICAL AVANT-GARDE: MINOR CINEMAS IN LOS ANGELES | At Filmforum at the Egyptian | Sunday, December 4, 7 p.m. | www.lafilmforum.org