The first time I met Chick Strand it was for a lunch date in the hills of Tujunga near her home. She took me to a Mexican restaurant, ordered several rounds of margaritas, flirted outrageously with the waiters and generally had a merry time recounting the early days of avant-garde filmmaking in San Francisco. No matter that she was 70 years old, she could outdrink, outflirt and outtalk people half her age, and she did so with gusto. I went home dizzy with tequila, and with a new understanding of the history of West Coast experimental film. Most people don’t live life at full throttle; Strand does, but with an eye for the grace around her.
It’s been several years since then, and now Strand’s heart is misbehaving (“Problems with the fuel pump,” she explains) and hip surgery looms as she approaches her 75th birthday. But that hasn’t slowed her down much. She’s fiery, impatient and strong-willed, and, although she sidles around like a crab due to the pain in her hip, she’s still hell-bent on creating art.
Strand, who will be the subject of a November 27 REDCAT tribute (at which she is scheduled to appear), was born in San Francisco in 1931 and discovered filmmaking through her friend Bruce Baillie, who started making experimental films in the early 1950s. Because Baillie had nowhere to show his efforts, he and Strand screened them at his house for friends, gradually augmenting the programs with work by other avant-garde filmmakers, including Bruce Conner and Kenneth Anger. This effort eventually became the seminal experimental-film venue Canyon Cinema.
When her father-in-law died, Strand was given his movie camera, and began making her own films. Her early efforts include Angel Blue Sweet Wings (1966) — an elliptical cine-poem with a vibrant, jazzy ?score that studies textures, movement and the quality of light — and the beautiful collage film Waterfall (1967).
Having studied anthropology at UC Berkeley, Strand decided early on to combine her fascination with people and her filmmaking and enrolled in UCLA’s ethnography program. “It was the ’60s, man!” she recounts cheerfully of the program. “We had total freedom.” Despite the freedom, ethnography still had its conventions, but Strand resisted the form’s mandate for objectivity and distance, at one point writing, “To leave out the spirit of the people presents a thin tapestry of the culture, easy to rent, lacking in strength and depth. I want to know really what it is like to be a breathing, talking, moving, emotional, relating individual in the society.”
Strand’s ethnographic films, among them her many expressive portraits of the impoverished Mexican-Indian Anselmo Aguascalientes, embody that desire. They are often shot in close-up, with as much attention to emotions and light as to documenting the everyday experiences of her subjects. For almost 30 years, Strand journeyed to Mexico every summer with her second husband, artist Neon Park, and made many films about the people she met there. In all of this work, what Strand brought to the table was interest. “I’m such a klutz,” she says, “and I’d be tripping over the rocks and speaking this terrible Spanish. But I was so incredibly interested, and people really responded to that.”
Strand also asserts that the films represent only a fraction of her experience with her subjects. “I remember once being on a ranch with Anselmo. We all got really high and started running through a corn field with corn that was taller than our heads, and then it started to rain and there were these morning glories and it was all so incredible, so beautiful. These are things that aren’t in the films, but they’re part of that time.”
Strand’s later work, which includes the found-footage marvel Cartoon le Mousse (1979), the overtly erotic and fleshy Fever Dream (1979) and the dazzling, lyrical study in light, Kristallnacht (1979), all bolstered her reputation as a film artist who rejected politics — she refused to consider herself a feminist, for example — in favor of an intuitive connection to her work. “[Stan] Brakhage used to say that he tried to shoot his films through the eyes of a child, but what I tried to do was use the camera close up,” explains Strand. “I like movement, I like to hold the camera next to my body when I’m shooting. The flow . . . the flow . . . That’s what gets me.”
Strand, who stayed in Los Angeles after graduating from UCLA in 1971, taught at Occidental College for 24 years, where she would sit in the back of the room next to the projector, showing films such as Conner’s A Movie and smoking like a chimney. “I sort of made up the program as I went along,” she muses, explaining that she basically was the film program for many years. A class with Strand generally started with each student describing his or her first sexual experience; after that, no one had anything more to hide and they could get on with the business of making movies. Grades were determined very simply. If you made movies and went to talk to Strand during her office hours at least three times during the semester, you got an A; if you only dared to go twice, you got a B; if you were a coward and only went once, you earned a C. Some students were too terrified of Strand’s intense style and chose to flunk rather than face her one on one. Others, some of whom were newcomers to experimental film, promptly changed majors and became wild-eyed avant-garde filmmakers.
These days, Strand paints large, vivid mandalas ripe with meaning. “I’m totally unschooled!” she chortles. “Except for Neon Park and what he taught me, but he was unschooled too.” What’s she currently painting? “I had this affair a couple of years ago and it didn’t work out because the guy was a classic narcissist. So my painting right now is about that. It’s of a man dressed in a purple suit with red flames around him and he’s beating his own drum.” When asked what appeals to her about painting, she says that it’s less expensive than making movies. But then she gets to the heart of things. “I’m very satisfied creating works of art. I can’t seem to keep my mind from doing this, from painting or planning new films. It’s just what I love to do.”
CHICK STRAND AT 75: A Celebration and Screening | REDCAT | Mon., Nov. 27, 8 p.m. | See www.redcat.org for more information
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes