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Hollywood's Soft Psychedelic Underbelly 

Filmforum's "Alternative Projections" symposium draws a line from avant-garde to Avatar

Thursday, Nov 11 2010
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The very idea of Experimental Cinema in Los Angeles is almost an oxymoron. In the heart of Hollywood, why would anyone with any marketable moviemaking chops bother with such celluloid navel-gazing — and who would ever see it? The truth is that although other cities have more high-profile avant-garde film ghettos, L.A.'s hothouse moviemaking environment and access to technical resources have supported a thriving underground almost from the birth of the industry. As for seeing it? For better or worse, the very structure and visual language of contemporary mainstream moviemaking — special effects–riddled, CGI-saturated, 3-D gee-whiz-addicted eye-candy store that it is — can arguably be traced to the wide-scale absorption of L.A.-based abstract animators by the Industry, particularly George Lucas, in the 1970s. There is a direct line from the visual music of expatriate German expressionist painter Oskar Fischinger's 1947 Motion Painting No. 1 to the immersive, uncanny virtual reality of James Cameron's Avatar.

This secret history is one of many to be explored as part of "Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles 1945-1980," a three-day symposium, film festival and exhibition presented by Los Angeles Filmforum this weekend at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. The Industrial Light & Magical gutting of L.A.'s finest psychedelic optical-printing noodlers is specifically addressed in "Not Just a Day Job: Experimental Filmmakers and the Special Effects Industry in the 1970s," a paper presented by media scholar Julie Turnock on Saturday at 4 p.m. as part of the panel titled "Blurred Boundaries: Outsider/Insider Filmmaking and Group Identities." And that's just one of 17 presentations, scheduled over four Saturday and Sunday panel discussions, disparate in topic (ranging from "International Identities and Local Influence: The Development of Visual Communications" to "Taylor Mead, a Faggot in Venice Beach in 1961") but uniformly shedding light on some of the more obscure byways of local film history.

For the uninitiated, Friday evening features a grab-bag sampler screening of key cinematic examples cited in the panels, including the rarely exhibited 1956 short The Wormwood Star, by Curtis Harrington, a familiar underground icon for his direction of the young Dennis Hopper in 1961 surrealist mermaid noir Night Tide (as well as '70s cult classics Who Slew Auntie Roo?, What's the Matter With Helen? and Killer Bees), and also part of the occult creative community centered around USC alum Kenneth Anger. The Wormwood Star profiles the now-lost artwork of (Marjorie) Cameron, star of Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), widow of Jet Propulsion Lab founder Jack Parsons (and collaborator with him and L. Ron Hubbard in a momentous sex magick ritual known as "The Babalon Working"), author of the artwork that got Wallace Berman's 1957 Ferus Gallery show busted by the LAPD vice squad, and subject of independent curator Alice Hutchison's Saturday afternoon presentation "Scarlet Woman on Film."

click to enlarge Avatar's ancestors:
  • Avatar's ancestors:

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Other highlights of Friday's screening include Flesh of Morning, an early (1956), atypically character-driven mythopoeic meditation by Stan Brakhage; Shoppers Market, a forgotten 1963 pop-art film experiment by the equally obscure John Vicario; and Robert Wade Chatterton's rediscovered 1961 queer-cinema milestone Passion in a Seaside Slum — in which Mead does his turn as "the faggot."

But probably the single most compelling cinematic reason to attend the free (with registration at USC's website) weekend seminar is the opportunity to re-experience John Whitney Jr.'s Side Phase Drift 1965, a multiscreen psychedelic warhorse of the '70s experimental circuit and high point of the 2005 Hirshhorn/MOCA Visual Music exhibition. An intricately colored and composed abstract geometric journey, Side Phase Drift 1965 was built up from layer upon layer of optically printed images of dots, squares, triangles and circles. Sounds cerebral, but set to a pulsing Indian sound track and projected in a darkened, immersive environment, it is an extraordinary sensual, spiritual and emotional delight. The best news is that the eight-minute trip will repeat endlessly throughout the symposium in the School of Cinematic Arts Gallery in the lobby of the Spielberg Building. An exhibit of historic ephemera, filmmaking artifacts and original artwork curated by Filmforum founder Terry Cannon also will be on view for the duration.

A pair of more focused screenings is divided between Saturday and Sunday. Old-school L.A. psychedelic light-show collective Single Wing Turquoise Bird (1968-1973; frequent collaborators with painter Sam Francis) holds down the Saturday night slot with a program of mostly recent solo cinema works, featuring the premiere of Larry Janss' exquisitely nostalgic acid-wash road movie Slum Goddess Goes to New Mexico (composited in-camera in 1970 and newly assembled with the help of Final Cut prodigy Jordan Miller) and Yoga-Sutras (2010), Peter Mays' video game–informed 3-D-ification of classic SWTB sequences of morphing new-age symbols. I kept expecting Xavier, Renegade Angel to pop up with a shakashuri solo. The sound tracks, incidentally, are impeccable: Terry Riley and Nico Muhly, respectively, plus Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd for the brief opening segment of the original light show in action in 1970. The other end of the evening is bracketed with a new half-hour condensation from the reunited Bird's recent improvisations, followed by a panel with original members of the group.

Sunday afternoon is devoted to the Los Angeles Independent Film Oasis, an experimental filmmakers' cooperative that operated from 1976 to 1981. Founded and run by a group of early CalArts graduates, it primarily organized screenings that contextualized the work of soon-to-be-illustrious members such as Pat and Beverly O'Neill (Water & Power, 1989), Morgan Fisher (Standard Gauge, 1984) and David and Diana Wilson (The Museum of Jurassic Technology, ongoing).

A screening of representative works by seven members will be followed by a discussion that undoubtedly will touch on the difficulties of holding together such a community for more than a few years.

"Alternative Projections" is, in part, a celebration of Filmforum's ability to do just that. Now in its 35th year, the organization has become a cornerstone of L.A.'s cultural identity, introducing new generations to contemporary and historical avant-garde films through weekly screenings at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre.

The symposium is just the tip of the iceberg. As the first public event in the Getty Foundation's sprawling, comprehensive "Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980" initiative, the USC jamboree is just the first trickle in a flood of region-specific cultural-history revisionism that is scheduled to hit its stride in the fall of 2011.

Filmforum is in the midst of an extensive oral history videography project, covering much of the same history as the symposium, while developing a large-scale series of screenings to coincide with the Getty's major push. After that they're going to save the Amazon!

ALTERNATIVE PROJECTIONS: EXPERIMENTAL FILM IN LOS ANGELES 1945-1980 | Nov. 12-14 | USC School of Cinematic Arts | Free with online registration; more info at cinema.usc.edu/about/events/event_20100830.htm

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