The L.A. Cinema Club and the Rise of Amateur Filmmaking
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.
"The big thing now is archiving the materials," says Walt Gilmore, an assistant director for TV and assorted features in the '60s and '70s and the club's current vice president and program chairman, as well as director of its most recent group project. "I've got 30-year-old videotapes that are falling apart, and 16mm or 8mm films that are so brittle it's hard to even run them. We're all looking forward to the time we can get DVD burners we can afford -- it's a much more permanent medium."
MELINDA STONE, AN ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE AND Ph.D. candidate at the University of San Francisco, is writing her dissertation on California amateur film clubs. Titled If It Moves, We'll Shoot It (with a nod to Sam Peckinpah), it includes what might well be a slogan for the emerging body of academic theory surrounding amateur film: "Remember: The Ark was made by amateurs, the Titanic by professionals."
"I came across this phenomenon when I was in San Diego," she says, "when I was actually thinking I was going to do my dissertation research on home movies, and kind of excited about a lot of new research that had just emerged in that field. I didn't have any home movies of my own, so I was looking in the archives at UC San Diego, and the archivist there, like archivists around the world, had a secret cache of films. And sometime over the four years that I was hounding him, he let it be known that maybe I could look at it sometime."
Among the treasures Stone eventually unearthed were films by an amateur filmmaker named Colonel Alfred C. Strode, which seemed both more accomplished and more ambitious than most home movies. Strode was deceased, but his widow agreed to meet Stone at the Starbucks in Rancho Bernardo, where she eventually confided, "You know, if you're interested in this kind of filmmaking, then you need to get hold of this club that he belonged to" -- the San Diego Amateur Film Club.
"I started going to their meetings," says Stone, "and fell in love with them, and fell in love with their films, and that's when I realized, 'No one's writing about this.' And it seems like that's what we go to graduate school for, to unearth these interesting things and then write about them."
Stone subsequently curated a program of amateur films called "For the Love of It" (taking its name from the Maya Deren article), which screened at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archives and now tours semiannually, at least when she has the time to curate a new slate of films. ("I have my committee members who are saying, 'It's great that you do all this stuff, but get the dissertation done,'" she confesses. "So I'm going to do that this summer.")
Among her discoveries was Sid Laverents, a 92-year-old star of the San Diego club, a former vaudeville performer and aeronautical engineer whose 10-minute film Multiple Sidosis uses in-camera special effects to present up to 12 images simultaneously of Laverents playing along to music he wrote and recorded on a two-track home tape recorder. The film was recently selected as one of 25 named annually by the National Film Registry as worthy of preservation -- the first amateur film to be so designated.
"I just started hounding people," says Stone, "calling the Smithsonian, calling the Getty, just anybody I knew who had an interest in folk-film culture, which is what I call the amateur film clubs. And I got invited to join this select group of archivists from the Library of Congress for a three-day summit meeting at Sony Studios. The last couple of hours before we took off, they said, 'If you've brought anything that you want to show . . .' So I showed Multiple Sidosis, and Pat Loughney, one of the main archivists, said, 'This is what we need. This is what's missing.' And lo and behold, within eight months it was on the Registry."
Stone, with the prestige of Registry status, was able to secure restoration funds from the UCLA Film Archives and place a 35mm print of the film in the permanent Library of Congress archives. She recommends the clubs as an untapped resource of film-production lore.
"I'm always trying to encourage my filmmaker friends to go to club meetings," she says, "because I learned so much as a filmmaker from these people -- like how to build an animation stand. I still like the old-school techniques, the tactile relationship with filmmaking. And these guys are the link, really. I've gotten more amazing film equipment from them, too, because they're all in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and they've all pretty much gone to video -- they're really funny, techno-crazed people, for the most part, and so they're always doing the newest thing -- and so all of this really amazing equipment, like Bolexes and Bell & Howells, it all just sits in the closet. And when they find out that somebody is interested in film, they go crazy."
WITH THE EXCEPTION OF ONE MEMBER OF THE LA8 club, all L.A. club members work exclusively in video, as film costs are now prohibitive. And the membership is resolutely forward-thinking, especially in the area of technology: In the July 2002 news bulletin of the L.A. Cinema Club, amid the chatty club minutes and latest testimonials for miracle cures, there is an update on Bluetooth, the Scandinavian technology behind those personalized Lexus and Gap ads that recognize Tom Cruise's character by name in Minority Report, and how it has been customized for the latest generation of Sony three-chip Mini-DV camcorders.
"The industry directs it," says Lindenmeyer. "Because there are no new motion-picture cameras, whereas there are a multitude of video cameras. You're always learning."
"I've got every piece of film equipment I ever bought," adds Walt Gilmore. "I have my original black-and-white TV camera, which is about seven times bigger than the camcorder I use now, and can do so much more. I think a lot of the stuff you're talking about, going back to the old ways of doing things, is people with a lack of ideas reviving old techniques rather than using their brain to create something new. You can use the old techniques and apply it to the new equipment. But that's different from using a 1912 hand-cranked 35mm camera to make a movie."
In a sense, the amateur film clubs are like the Friars Club or other service-oriented organizations of the receding past: They possess a body of knowledge, would like nothing better than to pass that knowledge on to the next generation, yet they face the possibility of imminent extinction.
"The object, as far as we're concerned, is to get new members," says Lindenmeyer. "We have an auditorium, a projector and good refreshments. We achieved our peak some time ago, and now we're on our way back up."
Sid Laverents' Multiple Sidosis will screen at UCLA's James Bridges Theater on Friday, August 9, at 7:30 p.m., as part of the Film and Television Archive's ongoing Festival of Preservation, with the filmmaker in attendance.