Talking with people who lived through the 1950s and '60s often delivers a disturbing revelation: Their actual memories — much like in a Philip K. Dick dystopia — have been replaced by manufactured images, an unspecific parade of greasers and hippies punctured by televised landmarks like the JFK assassination or the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
That is why it's so shocking when we manage to get a glimpse of footage from that era that's outside the mainstream: Filmmakers who were using experimental approaches within an art-world context often managed to preserve a more heightened sense of documentary reality than documentarists and producers of topical fiction.
An excellent example of that paradox is the brilliantly curated program “Los Angeles Observed,” being shown at Cinefamily by Filmforum as part of the series “Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980.” These short films are indispensable viewing, particularly for the many fans of Thom Andersen's 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, the essential portrait of L.A. through film history, and also as a corrective for anyone who thinks Mad Men is so good because it's “realistic.”
The highlight of the program is Shoppers Market, a 1963 film by John Vicario, which was rescued very recently from the obscurity of the archives. Vicario (best known as Coppola's cinematographer on early horror fest Dementia 13 and as a commercial photographer) trained his camera on a 24-hour supermarket in Santa Monica in 1962. He edited the results into a revelatory 22-minute film with occasional experimental flourishes. It's easy to see why Shoppers Market has been garnering comparisons with the photographs of William Eggleston: It's a world of colors, gestures, expressions and interactions, elevated by the artist's eye into the best kind of documentary art.
The other films are equally surprising. Joseph Strick's Muscle Beach (1948) turns the shoreside landmark into a strange, Beat collage of tantalizing bodies cut to the rhythms of political folk singer Earl Robinson's proto–Pet Sounds California suite. Kent MacKenzie's Bunker Hill (1956) is a short companion piece to his L.A. neorrealist masterpiece The Exiles, enraging to anyone nostalgic for downtown's lost neighborhood. MacKenzie champion Andersen is represented by early short Olivia's Place (1966/74).
Baylis Glascock's Film Exercise Number One (1962) turns the Watts Towers into raw material for a formal exercise reminiscent of Stan Brakhage or early Kenneth Anger, unusually trippy for the pre-psychedelic era. The purely experimental also is conveyed by Gary Beydler's minimalist portrait of Venice Pier (1976).
And attention, fans of '70s BBC-style programming (and who isn't?): City City (1974), a local production by Visual Communications (aka the Asian American Studies Central Incorporated collective) tackles L.A. people and places like a Sesame Street report on mushrooms. The soundtrack, by CalArts synth musician Stanley Levine, is a real revelation for anyone into the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, François de Roubaix or Delia Derbyshire, and it's another reminder of the daring creative possibilities always brewing in this complex city. —Gustavo Turner
LOS ANGELES OBSERVED | Sat., Jan. 21, 5 p.m. | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | cinefamily.org