From underground films and Melies to film studies at the U, by Al Razutis
December 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
My first experience with historical films occurred in ’67/68 at an underground film screening in San Francisco. Having been educated in the sciences, and having dropped out in favor of making / showing underground films, I had no knowledge of any film history beyond what my generation had seen in Hollywood or foreign films called ‘art films’.
So, this one night in SF, at a converted (to a theater) loft, with a home-build projection booth, a series of recent underground films was screened, and in the middle of this screening was a strange hand-colored film: “A Trip to the Moon” by Georges Melies (1902) presented as a silent short without any introduction or program notes. I was hooked, but I didn’t know on who or what.
When you’re 21 or 22, it isn’t the ‘history’, the ‘cultural importance’, the ‘notoriety’. the ‘auteur’ that works on you, it’s the ‘art’ and its capacity to inspire. (And it cost 1$ admission then, and also at Intermedia where I had my underground film screenings.) It was at these underground screenings that we got to see Maya Deren, Eisenstein, Abel Gance, dada and surrealist films (Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or), the films of Norman MacLaren (!), and Len Lye, and so many others from the past mixed in with the present. And I was inspired!
After inquiries (‘Who was this guy, Melies?’), and subsequent years of collecting Melies (and other) films, after hooking up with film pirates who circulated prints (for copying) nationally and internationally, after putting on some shows of silent works (including a Surrealist film show at the film theatre of the Surrey Art Gallery, to which no one came!) I immersed myself in a ‘underground’ film studies and film historical culture spawned by underground film screenings, and existing/thriving totally outside of any university, cinematheque, or gallery.
In Vancouver, late sixties and into the seventies, there were hardly any ‘film studies’ programs at the local universities. The Stan Fox SFU film workshop was simply that, a student film production program, and way out in Burnaby. In the early 70’s, animation and film courses taught at the Vancouver Art School (Cambie St.) were specific to techniques and individual projects. This was a ‘pre cinema studies’ time. Any screenings, study, or commentary on historical films, film theory, film analysis were done ad hoc by lovers of cinema, or film clubs like at UBC (Kirk Tougas), The Vancouver Film Society (Pearl Williams), and these activities were not organized around a curriculum.
Of course, the late 70’s and 80’s would change all that, especially at SFU where I taught then, but the changes were not always beneficial to a film culture outside of the interests of academia and the faculty that make up a program.
I recently got a poster from Alex MacKenzie‘s archive (‘Georges Melies: Illusionist Extraordinaire’, included in this post) advertising a Melies film show that I had forgotten about. This was held at the Edison Electric Moving Image Gallery on Commercial Drive in the 90’s. I’m using this poster to drive home a point: film culture, history, theory, analysis, and its integration with practice, occurs all the time, though its origins and vestiges are sometimes hard to find. Universities and cinematheques get all the press, while the informal screenings (clubs, parallel galleries) stay largely out of sight and usually are forgotten. Yet, the informal scene of ‘film studies/appreciation’ is precisely what fed us (underground, experimental, independent) film makers in ways that were more enduring than workshops in ‘tech’ or ‘screenwriting’ or ‘semiotics’ or ‘film history’ at the U.. In fact, Alex MacKenzie’s Edison and Blinding Light had as much to do with ‘film studies’ as any of the university curriculums or cinematheque exhibitions at the time.
The fact that Cineworks salons, workshops and screenings continue this study of film and its interpretations, theories, analytical methods is admirable, though I am sure it is a non-profit unpaid task of self-sacrifice by the organizers. The fact that one can learn, and be inspired by, film culture outside of the U. should be remembered, celebrated, and supported. In my lifetime, it started with underground films, with no wikipedia, no web, and no schooling. In your lifetime it started when you first fell in love with a film, or a moment in a film, or an idea in a film. And what you do with that inspiration is a measure of your life in film culture.
My own fascination with Melies is contained in my Visual Essays: Origins of Film, films that engage in a ‘re-imagining’ of primitive and silent cinema, from Lumiere to Eisenstein, from the initial inventor’s ‘Eureka!’ moment to the use of film as ‘text’ and political, advertising, propaganda messaging.