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CineSource Interviews Canyon Cinema’s Director Dominic Angerame

Posted September 14th, 2010 in Announcements, News / Events

Dominic Angerame inspecting a film at the oldest collective cinema distributor in the world. photo: CineSource

Dominic Angerame inspecting a film at the oldest collective cinema distributor in the world. photo: CineSource

Dominic Angerame: On Canyon Cinema and Making 16mm Films

by Doniphan Blair

Although the term “underground film” was coined in the ’50s by film critic Manny Farber to describe directors who “played an anti-art role in Hollywood,” it was soon applied to Bay Area filmmakers. Things were already cooking by then. “Even as You and I,” a spoof on filmmaking, was produced here in 1937 by LeRoy Robbins, Roger Barlow, and Harry Hay, the latter also active in the gay lib movement. Cinema is the 20th century art form and, just as Hollywood became its central marketplace, it was only logical that somewhere nearby, would become a capitol of its finer arts.”Filmmaking in the Bay Area has a far-lasting effect around the world,” says Dominic Angerame, the current director of Canyon Cinema, one of the first filmmakers’ collectives in the world, which distributes almost all the local art filmmakers. “The alternative films created on the West Coast are unique, and groundbreaking, not afraid [to pursue] the new visions that only motion picture films can provide.”

Filmmaker Frank Stauffacher (“Notes on the Port of St. Francis” and “Sausalito”) started America’s first Cinematheque in 1947 with experimental film screenings at the SF’s Museum of Modern Art. Sidney Peterson, a photography professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, made “The Cage,” and “The Lead Shoes.” Soon, Hy Hirsh and Jordan Belson were developing pre-computer abstract animation techniques, while Will Hindle explored personal forms of narrative and autobiography.

“The city’s filmmakers absorbed and expanded the rich language of experimental film created in the 1930s,” continues Angerame. “They introduced techniques and themes that often defy classification: the expressive use of cinematography, montage editing, found footage, animation, personal documentary, and explorations into the imagery of the subconscious.”

Conner's BREAKAWAY (1966) hippie high art. photo courtesy B. Conner

Conner’s BREAKAWAY (1966) hippie high art. photo courtesy B. Conner

In 1958, Bruce Conner, who moved here from Kansas via New York, made his masterpiece “A MOVIE,” a 12-minute short that stood monumentally tall. Composed from old features and newsreels, with the full-screen title “A MOVIE” appearing periodically, its canned action scenes and hyperventilating music deconstructed the Hollywood film. A painter and assemblage artist who hangs in MOMA NY, Conner was the most important artist to emerge from SF’s hippie culture, except for R. Crumb. Across the Bay, another Bruce (Baillie), a South Dakotan, formed Canyon Cinema, named for the freewheeling screenings at his house in Canyon, a hamlet in the Oakland hills. He was soon joined by Lawrence Jordan, Robert and Gunvor Nelson, Ben Van Meter, Chick Callenbach and Lenny Lipton, author of the popular how-to-book “Independent Film Making.”

By the early ’70s, the San Francisco Art Institute was a who’s-who of alt-cine, with teachers like Jordan (see article) and Gunvor Nelson, as well as George Kuchar (see article), James Broughton, Ernie Gehr, Al Wong and more. (The two Bruces didn’t teach much locally.) It was vibrant time (as this author can testify), with students experimenting in a variety of genres and styles, from narrative and doc to purely visual and wildly sexual. After the culture wars in the 1980, however, SFAI cliquefied into a confrontation between Marxists/structuralists and pure artists/romantics. It was only resolved by a return to basic avant-garde art with the anarchist punks.

Part of the second generation of art filmmakers to immigrate here, Angerame came to attend SFAI graduate school from Chicago, where he made medical films and got a BFA at the Chicago Art Institute. Since then, he has made more than 35 films, shown in and been awarded at festivals from the Toronto International to the Beinale in Vienna, garnered two NY MOMA Cine Probe awards and showed his “Anaconda Targets” (2004) at the Whitney Biennial and Havana Film Festival (both 2006).

He teaches at SFAI and has taught at UC Berkeley Extension, New College, Stanford, and the Chicago Art Institute. One of his most notable films is “City Symphony,” in five movements, the most recent being “The Soul of Things” (2010). In graphic black and white, it documents the cycle of destruction and construction in cities around the world and has shown in festivals from Ann Arbor to Athens, Greece. We caught up with Angerame at Canyon’s offices in the 9th Street Film Building.

CineSource: You’ve been with Canyon a while.

Dominic Angerame: About thirty years. I came aboard in 1980 and soon found myself totally dedicated to Canyon Cinema – even my wife was involved. She understood what I was doing. Canyon and many of the members became a part of our lives. I always felt that cinema, being a cooperative project, was a great socialist model. If the company was successful, so then too, the filmmakers would benefit, as well as the film community.

How would you gauge developments in alternative cinema over this period?

It has grown consistently in terms of rentals. In 2006, we began to see the incredible rise of DVD rentals, which had an immediate negative impact – a lot of teachers stopped showing films. They are still showing the classics, ‘Scorpio Rising‘ [by Kenneth Anger] and [the work of] Stan Brakhage, but they are going to the library and renting a DVD.

Most of our work is meant to be projected and on celluloid. We are trying to be true to the filmmaker’s sense of aesthetics. The DVD [is OK] for a home market and study. Once students see the film, they can use the DVD to study the editing, lighting, etc. Because of convenience and cutbacks, however, a lot of teachers have decided to substitute DVDs.

It is an injustice to the students. We had 25 students come here last year and I was working on the editing bench – this is where we inspect every film that comes back for damage or missing frames, sometimes people like to cut out frames and blow up photos – and none of them knew what film was! Our purpose is to encourage the showing of celluloid film, to show [a film] in its original form and to avoid illegal showing of the artist’s work.

You think you will turn around the slide to DVD?

We do have a core group who insist on showing this work in celluloid form. I think we can continue to exist not only as a historical but as a functional organization, where museums and theaters use our services. We are seeking private funding. We are not nonprofit, so we can’t get government funding. 95% of our income is from rentals and DVD sales.

Are there other similar alternative cinema groups?

There are six of us in the world: Light Cone in Paris [lightcone.org], which is heavily funded by the government; Austria’s Six Pack, similarly funded [sixpackfilm.com]; Lux in London [lux.org.uk] – of course, they have amazing backing by the Brits; and then Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Center [cfmdc.org], again heavily funded. There is also the New York Film-makers’ Cooperative [film-makerscoop.com]. But we are the most solvent because we are not dependent on grants.

A little ironic?

Yes, but still, we are barely squeaking by. I work part time, as does my assistant Lauren Sorensen.

In terms of alt-film, San Francisco is still the center?

Yes. It far surpasses New York City. One of the problems in the Bay Area: not enough financial support. Most of the funding is geared to docs and narrative – but we are making inroads. When I came in the ’80s, California was our main state for business, but that has switched. Colgate University, in NY, the University of Chicago. Europe is a big renter. I would estimate 15% of our business is in Western Europe [by email he added: 5% Eastern Europe, 5% East Asia, 5% Central and South America, 25% Eastern US, 15% California, 20% Midwest, and 10% Southwest and Southeast].

Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) was considered the avant-master due to his immense output, his use of various techniques, including scratching and painting on film, his interests in myth and mortality, and his accessibility, which made him a great teacher, including to the likes of the 'South Park' creators. photo Timoleen Wilkins

Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) was considered the avant-master due to his immense output, his use of various techniques, including scratching and painting on film, his interests in myth and mortality, and his accessibility, which made him a great teacher, including to the likes of the ‘South Park’ creators. photo Timoleen Wilkins

One thing we have had good luck on is managing continuous loop productions for museums. We charge each time [a movie] is shown; we arrange the plan of the room for proper viewing; we provide the DVD with a licensing charge. Another [good] thing that happened is Stan Brakhage released his work on the Criterion Series. Although it affected our sales, it did expose the world to avant-garde cinema. You see it more and more in film festivals as a category for submissions.

Brakhage is still king? [He made films like ‘Mothlight,’ moth’s wings adhered to film, and ’23rd Psalm Branch,’ a feature-length anti-war meditation, and taught, students like ‘South Park”s Matt Stone and Trey Parker].

Brakhage is the crowned master, along with Jonas Mekas [co-founder of Film-Makers’ Cooperative, later Anthology Film Archives]. They’ve been at the forefront since the ’60s. Brakhage’s filmography is more then 700 films. Then there’s Bruce Conner, we used to carry his work.

Used to?

He was continually withdrawing and resubmitting his films. The last time he withdrew was around 2007 – that really hurt our business. As he was nearing his death, he decided to make major changes in his life. It was an eccentric thing. I told him it was a mistake and he realized that, it was a pride thing. After his death [in 2008], his estate returned to us for distribution. Now with our new Canyon Cinema – just launched [June ’10, designed by Exobi] – we’ve have been seeing a whole lot of action with Conner.

Who are some of your other popular filmmakers?

Michael Snow [of the groundbreaking ‘Wavelength’] is one of our biggest renters. One reason: he made a conscious decision, with my encouragement, not to transfer to DVD. The same is true with Peter Kubelka from Austria. Snow does a lot of installations and time-based DVDs in museums around the world, but he still does mostly celluloid for his films. 80% of our material does not exist in digital and 70% of that will never transferred – too expensive.

But you are not opposed to transferring per se?

We are a shareholder organization, so ‘we’ don’t just ‘do’ anything. It is expensive and a lot of filmmakers don’t want to do it. Of the 700 films by Stan [Brakhage], only roughly 60 have been transferred, and with Conner only three. Conner is an icon. We used to have 12 prints of ‘A MOVIE’ [Conner insisted titles be ALL CAPS] that we used to send around the world. We have two, but we hope to get more.

The first time I saw ‘A MOVIE,’ I couldn’t get it – ‘What?!? Titles repeated in the middle of the movie?!? – but I finally got it. A lot of people have been influenced –

Underground Personal Films were considered cinema subversion or filmic LSD by both the authorities and the presenters, as this 1976 Copenhagen show indicates. Photo: courtesy Canyon Cinema

Underground Personal Films were considered cinema subversion or filmic LSD by both the authorities and the presenters, as this 1976 Copenhagen show indicates. Photo: courtesy Canyon Cinema

Conner was honored in CineVegas [Las Vegas] 2005. They flew him in a private jet provided by Dennis Hopper, the president of CineVegas at the time, who rolled out the red carpet completely. Dean Stockwell and Jack Nicholson were there. When asked if he was the father of found footage [filmmaking], Conner replied, ‘I want to take a paternity test.’ He took it to levels no else had. He was very involved in this organization from 1966 until just before his death [despite periodically removing his films].

Hopper was really a quite a fantastic guy?

Yes, he was a little paranoid – he had two bodyguards – but he admired Bruce [Conner]. He was also a photographer and he became a collector early in his career, and they had a shared show at the Paule Anglim Gallery [San Francisco] in 1997.

He had a reputation of being crazy and drug-addled but he was also dedicated to the arts.

I think so. Conner had to calm him down. [Hopper] didn’t like people towering over him – he was fairly short.

We hated to see [Conner pull his films] but his behavior grew increasingly eccentric. He had withdrawn three times before, sometimes for idiosyncratic stuff like [insufficient] vacuuming. But he was a great teacher and leader in the field and he was always right about artistic principles – he demanded that artists get paid.

I would get a museum calling – I won’t mention any names – and they would ask if they could get a copy of ‘Scorpio Rising,’ which they intended to transfer to DVD and continuous loop for three months. I would say, ‘No, you’re not! You have to pay fees equitable to [similar] art.’ We have been able to give a major boost to the experimental filmmaker.

So how did alternative film start here?

In the ’60s, it was New York and SF. In New York, it was the New American Cinema Group, and here, it was around Bruce Bailey and Robert Nelson. Then the hippie thing happened: Conner and Scott Bartlett [pioneered trance films, died 47; 1980], a lot of psychedelic and erotic work with Ron Rice and Hy Hirsh.

The ’60s saw an explosion – Canyon was formed in ’61 or ’62. The history has become somewhat mystical, even mythical in my opinion. From what we can gather, from the ‘Cinemanews’ [the group’s newsletter], it started around ’61. The spirit of showing experimental films in Canyon [Oakland] came from Baillie and Chick Strand [who made personal documentaries, notably ‘Mosori Monika’ (1969), in Venezuela] and several others – I’m not exactly sure.

Then the group began to travel around, showing films in the East Bay, San Francisco, Sausalito. Lawrence Jordan became involved early on. Lawrence and the others started the distribution company, and in 1967 Canyon Cinema Inc. – its legal name – was incorporated in the State of California. Cinemanews became the Canyon Cinemanews and the showings became Canyon Cinematheque. In 1975, the two latter organizations split off to start a nonprofit, the Foundation for Art in Cinema, but the distribution group kept the name Canyon Cinema.

In September, we will be celebrating our fiftieth birthday with Bruce Baillie, Lawrence Jordan and Robert Nelson [Sept 23 at SF MOMA]. Robert comes to San Francisco a couple times a week, working on new piece. He withdrew his pieces, too, but we finally got them back. Once a filmmaker withdraws, it takes a while for the public to know we have them [again]. But, pretty much, we are the only distributor of their work [although Canyon has no exclusives].

What other things do you do?

We rent our screening room, for about a dollar a minute. We have five board members elected directly from membership. It is a filmmaker’s organization. I am filmmaker myself – I have made 35 films – which is why this organization works, because filmmakers have different needs than digital people. In the mid-’80s, one of our board members tried to convince me to eliminate all of our 16 mm and convert to analog video – which would have been a disaster!

Do you think celluloid will survive?

They have been predicting the death of celluloid for more than 100 years, so I don’t think it will die. In fact, it may be the only medium which will survive. I remember when I first started transferring to video. It was one-inch – and now there is no one-inch. It’s like when CDs came in, you had to buy all new stuff. Films never wear out, except through misuse or mis-projection.

Will last even a hundred years?

[big sigh] If stored properly, yes. The question is: Will there be machines to view them. There are only two manufactures of 16mm projectors, that’s a weak link. Bulbs are an issue, too.

Do you see interplay between the different moving image makers [like art films and features] or is it like water color and murals, two separate –

There are intersections and it happens mostly in the festivals, like the San Francisco International. Most of people in San Francisco know each other. It is a small town, from documentary to narrative to high-end computerization.

The avant-garde filmmakers feel neglected in the funding arena. We are not talking a lot of money here. For example, the last film I finished cost $5000, which is very little, when you consider $20,000 is a typical [film] grant. [Admittedly], experimental is a bit more difficult because the general public has to be educated what alternative film is: films that don’t have to tell a story.

One of the conceits in my film school was that alt-film can be like visual LSD, change the way we think. The irony is that came to pass but in MTV, which borrowed the tropes of underground film.

Interesting you bring that up. When I came in the 80s, this business was almost kaput. I insisted on publishing a new catalog, so people would know what we had. Then the punk rockers came: Ralph Records of the Residents [local art-rock band], Hello Skinny [ditto] and Babeth [Van Loo, a Dutch filmmaker; attended Art Institute; produced film on Jordan, ‘Moments of Illumination’]. She shot the Sex Pistols in Berlin – we couldn’t keep them on the shelf!

That was when MTV came out. Some experimentalists were very upset: MTV was stealing their techniques. After a while, they realized it was an honest effort; it was opening the eyes of the public. A lot of it was jealousy. They were making money while [the filmmakers] were still obscure but that’s always a problem in the arts.

We are looking at ways to bring this [art] into people’s homes in a digital form. Most people don’t have projectors. Our DVDs are fairly expensive – the average price is $50, because they are artist-made. It is impossible to sell for $29. We have packages but compilations are problematic because we don’t have the right to package things without [the filmmakers’] approval.

Our members are very eccentric and often times erratic. In our organization, the filmmakers are of primary importance, and then our audience. Basically, Canyon Cinema was founded to keep the filmmaker’s interest in mind, both aesthetically and payment – 50% goes back to filmmakers.

It seems that you have a healthy understanding of your members.

Having been here long enough, I have a pretty good rapport with all of them. Then there are a lot of new filmmakers. But in the last few years, we find we are loosing money. Some of it is rental related, some is not. Filmmakers who didn’t claim their money, we used keep in an interest bearing account of 5% – but now nothing. Last year, we graced anyone who couldn’t pay the $100 distribution fee in an attempt to help our members in these economic times.

Do you have other plans for future?

We are approaching private donors – I am hopeful. I recently sold our paper archives to Stanford. All our filmmaker’s correspondence, old catalogues, books, will be put on line for any film scholar. A couple years ago, a book came out by Scott McDonald [‘Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor’]. As it shows, over the last 30 years, we have gained worldwide recognition and have been able to remain solvent – the sale of the papers to Stanford assures that … for the next year.

We are not nonprofit – it would be impossible to be one without disbanding the company. We tried twice. The IRS denied our application and said, ‘Don’t try again.’ It is the way we remunerate our filmmakers, the filmmakers are on the board. They saw us as out to make a bunch of money. [laughs] No matter how we disguised it, said it was educational, it didn’t fly.

Have you approached any Hollywood Northers?

That is what we are doing, people who have been influence by experimental films. I don’t want to say who but we are fairly confident they will give us some support. If any of your readers want to donate – contact me. The [Hollywood Northers] are interested. A lot are historically aware. [Gary Leva] made ‘Fog City Mavericks’ [2007] and the avant-garde played a roll. Bruce Conner is in ‘Fog City,’ as am I. There is respect. They invited us to the Roxy and we all went on stage.

Considering the diversity of film community in the Bay Area, any ideas how it could work better?

That was one of the ides of the 9th Street film community [180 9th St; where Film Arts used to be], to coordinate the diverse filmmakers but it is still a work in progress. It has happened in some ways, in others, not. Last year, we had six showing here. Last year, Frameline had me program material by experimental gay filmmakers, including ‘Thundercrack’ by Kurt McDowell. It sold out the Victoria Theatre. Fox News did a special, claiming it showed sex with a gorilla but is was really George Kuchar dressed in a gorilla suit. They got 60,000 Web hits, it was big. I am attempting to do [alt-film sections] with Jewish Film Festival and the Asian.

Anyway, Canyon is still alive and kicking and we plan to keep doing our most for celluloid film and for the filmmakers.