The other day I popped a Jordan Belson DVD into my laptop. I wanted to compare his fluvial, prismatic motion-picture abstractions of nearly 50 years ago with the latest in Macintosh screen savers.
Now, before you accuse me of sacrilege, dear two or three Bay Area experimental film purists who are reading this, ask yourselves how many DVDs of Jordan Belson films you own. And let me explain that Belson's work stands up to my screen savers pretty damn well. For starters, you can tell a person made it, and you can tell that person was Belson.
That's assuming you know who he is. Belson's work isn't widely seen nowadays, save for 1983's The Right Stuff, whose special effects he made. With that one, I always imagine director Philip Kaufman, then Belson's North Beach neighbor, telling himself, "OK, for these scenes of flying up out of the atmosphere and into the real mystery, I want something a little 2001, but maybe a little Vertigo too. Oh, I've got it: Belson!"
Of course the real reason to own a Belson DVD is not to fully experience the work. It is to let the artist know, through a fraction of a royalty check, that the work endures. For the whole fully experiencing thing, even my mega-huge flat-screen TV isn't good enough. You know what is? Yes: The Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA.
And, in particular, tonight's section of the ongoing 75 Years in the Dark: A Partial History of Film at SFMOMA program, which is called The Bay Area Arrives. It's called that because it's a survey of the heavy hitters of the local avant-garde, who quite clearly had something special going on here in the middle of the last century.
The evening was curated by film historian Scott MacDonald, who has assembled two essential books on that subject: Art in Cinema: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society, and Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor. So it should be a good way to see how Belson's jewel-like Allures, with its whirling spirographs and flickering diamonds, compares not just with my screen saver but also with the contemporaneous work of his peers.
Like the other hand-made moving color fields in Harry Smith's No. 2 and No. 3. Or to the deliberately disorienting, warped-lens viewpoint of Sidney Peterson's The Lead Shoes. Or the readymade surrealism of a detached San Francisco Victorian house facade in James Broughton's Mother's Day. Or Vincent Price reading Robert Louis Stevenson in Frank Stauffacher's Notes on the Port of St. Francis.
It'll also be a good way to see how these filmmakers' experiments have stood the test of time. Belson might gag to think of his vivid mystical mists as the progenitors of so many digital lava lamps. Or he might get a kick out of it. Hard to say. But in the consecrated space of a world-class modern art museum, among the exploratory visions of like-minded associates, Belson's bright lights should really shine.
The Bay Area Arrives at 7:00pm, Thursday, February 25, 2010, at SFMOMA in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit sfmoma.org.