At this odd moment on the timeline of moving-picture history, it's hard to know whether to look forward or backward. You may have to train your eye to do both at once. It may hurt a little.
Or at least that's how things may appear when you're facing a vast retrospective of what once seemed so forward-looking. And so it is with Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, the first official Pacific Film Archive book, due soon from UC Press and annotated by a whole season's worth of screenings at the PFA and elsewhere (co-sponsored by San Francisco Cinematheque).
It's not easy to summarize the legacy of that which burgeoned in the 1940s filmmaking workshops at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute, among other local creative nooks. But it is safe to say, as Radical Light does, that "the Bay Area has been a global center for an extraordinary constellation of artists who use film and video not for entertainment or documentation, but as an apparatus for the untethered pursuit of personal expression."
Any given film will seem like a fine example, even if selected randomly. Take Allen Willis, Philip Greene and David Myers' Have You Sold Your Dozen Roses?, from 1957, in which images of a San Francisco garbage dump -- hovering gulls, trash avalanches -- get a poetic narration of sorts from Lawrence Ferlinghetti: "Oh say can you see by the dawn's early blight?" Or Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley's fiercely feminist pop pastiche Schmeeerguntz, from 1966, which runs a gamut of culturally approved female experience, and sets up a behavioral dialectic -- between prissy beauty pageants and brawny roller derbies -- that's still in play today. Or Curt McDowell's A Visit to Indiana, an unseen 1970 dialogue played over quaint home-movie imagery to characteristically sad and funny effect, implying that for Bay Area artists who hail from the mid-century Midwest, at least, you really can't go home again.
Now, you're right to worry that any retrospective of the untethered pursuit of personal expression might soon enough become self-enclosing -- like how, after a while, some old Beat poets couldn't seem to write anything besides the names of their Beat poet friends. But Radical Light is an astutely sophisticated sort of scrapbook, and inherently pluralistic. Its whole point is to chronicle our collective cinematic forays into political activism, sexual liberation, literary translation, formal interrogation, technological enhancement, and the timeless art-making impulse to just feel less alone in a weird and variously alienating world.
And it is apt for this historical moment, when their exploded abundance practically demands a reevaluation of what moving images mean to us. Or what they someday will mean. If Radical Light doesn't go out of its way to point out that even the cleverest stuff on YouTube already has been done, and often done better, maybe it's just to suggest that the real benefit of the well-trained eye is a sense of perspective.
Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area begins September 17, 2010, at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, with related screenings thereafter at SFMOMA, Artists' Television Access and the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.