Fifty years after its impromptu founding by a couple of filmmakers and their pals who convened once a week at a home in Canyon, California, to watch offbeat movies and carouse, SF Cinematheque still carries a bright torch for avant-garde cinema. Its weekly shows at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and other venues around town may sail under the radar of the vast majority of the population, but that's not surprising in a culture that prizes narrative and drama above all else -- not just in movies and reality television, but in politics, sports and life.
"Experimental film is an artistic movement, a film movement that exists on one side or underneath mainstream film," explains Cinematheque artistic director Steve Polta. "It's not film created for commercial purposes, it's not industrial film, it's not documentaries. It is film created by artists generally working alone, generally for personal reasons. It's a lot like poetry's relationship to mainstream literature.
"The films might be about light, they might about the experience of time, they might be a sort of gesture done for personal reasons," Polta elaborates. "And I happen to think the personal-reasons thing is kind of important."
The Crossroads festival encompasses 10 programs over four days, and already stands -- in just its second year -- as the most prominent showcase of avant-garde cinema on the West Coast. As an indicator of its significance, some 8 to 10 filmmakers are traveling at their own expense with their films (in addition to the 4 out-of-town guests the festival is hosting).
One of the honored guests is Jeanne Liotta, formerly (and famously) a Lower East Side punk who's been making films since the '80s. Her show ("The Sublime is Now," Friday, May 13, 7 pm) includes the double-projection piece "One Day This May No Longer Exist" as well as the West Coast premiere of "Crosswalk," an 18-minute film made from Super 8 home movies she shot on Good Friday on her street several years running. The bizarrely colorful cross-bearing ceremonies on display juxtapose Nyorican spirituality with the random chaos of New York City.
The seventh program, "Apparent Motion - Celebrating the Art of Projection" (Saturday, May 14 at 8:30 pm), saluting the increasingly popular practice of "live cinema," looks to be another highlight. The East Bay's Kenneth Atchley gets the ball rolling with a set of live video mixing, followed by a pair of leading-edge Canadian artists. Employing two projectors, Amanda Dawn Christie (who heads to the Cannes Film Festival after this show) and E. Hearte refract loops of film through lenses and crystals, all the while accompanied by live electronic music. Vancouver artist Alex MacKenzie rounds out this one-of-a-kind program with an evocative shadow-play of dissolves and superimpositions projected through a pair of hand-cranked 35mm machines.
If it's genuine weirdness you crave, Polta points you to "The Chilling Montage Of Crimson Repression" (Friday, May 13 at 9 pm). Household-name film and video makers George Kuchar, Peggy Ahwesh, Luther Price and Dale Hoyt mix with younger artists in a maelstrom of squalid nightmares and decayed fantasies.
The Crossroads festival is designed to showcase new work by national and international avant-garde filmmakers, but a couple of programs are given over to honoring the Bay Area's extraordinary history and tradition of experimental film. "Celebrating Robert Nelson" (Saturday, May 14 at 4:30 pm) collects several of his irreverent and wonderful shorts from the '60s and '70s. The notoriously shy filmmaker may or may not be in the house, and may or may not take the stage for a few words.
In recognition of the Cinematheque's golden anniversary -- bringing this preview full circle -- the fest kicks off with "Radical Light: Cinematheque at 50" (Thursday, May 12 at 7 pm at SFMOMA). The capper to a months-long retrospective of the Bay Area experimental film scene occasioned by the Pacific Film Archive's 2010 publication of a massive and essential tome, this vintage program features such icons as Greta Snider, Bruce Baillie, Gunvor Nelson, Scott Stark and Karen Holmes.
For the novice, and even for someone who has seen a good deal of non-narrative, experimental films, a small adjustment may be necessary in order to grok works that consciously operate outside the realms of commerce and commodity.
"All you really have to do is be open to them," Polta muses. "Don't be intimidated, don't be critical, and take them for how they affect you. Having these films in your life, and participating with them intellectually and sensually, can have a profound effect on the way you experience the world."
Crossroads runs Thursday, May 12 through Sunday, May 15, 2011 at the Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St. (at Mission) in San Francisco. A benefit and party for SF Cinematheque will take place Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 111 Minna Gallery. For more information, visit sfcinematheque.org.