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Feature Article

November 11, 2017

1965: Underground Cinema, Film Poets May Be Pulling Viewers’ Limbs

Newspaper film review from 1965

From the San Rafael Daily Independent Journal, November 25, 1965

Film Review
by John F. Kearney

Nearly every seat was taken five minutes before the start of the movie.

By the time the wall lights in the Gate Theater, Sausalito, were dimmed, a middle-aged couple had squeezed into the last remaining space, a few feet from the screen set up on the stage.

Whatever their motives, members of the audience were in high spirits to witness the arrival in Marin of an American phenomenon known as the Underground Cinema.

There were those curious to see movies made in cellars and back yards on a shoestring by arty people who, until a couple of years ago, expressed themselves only in the relatively introvert world of canvas and paint.

Then there was the fun crowd, anxious not to miss a thing considered “in,” even if it meant having its collective leg pulled from time to time.

Others came to criticize. “Gee whiz, this is terrible,” said a voice in the row behind as geometric shapes flashed and jiggled their way across the screen.

Although the Underground Cinema is playing to full houses across the nation from San Francisco to New York, some of the movies defy description.

They lack the symmetry of conventional films, story lines are vague (non-existent in some cases) and images blurred and overexposed in the hands of the “film poets.”

The film-makers themselves are among the first to admit their movies lack the professional touch, but, they point out, their works are pulling in festival awards and the consideration of serious critics.

One of the movies shown on the first of a series of weekend showings of Underground Cinema at Sausalito was described as “very pineapple” by the New York Herald Tribune. Its plot was a breakthrough in modern cinema or pickled with innuendo and eroticism, according to taste.

Another called “Oh Dem Watermelons” was shown this year at the San Francisco Film Festival and was described on the program as a “top money award winner.”

Watermelons were systematically squashed, mashed, thumped, sliced and kicked until one of them fought back. Anyway, it excited a more vocal reception than the last time Rock Hudson and Doris Day walked hand in hand into the sunset.

The “11 o’clock Underground” (11 p.m. is the starting time) tomorrow and Saturday at the Gate will feature the world premiere of “Quixote,” an experimental film which might qualify among the world’s lowest budget movies.

It was produced and photographed by Bruce Baillie, who spent 13 months traveling around the U.S. in a Volkswagen filming the scenes. Donations from well-wishers enabled him to eat and buy film, he claims.

Two other Baillie films, “A Hurrah for Soldiers” and “Mass,” will also be shown.

Preceding the “underground” is the San Francisco Mime Troupe with its “Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel” minstrel show, opening at 8:30 p.m. That will also be staged Sunday at 8 p.m. for its final showing.

Underground Film Journal notes:

This semi-review article is typical of the time — slightly condescending, but giving the “underground” its due just in case it eventually became mainstream. (In case you didn’t know: It didn’t.) Kearney actually seems admiring of Robert Nelson‘s comedic Oh Dem Watermelons, which is nice.

What makes this an interesting article, though, is that it claims that Bruce Baillie‘s masterpiece Quixote would make its World Premiere in Sausalito on November, 26, 1965. That’s a big claim the Journal hasn’t seen in any other source.

Baillie would go on to tinker with the film until its “final” version in 1967, which you can watch here.

Online Cinema

November 18, 2017

Remedial Reading Comprehension By George Landow

Remedial Reading Comprehension by George Landow (1971).

Although P. Adams Sitney‘s Visionary Film gives a completion year of the film of 1971, an on-screen copyright notice gives the year as 1970.

Most references to Remedial Reading Comprehension discuss the autobiographical nature of the film. In an article about autobiography in experimental filmmaking in The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, Sitney quotes Landow, who says of his own film:

There is a relationship between the personal and the non-personal images which is roughly the same as the relationship between the first image and the next-to-last image.

The first image is of a woman sleeping; and the film’s concluding images are of Landow himself running.

Film still of George Landow running

While Landow says that there is a personal connection between himself and the film, Sitney argues in Visionary Film that Remedial Reading Comprehension and other films by Landow at the time are devoid of psychology; while Fred Camper in a review of the film in Film Culture 52 claims that Landow is not describing his own psychological being or reality, but instead is describing the structural interrelationships between different forms of filmic perception and knowledge.

Given the title of the film, there is considerable text contained in it. About three-quarters into the film, Landow includes a sequence of text flashing on the screen. The bootleg copy of the film above (source unknown) is too blurry to read this text; nor has the Underground Film Journal come across a source that reprints or identifies the origin of the text.

However, most references to the film address primarily the text phrase “This is a film about you … Not about its maker” that appears on-screen in two sections.

Finally, though the film is credited solely to George Landow, Camper’s Film Culture review claims that John Schofill provided Technical Assistance. Schofill was another underground filmmaker at the time who became the Chairman, Filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.