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Stan Vanderbeek: Computer Visionary

By Mike Everleth ⋅ August 31, 2008

Courtesy of the digital art blog Rhizome, I watched a great two-part 1972 documentary called The Computer Generation directed by John Musilli and starring filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek. That’s Part 1 embedded above, my blatherings are here and Part 2 is embedded below. (Video courtesy of Creative Arts Television.)

Vanderbeek wasn’t just an influential member of the ’60s underground film movement, he’s the dude who came up with the term “underground film” to describe the avant-garde and experimental film scene. “Underground film” was originally coined by recently deceased (Aug. 18) critic and painter Manny Farber in 1957 in the magazine Commentary, but he used it to describe the work of underappreciated B-movie directors like Howard Hawks.

Then Vanderbeek wrote a manifesto for Film Quarterly in 1961 called “The Cinema Delimina: Films from the Underground” that used the term “underground film” as we know it today. It’s also interesting because I’m currently re-reading Jonas Mekas’ Movie Journal, which reprints his ’60s film column from the Village Voice. In the book, you get to see Mekas first use his term “New American Cinema” to describe the avant-garde, but then he gets angry when others co-opt it into “a slogan” (as he says). Then, suddenly he’s fully committed to throwing the word “underground” everywhere. (But, I think he eventually gets sick of that, too, if I’m remembering the end of the book correctly.)

Anyway, back to Vanderbeek and The Computer Generation: The first part is kind of funny as a look back at the “advanced” technology that Vanderbeek champions. He basically just has a light pen to draw on an electronic tablet/screen, then he has to call in the computer expert to “animate” it, which is just to have the computer exactly re-create the same drawing. It’s very simple and basic, but it’s fun to see Vanderbeek — who initially gained notoriety as a film collagist — get extremely excited and enthusiastic, in a very laid-back way, about what he’s doing.

Part 2 then opens up with one of Vanderbeek’s computer art films, which again is very basic. it’s simply a traditional avant-garde dance film with computer Spirograph-esque drawings overlaid on it. (I used to love drawing with Spirographs.) But the real kicker is the very end when Vanderbeek pops up again and essentially lays out what will be the future melding of computers and art. At the time, what he says must have sounded fairly “far out,” but in retrospect the dude was right on. It’s a particularly prescient closing statement:

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