The American Avant-Garde Film Collection at the Pacific Film Archive

BAM/PFA Berkeley,2010.

Author Renato Collu

Early Years of the Pacific Film Archive

In its forty-year history, the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) has created one of the most important collections of American experimental films.  It began in the mid-1960’s, when 29-year-old Sheldon Renan, author of Introduction to the American Underground Film (1966), came to explore the San Francisco Bay Area from New York City.

Renan, who would become the founder of the PFA in 1971, began to exhibit films at Wheeler Hall on the University of California Berkeley campus. He was in contact with lecturer Albert Johnson, who was actively involved in many film festivals and also a film programmer for the campus’s Committee for Arts and Lectures, assisted by UC Berkeley student Tom Luddy. The three men “eventually combined their programming efforts.”[1] Renan was conscious that “movies should be available to everyone”[2] and felt encouraged by the enthusiastic response of the young university audience to start an ambitious project: to create a center for film exhibition and collection on campus.

But why in the San Francisco Bay Area? Renan came to the West Coast because it was home to a thriving and influential community of filmmakers coming from all over the country. As PFA curator Kathy Geritz remarked: “Historically, the Bay Area had been a flourishing center for the teaching of experimental filmmaking since the 1940s.”[3] The San Francisco Art Institute was among the first institutions that played a relevant role in teaching[4] and presenting experimental works. Here, young talented people started making new experiments in films, with interesting ideas and challenging techniques.

Furthermore, the first ongoing avant-garde film exhibition showcase in San Francisco, called “Art in Cinema,” dated back to the mid-1940s. It reached the attention of artists from different backgrounds interested in the new medium and showcased the works of artists who had become filmmakers themselves, like Jordan Belson, Harry Smith, and Sidney Peterson, who came from UC Berkeley.

Kenneth Anger

During the decade of 1960s, the San Francisco Bay Area “was already infected with cinephilia.”[5] New venues and theaters opened, like the Cinema Guild in Berkeley. The non-profit avant-garde film distributor Canyon Cinema and the exhibition program of the San Francisco Cinematheque had their origins in filmmaker Bruce Baille’s backyard, in 1961. Soon academic programs in film studies grew nationally and locally, namely the San Francisco State College introduced its film department in 1963 and San Francisco Art Institute followed in 1968.[6]

The Bay Area functioned as a magnet, where pioneers of the underground film world such as Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage made impressive works and spent important periods of their lives. It also attracted a great many artists for temporary teaching positions and artist residencies, all drawn to San Francisco for the art scene as well as the thriving poetry community.

Stan Brakhage

Sheldon Renan’s first attempt at establishing a film center was to approach the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), an institution whose contribution to exhibition in the Bay Area was already oriented to cinema as an art form. But SFMOMA, as well as the Oakland Museum, declined Renan’s proposal. Next, he approached Peter Selz, director of the University Art Museum (today the Berkeley Art Museum, BAM). Selz, previously a curator at The Museum of Modern Art, in New York, agreed with Renan that the creation of a film department would bring a distinctive element to the university’s museum.

Renan’s vision of the PFA was modelled after La Cinémathèque française in Paris (CF). The main mission was to show rare and new cinema from all over the world, to set up a place for discussion and critical debates similar to MoMA’s Film Department, which was a perfect model of integration of fine arts and cinema in a museum. But, in this instance, the PFA would be uniquely oriented to the Pacific Rim – the West Coast independent film and Asian cinemas.

Sheldon Renan

Henri Langlois

In the late 1960s, Renan established contact with the founder and secretary-general of the CF, Henri Langlois, who visited PFA on more than one occasion. Langlois gave his spiritual support to the PFA. Together with Renan and museum director Selz, they signed a goal statement, in which PFA’s mandate was to archive the films of independent Californian filmmakers and to contribute to the preservation and exhibition of those films. Like its Parisian mentor, the PFA aimed to create “a place where cinema patrons, artists, students, and critics could watch the widest range of the world’s films in the best technical and environmental conditions, that would also be a center for study, discussion, and exchange.”[7] Langlois, acting as advisor for the PFA, offered Renan the use of CF’s vast resources and lent rare prints from the CF collection. He became unofficial member of the PFA’s National Advisory Board, which included among others writer and activist Susan Sontag, film critic Andrew Sarris, and editor of Film Quarterly Ernest Callenbach.[8] In 1971, the Pacific Film Archive officially became a permanent department of the University Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley.

Renan and his collaborators created a “guerrilla bureaucracy” in order to pursue funding sources, fight for recognition, and carry on a systematic fundraising campaign to sustain expenses for the exhibition activities. The Pacific Film Archive wouldn’t be an internationally renowned archive today without the collective effort of the entire staff, librarians, technicians, curators and archivists. In particular, I would like to mention two influential former staff members: Tom Luddy and Edith Kramer.

Tom Luddy, who programmed films for the PFA in the 1960s, became program coordinator in 1972, and director after Renan’s departure, from 1975 until 1980. The 1970s signalled a decade of international recognition for the PFA with the presence of a long list of foreign guests like French New Wave, Japanese, and Italian directors, as well as silent film performers and contemporary avant-garde filmmakers. During Luddy’s leadership, the weekly avant-garde/independent film program was introduced by the new assistant curator Edith Kramer (formerly manager of Canyon Cinema and film curator at SFMOMA). She was appointed initially to oversee the programs because of her curatorial expertise in experimental film.

The Rapid and Inevitable Growth of a Collection

Along with programming and exhibitions, Renan’s vision was to build a true film archive of independent cinema. Edith Kramer, who was director from 1983 to 2005, remarks that Sheldon Renan “from the very beginning had defined the acquisition policy of the Pacific Film Archive to be focused in three basic areas: avant-garde, Asian films, and pornography.”[9]

Before PFA obtained a permanent home and vault to archive films, there were already a considerable number of films on hand. Renan and Luddy were deft in negotiating with major studios and distribution companies in order to acquire, or offer free storage, to retired collections. This process resulted in the largest Japanese film collection outside of Japan and a considerable number of films from Eastern Europe and Soviet Georgia.

During the first five years of activity, 1971-76, it was impossible to purchase new prints for lack of funding. But as Kramer recalls, “The avant-garde collection started to grow in a spontaneous way, mainly through donations by filmmakers who voluntarily contributed, giving their prints to the archive after exhibition. When Renan started his ambitious project, there was no other American archive that focused on collecting and acquiring these particular works. Sheldon Renan’s vision of creating an archive was contemporary, if not earlier, to the Anthology Film Archives, in New York City.”

The creation of PFA’s avant-garde collection was made not only on a sporadic basis through donations by individual artists, but also thanks to federal and private grants.

In 1975, a grant was awarded to the PFA by the National Endowment for the Arts, specifically to “purchase works of independent and experimental cinema from Northern California, with the aim to increase exhibition of American independent films.”[10] The amount was $20,000 and Kramer, who joined the PFA in early 1975 as assistant curator, was given the assignment to build an avant-garde film collection.

Edith Kramer made a selection of representative titles of American experimental film with a special emphasis on the Bay Area. She contacted and persuaded filmmakers to allow PFA to obtain prints. To fit within the limits of the grant’s budget wasn’t an easy task, as Kramer recalls: “Prints were purchased from filmmakers at three times the lab cost, according to a generally used agreement established by Jonas Mekas at the Film-Makers’ Co-operative in New York at that time.”

George & Mike Kuchar

The major focus of Kramer’s selection was on California-based filmmakers but she also included masterpieces of the East Coast experimental scene. The list contains: Bruce Conner (Breakaway, 1966-67; Cosmic Ray, 1961-64), Bruce Baillie (All My life, 1966; Castro Street, 1966), Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley (Schmeerguntz, 1965), George & Mike Kuchar (Color Me Shameless, 1966-67; Hold Me While I’m Naked, 1966), Robert Nelson (Bleu Shut, 1970), James Broughton (Testament, 1974), Yvonne Rainer (Film About A Woman Who, 1974), Sidney Peterson (The Cage, 1947), Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising, 1963), Pat O’Neill (Down Wind, 1973), and many more. Kramer also included masterpieces from Standish Lawder (Corridor, 1970), Hollis Frampton (Critical Mass, 1971), Harry Smith (Early Abstractions, 1939-57), Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank  (Pull My Daisy, 1958), Ken Jacobs (Blonde Cobra, 1959-63), Stan Brakhage (Anticipation of the Night, 1958; Dog Star Man, 1961-64), Tony Conrad (The Flicker, 1966), among others.

Bruce Conner

Acquisition grants represent only an occasional event for a film archive like PFA. Strategies used to acquire prints were different from one case to the next. On occasion, the archive’s rental budget was redirected towards the purchase of a new print. “Joseph Cornell’s films we have, in this case” says Kramer. “The rental budget was used for acquisition as well as exhibition. Obviously, this applied to films that were of modest cost to purchase.”

Another strategy that was common in the early years was that PFA invited filmmakers to use its storage facilities for free. This process often resulted in film acquisitions that were made through donations. PFA adopted an open-door policy for deposits of films, providing services for saving the film materials and making available safe storage facilities, without cost or obligation, for the works of independent filmmakers.

Over the course of the past four decades, PFA’s acquisitions policy has changed into a more selective process of long-term deposits, as well as donation of films and materials. This change has come as a result of the fast growth of the collection and consequential limitation of space and resources.

PFA always welcomes new print donations; and if a deposit is accepted, PFA prefers to structure agreements with filmmakers so as to acquire prints. An example was the case of Lawrence Jordan, who readily agreed to converting the deposited films into a gift to the archive, donated over a period of years.[11]

Another important element of PFA acquisition strategies is the current campaign to acquire key films of the history of cinema not otherwise available in good prints from domestic sources. To honor Edith Kramer’s dedicated service to BAM/PFA, after her retirement the museum started to build the Edith R. Kramer Collection, which constitutes a dynamic legacy of works ranging from avant-garde to documentary to international classics.

Recent Preservation Projects of Experimental Cinema

“Edith Kramer’s leadership,” comments PFA Collection Curator Mona Nagai, “represented a change for PFA’s policy towards preservation and archiving.” Kramer played a key role at the PFA because of “her awareness towards preservation and archiving practices. She managed to reach important results in a moment of very tight resources.”

In 1989, PFA joined FIAF as an active affiliate and received its first grant for film preservation in 1990. At that time, a preservation policy was conceived to guarantee appropriate conservation conditions and treatment for motion picture materials in a temperature- and humidity-controlled vault. Since then, many projects have been funded and completed, protecting the major collections of films and video.

Preservation is yet another strategy to add new prints to the collection, since approved prints as well as internegatives are made during PFA’s preservation projects. Over the past decades, PFA has been actively engaged in film preservation with an emphasis on Bay Area experimental and independent cinema, though it has also preserved Japanese features (nitrate) and rare travel footage. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Film Preservation Foundation, the American Film Institute, the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, and private foundations have supported PFA’s preservation of experimental films such as Nathaniel Dorsky’s Hours for Jerome: Parts I and II (1980-82), Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) and Reassemblage (1982), and a number of films by Bruce Baillie, including Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1963-64) and All My Life (1966).

PFA has restored Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976) as well as numerous works by other major avant-garde filmmakers, including Scott Barlett (OFFON, 1968), George Kuchar (The Devils Cleavage, 1973), Gunvor Nelson, and Robert Nelson.  Fake Fruit Factory (1986) is among several films by Chick Strand that PFA preserved. Currently, PFA is completing a collaborative project with Academy Film Archive (AFA) to preserve eight more films by Strand, thanks to a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation and AFA support.

Current and Future Projects

The PFA along with thousands of films, has created an extensive collection of film-related materials, including reviews, press kits, festival and showcase program notes, newspaper articles, and images covering from avant-garde to world cinema of the past and present. Many of the documents can be accessed online via CineFiles (http://cinefiles.bampfa.berkeley.edu), the PFA’s film document and image database.

Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area (1945-2000)

In fall 2010, the Pacific Film Archive will celebrate the history of the Bay Area avant-garde. The publication Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area (1945-2000) edited by PFA curators Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid with Steve Anker, who is chair of the film department at Cal Arts, will be accompanied by a major exhibition of films and videos, and a related gallery exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum. The retrospective, co-sponsored by San Francisco Cinematheque, will take place at several local venues and will tour North America and Europe through 2012. A number of newly preserved prints by PFA will be featured.

The Bay Area today represents a happy island for experimental cinema. Networks of film venues and devoted organizations create opportunities for filmmakers, but also for audiences to enjoy experimental cinema on a regular basis. By preserving avant-garde films, the PFA plays a primary role in this context and helps to protect the historical legacy of this important cinematic heritage.

*article published on the FIAF/Journal of Film Preservation n.82, 4/2010.


[1]   Barbara Erickson, “A Farewell to Luddy,” The Sunday Magazine, Contra Costa Times, October, 1979; unpublished interview with Sheldon Renan, 1971 and 1995 (PFA history files, PFA Library and Film Study Center) quoted by Lee Amazonas, “Guerrilla Cinematheque Comes of Age: The Pacific Film Archive,” The Arts and Culture, Issue #6, Spring 2004, p.148.

[2]   Sheldon Renan interviewed by Stewart McBride, “The Ultimate Movie Theater”, The Christian Science Monitor, March 25, 1980.

[3]       Kathy Geritz, interview with the author at PFA on December, 16, 2009.

[4]   “Sidney Peterson taught the first film course at California School of Fine Arts (CSFA, renamed San Francisco Art Institute in 1961) in 1947. Jordan Belson, who had enrolled as a painting student in 1944, showed his first abstract film, Transmutations, in 1947 at the second “Art in Cinema” program, co-sponsored by CSFA and the San Francisco Museum of Art” from Milestones in SFAI History http://www.sfai.edu/page.aspx?page=135

[5]   Lee Amazonas, “Guerrilla Cinematheque Comes of Age: The Pacific Film Archive,” The Arts and Culture,
Issue #6, Spring 2004, p.148.

[6]   Amazonas, p.148.

[7]   Amazonas, p.149.

[8]   Sheldon Renan mentions the PFA National Advisory Board in a letter to Susan Sontag on October 25, 1970 (PFA history files, PFA Library and Film Study Center).

[9]   Edith Kramer, interview with the author at PFA on December 11, 2009.  PFA acquisition priorities continued to emphasize avant-garde and Asian films, but only in recent years has PFA acquired a collection of pornographic video and film (a deposit of the UC Berkeley Film Studies program).

[10] Quote from the Project Grant Application document, 1975 (PFA history files, PFA Library and Film Study Center).

[11] Mona Nagai, interview with author at PFA on December 16, 2009.

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