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Reel World 

Wednesday, Feb 17 1999
Cosmic Ray
Glenn McKay's trippy light projections, wed to the subversive rants of Jefferson Airplane, create an instant time warp in a gallery high in the upper reaches of SFMOMA. It's a tad disconcerting to stumble onto the counterculture in this whitewashed monument to "kulcha," though it shouldn't be: SFMOMA's links to the avant-garde extend at least as far back as 1946, when the landmark "Art in Cinema" program of experimental films began a three-decade residence.

SFMOMA evokes that past with "Shake the Nation: San Francisco Experimental Film," a major retrospective beginning March 12, organized by filmmaker and Canyon Cinema director Dominic Angerame and the museum's curator of media arts, Robert Riley. While midcentury New York experimental filmmakers explored the urban landscape, "films coming out of San Francisco are about the psychotic or psychological state of the filmmaker," Riley suggests. "Does this have something to do with our shifting and amorphous terrain? Perhaps."

The SFMOMA series opens with shorts dating from the 1930s and extends to include current filmmakers like Betsy Weiss and Timoleon Wilkins, but the focus is squarely on the 1940s through the '60s. The starting point is the pioneering work of Frank Stauffacher, which, Riley says, reflects "an adolescent vitality that comes out of surrealistic technique." As for Stauffacher's influential successors, Sidney Peterson and James Broughton, "These works were unclassifiable in their own time," Riley declares. "They forged new ways to think."

Then come a pair of happening programs devoted to beat filmmakers, curated by Rebecca Barten of Total Mobile Home Cinema. Jordan Belson's animations from the '50s and '60s also warrant two programs, followed by the landmark '60s works by Bruce Baillie, Chick Strand, and Robert Nelson that defined the San Francisco vibe for generations to come. "The experience of life in San Francisco is mind-altering, psychedelic," muses Riley. "Even Hollywood directors know that if their opening shot is San Francisco, audiences know that a mind is going to be altered, an identity is going to be changed, something's going to happen."

Film hasn't been on the front burner in the four years that the SFMOMA has been drawing crowds to its monumental new home. But the museum's long-term strategy (how long term is anybody's guess) includes hiring a film curator and staff and offering consistent programming. Plans to build out a dedicated, separate entrance to the theater are also being bandied about; the redesign would be more convenient for evening screenings, and would also protect daytime suburban visitors attending the blockbuster shows from accidental and uncomfortable brushes with non-narrative cinema, poetry, and/or nudity. Thirty years after the Airplane's heyday, that stuff is still subversive.

True Stories
Hearty congrats to East Bay filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn, who topped her Sundance award (for directing) for Regret to Inform with an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature. ... Deborah Hoffmann (Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter) and Frances Reid (Straight From the Heart) are back in South Africa, shooting another Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing for their doc on apartheid crimes. ... Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Extreme Games documentary will likely debut on HBO in March or April, while their hotly awaited The Pink Triangle premieres in June at the S.F. International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

By Michael Fox

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Michael Fox


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