Excavating the Canyon

San Francisco has always been a nexus for independent thinkers, but the 1960s saw a wholesale, albeit brief, rejection of the cultural mainstream on nearly every front. There were free concerts in the park and free stores in the Haight. Cohorts like the Merry Pranksters and the Diggers passed out acid and soup at “happenings,” where artists pushed limits of their various mediums. One of the most interesting (and long lasting) groups to bubble up from that heady hotchpot was Canyon Cinema. Like the San Francisco Tape Center, which abetted musicians who took audio technology to the cutting edge, Canyon Cinema provided a venue for experimental filmmakers, both physically and philosophically. Initially existing first as a “floating cinematheque,” Canyon Cinema presented underground screenings in the basements and backyards of local artists who were willing to supply wine and popcorn. By 1967, this loose collection of filmmakers had become an organization capable of championing and distributing avant-garde work around the world. Last year, film historian Scott MacDonald published Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor, which fully illuminated the distributor’s position in independent film history. As a major source for experimental work, Canyon’s catalog boasts nearly 4,000 films spanning 70 years, yet it remains an artist-run collective, operating with the same values that drove instigator Bruce Baillie to erect an army surplus screen in his backyard. MacDonald appears at a series of screenings this week which include Canyon: the Foundersand The Spirit of Canyon, Part 1, featuring nine experimental shorts.
Sat., Nov. 22, 7:30 p.m., 2008

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