Meet a very unusual man in the street…
By Joe Eskenazi
Financial District workers stream past Carl Christensen on their way to the office, shoulder to shoulder, four or five abreast. Montgomery Avenue teems like a river full of salmon headed upstream to spawn – but while there may be Starbucks and spreadsheets in the workers’ near future, there will be no spawning.
Christensen, however, does not move. As heads bob by at double-time he is conspicuous via his stillness. Well, that and the fact he’s pointing a digital camera at the rapidly retreating workers mid-sections, below head level and just above the hips. Since I have a notebook in my back pocket and it’s ostensibly my job to ask people just what the hell they’re doing I ask Carl just what the hell he’s doing. Given a million years and one day, I would not have guessed what his response would be.
Christensen, 63, is an extremely tall and thin man with a wrinkled shirt and tie and a fuller brush mustache and electric, long white hair that gives him the appearance of the rumpled love child of Albert Einstein and Albus Dumbledore.
He’s a retired cabdriver (which explains why he can film everyone else scuttling of to work). As for why he’s pointing a camera at places on the body that’d get you sucker punched at the Hotsy Totsy tavern, that’s a little less intuitive.
Christensen told me he takes his videos of San Franciscans hurrying to the office and transforms them into video teleidoscopes – that’s like a kaleidoscope without the colored glass. This is not the sort of thing you hear every day, so I asked him to send me a DVD of his work.
I was surprised when he actually did. I was more surprised when I found it to be utterly and totally mesmerizing.
Christensen’s videos – the disc he sent me was 75 minutes long and divided into five sections – often commence with shots of San Francisco’s downtown towers shimmering in the rising or setting sun as clouds drift past in double or triple time as if drawn on strings.
Muni buses and streetcars arrive and take off with Keystone Kops-like speed, disgorging and devouring passengers with Lucy on the chocolate line rapidity. And then the show starts.
Suddenly the whole screen is blue. And yet, thanks to the gorgeous high-definition digital video, one can quickly pick up a texture upon the screen – a denim-like texture. I almost feel the click within my skull as my brain shifts into gear: I’m watching a blue jean jacket or inseam or God knows what slowly jouncing my way.
I experience this sensation again and again – it’s a woman’s arm holding a purse while clutching a water bottle in her hand; it’s a man’s belt and slacks; a tie; a long-legged woman’s rear end flouncing away with another rear end atop it and a pair of legs stretching up to the sky.
And, all the time, Carl’s kaleidoscope is gyrating rhythmically with the all-too-familiar cadence of a crowd striding to the office with the 8:59 trot; rendered into a surreal landscape the vibrations continue to emit a particularly human cadence. It resembles the movement of a solitary living being.
“For a while I’d take rides on BART and Muni and shoot passing houses and signs. But it was much less interesting. It didn’t have that rhythmic sense,” says Christensen, who speaks in a Boston accent only slightly less striking than Cliff Clavin’s. “People enjoy that way people move up and down and swing their arms when they’re walking down the street. It’s sort of like respiration or a heartbeat. It’s a very natural-looking phenomenon and it’s very pleasing to us.”
As for pointing a camera at people’s midsections and derrieres, yes, Christensen has gotten a few taps on the shoulder. But, luckily, his fast talking has kept it at that.
“Really, I don’t want people’s faces or anything identifiable about them. When people see faces, they tend to focus their attention there, you know? Is that somebody I know?” says Christensen.
He’s right, too. Knowing his video was shot on my route, I kept an eye out for my own jouncing derriere (it wasn’t there).
Christensen matches his videos with avant garde or classical music to which he does not own the rights – meaning he cannot sell them (he only allowed me to post a snippet on YouTube if I agreed to remove the sound). He’s never made any attempt to sell his work and, when I asked him what e-mail address he’d like me to send the URL for this article to, he replied that he had none.
“I’m not connected to the Internet. You’re a young person and, as incredible as it seems to you, I did not grow up with this.”
He’s not looking for a second career (he’s already had plenty, anyway). He’s just hoping to shoot his film and spend a few hundred hours making stunning artwork that almost no one will see.
“I haven’t had so much fun since – well, I can’t remember when. I tried to be an artist in San Francisco; I had a studio in SOMA all during the ’70s and ’80s and didn’t really get anywhere with it. This is much more fun to me.”
Photo of Carl Christensen | Joe Eskenazi