Deep Westurn

Carpenter, high school teacher, painter, filmmaker: the experimental movies of Robert Nelson

Born in San Francisco to Swedish immigrants, Robert Nelson worked as a carpenter and taught high school before pursuing painting at the California School of Fine Arts (now the S.F. Art Institute) in the wide-open local art scene of the '50s. “I learned you don't have to have an idea in your head to start [a piece],” Nelson, 72, recalls over coffee in a SOMA joint. “Or you might. Almost all of the rules that are self-imposed are questionable. Well, those new and profound lessons from painting went directly into filmmaking from the first film on.”

His initial shorts were collaborations with his wife, Gunvor; Nelson also made several wry movies with the painter William Wiley (including one with the punny title that tops this column). In 1965, the S.F. Mime Troupe commissioned a Nelson film to screen at the intermission of A Minstrel Show, a musical that savaged racial stereotypes. Oh Dem Watermelons became a surprise underground hit, and the absurdist extravaganza of mutilated fruit (and its racist associations) remains part of the avant-garde canon to this day. For a guy who made one of experimental cinema's greatest hits, Nelson recognizes that most moviegoers find the genre inaccessible at first. “If you're totally baffled, and you somehow feel that there's an expectation on you to respond, that's not comfortable. It's intimidating, in a way.” Nelson chuckles. “Most people have one or two encounters and that's enough.”

Nelson's most recent project, Hauling Toto Big (1998), tells with nonchalant humor a cautionary fable about growing up. “I took out all the boxes marked 'black-and-white' that I had on my shelf,” he explains. “Some of it was 25 years old. I threw out about half and kept playing with the rest of it, and pretty soon some strands of connection started. It was like dream interpretation in the sense that I was tracking unconscious responses.”

Nelson, who continues to paint, lives in a cabin he recently built near Eureka and maintains a studio here. He'll be at the S.F. Art Institute on Saturday, Nov. 23, to receive the 2002 James D. Phelan Art Award in Film and show Hauling Toto Big. (The event is free, but call 552-8760, ext. 354, to get on the list.) And then? “I have another stack of boxes marked 'color,'” Nelson says. “I would rather get to that than shoot new footage, because I don't want to have unfinished stuff laying around.”

Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers “My mother always said, 'Birds of a feather should stick together,' which I rebelled against,” declares another local legend, East Bay documentary maestro Les Blank. From the beginning of his career in the mid-'60s, with portraits of Dizzy Gillespie and Lightnin' Hopkins, the Tampa-born filmmaker scaled fences — figurative and literal — to get as close as he could to his subjects. When he documented Creole musicians Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin and Canray Fontenot for Dry Wood (1973), Blank lived in their houses. And when he made Hot Pepper, about zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier, Blank recalls, “I was living in a black rooming house, much to the disgust of the white police.” It's easy to picture the soft-spoken Blank insinuating his way into another artist's life. “I would like to think that they sensed that I really admired their cultures and their beings. It wasn't just 'Point a camera and capture images,' like they were animals in the zoo.”

Blank's sensuous movies, many of which center on music and food, blend ethnography and entertainment into something noble. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is currently restoring his enormous body of work, and the first eight completed pictures screen this weekend at the Rafael Film Center ( The tribute begins with an onstage interview on Friday, Nov. 22, at the Marin County theater, with screenings of God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins, and Dry Wood. “With a piece of good music,” Blank says, “you hear different things every time. I like to think of my films that way.”

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