Let's assume you've lived in San Francisco for more than a few years. Perhaps you attended an art gallery in 1955, or a house party in 1980, or dropped into a storefront on Valencia in 1995. In any one of these venues, there was a good chance you'd be confronted with someone's homemade movie, on 16mm in the 1950s, Super 8 in the 1970s, or on video in the 1990s. Anyone who saw — or, god help you, made — these independent films at any time over the last half of the 20th century will get a double dose of Proustian rush with the Pacific Film Archive's "Radical Light" program of Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, a series opening Sept. 17 and continuing through March 2011.
The history of Bay Area alternative cinema comprises a series of waves, set off by post–World War II classes at the San Francisco Art Institute that dared to dream of film as a personal art form and produced such influential work as James Broughton's Mothers Day and Sidney Peterson's The Lead Shoes. These films, and others by 1950s Beats and 1960s counterculturalists, have long since been canonized, but if you've never seen such wonderful films as Bruce Conner's A Movie or Jordan Belson's Allures, you'll now have your chance. One particular highlight might be the rediscovery of proto-Beat poet Christopher Maclaine's The End, which prompted a riot when it premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1953: "Chairs were thrown, and people screamed and carried on," witness and future filmmaker Stan Brakhage recalled.
Where this series really breaks new ground will be in its attention to the Super 8 and video undergrounds of the 1980s and 1990s, the hitherto officially unacknowledged work of punks, performance artists, sexual rebels, and video collagists. A concurrent gallery exhibit at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum will show these overlapping movements' ephemera — posters, newsletters, and stills from erstwhile reinventors of the cinema. There's a substantial program book as well, also called Radical Light, edited by series curators Kathy Geritz, Steve Seid, and Steve Anker.
Seid, now the PFA's video curator, first became interested in the field while "haunting the alternative gallery scene in San Francisco" in the early '80s, taking up with video and installation artists and working at the Bay Area Video Coalition. "What was exciting to me about this work," he says, "was how video artists had positioned themselves at the juncture of several cultural issues — the works were simultaneously aesthetically rigorous, politically anchored, self-critical, and quizzical about navigating the art world." He singles out the work of Maclaine, Dion Vigne, Max Almy, Scott Bartlett, Curt McDowell, Anne Severson, and Warner Jepson as among the "real revelations" viewers can expect.
"Advance to Pure Fury," a program of post-Y2K "sound and image performances," opens the series at the Berkeley Art Museum on Sept. 17. The series moves across the bay on Sept. 23 to SFMOMA for "Return to Canyon," which reunites filmmakers Bruce Baillie, Lawrence Jordan, and Robert Nelson (who will all be in attendance). In 1961, Baillie projected films onto a bedsheet in rural Canyon, Calif., a landmark in the history of Bay Area independent filmmaking. From it flowed the San Francisco Cinematheque, Canyon Cinema distributing, and much more. The Canyon program begins at 7 p.m.