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Reel World 

Wednesday, Jun 30 1999
After scant weeks on the job, S.F. Film and Video Arts Commission Executive Director P.J. Johnston (Reel World, April 28) has taken a personal leave of absence to work for Mayor Brown's re-election campaign. It makes no difference to me who signs Johnston's checks, but I'm a little surprised the local film production community -- which is enduring a worrisome depression despite the sprightly economy -- hasn't bombarded Brown's office with complaints. The production folks clearly have no clout, a conclusion supported by the fact that the Film Commission has made zero effort during Brown's tenure to persuade L.A. producers to shoot features here. With Johnston off the job until Nov. 3 at the earliest, any marketing plans remain on hold. Wake up, boys and girls: You can't rely on Robin Williams forever.

Slowly Turning Narrative
"One material I work with is experience," says master video artist Bill Viola, chatting in the airy foyer outside his vast and beautiful S.F. Museum of Modern Art show. He's quick to add "vision, sound, and time" -- the basic elements of cinema -- but his initial assessment is closer to the mark: Historically, video art hasn't emphasized the content of images so much as the viewer's proximity and relationship to them. Even by that measure, Viola's work is extraordinarily open, participatory, and, well, experiential.

San Francisco is the fifth stop (after L.A., NYC, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam) for the mammoth 25-year retrospective, which Viola and visionary theater director Peter Sellars reconfigured at each destination. "Usually a museum is brought to its knees presenting one Bill Viola piece," the elfin Sellars chuckles; the 15 large-scale installations at SFMOMA range from silent video monitors submerged in 55-gallon drums (The Sleepers) to ephemeral images projected on gossamer panels of cloth (The Veiling). The exhibit's emphasis on darkness and shadows, abetted by an array of semidistinct, mysterious sounds, ensures that rare museum miracle: Every visitor has a unique and personal experience.

One of the show's paradoxes is that it lures people indoors, then delivers an abundance of stimuli from the natural world -- shots of water, the sound of birds, the smell of dirt. "It took me many years to realize that when I take my video camera [outside] I'm really recording the inner world, not the outer world," the tall, bearded Viola explains. "When you play it back, you're not where you were." What a tape really contains -- as do home movies, of course, as well as every other assemblage of images -- is "memory, perception, and emotion, which reside in us, not in the material world."

"The Video Art of Bill Viola" is at SFMOMA through Sept. 12; for a sample of the man's genius without the hassle of crowds, drop by Grace Cathedral during regular church hours, where The Greeting is on view.

Smiles of a Summer Night
In the wake of another hugely successful S.F. International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, it's worth noting that the Lumiere is gradually evolving into the city's most consistent venue for gay-themed films. The Castro, for the first time in memory, has no gay programs on its current calendar -- outside of a week of Douglas Sirk melodramas, that is. ... Loyal readers will recall that Reel World saluted Film Quarterly a few months back on its 40th anniversary. Somehow it escaped our notice that the venerable Berkeley journal released a greatest hits collection last month. Eminently readable and brimming with humanity and humor, Film Quarterly: Forty Years -- A Selection is available at finer bookstores.

By Michael Fox

About The Author

Michael Fox


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