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Regional Interests

There’s Nothing Like Seeing Moving Images in the Dark

Some of the most thrilling art experiences I’ve had in the Bay Area have been by by the flickering light of a film projector. One was a fog-filled room and Lis Rhodes’ hypnotic, screeching Light Music, two striated beams crossing each other in space. Another involved Morgan Fisher’s Projection Instructions, which bossily issues commands to its projectionists like “throw out of focus” and “turn lamp off.” Even watching Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire-horror-Western Near Dark has become a cherished memory because of the conversations it fueled hours and days later.

So when I heard the news that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art would “sunset” its film program at the end of the fall 2021 season, I was shocked and disappointed, but ultimately unsurprised. To me and other members of the Bay Area arts community, the cut was an unpleasant form of déja vù.

Three years ago, nearby Yerba Buena Center for the Arts also laid off its film and video curatorial staff, and put the 21-year-old program on indefinite hiatus. A planned “reimagining” of the film program at YBCA has yet to take solid shape.

SFMOMA doesn’t plan to stop with just film. As previously reported, the museum plans to discontinue Open Space, the museum’s experimental publishing platform; the Artists Gallery, a Fort Mason outpost that facilitated the rental and sales of local artists’ work; and Raw Material, a podcast helmed each season by different voices.

In the name of attracting “larger, more diverse audiences,” these cuts eliminate, paradoxically, some of the museum’s most accessible and diverse programming, along with seven staff positions. Loss of any SFMOMA staff is a loss of institutional history and public trust, and the end result is a further fraying of the connective structures that once made the Bay Area arts community a functioning ecosystem.

In my darkest moments, it feels like the scene’s been whittled down to fit on the head of a pin. ​But others remind me that the region’s most exciting culture has always existed in opposition to (and despite) mainstream, commercial art movements. Nimble, small-scale and decidedly experimental efforts are, in fact, the best parts of the Bay Area’s film scene.

While some already mourn SFMOMA’s film program, others refuse to accept this decision as final. A petition addressed to SFMOMA director Neal Benezra has over 2,700 signatures, and a gathering this Thursday at the museum’s 3rd Street entrance is timed for 6–8pm to coincide with the SFMOMA’s extended hours and free entry for Bay Area residents.

But in this latest institutional letdown, there’s also an opportunity to take stock of what persists, and determine how to best support a film community with a huge history. It’s a community that thrives in artist-run celluloid festivals, microcinemas, resource sharing and a dedication to high-quality presentations of moving-image work.

A Western Union telegram sent to Frank Stauffacher from the New York City film society Cinema 16 in 1949, part of BAMPFA’s Art in Cinema collection. (University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive)

Bay Area Alternative Film Starts at SFMOMA

“Over the past half-century, no American city has become more consistently identified with alternative cinema than San Francisco and its environs,” Scott MacDonald writes in the introduction to his 2006 publication Art in Cinema: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society. A long list follows of famous film and videomakers with Bay Area ties (Bruce Conner, Bruce Baillie, George and Mike Kuchar, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Marlon Riggs, Cauleen Smith), and the institutions that supported them (SFAI, Canyon Cinema, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, SF Cinematheque).

“But before any of these organizations began to make major contributions to independent media,” MacDonald continues, “the Art in Cinema film series … had demonstrated not only that there was an alternative film history and an audience for it, but that the Bay Area could be one of its nodal points.”

Helmed between 1946 and 1954 by legendary artist and exhibitor Frank Stauffacher, Art in Cinema was the first regular film program at an American museum. Today, it seems only natural that film would be part of a contemporary art museum’s programming. “It’s such a complex and fascinating art with its own history, of the moving image, from celluloid to digital,” says Susan Oxtoby, BAMPFA’s director of film and senior film curator. “All of the complexities of the art form of cinema are ones that should be part of a contemporary art museum.”

In recent years, under the leadership of Manager of Film Programs Gina Basso, SFMOMA would screen three to six films a month, including the Modern Cinema program, which ran for 10 seasons and focused on critically acclaimed filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Claire Denis and Satyajit Ray, as well as themes within contemporary cinema. (2019’s Haunted! Gothic Tales by Women was a personal favorite.)

In contrast to other museum departments, where curators may only meet their audience at member events, artist talks or exhibition walk-throughs, Basso or her film program associate was present at every screening, introducing the selection and its context. “It really was a sense of walking in and having someone know my name or I knew the name of a frequent audience member,” she says. Regulars would save each other seats; some with preferred spots would cast sidelong glances if others encroached on their territory.

A crucial element of what makes film events so transcendent is the presence of the audience, that finite time spent together solely focused on one thing. The collective experience of watching a film is immeasurably different from streaming the same film at home. “You miss the essence of the community,” Basso says of home viewings, “which is conversation and people commiserating in the lobby for so long that I actually have to kick them out.”

SFMOMA’s film audiences, Basso says, were diverse and intergenerational. The barrier to entry with film is low—much lower, often, than other museum programming. “Everyone knows how to go see a film,” she says. “It’s really an experience that people understand.”

During the pandemic shutdown, Shapeshifters livestreamed 20 shows, with about half recorded in their space. On Nov. 1, 2020 it was live video, film and light projections by Projection Art (Dennis Keefe and Jim Baldocchi), Lori Varga & Kit Young. (Shapeshifters Cinema)

‘New Things Popping Up All the Time’

Of course, the Bay Area’s alternative film scene, as MacDonald detailed, is now much more than SFMOMA.

Before the pandemic necessitated a sudden stop to all indoor public gatherings, Artists’ Television Access (ATA), a storefront theater on San Francisco’s Valencia Street, hosted events two to three times a week. McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, a nonprofit space that opened in 2017, purposefully built a dedicated screening room into its gallery floor plan, showing curated programs of short films alongside their art exhibitions. Other Cinema, organized by local filmmaker Craig Baldwin, showcased an eclectic and adventurous program of experimental film, video and performance—many featuring the artists in person—at ATA once a week. March 2020—that fateful month—was meant to usher in the fourth iteration of Light Field’s celluloid film festival at San Francisco’s alternative art space The Lab.

Across the bay, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive boasted around 500 film events a year. Shapeshifters Cinema, run by Gilbert Guerrero and Kathleen Quillian, was poised to fully open their microcinema and brewery in Oakland’s Jack London Square, building off their once-a-month expanded cinema programming at Temescal Arts Center. Business, as they say, was booming.

Even when their doors closed, programs and spaces pivoted, as so many did, to online screenings and workshops. SF Cinematheque’s director Steve Polta transitioned Crossroads, a festival of experimental and avant-garde film (which previously took place at SFMOMA), into a free online format. Canyon Cinema, a nonprofit film distribution company that started as a backyard cinema in 1961, focused on its digital holdings, adding 1,000 titles to its catalog. And in the past two months, the renegade spirit of the Bay Area has reemerged in events like Magic Lantern’s screenings at the North Beach bar Vesuvio, held outside in Kerouac Alley. Curated by Anthony Buchanan and Lapo Guzzini, the series most recently celebrated the origins of DIY culture in San Francisco with a program of punk rock films.

“There are a lot of things happening, but they’re just not happening under a big spotlight with the imprint and resources of an institution,” says Brett Kashmere, Canyon Cinema’s executive director. “There’s new things popping up all the time.”

The audience watches Lis Rhodes’ ‘Light Music’ at the 2017 Light Field Film Festival at The Lab. (Raphael Villet)

A Deeply Collaborative Ecosystem

Attend two events at any of the above spaces and you’ll immediately recognize faces. Quillian describes a deeply collaborative and interconnected ecosystem. She and Guerrero met as volunteers at Artists’ Television Access, where Guerrero is now a board member. “I learned about experimental films by hanging out and being at ATA, as well as how to run a nonprofit organization,” Quillian says. “I was an intern at Canyon like a million years ago, that’s when I learned about the big-name experimental filmmakers.” SF Cinematheque is Shapeshifters’ fiscal sponsor. Craig Baldwin often connects artists showing at Other Cinema with Quillian and Guerrero to set up shows in the East Bay.

“The commonality amongst these organizations and projects is that they’re light in infrastructure and adaptable,” Kashmere points out. “And I think that’s something that’s consistent with Bay Area film culture, that sense of self-reliance and collaboration and adaptability, and being light on your feet.”

Even so, smaller organizations and artist-run projects across the Bay Area have historically benefitted from the presence of larger-scale institutions. Earlier this year, SFMOMA and SF Cinematheque co-presented Assembly of Images, an online film program curated by Basso featuring work that explored the representation of African Americans in photography and film. A piece from Canyon Cinema’s holdings, Christopher Harris’ Reckless Eyeballing, was included in the program, and Kashmere says SFMOMA’s screening fee almost completely covered the cost of digitization.

Still from Christopher Harris’ ‘Reckless Eyeballing,’ 2004. (Courtesy the artist and Canyon Cinema)

Guerrero, similarly, describes instances when a larger institution might have the resources to bring an artist to town and install technically complex or difficult-to-show work that’s beyond Shapeshifters’ capacity. “But then these smaller venues get to feed off that and artists can show maybe early works or things they’re experimenting on,” he explains.

Collaboration—even for larger venues like BAMPFA—is a financial necessity. “When we all coordinate,” says Susan Oxtoby, BAMPFA’s director of film and senior film curator, “it allows us to bring interesting filmmakers to the Bay Area and for them to have a show in the city, a show in the East Bay, maybe partnering with the Rafael in Marin County. The audiences are all around the region, and it’s really important to make certain the venues in different parts of the Bay Area are doing the best programming.”

In fact, when the pandemic hit, it was the final days of BAMPFA and SFMOMA’s co-presented retrospective of the French filmmaker Agnès Varda.

A ‘Stunning Disavowal of its Own History’

On its own website, SFMOMA describes a commitment to “exhibiting film as an essential medium of modern and contemporary art.”

And yet, in a July 19 email to staff titled “Connecting People to the Art of Our Time,” Benezra described film as a program that failed to drive attendance at the museum, one that “has historically had low attendance.” The flimsiest of predictions for its preemptive cancellation followed: the program “would inevitably struggle as films are increasingly streamed.”

According to an SFMOMA spokesperson, “While there was no specific goal for attendance at film programs, we have seen a steady decline that preceded the pandemic, from 6,700 in FY17 to 3,800 in FY20, and only 4% of our current membership have attended films.” (FY20 covers July 2019–June 2020, during which the museum was closed for 3.5 months.)

Just because something has existed for a long time does not inherently mean it must continue to exist. SFMOMA’s film program was certainly waxed and waned over its 84 years. But to reduce its past—and present—to “low attendance” versus “streaming” denies the existence of the film program’s very mission, and gives it no chance to flourish in a reopened museum. (The Phyllis Wattis Theater has remained closed since the March 2020 shutdown.)

Practically, the end of SFMOMA’s film program means the loss of yet another Bay Area curatorial position—Basso’s job ends with the close of her fall 2021 season. It’s unclear how the cuts will affect on-call projectionists and other theater staff, many of whom are artists and filmmakers themselves. With less events, there will certainly be less shifts to fill.

Physically, there’s the question of what SFMOMA will do with its Wattis Theater—according to Kashmere, “maybe the best screening room in all of San Francisco.” An SFMOMA spokesperson side-stepped questions about future uses for the space, citing rising concerns about the spread of the Delta variant.

But psychically, having the Bay Area’s largest and best-funded art museum essentially state that film does not belong within its walls is utterly demoralizing. In a fiery response to SFMOMA’s “stunning disavowal of its own history,” Canyon Cinema’s staff and board collectively demanded the museum change its name.

If SFMOMA eliminates film from its institutional purview, the letter argues, the museum ceases to be a “modern art” institution.

A moment from BAMPFA’s tribute to Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann in 2018. (Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive)

‘A Better Future for Film’

So many of the people I spoke to for this article mentioned the experimental filmmaker Paul Clipson, who worked as a projectionist at SFMOMA and died in 2018. Clipson loaned equipment to Light Field for their second festival in 2017; Basso watched him project his own work in the Wattis Theater during lunch breaks; Polta says after Crossroads found a home at SFMOMA he learned Clipson had been lobbying for the partnership internally.

That one person can have such an impact on the Bay Area’s film scene speaks to Clipson’s talent and generosity, but also to the fact that individual connections are much stronger than institutions. Even in the long-term—especially in the long-term.

“That’s maybe the new world that we’re going to live in,” Guerrero says, “which is ‘fuck the institutions and their money, we’re just going to collaborate with each other to build our own independent ecosystem.’ We’ll pull the money together to get artists out here, and have a circuit they can go through and really collaborate more around programming and supporting artists.”

Light Field co-programmer Patricia Villion shares this sentiment. “I hope that this can be a reflective moment to remember we can build a better future for film in the Bay Area,” Villion wrote via email, “with or without the workings of the museum and despite these cuts.”

Already, the months ahead are packed: partnerships between the Roxie Theater, McEvoy, Canyon Cinema and SF Cinematheque; the Sept. 1 return of indoor screenings at BAMPFA; the Sept. 11–16 livestreaming of Crossroads.

SFMOMA may have launched the Bay Area’s alternative film scene, but its presence may not be necessary for all the thrilling, flickering projections to come.

Copyright 2021 KQED