. Conversations at the Edge (CATE)


Posted by | Amy Beste | Posted on | September 14, 2012

September 20, 6:00 pm
September 22, 12:30 pm

Introduced by curators Lori Felker and Mark Toscano!

Image from Bleu Shut (Robert Nelson, 1970)

Renowned for their exuberance and inventive cinematic wit, Robert Nelson’s films established him as a leading member of the West Coast avant-garde and post-Beat culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  These two programs of different works pair recently restored prints of best-known films with rarer works to provide a new perspective on the artist’s output and influence.  Films like The Great Blondino (1967), which features an anachronistically attired man navigating inspired setups, and Hauling Toto Big (1997), a sprawling opus of dream states and transformed verité, are presented alongside Nelson’s inventive collaborations with artists and musicians, including artists William T. Wiley and William Allan, and the Grateful Dead.

ROBERT NELSON (1930–2012, San Francisco, CA) studied painting at San Francisco State University and the California School of Fine Arts, where he was introduced to a circle of Bay Area artists that converged into the California Funk Art movement of the 1960s. Nelson taught at various institutions, including the San Francisco Art Institute, Sacramento State and CalArts, before landing a teaching job at UW Milwaukee in 1979 until his retirement in the mid-1990s. He then retreated in self-imposed isolation to a remote house in the mountains of Northern California, returning to painting and photography.  Nelson has influenced a number of major filmmakers, such as Peter Hutton, Fred Worden, and Curt McDowell. He was the main force in co-founding the independent distribution company Canyon Cinema in 1966, hiring his former student Edith Kramer (later the head of the Pacific Film Archive) as its first director. He died in January 2012.


Program 1, September 20, 6:00 pm

The Great Blondino Preview (1967, 16mm, color, sound, 3min.)
A rarely seen trailer for Nelson and Wiley’s 1967 epic.

Hot Leatherette (1967, 16mm, b/w, sound, 4min.)
“A kinetic film sketch designed to involve the viewers muscles. The rocky seaside cliffs near Stinson Beach, California, hold the wrecked carcass of a #52 pickup that is a rusting monument to Hot Leatherette.” (Robert Nelson)

The Off-Handed Jape (with William T. Wiley, 1967, 16mm, color, sound, 9min.)
Starring Dr. Otis Bird and Butch Babad.
“This film can be of immeasurable aid to would-be actors who are weak in the jape.” (William T. Wiley)

Penny Bright and Jimmy Witherspoon (1967, 16mm, color, sound, 3min.)
Sound by Robert Nelson, featuring Oona Nelson
“This film is a hypnotic yet unsettling take on the “‘60s looping craze” (R.N.), made using a homemade camera-printer and a 1/4” tape deck. Nelson pits minimal, repetitive imagery against a looping recording of his daughter Oona, which goes gradually from sweet to curious to mysterious to cacophonous as the loops begin to overlap each other. Since its initial premiere alongside The Great Blondino and other shorts in April 1967, the film has rarely been seen. Today, it stands out as a quite unique, more textural piece from the filmmaker, which, rather than retreating into pure abstraction or bland trippiness, subtly and diffusely transmits an undercurrent of its ominous source material.” (Mark Toscano)

Grateful Dead (1967, 16mm, color, sound, 9min.)
Made in collaboration with the Grateful Dead, Nelson’s prize-winning short features a montage of ever-escalating peaks set to a collage of the band’s first album.

The Awful Backlash (with William Allan, 1967, 16mm, b/w, sound, 13min.)
“What at first seems to be one of Nelson’s most minimal films, even flirting with burgeoning notions of structuralism, is actually quite rich and distilled, particularly from a narrative standpoint.”  (Mark Toscano)

The Great Blondino (with William T. Wiley, 1967, 16mm, b/w & color, 43min.)
“Shooting in 1966 without script, story, or any narrative preconception, Nelson and Wiley created a masterwork of ‘60s independent cinema. The Great Blondino follows an anachronistically attired young fellow as he navigates a beguiling, sometimes troubling world with a curiosity that opens us wide to the filmmakers’ inspired, freeform vision. In many ways, the wonder of Blondino may echo the excitement of invention and exploration that Nelson and Wiley experienced in the making of the film. Utterly exuberant and freed from rote cinematic restriction, it embodies an artistic rigor and direction that also prevents it from ever seeming too unhinged. An incredible feat of tightrope walking.” (Mark Toscano)

Program 2, September 22, 12;30 pm

Alternative Strategies 1: Handmade Home (Marcy Saude, 2012, HD video, 5min.)
A brief documentary about the house built by Robert Nelson and William T. Wiley in the forests of Mendocino County, California.

Deep Westurn (1974, 16mm, b/w & color, sound, 4min.)
Starring Robert Nelson, William T. Wiley, William Geis, and Mike Henderson.
“A ‘film wake’. Though celebratory in mood, it has a mournful subtext… death and dying. We dedicated it to Dr. Sam West, departed friend and patron of the arts, trusting that his ghost would approve our hijinx and seeming irreverence.” (Robert Nelson)

Special Warning (1998, 16mm, b/w & color, sound, 5.5min.)
“Special Warning is like a poem more than a narrative or story. It suggests states of isolation, barrenness, sexual guilt and sin, but even these punishing afflictions can have a humorous aspect when accompanied by horns.” (Robert Nelson)

Bleu Shut (1970, 16mm, b/w & color, sound, 33min.)
Starring Robert Nelson, William T. Wiley, and Diane Nelson. Music by Blue Crumb Truck.
“Even when we know the game is an illusion, the experience of Bleu Shut is entirely a pleasure: the ‘game’ is fun, the Nelson/Wiley debates, infectiously funny; and Nelson’s choice of imagery, quirky and amusing. Bleu Shut reveals, and allows us to enjoy, our gullibility within the pervasive absurdity of modern life.” (Scott MacDonald)

Hauling Toto Big (1997, 16mm, b/w, sound 42min.)
“In the mid 1990s, Nelson started assembling this film from a large stack of b/w footage he had kept from sketches, unfinished projects, class assignments, outtakes, and other assorted remnants, informed by jazz music, poetry, and the I Ching in its construction. A dense and ecstatic work of fragmented narratives, dream states, chaos and serenity, verité footage rendered into poetry, this epic work is in many ways a culmination of Nelson’s cinematic interests. A winner of the Grand Prize at the 1998 Ann Arbor Film Festival, Hauling Toto Big has been too rarely screened.” (Mark Toscano)
“The experience of being immersed in watching Hauling Toto Big seems to encapsulate the intangible, elusive nature of the filmmaker’s artistic quest. Robert Nelson’s films appear to me as a voyage of discovery: not only of what the material and conditions of cinema are capable of, but also for truths about life itself. Inevitably linked to the cultural environment in which they were made, they amount to a unique and personal journey through America’s post-psychedelic subconscious.” (Mark Webber)