Last night, BFI unleashed a stream of otherworldly celluloid rarely encountered beyond chance screenings and dark corners of the internet.
FILMS SACRED AND PROFANE (28.02.17) was a mind-bending new retrospective of works by experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson. The 11 short films – some screened in full, some fragments of larger projects – varied in length from 3 to 11 minutes. All were produced between 1952 and 1983 in the first half of Belson’s lengthy career.
Working in 16mm, Belson’s artistry grew out of an interest in abstract experimental film in San Francisco in the 1940s. His films are exercises in pure cinema, using sound and light to explode vision, movement and rhythm. This is immersive, experiential stuff without the need to dress up, sing-a-long or be shouted at by an un(der)paid actor. The Centre for Visual Music’s stunning restorations showcase Belson’s in-your-face abstraction perfectly, throwing projected and reflected light around the auditorium.
Of course, the presentation of such films can significantly affect how they are received. Here, the balance was almost entirely in favour of the works onscreen. If anything, the pace of delivery (both in Cindy Keefer’s expert introduction and the sequencing of the films themselves) was slightly too hectic. With barely a pause between them, individual films ran the risk of collapsing into each other, blurring their non-narratives together.
Of course, imagining a journey from the earth-bound BOP SCOTCH (1952) to an alien first encounter (MUSIC OF THE SPHERES, 1977) via hypergiant wormholes (ALLURES, 1961) and Trek-like gaseous anomalies (SAMADHI, 1967) isn’t wholly inappropriate. Belson saw himself as an “image miner”, finding visual ways of representing “consciousness, transcendence and light” that simply couldn’t have been shown before. Gaining popular appeal through the VORTEX (1959) series of planetarium concerts, his approach also drew the attention of Hollywood. Extracts of his films were used in DEMON SEED and he created the magical fireflies sequence in an otherwise real world THE RIGHT STUFF.
The pacy presentation was the evening’s only blemish. The BFI and Centre for Visual Music did a brilliant job in bringing these outstanding films to the screen. Heralding concerns about who might pay for future restorations, a larger audience needs to see them and love them before such films fade forever.
“ALLURES” (1961) IN MOVING PICTURES
- A cleansing white light bounces from the screen, baptising its audience in a shared cosmic consciousness.
- Whilst it might be hard for a modern audience to believe, not one single frame of film was produced using a computer. Belson “never even sent an email” his whole life.
- It seems the one question not to ask Cindy Keefer is “what was he like?” A very reclusive figure, “he’d be really pissed off if I said anything…” but “he knew what he wanted… and he wouldn’t compromise”.
- Belson financed his work by keeping costs down – 16mm was a relatively cheap medium to work in – applying for grants “here and there” and occasional stints as a paid illustrator. He also earned a modest income from print sales and rentals. His final film EPILOGUE (2005) was funded by NASA’s art programme.
- Belson might have known what he wanted, but that didn’t extend to taking care of his finished films. Restoration by the Centre for Visual Music removes the mould that has crept under the surface veneer of his films.
- Preservation – a constant kaleidoscope of political, technical and financial challenges – is ongoing, with yearlong restorations requiring constant innovation.
- In his later years, Belson withdrew many of his films from distribution: poor quality prints and screenings dulled their beauty. Access is now closely guarded by the Centre for Visual Music and his family’s estate.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- Centre for Visual Music have an on-demand channel and sell DVDs for personal and institutional use.
- Cindy Keefer is working on a book about the VORTEX planetarium concerts.
- Oskar Fischinger was a major influence on Belson’s work. You can watch a “crappy copy” of his AN OPTICAL POEM (1931) on YouTube – just don’t tell Cindy we told you.
Featured image: ALLURES (1961), Jordan Belson.
NB – this is an edit following feedback from CVM (see comments below). We have amended the phrase “Working exclusively in 16mm” to read “Working in 16mm”.