Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pacific Film Archive

Well I'm back after a quick but super fun trip to the west coast. The weather, food and company in LA were almost comically good, and San Francisco, despite being cold and gray as ever, yielded many new discoveries. So great to see family and friends old and new. Really lovely in fact. There is much to tell, most of it food-related (Korean tacos really are as good as they say, whereas Mission Chinese is not). But more à propos to this blog was a trip I took last week to visit Jon Shibata of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Jon had very kindly set aside some rare short-films from the museum's holdings, and last Thursday he and his wife and I settled into the research screening room for an hour and a half or so of educational programming. A completely amazing experience!

I had never heard of any of the films Jon selected even though all of them were firmly in the Toys & Techniques wheelhouse. They included experimental Kodachrome commercials for coffee and M&Ms directed by Jordan Belson, and Pieter Van Deusen's amazing "Percussion Sounds," a fading educational film from 1969 in which children make DIY percussion instruments out of found objects (wood planks, metal things found in the garage, etc.) and then explore a room full of Javanese instruments. I wish I had been able to tape-record the music! I believe that's Emil Richards with the mustache, and apparently the instruments being played were constructed by Harry Partch. Another favorite was a 1971 film about jumping rope produced by the Computer Image Corporation. Totally mindbending slo-mo images to the tune of woozy proto-Belbury Poly electronic music.

I had never heard of Carroll Ballard before, even though I had seen and enjoyed many of his later films. Jon cued up an early Ballard film from 1974 which uses photomicroscopy and polarized light to capture liquids transforming into colorful crystal sculptures and back again. Do I even need to say that the music was good? Jon's wife told me to look out for another Ballard film called "The Perils of Priscilla." It is about a cat.

Saving the best for last. Jon took us out with "Children Who Draw," a strange and beautiful portrait of a 1950s Japanese art classroom by Susumu Hani, also the director of this. It nearly brought a tear to my eye, as I started thinking about my own time teaching English in rural Japan, and about my mother, who grew up in Japan and would have been almost exactly the same age as the children on screen. What Susumu does here is frankly astonishing, pairing images of student work with vignettes of the kids' family lives and dealings with other students (often unhappy). One child, over a period of several weeks, draws simple single-family houses to the exclusion of all other subject matter. It is later revealed that his family occupies a single room in something of a flop house. Another girl, ostracized by the other children, initially draws lone flowers which eventually emerge into human forms, first solitary and then -- by some sort of imaginative wish fulfillment -- grouped in clusters. Life lessons for us all! And such haunting images. Thanks again, Jon!


  1. Holy shit, that's crazy Ben! Great job on the private screenings!!

  2. Awesome trip! It’s great knowing that such institutions exist to preserve these kinds of films. These forgotten pieces of artworks are our windows to the past, and losing them means losing valuable means to view how society functioned during those days. I’m glad you were able to experience seeing some of these films.

    Ruby Badcoe