BEAT CINEMA 2
The Films of Christopher Maclaine
Friday, February 28, 2003
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA
Special thanks to: Fred Camper, Jeff Hunt, Matthew Jeanes, Scott MacDonald
Stan Brakhage, Desistfilm (1954, 7 min.)
The End (1953, 35 min.)
The Man Who Invented Gold (1957, 14 min.)
Beat (1958, 6 min.)
Scotch Hop (1959, 5 min.)
Christopher Maclaine, 27 July 1923 - 6 April 1975
Not much is known about the short, apparently unhappy life of Christopher Maclaine. He was born in Oklahoma and graduated from University of California at Berkeley, where he subsequently cofounded Contour, an important literary journal of the day. He was a published poet, in a recognizably Beat style, before he began to make films. He seems to have cultivated the image of a mad genius, and his personal relationships were reportedly stormy. Those who worked with or knew him describe both a speed freak careless about his surroundings, and a thunderous creative force, doing whatever it took to complete his films. Stan Brakhage, who saw Maclaine's first film at its premiere, returned to San Francisco a decade later to seek him out and found him destitute, squatting in a room in the back of an office building. Brakhage befriended Maclaine and got his work screened on the East coast, and it is largely through his efforts that Maclaine's work is known to us today. Sadly, by the time Maclaine's films became respected enough to gain distribution, the filmmaker himself was incapacitated body and mind by his long-term methedrine addiction. He spent the last six years of his life in an asylum, unable to care for himself, and died in 1975 age 51.
Maclaine's first film is one of the most auspicious filmmaking debuts in history. Narrative but with abstract elements, overtly autobiographical yet stubbornly elliptical, edited to create (in J. J. Murphy's phrase) "a series of perceptual shocks" in the viewer, yet containing an emotional, heartfelt narration addressed directly to the audience, The End represented a break with all previous forms of experimental and narrative film.
The End is in six numbered sections, each separated by long stretches of darkness during which Maclaine speaks directly to the audience. Each of the sections is a tale of a different person on the last day of his or her life. The characters in the first three sections meet their end either through random acts of violence or suicide (none depicted graphically), after which Maclaine (in dark humor mode) acknowledges that the audience may not yet be identifying with his characters ("These people are all violent!"). The characters in the second half seem to meet their end through a large-scale disaster, unspecified in Maclaine's narration but undoubtedly the atomic explosion shown at the beginning and end of the film. The two halves of the film are bridged by Maclaine's narrator, who equates the self-destruction of the first three characters with a complacent world awaiting "the grand suicide of the human race." The finale of the film is the end of the world as Maclaine imagines it might look, set to the tune of Beethoven's ninth symphony - presaging Stanley Kubrick, who would also juxtapose an atomic explosion with ironically uplifting music in Dr. Strangelove a decade later. The End is not just a stern warning, but a prophecy of absolute doom - Maclaine seems to have believed the world was ending before his very eyes, and the eyes of his audience.
That's the basic structure of the film - the details are another matter altogether. Each of the stories is constantly interrupted by discordant images: shots of arms flexing, pigeons flying or flocked together on the ground, mannequins, dancing feet, a street person lying on a sidewalk, flowers, crashing waves. Very few of the images relate in a directly metaphorical way to the action on screen - instead they only reveal their importance gradually as the film moves from story to story. Meanwhile the action on screen is often edited to create a sense of frustration and helpless repetition: one character runs endlessly through the streets, another repeatedly puts a gun to his head and pulls it away, another approaches a house, but the footage of his approach is edited in jump-cut style so he never seems to reach it. Meanwhile, the narrator doubles back on his stories, starting and suddenly stopping them, repeatedly uses the phrase "for reasons we know nothing about," insists that he "know[s] no more about this story than you do." It's like walking on a tightrope, under the constant threat of vertigo.
The End was first shown in San Francisco in October 1953. It's not hard to imagine how chaotic the film must have looked to contemporary audiences. In a letter published in Film Culture in 1963, Stan Brakhage, who was at the premiere, articulated the complexity of the crowd's reaction that night:
"[The] audience was about as restless, and occasionally hysterical with laughter, as I've ever seen as American audience get; but I knew even then that what touched-off the audience was the absolute uniqueness of the film and that it laughed just to the extent that the film extends an almost unbearable love to the eyes AND ears of the viewing world...I marveled that Christopher Maclaine had made such a gesture without once, visually or audioly [sic], covering himself in shields of intellectual protect-and-pretensions, that he had been willing and able EVEN THEN to gesture in a way he must have known would be open to the worst, most painful, laughter if even 2 dozen members of the audience chose to vent their embarrassment by making the gesture seem foolish."
Perhaps this reaction influenced the subject matter of Maclaine's next film, The Man Who Invented Gold (1957) - a complex, densely edited fable about a "madman" (played by Maclaine) on a gnostic quest for the formula to create gold.
Constantly ridiculed and laughed at by his neighbors, Maclaine's madman is a classic portrait of the creative artist as outcast. The final few minutes of The Man Who Invented Gold are among the most intriguing, mysterious, and visually haunting of any cinema I've seen. At the film's climax, the madman discovers the secret of gold, but in a way that forever binds (or traps) him with the community that has cast him out. Maclaine's editing is so skillful that he is able at this climactic moment to introduce an entirely new character, The Poet, without dissipating any of the tension that has built up. The bind between the madman and his community is reinforced in the film's final images: rapidly alternating close-ups of the madman and the neighbor who laughed loudest at him - dozens of alternating images which go by in just a few seconds.
To be sure, there are messianic overtones here. The filmmaker Jordan Belson worked as cameraman briefly on The Man Who Invented Gold before he quit, unable or unwilling to tolerate Maclaine's increasingly erratic behavior. Since he had to run the camera himself and could no longer play the madman onscreen, Maclaine ingeniously decided to cast not one but two other actors in the madman's role, creating a trinity of sorts, and the appearance of the Poet completes a trinity of madman alchemist/community/chronicler, which reflect the various roles in which Maclaine visibly aligns himself.
Throughout The Man Who Invented Gold, the process of alchemy is likened to the act of making films - the filmmaker literally creates gold by inserting color shots of flowers and gold lights, and shots of colored sand being thrown onto a surface, while the three actors who play the madman are shot in color, black and white, and negative. Maclaine's next film, Beat (1958), might be thought of as a continuation of The Man Who Invented Gold, since it often cuts back and forth between shots of golden lamps, lights in windows, and gold-colored objects, often situated in the direct center of the frame (in fact, golden lights show up prominently near the close of the fifth section of The End as well). Otherwise, Beat is something of a portrait of the bohemian characters of late-1950s San Francisco, made just as the scene was disintegrating into mass-marketed national media consciousness and North Beach became the tourist's emblem of the Beat Generation. Once again, Maclaine's editing technique positively sparkles.
This virtually unprecedented, rapid-fire editing style which Maclaine developed for his films reflects not only his his destitution and sense of extreme alienation. It also reflects his addiction to speed. Stan Brakhage described the experience of listening to Maclaine speak:
"...[a] sentence would break and a new sentence would start that had absolutely nothing clearly recognizable to do with the previous sentence. All these tracks were running simultaneously and he'd leap from one to another, but if you listened long enough, all the stories finally unwound in the whole tapestry of his talking..."
Murphy points out that this is the same principle on which Maclaine seems to have based his editing style: a constant rupturing of the straightforward narrative. The conversation or film will veer off into seemingly random events, only to have those events show up as a crucial element in a later sequence. And to get anywhere with the films, the viewer, as Murphy says, has to "[suspend] judgment until the gestalt can be determined."
Indeed, Maclaine can be considered a virtuoso of the narrative rupture. Color is intercut with black-and-white; scenes with characters are interrupted by abstract images; disparate juxtapositions abound. And though many of the random-seeming images eventually "justify" themselves in a narrative sense, there is no reassuring sense of an artistic "tapestry" being woven. There is only the tightrope walk between the two poles of "maybe" and "maybe not." This is one of the qualities that makes Maclaine's work, despite its pessimism, truly courageous.
Did I mention dancing? This filmmaker is as enchanted by dance as any who ever lived. Shots of walking and dancing feet permeate all of his films. He often edits shots in a way that accents the dance-like qualities of people's movements - for instance the umbrella woman in Beat who flits at top speed from corner to corner at a four-way intersection like a bird trapped in a cage, or the numerous times he will use jump-cuts to make a person appear to walk faster or slower than they actually are. In a way, all Maclaine's films could be looked at as choreographic studies - labors of a love for motion and movement.
Oddly, as his life apparently began to unravel, Maclaine's films became lighter in tone, even luminous. For his final film, Scotch Hop (1959), Maclaine took his camera to an outdoor festival of Scottish bagpipe music and dancing, and edited the footage into a five-minute tribute to his own heritage (though bagpipers had actually figured in each of his previous films). He even credits himself this time simply as "Maclaine," as if to accent his roots.
Unburdened for the only time in his career by the need to perform or construct a narrative, Maclaine shot one of the most gemlike, most joyous and most beautiful films that has ever been made. So much about it seems preordained - the camera angle that catches the dancers on the county fair stage against the stark blue sky; the beguiling wink one dancer gives the camera as she exits the stage; the grand, hypnotic camera pans as the bagpipers move across the screen; the beautiful slow motion shots, so rare in Maclaine's speed-driven universe. In the film's closing moments, the music ends, the audience applauds with audible delight, and the camera pans down a piece of plaid fabric to "The End" title card. And then, as if unable to resist playing with his audience, Maclaine edits in a split-second shot of a hand holding a daisy: one last show of gold from a master cinematic alchemist.
We begin our screening tonight with sex, drugs, and Stan Brakhage. Desistfilm (1954), his third film, was made when he was barely out of his teens. Brakhage later explained that the film was made because he was holding a film screening, had advertised three films to be shown, and could only afford to rent two, so he made the third one himself. It's a depiction of a night of revelry among friends, with a theme of sexuality and its relation to society which was to preoccupy Brakhage in his films for many years. Desistfilm is also a parody of fashionable existentialist solipsism, complete with the most literal example of navel-gazing ever put on the screen (the idea of "desistentialism" was Brakhage's parody of this mindset). Desistfilm is screened tonight both as a tribute to Stan Brakhage, who was so instrumental in bringing Christopher Maclaine's work to a wider audience, and as a classic Beat film in its own right.
Program notes: 2003 Andy Ditzler
for more on Christopher Maclaine, see also:
Mad Genius: The Films of Christopher Maclaine by Fred Camper. Chicago Reader, 6/4/99
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Andy Ditzler 08/31/2016