Henry Hills

Experimental Filmmaker

Henry Hills

Letter to Scott McDonald

July 24, 2008

Dear Scott

I arrived at my cabin in Georgia last week and found your CANYON CINEMA book awaiting me. I had spent a half hour with it in January in Saint Marks Bookstore only and had regretted not buying a copy that day as I never ran across a copy of it in Europe. Books in English are impossibly expensive in Prague and Vienna anyway. It’s been a blast reading through it this week. I think it’s a wonderful thing you did.

I want to try to walk through the introduction & the chapters I lived though and correct a few minor errors & give you some additional background information & also my take on some of the documents.

I very much enjoyed your Diane Kitchen interview. Her efforts at getting an NEA grant had brought about the split between the Coop and the Cinematheque. For some bureaucratic reason at the time, the Coop was ineligible for non-profit status, so a new organization was formed for the Cinematheque which was eligible which ended up, I think at Edith’s suggestion, being call Foundation for Art in Cinema. Gunvor Nelson had asked me to be on the board because she considered me an “activist” (I was running a free afternoon film series twice a week at the Art Institute showing all the interesting films from the UICA Film Library of which they were a member with several other art schools around the country, took groups over to PFA to take advantage of a Louis B Mayer grant which paid for a projectionist for “film scholars” to see works in the collection of the Archive and also that of Audio-Brandon, assisted Carmen setting up for the Cinematheque shows--preparing Graffeo coffee and putting out flyers and especially in entertaining the visiting filmmakers, and I was TA to Larry Jordan, George Kuchar, & George Landow, &etc.). The Board consisted of me, Gunvor, Edith Kramer and Willard Morrison who ran Audio-Brandon (which at the time had taken over the Grove Press film collection, I believe), & I think there may have been someone else (Shelley Dieckmann perhaps?); and after a time Robert Nelson replaced Gunvor. I being the only student was unanimously elected President. We decided to take the Cinemanews with us to spare Canyon the mailing and printing costs.

Also I got the Coop to hire a student who I knew to be smart and energetic, Janet Perlberg. I credit her with turning Canyon around and setting up the realistic business practices that Dominic stepped into. She went on to become Karen Cooper’s assistant at the Film Forum and has been married now for many years to the famous independent film producer John Pierson and helps run their lucrative family business.

I wanted to edit the CINEMANEWS but was a little shy so I got Mark McGowan to volunteer. I knew I would have a lot of influence over him. To my delight he quit after one issue saying it was too much work (I had my courage up by then, but I guilt-tripped him into helping me for another issue or so with lay-out, with which I had no experience yet). It was not too much work for me! I had liked the direction Diane had taken the magazine, but was sick of Commodore Sloat, Bruce Baillie’s recipes, and (even though he was my favorite teacher at the Art Institute, introducing me to SO many films which changed my life, and gave me a wonderful model for teaching film history, & was impossible not to love, a blessed spirit) James Broughton’s poetic musings. I can’t even remember who Stephanie Boris was. Maybe she did the typing? It is rather distorted that you name her at all in your introduction and to mention Mark McGowan twice and me once is perverse. I guess I erred like Diane in being overly modest on the credit pages. I did virtually everything on the magazine for the next three years. I brought my current girlfriend in as assistant editor so I could have a sounding board and Abby’s involvement became somewhat greater over time as she became more committed to experimental film.

The Cinematheque had taken a more intellectual turn around 1974 when Vincent Grenier took over as programmer at a time when his film work was maturing, and had continued to move in that direction under his successors, Carmen Vigil and Charles Wright. The first time I attended the Cinamatheque was the night Brakhage premiered TEXT OF LIGHT. He was Guest Artist at the San Francisco Art Institute and this was a free public screening (I was unemployed at the moment and desperately poor, not yet a student, and had found out about it from a listing of free events in the Bay Guardian) which was standing room only (I watched the whole film standing at an extreme angle, to me it was like a brilliant abstract expressionist film which kept evolving; it must have been a print off of the A/B rolls) and Stan was in absolute top form. So I then gritted my teeth and sprang for the price of admission the next night when he screened a program of short films which he had made at the same time; this is some of my favorite Brakhage work and directly inspired me to go out and buy a camera and enroll at the Art Institute the next summer. Vincent, who could barely speak English at the time, had a stunningly beautiful young girlfriend, Ann Knutson, and I could see that there was some kind of insider social scene, even as he was moving away from it. They were all in each other’s films as I began to see, with Barbara Linkevitch and Curt MacDowell as the ring leaders. It was exciting to be surrounded by all of these sexy movie stars. The students in the film department, I came to realize after I became one of them the next year, were divided between those who aspired to Hollywood who allied themselves weirdly enough behind George Kuchar (who himself resisted all calls from Hollywood) and the much smaller group of “serious” filmmakers, like Joel Singer and Janis Lipzin, allied behind James Broughton. Cinematheque screenings were free to Art Institute students, but they mostly turned out to see only films that they were in. Carmen had come out of the poetry scene and, although he was a teddy bear and loved everyone, his tastes catered even more to the intelligensia (plus he was old friends with Brakhage from their native Colorado). Charles Wright ended marrying Helene Kaplan who had been one of Ken Jacobs’ first star students. Brakhage shows attracted a large cross-section, but New York work was polarizing. I was a little naive of the politics at the time so it seemed schizophrenic to me that the same showcase which screened so much Brakhage and Snow and Ernie Gehr, Flaming Creatures and Chelsea Girls etc. would have benefits programmed by Doug Wendt of all the mush that made the Canyon catalogs seem so embarrassing. But it was these and the Broughton shows that filled the coffers. Carmen loved having visiting filmmakers. We would drink wine at the Bohemian Cigar Store in North Beach or he would have parties at his house on Head Street (this would be ‘75-78 about). He and his wife Susan were fantastic entertainers. They were great cooks and had an interesting record collection and a good screening situation in their home and Carmen always had lots of films on hand; Carmen made his own wine which got better year by year and flowed freely, and as a sideline he was the baker at the Sticky Fingers marijuana brownie factory. Everyone passed through there and it was a beautiful, warm scene while it lasted. In 77-78, Malcolm LeGrice was Visiting Professor at the Art Institute and he persuaded Carmen to program a dozen shows of visiting British Structuralist-Materialist filmmakers. That was the beginning of the end. Sometimes the whole audience was me & Abby & Carmen & Susan & David Gerstein & Malcolm & the visitor. I think this is when he began to get sloppy with the bookkeeping.

The cover of the first issue I did (77-6) was a xerox of an actual brochure that Frampton’s promoter was mailing around which I stumbled upon (I just added the caption under his photo). Hollis had been the guest artist the year before that and had been a huge sensation (SFAI had one big name per year: Kubelka came the year after Brakhage & Yvonne Rainer after Frampton). I had never heard of him before he arrived (and it was several years later before I finally got to see ZORNS LEMMA), so the appearance of this giant figure reinforced the impression I had that there were hoards of giants out there with huge bodies of unusual work awaiting discovery. He was incredibly generous with his time, at school before 9 drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, screening films all afternoon and evening, screening an astounding amount of film, all by him, and then going out drinking until the wee hours, for ten days running--of course talking the entire time, but his (sometimes sanctimonious) discourse was exactly the type to inspire admiration in students and beginning artists: Ezra Pound in St Elizabeth’s, Fox Talbot in the excitement of invention, advanced mathematical theorems, the New York art scene, gossip about the other experimental film names, and his fantastical plan for a 30 some-odd day film with an intriguingly occult structure. You are incorrect in your assumption about the date on page 265; the correct date was 1976: someone apparently brought a recorder to James’ “Poetics of Cinema” class (or possibly the graduate seminar)[P. Adams, by the way, was very upset that I printed this casual history of “Structuralism” and didn’t feel that Hollis would have approved if he had read it prior to publication--although I’m sure he would have]. Tape recordings were not done in any systematic fashion and so I used whatever I could get my hands on, a couple of moments that happened to be taped by somebody amongst a great flow of discourse. He returned the following year (but, outside of his devotees, of which group I was still included, he found a much more skeptical audience the second time). There was a large element of faith involved in being a Frampton follower. You had to believe that all of these hours of perfectly focused, perfectly timed, fairly similar shots of cows, or steel production, or corpses seen through gels, would finally add up to something brilliant. There was a definite religious tinge to the sort of aesthetics Brakhage had been promoting, the heroic suffering artist in quest of truth and beauty, that was seductive to many of us who grew up in the 60s (even if sometimes a bit pompous). Occasionally I had momentary minor lapses of faith in Hollis and wondered if he was sometimes faking it, so I was slightly disturbed by the promotional flyer, but in a way massive inviolable egos are even more disturbing, so exposing it in a funny manner was like forgiveness. I was more upset by my first encounter with Tony Conrad’s irony (which I, of course, love now; he gave an amazing introduction to ARNULF RAINER at Rotterdam this year).

Like so many of my peers, I grew up reading Jonas Mekas’ infectiously enthusiastic column in the VILLAGE VOICE without having an actual opportunity to see the vast majority of the films he discussed. I was very disturbed with P. Adams’ introduction when the FILM CULTURE READER came out; it was like shutting up all of this freedom into a box to smother. The freedom was the great thing about Canyon and the Northern California scene, but I found the know-nothing attitudes and lack of friction sometimes a little oppressive. I had only been making films for 2 years when I started editing CINEMANEWS and only started attending experimental film screenings a year before that, and, relentless as I was in gratifying my hunger, there were still a lot of important films and filmmakers I had not experienced. Partially I conceived of CINEMANEWS as a fan mag (PEOPLE magazine hadn’t been invented yet, but a little of something along those lines). I thought of the filmmakers I presented more as “stars” than as “canonical figures”. When I went to New York in the Spring of 1978 to see if I wanted to move there & Vincent Grenier gave a screening of my films at his loft and many of the filmmakers who were to me famous names came and I got to know them personally, I began to look at things slightly differently (I also began to feel even more isolated in San Francisco). It was only after moving to New York and becoming a member of the Collective community that I began to see that the concept of “The Essential Cinema” was not just a treasure trove, but also an exclusion and a stoppage. The history of film stopping in 1972 (when I didn’t begin making films until 1975) didn’t leave much space for the imagination. Also, much as I love P. Adams personally and am totally always entertained by his conversation, I have never been a fan of VISIONARY CINEMA. Broughton used to get a big kick out of reading the articles about himself aloud in class. I felt that experimental film had NO relation to Romantic poetry and should be discussed, if at all, in terms of Modernist and contemporary poetry (hence my inclusions of Jack Hirschman, Jackson MacLow, Bruce Andrews and Peter Seaton).

I’m sorry you didn’t include the Jack Hirschman cover, by the way, and also the Pat O’Neill cover. Did they refuse rights? I took a lot a pride in my covers. The Frampton cover (especially after all of the response to it) set a high standard for me to keep up.

Hirschman gave me the Vyt Bakaitis translation of the Mekas poem. Someone told me later (hey, maybe that was you?) that there had been a typo in it (I think the comma was missing at the end of line six changing the meaning: “my brother and me and a handful of nuts”) which Jonas thought we had done intentionally as an insult.

Your observation about my theory of interview transcription was basically correct. I had noticed that all of the stumblings had been left in in earlier CINEMANEWS interviews, so I took this a step further and made it an aesthetic, a way of forcing the reader to observe the act of reading, and also a way to watch the workings of the brain.

I thought I had taken particular care in making a dynamite issue in Spring of 1978 (I don’t have access to the magazines at the moment so I’m not sure of the number of the issue; could it have been 77-7?), thinking that I would have it back from the printer before my visit to New York to take with me. Janis Lipzin had several years earlier started a gallery screening series called Eye Music and a touring program called “Films from 415” which represented a younger generation of West Coast intellectual filmmakers (herself, Joel Singer, myself, Joe Gibbons, Grahame Weinbren & Roberta Friedman in particular) and she had recently had a reunion show. Abby Child was furious that she was not included, so I thought I would write a review to bring some attention to her work. {Seems pretty absurd and almost like a cruelty joke on myself at this point} I expected criticism in writing about my then-girlfriend, so I opened it citing precedent. Here you must bear in mind what I earlier said about stars and this being a fan mag. I hadn’t been to New York since I had become an artist and I didn’t know either of them, but it was common knowledge that Amy Taubin was seeing Michael Snow at the time and that they openly went to events together as a couple. I must admit that there was a slight edge within my reference; I had been very put off my a recent article Taubin had written in OCTOBER about a photo exhibit of Snow’s which she prefaced stating that he hadn’t gotten the critical attention he deserved. It seemed to me that Snow had gotten ten times more critical attention than all other experimental filmmakers put together. {I love that you include my drawing on page 294, by the way.} So the issue doesn’t come out in time for me to take it to New York. There I stay with Charles Wright and Helene Kaplan at her Elizabeth St. apartment, which was like right at the center of everything. One night Helene brings a print of PICK-UP ON SOUTH STREET home from the Collective and invites over a gang of friends, including Amy Taubin and Jim Hoberman. It was very cordial and fun and I winced a bit thinking that Amy might be irritated that I put down her article. When I moved to New York that Fall I noticed a distinct coldness on her part and even on Helene’s (I thought she was mad at me for having stayed on her kitchen floor for 3 weeks). Charles filled me in on the grim details (which Warren Sonbert later laughingly confirmed). Snow, who had recently moved back to Canada, had apparently dumped Taubin, using my article as an excuse, saying that his wife Joyce Wieland was a subscriber to CINEMANEWS (all Coop members got it in the mail free) and could find out about their relationship. I wrote Amy a long letter of apology when I found this out, comparing her to Liz Taylor, etc. However I was immediately banned from the SOHO WEEKLY NEWS (Noel Carroll wrote a review of my work the next summer when Amy was on vacation) and I would have been excluded forever from the annual screenings at The Kitchen, where she was programmer, but (in 1982, four years later) Paul Arthur interceded on behalf of my film RADIO ADIOS. And no telling what else she did to hurt me forever.

My first year in New York I returned at least twice to San Francisco, once for 6 weeks even, so I was still very in touch with things there, still had a very California spirit, and I didn’t want the CINEMANEWS to sink back to its old level. But by the time I did my final issue, Abby had also moved to New York. In fact, we were living together in a small loft and it was pretty hairy and I was having all sorts of other New York-type issues also. I really should have let it go then.

As if Celluloid Sally wasn’t trouble enough, P.Adams approached me with the NEW YORK CUT THE CRAP manuscript and said something like, “This is perfect for CINEMANEWS. You have to print it!” I began to have my doubts, especially considering how long it was. I’m actually surprised you published the entire diatribe. I guess you would have had Doberman at your heels too if you had not.

“Catholic Filmmaking in America” and the WEST COAST SURVEY (another long story for later) did me in for attempting critical writing. I co-edited an issue of IDIOLECTS with Abby in which my “article” was almost concrete poetry, and since then, except for MAKING MONEY, my concerns with language have been worked out entirely within my films and videos. Although, now that I’ve been teaching several years, speaking for many hours each week about experimental film, who knows?

I do want to note in closing, however, that your take as a renter/client of Canyon Cinema and mine as a supplier/member are necessarily a bit different. It certainly, in the context of this book, seems appropriate for you to lay the praise on thick. I’ve never taught in a situation where I had ANY budget to rent films, so I haven’t had to deal with whatever horrors other sources of experimental film rentals might present. I do know, from programmers in Europe, that the added fees from Canyon often have become prohibitively high. Screening situations for 16mm seem so increasingly rare, that it is surprising that they do as well as they do. As with most of the other Canyon members to whom I have spoken, my rentals have gone down over the past several years (and I apparently had no rentals through Canyon last year). I can’t begin to tell you how little I appreciate getting a form letter from Dominic telling me that if I don’t send him a check for $100 “dues” my films will be returned to me collect. I’m sorry, I don’t owe him a living and neither does any other filmmaker. It sounds like the same hopeless situation that led Leslie Trumbell to almost destroy the Film-Makers’ Coop in the 80’s, after years of having run it as an exemplary organization. This type of “business” is supposed to be run by someone in their 20’s who doesn’t need a decent lifestyle or healthcare. Or it has to run by some socialite who can get their friends to dig into their wallets on a regular basis. Or it has to be very innovative and future-oriented, which Canyon is not (and would probably still need a great grant-writer). They should be squeezing Hollywood and Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue and Ted Turner and Time/Warner and the Warhol Foundation for many hundreds of hours in a Spirit/DaVinci telecine suite to do color-corrected transfers of the entire collection to HD masters, both for preservation and to open up the possibility for shoestring small press DVD releases of all of this valuable work so people can see it. Of course they must continue distributing 16mm! If you have a DVD you love, you jump at the chance to see a rare projection of that piece in actual film, but those chances are fewer and fewer (and non-existent if you are not in school or living in one of less than a dozen cities). Dominic’s assertion on Frameworks that ipod-sized copies of films on ubu and YouTube has hurt 16mm rentals is the most preposterous statement I’ve ever heard.

Again thank you for this terrific book. I am a big fan of your interview books and the Cinema 16 book as well. You should consider doing a volume on the Collective for Living Cinema.

All the best,