SF Trips Festival: An Opening (1967) by Ben Van Meter

This one frame is the reason why we had to print Ben Van Meter’s S.F. Trips Festival: An Opening (1967) without cleaning it, or via a liquid gate printer. But that’s OK! Ben is a filmmaker who was particularly attuned to the physical qualities of cinema, and I don’t mean just its usual textures and surfaces.

This film was shot on January 21-23, 1966, at the massively significant Trips Festival, which occurred at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco. I can’t imagine what it must have actually been like to attend, but from all accounts, the Trips Festival was a pretty startlingly rapturous event. All the arts were on display, often intermixed, whether it be light show performance, electronic and tape music, film projections, performances, the Grateful Dead, interactive displays, any number of other possibilities. It was an incredibly extensive interactive multimedia event that allowed attendees and participants to utterly free associate their way through the nearly limitless artistic and aesthetic endeavors then brewing and boiling over from the Bay Area underground.

Ben Van Meter, who had arrived in the Bay Area from Oklahoma in the very early ’60s, was already a known filmmaker, having made several significant 16mm shorts that were playing regularly around town and elsewhere on the underground cinema circuit. Ben’s approach was in many ways marked by a deep and intuitive lyricism, letting internal and external energies often direct his responsively improvisatory but disciplined camera, resulting in a free-flowing “river of images” (to quote Robert Nelson) that is beautifully free-associative and ephemeral.

Ben seems to have first (successfully) tried this approach with the remarkable Olds-Mo-Bile (1964) (renamed Bolex Peyote Bardo by Ben), a 12-minute b/w film for which Ben intuitively filmed a full roll, rewound it, then filmed over it again, then again, to create unexpected in-camera superimpositions. But it’s not a film of total chance – it’s a quite successful combination of certain preplanned layer interactions and a basic trust of his own muse, a highly integrated mix of the intentional and the fortuitous.

Although this approach in some ways reached its zenith in Ben’s feature Acid Mantra (1968), perhaps the most striking and near-perfect articulation of the technique is to be found in S.F. Trips Festival.

Ben had three camera rolls of 7242 Ektachrome EFB, which he fully ran through his camera each day of the 3-day Trips Festival. The end result was three 100ft. rolls of film that each had been triple exposed in-camera, each layer of exposure representing a day of the festival. Aside from just two or three necessary structural edits, Ben just spliced the three rolls together essentially unedited. This was then set to a soundtrack that was achieved in roughly the same manner, via triple layering of sound he recorded throughout the festival.

Ben calls the film “a documentary of the Trips Festival from the point of view of a goldfish in the punch bowl.” Indeed, it seems that a participatory, impressionistic, kaleidoscopic piece such as this would be the only way to document such an event, in which simultaneity and multimedia (both intentional and accidental) ruled. Ben’s dual approach of open and considered pre-structuring, plus an intuitive embrace of the happenstance and unexpected, results in a hypnotic audiovisual cornucopia which nevertheless also does well to document the event in a strange sort of impressionistic semi-clarity. The whole film hovers between kinetic psychedelic light show and home movie informality.

As for preservation of the film (since this blog is about Preservation Insanity)….

Well, the preservation wasn’t that insane. Having viewed a 1967 Kodachrome print a number of times, I was surprised to discover the single hand-painted frame shown above once inspecting the film’s camera original – I had never noticed it during my viewings of the film (though now I see it every time!). Winding to the same spot on the Kodachrome print, there it was, but really washed out and not very visible. In fact, overall, the Kodachrome print was missing a lot of the original’s subtle shadow and highlight detail, which is not surprising, given that the Kodachrome print stock (7387) was gorgeous, but would inevitably gain contrast and lose shadow and highlight detail particularly in a dark, richly colorful film like S.F. Trips Festival.

Color-wise, the Kodachrome print basically looked identical to the original. After talking to Ben, it became clear that we could match the original in terms of exposure, and since his intention in printing the film was essentially to duplicate the original as-is, we didn’t seek to color-correct or boost contrast or any other particular thing. Since the one frame of hand-painting meant the original couldn’t be cleaned conventionally, I basically just wound through it a few times with a dry velvet, and also checked it carefully throughout for any schmutz or gunk, of which I found none – the original was thankfully quite clean.

FotoKem Labs carefully printed a new polyester internegative, dry gate, without further cleaning, and timed the new print to match the original as closely as possible. We were, in a sense, treating the original as a sort of neutral canvas on which all the recorded events happened in the colors and light/dark relationships as they did. Similar to Gary Beydler’s Venice Pier (1976), the original was treated as much as a one-light as possible – the film stock being sort of a scientific control, upon which all the individual events recorded could express themselves as they did, with no additional photochemical or artistic intervention.

Does that make sense? J.J. Murphy’s Print Generation (1974) is similar – the filmic space is on its essential level a neutral one in which the activity/process unfolds, unblemished and unmodified by additional tinkering. The process by which the film is made is tied to the material in a way that would make any extra superficial changes dishonest and destructive. As freeform as it plays, Ben’s film is precisely this as well, so we basically timed the restoration to match the look of the original, hand-painted frame and all.

Incidentally, the hand-painted frame is over what would otherwise be a flash frame. Though there are other flash frames here and there throughout the film, I guess Ben took a liking to this one and decided to decorate it!

Thanks for reading. I’ll try to post a bit more regularly than I have been… Let me know if you enjoy this sort of thing! I should do an entry on Ben’s Acid Mantra, come to think of it… maybe that’ll be up next…

One other note – if you attended the opening night of PFA’s Radical Light series on 10/15/2010, you may have seen S.F. Trips Festival, which quietly premiered there in its restored version. But I’ll be doing my best to get it around so folks can see it.

2 thoughts on “SF Trips Festival: An Opening (1967) by Ben Van Meter”

  1. I just found this blog the other day and it's amazing. Love it! Living i Sweden there's no way for me to se these film on film but this blog can at least give me some insight to this wonderful world.



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