The initial instigation for this blog was my desire (in November 2007) to share a photo I’d taken of filmmaker Standish Lawder’s coffee can contact printer with whomever might find that interesting, which turned out, much to my surprise, to be a decent amount of people. Over the years, as I’ve irregularly kept this blog, I’ve been amazed and quite happy to learn that people actually read it, and that the photo of Standish’s printer remains a favorite search/discovery for people.
The process of unearthing Standish’s film elements back in 2007 is a story in and of itself. His studio spaces at the Denver Darkroom were loaded with the multifarious signs of past, present, and future activity. There was a bit of motion picture film to be seen here and there throughout the place, and a small closet did contain several semi-organized stacks of projection prints. But as Standish’s last 16mm film (Regeneration) was completed in 1980, by 2007 his 16mm work, though still of some interest to and evoking some pride for him, had receded quite a bit into the background of his creative endeavors. 3D slide installations and other projects had taken the front-burner role, not to mention his photographic teaching duties.
Of the dozens and dozens of experimental/independent filmmakers I’ve worked with over the past eleven years to store, conserve, and preserve/restore their films, Standish is still, as of this writing, the only one who expressed some undisguised skepticism about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences taking an archival interest in his work. I remember him saying, “I have no idea why the Academy would be interested in my work. I mean, we thought we were underground back then.” I didn’t know if I should say, “Well, to be honest, although the Academy is totally supportive of this work, it’s actually just me and a few other weirdos I work with who actually *know* your films,” because I nevertheless detected a certain pleasure in his tone at the idea of the Academy seeking out his work for saving. Regardless, he was definitely skeptical, and I’m pretty sure it was primarily the fact that I worked with Robert Nelson (an old and trusted friend of his) that he decided to give me a chance. His skepticism waned as he got a better idea of where I was coming from (he said at one point, early on, “I thought you just had an obsession for possession” but then realized I was just trying to save his damn films.)
I made a week-long trip to Boulder and Denver in Fall 2007, cramming as many things as I could into the time I had, including Brakhage research, a lab visit, meeting up with other filmmakers (like Phil Solomon, whose films I was also working on), a class visit, etc. Before even arriving, I had a mildly alarming heads-up from Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, who were teaching at Boulder that Fall. Sandra and Luis have an excellent installation piece called Light Spill, in which a full reel of film is running through a 16mm projector situated in the gallery space, but with no takeup reel, so the film piles up quite dramatically on the floor around the projector instead of taking up on a reel. The film used in the installation is primarily junk film, leader, etc. It’s not meant to be important stuff. While in Boulder, they contacted Standish to see if he had some junk film he wouldn’t mind parting with for them to use in Light Spill. Without realizing it, he gave them some material which turned out to be elements for some of his films! Thankfully, they did fully realize this right away, and let me know, and of course gave it back to Standish. Luckily I arrived soon after and met up with Standish to attempt to assemble his surviving film elements and prints.
At the same time, Standish was planning for a multi-program retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. In many ways, the timing was perfect, as it afforded me the opportunity and just enough time to go through his stuff and figure out the most safe-to-project print for each film, and to have an overall sense of what state each of the films were in, archivally speaking. It was a bit difficult to wrangle all of this with Standish, as he hadn’t bothered to keep up on the organization of his film elements for many years. (He wrote me, in the middle of all of this, “I suggest the following change to Anthology’s introductory comment: “a retrospective of the work of Standish Lawder, one of the most hopelessly disorganized of American avant-garde filmmakers…”)
Back to Fall 2007 and the pickup of his films – it was, to say the least, complicated. Even with the help of Robert David from Cinema Lab, we had to root around all over the place to turn things up. And some things were found in a slightly precarious state – the original printing master for Corridor (1970), for instance, was found, covered in dust, run halfway through a projector sitting in a side room.
At one point, after it seemed we had exhausted all hiding places, Standish mentioned that there could be some film upstairs as well. I went up to find a laundry room, with several milk crates and other containers spilling over with thousands of slides, prints, negatives, and film elements, much of it hiding under big piles of laundry. I don’t want to give the impression that his place was a pigsty or anything – it was just kind of scattered and disorganized, and his 16mm films were for him somewhat relegated to a semi-distant past. But it was clearly still very functional for him – Standish had all kinds of photographic projects going on in his studio spaces, in various stages of completion, some of them probably in progress for decades. He was a consummate tinkerer.
I went into this visit knowing Standish’s filmography quite well, or so I thought. I had seen all the films of his that had been at Canyon Cinema when I worked there, some of them, like Necrology and Runaway (1969) multiple times. But digging through his films in Denver, and assisting a bit in preparing his retrospective at Anthology led to the unearthing of some films which had not previously been in distribution, or shown very much at all, such as Specific Gravity (1969), Sixty Suicide Notes (1972), Budget Film (1969), Automatic Diaries 1971-73 (1973), Headfilm (1969), and Prime Time (1972), among a few others. There was even his very first 16mm film, a parody/homage to his then-father-in-law, Hans Richter, called 3×3: A Tic-Tac-Toe Sonata in Three Moves (1963). And in the course of these discoveries with Standish, a defining, epiphanous moment was given to me. In light of these newly uncovered films of his, I started to ask him about some of the other items that were turning up, all labeled by him with Dymo tape. One can said “See You at Mao”. I asked him what this was, and whether it related to the Godard film. He said it was a little thing he had shot during a visit by Godard for a screening of See You at Mao (1970) at Yale in the early ‘70s. I asked him, “But is it a film?” (meaning “do you consider this a finished film of yours?”), and he looked at me like I was an idiot, responding, “Can you put it on a projector?”
Since Standish’s passing, I’ve been in touch with his daughter Cynthia, and she was kind enough to assemble all of Standish’s remaining film elements that she could locate, pack them up, and send them to me at the archive. They arrived today. They fit in one big box, a few dozen individual cans of stuff. Some are prints, some may be originals (soon to be determined), some are prints of other people’s work, etc. :
One can in particular promised some very exciting contents:
And just like the labeling says, it contained the original loop Standish used to make Runaway, the film which Jonas Mekas said “achieves the perfection of all his techniques”, with “the visual strength of an old Chinese charcoal drawing.” It felt a bit like finding the missing part of a machine – the coffee can printer – that was required to make it work. A bit worse for wear, but still very readily discernible as a crucial moving part in the dormant apparatus.