In some ways, this film is a stand-in for other films by Roberta Friedman and Grahame Weinbren and in a larger sense for Los Angeles filmmakers in general. In yet another sense, it’s a stand-in for a very specific film by Roberta Friedman and Grahame Weinbren: Bertha’s Children (1976). But although Bertha’s Children was a major catalyst for me in 2006-07, its preservation wasn’t necessarily an immediate part of the ensuing path my work took, whereas Future Perfect (1978) — the first film of Roberta’s and Grahame’s that I worked on — most definitely was.
By 2006, I had brought a handful of filmmakers’ collections into the film archive, including Robert Nelson, Stan Brakhage, Richard Myers, Will Hindle, Phil Solomon, and Pat O’Neill. I had been speaking to a few other artists who would eventually do so as well (Chick Strand, Su Friedrich, Barbara Hammer, and others), but the process was gradual and a little bit scattered.
In Spring of 2006, UCLA Film and Television Archive hosted a screening as part of a series celebrating the publication of David James’s excellent book The Most Typical Avant-Garde, which was the first truly in-depth study of “minor cinemas” (as he nicely put it) in the Los Angeles area. David curated a set of programs at UCLA to highlight a number of the films and artists written about in the book.
This particular program included two films that made a massive impression me. One was Pasadena Freeway Stills by Gary Beydler. I had read a bit already about Gary’s films (mainly this one and Hand Held Day), so although it was thrilling to finally see the film after only reading about it, it was the other film which was really revelatory, because it seemed to come out of nowhere. This other film was Bertha’s Children (1976) by Roberta Friedman and Grahame Weinbren.
I knew both of their names – Grahame’s probably from Millennium Film Journal and other places, and Roberta as a board member of The iotaCenter. But I had never seen any of their films. Beginning at Buffalo in the early 1970s, Roberta and Grahame collaborated with each other and often with musicians, performers, and other crew to produce their films, continuing this inclusive and ever-changing practice with their arrival at CalArts in 1972, and eventually on to New York City later in the 1970s. Influenced by Cageian experiments with chance operation and indeterminacy, as well as (Gertrude) Steinian formal explorations, their sensibility is a quite exciting hybrid of English materialism, East Coast structuralism, and a certain West Coast interest in the seductiveness of the image, if they’ll forgive me trying to define things somewhat. Embedded into this unique fabric is the very distinctive personalities and sensibilities of Roberta and Grahame themselves – their work is often a really exciting mix of the personal and the formal. What made me so excited about Bertha’s Children in that UCLA program was the deep intelligence, creativity, and wit the film exhibited within the context of unusual formal and conceptual structures and approaches, all of this underscored by a rich humanity. And it’s also a very tender family portrait. It’s just a really unique work, I hadn’t really seen anything like it, and it excited me very much.
I described this film as seeming to come out of nowhere. Despite the physical fixity of films as artworks to be theoretically returned to and revived over the years, the knowledge and energy around them can be intensely ephemeral, with no relationship to how interesting, influential, or exciting the films may be. A perfect example of this is the work of Chris Langdon, which I’ll write about in a future post. But I feel that Bertha’s Children was one of these films. It was very well received, it screened in plenty of places, it was in distribution without interruption since 1976, and yet after a certain amount of this energy and momentum had dissipated, knowledge of the film diminished and perhaps didn’t quite cross the inevitable curatorial generation gap. A lot of this effect can be due to the lack of critical writing on a given work in a publication which itself passes the test of time. There are plenty of films – even quite minor ones in my opinion – that would have been completely forgotten if P. Adams Sitney hadn’t written about them in Visionary Film, or Gene Youngblood in Expanded Cinema. But also, Roberta and Grahame had both moved on to very different projects and exhibition contexts, including pioneering work in interactive video installation. So I think it’s fair to say that the film had been somewhat forgotten, had not found its way into the usual canons, and had for the moment just come to rest on a shelf.
In my view, this awareness gap is precisely where archivists often find themselves, eager to bridge the chasm across different time periods, between different contexts… at our best, we can function to remind our culture of meaningful things it has forgotten.
I reached out to Roberta, who, though based in New York, was at that time making frequent trips to Los Angeles for work (beyond continuing to make her own work, she was doing a lot of independent producing that the time). We met up (me: “How will I know you?”; Roberta: “I’m from New York.”; me: “What does that mean?”; Roberta: “I’ll be the only one in the restaurant wearing all black.”), she gave me a DVD containing Bertha’s Children and a few other films, and we had a nice lunch. I watched the DVD later that night and my immediate enthusiasm was multiplied upon encountering its contents: Murray and Max Talk About Money (1979) (still a favorite), The Making of Americans (1974), Terms of Analysis (1982), Vicarious Thrills (1978-79), and the film I’ll write about here, Future Perfect (1978).
Within a very short period of time following the lunch with Roberta, I had asked her and Grahame to deposit their films at the archive, and they did.
The preservation of Future Perfect was actually really basic. It survives in only one reversal print. The originals are lost. This is sadly somewhat typical of Roberta and Grahame’s work, due partly to a flooding disaster some years before which damaged a certain amount of their originals and other film and audio materials. The print of Future Perfect, struck directly from the original, was luckily in pretty decent shape, with no real damage and just a certain amount of projection wear and minor color fading. Preserving the picture really just involved having Triage Motion Picture Services strike a wetgate internegative from it.
The reversal print’s soundtrack was then transferred by DJ Audio. At Audio Mechanics, we did some clean-up and noise reduction. We reckoned the track on the print was electroprinted, which was a fairly common process from the ‘60s to the early ‘80s for 16mm printing at a few West Coast labs in particular, like Palmer’s in San Francisco or HFE in Hollywood. It’s basically a way of striking a print of a film without using an optical track negative for the soundtrack. You give your picture original and your magnetic master to the lab, and they make a print on which the soundtrack is directly shot from the mag, bypassing the track negative stage. This was a little more expensive per print than using a track negative, but if you were only going to make one or two prints, then it was cheaper overall. If you planned to make maybe 3 or more prints, it was cheaper to just pay for the track negative and do it the usual way. A lot of San Francisco artists and a decent amount of Los Angeles artists made prints with electroprinted tracks.
As an archivist of independent and experimental film, I’ve found that a filmmaker’s magnetic soundtrack master is the most likely thing to be absent in a given batch of elements for a film. Sometimes this is because it deteriorated and the filmmaker or lab threw it out (acetate mag tends to deteriorate quicker than anything else). Sometimes this is because once an optical track negative was made from the mag, the mag was seen as expendable, and the filmmaker might have thrown it away (which is unfortunate because the mag will pretty much always have notably higher sound quality, and provide a better source for later remastering or restoration). Sometimes it might not have been picked up by the filmmaker from the sound lab that made the track negative. And when you factor in electroprinting – where the mag is the ONLY master sound element (i.e. no track negative), if it disappears, then prints are the only potential sound source.
As an preservationist, the problem I’ve encountered with these electroprinted tracks is that they don’t always sound as good as the conventionally printed ones. I’ve found in many cases that they seem to have a much more prominent noise floor, with noticeable hiss and/or hum. This was the case with Future Perfect. Specifically, the track had a consistent and fairly aggressive hiss to it that was not part of the original recording. John Polito at Audio Mechanics was able to minimize this nicely, and also remove any errant pops/clicks caused by dirt and nicks on the source print’s optical track. We then made a new optical track negative and also a new magnetic master for safekeeping. The internegative and track negative were then printed at Triage, and after a couple of tries, it was approved, and we made a few additional prints. That’s pretty much it.
If the original had survived, ironically it would have been a much more complicated project that I’m sure would have presented some major issues, because the original – as an elaborately hand-painted roll that was initially meant to be shown ONLY as an original and NEVER duplicated (until Roberta and Grahame “chickened out” in Grahame’s words) – would have almost surely been in compromised condition. So I may have needed to preserve the film from the print either way.
The reason I wanted to write about this fairly basic project is not just as an example of a fairly standard, even limited preservation process. Roberta and Grahame’s films were a massively eye-opening encounter for me, because they helped initially illuminate for me the historical landscape of Los Angeles cinematic avant-garde. Of course I knew work by Pat O’Neill, the Whitneys, Chick Strand, Morgan Fisher, and some other artists associated with Los Angeles, but until David James, nearly no one had written much about LA’s quite massive and thriving radical and experimental cinematic history, and so its legacy and the amazing films and artists it produced were virtually ignored by the canonical texts about experimental film, which seem to forever and aggressively focus on New York as the only city that mattered (with some occasional shout-outs to San Francisco). Maybe because it’s home to the film industry, maybe because many of its artists embraced commercial technology, or maybe just because it was the wrong kind of cool, Los Angeles – my home since 2003 – never got a proper look from many of experimental film’s historians, critics, and curators.
As I subsequently started to dig into the history of the Los Angeles avant-garde, and talk to more and more filmmakers, so many of them would then say, ‘oh, you should really look at so-and-so’s work, it’s amazing,’ which would then lead me to yet another artist with a fascinating body of work. Grahame Weinbren was the one to tell me about Dennis Phillips’ and Anthony Forma’s excellent film Possibilities of Activity Part One: The Argument (1975), which I tracked down and was able to preserve. David Wilson told me I should get in touch with Chris Regan about his mythic Our Lady of the Angels films. Friends of Adam Beckett’s told me about other CalArts animators I should seek out. I was really struck by the web of enthusiasm and mutual support that seemed to enmesh the city – something I still find very vividly here today. Maybe it’s the weather.
Since 2006, I’ve been able to bring in dozens of Los Angeles artists’ collections to the archive, and preserve/restore quite a few Los Angeles films, which has been a really thrilling discovery process. After a couple of years of work on a lot of this material, I was able to begin curating shows of restored Los Angeles work, which I’ve been thrilled to present in a number of places. It has become a distinct part of my archival/curatorial outlook and identity. And this really just began with seeing Bertha’s Children at that 2006 screening, and thinking, with regard to the Los Angeles avant-garde, ‘holy cow, if this fantastic film is out there, what else is out there??