I had seen at least a few of visionary animator Adam Beckett’s films when I worked at Canyon Cinema. The iotaCenter put out an extensive DVD of his work a few years ago, and I should say very clearly up front that I was able to work on Adam’s incredible films thanks to iota, as they had negotiated with Adam’s family to move the films to the Academy and also applied for funding from NFPF so the films could be restored, so thanks much to them for that. Additionally, iota founder Larry Cuba, who had known Adam at CalArts in the ‘70s, is a big fan and even owned a couple of prints of Adam’s films, both of which ended up being quite helpful in the restoration of his films (more on that below).
So much could be said about Adam Beckett as an artist, as a person, as a near-mythological figure, but though I’ve learned a lot about him from his films (and working on them), and from numerous friends of his, I’m not really the one to say it (Pam Turner is), and plus that’s not really what this website is about! But let it just be said that he genuinely pioneered some visionary techniques in animation and image manipulation that are still being used today by special effects artists and independent animators. Although his drawing style and animation thinking was utterly virtuosic, his particularly visionary innovation was to use the optical printer in combination with his animation to extrapolate his images and forms into incredibly elaborate, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic phantasmagorias. His memory and legacy are still very strong with effects whizzes like Richard Edlund, Richard Taylor, and Robbie Blalack; esteemed friends and mentors like Pat O’Neill, Roberta Friedman, Beth Block, Sky David, David and Diana Wilson, and Chris Casady; and younger animators who’ve been inspired by Adam’s utterly unique and boundary pushing work, like Jim Trainor, Henry Selick, Jodie Mack, and Helder Sun. (These are just a paltry few of the names in each category – Adam Beckett’s memory and legacy are pretty large in the world of experimental animation.)
In early 2004, I was in touch with Marilyn Brakhage a number of times to arrange the use of material by and related to Stan Brakhage for inclusion in the Academy’s ‘In Memoriam’ segment of the broadcast that year. One unexpected piece of information that emerged from these conversations was the revelation (to me) that all of Stan’s originals were still in Marilyn’s possession, housed at Underground Vaults & Storage in Kansas. I had assumed they were already conserved in an archive somewhere, but this was unexpectedly not the case. Over the course of the next few months, many conversations were had and arrangements were made, with the result that just about all of Stan Brakhage’s originals, filling 56 boxes on three skids, were transported via truck from Kansas to be deposited at the Academy. Amusingly, we realized in the late planning stage that the length of truck that would be bringing the boxes would not be able to turn into our rear parking lot to our loading dock, due to the narrow street and sharp turn required. The alternative was to have the truck instead drop the boxes off at the Twentieth Century Fox lot, as we have a good relationship with Fox’s archive, and they were graciously willing to help us. On August 4, 2004, a group of us took the Academy’s cargo van over to Fox and picked up all of Stan Brakhage’s originals. And it definitely amuses me that for a few hours, Stan Brakhage’s entire body of work was on the Fox lot.
Anyone who knows me probably knows that filmmaker Robert Nelson was a really significant, formative, and meaningful influence for me as an artist, mentor, and friend. With my friend Martha Hunt (my predecessor at the Academy), Nelson’s films were the first I had any involvement in preserving, collaborating with Martha when I worked at Canyon to concoct what we imagined could be an ongoing project to restore American experimental film between Canyon and the Academy. Robert Nelson was my first choice because I had recently (in 2001) become totally enamored of his work, his films badly needed restoration, and he was the primary founder of Canyon as a distributor in 1966-67, yet his films were no longer in distribution there at that time. This latter fact meant that as an initial collaborative project, I felt there couldn’t really be claims of conflict of interest (not that I need have worried about that, really).
I reached out to Bob in Fall 2001, and some anecdotes about this meeting and the ensuing 10-year collaboration and friendship is detailed already in my post following his death in 2012, “Goodbye, Bob.”, so I won’t repeat it here. It’s pretty amazing to me that he’s been gone over six years, and there are still so many traces of him all over the place in my life and work.
When I got to the Academy on June 25, 2003, Nelson’s films were, meaningfully for me, the first collection I personally brought into the archive. Two of his films had already arrived and were preserved by my friend Martha (The Off-Handed Jape and Deep Westurn), but there were plenty more to go. Originally, Bob had intended to just choose the films he wanted to send and ship the elements for each as we needed them, but I convinced him that it would be a lot better and more effective to just send me everything so I could go through it all.
Today, June 25, 2018, marks my 15th anniversary working as a film preservationist at the Academy Film Archive.
I had absolutely no idea that more than fifteen years ago, when accepting this job, I could possibly have stayed in it so long. I had at that point (2003) been working at Canyon Cinema for three years, where I’d gotten a major crash course in the aesthetic, anecdotal, and technical history of the avant-garde (not to mention where I met hundreds of amazing filmmakers, curators, academics, and others, many of whom have remained friends/collaborators over the years) when the job at the Academy came open. In part because the Academy Film Archive (specifically director Mike Pogorzelski and preservation officer Josef Lindner) had wanted to expand the work the archive was doing on experimental films, I found myself moving to Los Angeles.
Over the years, the amount of support, encouragement, and freedom I’ve had from my colleagues and supervisors at the Academy to focus largely on independent artists’ films has been really remarkable, and it has made the idea of working somewhere else seem kind of a ludicrous option. Plus I still really love L.A. So I’m still here, happily, a decade and a half later.
Fire of Waters (1965) is one of Stan Brakhage’s more elusive films, even though it enjoys quite a good reputation among those familiar with it. Its extremely striking, minimal, black and white imagery and very atypical and unusual use of sound make it fairly memorable, and yet it doesn’t seem to be as well recognized as one would expect.
Brakhage would continue to make films for another four decades, but Fire of Waters is actually one of his final black and white films, followed only by Song 12(also 1965 and generally printed on color stock) and the even more elusive Sluice (1978). The film’s overall comparatively spare minimalism prefigures some later works such as The Wold Shadow (1972) and Passage Through: A Ritual (1990), but it’s curiously out of step with the semi-maximalism of his other work of the early-mid ’60s (coming as it does right on the heels of Dog Star Man (1961-64)).