'Radical Light' Showcases a Variety of Local Alternative Film

Photo: Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's. Alice Anne Parker Severson's 'Riverbody,' screening at the PFA Theater on October 16, features a series of images of nude, natural women.
Pacific Film Archive/Courtesy
Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's. Alice Anne Parker Severson's 'Riverbody,' screening at the PFA Theater on October 16, features a series of images of nude, natural women.

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In the state that is home to Hollywood, with its rich history as the international capital of movie-making, it would be easy to overlook the filmmaking contributions of Los Angeles' foggy neighbor to the north. Editors Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid hope to overturn that fact with their upcoming book, "Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000," out October 15, which chronicles the history of local experimental cinema and avant-garde filmmakers.

The Daily Californian sampled some of these films that so rocked the world of filmmaking from the '40s to the '70s, many of which will screen at UC Berkeley's PFA Theater in coming weeks. It turns out what shocked and confused our mothers and grandmothers can continue to shock and confuse today.

"The Lead Shoes" is one of the film series' earliest works, created by Sidney Peterson in 1949. Its bewildering footage cuts abruptly between shots of hopscotch, an hysterical, busty woman, chalk lines drawn in reverse and other such odd but doubtless poignant and deeply intellectual scenes. Meanwhile a woman is heard screaming out for some beloved "Edwaaaard!"

Though some films like "The Lead Shoes" were rendered unintentionally hilarious by their forays into the avant-garde, others managed to combine their experimental medium with a pathos that remains affecting to this day. "Have You Sold Your Dozen Roses?", a 1957 film from Allen Willis, Philip Greene and David Myers, transfixes with its footage of a garbage dump in San Francisco. As lost-looking people rummage through the pits and mounds of trash for some useful item, a voiceover written and performed by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti provides a social commentary as disturbing today as it must have been a half-century ago.

The 1970 work "A Visit to Indiana" offers a comic take on experimental film. Over black and white footage of perfectly average all-American home videos, a condescending older man catches up with an awkward young lad. The former interrogates the latter about his family and their lackluster existence in Indiana. Though the relationship between the two is vague, the ensuing half-hearted, stilted yet natural conversation evokes that universal embarrassment about one's family, certainly a timeless theme.

Even in this counterculture world of Bay Area living, the degree to which some of these alternative films have remained alternative over the decades is unexpected. Whereas the naked dancing ladies of "Cosmic Ray" (Bruce Conner, 1961) fail to evoke any revelations beyond a general feeling of sixties-ness, "Schmeerguntz," the work of Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley from 1966 features the kind of nudity that brazenly confronts societal norms to this day. Specifically, footage of a pregnant woman squatting over a toilet or a close-up of a live childbirth may not make for pleasurable viewing, but when juxtaposed with idyllic advertisements of mothers and babies, it at least confronts the social taboos on things women do when not dancing naked.

While most of the short films previewed for the "Radical Light" series resorted to shock-and-awe methods of social commentary, Alice Anne Parker Severson's 1970 "Riverbody" was a peaceful display. 87 nude, natural models of every shape and size transform into one another over the soundtrack of a quietly winding river.

Perhaps it is the most radical message of "Radical Light" that something as normal and natural as the bodies of 87 normal, natural people was ever considered radical at all.

Shape-shift into other naked women with Hannah at hjewell@dailycal.org.

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