Third Man Records pays tribute to Canyon Cinema, one of the hubs of avant-garde filmmaking 

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

This week finds yet another massive contribution to Nashville's film culture from the good folks at Light and Sound Machine. After a number of shows focusing on individual filmmakers, L&SM now turns the spotlight on an organization, one that has played a role in avant-garde history every bit as vital as any particular artist, perhaps even more so.

San Francisco's Canyon Cinema is an independent distribution co-op that has made it possible for filmmakers to get their work to colleges, museums, individuals and micro-cinemas like L&SM. Founded almost by accident in 1961 by two Bay Area filmmakers, Bruce Baillie and Chick Strand, Canyon specializes in 16mm and 8mm films. Filmmakers deposit their films with Canyon, which has become a centralized clearinghouse for experimental cinema, from and to all points around the world.

Thursday's program of films from the Canyon holdings is well-chosen and highly diverse. But if I were to articulate some kind of theme running throughout the program, it would be the rare nexus of formal exactitude and expressivity. There is a rigor and organizational method to most of these films that is detectable almost immediately. But this approach allows for the exploration of broader ideas and motifs, creating the template for an intellectual freedom that the strictures of narrative expectation would squelch.

To take the most obvious example, Abigail Child's "Mayhem" (1987) treats the tones and gestures of film noir as a kind of meta-text. We see decontextualized women in peril, shadows through Venetian blinds, Dutch angles and the like, all organized in a stark montage that permits these elements to come across as formal instances of gender-infused power. Likewise, Paul Sharits' "T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G" (1968), a classic "flicker film," uses high-intensity editing, color shifts and a single dominant image (a man preparing to cut his tongue out with scissors) to instigate a tension between the aesthetic purity of chromatic interaction and a kind of optical violence — a bombardment of the eye and mind. The soundtrack, which loops the word "destroy," confounds the ear, mutating into other phantom significations.

A similar trick-of-the-ear occurs in Gunvor Nelson's "My Name is Oona" (1969), the filmmaker's lyrical portrait of her pre-adolescent daughter. The soundtrack is a complex web of tape loops (assembled by minimalist composer Steve Reich) based on the girl speaking the title phrase. We see Oona running, playing, riding a horse, and mainly just being wild and carefree. She often falls out of frame, as Nelson's camera struggles to contain Oona's youthful energy.

In a very different vein, Rose Lowder, a French filmmaker and true modern master, also makes works that crackle with barely contained energy, but it's of a more molecular variety. As a landscape artist, Lowder specializes in taking relatively still scenes and infusing them with the movement they possess but that the naked eye cannot see. She "de-pacifies" nature. Her film "Champ Provençal" (1979) is a frame-by-frame document of a peach orchard, shot over three months as the trees shift their appearance. Before our eyes, they shake, shift, and become unnervingly aggressive.

Lowder's work in individual frames echoes that of Peter Kubelka. A cinema of radical economy, Kubelka's films are characterized by extreme difference between frames and high compression of time, generating as much optical information as possible within a brief amount of time. For this reason, he often shows his films more than once. "Schwechater" (1958) is only one minute long, and began as a paid commercial for an Austrian beer. Watch and you may see traces of the original assignment.

By contrast, Scott Stark makes no attempt to disguise his source material. "I'll Walk With God" (1994) is an operatic evocation of human fragility based on images from flight safety cards. These diagrams — part industrial avatar, part cartoon — are meant to represent us "in the event," and Stark wonders how these emblems could represent the human soul in extremis.

As far as a connection between form and feeling, no film in the program achieves this better, or more strangely, than Pat O'Neill's "Down Wind" (1973). Seemingly a random assemblage of found footage, "Down Wind" is an experiment in how shape and time can draw connections between seemingly disconnected ideas. We see clips from a cat show, people walking in a city, images of Old Faithful, and eventually a series of complex superimpositions. O'Neill interrupts the images with a falling trapezoid shape, which contains a portion of the same image we're watching but from a second ahead. Later, O'Neill starts inscribing shapes containing images from the next shot. This process creates hard formal pathways across the edits, and this practically demands that the mind draw some sort of greater relationship — graphic, directional, thematic, textural — between these fundamentally intuitive joins.

"Down Wind" trades on techniques that digital imaging has made easy, but because of this, too many artists give these devices inadequate forethought. It's not just that it was "hard to do" when O'Neill did it. To see these overlaps in 16mm is also to see them applied with a rare judiciousness. It's a fitting tribute to Canyon Cinema, then, to screen works that are hard to see, hard to make — and that even today are nearly impossible to equal.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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