UDVFF 12: Cityscapes

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the twelfth program of our Virtual Film Festival, which offers a weekly watching schedule of moving image works available for free streaming. Previous programs can be found here.

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by Dominic Angerame

There are many filmmakers that have influenced my work over the past 50 years. As Executive Director for Canyon Cinema from 1980-2012, I was exposed to more experimental filmmakers and films than one could possibly imagine. Attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1972-1979 gave me the pleasure of meeting four teachers who were to influence my life and my work. I could only attend the school on Saturdays since I had a full-time job at the Encyclopedia Britannica.

My first class was taught by Gunter Doestch, a German immigrant who owned a company specializing in medical films. Among my colleagues were Dan Barnett and Saul Levine. Gunter was helping students film and we both became friends. Gunter was involved in the German Resistance during WWII, and was picked up by the Gestapo – who immediately knocked all of his teeth out. I had admired his sense of humor, outlook on life and long discussions about Fritz Lang and other German Directors of the Expressionist period. I was later hired by Gunter to be the distribution manager of his company, Scientificom.

Gunter left the school and I was introduced to Stan Brakhage as a teacher of film history. I knew his work from my Buffalo days and admired his stage presence. We had several discussions after he taught a class about his own films. There was an informality to his work that I admired, alongside his philosophy about light and the way the eyes can see. Stan would eventually leave the school for a permanent and full-time professorship.

One Saturday, I walked into a classroom and a teacher I had never met was reading a roll of film that had just been projected by a student – as an astrologer would read a horoscope. For eight consecutive hours, the class continued. Eventually we ended up in a prestigious hotel where he bought everyone drinks. His name was Robert Fulton. One day he showed one of his works called Street Film Part I and it blew me away. In Street Film Part I, Fulton follows a page of the Chicago Tribune blowing down the streets and sidewalks of Chicago, newspaper as protagonist.

I knew then that there was much to be learned from Fulton. He taught me that making movies was something greater than myself; a transcendence into another realm of cinema along a road toward my inner self. What follows is a eulogy I had written for Bob that explains only part of his countless lessons:

I guess one would call Bob a spiritual film teacher… he never taught me stuff like f stops, or how to splice… instead he showed me how to “see”, and how to release thought into the shot without attachment to either. Bob also taught me the importance of what he would say is creating ‘that one good frame’, and the fact that if you can capture one good frame, then you can create thousands, and before you know it you have a created a film. These lessons I now impart to my film students.

I remember the first day I walked into the SAIC class that Bob was teaching. He was smiling with a huge grin and had just finished watching a student’s black and white roll, 100 feet of 16mm. He had found several frames or series of frames that excited him and he would talk about those at great length. He encouraged the student to shoot another roll of film exploring those visual items that were discovered on the first roll. Bob suggested that the student shoot a roll of film a week, and when the student said he could not afford to this, Bob gave him 100 feet of film, and said he would give the student a roll per week on the condition that he film with it and brought it to class each session.

Bob continued the class like this for about 6-7 hours without taking a break, and after class would invite us all out for salads and drinks at his expense, and talk philosophy with most of us.

The other thing that was amazing about Bob was the language that he used. He would speak carefully: choosing each word as if it were an important film frame, dense with meaning. It was almost as if his everyday speech was a film poem of sorts. It made me rethink my own concepts of perception, art and life. I had never experienced a class like his and continued to go each week. Some of my colleagues at that time included Allen Ross (founder of Chicago Filmmakers) and Barbara Kossy (a distinguished photographer). Eventually, Bob and I became close, and I invited him to San Francisco to judge a film festival and be a guest artist at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1980.

I would visit his home and studio in Newtown, watch his new films, and  beg him to let me take them back to San Francisco to put into distribution at Canyon Cinema… I remember the time I was visiting relatives in Albany, NY and called Bob to check in. He wanted me to see some new work. He mentioned that it was impossible to get from Albany to Newtown by car and he would come in his plane a pick me up. He asked me to look out the window and describe the cloud formations, to see if it was safe to land the plane and take off again. Then he met me at the Albany airport and we flew on to Newtown.

Now Bob’s spirit lives on not only in the exciting cinema that he created, but also inside each and every one of us who knew him and experienced his presence.”

-“Spirits don’t ever die” read in Aspen, Colorado at Robert Fulton’s memorial

Tom Palazzolo showed me how experimental cinema can have a sense of humor and not take itself too seriously. A humanistic spontaneity pervades his work. He captures everyday people with a sense of urgency as if the moment will disappear right in front of the camera. George Kuchar showed me how to be able to make fun of myself and my own stupidities. Bruce Conner taught me how to fight as an artist and to know where the projection booth is when my work is being projected so I can stop the show and start over until the projection is the way I want.

Frank Stuaffacher’s film Notes on the Port of St. Francis had a profound effect upon my work and showed me one way to capture a part of my City Symphony Series. Stauffacher founded the world’s first cinematheque here in San Francisco, long before Amos Vogel started Cinema 16.

Of course I am also influenced by the German Expressionist Films and their use of black and white. Other international filmmakers like Jorvis Ivens, Dziga Vertov and Walter Ruttman were major influences for me.

For the past several decades, I have been working on several films that have turned into a series that I call a “City Symphony”.  Most historians would classify a City Symphony” as a work that traces activities within an urban area from morning until evening. My films extend that definition in that the city never sleeps, and the day is never over.

I have worn many hats, so to speak: as a filmmaker having made more than 30 works, as Executive Director for Canyon Cinema from 1980-2012, as film historian, as professor of film production and cinema studies. My films are distributed by Canyon Cinema in San Francisco and Light Cone in Paris. Re:Voir has just released a DVD of several of my works, entitled “Cityscapes”. Many people say that I am more than humble about my films, my work in academia and my professional accomplishments. Therefore I am submitting part of an article of my work as described by Stefan Grissemann. This complete article is part of the booklet included with my CITYSCAPES DVD collection.

“Since the 1960s, the American filmmaker, theorist, and avant-garde activist Dominic Angerame has been working in a form that is both documentary and poetic, an aesthetic alliance between realism and fantasy. He employs a variety of techniques, but his films are invariably and primarily concerned with basic problems of rhythm: the nervousness of the montage in almost all Angerame films stands in startling contrast to the gentleness of its effect on the viewer. The double and triple exposures this artist prizes so much brake, as it were, the quick pulse of his cuts and help them to achieve a peculiarly delicate quality.

Dominic Angerame’s works search for unfamiliar views of seemingly familiar things: cities, landscapes, faces, and bodies. The filmmaker’s desire to make everyday images “strange” at the editing table, to learn to see them fresh and to estrange them from our senses, makes his films seem—in all the different social realities they contain—always distanced as well, as if they led to another world beyond the concrete, beyond time and defined space. In Angerame’s films, which pay homage to films from early cinema and the classic avant garde to American underground films of the 1960s and 70s and non-narrative films of the present day, an amazingly comprehensive history of the “visionary” moving image is always present. It may be that precisely his refusal to adopt a signature style has diminished the immediate influence of Angerame’s films; however, Angerame’s decision to work “universally,” not to be swayed by considerations of the art market, and to experiment with very different styles increases the pedagogical worth of his films. It’s not surprising to learn that Angerame, born in 1949, teaches at several American schools in addition to being the executive director of the American avant garde distribution center Canyon Cinema. His films testify to an encyclopedic knowledge of film—and also his desire to satisfy, with his own audio-visual offerings, the very different desires of his audience.

The concept “experimental film,” by the way, doesn’t fit Dominic Angerame. It sounds, he says, like it’s just an attempt, as if he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. His practical work in film is informed by essentially one principle: the renunciation of “narrative form.” That alone seems enough to isolate a visual talent like his for a long time. Dominic Angerame is a marginalized filmmaker. The large digital movie databases don’t even know his name.

I. City

His own films are “like city symphonies,” Angerame explains lapidarily, “big-city landscapes in high-contrast black and white.” This alludes to only one (but nevertheless important) part of Angerame’s oeuvre: his five-part City Symphony, made between 1987 and 1997, the title of which is derived from the famous 1927 Walter Ruttman film Berlin: Symphony of a Big City, and which formally stands in the tradition of Dziga Vertov’s urban-industrial montage. Angerame’s city films show (urban) destruction and (cinematic) construction as two sides of the same coin: as de-construction even. To see the city through Angerame’s eyes, writes Silke Tudor, is “to see an organic beast of cement that seems to breathe in rich shades of black and white.”

The first of the City Symphony films is an Angerame masterpiece. Continuum deals in complete immediacy, with the play of light and shadow on cement surfaces, streets, houses, and bridges, but it deals also with the work performed on these sites: steel frames full of busy welders gleam in the blazing sun, house facades are cleaned and sand blasted, streets are tarred and strewn with shimmering gravel. There’s wiping, spraying, cooking, shaking, and painting: Angerame shows us a world at work, in transformation—and, at the same time, he brings out the hierarchies implicit in that world: proletariat and industry, above and below. The workers remain anonymous, and the masks they wear emphasize their lack of identity. Nowhere else is Angerame’s virtuoso editing technique, celebrated by Stan Brakhage for its “seeming lightness, which is so difficult to achieve,” more apparent than in Continuum.

If one knew nothing of their history, it would be virtually impossible to date Angerame’s films. There’s a decidedly timeless quality to the City Symphony’s subject matter and black and white material (and also to Angerame’s partially manual film techniques). There’s an urban, utopian mood in Continuum that would fit just as well in the late 1930s as it does in the late 1980s.

Angerame’s city works untiringly probe the textures that present themselves to his camera: they show patterns and inscriptions on walls and metal surfaces, focus on fissures in cement, lose themselves in shadowy passers-by and smoke rising out of machines. By stylizing the urban everyday, Angerame translates it back into its emblematic quality in a series of astonishing signs. His film language follows—as in the fundamental cinematographic dramatization of white (sun) and black (tar) in Continuum, for example—a strict sensual order.

Similar to the filmmaker Peter Hutton, Angerame stylizes his urban landscapes into half-abstract, extremely painterly compositions. The ghostly calm that hovers over Premonition and the intense interest in construction details are reminiscent of the austere architecture films of Heinz Emigholz. Angerame films buildings, streets, and the construction of bridges by making them visually dynamic and rendering them strange in a sketchily, futuristic way: they become cinematic science non-fiction. In Premonition the camera traces curves in the street and the lines of metal bridge struts in both wide shots and close-ups, creating the impression of a seemingly omnipresent camera in the film’s jumps between wide-angle shots and close-ups. Small details of movement break out of the unmoving, solidified world of this film: the wind blows a piece of paper over the street; two men pause far away at the water’s edge; buildings are mirrored in an imperceptibly trembling water surface.”

–Stefan Grissemann (an excerpt from the essay “The City, Refuse, Passion, and Death: On the Work of Filmmaker Dominic Angerame“.)

Notes on select films

Revelations (2019)
“He began to recognize that  motion  pix  could  be  used as a medium  to  reveal  the  supernatural  and  underworld.   He  found that film could summon up the un-born imagination… he had a glimpse of  how  to emerge as the artist he always felt was within him.” –Stan Brakhage

Revelations is a continuation of what I call my “City Symphony” series. This work includes footage that was shot from the late ’90s to the present. My filmmaking is inspired by filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov, Joris Ivens, Walter Ruttman and Robert Fulton. Editing and post production work was at Light Cone in Paris. The imagery was shot on high contrast 16mm original black and white film transferred to digital format. Some of the footage includes shots from waterfront docks near the Todd Shipyards of San Francisco and scenes of the baseball stadium was it was being constructed. Revelations also shows the cityscape from the Dogpatch area of San Francisco before renovations, and many scenes from the San Francisco Embarcedero.

There were many scenes in the 16mm that were overexposed and I was tempted to throw the material away. Yannis Davidas was my black and white grader at Light Cone in Paris, and he told me to transfer the overexposed material. In the post production he was able to adjust the gain and out of the whiteness of the overexposed film materialized imagery that I had never seen before. Like the magic of my superimpositions, I was pleasantly surprised to view this material for the first time. Since new imagery was revealed to me, in such a way,  I decided to call the film Revelations. The soundtrack “Manifestation” was designed and performed by San Francisco’s notable musician Kevin Barnard.

“Thank you for sending the link to Revelations. — It’s brilliant.  The editing, the rhythms, the building visual complexities and the overall resolution of themes all feels perfect to me. As I was watching I was, in fact, being strongly reminded of a novel I read not long ago — All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. In, as it seems to me, its lamentations for the human soul, as well as with the pervasiveness of light, your film is at once terrifying, deeply sad, and strangely consoling — all encompassed for me most powerfully in that third to last shot of the looming wave — the rising and deep darkness and power of the ocean, which then breaks into the light. Beautiful.” –Marilyn Brakhage

Notes on the Port of St. Francis (1951)
An impressionistic and evocative film from 1951 directed by Frank Stauffacher and narrated by Vincent Price, about San Francisco. Price’s narration consists of a series of excerpts from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1882 essay on San Francisco. Professor Scott MacDonald has written online about Stauffacher’s film and the summary below is quoted directly from his work:

“The opening section provides a rough overview of the history of San Francisco. The remaining sections focus on, respectively: people negotiating the city’s hills via cable car, automobile, and go-cart; the speed of the city’s development; the general mixture of ethnic groups and types of people; the Italian-Americans and Fisherman’s Wharf; the Chinese-Americans and China- town; the fog; and finally, the city’s diverse neighborhoods, a section that leads to the concluding idea of San Francisco as a ‘City of Contrasts.‘”

Jerry’s Deli (1976)
For 29 years Jerry Meyers has screamed and yelled at the customers who came into his deli. The film attempts to explain why people keep coming back for more.

“A top award for the Fastest Camera in the Midwest. To have captured the essence of Jerry and his deli-in-action proves this filmmaker one of the few who can make the documentary a high art form, comparable to the best portraiture painting; and taking it, possibly, one step farther.” –Larry Jordan, Judge

Continuum (1987)
“…In Continuum, the world, the workers within the world, and the labor of making the film itself are equated through montage and a brilliantly concentrated filmic ‘painterliness’. The result is an experimental film which is at the same time a document of propaganda in the sense that, at its conclusion, one finds oneself closer to the science of the motion of society in its monumentality, with streets, buildings, the building of them, and the workers and their instruments (drills, tar) creating a constructivist poetry within the eyes.” –Jack Hirschman

Hit the Turnpike! (1984)
“The dilapidated, the ruined, and the thrown-away play a major role in Angerame’s cinema. One can always make a film out of a pair of disposable objects. With his 1984 film Hit the Turnpike!, Angerame experiments with an autobiographically ironic variation on the song “Hit the Road Jack”: the three-minute clip compiles in quick succession fragments of euphemistically formulated rejection letters, regretful replies, and negative reviews. Angerame productively uses the detritus of his filmmaker correspondence in a moving collection of cryptic signs, signatures, and logos.” –Stefan Grissman

Revelations 2019Dominic Angerame21.5
The Screening Room 1979Robert Gardner +
Robert Fulton
Notes on the Port of St. Francis 1954Frank Stauffacher 21
Jerry’s Deli (w/introduction)1976Tom Palazzolo12
De Brug (The Bridge)1928Joris Ivens14
Continuum*1987Dominic Angerame14
Hit the Turnpike!1984Dominic Angerame3

*Continuum is available in high definition to watch for free for a limited time, courtesy of our friends at Re:Voir.

Re:Voir have also made a selection of Angerame’s works available to buy or rent on VOD or buy on DVD: Dominic Angerame – CITYSCAPES.

One thought on “UDVFF 12: Cityscapes

  1. Dominic,
    Thank you for the mention in your column. It’s been a wonderful adventure working with you on these soundtracks over the past 30 years. Cheers to you old friend!
    Kevin Barnard
    Art Director / Senior Designer
    2013 Golden Gate Avenue
    San Francisco, CA

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