In Search of Christopher Maclaine 1: Man, Artist, Legend

September 28, 2010  |  By
Filed under: Projects/Series

This is the first of a multipart series unofficially conjoined to the publication of Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, and the accompanying film series currently being presented by the Pacific Film Archive and the San Francisco Cinematheque (in partnership with SFMOMA).  This Wednesday evening’s show at the PFA features a semi-rare screening of Christopher Maclaine’s THE END, the exciting appearance of David Meltzer, and a super-rare visit by Wilder Bentley II, who in 1953 played Paul, the 4th of THE END’s 5 major characters. For those who wish to get a taste of what this is all about, a poor video copy of the first 10 of THE END’s 35 minutes is viewable via this YouTube.

Christopher Maclaine in _THE END_ (1953)

The human psyche has been formed by evolution to view history through mirroring twin, but oppositional, prisms: the drive to accept the commonly understood pantheon of key players whose actions define a given area of human endeavor, and the desire to subvert received wisdom and tease out the “goods,” the “true story” of what was “really goin’ on.” Our poor little brains can only handle so much in their efforts to make sense of it all, and yet (or rather consequently), there’s always the sense that there are hidden truths, and a deeper reality kept just out of view … There is, of course, a long tradition of uncovering “Secret History”; my own understanding of such matters was fostered by Greil Marcus’s now 20-year-old Lipstick Traces, a book whose ongoing cult has helped to render its disparate subjects and theme of oppositional culture very much part of “official” history.

I encountered my own White Rabbit secret history in 1986, on a road trip with some friends with whom I was involved in putting together an organization that later that year would receive its official moniker, the Austin Film Society. We’d traveled to Rice University in Houston to see Bresson’s rare LANCELOT DU LAC, and to attend a show of Stan Brakhage films presented by the great experimental film maestro himself. I’d previously been made aware of Brakhage via his tirades against my beloved commercial cinema in various film journals, and so expected a raging monster. Instead, we met with a charming bearded wizard, who seemed, if not to know all, then at least a good chunk of it. We instantly fell under his spell. Going up to talk with him after the screening, we were generously invited to his class the next afternoon.

Still from footage of Christopher Maclaine shot by Dion Vigne, 1957–1960, film. From Pacific Film Archive, permission Loreon Vigne.

The few hours we spent in Brakhage’s classroom was one of the seminal experiences of my youth. First there was Brakhage himself — when I later encountered C. G. Jung’s writings on the Wise Old Man archetype, Brakhage immediately sprang to mind. Faced with a bevy of resentful young postmod/punk student twits fueled by Oedipal animus and drunk with consciousness of the “brilliance” that had gotten them into Rice, Brakhage parried their hostile questions with the grace and inner harmony of the Aikido master, bringing them to understand his own pre-postmod classical/romantic/modernist perspective. Then there were the films he showed from his collection, none of which I’d seen. Chief among these new discoveries were two, THE END (1953) and SCOTCH HOP (1959), by a filmmaker from my native San Francisco of whom I’d never heard, Christopher Maclaine. I was struck with wonder by THE END’s first 10 minutes and their entwinement of absurdism and the ecstatic, and then an incident happened within the film (which I’ll let you experience for yourselves) that caused me to have my own version of what Brakhage much later described as his response to THE END’s world premiere (at none other than SFMOMA): “I mean … the top of my head was coming off!”

Brakhage told the class that he thought SCOTCH HOP was Maclaine’s greatest work, the mature fruition of his filmmaking efforts, but while I could tell this poetic document of dancing at an East Bay Scottish festival was a perfect film, THE END was very much the one for me. I later described my reaction: “The wounded nihilists and dreamers populating the proto-apocalyptic world of THE END were all-too-familiar analogs to the traumatized members of the postpunk scene, on the periphery of which I dwelled. Within a short time, and after repeated viewings, they would become less film characters than people I knew, identified with, and felt great sympathy for, people whose lives and worldviews were intimately intertwined with mine and those of my friends.” After the class, Brakhage invited us to join him for dinner, and of course we pumped him for info on Maclaine (we were later able to get a version of this on tape, which I hope to provide a transcription of in a later post).

Returning to Austin, we immediately programmed THE END (and Maclaine’s later BEAT) for a “Beat Film” show and, when we got our hands on the prints, watched THE END repeatedly and obsessively in our collective digs, mouthing lines from Maclaine’s voice-over narration to each other in our best attempts to mimic his singular combo of cynicism and jaded world-weariness, earnestness, and religiosity. It was exciting to feel with every viewing how much richer THE END was than I’d previously realized. During these many viewings, a desire was born to know more, to investigate why and how this Masterpiece had come to be made, and the life story of Christopher Maclaine, a Hidden Genius seemingly lost in the tides of history. Then there were all the actors of THE END’s large cast, none of whom were credited, and the gorgeous and mysterious locations of a fantastical San Francisco, most of which were unknown to myself and the other natives I consulted.

Christopher Maclaine in his film _THE END_ (1953)

There was little enough to go on — at first only what Brakhage had told us, then another, more detailed account by this avant-garde film Merlin in his book Film at Wits End when it was published in 1989. After some years I was able to get my hands on the two major (and, to me, almost legendary) articles J. J. Murphy had published years before on THE END (Film Culture #70–71, 1983) and Maclaine’s later film, THE MAN WHO INVENTED GOLD (Film Quarterly, Winter 1979–80). Murphy had done some serious spadework, and the rough outline of a picture began to develop: Christopher Maclaine was born in Wapanucka, a small Oklahoma town, in 1923. He received an undergraduate degree in Spanish at UC Berkeley in 1946, and with Norma Smith (who at some point was temporarily his wife), from 1947 to ’49 put out four issues of a poetry magazine entitled CONTOUR, which published poems by, among others, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Philip Lamantia, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, and the Maclaines themselves. Whether Maclaine was always a dweller within the bohemian scene is unknown to me, but certainly by the early ’50s he was the cyclone within the calm center of the nascent San Francisco North Beach Beat community. From 1948 to 1960 Maclaine published four books of poetry: The Automatic Wound (1948). The Crazy Bird (1951), Word (or Words, 1954), and, finally, The Time Capsule (1960). Around this period he also had poems printed in numerous magazines, such as Neurotica, Tiger’s Eye, Goad, Golden Goose, Broadside, Inferno, and Beatitude.

In 1953 Maclaine premiered his first (and, at 35 minutes, by far longest) film, THE END, at Frank Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema program at the San Francisco Museum of Art (which in 1975 became SFMOMA), where, according to Brakhage, it precipitated a riot among its audience of several hundred Art in Cinema regulars. Whether Maclaine intended to provoke such a response is uncertain, but Maclaine was well on his way to having the local reputation of “the Antonin Artaud of North Beach,” and like the institutionalized genius of French theater, as Murphy describes, “Maclaine assumed the pose of enlightened madman from a similar sense of moral conviction, (and) he approached his art with a messianic fervor.” Despite the dismal response to THE END, over the course of the ’50s Maclaine turned out his other three films, THE MAN WHO INVENTED GOLD (1957), BEAT (1958), and SCOTCH HOP (1959), and read/performed his poetry/proto-performance art in various North Beach bars and cafés. As alluded to in the title of his second film, there was an alchemical and profoundly mystical dimension to Maclaine’s work — Lawrence Jordan described to Murphy how Maclaine thought of his films as “numinous, divine things to get done.” Unfortunately, along with his interest in alchemy, Maclaine became enslaved to chemistry: similar to many others among the Beats, such as Kerouac and Joan Burroughs, Maclaine’s modus operandi entwined the use of alcohol and methadrine, and he finally succumbed to a disastrous speed habit. By the early ’60s he was no longer productive. By the end of that decade he’d been institutionalized. After at least six years in a zombie-like condition, Maclaine died in 1975.

Christopher Maclaine, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso in 1957; photo by Gui de Angulo

In the summer of ’93 I moved back to San Francisco and began putting out feelers regarding Maclaine. Was he known or forgotten in the city of his glory? Although his name was virtually erased from the history of Bay Area poetry, amongst certain members of the San Francisco experimental film community Maclaine’s name was a kind of password, an entryway into an informal secret society deeply steeped in Maclaine’s humanist/nihilist religiosity. In Christopher Maclaine, a certain caste of my generation found its prophet, his status only cemented by his almost absolute obscurity. Still, I wanted to know more. When, in ’97, a tome purporting to tell the history of Beat Cinema was published, I was deeply chagrined to find that Maclaine — by far the greatest Beat filmmaker — wasn’t even mentioned. But there were signs that this Secret History indeed lurked, waiting to be told: shortly after that ridiculous book came out, David Sherman and Rebecca Barten brought a reel of film to a small party at my apartment, refusing to tell what it was until its images hit the screen. They had recently held their marriage ceremony at Isis Oasis, a temple of ancient Egyptian spirituality run by Loreon Vigne, onetime wife of Beat generation filmmaker Dion Vigne, who’d died in the ’70s. Loreon identified David and Rebecca as a pair to whom Dion’s artistic legacy could be entrusted, and passed on a box containing all his artifacts. Among these was the reel of film now unspooling on my screen, its progress occasionally interrupted by the minor hiccups of Dion’s tape splices running roughly in the projector. The b&w images were shot and edited by a born filmmaker whose graceful camera moves sang like ecstatic poetry. They were filled with Beats engaged in proto-performance art in a café, moving about in delirious undercranked (sped-up) motion, all drinking in turn from a jug labeled “DEATH.” Presiding over the center of this cyclone was the Ultimate Master of Beat Ceremonies: Christopher Maclaine.

In ’99 I took the California Zephyr to Denver, CO, with the purpose of interviewing Stan Brakhage to attain further details on Maclaine and the San Francisco scene of his time. This interview was conducted with the collaboration of my (and Brakhage’s) friend Timoleon Wilkins, and afterwards languished for some time. Next month it is to be published as part of Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 (edited by Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid, and published by UC Press), for which there is a conjoined multipart film series being put on by the Pacific Film Archive and San Francisco Cinematheque over the course of the next many months (several of Cinematheque’s presentations are to play at SFMOMA).

Since I began working at SFMOMA in 2000, the museum’s connection to (and possible sponsorship of) THE END have inspired further speculation regarding the provenance of this Masterpiece, and this, combined with Radical Light’s impending publication, got my fellow film critic friend (and THE END aficionado) Brian Darr and me to thinking: could this be the time to leap into a project we’d often discussed and thought of as both intoxicating and daunting? Obviously, the answer was “YES!” Over the next many weeks we shall reveal our research to you, dear reader, usually on a weekly basis. Most of our entries will focus on what we’re calling “The THE END Tour: A Work in Progress,” featuring as deep an exploration as we’ve been able to muster on all things relating to Maclaine’s first film. There will also be interviews with some of Maclaine’s friends and/or collaborators: just recently, we were able to make contact with Wilder Bentley II, who plays PAUL, the fourth of THE END’s five major characters. Consequently, Wilder will be appearing this Wednesday (that is, tomorrow!) with Maclaine’s friend, poet David Meltzer, for “Radical Light 1946–53,” which includes a semi-rare screening of THE END. In 1983 J. J. Murphy wrote: “Like Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929), which suffered neglect for 40 years, THE END has required a critical shift in perspective for Maclaine’s challenge to dominant narrative codes to be appreciated.” Twenty-seven years later, Christopher Maclaine’s Great Work still has not received its due. Could these end times be the right time for THE END? It is our contention that THE END is a hidden driving force within the broad swathe of moving picture and sound language. This is a Secret History which demands to be told. This project, like the Radical Light series, will be chock-full of surprises — stay tuned!

For more info on the San Francisco experimental film scene of Maclaine’s time, check out my article on Frank Stauffacher’s SFMOMA series, Art in Cinema.

This introductory post will serve as the series’ hub — subsequent posts will be listed below:

The THE END Tour 1

The THE END Tour 2: WALTER A

The THE END Tour 3: WALTER B

The THE END Tour 4: CHARLES A

The THE END Tour 5: CHARLES B

The THE END Tour 6: CHARLES C

The THE END Tour 7: JOHN A

The THE END Tour 8: JOHN B

Stan Brakhage Interviewed, 1986

The THE END Tour 9: PAUL A

The THE END Tour 10: PAUL B

The THE END Tour 11: CHRIS A

The THE END Tour 12: CHRIS B

The THE END Tour 13: CHRIS C

The THE END Tour 14: CLIMAX A

The THE END Tour 15: CLIMAX B

S.F. Cinematheque presents In Search of Christopher Maclaine: Man, Artist, Legend at SFMOMA this Thurs @7 p.m.

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