Friday, June 16, 2006

CANYON CINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Dominic Angerame

Canyon Cinema's unrivaled collection of more than 3500 films traces the history of the experimental and avant-garde filmmaking movement from the 1930s to the present. Canyon's primary activity is the distribution of 16mm films and videotapes by independent film artists. Independent filmmakers, unlike commercial filmmakers or studio artists, rarely receive financial compensation for their work. The money that Canyon Cinema returns to the artists helps them continue making their films. Canyon Cinema is the only distribution organization that has been consistent in the equitable return of artist revenues; more than 40% of Canyon's gross income is returned directly to the filmmakers.

Through my good friend Eric Theise, who has recently been appointed to the Board of Directors for Canyon Cinema, I was introduced to Canyon's executive director Dominic Angerame, who graciously sat down with me and Eric to answer my inquiries.

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The Evening Class: As I mentioned to you, Dominic, I've read your statement on Canyon's website, which provides a fascinating history of the organization beginning with its backyard projections in the Canyon, California home of Bruce Baillie. Your mission statement eloquently lays out the practical and aesthetic objectives of Canyon Cinema so I don't need to ask you too many questions about that. I'm more interested in how you became involved with Canyon Cinema?

Dominic Angerame: My involvement with Canyon really began when I was a filmmaker in Chicago and I read about Canyon Cinema distributing films so I sent my films off here to be distributed. Then when I moved to San Francisco in 1980, I was attending an MFA program at the San Francisco Art Institute and a job opened up at Canyon Cinema. I applied for it and I got it. So I started working, inspecting movies, shipping movies, roughly around 1980. Business had been really bad, there were three employees, nobody was getting paid well, everyone was getting paid about $3 an hour, and I realized that we needed to have a catalog come out. We needed to have a hard copy catalog of the films because hardly anybody knew what films Canyon Cinema even distributed anymore. So I applied for a NEA grant, which we got, to publish our Catalog No. 5, which came out around 1982-1983. All of a sudden what we found was that it increased our business tremendously because people finally knew what kind of films we had available, they knew the titles, they knew the filmmakers, and they knew what was current in the collection. That sort of began an upturn in our popularity.

EC: The catalog, is this primarily for purchase? Or for rental?

DA: It's basically a for-purchase catalog, as a reference catalog. I have a copy, let me show you. [He hands me a copy which I leaf through while we talk.]

Eric Theise: At this point the people that use the catalog are primarily programmers, people who are at festivals or at venues like Chicago Filmmakers or Ocularis or someplace like that in New York. I think at that time there was probably more chance of individuals renting …?

DA: No, there were a lot of small film showcases, a lot of film studies programs in universities, colleges, which is the basic market for our work.

EC: It all looks very affordable too! So a lot of programmers do rentals then?

DA: Oh absolutely! 80% of our business are film rentals. Film rentals go for about $3 a minute. That may be increasing to $4 because film has become such a precious commodity and such a rarified format for people to view on.

EC: Does Canyon Cinema itself do programming? I know you're going to have this program tomorrow but Eric was mentioning to me that that's not a frequent occurrence?

DA: It's not a frequent occurrence. It's something we would like to bring back into focus. Exhibition used to be one of our missions. In 1975, the exhibition part of Canyon Cinema was split off and that became the San Francisco Cinematheque. The exhibition venue for Canyon Cinema ceased to exist so we're trying to get that back through these series of screenings we're doing here at the Ninth Street building.

EC: You're not affiliated then with the Cinematheque any longer?

DA: Not legally. They're a completely separate organization.

EC: Do they also do archival work like Canyon?

DA: They don't have any prints. They have paper archives and they do a lot of film exhibitions on a regular basis.

EC: People always think they want the kind of job you have and, as I've been talking to directors and curators and programmers, what I'm becoming aware of is that they all say that if you want this job you need to first of all start at the beginning. You were just mentioning that you started out as a print inspector; what is that? I'm not sure I even know what a print inspector really does.

DA: Basically what we do is we distribute 35mm, 16mm, Super8 films and when they come back from rental, what we do is we put them on a pair of rewinds, run the film through a synchronizer to make sure people haven't cut frames out or haven't damaged the print upon projection. So each film when it comes back from a film rental needs to be hand-inspected to make sure that the perforations aren't torn, make sure the film isn't scratched, make sure the film isn't torn itself.

EC: Are you in a position or trained to conserve that film if there are damages?

DA: We do minor repair and sometimes major repair if the film is damaged. But all the films belong to the filmmakers so it's not Canyon Cinema's property. If the film is really damaged beyond repair we contact the filmmaker. We contact the renter. We charge the renter for a replacement of the print.

EC: So you started as a film inspector and you moved up through available positions until you became the executive director?

DA: It was a shared job. We had three employees, one person left, so we combined that person's job between the other two of us and we had a shared managerial position. And then when that person left, I took on the duties of the executive director.

EC: Canyon Cinema is a non-profit?

DA: No, we are technically a for-profit.

EC: The exhibition aspect is undoubtedly very important one way or the other because how else is the general public to know or be educated by your archives? The program that you've put together for tomorrow; what's the gist of it?

DA: It's just a series of new films that have been brought into distribution over the last six or seven months from filmmakers working out in the world.

EC: Eric was telling me that Canyon Cinema is pretty much known everywhere?

DA: We've garnished a great reputation over the last 40 years that we've been in business.

EC: Your own films, what are they about?

DA: My own films are like city symphonies. They're urban landscapes. Urban portraits of buildings being torn down in high contrast black and white, people working on bridges, tarring roofs, digging up streets, y'know? A lot of the urban grittiness of high contrast black and white, and they're 16mm.

EC: What is the importance of experimental film?

DA: Experimental cinema is incredibly important in the fact that what it does is it changes the way that you see moving images. Experimental cinema challenges virtually all forms of cinema. It has a great beneficial power in that it can really change the nature in how we see the world.

EC: It strikes me as subversive, not only in terms of artistic expression, but distribution patterns and exhibition patterns. I'm really feeling—and I know many people have commented on this—that the whole nature of going to see movies is changing so rapidly that for those of us who grew up on going to a movie theater and sitting in the dark and being kidnapped as Sontag would say, we're losing that so rapidly. Movies are going straight to dvd!

DA: Right.

EC: So I'm intrigued and respectful of organizations like Canyon Cinema. I think of you as—well, I can't really say revolutionary because you've been around a long time—but it's like you're becoming revolutionary again.

DA: Again. We're living in a technological revolution and at the same time in a technological crisis. What's happening is we're rapidly losing the cinematic experience. In front of our eyes this is happening. Labs are going out of business. Film distribution companies are going out of business because there's no more demand for the movies. At the same time students who are going to film school, they go through a whole four-year program and don't even know what a motion picture film is; it's really kind of a strange situation. Places like Canyon Cinema—there's probably about two or three of them left in the world—we're hanging on by our fingernails financially, but the passion, and the energy, and the love of cinema is so great that we'll basically see the organizations through as far as we can.

EC: What can people do to help Canyon Cinema?

DA: We could use some donations. People could donate money to us. We could definitely use that.

EC: Do you need a good grant writer?

DA: We need probably a good grant writer and people can donate to us through a fiscal agent called The Film Arts Foundation.

EC: So now you're the executive director….

DA: I've been the executive director since 1980 approximately.

EC: And I noticed in my mailings that last week you had a showing of films?

DA: I had a showing, a sampling. I've made about 35 of my own films so last week I had a sampling of about 10 of them.

EC: I regret missing that.

DA: Yeah, that was a lot of fun.

EC: Will that be coming back around?

DA: Oh, I hope so, y'know? But it's hard to get a show.

Eric Theise: You should mention your other big credit of the past year; Dominic was in the Whitney Biennial.

DA: My last piece, which is an anti-war piece of found footage, was in the Whitney Biennial.

EC: That must have been fun!

DA: That was great.

EC: Did you go?

DA: Yeah, I did. It was good. That piece is called The Anaconda Targets.

EC: Returning to the problems of exhibition, my concern is always the general public. The blog that I've been writing, I've been amazed how responsive people are to it. It's made me realize that most people are accessing information online. You have an online site. You distribute online. Do you have any exhibition possibility online?

DA: Well, these are things that we're talking about right now. How to put clips of our films on our website. How to expand in that kind of direction.

EC: So along with an effective grant writer, you also need a web person who's skilled in that kind of development?

DA: Yeah, we could definitely use some of the tech help.

EC: Why I'm interested in the possibility of online viewing is because I've been participating in something of a fraternity of online film bloggers throughout the United States and Canada, a few from Europe, and we routinely have what we call "blogathons" where we choose a film, or a director, or a genre to write about. Recently, we set ourselves the task of writing about avant garde / experimental cinema come August. One of the main objectives of this blogathon is to provide information on how these films can be accessed for viewing. So I'm trying to figure out how they can see what Canyon has in its collection. Do you have sister organizations? Do you swap films with other organizations in other parts of the country?

DA: There's only about four of us in the world that are like this organization that actually distribute experimental motion picture film on celluloid, which is the bulk of our inventory.

EC: If someone were to ask you, "What is an experimental film?" Could you define it?

DA: Y'know, it really defies identification. It's gone through many different terms. People use "avant garde", people use "experimental", people used to use "independent films". Experimental cinema, I would say in a broad definition, is exploring the art of cinema without using a narrative format. Films that don't necessary tell stories. Basically non-narrative cinema.

EC: A visual-aural experience?

DA: That's right.

EC: I know when Eric first started turning me onto experimental film I didn't know what in the world he was getting at, but, he kept showing me things. I finally went to my first program of experimental shorts at the Pacific Film Archives where he was screening Hojas de Maiz. Do you interact with PFA at all?

DA: They rent from us. We supply them with a lot of material.

EC: I like to ask people who are well-established in what they are doing what they would recommend to younger people if they wanted to get into film curation or film preservation, how you would encourage that, or what you would say?

DA: Right now the field to get into seems to be film preservation. There's a school in Rochester that a lot of people go, you need a certificate, and you learn the art of preserving motion picture film and how to handle it. It really takes an education to—you really need to be trained on motion picture films these days and the art of preservation. Exhibition is something you just sort of do, y'know? You find a place that you think you want to show movies and you just sort of go and do it. I've shown films in bars and galleries and museums, wherever you want to do it is the most important thing.

EC: So you're not just an executive director, you are a print inspector, you are a projectionist, you are a file clerk, and a person needs to have all those skills.

DA: You need to have all those components and you can't feel that one job is disassociated with the other or that one task is more demeaning than the others, whether it be just watering the plants or even just dusting off the film cans.

EC: Do you offer any kind of training through the organization?

DA: We have interns. We seek interns who come in to help us out.

EC: So if someone wanted to become a projectionist, do you have a program for something like that?

DA: Not really. We have a small screening room in the back but people come in and they rent our screening room and then we provide the projection for them.

EC: How about festivals around the United States? Are there very many that focus on experimental film?

DA: The Ann Arbor Film Festival focuses on experimental film. The Osnabrook Film Festival in Germany is basically all experimental cinema.

Eric Theise: There's a festival in Colorado, TIE. TIE exclusively shows celluloid, they don't show any video or digital, so that's something that's kind of close to our hearts. There are a lot of festivals. There's a festival in Vancouver, in Victoria there's an Antimatter Festival. There's a place called Chicago Filmmakers that has a regular ongoing series and they also sponsor the Onion City Film Festival which is very receptive to experimental work.

EC: So are all of these organizations organized into any kind of coalition?

DA: Not really, no. It's sort of a loose, anarchistic network.

EC: I'm just trying to figure out where people can go to see these films. Because most people wouldn't be able to rent from you because they wouldn't have the projectors or anything like that. That's why I was wondering about online possibilities.

DA: What we do right now is rent out our screening room and then we provide projection for it. We charge like a dollar a minute for that.

EC: So if someone looked at your catalog and they saw a film they really wanted to see, they could contact you and say, "I'd like to see this movie and I'm willing to rent it, however, I have no place to show it." They can come here and see it?

DA: That's right.

EC: That's a wonderful thing to know.

Eric Theise: For people on line there's an online discussion devoted to experimental film called Frameworks. So that's a good place for people to get information. Parallel to Frameworks there's a list that goes up called "This Week In Avant Garde Cinema." Screenings all around the world are listed on that and it comes out roughly every Saturday.

EC: That's great. These blogbuddies I was telling you about, a few of them are in Canada or near Canada, and it appears there's a lot of stuff going on around Toronto.

DA: Toronto's a pretty big source. The Toronto International Film Festival has a huge experimental sidebar that's put on through the Cinematheque Ontario.

EC: How about here in the Bay Area? Does the Film Society promote any kind of experimental film?

DA: The San Francisco International offers maybe two or three programs of shorts and experimental films per year but not a great deal, not as much as the documentary category, or the narrative category. I think that's an area they certainly could expand on.

EC: With that, I'll let you be. Thank you very much for your time, I appreciate it, and I look forward to learning more about Canyon. Thank you very much.

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After our talk, Dominic invited me to watch one of the pieces in tomorrow's Newfangled Films program: Maia Cybelle Carpenter's Working Portraits. Shot in June 2000 at Phil Hoffman's Independent Image-Making Workshop, this film stays close to the participants and the film medium itself as they work on their projects. With Becka Barker, Helen Hill, Deirdre Logue, Kelly Krotine, Alexis Rubenstein (1975-2002), and Karyn Sandlos. This silent 8-minute b&w 16mm short was finished in 2005.

I was reminded of Mark Doty's poem "Description" in which he writes: "things that shine. / What is description, after all / but encoded desire?" The singularly most beautiful image in Working Portraits is sunshine glinting off of celluloid. Carpenter shifts her camera to amplify that glint into a pulsar sparkle.

Newfangled Films, curated by Michelle Silva and Dominic Angerame, features new films to the Canyon Cinema collection by Stan Brakhage, Maia Carpenter, Eve Heller, Jeanne Liotta, Phil Solomon, and Tim Wilkins.

FRIDAY, JUNE 16TH at 7:30pm
Admission: $7

Independent Film Center
145 Ninth Street @ Minna
First Floor Screening Room
San Francisco