Tuesday, February 23, 2010
The wonderfully poetic and imaginative artist/filmmaker Gary Beydler passed away on January 16, 2010. I had the great fortune to work with him on restoring his films beginning in 2007, but the great misfortune to have never gotten the opportunity to meet him in person. These four images above are from his final film, Venice Pier, which was completed in 1976. Running 16 minutes in length, it's his longest film by far, and also his only sound film. I wanted to share these few images and a telling of the story of its restoration as a tribute to Gary and his work. (This entry will run longer than the usual.)
I first contacted Gary in 2007 to inquire about his films. I had seen Pasadena Freeway Stills and Hand Held Day thanks to David James, and thought they were wonderful works. As I had begun to eagerly search out L.A. filmmakers and their films, I called Gary and asked him where they were kept, if he wanted to deposit them at the archive where I work, and so forth. I found him a very interesting conversationalist, with a great and unexpected sense of sometimes dry, sometimes absurd humor. He did indeed have his films, and he would dig them up and send them to me.
All told, Gary made six films that could be considered finished pieces: Mirror (1974), Pasadena Freeway Stills (1974), Hand Held Day (1975), Los Ojos (1974), Glass Face (1975), and Venice Pier (1976). All are 16mm except Mirror, which was made in super 8. There is something miraculous about each one - in fact, the more I think about them, the more I feel that word really fits. I think anyone who's seen the films will at least partly agree with me on that.
I had only known about four of the films (the first four mentioned above), from an article David James had written in the mid-'70s (David's first published piece ever, he tells me). Glass Face, it turns out, was never really shown, and, like Los Ojos, it's one of Gary's more sweetly silly films, perhaps not as profound as the others, but just as jewel-like and heartfelt in their way.
At first, Gary had only turned up some of his material. Aside from some material for the films I already knew, he told me he had found "this other film I made about the Venice Pier - you probably haven't seen it." He proceeded to describe it to me- he had filmed it over the course of an entire year, shooting at different points on the Venice pier at different times of day, every couple of days. The finished film unfolds as a spatially "correct" procession down the entirety of the Venice pier, but with the shooting chronology all mixed up. Each cut could be a jump forward or backward in time, go from night to day, from September to June to January, rain to sunshine, populated to empty, but always moving forward to the end of the pier, one cement block at a time.
The film sounded amazing to me. Knowing his other films, I automatically trusted Gary's talent and creativity. There was no way this film could be a stinker. I was extremely eager to see it. He sent it to me in the first batch of stuff he found, but it wasn't a print of the film - it was the original picture and sound rolls. He couldn't find the print.
The originals also had the beginnings of vinegar syndrome, a deadly, uncurable disease among acetate film stock. It can potentially be slowed down with good climate-controlled storage, but not stopped. So I was faced with a situation in which I needed to decide if I should spend a good chunk of my allotted preservation money on a film I'd never seen, a film which, though it had shown in a premiere few-week run at an opening Gary had at the Gagosian Gallery, had otherwise never been seen, and certainly never written about at any length. It was more or less a forgotten, invisible film.
Gary had also told me it was his favorite of his films, and he was really bummed that people in 1976 hadn't seemed interested in it. It was his last film - he gave up artmaking and filmmaking soon after that showing. How could I need any more impetus to preserve this film? A master filmmaker, whose favorite and most ambitious of his own films was neglected in its time... there was no question of preserving Venice Pier.
It was incredibly tantalizing - but not very revealing - to hear the full soundtrack, after I had it transferred and reviewed it for dropouts and other problems (using DJ Audio and Audio Mechanics, two great audio houses). The original picture roll, all shot in the same kind of Ektachrome, offered me a look at the imagery from beginning to end - but only on the rewind bench. Knowing the film's concept, the roll of film on the bench made sense to me, but at risk of sounding overly dramatic, I sincerely felt its magic and beauty was still totally unreachable.
The original was in great physical shape, with no damage, other than the vinegar syndrome. I sent it to Colorlab in Maryland, who had done some great work with me on other projects. Meanwhile, a new optical track negative had been created from the sound restoration work, and it was sent to Colorlab as well. After talking to Gary about the color, I told Colorlab to just match the new print to the original - Gary had never manipulated the timing, and wanted to print to look just like he had shot it.
The first print finally arrived, I believe, on August 1, 2008, and it honestly was the most eagerly anticipated screening of my archival career. I grabbed my colleague Joe Lindner, who had been interested in the film as well, and we immediately threaded it up in our small screening room, and watched Venice Pier for the first time.
At this point, it would be ludicrous to try to describe the experience, but the film totally exceeded all of my expectations. It is breathtaking. Almost a year had passed between Gary's first description of the film to me, and my first opportunity to see it, with a fair amount of lab work and waiting in between.
I work on a lot of "well-known" avant-garde filmmakers' work, but I also work on a lot of obscure stuff. It's so hard to figure out sometimes how to get people to take a chance on showing or teaching a film they don't know. When films get preserved that don't have some built-in scholarship behind them, they sometimes need an incredible push to bring them into visibility. New scholarship is urgently needed on previously unwritten histories of forgotten and unknown works. Outside of the academic realm, these works simply need to be shown and seen.
Although Gary is a known filmmaker, Venice Pier is not a known film. But it is an absolute masterpiece. I'm not one to mindlessly promote, and I certainly don't make anything off of doing so, but before Gary died, he eagerly agreed to let prints of his films go to Canyon Cinema as they got preserved, and we were able to get Venice Pier (and Pasadena Freeway Stills) in there, much to his pleasure (and more to come). I hereby enthusiastically challenge those of you that teach and curate film to give this amazing film a chance - show it to students, show it in museums, microcinemas, cinematheques, on rooftops, wherever. It really is as wonderful as it sounds.
It can be rented (on 16mm) from Canyon Cinema. Thanks for reading this extra-long entry.