Robert Nelson (1930-2012)
Can't really express at all how very sad I am to report that Robert Nelson has died. He was 81. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer about a year ago, and had decided to not receive treatment, to go out in his own way, as he could only do, as Chick Strand had decided to do before him.
All things considered, Bob was doing pretty well all year, actually. He had moments, sometimes days, of fatigue and feeling kind of lousy, but had plenty of good days too. I last spoke to him about a week ago and we talked about meeting up soon. He sounded great, and was as sharp as ever. So when I got the call from Wiley today, the news was a bit of a shock to me, as Bob had still seemed so vital and alive a week before.
He hadn’t been taking any medication or treatment beyond the herbal kind, and had continued to live on his own in the mountains in the small house he built in gorgeous Mendocino County. An inimitably homespun and offhand philosopher, he would say things to me like, “what the hell, I’ve had a good run.” I made him some CDs to check out a few months ago, and after he’d listened to and enjoyed them a few times he unexpectedly sent them back, saying “they were really good, I just don’t want to accumulate any more shit.”
Bob has easily been one of the most important people in my life, a massive source of influence, inspiration, support, friendship, and good company for the past ten years. His films are still huge for me. and will be til I die.
I sought him out in 2001 when I worked at Canyon Cinema. I had seen Bleu Shut and Hot Leatherette, and they had both knocked me out, especially Bleu Shut. At the time, my friend Martha was a preservationist at the Academy Film Archive in L.A., and she and I concocted a proposal for Bob and the Academy to start getting his filmography preserved, film by film. After he answered my initial letter, Bob and I had exchanged a few more letters (he was a great letter-writer) without yet meeting. One day without warning, he just strolled into the Canyon office on Third. Dominic hadn’t seen him in a few years at least, and said, almost in shock, “…Well hi, Bob!” Bob and I met, had lunch and talked about the archiving thing, and a deal was hatched. He was still very skeptical about the value of his work and his own desire for people to even see the films, but a project at the Academy was worked out, and Martha preserved The Off-Handed Jape and Deep Westurn right away, with Bob still not really wanting the films to see the light of day. I took over when I was hired to replace her in ’03, when she left to work in Tanzania, and have worked on a bunch of ‘em since then.
Over the years, a certain visceral block about his films, a desire to destroy many of them or at least keep them withdrawn from view, loosened and relented, in some cases title by title. I worked on him to do screenings, and though he wouldn’t initially appear in person, he approved the occasional showing of individual films starting in late 2003. In 2004, with Craig Baldwin’s help, we were able to do a 3-day retrospective at Other Cinema, with Bob in person, which marked a big change in his attitude about the work. The voluminous positive feedback from audiences I was able to pass on encouraged him more and more to lighten up about it all. He started making appearances, including some brilliant ones at Oberhausen, Vienna, and elsewhere. He even started working on several new films (left uncompleted) in 2007 or so, one of which was a collaboration we discussed at length, and which I hope I can actually complete now.
I was always thrilled to pass word along to him about how much one or more of his films had influenced someone I’d met, because by the 1990s, he had gotten really apathetic about a lot of them. But the interest in his films over the past ten years was something he really enjoyed, and he came around to re-embracing many of his own films. (Some of them remained to him nausea-inducing failures, though. Mention What Do You Talk About? or The Beard, and he would groan.) He was thrilled his work still resonated with people, or just made them laugh. Sometimes younger filmmakers would track him down and send him their work, and he always looked at it with a fresh, critical gaze, responding with his genuine and thoughtful reactions, which sometimes led to extended correspondences.
I always found him incredibly open, curious, wise, attentive, interested. He was just so fucking great to hang out with. How many people over 30 (let alone 80) still approach life, conversation, questions, EVERYTHING, with a completely open, curious mind, capable of considering and reconsidering, changing, reorienting…? Even in screening Q&As, when asked a question about Bleu Shut or Blondino that he’d probably been asked dozens of times before, he would seriously consider the question and try to give a unique, thoughtful answer. He was so full of consideration and wisdom, always gave me (and others) great advice.
So many filmmakers are filmmakers in some way or other because of Bob (among them Peter Hutton, Fred Worden, Chris Langdon, Curt McDowell, Mike Henderson, numerous others). Peter once told me that when he saw Bob’s films for the first time, his reaction was “wait, you can make movies like that?”, and started making films himself. David Wilson (of Museum of Jurassic Technology fame) was deeply inspired by The Awful Backlash, and wasn’t the only one to have that reaction. Bob named the classic film Near the Big Chakra, with his gift for evocative titles. Bob could also be burtally honest about someone’s work, because he felt a friend was due that honesty and respect, even if it cost him a few friendships. Bob was the person I was most nervous and yet most eager to show my own films, and his positive, thoughtful reactions meant something immeasurable to me, as did the criticism of one film of mine he thought was a stinker.
When an artist dies, the inevitable retrospectives follow. But that’s OK. Bob was happy to have his work rediscovered, and thrilled that anybody still found it entertaining, funny, enlightening, whatever. I already miss him deeply, but am excited that his films (and his spirit, a very palpable, inextricable part of them) are, and will continue to be, very much with us.
If anyone would like to send any thoughts, reminiscences, testimonials, etc. about Bob or his work to me, I’d be happy to share them with his family and friends.
Bob Nelson in Oberhausen, 2006 (photo by Mark Toscano)
Bob in The Off-Handed Jape (1967)
Shooting The Great Blondino (1967) in San Francisco. (Bob is on the left, Wiley on the right.)
Production still from Oh Dem Watermelons (1965)
Bob in Bleu Shut (1970)
Still from Hauling Toto Big (1997)
Bob in Blondino costume in The Great Blondino Preview (1967)