Halcyon days: Chick Strand's Loose Ends plays in the Canyon Cinema/SF Cinematheque program at YBCA during the Film Society's Cinema by the Bay festival.

Remembering Chick Strand

Max Goldberg October 23, 2009

This past July 11, filmmaker, teacher and lifelong Californian Chick Strand died at the age of 78. She was, without question, a crucial pioneer of West Coast experimental cinema. Strand is best known as one of the improbable few who helped instigate Canyon Cinema in the early 1960s, the Bay Area organization that has since nurtured several generations of avant-garde filmmakers. She began at Canyon as an enthusiast and community organizer, but by decade’s end was making her own work—films which, in the best experimental tradition, stretched the cinematic medium to realize a dynamic, idiosyncratic understanding of the phenomenal world. It’s only fitting that Cinematheque and Canyon would stage a tribute to Strand’s work (After Day Comes Night & After That, Day Comes Again: A Tribute to Chick Strand, in San Francisco Cinematheque’s program in SFFS Cinema by the Bay playing at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 23 and and Cinematic Tribute: Films of Chick Strand at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center on October 24); both are direct descendants of the grassroots screenings she helped run nearly 50 years ago.

Born in 1931 a fourth-generation Californian, Strand studied anthropology at UC Berkeley before somersaulting into Canyon Cinema via her friendship with filmmaker Bruce Baillie. The organization was itinerant in its early years, floating between backyards, anarchist cafes, schools and community centers. As experimental cinema wasn’t yet an established niche, Canyon took a homebrew approach, mixing lyrical, artisan works with community newsreels and old Hollywood serials. Strand dressed in costume to work the door, Baillie raffled off grape pies: It was Berkeley.

If the whole era now seems bathed in the halcyon glow of simpler times, there was also a lot of hard work. In a letter written in 1980, Strand reminisced, "Money for rentals coming from our food money—how I know the feel of all the buildings along Telegraph Avenue and Grant Street—when late at night we would staple up our posters on every empty space." Canyon didn’t merely survive; it thrived. It’s mind-boggling to think Canyon could pull off three weekly screenings without a fixed address or institutional support. Space was a chronic problem ("We were constantly looking for places that would let us show the films—but there was always some reason it couldn’t be done—some law—or the films suspect"), and, according to Strand, they were sure the supply of experimental films would dry up within a few months. Faced with a situation in which nothing was a given, the original Canyon cohort responded idealistically. They established a communal workstation in Ernest ("Chick," confusingly) Callenbach’s basement and, crucially, printed their own news. Canyon became indispensable.

As the seeds of Strand’s work began to take root in a better organized avant-garde, she relinquished her supporting role to become a full-fledged filmmaker. Baillie taught her to use a Bolex in the early ’60s, but Strand’s muse carried her south to study at UCLA’s Ethnographic Film Program. That she enrolled as a 34 year-old mother of two—in 1965, no less—tells us something of her audacity. Indeed, though she would later bristle at being called a feminist filmmaker, her work often focuses on tenacity as a common thread of female experience, especially so in her remarkable interview film, Soft Fiction (1979).

According to local scholar/programmer Irina Leimbacher’s 1998 article about Strand in Wide Angle, the filmmaker’s collagist process entailed harvesting material over the course of many years and trips and then completing several films over an intensive summer of editing. This working method likely gives the films their loose, associative quality—but if Strand’s style was intuitive, as she often claimed, it certainly wasn’t without its own cohesive preoccupations (how to incorporate multiple perspectives, for example) and formal ingenuities (her non-synchronous soundtracks, in particular, generate shifting plates of meaning). When Strand asserted that she didn’t think of her films analytically, she was at least in part declaring independence from the New York avant-garde scene. Speaking to Gunvor Nelson, she broke things down coastally: "[The East Coast filmmakers] seem to be interested in art movements and philosophies that can be stated verbally, using film as an extension of these philosophies as seen in painting, etc. And West Coast films can be discussed more on an emotional level."

If this article seems a little sketchy as criticism, it’s because it’s being written from the perspective of curiosity rather than expertise. Though I knew Strand’s name from the various Canyon histories, I was only introduced to her films four months ago, when Leimbacher included three in her Witness, Monuments, Ruins program for the Flaherty Seminar. Leimbacher told us Strand was ill and that her work had never been featured in the seminar’s long history (it edges out Canyon by six years). By way of further explanation, she wrote me, "Strand’s role in bringing an experimental and sensual aesthetic to nonfiction work is not adequately known by the documentary film community, and by including her work I hope to encourage further engagement with her films." Reflecting more generally about Strand’s unique form, Leimbacher goes on, "Strand’s gaze never objectifies, never romanticizes, and never fixes meaning. Rather, her fluid and mobile camera style and her juxtaposition of conflicting points of view on the sound track create a complex and shifting space where human dignity and grace take precedence over any easy or pat value judgments."

The seminar’s tradition of "non-preconception"—which, in practice, means walking into the screening room without knowing what you’ll see—served Strand’s immersive style well. At an event like the Flaherty, the fledgling critic is practically duty-bound to bang his head against the wall to come up with some insight encapsulating the contemporary moment—and then you see something from the archive which so clearly establishes its own terrain, like Strand’s films, and you realize how little any of these pronouncements matter when the work is this strong. Her patterned slippages between memory and storytelling, fiction and documentary, and figure and abstraction cultivate the same fertile terrain as younger filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul—one could make a fascinating comparison between Soft Fiction and his Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)—but in Strand one senses a filmmaker working outside tradition. For many, these screening will be an opportunity to celebrate a teacher, colleague and friend; and for the rest of us, her remarkable work is reason enough.

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