In 1983, William Farley attended the Florence Film Festival with his 16mm feature, Citizen: I’m Not Losing My Mind, I’m Giving It Away. He noticed another San Franciscan on the gigantic festival poster, Jerry Barrish, who for one reason or another hadn’t made the journey with his indie drama, Dan’s Motel. So Farley nabbed an extra poster, and called Barrish when he got back to town to arrange a handoff. The two filmmakers from hardscrabble backgrounds had quite a bit in common, it turned out, and became friends. It seems inevitable, now, that one would eventually make a film about the other.
Farley was a young sculptor employed on a cargo ship when he pulled into San Francisco in the summer of 1969. “I came here on a merchant ship under the Golden Gate Bridge,” he recalls, his Boston-area accent popping through now and then. “The sun was setting and the city was a jewel of light.” He enrolled at California College of the Arts to study sculpture, but chose to make a movie to avoid writing a paper for a film history class. That piece, Making Out, became a hit on the midnight-movie circuit, and Farley was hooked.
Barrish, for his part, got out of the Army, founded a successful and still-extant bail-bonds business across the street from the Hall of Justice, then went to the San Francisco Art Institute. His father—“a Damon Runyon character,” Farley says—was a boxer who fought 117 bouts, and won 110.
“Jerry’s story is so interesting and so complicated, a guy coming from a blue-collar background who made his way in the world of business, and behind it all he had an artist’s temperament,” Farley explains. “Once he made it, he went to art school. We always want to know what drives somebody. Jerry is dyslexic, like a lot of artists are, like I am, and part of his initial impulse was to prove to the world that he wasn’t stupid.”
Barrish made a handful of critically acclaimed features in the 1980s that played widely on the festival circuit but didn’t win distribution. His cachet was such that Wim Wenders cast him as the director, 200 feet up in the air on a crane (and scared to death), in Wings of Desire. Barrish has since traded cinema for sculpture, going the opposite direction that Farley took, making touching (and widely exhibited) human figures from the plastic detritus of discarded vacuum cleaners, car parts and other industrial leftovers.
A Berlin filmmaker began a documentary about Barrish, with Farley as her Bay Area cinematographer. But it kept getting pushed to the back burner by her other projects. Finally, Barrish’s old friend Janis Plotkin, the longtime co-director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and now a programmer with the Mill Valley Film Festival, stepped up to take the producer’s reins. Farley, who premiered two features at Sundance in the ‘80s, agreed to be the director.
“I think the arc of the story is a wonderful one, in terms of aspiring to become visible from being invisible,” Farley said. In a sense, that refers to Barrish’s output, as well. “He doesn’t know how these sculptures appear,” Farley noted. In fact, he’s tempted to use a refrain his subject is fond of repeating for the title: I Don’t Know How I Do This: The Sculpture of Jerry Barrish.
Farley expects that an 8–10-minute fundraising preview will be ready by the end of the year, with the one-hour film completed in 2011. “By the time the money comes in for this movie, we’ll have it made,” he says with a burst of laughter. For example, he and Plotkin taped an interview with Peter Selz, the retired chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York Museum of Modern Art and director of the Berkeley Art Museum. “He’s 90 years old,” Farley declares. “You can’t wait for someone of that prestige.”
Inspired by the late Louis Malle, Farley has pursued any and every genre that interested him. Even as he’s moving ahead on the Barrish film, Farley is honing a personal, poetic piece he’s been making for some time. For so long, in fact, that he has a terabyte of footage totaling a billion pixels. The film is driven by his poems, and he’s in the midst of refining which ones will accompany the visuals.
“I’ve been shooting a walk that I take near where I live—the Last Port, right near Candlestick Park, a narrow strip of land that hugs the bay and has been sculptured by the elements very beautifully,” he relates. “Every time I go it’s the same and different. The film is an homage to something. I’m trying to give back to a place that’s been very generous to me on a very deep level.”
Talking about this little-know corner of the Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, and about much more, Farley says, “It takes a lack of imagination not to notice the miraculous.”
Notes from the Underground
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