Last week Anthology Film Archives (stop rolling yr eyes) screened an impressive array of films by Robert Nelson. this was a rare event because nelson has made most of his films unavailable for screening, not only because he felt that all but a few (oh dem watermelons!, bleu shut, the great blondino) were, in retrospect, not up to snuff, but because he also purposely destroyed so many of them. having gone to all the nelson programs at anthology, i am pleased to report that while there are a few toss-offs within nelson’s oeuvre, most of it is pure genius. and funny. yes, it’s hard to believe, but experimental films can be humorous (just as most dreams are arcane, but also, sometimes, strangely laugh-inducing). more is more or less (but really more) a found film of a bunch of dudes winning a softball game and then going out to party on the street. it’s in gorgeous black and white, completely ridiculous and contagious. bleu shut is pretty much impossible to describe, but let’s just say it takes george landow’s participatory cinema to new absurds with its multiple choice guessing game of the titles of boats. my personal favorite was the off-handed jape in which nelson (i think) and a friend demonstrate in front of the camera facial expressions and bodily gestures for common situations — showing disgust at a random fart, trying to remember something. the audience in which i saw this film was in stitches, trust me.
the great blondinoand the (relatively) recent hauling toto big, however, reminded me of the films of bruce baillie, which then reminded me of the links between baillie and, half a world away, chris marker. baillie and marker’s m.o. is the elliptical essay film, illuminating the connections between disparate social and cultural phenomena through poetic visual/sound juxtapositions. marker, of course, mainly binds his documentary and archival footage together with voice-over, guiding the viewer while also providing another layer of mystery; baillie does without such an overriding authority but nonetheless creates a flowing river of images while making each “section” of a film stand on its own. nelson, another american experimental filmmaker, is closer to nelson, using similar optical effects and unconvential techniques, but is part of a character-driven strand of the avant-garde that also has as members ron rice and early brakhage. hauling toto big, nelson’s last film thus far, operates on so many levels and points to so many different traditions of the avant-garde that it could serve as a compendium of style and theme, while also bearing nelson’s particular stamp and trickster persona. it’s too bad his work is so rarely seen (although the filmmaker himself had a hand in this obscurity)—it’s some of the most irreverent, unpretentious, and loving work i’ve ever laid eyes on.