Wednesday, September 19, 2012

To play's the thing: talking about experimental filmmaker Robert Nelson

Posted By on 09.19.12 at 04:09 PM

Nelson (right) in The Off Handed Jape (1967)
  • Nelson (right) in The Off Handed Jape (1967)
This week the Gene Siskel Film Center will celebrate experimental filmmaker Robert Nelson, who died earlier this year at the age of 81, by screening programs of his work tomorrow at 6 PM and on Saturday at 12:30 PM. As Bruce Weber wrote in his New York Times obituary, Nelson "brought spontaneity, teasing, and wit to the often deadly serious arena of avant-garde moviemaking," though it should be noted he possessed a strong formal sensibility as well. His early short Oh Dem Watermelons (1965)—which you can watch on YouTube, remarkably—sets the tone for much of his film art: that work features gags of watermelons exploding as well as a curious score by tape-loop pioneer Steve Reich, both of which serve to mock racist conventions in American popular culture. Nelson often regarded art as a game, a sentiment reflected in one of his most respected works, Bleu Shut (1970). That piece pokes fun at spectators' impatience with experimental cinema by having an on-screen clock count down the film's running time.

Nelson studied as a painter before turning to filmmaking, and he continued to evolve throughout his life. As I learned from local artist and School of the Art Institute faculty member Lori Felker (who cocurated the programs with Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive), Nelson's post-70s work took inspiration from his teaching career and his interest in dreaming, moving from forthright humor into more abstract meditations. It should be interesting to chart this development across the 12 pieces playing this week. Below is a partial transcript of my conversation with Felker.

Ben Sachs: Why is Robert Nelson's work so important to you?

Lori Felker: It all started when I came to the School of the Art Institute in 2005. I didn't come from an art world background—I studied literature as an undergrad, and I come from a working-class, fundamentalist Christian family. So, I was pretty uncomfortable when I first got there; I wasn't sure if I'd taken the right path. But then I discovered Bob's stuff, which was playful and game-based—and that's what I wanted to do [with film]. I'd started to work in that [vein], being largely self-taught. And some people who saw my work asked me, "Have you seen Bleu Shut?" I didn't know what it was; I hadn't even heard of Robert Nelson.

When I finally saw the film, I almost thought I could stop working because it did a lot of what I was thinking of doing. But, more importantly, it made me feel really comfortable. It was joyful, and it was obvious that [Nelson] was interested in his own thoughts and the collaborative process of moviemaking and just wanted to see how these things play out. So, just from watching this one film I was instantly in love with this man. I didn't know how old he was or where he was [living].

From Bleu Shut
  • From Bleu Shut

For years, I asked the Art Institute to bring him to the school. Whenever I was asked which artist should be brought, I would just beg for Robert Nelson. That never happened. But in January of 2011, Mark Toscano gave me [Nelson's] address and suggested I start writing to him. He said, "I know him pretty well and I think you'd have stuff in common." For a fan, that's the best thing you could hear! So we wrote back and forth throughout Bob's last year—postcards, letters.

What did you correspond about?

I began by sharing some of my work. When he saw that some of it had to do with dreams, he opened up this dream conversation—whether we had tried lucid dreaming or anything like that. It was very charming.

Mark and I had been talking about bringing the films—and maybe Bob—to Chicago, but then Bob was getting increasingly weak and he wasn't traveling as much. He passed away before we could make it happen, but it probably wouldn't have happened anyway; he hadn't traveled in a while. But since he passed in January, Mark has been organizing so many programs of Bob's [work]. For this program, we took a bunch of pieces that haven't been shown in Chicago in a long time and then some classics. There was just so much work that the Siskel was happy to let us organize two screenings.

You describe the work as game-based. What are some of these games?

Often people are playing at something in the movie, but there's an ambiguity to what they're playing, which opens it up to the viewer to play. You're on the same level as the people trying to play in the movie. They're guessing games.

The most recent work in these programs is from 1998. I wasn't able to preview anything made more recently than the early 70s.

Yeah, there aren't DVD copies of any of that stuff...

How did his work evolve after Bleu Shut?

He started teaching more regularly. He taught a bit in San Francisco, but then he got the full-time gig at [University of Wisconsin] Milwaukee, which affected his work a lot. You start to see more found footage—or what might be considered "shared footage." Like Hauling Toto Big (1997)—which is a long, sprawling, super-weird, dreamy piece that's playing in the Saturday program—has stuff that he shot with students in his classes. It's made out of pieces he found in his life at that time.

When you're teaching, you see a lot more and you're meeting more people. It's like you're getting these little collaborators every day. And that starts to show [in Nelson's work]. The work gets more disjointed and mixed up—but that also reflects his interest in dreaming and Zen. It becomes more "experimental," in the traditional sense, whereas the earlier stuff has more one-liners and puns.

From Hauling Toto Big
  • From Hauling Toto Big

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