Practiced distance

The elements of Paul Clipson's streaming cinema -- showing at SFMOMA

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A collage of images from Paul Clipson's 2008 Sphinx on the Seine, an eight-minute fantastic voyage

arts@sfbg.com

FILM The first time I met Paul Clipson, we quickly discovered that we shared an intense regard for Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952). I had just seen material that would become Clipson's short film Union at a San Francisco Cinematheque screening a few days prior and found that its psychically charged shift from rural to urban spaces reminded me of the Ray movie (specifically, a single dissolve as Robert Ryan's character drives back into the city). Union belongs to a different species of cinema, of course. It's shot on Super 8 and 16mm, wordless, with a narrative situation (a girl running) refracted as pure kinesis. As became apparent talking with Clipson, however, his deep knowledge of film history is attuned to texture rather than taxonomy. The second time I watched Union, I realized that On Dangerous Ground was just a convenient name for the deeper, more elusive sense of recognition it stirred in me.

Since that first meeting, I have seen Clipson project films on a billowing screen under the stars; in the squat confines of the Café Du Nord for the On Land music festival, where his work expanded several performances; and on the sides of a dome structure atop Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There have been more traditional screenings as well, though Clipson's eclectic live projections are drawing attention — he's fresh back from a brief European tour and will be featured in New York's Views from the Avant-Garde this weekend. Before then, he'll present a ranging survey of his recent efforts at SFMOMA, where he works as head projectionist.

The shifting context of live collaborations and crystallized short subjects is crucial to understanding Clipson's work, and so "The Elements" will feature both: a suite of finished films sandwiched between projections with frequent collaborator Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and an ensemble, Portraits. An open frame of performance is a crucial catalyst for the searching lyricism of Clipson's cinematography. He shoots frequently, building long reels to run with the music. Clipson refers to these unrehearsed dives as his research.

The camera style is at once impressionistic in its technique and boldly graphic in its compositions, haunted by familiar visual forms that, loosed from conventional perspective, are revealed to carry unexpected resonances and rhythms. What do we see? A million suns, made multiple by the surface of water and the curve of the camera lens; neon signs; flitting vertical obstructions; telephone wires; vegetation; intimate, handheld disclosures of vast distances; architectural surfaces. As with Joris Ivens' early shorts, Clipson's films register the city in its minor variations. Within the frame, a storm of vision emerges of superimpositions, dissolves, rack focus, zooms, and the interlacing of color and black-and-white stocks. It often seems that the objects he films are bringing the camera into focus and not the other way around.

When I ask about this, Clipson says, "I've found that the pulpy intensity of the Super 8 film decides the subject matter in a way. It's like the film is in your brain telling you to shoot this or that — you can just imagine the luster." The intuitive nature of his in-camera montage meshes well with the aural landscapes of the live performances; a floating minimalism prevails. As a former member of Tarantel and co-steward of the Root Strata label, Cantu-Ledesme has been Clipson's primary point of entry to this musical world. Speaking over the phone, he notes their easy camaraderie: "Once Paul is in the moment of filming, he's just really responding to what is happening on the other side of the lens ... and at least when I'm playing by myself, I try to have that same attitude."

In concert, the physical waves of sound and Clipson's disembodied images are rich soil for a trance.

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