Jordan Belson (1926-2011)

On September 6, 2011, two master filmmakers of the San Francisco avant garde cinema died, George Kuchar age 69 and Jordan Belson age 85.
Both were personal mentors of mine back to the 1960s. I saw “Eclipse of the Sun Virgins” by George and his brother Mike at Doc Films, the art cinema showcase of the University of Chicago in 1969 and liked its weird transgressive excess, a style explained to me later in film school by P. Adam Sitney as a genre of “Ironic Spectacle”. The Kuchar Brothers and my teenage mentors The Gelander Brothers brought me into Super 8mm filmmaking in the late Sixties. We made a Freudian comic book ironic spectacle of our own called “Butterflyman vs. the Megazoid” with the 15 year old yours truly as the insect hero regressing in monochromatic return to the cocoon pupa state after a patricidal superhero combat six years ahead of George Lucas and two thousand behind Sophocles.

Around this time in say 1970 filmmaking friends and I founded a high school cinema club and brought to our Midwestern milieu The Kinetic Arts Film Festival out of California. In the reels of short film offerings that nearly got me expelled by pious school administrators were Jean Cocteau’s “Egypte, O Egypte”, Terry Riley’s “Music With Balls” and Jordan Belson’s new film “Samadhi”. (And A French New Wave spoof called “Sweet Wounded Bird” with a topless blonde required sober adult monitoring lest a bacchanal broke out in the High School Library where we screened it.)

Well, I was quite taken with Belson’s film, a cosmic mandala printed on celluloid triacetate 16 millimeters wide. Within a year Gene Youngblood wrote about Jordan Belson in his book “Expanded Cinema”, connecting Belson to the “2001: A Space Odyssey” intergalactic gateway as a birth canal to cinema of cosmic consciousness. I so enjoyed even the rump end of the Sixties as the acne healed.

You will understand then the magnetic pull of the San Francisco experimental cinema of the 1940s-1990s that lured this prairie dog out of his Flatland burrow.

With great delight I met Jordan Belson at my first job in the San Francisco post production industry at W.A. Palmer Films in the middle 1970s. I was a laboratory film timer apprentice and Belson was the singular filmmaker customer who “timed” his own films. Belson brought in multiple rolls (alphabetically ordered from A to D in his case) of 16mm film he had assembled, along with the index cards that marked the footage count and the intended printer light he had assigned himself after my lab colleagues had instructed him to do. It was my task to examine his A-D rolls in a gang synchronizer over a light table, inspect his application of the silver foil tab between the film sprocket holes that would trigger an advance of the computer punch tape I would make that governed the Bell and Howell Model C printing machine that spun color and light into a Kodak Ektachrome emulsion numbered 7390. I was entrusted with assuring the artist’s printing program would work and that the multiple rolls would fade in and out overlapping each other in mechanical rhythms of 16, 24, 32, 48, and 96 frame length dissolves, photochemical musical scoring to me.

When the film was printed and processed I then inspected the results, the first eyes on the artist’s work. In my twenties it was an incalculable thrill.

Belson continued to operate from his Montgomery Street hermitage on Telegraph Hill to generate optical wonders on film, most popularly demonstrated in the Phil Kaufman film “The Right Stuff” when Chuck Yeager escapes the earth’s atmosphere and briefly glimpses the Van Allen Belts on the modern wings of Daedulus, as imagined by Belson.

I moved on from W.A.Palmer Films, out of the lab and into the telecine world where I met Jordan Belson again twenty years laster as the trained painter turned cinema artist was warily looking at video as the repository of his life’s work. He was recalcitrant and suspicious of the video medium.
A patient sherpa had guided him into Western Images where I was flogging our new Sony High Definition Telecine. Jordan could not get past the experience of the film he made illuminated by television phosphor light instead of by projected film. I did not make the sale and I respected him for it.

When he died, I posted a You Tube link to his last film on my Facebook page. When I later read that he had expressly forbidden this form of exhibition I was ashamed of myself.

Therefore, I note and promote the memorial event at Pacific Film Archive October 19 at 730PM when Jordan’s films will be projected in the best light as he would have wanted.

For further reading about Jordan Belson, I refer you to the good scholarship of:

Gene Youngblood “The Expanded Cinema”
Scott MacDonald “Art in Cinema”
Scott MacDonald “Canyon Cinema”
Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid “Radical Light”
Pauline Kael “For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies”

And for the curated film transfers Jordan finally approved of or submitted to:

Center for Visual Music “Jordan Belson: 5 Essential Films”
NTSC standard definition

Also, an excellent article about Jordan’s graphic artwork:
The Unseen Art of Jordan Belson by Ying Tan

3 thoughts on “Jordan Belson (1926-2011)

  1. I saw the Pacific Film Archive show tonight, attended by Belson’s peers all the way back to his 1957 Planetarium collaborator Henry Jacobs and his 1960s film distributor. The program was introduced by archivist Cindy Keeler who asserted in no uncertain terms that “digital” was not the medium of preservation that photo-chemical film is. “In a hundred years we will still have Jordan’s film on film. What digital medium is going to be around then?” What admirable pluck!
    Also attending was his camera assistant on “The Right Stuff” who honored Jordan’s request to never reveal his magician’s secrets. Honor lives among real craftsmen.

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