The Anarchist’s Lookbook: Revisiting Countercultural Cinema

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“The most exciting things going on in America today are movements to change America. America is becoming ever more the utopia of sterilized, automated contentment. The ‘futures’ and ‘careers’ for which American students now prepare are for the most part intellectual and moral wastelands. This chrome-plated consumers’ paradise would have us grow up to be well-behaved children. But an important minority of men and women coming to the front today have shown that they will die rather than be standardized, replaceable and irrelevant.”Mario Savio, An End to History, 1964

We are a few short months away from the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love.

There are few more potent moments in the mythos of the American Left than the summer of 1967 when the monochrome of conformist western society felt poised to bloom into a progressive bouquet of self-expression and contrarian values that would forever alter the social fabric of the United States.

Yet, here we are–Anno Domini 2017.

Mass media still rules the roost. Civil Rights in the U.S. lumber towards new frontiers of prejudice. America can’t help but sink its teeth into a host of imperial wars sold under the banner of blind patriotism. Free love went the way of the dodo with HIV. San Francisco has grown again into a shrine devoted to easy wealth. Acid casualties have yielded to tweakers and speed freaks. A Presidential election marred by violence and accusations of disinformation went on unchecked as if Chicago ’68 and Watergate were a distant fiction. Flowers in the hair and the transcendent power of cultural exploration and bohemian fashions have become brand tools in the hands of immensely profitable corporate music festivals.

It doesn’t take a cynic to wonder if perhaps we’ve overvalued the worth of the counterculture. What did they ultimately accomplish? This is the “Age of Disruption” after all and the soaring Sixties feel primed to be ejected from the nostalgia canon into the dustbin of antiquity. Or perhaps those decadent days of dissent are just due to be reimagined.

If there ever were an institution up to that challenge, it’s the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive located in the Bay Area where the memory of the Sixties casts a long shadow.

Jimi Hendrix (1968) | photo: Ira Cohen

Naysayers will be put to shame by the museum’s new show, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle For Utopia (February 7-May 21, 2017). Guests are invited to bask in the wonder of work from artists, architects, and designers who translated the era’s sense of radical departure into an aesthetic.

Not to be outdone by the more stationary mediums, film curator Kate MacKay has carefully cobbled together a screening series, Hippie Modernism: Cinema and Counterculture, 1964-1974, to compliment the exhibit. In fifteen unique programs, Mackay employs a diverse collection of shorts, features, documentaries, narrative and experimental films in a mosaic that focuses on the exhibit’s “struggle for utopia” subheading.

According to MacKay, the era is not as simple as we have been led to believe. “Fifty years later, we’re still pulling off filters,” she says, “Mass media portrays hippie movements as idealists. The Black Panthers are treated as criminals, thugs.”

At the core of MacKay’s approach is a focus on “flashpoints” or individual modes of countercultural “thought and innovation” within the larger social fabric of the Sixties. This is not the Forrest Gump approach by which a director attempts to shoehorn the full scope of a decade into a single linear narrative.

The flashpoint concept delivers a tapestry of films that illuminates far-flung aspects of a decentralized social movement. Nearly thirty films run the gamut from the intricately crafted kaleidoscopic psychedelia of Jordan Belson to Black Panther laments in The Murder of Fred Hampton and Stagger Lee to media critiquing documentary style features Medium Cool and Punishment Park to Jodorowsky’s alchemical musings in Holy Mountain to sweeping rock docs Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter and Sympathy For The Devil.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

In a beautifully apropos simpatico with Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 media critique The Medium Is the Massage, MacKay steers her programming doctrine around a central point of reference.

“There was a critical mass of TV and popular culture. They (filmmakers) were thinking about mass media,” she says.

Not unlike fellow Berkeley luminaries Mario Savio and J. Robert Oppenheimer, MacKay’s programming focuses in on a hidden treasure: the myriad ways in which thought or art can be weaponized. In a decade of challenging cinema, countercultural filmmakers laid out a crucial blueprint for using motion pictures to challenge creative hegemony.

MacKay points to Punishment Park director Peter Watkins whose dystopic vision was part and parcel of larger efforts to “fight the abuse of media and monolithic corporate power in the guise of government power, sexism, racism.”

In a decade of challenging cinema, countercultural filmmakers laid out a crucial blueprint for using motion pictures to challenge creative hegemony.

She spotlights the importance of greater access to filmmaking equipment as a tool of empowerment that enabled filmmakers to operate outside big-budget studio pictures. That same decentering impulse facilitated film as a medium of the poetic or the highly political (Joyce Weiland’s jarring and symbolic 1968 short Rat Life and Diet in North America for instance).

Space is the Place (1974)
Space is the Place (1974)

MacKay cues in on film as a site for odd and hypnotic juxtapositions that blend modes of life as much as genres. She refers to the “hybrid, wild, visionary film,” Space is the Place (shot in Oakland, starring Sun Ra, based on lectures he gave at Berkeley) as an iconic yield of consciously countercultural cinema.

She stoutly defends Jordan Belson’s hallucinogenic visuals. Far from mere drug haze backwash, the intricately created optic patterns are commendable in Belson’s technical marriage of filmmaking ability and artistic vision. “They are trying to plug into other possibilities of thought,” MacKay schools.

Chakra (1972), Jordan Belson
Chakra (1972), Jordan Belson

Not to be neglected for subversive, if subtle, power is Gimme Shelter, the 1970 film documenting the Rolling Stones’ fatal alliance with the Hells Angels biker gang at the ill-fated Altamont show. Less than the tragedy or the audience antics, the film’s narrative structure entrances MacKay.

“Something emerged in filmmaking—the way the process becomes a subject of the film,” MacKay delves into the profound, “filmmaking is a subject to be made or deconstructed.”

Stop and ponder that for a second. In an age when homogeneous cultural forms serve the whims of strong top-down hierarchies, film presents an opportunity to resist the colonizing effect of the screen by suggesting alternate structures. This is some mighty nutritious food for thought especially given that contemporary Americans have taken to a peculiar panic mode.

In an age when homogeneous cultural forms serve the whims of strong top-down hierarchies, film presents an opportunity to resist the colonizing effect of the screen by suggesting alternate structures.

We can’t seem to find a precedent for our own confusing times: a once prosperous society is wrought with economic, ethnic, religious and class tensions that fracture the national debate; the world seems to be on the brink of chaos; Rusophobia is in vogue again; every word the media says is suspect; a demagogue has war on his breath and old-timers are coming out of the woodwork to hurl insults at an unavoidable future and turn the past into a deceptive icon.

Where oh where are we to look for fresh ideas to resist the conformity-enforcing crush of totalitarian impulses and anti-evolutionary ideas? Who will deliver us from “the chrome-plated consumers’ paradise?” How will we ever figure out how to use expression as a means to challenge society itself?

No one’s got the answer, but Kate MacKay and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive have a few flicks you may be interested in.

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The Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia exhibit is open February 7 through May 21, 2017

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