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. It’s only in the concentrated shorts, however, that one finds the full extension of Clipson’s lyricism. The elliptical Sphinx on the Seine (2008) is still my favorite. Only eight minutes long, its shots seem to trace a voyage. We see the golden gleam of the sun as reflected by criss-crossing railways and snaking waterways, the shadow-world of a sidewalk, a phantasmal vision of Mount Fuji. Each of these lucid views slides away just as it ripens. Clipson’s collation of different cities is formally embedded in his composited images, which here appear as the fragile clues of some unknown existence. Like Sans Soleil (1983) and Mr. Arkadin (1955), two similarly itinerant films, Sphinx on the Seine evokes a tantalizing sense of placelessness.
One afternoon, both of us a little scatterbrained from a long week, Clipson and I get hung up on CinemaScope. He expresses admiration for the anamorphic framings of Ben Rivers’ I Know Where I’m Going (2009), and then draws a zigzag of appreciation between George Cukor’s 1954 A Star is Born ("The first 20 minutes"), Vincent Minnelli’s 1958 Some Came Running ("When you see it in the theater, it’s so much darker than on a television. You see shadows under people’s eyes"), and Otto Preminger’s general mastery of the form ("To me, those aren’t even compositions; they’re movements of thought"). It strikes me again and again that Clipson’s acute observations regarding film aesthetics are very much part of his creative force yet his filmmaking doesn’t feel overcooked. Ben Rivers’ films work in a similar way: betraying a cinephile’s intimate knowledge of the medium, but out in the world all the same.
"Sometimes a few seconds of a film can live with you your whole life," Clipson tells me later that same afternoon, locating one such epiphany in the opening of Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948): "There are all these dissolves going through the witches’ cauldron. You see a smoke circle, a storm cloud, what maybe is the surface of clouds from above, the cauldron and hands … I could just make films entirely inspired by that for 10 years because it’s so intangible, with such a beautiful, dense logic of images that resists immediate understanding." Indeed, it sounds like a Paul Clipson film.
"PAUL CLIPSON PRESENTS THE ELEMENTS"
Thurs/30, 7 p.m., $5
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF