The world Maclaine made

Pub date March 29, 2011
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm Features

FILM For a biographical abstract of Christopher Maclaine, try the famous first lines of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. For greater precision, observe poet David Meltzer’s letter to film historian P. Adams Sitney (reproduced in Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000): “Poet, filmmaker, stand-up comic, bagpiper, chaser of mysteries.” Meltzer’s letter continues, “In the mid-’60s sacrificed his nervous system to methedrine.” Stan Brakhage wrote of Maclaine, “He courted madness and he finally got it.” Before he did, he completed four films, the first of which — his preemptive magnum opus, The End (1953) — flattened a very young Brakhage at its infamous Art in Cinema premiere. Sixty-seven years after the museum crowd balked at Maclaine’s celluloid testament, the film is back at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

We still haven’t found the categories that will contain Maclaine’s non-sync film of revelations: a found-footage narrative composed of original materials; a lettrist pulp fiction; a proto-punk murder ballad radioed to the void; a hipster “duck and cover” drill with time enough for Beethoven and Bartok. Like Sunset Blvd. (1950), The End is narrated from beyond the grave — only this voice (Maclaine’s) speaks behind nuclear holocaust rather than mere murder. First thing, we see the mushroom cloud (annihilation was in the air: America had recently tested the hydrogen bomb in the Pacific). Maclaine insinuates us over extended black leader: “Soon we shall meet the cast. Observe them well. See if they are not yourselves. And if you find none of them to be so, then insert yourself into this revue.” The cast, he explains, were his friends: “They all have stories. We shall be able to learn a little about each of them before our time runs out.”

The following 30 minutes snakes through six sections and four clearly identified characters. Though the cast is unwitting of the coming apocalypse, they are not innocent of its destructive energies. Before the blast, two die by their own hand and one on the wrong side of a stranger’s gun. The fourth, an innocent poet in a cruel world (played by Wilder Bentley II, who will be in attendance for the Thurs., March 31 screening), seeks redemption as a leper. They are all on the run from America — each “couldn’t face the 20th century.” Maclaine’s montage scatters images from the different mini-narratives and pulls together a mash of insert motifs that function as another layer of poetic commentary — a lyrical compliment to the voice-over’s epic address.

The cubist construction of these episodes is such that you would know a bomb had gone off even if you hadn’t seen the mushroom cloud. Scholar J.J. Murphy helpfully suggests Charlie Parker’s phrasing as a possible influence on Maclaine’s frenzied cutting, though the North Beach Scotsman also seems to anticipate the rhythms of Blank Generations to come. There are many jolting connections throughout The End, some delightfully unforeseen (the Powell Street trolley turnaround next to a gun barrel’s spin) and others simply damning (dramatization of a suicide’s collapse intertwined with documentary footage of a homeless man flat on the street). The montage reaches its zenith in the film’s closing moments, when a tumble of images registering sexual release and last-gasp poignancy are set to “Ode to Joy” as final shards of the known world.

It’s hard to fathom The End‘s originality now that so many of its techniques have become familiar avant-garde strategies. At the time, most experimental films strove for self-conscious lyricism, drawing on abstraction, silence, and psychosexual expressionism to articulate a space outside society. Maclaine dramatizes the break, never more explicitly than when he directly addresses the audience (“The person next to you is a leper!”) With its strong conviction that death itself has changed, The End is often discussed as an expression of atomic-age nihilism. Even more radical is the way Maclaine channels what was then still a new mode of address: the live television feed, which Sen. Joe McCarthy was just then exploiting in his Voice of America hearings. A decade before Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Maclaine intuits the connections between medium and message — the mushroom cloud and television being two sides of the same terrifying totality.

Maclaine made only three short films after The End, all of which will be shown Thursday night: The Man Who Invented Gold (1957), Beat (1958), and Scotch Hop (1959). None of these match The End‘s x-ray vision, although The Man Who Invented Gold and Beat both unfold the same vivid imagination of the San Francisco terrain. Scotch Hop is something different and, on first viewing, my favorite of the later works: the Scotsman’s equivalent of Olympia (1938), with low angles and slow motion placing bagpipers, log-throwers, and fiercely proud dancers on a heroic plain. Brakhage claims it a masterpiece in his poignant remembrance of Maclaine in his book Film at Wit’s End, but there’s little doubt that The End had the more profound impact on his own filmmaking — specifically in the way it demonstrated the liberating effects of a film grammar built of “mistakes.”

Meanwhile, the search for Maclaine continues in a serial analysis of The End on SFMOMA’s Open Space blog by filmmaker and projectionist Brecht Andersch in collaboration with Hell on Frisco Bay blogger Brian Darr. As of this writing, “The The End Tour” has reached its 15th installment. All together, it constitutes a supremely dedicated work of media archaeology, and one of the liveliest works of film criticism I’ve encountered in some time. Andersch and Darr’s spirited dissection of the film’s psychogeographic dynamics has illuminated the film’s subliminal operations as well as its creative mapping of the local landscape. Most remarkable is their discovery that a prominent patch of graffiti (“PRAY”) that appears in the film is still tattooed on a China Beach wall — as if Maclaine’s imagined nuclear blast fixed it there for all time.


Thurs/31, 7 p.m., $10

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000