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When films were modern art

By Jerome Tarshis

By way of calling public attention to its 75th anniversary this year, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is making a major advertising push all over town. The lion’s share of advertising mentions “The Anniversary Show,” a survey of seven and a half decades of painting, sculpture, and photography in the museum’s permanent collection. Almost lost in the hoopla is the museum’s recognition of its on-again, off-again commitment to having a film program, which included an early experimental filmmaker from the neighborhood.

At present the museum does show films; at many times in the past, film showings have been in abeyance; but for one brief shining moment, which actually lasted for the decade from 1946 to 1954, the San Francisco Museum of Art — as it then called itself — played an internationally recognized part in bringing mass-market films and experimental films under a single umbrella, encouraging both critics and ordinary museum-goers to perceive them as modern art.

Titled “Art in Cinema,” the series of screenings was organized almost single-handedly by Frank Stauffacher, whose early death, in 1955, brought it to an end. Part of his vision was to foster the growth of a filmmaking community in San Francisco. That aspect of his contribution will be recognized in the form of a film showing, on February 25 at 7 p.m., titled “The Bay Area Arrives.”

Its program includes two short films by Stauffacher himself — a side effect of his curatorship was that he began to do it himself — and, among others, “Mother’s Day” (1948), a 23-minute film by James Broughton, who lived in a flat on Baker Street at the beginning of a 40-year filmmaking career.

James Broughton: accidental filmmaker

Broughton, recognized at an early age as a poet and playwright, had not planned to become a filmmaker. At a Stanford campus performance of one of his plays he met Sidney Peterson, a painter, sculptor, and writer, and the two undertook to write a play together. When that collaboration bogged down, they took a break by fooling around with movies: Peterson could borrow a camera, war surplus film was cheap, and they had an Eastman Kodak how-to-do-it book.

Stauffacher heard about their efforts and, with “Art in Cinema” already in mind, encouraged them to stop fooling around and make something he could exhibit. The resulting film, “The Potted Psalm” (1946), became what he and others could refer to as “the first surrealist film made in San Francisco.” It was meant to be an object of local pride, and it was.

The two men remained friends, but as filmmakers they went separate ways. Their visions were radically different: Peterson loved trick photography and saw the cinematographer as being much like the modern painter, distorting faces and bodies in the interest of expressiveness. Broughton, by contrast, had loved the circuses and vaudeville performances he remembered from childhood. He wanted to make films in which beautiful people did attractive things. The photography itself was to be straightforward; the action in the rectangle was to be everything.

“Mother’s Day” became a Victorian picture album come to life. Although it made astringent points about family life — the first of six sections began with the title “Mother was the loveliest woman in the world. And Mother wanted everything to be lovely” — it was above all a seductive romp. “Mother’s Day” is a charmer, in many ways an extension of Broughton’s own charm, but it is also one of the finest experimental films ever produced in America.

A fount of creativity on Baker Street

In 1947, around the time James Broughton began to film “Mother’s Day,” he moved from Sausalito to an upstairs flat at 1724 Baker Street, between Pine and California. Pacific Heights was already an elite residential neighborhood, but bargains could be had: The rent was $23 a month.

Soon after moving in, he invited Pauline Kael, a nonstop talker about movies though not yet a published writer, to join him. Theirs was a tempestuous romance, producing much talk and her only child, a daughter she named Gina James. She would later become a legendary film critic at The New Yorker.

Broughton later recalled: “She never felt at ease with experimental cinema. She deplored little theater, little magazines, little films. She valued the big time, the big number, the big screen.” Ironically, it was Kael who introduced him to her successor as flatmate and lover, Kermit Sheets, a long-time theater director with one of San Francisco’s most distinguished companies, the Interplayers.

James Broughton: poet, playwright, publisher, filmmaker

Sheets had spent the war in the conscientious objectors’ camp at Waldport, Oregon, where he had learned hand printing. At his suggestion, he and Broughton started a publishing house to bring out limited-edition books by their poet friends.

They bought a used press and a single font of type, centaur, which gave its name to their enterprise. The press occupied a room in the basement of the house, and extra technical advice was provided by Adrian Wilson, another Waldport alumnus and later one of America’s leading fine printers, who lived in the flat above the press room.

The first production of Centaur Press was “The Playground,” a play by Broughton, followed by books of poetry by Robert Duncan, Madeline Gleason, and Muriel Rukeyser. Centaur was an immediate social if not financial success: Broughton reports that the publication party for “The Playground” was so crowded that Merce Cunningham and John Cage never quite got into the apartment.

Writing, filmmaking, book publishing and theater work continued on Baker Street until America’s cold-war paranoia became too much for Broughton and Sheets. The FBI came around repeatedly to ask about one or another poet, and several of their friends left the country. In August 1951 the poet Robert Duncan and his companion, the artist Jess, took over the flat on Baker Street, and Broughton and Sheets sailed for England.

BELOW: “Loony Tom: the Happy Lover,” one of James Broughton’s early films, featuring Kermit Sheets and the Interplayers.