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April 23 & May 6, 2017

Bleu Shut: Films by Robert Nelson

“The artists I knew at that time felt pretty genuinely that if the process got too heavy or ponderous or worried, if you weren’t having a good time at least part of the time, something was wrong. We were bent on having a good time.” – Robert Nelson

Known for his off beat humor and prankster experimentalism, the films of San Francisco native Robert Nelson (1930 - 2012) are among the defining markers of the American experimental film scene of the 1960s and 70s. Nelson’s free-spirited approach and sharp wit powered collaborations with Mike Henderson, William T. Wiley and Steve Reich, among many others. The raucous eccentricity of his early films communicates something of the 60s spirit that he shared with Beat-influenced Bay Area artist friends . As Bruce Weber wrote in the New York Times obituary, Nelson "brought spontaneity, teasing, and wit to the often deadly serious arena of avant-garde moviemaking."

Born in 1930 to a family of Swedish immigrants, Robert Nelson studied painting until changing his focus to concentrate on filmmaking in the early 1960s. Strong influences included the Bay Area bohemian Beat scene and the improvisatory theatre of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, with which he would ultimately collaborate on several films. His marriage to experimental filmmaker Gunvor Nelson also helped jumpstart his early filmmaking impulse and instigated many films.

Nelson worked at various jobs throughout his life, including taxi driving and underwater welding, and eventually teaching film at various institutions, including the San Francisco Art Institute and University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. An active participant in the Bay Area arts movement, Nelson was involved in co founding the independent distribution company Canyon Cinema in 1966. His influence on filmmaking, art and culture was far- reaching—inspiring filmmakers such as Peter Hutton, Fred Worden and Curt McDowell. Robert Nelson’s unique spirit has been missed since his passing in 2012, and the HFA is proud to highlight his work alongside that of his friend and collaborator, Mike Henderson. – Jeremy Rossen

Special Thanks: Mark Toscano—the Academy Film Archive; Mark McElhatten.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Introduction by Mike Henderson
Sunday April 23 at 7pm

“I'm definitely not interested in passing along intellectual information about California. There's plenty of that everywhere. I'm trying to get at some feeling state.” – Robert Nelson

Suite California is a work of deep feeling, insight, humor and intelligence that finds Nelson working at the height of his formal innovation and, at the same time, at his most personally revealing and emotionally generous. The Suite California films were originally intended as a much longer, multipart travelogue traversing the wide cultural and geographical diversity of all of California. Nelson completed two parts—covering Southern California and the Bay Area—and the results trace the vast and unpredictable area between a rich personal reading of a place and the place itself. Although both works feature Nelson's characteristic brilliant humor throughout, they are also deeply reflective and filled with unexpected, revelatory insight about the subjective experience of his home state, and his own place in it. – Mark Toscano

King David

Directed by Mike Henderson and Robert Nelson
US 1970/2003, 16mm, color, sound, 7.5 min

Print preserved by the Academy Film Archive.

Suite California Stops & Passes
Part 1: Tijuana to Hollywood via Death Valley

Directed by Robert Nelson
US 1978, 16mm, color & b/w, 46 min

Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.

Suite California Stops & Passes
Part 2: San Francisco to the Sierra Nevadas & Back Again

Directed by Robert Nelson
US 1978, 16mm, color & b/w, 47 min

Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.

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Saturday May 6 at 7pm

This shorts program comprises a selection of three of Robert Nelson’s most well-known films from the period of 1965-1970. Nelson’s early short Oh Dem Watermelons features watermelons exploding to a score by tape-loop pioneer Steve Reich, serving to mock racist conventions in American popular culture. Bleu Shut, a film made in collaboration with William Wiley, presents a game show in which a group of off screen contestants tries to guess the name of the boat onscreen, choosing from a list of ridiculous appellations in segments, while noting spectators'—and the director’s—impatience with experimental cinema by including a clock counting down the running time. The Great Blondino is a dreamlike, imagistic film suggesting a narrative about Blondino, a 19th-century tightrope walker. As Mark Toscano notes “The Great Blondino follows an anachronistically attired young fellow as he navigates a beguiling, sometimes troubling world with a curiosity that opens us wide to the filmmaker’s inspired, freeform vision. In many ways, the wonder of Blondino may echo the excitement of invention and exploration that Nelson and Wiley experienced in the making of the film. Utterly exuberant and freed from rote cinematic restriction, it embodies an artistic rigor and direction that also prevents it from ever seeming too unhinged. An incredible feat of tightrope walking."

Oh Dem Watermelons

Directed by Robert Nelson
US 1965, 16mm, color, 11 min

Print preserved by the Academy Film Archive.

Bleu Shut

Directed by Robert Nelson
US 1970, 16mm, color, 30 min

 

The Great Blondino

Directed by Robert Nelson
US 1967, 16mm, color and b/w, 42 min

Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.

 

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700