THE MASK OF THE MYSTIC or magus, a guise once prevalent in the American avant-garde cinema, is now worn by only three remaining filmmakers, all of whom happen to live and work in California: Jordan Belson (b. 1926), Kenneth Anger (b. 1927), and Lawrence Jordan (b. 1934). Jordan, for his part, has been making films with impressive consistency for nearly fifty-six years. During this time he has produced a massive body of work that encompasses several overlapping genres and includes many of the greatest films ever made by means of cutout collage animation, a range of lyric films that capture the spirit of his life and the lives of other California artists in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and films directly inspired by and incorporating poetry. At seventy-four, he has just completed his longest film by far, Circus Savage (1961/2007–2009), a twelve-hour “visual autobiography.”
Over his long career Jordan has essayed a number of strategies by which an avant-garde filmmaker might survive via his work. With Stan Brakhage he made a naive attempt to travel around America and earn a living by showing their first works from town to town. After an initial screening, to which not one person came, they gave up. But Jordan was undaunted: He founded two important showcases in San Francisco and was among the original organizers of the Canyon Cinema Cooperative, which still distributes avant-garde films after nearly fifty years in operation. He drew up a plan to interest galleries in selling original 16-mm prints to collectors, and he was one of the first avant-garde filmmakers to explore video sales. After selling VHS tapes of Jordan’s films for many years, Facets Multimedia has recently released a four-disc Lawrence Jordan Album. Its twenty-five films represent little more than half the titles in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. If Belson and Anger had established their reputations with startling rapidity by the time Jordan even began making films in 1952, Jordan has since become by far the most prolific of the three. By contrast, Belson has made some thirty short films since 1947 and Anger sixteen.¹
Yet unlike Belson and Anger, Jordan came to his mature styles slowly. His earliest filmsThe Child’s Hand and Morningame (both 1953–54), for exampleshow the influence of Brakhage, with whom he attended Denver’s South High School in the late ’40s, and aspects of their careers continued to overlap and coincide until Brakhage’s death in 2003. At the start, apparently, Jordan followed Brakhage’s lead. Later, Brakhage returned the compliment, lending his unique inflection to techniques and strategies Jordan pioneered. Brakhage spent one disastrous semester at Dartmouth and dropped out the year before Jordan went to Harvard, which he too quit, after a year. Together with friends from high school, they put on plays in Central City, Colorado, and then explored life among the poets and filmmakers of San Francisco and New York, until Jordan settled by himself in the Bay Area in 1955. In fact, Brakhage acted in two of Jordan’s earliest worksThe One Romantic Venture of Edward (1952–56/1964) and Trumpit (1954–56)and Jordan showed up in Brakhage’s psychodramas from the same period: Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection (1953) and Desistfilm (1954). Marriage and family life, however, soon distanced them. Brakhage settled in Colorado and eventually moved to Canada, where he died. Jordan remained in the Bay Area, except for a few long voyages as a merchant marine in the late ’50s, a brief stay in Mexico, and a summer spent assisting Joseph Cornell in Queens, New York, in 1965.
From very early on we can see interwoven traces of the three fundamental temporal articulations of Jordan’s art: a foregrounding of cinematic time in the rhythms of montage and camera movement, an evocation of timelessness, and an obsession with transfiguration. Even before Jordan abandoned Brakhage’s initial fusion of neorealism with the oneiric mode of Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger to forge a more contemplative style, the poet Robert Duncan saw something in the young filmmaker that was not yet evident to most viewers of his work, and he enlisted Jordan to read the role of the magician Faust in the 1955 performance of his masque Faust Foutu at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Around that time, Duncan’s partner, the painter and collagist Jess, introduced Jordan to Max Ernst’s collage novels La Femme 100 têtes (1929) and Une Semaine de bonté (1934), which eventually became decisive influences on his animated films. Jess, Duncan, and the company the young filmmaker kept in San Francisco nurtured his work and abetted his nascent interest in mysticism. During those transitional years, Jordan taught Bruce Conner to edit film, and together they founded the Camera Obscura film society (in 1957), which grew into the Movie, a theater devoted to showing experimental work (in 1958). He assisted the veteran filmmaker Christopher Maclaine with cinematography on The Man Who Invented Gold (ca. 1957) and helped collage artist Wallace Berman make his only film, Aleph (1956–66). Taking one of his own first films, a subjective play of the filmmaker’s hand gestures (he held the camera with his other hand), Jordan recorded a poem by Philip Lamantia on the sound track, transforming the hitherto silent work into Man Is in Pain (1954). He shot Visions of a City (1957, reedited 1979²), an eight-minute film composed of images of his close friend the poet Michael McClure reflected in windows and off distorting metallic surfaces as he wandered around San Francisco. McClure and his wife, Joanna, along with the poet Kenneth Rexroth and his daughter Mary, were the models in the play of light and shadow that constitutes Spectre Mystagogic (1957). Later, Lamantia and McClure would appear with Berman and graphic artist John Reed in Jordan’s visual hymn in quest of peyote, Triptych in Four Parts (1959), which the filmmaker called “a spiritual drug odyssey seeking religious epiphany” (as quoted in the Canyon Cinema catalogue). Aspects of Duncan’s theosophy, Berman’s Kabbalah, Reed’s mystical Christianity, and Lamantia’s fusion of surrealism and Catholicism can be seen in Jordan’s later films, although he never elected a sectarian religious discipline for himself.