|A Reminiscence of BF/VF
Or "What We Did Before the Internet"
By Clyde Tressler
My arrival at BF/VF in 1987 coincided with a regime change, which was only the latest installment in a series of bloodless coups.
Such events were always partially concealed beneath a veneer of gossipy speculation and months and years would be needed to piece together exactly what underlying shift had really occurred in the organizational power structure. In the face of such complexity, I saw clearly that I was a late-comer to a scene.
In time I would learn the salient history through repeated exposure to a kind of group storytelling tradition practiced among the regulars.
Jointly executed in gatherings of four and five persons, this represented the best possible agreement of variously fuzzy points of view, all condensed into amusing and sometimes infuriating anecdotes.
What remains of my first impressions seem to have been shaped by the mildly dilapidated building that BF/VF occupied at 1126 Boyslton Street.
It was a drab, five-story walk-up. The staircase served as an occasional shooting gallery for neighborhood smack addicts. Landlord and real-estate mogul Harold Brown, known widely for his callousness, had just inexplicably extended BF/VF's lease, thereby forestalling its demise. Once again BF/VF had cheated death. Who ever imagined it would prove to be mortal? Everyone figured it just would keep bobbing to the surface forever.
Plunge into BF/VF: it's like entering a coal mine- dark, dirty, foreboding. The main shaft supports loitering by the uninvited, who come to examine the large cork-board wall, where notices for crew positions can be found, posted among festival call-for-entry forms. It's a supreme testament to pre-internet communication.
In those days, a 'bulletin board' was something that occupied a physical wall, and acreage was the key factor in its success. The bulletin board at BF/VF worked well and was possibly one of its greatest achievements. Like every great BF/VF achievement, eventually an incoming administrator deemed it unworthy of such a prestigious institution, and ordered it dismantled. But so key was its proper function to the vitality and usefulness of BF/VF as a whole, that protests erupted from all corners, leading quickly to its revival.
Off the main shaft of our coal mine is a series of rooms. The rooms are like small theaters, each supporting its own self-contained drama played in continuous-loop. In one room you would find Paul Desaulniers endlessly updating the mailing list on a nicotine-stained Mac SE II computer.
In the next would be Elliott Kaplan, who concealed a robust hot-headed streak with a privacy hedge of cute interns, and got the sunniest, largest office because his education program produced income. He was a natty dresser, God rest his soul.
Keep going down the hall. You'll notice a strong smell emanating from the men's room. It's the 19th century urinals which haven't been cleaned since the 19th century. Mostly, the fly hatchlings that emerge in mysterious waves from the noxious air inside manage to escape the dangling fly-catching tape, which hangs in a long curl from the light fixture. They circle outside the door in a proprietary fashion, like buzzards in fast-forward speed.
If you were looking for a place to have a smoke, you quickly learned you had better do it on the fire escape. With its bonus view into the windows of the adjoining youth hostel, the fire escape was a pleasant destination for all but the coldest months of the year.
Onward to the equipment room. Despite its affable chief, Dion, the equipment room was a sad mourning ground of tax write-off cast-asides and distorted dreams. Almost everything in it was broken, and whatever wasn't broken had been stolen. If it wasn't broken and it hadn't been stolen, it was out on an extended rental. The person renting it was either:
a: someone who had no intention of paying, or
b: someone who the organization had no intention of charging.
For, despite its mission of putting equipment into the hands of artists, a great deal of effort was spent on keeping equipment out of the hands of artists, the prevailing theory being that artists were the ones who should have to pay to use the gear. The big, poorly-kept secret you learned quickly enough after you got there, or maybe before you got there, was that the only 'deal' in town for equipment access was to be found at the local community access cable stations, where you could use stuff for free(!)
No portrait of the equipment room would be complete without mention of its crown jewels: an Aaton 16mm camera with a couple of Angenieux prime lenses. Such high regard there was for this package that, when fungus was discovered growing on the glass, a rescue committee was quickly convened to attend to its convalescence. I don't think they ever concluded their deliberations, and when I put forth my theory that the fungus had something to do with Little Stevie's Pizza, culpably located in the space just below the equipment room at street level, I was widely ignored. To this day I am certain there must have been a vast expanse of fungus in Little Stevie's and I maintain this merits investigation.
A new wave of technological progress has, in the intervening years, swept away much of the essential need for that type of equipment access, and youthful readers may not fully understand how it ever could have been that you, the impoverished alternative lifestyle individual, were scarcely able to afford to make your own films, and their realization was always one more grant application away.
None of this shoot-mini-DV-cut-on-my-laptop thing existed.
This is not to say that it was a pre-digital era. In fact, we maintained a powerful array of digital devices at the ready, items like one-line TBCs and suitcase-sized frame buffers. Why, we could even flip or shrink things with a single button! This was the dawn of the era of digital video, the full significance of which we perhaps could not perceive because it was also the heyday of the era of analog video.
Let me take you back to those days of pre-numerical indiscrete continuously-variable voltages, when our chief technical preoccupation was with generational loss. Some may recall from history lessons that the signal quality of an analog copy is never as good as the original. This was a maddening, unavoidable first-principle of editing. But even then the dim awareness that this would all change was in the air.
We knew that a digital copy would be a perfectly indistinguishable replica of the original, except for the fact it would bear the label 'clone', a word that still retained a futuristic science-fiction connotation. The revolution that this would precipitate, however was by no means clear. We were stuck with U-matic, a crappy tape format that lived 25 years too long. Oh sure, your pictures looked okay coming off the camera original, but try cutting it! There was no cure for the sinking feeling that ensued when you played back your edit master.
At BF/VF you could have the privilege of editing U-matic deck-to-deck for $30 an hour. If you were a volunteer or a BF/VF member you were entitled to a discount. Now you were down to $25 an hour. That's for a cuts-only room. No switcher, no A/B roll, no dissolves. You want dissolves? You're looking at $65 an hourmaybe it was $55 an hour for members, but an hour of editing time back then was equivalent to what can be accomplished in a second today. There was so much more to do than just figure out what shot to use and where to mark your in-point.
First, you had to master the obtuse Mini-Commander controller, then plumb the mysteries of control-track, and finally, solve for glitches in the vertical interval. The problems could be, on any given day, endless, and always required a Zen-like composure to surmount. Plus, there was a very high probability that any single piece of equipment or accessory you picked up would be broken.
Let's say you wanted to find a cable to connect two pieces of equipment. First, you searched until you found a cable. Then you connected it. Then: nothing. Is it the cable or the monitor or the deck? The only way to be sure was to find two known-working pieces of equipment with a demonstrably functioning cable connecting them, and then to dismantle it all and substitute whatever you could into your own set-up.
Back then, when Quicktime was a breathtaking 3 frame-per-second postage stamp sized presentation, the most fortunate among us were editing with one-inch tape, a format of mythically redeeming properties, reputed to sustain 7 generations of copying. It was puzzling why more couldn't be done with ¾" tape. These days, of course, the ¼ inch of tape by which one exceeds the other can, by itself, sustain a 100 mbit HD signal, at both greater resolution and higher frame rate. [Naturally, since I first penned these remarks, even that reference point is out-of-date.]
On to the BF/VF main office, which, owing to the lack of any appropriate signage, was usually the last place a visitor seeking assistance would stumble upon. It served as a buffer zone between the administrative offices and unwanted callers. To that end, it was furnished with a large metal desk which sat like a squat Humvee, blocking the path of potential intruders.
Against one wall was hung a shoddy makeshift matrix of pigeon-hole mail boxes. I remember the great satisfaction that came from seeing my name emblazoned in black label-tape on one of those mail slots. As a volunteer, you received a mail-box as a perquisite. It was a pleasant past-time to note who was receiving the most mail and later, it would be the ominously silent removal of my name and those of my friends that would announce the secret purge of our regime.
The job of manning the front desk fell to an all-volunteer army and could be rather ambassadorial, if you weren't a complete misanthrope. A chair in front of the desk encouraged acquaintances to linger and chat when they saw you were on duty. The work consisted mainly of answering the phone, providing general information and, on screening nights, taking tickets and receiving admission payments.
Answering the phone was routine but occasionally interesting. Once, a Chinese-Polynesian restaurant down the street misprinted its take-away menu with the BF/VF phone number on it. They served old-school '50s style food. Bright red spare ribs, lots of gloppy duck sauce, chop suey that sort of thing. So, between 6PM and 9PM there would be incessant phone calls from people wanting to order fried rice and chow mein. You could explain patiently to them that "this is the Boston Film/Video Foundation, we do film and video, not wings and Peking dumplings," but it was useless, they would just call back and try again. In the end, all you could do was to take their order and tell them their food would be ready in ten minutes.
On screening nights a queue would form the length of the hallway and would sometimes lead out the door and down the stairs. If I have dwelt much on the technological aspects of the BF/VF experience, let it be said that, for me, this was the greater portion of the real value of that institution: the community of oddballs who would turn out reliably on any winter's night to see obscure and possibly bad films, in what can only be described as the most uncomfortable and makeshift venue in the history of cinematic presentations.
If you were taking tickets, invariably you would know every other person by name, and it became a sort of receiving line. You'd get to hop in and see the film, although because you were obligated to wait for the stragglers to wander in, you'd have to forgo the opening remarks given by the person who put together the series.
Eventually I graduated to projectionist. This position was widely coveted and well-guarded by those who performed it regularly. Administrative brute-force had to be used to persuade anyone to teach a potential newcomer even the most rudimentary knowledge of how to operate the Fumeo projector, a hulking beast proudly manufactured by the Radiation Corporation. It was a fine piece of hardware, capable of projecting 'double-system,' that is, to synchronize a reel of film that had no optical soundtrack with a separate, magnetic full-coat audio reel, spooling through a separate player. This was a rare occurrence, however, and I can only remember the combination being used to project unfinished films that someone had been relegated to a box in the attic. Lots of projects at BF/VF seemed to end up in a box in the attic. I certainly have my share.
My training on the Fumeo consisted of one 5-minute lesson on how to start it and thread the film. This preparation proved to be sorely inadequate, as I learned on several, painful occasions.
One time I was projecting Godard's 'Alphaville.' I had never seen it, but I was a big Godard booster, so after I got the reels mounted and threaded, I dimmed the lights and watched from my perch in the booth. At some point I became aware that the film was no long winding peacefully onto to the take-up reel but was wantonly curling in a rapidly growing pile at my feet. This was most disheartening. I quickly stopped the projector, which always elicits groans from the audience, and turned up the house lights. I wound the unruly tangles of film back onto the take-up reel, and discovered the culprit: a hot-splice, also known as a glue-splice, which had come apart as it ran through the Fumeo. Later that night, upon close examination, I found that the glue was so old it was like moderately sticky dust. Thus began a series of unfortunate events that plagued my tenure as a projectionist.
The most memorable of these occurred during a series curated by Mark MacElhatten. We were showing Stan Brakhage's 'The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes,' which, in case you haven't seen it, (and you should see it, btw) is a silent film of an autopsy, shot on 8mm film. It's a bit challenging to watch, for some more than others. At the point in the film when the pathologist is excavating the quivering brain from the cranium, I began to hear faint gurgling noises coming from someone in the audience. Anything that disrupts the silence during that film is something you will definitely notice. Moments later came the sound of a body hitting the floor. I switched on the lights and stopped the film. Groans ensued. A young man had passed out, tumbled from his seat, and was now being hustled into the Main Office, there to be revived with a blast of frigid mid-winter Boston air from the opened window. He gradually assumed an ordinary sanguine hue, instead of the pale green-tinged white one, similar to the guy in the movie.
When he regained full use of his faculties he explained to us that he had been raised in a Fundamentalist Christian household and only just left home to attend college in Boston. It was the first time in his 18 years that he had encountered a community with diverse belief systems and the first time he had been away from the shelter of the unquestioning faith that permeated his home. As he watched the gentleman on the table being disassembled in a manner as routine as one might break down gear after a good day of fishing, it occurred to him that there might not be a soul after all. Man, perhaps, could simply be material. Suddenly, his belief system crumpled-in on its empty core and in the next instant he blacked-out. I do not know the epilogue, we all went back and watched the rest of the film. Perhaps the young man eventually regained his confidence in the eternal persistence of the individual being, I can't say, though it was surely a remarkable evening of entertainment for all who attended.
That was the thing about the BF/VF I remember- it exerted a power of attraction that drew in a peculiar swath of the population at-large. Maybe they were all cultural deviants, I don't know. A lot of them seemed to be on a mission, and BF/VF, even in its decrepitude, still symbolized the pre-Indie notion of the independent filmmaker, that of the intrepid practitioner of the art of self-actualization through self-expression. BF/VF served as a focal point for people with a need to say aloud what dwelled inside, and if necessary even to scream it.
One night I was playing around in the paint-box room, Bob Lamm's oasis of exploration that harbored in one lonely room the radical idea that learning should be free. Immersed in the mind-altering effects of my first experience with digital paint software, I hardly noticed when a fellow volunteer appeared at the door. I had often chatted with her during the front-desk shift change and I knew a few key details of her life. She was here, like many BF/VF volunteers, at a turning point in her life, when she would do her best to shake off the residue left over from an involuntary hospitalization for severe depression.
After she got my attention she politely explained,
"I've rented the large screening room for a scream-therapy session. If you hear screaming, don't be alarmed."
Ten minutes later, after a few preternatural warm-up howls, the screaming commenced in earnest: loud blood-curdling screeches that sounded like the devil himself was presiding over the event. After a few minutes, when everyone was taking turns soloing, I tip-toed out into the hallway to go to the men's room. In front of the entry door there was a foam-core placard. Scribbled in large, menacing red, block-letter marker, it read 'Screaming is INTENTIONAL. Do NOT call police. Thank you. scream therapy workshop coordinator.'
That was only one of the many unusual events that transgressed the boundaries of film and video. I'll leave it to others to fill in the details about other, equally memorable evenings, like the John Wayne Gacy exhibition of sad clown paintings, for instance, and the Joe Coleman explosion and fire performance. Of the latter, I've been told that, when the firemen showed up, they were most disconcerted at the sight of a skinned goat hanging upside-down from a sprinkler pipe. Apparently that is some sort of code violation. At any rate, I didn't attend those events.
Over the years I saw films including:
- An emaciated anorexic woman who photographed herself with bones.
- Latex-gloved hands drowning real live white rats in a fish bowl.
- Dejected Lower East Side twenty-somethings shooting-up.
- A duck (quack, quack) utilized in a 'sex-act,' very much against its will.
- A sexually-abused duck being decapitated and having its blood spewed on naked orgiastic revelers.
Don't let me leave you with the wrong idea. It wasn't all depraved. Quite the opposite, it was usually obtuse, but sometimes it was revelatory. I don't think I have had livelier times than those. I learned my craft, I watched the medium being used in ways I didn't think were legal, and I met most of the people that today I consider to be my best friends. OhI also managed to have a career working with film and video, which is why I came to BF/VF in the first place.
Clyde Tressler, New York, 2007.
Clyde Tressler is now with Amalgamated Clyde in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org