The Films of Christopher Maclaine

Rating **** Masterpiece

By Fred Camper

Whether one’s viewing a Hollywood epic or an avant-garde film poem, it’s natural to identify with the images on the screen: give us a human figure or a space we can walk through and we’ll bond with it, imagining that we’re up there with the action. This is one of the filmmaker’s primary tools: the commercial hack exploits it while the avant-gardist undercuts it, disrupting narrative continuity, for example. Most serious films lie somewhere in between, seducing the viewer and then turning away, startling one into thought.

Christopher Maclaine, a beat poet of the 1940s and ’50s living in San Francisco, made only four films in his lifetime; the first and longest two–The End (1953), which is 35 minutes, and the 14-minute The Man Who Invented Gold (1957)–present the profoundest challenge to viewer identification I know of. Avoiding the extreme (though brilliant) conceptual anticinema of such filmmakers as Maurice Lemaitre, Maclaine tells stories based in social reality but in a manner so profoundly fragmented, so unnerving, as to give even viewers who’ve seen the works many times a series of perceptual shocks. Among the greatest films I’ve ever seen, these twin fables of doom and redemption are also unlike any others I know. After perhaps 20 viewings of The End over the past 30 years, I feel as if I’m only beginning to understand its greatness.

Yet Maclaine and his films have received scant recognition. According to the films’ sole distributor, in the past decade The End has been rented twice for Chicago screenings and the other three haven’t been rented for showings at all. Chicago Filmmakers’ screening of Maclaine’s complete works (Friday night only) could include some Chicago premieres. Maclaine isn’t discussed in most standard film histories–no surprise, given their scant treatment of experimental work–but he doesn’t even come up in most histories of avant-garde filmmaking. And of the two books on beat filmmaking that I know, one doesn’t mention him at all and the other gives him less than half a page, mostly quoting the filmmaker Stan Brakhage and styling his name incorrectly, as Brakhage does, as “MacLaine.”

Perhaps it’s the extremely crude look of his films that puts people off. At first glance it doesn’t seem Maclaine has given much thought to the framing, lighting, composition, or camera movement. And his editing–arguably his greatest talent–can seem sloppy, with its jittery rhythms, mismatched cuts, and sudden tangents. An impatient viewer might attribute these films to a careless, naive speed freak–which, sad to say, Maclaine also was.

I know of only four treatments of Maclaine in print that go beyond a few sentences. Jonas Mekas wrote a very short rave review in 1963, Brakhage offered enthusiastic appreciation in his 1989 book Film at Wit’s End, and filmmaker J.J. Murphy has published two articles, one in Film Quarterly (Winter 1979-80) and the other in Film Culture (1983). What little is known about Maclaine’s life is the result of Murphy’s research. Born in Oklahoma in 1923, Maclaine graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1946 and soon founded a small literary magazine; he also published his poetry in other small magazines and in several books he had printed, the last in 1960. Frequently broke and dependent on friends, he cultivated the image of the mad artist; both Brakhage and Murphy compare him to Antonin Artaud. He became a drug casualty when methedrine was introduced into the Bay Area in the late 50s; much stronger than the amphetamines he’d previously taken, it caused permanent brain damage. When Brakhage describes visiting him in the early 60s, Maclaine sounds like the classic speed freak; at about that time he also made at least one suicide attempt. By the mid-60s he no longer recognized his friends, and in 1969, unable to care for himself, he was placed in a state institution, where he died in 1975.

Perhaps it’s meth that accounts for the decline in his films. The wonderful Scotch Hop (1959) is something of a letdown only after seeing his first two staggering, shattering masterpieces. In that film Maclaine intercuts a small band of bagpipers with other scenes, making the cheerleaders in a competition appear to dance to the bagpipes’ rhythms. Scotch Hop is animated by a tension between synchronicity and asynchronicity–the rhythms of the images and the music converge, then diverge. Each image feels as if it were perched on a knife-edge between a world of smooth, lyrical dance and a world about to be torn apart. Beat (1958) is weaker, an odd if sometimes powerful essay on alienation whose lack of emotional focus seems to prove that Maclaine’s films need some sort of center, if only for their fragments to fly away from.

The End certainly has a center: six stories of people on the last day of their lives. Most are about to commit suicide, or some metaphorical equivalent, but the mushroom cloud with which the film begins and ends reminds us that, as Maclaine’s voice intones on the sound track, we await “the grand suicide of the human race”–his conceit is that his characters have reached the end of their personal ropes the day before a nuclear holocaust. Throughout the film he compares the dehumanizing effects of mass culture to the dehumanizing effects of personal despair, weaving these two threads together until the mannequins he films in store windows, the anonymous people he films on the street, and his characters all seem variations on the same half-living, half-dead persona. In this film Maclaine bridges the longtime split between socially or politically engaged film-making and more poetic, self-referential work; The End simply takes as a given that societal and personal sicknesses are inextricably connected. Partly a response to the homogenized, white-bread 50s, the film has plenty of black humor (a murderer recalls his mother telling him again and again, “They’ll hang you yet, Charles”), reminding me of the dark jokes we used to make in elementary school about how hiding under our desks was going to save us from the bomb.

The film’s stories are told in six numbered sections, with Maclaine serving as narrator. Much of the editing is radically disjunctive, subverting the usual mode of narrative filmmaking in which characters inhabit continuous spaces we’re encouraged to enter, a universe disrupted only by the occasional dream sequence or other cutaway. The End constantly pulls the rug out from under us, but the editing is less intended to alienate the viewer than to reinforce the film’s push-pull dynamic. A shot may establish some empathy as the narrator tells us the character’s pathetic story, yet time and again a cut to a seemingly unrelated object breaks whatever connection Maclaine has established. Going beyond mere toying with the viewer, the film at once plays on our human sympathies and shatters the very possibility of such involvement. This formal effect is echoed in the narratives themselves: as we’re constantly reminded, these characters–among whom we’re encouraged to find ourselves–are all about to die.

Maclaine’s first story revolves around Walter, “our little friend,” who mooches off his pals until they dump him; like all the stories in The End, this one seems somewhat autobiographical. Shots of Walter running around San Francisco emphasize its hilly, spatially unsettling topography, a motif throughout the film. Years before Hitchcock took San Francisco’s verticality as a metaphor for inner turmoil in the great Vertigo, Maclaine made even more radical use of the city, tilting his camera to rotate a steep street into a vertical line, then going beyond it until it seems people and cars should topple off.

Still more disruptive is Maclaine’s editing. Film history offers many models of what a cut can do. In a conventional narrative, cuts between shots often represent sequential accretion, the visual equivalent of “this happened, then this happened.” In more poetic films editing can be additive in a different way, piling image on image as if weaving a tapestry–a metaphor made explicit in some of Brakhage’s films. In Eisenstein’s films, editing is often syncretic, fusing two shots into a new entity in the viewer’s mind: in October (1927), he cuts between Kerensky and a statue of Napoleon, fusing them into a single idea of a tyrant who would rule Russia. The editing of Eisenstein’s more radical colleague Dziga Vertov calls attention to the differences between shots, differences he called “intervals,” and what they tell us about each image.

Maclaine offers a style of editing unanticipated by previous filmmakers and rarely pursued since: a kind of “destructive” cutting in which the cut pulls two shots away from each other and pulls the viewer away from both. A cut from the first section, for example, shifts from black and white to color, from far to near, from the geometrical to the organic. In the middle of a black-and-white shot of a tiny silhouetted figure atop a huge mass of steps whose lines fill the frame, Maclaine cuts to a color close-up of pink flowers, then back to a black-and-white shot of the steps. A later cut in the same section juxtaposes two shots with more movement: a color shot shows one of Walter’s friends doing a handstand–seen close, her figure is sensual, but the shot also parodies the idea that Walter’s friends are adults. Maclaine then cuts to a black-and-white shot of Walter running away from us down a narrow street; the buildings that frame the street provide a geometrical contrast to the shot of the woman, a disjunction that underlines the split between Walter and his friends.

Maclaine’s editing constitutes neither accretion nor fusion but a kind of visceral tearing, questioning not only the unity of our culture but the possibility of a unified consciousness, anticipating many postmodern theorists who seem unaware of his work. For Maclaine, each character’s existence is a discontinuous flood of often unrelated thoughts. (Murphy quotes a psychiatrist who knew Maclaine on the effects of speed: “All the ideas come out” in a rush, he said, “like putting tomatoes through a strainer.”) But The End is a powerful, even ecstatic experience not because it’s disjunctive but because it establishes a tension between emotionally engaged and alienated modes of thinking, a tension that pervades the imagery, editing, and sound track. Just as the pink flowers pull us away from the concrete steps, so the first section ends not with Walter’s suicide but with his murder: the narrator tells us that the murderer, “for reasons we know nothing about,…decided to blow the head off the next person he saw.” And just as the pink flowers are compelling in themselves, so Maclaine speculates on the sound track that the murderer must also have a story worth telling.

The viewer is also divided by Maclaine’s often crude, sometimes hilarious, ultimately deeply affecting narration. Sometimes he explains the imagery, increasing our involvement by telling us stories that the images seem to illustrate; but just as often his narration pulls us away from the imagery and makes us aware of our presence in the theater. Some long sections of narration are accompanied only by a black screen; denied any imagery, the viewer is stuck in an uncomfortable self-consciousness made even worse by such lines as “The person next to you is a leper.” In what is perhaps the film’s most ecstatic moment, at the beginning of the fifth section, Maclaine asks us to “write this story” as he shows us an especially disjunctive group of images–the protagonist (Maclaine himself) with a knife, a woman’s feet walking over a street grate, a group of pigeons–accompanied by the “Ode to Joy” section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “Here is a character,” the narrator says. “Here is the most beautiful music on earth. Here are some pictures. What is happening?” In a characteristic shift, Maclaine then tells the story himself, explaining how this protagonist was “a good boy…up to no good.” Later in the section, but still to the strains of Beethoven, Maclaine cuts from a rather grand color image of waves crashing on rocks to a black-and-white shot of tiny dancing puppets, announcing a theme that will become more prominent in The Man Who Invented Gold: that magic can be found not only in grand things but in fleeting perceptions–a theme he also perpetually mocks.

The Man Who Invented Gold, very different from The End, is fully as masterful. It focuses on a modern-day alchemist whose zombielike neighbors think of him as “madman” while he aspires to become “goldman.” Again Maclaine narrates, likening the quest to create gold to a quest for the “world of light”; the editing is as disjunctive as in The End but arguably has a much more optimistic meaning, bringing to the forefront the gnostic longing to escape substance and recover light that underlies parts of The End (a theme of which I was first made aware by filmmaker Brian Frye in an unpublished article).

The filmmaker Jordan Belson, who shot The End, shot part of The Man Who Invented Gold before he tired of Maclaine’s antics and quit. Forced to operate the camera himself, Maclaine could no longer play the alchemist. His “solution”–fully worthy of the maker of The End–was to have not one but two other actors play the lead. Further, while Belson filmed Maclaine in color, Maclaine filmed his actors in black and white, later intercutting color, black-and-white, and black-and-white negative images of the “madman.” He also cut from one actor to the other as if they were the same man, even appearing to match motions across the cuts. Of course all these techniques undercut viewer identification with the alchemist, though they’re entirely appropriate to a film by and about a madman. The narrator’s references to alchemy are accompanied by cuts to abstract images, scratches made directly on the film or colored powders dropped on the floor in what look like abstract expressionist patterns–images that make it clear that destructive cutting can also transform. Maclaine realizes the alchemist’s gnostic goal not in the film’s story–the protagonist ultimately turns only eyeballs into gold–but in the film itself: abstract bursts of color, light streaming in through a window, or the tiny yo-yo a character carries near the end represent the brief moments of visual magic that lift us out of imprisonment in the material world.

This idea is most vivid in the final image of The Man Who Invented Gold. A “poet” who suddenly appears near the end holds up a sign saying “it’s hard to believe,” a phrase the narrator repeats, and then we see a piece of dark clothing hanging on a line, shot from below and perfectly aligned with a rainbow. A rapid camera movement makes the dark form seem to rise along the rainbow, quickly reaching the top of the frame. It’s as if the rainbow were emerging from the garment, as if the cloth–or, more to the point, the movement of Maclaine’s camera–were “writing” the rainbow.

Brakhage, and many other avant-garde filmmakers after Maclaine, have celebrated simple acts of perception that can reframe the world–our potential to transform the mundane into the magical. Maclaine does it here in a shot no one seems to have noticed, a little throwaway image that not only sums up his idea but anticipates a whole era of filmmaking. Even as he discovers this magic, however, he pulls away from it: this miraculous shot is undercut by the “hard to believe” line that precedes it and by the fact that it lasts a scant 21 frames–less than a second.