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August 02, 2006

The Avant Garde Blog-a-thon: A School of Filmmakers


Way back in the 1960s, 1967 to be more precise, I was an unpaid helper for a short-lived "hippie" newspaper. I still have one of the issues saved, and recently looked at it for inspiration for my posting today. The article turned out to be less informative than I remembered, but still is a source of pride for me. For whatever problems the city may have, I will always have an unreasonable affection for the city I've spent a major part of my life - Denver, Colorado. Maybe I'm giving this more significance than it deserves, but I always thought it worth noting that three of major filmmakers all went to South High School in Denver, two at the same time, with one graduating a few years later.

The most famous South High grad is Stan Brakhage. A fellow classmate was Larry Jordan. The filmmaker I read about in 1967, with a quote of praise from Brakhage, was Paul Sharits. While the fact that all three filmmakers not only grew up in the same city, and attended the same high school does not make Denver a hotbed of the avant garde, there has to be something more than coincidence at work here. While Denver was certainly less cosmopolitan when I moved there in 1965, one could get some exposure to avant garde art if you knew where to look.

As it turned out, I never saw any films by Brakhage, Jordan or Sharits until I left Denver to study film at NYU. Maybe I went to the wrong high school (I went to East High School). I did have an art teacher who showed some films by Norman McLaren which in turn inspired me to make my own first attempts at experimental film, 16mm black leader with pin scratches. Most of the avant garde films I saw at NYU were part of classes. The teacher I had as an undergrad did little in helping me appreciate what then being called "New American Cinema". Certainly I didn't help myself by walking late to a screening of "Window Water Baby Moving". Fortunately, as a graduate student, P. Adams Sitney was patient enough to explain to me how to study a Brakhage film.

Stan Brakhage was the only one of the three South High filmmakers to return to Colorado. There was something of a bitter joke that one could more easily see Brakhage's films in New York City than in Denver or Boulder, Colorado. Eventually that changed so that Brakhage showed his films at the Denver Film Festival among other venues. Now that several of his films are on DVD, almost anyone can get acquainted with the work of Stan Brakhage. Even Paul Sharits is relatively accessible on Ubu Web and You Tube. Larry Jordan's films can also be viewed, but only as intended, as movies from Canyon Cinema. As for Denver, just as Brakhage inspired Jordan and Sharits, he has also continued to inspire newer generations of filmmakers.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 2, 2006 12:18 AM


Peter, what a great hook! Who would have thought South High School would be remembered in just this way? I'm especially appreciative of your research into finding available examples of these filmmakers' works. Thank you.

Posted by: Maya at August 2, 2006 02:46 PM

This is a cool post! I never knew that Brakhage, Sharits, & Jordan went to the same high school? Well, the fact that you grew up in Denver too is a coincidence. How marvelous!

By the way, I love the title of your blog. I love coffee too . . .

Posted by: jmac at August 2, 2006 03:43 PM

Fascinating stuff, Peter. I've just been starting to read Sitney in the past week or so; it's neat to know that you knew him.

I love Larry Jordan's films, at least the four or five that I've seen on 16mm. (the first time was on a shared program with Conner films, not-so-coincidentally)

I've noticed a couple videocassettes of his work (Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for one) on video store shelves here in San Francisco, but haven't looked at them myself. As you imply, it just doesn't seem like the way the filmmaker would intend me to experience one of his films for the first time.

Posted by: Frisco Brian at August 3, 2006 06:10 PM

Let me second jmac's reaction. Who knew?

Posted by: Filmbrain at August 3, 2006 08:40 PM