Paul Clipson’s unexpected passing in 2018 was crushing. His lifetime of work was incredible and resonated deeply with so many. There are some great, in-depth recollections about him at the Criterion website published in 2018. I was first introduced to his films, like many in my circle, by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma through the collaborations the two began in the mid-to-late 2000s. This interview was published in Foxy Digitalis in April 2011 by writer and pastry chef, Natasha Pickowicz, who wrote briefly for the site that year. I was so worried this was lost to the internet ether, but am very happy I was able to recover and present it again. – BR
Like so many others, I first encountered the works of San Francisco-based filmmaker Paul Clipson through the world of music. We met at last fall’s Root Strata-curated On Land Festival, where Grouper, Barn Owl, and Golden Retriever each performed alongside his incandescent Super 8 films. I was stunned at how lyrical Clipson’s films were, how his flickering visual rhythms danced like pure kinetic energy. The vibrating shapes, woozy textures, and saturated colors of his film all sung straight into my heart. Clipson has collaborated with musicians (including close partnerships with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Joshua Churchill, Tarentel, Metal Rouge, and Barn Owl) for nearly a decade, crafting films as a visual counterpart for recordings and live performances. His filmic identity — such as his penchant for improvisation, sense of immediacy, and obsession with rhythm and texture — is inspired by the musicians with which he surrounds himself.
Clipson recently screened a selection of his Super 8 films at Montreal’s Segal Center, as the inaugural event of a new programming series, Crossover. The following day I spoke with Clipson about his work habits, musical alliances, and future goals.
How did your appearance with the Crossover Series come about?
I knew [co-director] Daïchi Saïto’s work as a filmmaker because I’m a projectionist in San Francisco, and I showed one of his films, Trees of Syntax, which is really amazing. It’s a Super 8mm film blown up to 16mm, and then optically printed and blown up to 35mm, so there’s a really strange cacophony of layers and materials. It’s very beautiful. We had been loosely in contact since then, and just last year we started talking about this idea. He asked if I was interested, and through email I sent him a lot of my work, and they came up with the program.
By day, you’re a projectionist at the SF MOMA. Does that aspect of your life influence your creative work?
It’s definitely a good environment. There are always lectures and artists coming through, and I’ve done shows there of my own work, and also programmed other films and give suggestions. It’s a 9-to-5 job, and that can be difficult when you want to do your own work. But I’ve been there ten years, and everyone knows me as a filmmaker. It feels very conducive to me right now. I’ve worked with Bruce Conner, I’ve worked with Nick [Nathaniel] Dorsky, a local filmmaker who does really incredible work. It’s inspiring.
I first encountered your work at the On Land Fest last fall. How would you characterize your relationship with Jefre Cantu?
We’re good friends, and we work together at the museum. Since he and I collaborate a lot, we have a really strong bond of associations. We don’t necessarily agree, but we complement each other. It’s comparative. He might know a certain composer, but I would have no knowledge of that person, but I’ll tell him about these filmmakers. With On Land, he was like, “You have to play with these people!” He’s like a producer, in a way.
How would you describe the state of experimental filmmaking in the Bay Area, right now?
I think it’s a constantly changing environment. It’s a really great community, with a lot of filmmakers and artists that work in various forms that crossover and blend with film. There is also a tradition here, like Canyon Cinema, which has one of the largest collections of experimental film. It’s historic. There’s the Cinematheque, a group that has a tradition of showing films. And there are a great assortment of venues and people that are encouraging and curating shows around the city, Oakland and Berkeley.
Is there a focus on local filmmakers as well as international work?
Oh yes, all the time. There are these amazing underground archives, like the Rick Prelinger Archives. Oddball cinema. These places that are storehouses of forgotten film, these huge histories of time. Rick has an amazing collection of images of San Francisco, from almost the beginning of film, that nobody has seen. It’s nothing that tours. He has so many resources, and finds amazing shots of things that are almost lost. He’s getting a lot of attention now, nationally and internationally, with this way of being able to define and find new histories that are buried within what we know as the “history of cinema.” But besides film, I feel also that I’m still navigating the music scene, and there’s so much I’m still unaware of.
I kind of feel like I’m just jumping into it each time, not knowing a musician’s work, like when I played with Golden Retriever [at the On Land Festival]. Within my field, I’ve become accustomed to certain styles through Jefre and Tarentel, and later through Gregg Kowalsky and Barn Owl, or Alexis Georgopoulos, who does Arp. For my work, it is really liberating to work closely to a different form, because it allows you to let go of a lot of the ways that you do what do you do — so you don’t analyze it too much.
In that way, do you see these kind of alliances as sort of a liberating force?
I think everybody has their own challenges that they are trying to develop, especially the concept of how you develop as an artist or just do your own work. Whether you are a writer, painter, designer, or musician, it’s very hard to align your aspirations and inspirations. It’s very hard to do your own work within a context of, like, having a job, or not having a lot of time, or just fighting to have the time. So sometimes these ideals actually are constrictions. It’s much more ideal to create a routine, in a way, that can subvert the routine of your life, which is what you have to do to get by (pay your rent, etc). That routine usually takes precedence over everything else.
For some writers, for example, they have to write from 6am until 1pm, and that is how their work is done. But it’s very hard for artists who work for themselves to create that routine. I bring this all up because I found that the routine of music making was something that could just be jumped into, and it’s also very social. It involves everyone’s friends. They go out together, eat together, see movies, make music. I didn’t find that in film. I didn’t have a lot of friend filmmakers, and you don’t “hang out.”
The community wasn’t as social?
Well, there’s a community, but it’s in such a different way. Usually, you’re off on your own. And if you’re making a more ambitious film, like with actors and lighting people and a camera person, it’s a group, but it’s very much focused towards the work. It’s stressful. And that’s great too – I like making films like that, but I wanted to get closer to the daily process, you know?
Have you historically approached filmmaking in this way? Have you always collaborated with musicians?
No, only since 2003. It’s really recent, in a way.
Can you pinpoint the moment in which this turning point happened?
The start of it really was my friendship with Jefre. We started discussing music and film, out of common interests. And the comparing of ideas and what we liked grew into, “Well, how does image go with music? And how does music go with image?” He was playing shows and somewhere along the way was like, “Why don’t we do a show together?”
What was your approach like then?
I put images together in a way that I thought would make sense. I knew they would play for 20 or 30 minutes, but it wasn’t anything talked about too much. I was nervous, but it seemed like the images went together really well, and everyone seemed to like it. And then it was, “Let’s do this again,” but without an idea of where it was really going. Slowly, we were doing shows in San Francisco, and they asked me to do videos of them for a documentary they were working on. So when I was talking about process before, I was studying it. Really watching how they were setting up, how they were doing their music.
How would describe how things have changed in the seven or eight years since?
Well, we started around 2003, and were heavily working together, intensely, for about four years. And then the group itself started to go off into it own things, and everyone just got busy and it sort of stayed that way. But what happened for me, is that I went off and worked with Jefre, and other projects like Gregg Kowalsky, Metal Rouge, Barn Owl, Arp, and Joshua Churchill. I could see things changing.
What do you mean?
At first I was working on a level that was very much reacting to the music. I was still taking it in, because it was new to me. I wasn’t in the music scene or anything, which I think helped because a lot of the time my reactions were very simple and basic, but that could create very impacting juxtapositions of images.
Is it a challenge to avoid more literal imagery?
I don’t plan or rehearse, so usually when that happens, it’s just by chance. But it’s still an issue because I don’t want things to be overly dramatic or stated. The best example of this is one show we did. There was an entire part in [my film] Trees with birds that you could see — happening while someone was sampling bird sounds! [Laughs] It was totally accidental, but afterward people were like, “That was a little bit much.” But the thing is, nobody looks at those images. Most of the musicians never watch. I realized that I didn’t ever want things to coalesce in that way, if I could avoid it.
That kind of abstraction really leaves it up to the audience to figure out the relationship between the film and music, to draw their own conclusions. It gives the passive audience a sense of agency.
Yes, it is an active role. They have to make comparisons and associations. I often think about how all visual media is organized very specifically — commercials, films, and often its done very well in some cases. There are great examples of film and sound that are very meticulously put together. But I also think, “Why does it always have to be like?” Also, there so much discussion [after shows] about intent, the artists’ “intent.” But why not let the audience decide?
What about with the musicians themselves?
Paul Clipson: With musicians, sometimes they like to see my work before they perform, too. [Segal Center collaborator] Roger Tellier-Craig once told me, “I see this one little thing, and it’s almost like, it creates feelings that spark something inside.” And I said, “Do whatever you like!” They already have the thing that they’re going to do, but they also want to feel the presence of the film. They’re so close to the film, they’ll see these rhythmic flickerings coming down on them, and sometimes they react to that, too. Somehow, not even consciously.
It’s almost like a primordial reaction.
It’s like when your eyes are closed, but you can still see things.
Amazing. Do you ever make specific considerations for the performances? When I saw your film with Grouper’s set at On Land festival, I was struck by its glacial speed, especially in comparison to the more frenetic pacing of some of your other films.
Well, before you were asking me how my style is developing. I don’t think it’s developing consistently in one way, because the newer Barn Owl piece, Light From the Mesa, is also kind of frenetic. But Tarentel is really rhythmic, and I was very informed by that, like their really intense drums. Some of the more recent pieces are more of a glacial drone, and the images are more informed by that.
A lot of those Tarentel films really do show an interest in rhythm, speed and pacing.
Definitely, yes. At that point, the images and music had a more distinct relationship, because it wasn’t strictly live. It was more planned, and came out of a lot of live research.
Is there a collaborative aspect to what happens afterward?
It’s more a process of filmmaking at that point, but there’s always a mutual interest in the other’s work. Sometimes, I’ll only use part of a piece, and I always make sure that is okay. With Chorus, the music is from Gregg Kowalsky’s “Tape Chants,” and that piece is much longer than the seven-minute film. But I had his record and there was always one point that was really intense, like a driving heartbeat, it felt very persistent. It was always grabbing my attention, and I started to associate it with those images. I don’t always know where it is going, but somehow those images and sound meet. Slowly I start comparing and sifting through images. Sometimes it goes really fast, because it’s so intuitive.
At your talk at the Segal Center, you used a word I really liked — looseness, that you like to work with a certain looseness. It seems as though it’s when things become overwrought in the music and film marriage that it can feel quite precious. With your work, I really feel that sense of working quickly, of trying to work with intuition.
Working faster than you can think is important. If you play sports, if you play music, at a certain point you’re just making gesture and action and completing thoughts, but almost without thinking. It becomes this collusion of movement and intent and ideas, all happening very quickly. If you thought about each thing you were doing, you would just stop doing it. But in the arts, it’s difficult because you have your own ideas and theories and you’re like, “Oh, this is the best kind of filmmaking, I want to make a film like that!” Those things are good as inspiration, but at a certain point you have to unlock something that’s more subconscious.
With music, it was seeing a different form being made and thinking, “I’ll appropriate some of those processes, like making mistakes.” Working in a way that you’re separated from, like, “This next shot has to be perfectly right.” I never work like that. I work very quickly so I have no idea what I’m going to get, so I feel like I’m seeing something that I’ve never made, almost.
It’s particularly interesting to compare the prints that you’ve pulled from the film, and the films themselves. The prints are so beautifully composed, so quiet and still, yet in some of these films they move so quickly. They’re gone in a flash.
I always think about that. Union has a figure in it, and [the figure] appears in some of my stills, too. But in the film you don’t even really see the image because it happens so quickly. A lot of it has to do with movement, which I am very attracted to. Rhythm is very particular, and can be very powerful to watch. It’s very hypnotic, and music has a lot of that. You don’t analyze the music as you hear it, you feel it. But images, you do analyze, and I think part of the aesthetic that I took from music was creating an intuitive environment that people don’t analyze too much. They feel the images, like touches. And maybe on one level it’s beautiful — or I hope that it is beautiful — to find or react to images that are startling. Whatever everybody thinks of beauty in various ways, a red can be so stunning.
Is there a deliberate reluctance to use actors in your films?
I was talking to Roger [Tellier-Craig] about this too, about not following rules, or even your own rules. He was saying that some musicians these days are like, “I won’t play the guitar, that is so cliché.” But if you follow your own rules too much, that’s bad. You have to go back to things that you would never do. I didn’t even think about it for a long time in terms of not having people [in my films]. I think it was just because I was alone, and it was the fastest way to work. But what happened was that over a few years, there would suddenly be an eye in the film.
Yes, like the most amazing moment in this film of all-natural imagery, and then there’s a flash of a woman lying on her back. And then she’s gone.
Yes, that’s my stepdaughter! She was probably 13 or 14 then. Last year I started using figures more. The entire film has a figure running through the whole thing. It’s not quite a horror film, but it’s very dramatic. To put a figure in nature, and with movement, immediately there is an association. It’s like, why are they running? What are they running from? I try not to think about any of that, even though it’s impossible. I didn’t think of a narrative, I thought of it as a study, like [Eadweard] Muybridge who did these studies of a person walking. Studying the human figure, or an elephant, was the first intimation of what cinema, or frames, would be. It’s this gesture-like work. It’s not abstract, but it’s lyrical. It’s not abstract, but it’s lyrical. It’s a new thing, and it’s exciting.
Your works seem to have an equal fascination with both natural and urban imagery.
Yes. Anything is approachable. Also, working a lot forces you to move towards things that you wouldn’t think were interesting. It kind of becomes a game or exercise. Like, let’s say you shoot a tree in front of some sunlight, and it’s really beautiful to you. Like, man, this is so good. And you make a film, and sometimes there is a tendency to be like, “Okay, that was so good, I can’t ever do anything else with trees and sun, because, well, I’ve done that.” That’s a mistake because you just discovered something, you didn’t actually do it. It’s like, it was given to you. Monet spent 10 or 20 years painting lily pads. It’s this artist’s vocation of focusing on something, because it’s almost like a riddle, but you don’t know what it is, so you can keep going back to things that you’ve done over and over. What I find is that I look at the same subject three years later and it’s a totally different approach and language. It changes.
Yes, you found this moment of beauty. But don’t you think that equally important is the idea that what the beauty is, is your interpretation or presentation of it. In some way, you are also responsible for the beauty.
Yes, it kind of a back and forth. You are searching, and creating your work, so it came from your search and your effort. Sometimes it’s our analysis or judgment, because we’re trying to understand what we’re doing, or what our place is. And over time, everything is changing. Your perspective is changing. The world is changing.
It’s interesting that you use the word “search.” At the Segal Center event, you spoke about the process of collecting images, the search, is like keeping a diary. Is there an aspect of making films that is super personal or intimate?
I don’t think so. I want the work to be open, so that it doesn’t recall or suggest one person. You know, like, “Oh, this is what the [filmmaker] was going through.” But then, there is Stan Brakhage, whose films, I think, are all handheld. And the handheld approach, in a narrative film, shows that something “dramatic” is happening. That was an interesting discovery for me, and something that Brakhage describes as the “metabolism of the camera.” When you’re holding the camera, it’s like you’re breathing, and your heart is beating. He described it in this beautiful and lyrical way, like the unsteadiness is actually your living organism. If you are moving or shaking, that informs what the work is.
And that’s something you identify with?
Yes. Sometimes I’ll look at it and think, “This is way too shaky.” But then I also feel like it connects you to the work in the same way as drawing. That, to me, is very personal. On one level, you’re seeing something personal, but it’s not interpretative or analytical. It’s not saying, “I was feeling this way when I looked at the horizon, or the coast, or the desert.” I like the idea of trying to separate from all of that, because I still think that despite that all of these things come into it, these subconscious things. Maybe you don’t see them for a long time.
What do you mean by that?
I’ve talked to people after screenings and they say, “Oh, I thought that was about global warming!” And I thought it totally made sense. It had nothing to do with what I was thinking, but I prefer that people have really strong personal reactions, rather than have strong reactions thinking, “Oh, this is how Paul felt.” I’m more interested to hear what they thought.
Do you think that working in a more abstracted way allows those reactions to exist more than a traditional film? Have you ever felt an interest to explore more traditional narrative film?
Before I started doing this kind of work, I was interested in narrative. I would like to create a feature-length film that successfully juxtaposes experimental ideas with a narrative. There are filmmakers who have done it. Chantal Akerman is an artist who I think is one of the most successful at bridging being an installation artist and a filmmaker, and is experimental in her films. They’re very different from what I do. She was living in New York and connected to and interested in Andy Warhol, Michael Snow. But she was able to keep touching on narrative interests, like Jeanne Dielman, with [her work] News From Home (1976). These films seem open and empty on one level, but that openness allows for a huge amount of the world to rush in, instead of placing the story first. I find that very experimental.
Is it an aesthetic or philosophical decision to work exclusively with Super 8 film?
Some of it is practical. It’s affordable. With the camera and its limitations, sometimes there are only a certain amount of things that I can do. But think of it like this: if you were picking only a few chords and thinking, “how many variations could I do with just these chords,” you would know it is infinitesimal. It’s amazing. I’ve become fascinated with how much can be done with something like Super 8.
I’m always making comparisons with drawing because it has an immediacy and simplicity to it. It’s fast, and very delicate and fragile on paper. It has this temporality. Super 8 is very delicate, too. As you saw, it is very hard to protect the films. But it has allowed me to work as fast as I want to. I can always work every day. 16mm is more than twice the expense. I do shoot in 16mm, and I’ve been working with it recently and want to do more. I want to work in 35mm, too. I also do other installations and work in video, but this particular stream of work is all Super 8. I could never make a 40-minute film in a month on 16mm, and then do another one, and another one, and another one. With Super 8, I can work steadily throughout the year. It’s very accessible. It’s the same way with video now, everybody can make video with their video camera or their digital camera. That’s basically the same idea as what Super 8 was in the 1960s. It was essentially the video of its time.
There are some lovely visual moments as a result. There were these moment when I would see something, and it would change, like images coming unexpectedly into focus. Like, “things are not what they seem.” Our perceptions of images are constantly being called into question.
And that has a narrative, or metaphoric aspect, too. The “things aren’t what they seem” is almost a metaphor, right? But what you’re really seeing is called slow disclosure. It’s one way of describing it. It’s like seeing branches in front of a distance in space, where there are two pinpoint of light. At that moment those pinpoints are mysterious; there’s no immediate sense that it is a train, or even something moving. But when it changes and goes from one moment to the next, it becomes an approaching thing, like, “What is that?” It’s like a metamorphosis. The camera apparatus is a storymaking thing, and the focus is almost like a sentence, telling a story. You’re changing the focus, changing the meaning of the world.
Some of your other films were even more abstract. Images were almost like optical illusions. There’s a real sense of playfulness with form, pattern, and texture.
A lot of those things don’t even really look that way through the camera. When I saw them projected afterward, I was like, “What the hell? How did that happen?” A lot of the time, it doesn’t look the same through the camera. A lot of the aesthetic of the layering was a reaction to that — not just being worried about how something definitively looked, but more of an expectancy of trying things with the faith that there would be something amazing. I was always much more excited in what I got, rather than what I wanted to get.
For more information about Paul Clipson, go here; view excerpts of his films here.
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