Eye of the Beholder: Paul Clipson (1965–2018)

by Max Goldberg, June 2018

“We are not so much agents as intermediaries when we introduce film to light, as we might bring together two good friends, hoping they will love one another as we love them both,” wrote Hollis Frampton. Just such a benevolent spirit was Paul Clipson, whose sudden death leaves the San Francisco Bay Area deprived of one of its most genial, discerning, and prolific film artists. An insatiable cinematographer and unfailingly insightful visual thinker, Clipson’s lyrical filmmaking was only one aspect of his multifaceted
passion for cinema. Having long since mastered in-camera editing and superimposition, Clipson extended his intuitive art in live collaborations with a cohort of sympathetic musicians and composers. These performances became such a fixture of Bay Area life over the last 15 years as to seem like their own milieu. I don’t mean to make Clipson sound like a local phenomenon—his work screened internationally—but the performance-intensive nature of his work necessarily privileged geographic proximity.

When I first met Clipson in 2008, he was working expressly — and expressively — in Super 8mm. He would subsequently take up 16mm, anamorphic lenses, and multiple-projector performances — always deliberately, with an eye towards specific parameters and historical antecedents — while maintaining the same basic approach: constant filming; making studies of those aspects of landscape and figure that magnetized his attention; compiling footage into long reels to be projected in the performances; and then sometimes, but not always, locking sound and image for a completed film. Far from a means to an end, Clipson’s generative process accommodated, and indeed thrived upon, multiple iterations. This experimental approach to exhibition is clear even just glancing at the typically demanding schedule he maintained over the last months of his life: the premiere of a major new work with Zachary Watkins at the Exploratorium (Black Field); a program of recent films projected silently at Artists’ Television Access; and a raft of improvised performances with regular collaborators such as Watkins, Byron Westbrook, Grouper, Maggi Payne, and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. To a degree unusual amongst filmmakers, Clipson conceived of his work in terms of an ongoing practice — a discipline, really. As such, Clipson’s filmography, extensive as it is, cannot capture the full scope of his filmmaking.

Stills from the films give a good sense of the density and saturation of Clipson’s compositions, but not their quicksilver montage. His subject, always, was light, the riddle of lumen, and he did not shy away from its commonplace exhilarations (of which Dan Browne’s recent article for the San Francisco Cinematheque provides a sensitive close reading). Clipson’s attraction to composited images, his play with scale, and his taste for fluidity in subject and form all suggest a deep continuity with the avant-garde ideals espoused by the French Impressionists a century ago. Pace Jean Epstein, “The very plot of thought and matter…the very quid pro quo of the real and the unreal, the very play of subjectivity and objectivity are sprawled on the screen to be touched, palpated, traversed, searched, dissected by the gaze.” The subjects occupying Clipson’s camera are, by these lights, orthodox: sun and moon, eye and hand, intermittency of tree limbs and fingers, headlights and neon, skyscrapers and flora, reflective surfaces galore. But the familiar stock-in-trade only serves to underscore the intensity of Clipson’s attack, the depth of his commitment: my sense is that even the possibility of seeing the moon as if for the first time made it endlessly interesting to him as a subject.

The open frame of performance gave Clipson latitude to explore the psychological qualities of these insistent motifs, often enough suggesting a kind of ritualistic trance. The mantra-like visual repetitions, achieved through short bursts of shooting, correlated beautifully with the enveloping clouds of sound through which his musical collaborators would work their magic. But this powerful gestalt, while in no small measure responsible for the work’s accessibility, could make it easy to miss the delicate interplay between Clipson’s immediate interests in the visible world, his intuitions about how these elements would show up on film, and his rich web of associations drawn across film history. So that, for instance, an abiding concern for railway tracks might be activated by the afternoon sun catching steel in such a way as to take natural advantage of Super 8mm’s “pulpy intensity” (his words), while also stirring a longstanding obsession with the strong diagonals opening Hitchcock’s Marnie.

Indeed, it took only a few minutes of conversation with Clipson to realize that he enjoyed an unusually strong relationship to film history, with untold camera movements, framings, design elements, and idiosyncratic details committed to memory. He returned to favourite films and auteurs frequently and generally exemplified the projectionist’s intimacy with the medium. He worked in this capacity for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for nearly 20 years, and it’s to this day job that we owe REEL (LAND AND SEA), a sui generis publication comprised of storyboardlike drawings and notes he made for his colleagues in the booth. I don’t doubt they appreciated this highly unusual professional courtesy (the hand-drawn frames depict the shots leading into each reel change), but the appeal to an outside reader lies in the book’s eccentric yet eloquent evocation of, to quote Clipson’s introduction, “an art form and projection technology that I still find completely mystifying and magical.” The key entry is Testament of Orpheus (1959), for which his characteristically droll observations on the fated frames take the form of questions, each a trapdoor into the world of the film: “Where are these ruins?”; “Cocteau’s hand?”; “Studio or location?”; “Cocteau’s blood?”; “Is that cigarette smoke hanging in the air?” Clipson typically closed his entries wishing the projectionist good luck, but in this case he left off with a rare note of admonishment: “Enjoy this Cocteau film — study it closely!”

Blessedly unencumbered by small-minded distinctions between narrative and experimental modes, Clipson was equally affected by Otto Preminger’s work in ’Scope and Marie Menken’s with a Bolex; Saul Bass’ titles and Bruce Baillie’s superimpositions; Michael Powell’s reds and Kenneth Anger’s blues; Chantal Akerman’s rectangles and Frank Stauffacher’s zig-zags; Orson Welles’ tracks and Chick Strand’s waves; Bernard Herrmann’s strings and Stan Brakhage’s songs; Chris Marker’s speculations and Bruce Conner’s reports; Luis Buñuel’s inside-out and Elia Kazan’s outside-in; Vincente Minnelli’s carnival and Jonas Mekas’ circus. That his own films will no longer be enlivened by these often surprising associations is unbearably sad, and here any semblance of critical distance evaporates, as Paul was a friend. I remember sitting with him last summer in the last row of an Oakland performance space, his bank of projectors just behind us. Our conversation turned to Jerry Lewis, who had just died. Paul reeled off a handful of characteristically dazzling observations, adding that I had to read Chris Fujiwara’s interview (one always came away from such conversations with a recommendation). He told me that he had assembled a kind of supercut of Lewis’ films and talk-show appearances for a friend’s class and then, after a pause, said that teaching was impossibly difficult. This was Paul all over in the mix of acuity and modesty, but it wasn’t for him to say whether or not he was a teacher. That falls to us, his grateful students.

Originally published in Cinema Scope, no. 74, Spring 2018.