The more I continue to work in films the clearer the idea becomes that movement is inherent in graphics, even in still graphics. Many of the means by which I have obtained motion on film, ..is a matter of extracting motion from designs that were not intended for that purpose, but just normally contained motion if one knew how to release it. –Jordan Belson
Jordan Belson is the lost genius of American experimental film. Not as known as Stan Brakhage or Bruce Conner, Belson has nevertheless over the past sixty years created a staggering body of work that was not only present at the birth of such cinema, but has helped to extend its possibilities. His work brings a painterly willingness to allow sound and color to speak to their own virtues. While his greatest achievements may be in the use of color, often in the interest of reaching mystical truths, his use of music as a partner in his films’ aesthetic aims is equally memorable.
Belson referred to his films as speaking in a “hieroglyphic-ideographic,” or pictorial language, with color as symbol or totem. Yet his work is not ritualistic in the way, say, of Kenneth Anger, nor is it as daemonic. For Belson, enlightenment comes from seeing the truth with one’s own eyes, meditating on form, guided by music. That he began his career as a painter is no surprise. While he has said that painting is different from film because the viewer accepts every accident on canvas but senses that “the camera lies,” it was not long into his career that he abandoned painting for film. His work has then been nothing if not an attempt to use film to speak truths unavailable in immediacy and impact in other media.
A turning point in his creative life came in 1946, when at the Art in Cinema festival at San Francisco Museum, he saw the hermetic, painterly films of Oskar Fischinger and the Whitney Brothers. His own early films hewed close to painting, studies of single images, scroll paintings, before a more abstract style developed with his immersion into Zen Buddhism.
The incorporation of music as a central partner in his vision can be seen in Allures (1961). With a soundtrack co-written by Belson and composer Henry Jacobs, the film was among the early attempts at blending experimental music with images (in the late 1940s, John Cage and poet Kenneth Patchen attempted to mix experimental music with radio drama, resulting in the mixed bag that is “The City Wears A Slouched Hat.”).
Belson also used recorded pieces in his films. Fountain of Dreams (1984) synchronized Liszt to various pulses, while in Epilogue (2005), Belson used Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of The Dead” as a vehicle for summing up many of his major themes. It is significant that he chose a tone poem, since his films have consistently been poetic and he used music in his films to highlight the beauty inherent in simple motion and changing hues of color.
Clearly though, his masterpiece is Samadhi (1967). Intended as a hint of how the experience of enlightenment might look and feel, Belson aimed for “a real documentary representation, as accurately as it was possible to make, of a real place and a real visual phenomenon that I perceived.” Its vivid colors and droning pulses are warm yet distant, a sense of the eternal in the present moment. He said in 1975 that he wanted with Samadhi to create “a new language for the perception of the eternal”, and while no language, even a visual one, can do that, his attempt is brilliant and resonant.
Jordan Belson’s films are more available than ever. The Center For Visual Music is a fantastic resource for all things Belson as well as other similar artists, and a recent DVD collection of five films includes those mentioned here. The passion of his work, his trust in the image and in color and music to tell their own ecstatic, profound story, deserves its place in the history of experimental film. His goal of making films that made the infinite accessible to each viewer places him among the most graceful and compassionate of artists.
~Mike K Wood