Film In Conversation
BEN VAN METER with Andy Ditzler & Gregory Zinman
Ben Van Meter (b. 1941) began making films and light shows in the mid-1960s in San Francisco and soon became a leading figure in Bay Area underground filmmaking. His films, especially S. F. Trips Festival–An Opening (1966) and the epic Acid Mantra (1968), are compelling attempts to visually and sonically inscribe psychedelia as experience and philosophy in the medium of film. Van Meter’s films were unavailable for many years, but their ongoing restoration by the Academy Film Archive and their inclusion in the de Young Museum’s 2017 exhibition, The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll, has gained them a new audience. This interview with Ben Van Meter was conducted in January 2017 with email follow-ups and has been edited for length. A longer version is published on the Brooklyn Rail website at www.brooklynrail.org.
Andy Ditzler (Rail): We thought we could talk not only about your body of film work but also the relation that you’ve had to your community over time—artists, musicians, filmmakers. We’re very curious about that as well.
Ben Van Meter: I taught in San Francisco until ‘79. I went on to work in horticulture until 1990 and then social service for about twenty years. Sixteen-millimeter film got way too expensive to make art in, at least for someone trying to raise a family, and I never liked analogue video—too clumsy. I got into digital video in 1990 and have done a lot of little pieces in it, but I just now have gotten back to looking at and working with my films and photography from the sixties.John [Lyons] and I have been working on a book. I kept the slides from my light show, the North American Ibis Alchemical Company. I had accumulated a library of several thousand slides. A lot of them I made shooting thirty-five-millimeter slides in the ballrooms, on Haight Street, and in the parks. Some of them were hand-painted slides that we used in the light show. There are some Bruce Conner slides—mandalas that he hand-painted for us. A whole bunch of things that were shot out of books—gurus and flowers, Native Americans and native people from around the world, sacred symbols, etc. In the last year I have been making prints of the best of these.
[The de Young Museum is] presenting a slide show in the first gallery that I created for them called Peace in America, then there's the Trips Festival film in the second gallery, and a light show simulation in the ninth gallery. In this gallery, I’ve created what I call a Light Show Trip-Tych, which is a three digital projector light show simulation based on my films—lots of slides and liquid projections. It represents what the North American Ibis Alchemical Company’s shows looked like, only of course, much smaller.
Gregory Zinman (Rail): Your work seems so ripe to be re-seen and rediscovered by a generation who didn’t get to see it the first time around. If you were reintroducing yourself, how would you describe what it is you do?
Van Meter: Well, my book describes my first film class at San Francisco State. The instructor laid down some rules. And one of them was, what you should never, ever do is multiple exposures in the camera because you’re liable to get something weird and confusing. When he said that, a light bulb went off in my head. “Weird and confusing” sounded just like my life itself; it was exactly what I wanted to express in my films. So with the films and the light show, that’s what I was trying to do. I’m essentially, in my films, a documentary filmmaker, only on a different than purely physical level. I would describe it as “Stream of Subconsciousness Filmmaking.”
Everything exists in this so-called reality on three levels: on the physical, mental, and spiritual. Most films are purely on the physical, and there are good intellectual documentaries. But I’ve always had in mind a passage in [Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel] Siddhartha where he looked into the river and saw a river of images from his life. That was what I was trying to express in the films and the light show—thus, “Stream of subconsciousness,” which is an attempt to tap into the spiritual.
Ditzler (Rail): I remember you used the phrase “river of images” at the time. Robert Nelson also quotes that phrase describing one of your films.
Van Meter: I was always trying to do stuff out of the box, whatever the box was. Not to be perverse but to see if I could make something new that hadn’t been seen before. At San Francisco State, I took film and photography classes. Originally, I was a poetry-writing major, but when I finally got my degree, it was a made-up degree in Film-Poetry. I took beginning black and white photography. Then I took beginning color photography. The instructor in that course was Don Worth. The Photography department was all in the Edward Weston, Ansel Adams school of photography.
Don was trying to do the same thing. He was doing the same thing in color, you know? Perfectly printed close-ups of green peppers and rusty railroad cars. He was all about darkroom perfection. I wasn’t interested in that at all. So I took my old four by five beginning black and white negatives and scratched on them, and painted on them, and printed them. Then maybe re-photograph the print and go through the process again—until I got something that I thought was interesting.
Everybody else was trying for that perfect print. When I put up my stuff, there was stunned silence—nobody had ever seen anything like it. Don Worth said, “Interesting, but is it photographic?” I replied, “I don't give a crap about that man. I’m trying to make art.”
Zinman (Rail): We’re particularly interested in some of your hand-painted work, both in the light show and in your films. I was just wondering where you came across the idea and how you developed your techniques of painting on film?
Van Meter: There were no real techniques to speak of. They were just slaps of paint on a glass slide. I just scribbled in the censor bars in The Poon Tang Trilogy with India ink. For the light show slides, I would cut up pieces of color slides and put them in the glass slides. Some of the painting was on dark, photographic slides that I scratched on and made blank spaces and filled with paint. Some were on clear acetate slides—anything to make it look interesting. Then my double exposure techniques—what I did when double exposing—on each exposure I would use my fingers, moving my fingers around in front of the lens creating dark spaces, traveling finger mattes. Then the second exposure would come through those random dark spaces, much brighter than they would on a simple one to one double exposure.
Rail: Had you seen filmmakers like Len Lye or [Norman] McLaren? Or any of [Stan] Brakhage's hand painted work?
Ben Van Meter: Brakhage—but not before I was doing multiple-exposures myself, so I wouldn’t call him an influence. I always wondered why he limited himself to silent films. “Use everything you’ve got” has always been my motto. I haven’t seen or thought about the whole independent film scene since I left the Art Institute in 1979. I worked with emotionally disturbed children for nearly eighteen years. I also ran a community theater for seven years. My wife and I moved up to Alturas in 2000, and we ran the Alturas community theater, which was the old movie theater owned by a nonprofit. We still showed movies, but also did plays with the local school drama department, the local adult drama club, school music events, and all sorts of things like that. The kids helping with the snack bar and cleanup were mostly doing community service hours for minor infractions, so it was also kind of like running a group home.
I wrote probably fifteen screenplays. I had near successes with them several times, and several of them were optioned but no cigar. I produced one of them, Lost River, the Story of the Modoc Indian War, as an outdoor drama in Alturas for four summer seasons. I spent most of my creative time writing and making little digital videos.
Rail: Ben, I’m curious about your documenting of various communities in San Francisco in the sixties and the early seventies. Who were the people that you associated yourself with, whether it was filmmakers, artists, or musicians?
Van Meter: Roger Hillyard was my partner on the light show, and my roommate for a while. Of course, my wife Sandra, and the other people that worked on the light show: Bruce Conner, Bob Comings, Lenny Silverberg, Ernie Palomino, Howard Fox, who were all painters and who were attracted to our light show. Bill Graham of course did the Trips Festival, where I shot my Trips Festival film. The old Fillmore was doing light shows in concerts. Those consisted of Tony Martin doing liquids. Normally behind a bandstand.
Roger was a friend of his and helped him with liquids. They only had one film projector. So I started getting in free to concerts by bringing my films. They only had stock footage. I started using some of my film in his live show. I would shoot film at the Fillmore or when things were happening outside the Fillmore, bring it, and project it in his light show. Then Graham at one point had Andy Warhol’s show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He put screens along the one hundred-foot-long wall for Andy’s films. I knew he wasn’t going to take them down, so Roger and I convinced him to hire us. We worked for Graham throughout the summer of ‘66. Then we had a falling out with Graham. Graham was a very difficult guy to work for. Shortly after that, we went to LA and did one light show for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Then we got a call from Chet Helms: Bill Ham, who had been at the live show at the Avalon had quit, or they had a falling out—I don't know exactly what. We went to work for him, and our show was multimedia, not just liquids, and included my films and slides. Roger was doing liquids, I was doing liquids and projecting films. Started out with one sixteen-millimeter projector, one or two slide projectors, one eight-millimeter projector. Eventually, we had four overheads in banks of two with dimmers so that they could be cross-faded. Twelve Kodak carousels, and the carousels were all on Lazy Susans that we got at the Goodwill down in the Mission District. We had a huge strobe light that Don Buchla built for us. We had a Trouperette spotlight. Of course, there was a mirror ball hanging in the middle of the hall. By that time, we started attracting other artists—Bruce Conner and the other people I’d mentioned. We were actually able to pay them thirty to thirty-five dollars a night apiece and still make one hundred dollars or more each and buy more equipment. It was a lot of fun. We did that throughout the whole summer of love into I think October ‘67. Then exhaustion set in, and we pulled out. Other friends included painters Bob Ballard and Gary and Marylou Pickering and filmmaker Myron Ort. We all had one thing in common: we had all been reminded by psychedelics of the fact that art was a spiritual pursuit.
Rail: Did the light show rehearse, or was it strictly improvisatory?
Van Meter: No, it was a totally improvised art-jazz combo. We improvised to the music—made the light show fit the music. One of my favorite examples is [from] the Doors song: “When the music’s over, turn out the lights,” and that’s what we did—lowered the lights as the music faded out and then brought them back up as the music got loud again. It was symbiotically attached to the music.
Rail: What did Bruce Conner do in the light show?
Van Meter: He did liquids, he made film loops and brought them, he projected his films. He ran the slide projectors. He did anything he wanted to. He was a madman.
Ditzler (Rail): Did you direct? Would you give space for individuals to do their thing? How did it work in performance?
Van Meter: No, I wouldn’t say that I directed. That would imply control, and out of control was what we were all about. We just traded around on liquids and running the projectors, the slide projectors, and the moving projectors. Like I say, it was improvisational. We riffed off each other. Somebody would put something up on the screen, and somebody else would put something else up that complimented it, or contrasted with it, or whatever. It changed every second. Lenny [Silverberg] said when he ran the slides he made them go as fast as possible. Which was a second each or less. I would say I produced it and performed. No one directed that energy; it just spontaneously combusted every night.
We had three different eighty-slide carousel trays for each projector. And some of them were synchronized so you could unify it. You could just put every projector on number sixteen, and it would come up all Yoganandas, or all flowers, or whatever—you could kind of finish out a set like that if you chose. It would end with this huge liquid and multimedia collage.
Of course the movie projectors were on Lazy Susans, too. Various sizes of movies would be panning throughout the whole mix. With one huge, one hundred-foot-long still collage, we’d stand there and admire that for a few minutes, then we would destroy it, and then go up on the roof to smoke herb. We had a couple of people each night that were dishwashers who would wash the clock faces we used for the liquids. We had a little kitchen. Our dishwashers would wash them and get them ready for our next set while we got our heads ready for the next band.I don’t remember any kind of conflict with anybody in the light show. It was just an amazing symbiosis.
Zinman (Rail): Did you think of yourselves as psychedelic?
Van Meter: We thought of what we were doing as psychedelic. Because it was all influenced by acid. I only took acid, I think, three times and peyote twice. I only needed it once. The first instant I got high, I realized, “Oh, Yogananda was right. It’s all an illusion. I see now, I understand, it’s all an electronic light show for our spiritual benefit.” That’s what this is all about. We were trying to create an electronic light show for everybody’s spiritual benefit. Some people said that they actually got high off watching our live show.
Rail: In 2017, can we get back in touch with that kind of psychedelia? How can it be renewed and not just be a longing for the past?
Van Meter: Nothing’s changed, and everything changes every instant. Although I wouldn’t advise anyone to take acid. Some folks just aren’t ready. But the basic fact is that our reality is created by the universe for our spiritual benefit. It’s an illusion created so that we can figure out how to love, how to become more open, and how to embrace all things as one.
Yogananda called it a movie picture show. I call it the Light Show. Nothing’s changed. The purpose is still the same; just the visuals have changed. And the villains have different faces. Trump is like the dark lord, and he’s filled his cabinet with the dark riders and the military orcs. The question, of course, is, “Where the fuck is Frodo?” You know, the illusion has a different face on it. But it’s still the same problem—to try and make spiritual progress. You do that by trying to deal with everything you can, like it’s part of you. That’s what acid did, was give you the momentary realization that it’s all a big electronic light show and that your love for people and things close to you is very natural and the saving grace.
Ditzler (Rail): Your films are abstract, but they also have this documentary quality. Is it a kind of documentary of psychedelia? Would that be a fair way to say it?
Van Meter:Well, yeah. A documentary of mixing everything up so you realize that it’s all one—that kind of thing. We’re back to the river of images. You know how your consciousness goes—I mean your consciousness when you're not trying to control it? It flips from one thing to another. It flips from, “What am I going to do in the next minute” to “I remember when I was in second grade, and so-and-so said this to me. Then I remember that girl that I made love with when I was eighteen saying, ‘Now I need a milkshake.’” That’s kind of the stream of consciousness—a visual stream of consciousness—images that keep bobbing to the surface.
Something I never did that I thought would be kind of fun to do would be a dramatic film with dialogue using the multiple exposure technique throughout. You know, there are scenes where the characters were fifteen, and they are multiply exposed with scenes in the present and maybe scenes in the future of them doing something. These are all multiply exposed, and the sound is mixed. So that the lives and the story are presented as one stream of images. Which is when you think about your memory—that’s the way it is. Your consciousness is like that. It mixes the past and the present, and what you hope the future will be, along with your dreams, fantasies, and fears in one big stream. You could also mix up scenes from the lives of multiple characters. I hope some young filmmaker takes this idea and runs with it, although good luck getting it financed.
Zinman (Rail): We were wondering what had happened to your films. They had become difficult to see for a number of years. What became of them, and why are they back now?
Van Meter:Well, I was one of the founding directors of the Canyon Cinema Co-op. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I had a falling out with the Canyon Cinema board at some point. The person that they had hired to run the office and I didn’t get along, and I just withdrew all my films. Likewise, I found out that New York Film-Makers Coop had a few of my film prints that I didn’t know they had, so I got those back too. I just took them all out of circulation. Recently, I’ve been putting it out just because I wanted to get some stuff out there for the fiftieth anniversary. That was like a conscious decision. I just decided to withdraw it all and go on to doing other things. Although I have been putting out a DVD for quite a while.
Ditzler (Rail): Your film Acid Mantra seems to have existed in a number of versions. There’s a single-screen version that’s on your DVD. There was a three-screen version that you mentioned in a Rolling Stone article from the time. How did you show that work when it was first made?
Van Meter: Well, it was three projectors. I showed that a few times. It was shown once at the Straight Theater that way. And it was shown once, incredibly, in a little theater on Sunset Boulevard for a week or two. And that was it.
Rail: That was it?
Van Meter: Yeah. Who has three projectors?
Zinman (Rail): You always did the projection?
Van Meter: No, neither time actually. The Straight—they had a projectionist. I may have worked on a projector there. At the Sunset Strip they had three big Xenon arc projectors. Of course, it didn’t draw an audience. It was kind of an attempt to reproduce the light show. And what I’ve done recently for the museum is the closest to that of anything in existence. Because the three-screen version doesn’t exist anymore. Then, through the years I would look at Acid Mantra, and when I got into digital, I made some digital edits. Mark [Toscano, film preservationist at the Academy Film Archive] is now trying to conform the original to my digital version, which is pretty much the final version I think.
It takes a lot of footage from Acid Mantra. But also footage from Uptight, Colorfilm, and Poon Tang Trilogy. It’s all put together like a light show—on three screens.
Rail: How did you assemble Acid Mantra in the first place?
Van Meter:Acid Mantra was just all the rolls of film I shot during 1966 and 1967. I spliced [them] together and put a soundtrack on them. Actually, it was A-B rolled. But it was A-B rolled with two double or triple exposed pieces of original film. So there are places where there are six exposures on there. It is pretty dense.
Ditzler (Rail): It’s footage from the streets, but it’s also footage of the light shows—is that right?
Van Meter: The first ten minutes is stuff I shot in the very early Fillmore. People dancing and the lights and other stuff I just shot. That’s got the Great Society and Grace Slick before she was with Jefferson Airplane and the Charlatans. Then, it goes into more my life kind of stuff, similar to Uptight, only at a different point. Where it was no longer uptight. Uptight refers to the period when my first wife and I were breaking up.
Then I met Sandra, my current wife of fifty years. We were at the Trips Festival, and I invited her over to see the Trips Festival footage when it came in, and we’ve been together since then. My attitude had changed. Acid Mantra was 1967, and I was no longer uptight.
Rail: How did Nico appear in Acid Mantra? Did you film Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable San Francisco show?
Van Meter:Yeah, I filmed at Warhol’s show. That was the early Fillmore when Graham put up the screens for Andy’s films. While they were in town, somebody invited me, Bob Nelson, and I think Wes Wilson, to interview with one of the newspapers or radio stations with Andy and his crew. It was pretty funny. I mean, the West Coast people were all talking about psychedelics, expanded consciousness, and natural foods, and the East Coast people were talking about heroin. Nico walked in, in leather pants and a silk blouse, and Warhol said, “Whose pants are you wearing today, Nico?”
Rail: Did you see Warhol’s films at that time?
Van Meter:Yeah, I thought they were boring.
Zinman (Rail): Who were your filmmaking heroes, if you had any?
Van Meter: I admired Bruce Baillie and Brakhage to an extent, but I thought he should use a soundtrack because they got boring after a while, too—without sound, to me. Who else? I liked Bob Nelson’s stuff. Of course, Bruce Conner. Bruce was kind of my inspiration to do it in the first place. In 1961, I was an unhappy freshman at the University of Oklahoma. I went to a screening of independent films and saw one of Bruce Conner’s films. I forgot if it was Cosmic Ray or what. I thought, “That’s what I want to do. I want to make my own crazy films.” Bruce was my inspiration to get into filmmaking. When I got to San Francisco and started making films, I made the Poon-Tang Trilogy, and it won a prize at Ann Arbor. Bruce Conner saw it at a midnight cinema screening, and he showed up at my door and introduced himself. We were instant friends. It went a full circle there.
Ditzler (Rail): What did he like about it?
Van Meter:It’s obvious, you know. It was outrageous and anti-authoritarian. It was sexy and was pushing the envelope as far as the depiction of sex. Bruce was I think a double Scorpio. His stuff was usually quite sexually oriented. Which is fine. He liked the social outrageousness of it also. He liked the protest part. The style of my first film kind of emulated his style. His later films, from Looking for Mushrooms (1967) on, looked somewhat like mine from Trips Festival on. I guess what goes around comes around.
Zinman (Rail): What is the protest in the middle of the film?
Van Meter: A protest against discrimination in hiring at the Cadillac agency in San Francisco. They had one or two black people working there as sweepers. That was a protest against that. They arrested a bunch of people due to that.
Rail: In the book Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, someone recounts a story about you and Bruce having a fight of some sort, about the light show. What is your recollection of that?
Van Meter: The only conflict that we ever had was at the MOMA show—over the screen, as far as I remember. It was for an electronic music show by Patrick Gleeson. I believe he was originally a poet also. I had been trying to capture the light show on film, and we brought my ten-by-twelve-foot rear projection screen. We were behind it and had two nude models who were dancing between us and the screen, creating silhouettes on-screen. It was all contained on the screen. Bruce Conner couldn’t take that. He couldn’t take any limits at all. At some point, he got up and moved the screen, and we started projecting on the walls, and the audience, and everybody. The naked dancers were dancing naked in front of the audience—they kept at it. Bruce couldn’t take any limits. I got the message and ran with it. Bruce expanded everybody’s horizons and reminded me what it was all about, you know.
However, in Radical Light, there is an interview with Bruce made much later in which he says I closed down the light show because of this. That isn’t true. I had already withdrawn it from the Avalon. He also blew his own horn and pretty much took credit for the show, saying that I had taken a leave of absence once for six months and left him in charge. That is an outright falsehood. I was onboard every night of every Ibis show. I paid everyone nightly, including Bruce, and have a receipt book to prove it. Bruce was a great artist, but he had an ego to match. He could go out in the morning and take a picture of the sun and call the picture “Bruce Conner’s Sunrise.” I loved Bruce, but no one ever called him “humble Bruce.” The editors of Radical Light took this as gospel and never contacted me to fact check, so I am just setting the record straight. I got pretty short shrift in that book. I think there is more to that story, but I’m not going into it—unwritten history.
Ditzler (Rail): There are some things in your filmography we don’t see mentioned anywhere else. For example, there’s a film called Garden of Persephone.
Van Meter: Actually, it’s sitting on my table right now. I sent it to Mark at the archives, and the print didn’t match up with the original, so I got it back to try and figure out what is happening with it. If anything, I’m going to re-edit it if I ever get around to it. The Legend of Persephone is where she has to go live with her mother for half a year and with her husband in the underworld for half a year. It is in some way about my wife and our initial relationship, and she’s in it quite a bit. It was ten to fifteen minutes. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be out again.
Rail: I wonder if you can talk about the movie Homegrown. We haven’t been able to see that. At the time, you described it in the Canyon Cinema catalog as “a folkfilm, a personal poem about my family and my town.” Is it an autobiographical film?
Van Meter: It somewhat autobiographical about my unconventional Southern radical background and not multiple-exposed. It is about family. I had an Éclair and a Nagra at the time. It was a sync-sound film. It’s another one that I couldn't distribute because it’s got music I don’t own the rights to. I was cavalier about using music in those days. Recently that’s gotten much tighter. Some of the films—like most of Acid Mantra, all the Trips Festival—had my [own] tape music soundtrack. Next lifetime I’ll be a musician as well as an artist, filmmaker, and lawyer to boot.
Family is an exercise in learning to love, and that is the real hokey pokey. All my films, photos, light shows, and book, and the social service karma yoga I performed, are my tributes to the beauty of this Universal Truth, to what happened in San Francisco fifty years ago, and to my hope that it can happen again, and again, and again until everybody sees the Light.