“This is a different kind of DVD,” Cindy Keefer, the director of CVM warned me, adding that she and Belson were wary of reviewers who 1) might expect something similar to Oskar Fischinger, or 2) were unfamiliar with the work of Jordan Belson and might criticize the DVD as being blurry or out of focus. Hard to believe, but I’m sure they’ve heard it. She encouraged me to watch the DVD on as big a screen as possible, and I’m glad she did. Although I haven’t owned a television in years, I do have a video projector at home, and seeing Belson’s extraordinary work in a large format on my wall with a decent audio system was one of the most transcendent experiences of my viewing year. I’m passing on the recommendation.
Jordan Belson: 5 Essential Films
This DVD is an elegant, spartan affair; it contains a black and white menu featuring just what it says (five essential films) and no more, yet the disc’s minimalism–like Belson’s famed reticence to explain the sources of his films’ imagery–merely accentuates the sense of mystery that permeates his work. “Idle curiosity about how I produce the images can only spoil the experience of the films, as far as I’m concerned,” Belson told Scott MacDonald in A Critical Cinema 3. “Although there is a dominance of a certain kind of imagery, I’ve always tried to include as many different elements as possible.”
A member of the Beat Generation, Belson began his career as a painter, moved into animation and experimental film, and later joined electronic composer Henry Jacobs to create psychedelic Vortex Concerts at a planetarium in San Francisco in the late-’50s. Like many Beats, Belson was highly influenced by Eastern mysticism and he began formulating abstract, audiovisual presentations that often utilized circular motifs, solar imagery, lasers, star fields, and billowing, ethereal vapors. “I’m involved with the kind of imagery that has been dealt with in Tibetan art and in some Christian art of the Middle Ages,” he told MacDonald, “the windows in Gothic cathedrals, for example. Such circular and symmetrical shapes have always been associated with the quest for spirituality, even to the extent that some people believe that such shapes, mandalas or the designs inside Moorish mosque domes, can precipitate spiritual feeling.” P. Adams Sitney qualified Belson’s approach, writing: “The aesthetic use of oriental thought is a Romantic tradition, and a particularly fertile one in America. Belson is closer to the Emerson of Circles as an artist than to Ramana Maharshi or Tibetan iconographers.”
Allures (1961) is largely considered a culmination of Belson’s Vortex period, and it was widely seen on the 16mm circuit before Belson removed all his films from distribution in 1978 (one of several “renunciations” of the cinema the filmmaker would assert over time). Set against a pulsing, electronic soundtrack (created in collaboration with Jacobs), multicolored light tunnels and spiraling designs fade in and out of the film; shapes and particles recede into infinity. It might remind contemporary viewers of the finale in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but it firmly predates it (and both were inspired by the work of James Whitney). Allures is more stroboscopic and graphically intense than some of Belson’s later work, but its endless stream of enigmatic motifs is genuinely immersive.
Samadhi (1967) begins with stunningly lit, turbulent clouds shifting through the color spectrum before gradually revealing a circular center that becomes a template for a variety of morphing imagery. A rumbling hiss comes and goes on the soundtrack (which Gene Youngblood identified in a Film Culture article as “the inhaling and exhaling of Belson’s own respiration”) before blending into lingering electronic sounds. It’s a haunting, organic tone poem.
Light (1973) commences with violet droplets raining down upon swirling blue and crimson vapors, and develops into partially opaque superimpositions that layer colors upon colors, and textures upon textures; the soundtrack was created by Belson and features a halting, soft piano performance that later merges with more atmospheric and electronic sound effects. Again, circular imagery persists, but the film also incorporates the glittering motion of what seems like millions of particles moving across the screen, fading out, and reappearing in different orientations.
Fountain of Dreams (1984, previously unreleased) sets Belson’s swirling clouds of brilliantly-hued effluvium and various shimmering reflections to the stirring piano music of Franz Liszt. The motions in this film are closer to arcs; the quickly moving wisps of smoke appear and disappear with an entrancing rhythmic beauty, each carefully lit, eventually dissolving into particles that swirl in motion across the screen. (Belson was tapped to do some special effects for Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff in 1983, and if you remember some of the film’s phantasmagoric sky effects or the Aboriginal fire dance, some of this imagery may look familiar.) This is a particularly delicate film, one that could prompt endless contemplation.
Finally, the DVD ends with a special treat–Epilogue (2005), a film commissioned and installed at a recent Hirshhorn/Smithsonian exhibition on Visual Music. It’s clear from the outset that the 79-year old Belson hasn’t lost an ounce of his talent; the film is a dramatic cornucopia of chiaroscuro lighting and thick, tumultuous clouds, ambiguous physical formations, and beautiful lens flares set to Rachmaninoff’s deeply evocative “The Isle of the Dead” symphony. It was actually produced by CVM with additional support from the NASA Art Program, and taken on its own terms, it may be my favorite piece on the disc. Each infinitely complex, churning cloud and vivid hue seems organically rendered, and the overall pace of the film’s fades, dissolves, and overlapping elements generates considerable power.