PEOPLE ARE NOSTALGIC FOR THINGS THAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR • Stephen Parr and Oddball Films
A quick note before we start. I just heard that Stephen passed away. I don’t even know what happened. I still can’t believe it. We were never close, but I did attend Oddball screenings somewhat regularly and Stephen was an inspiration for me in starting my own community space. I interviewed Stephen Parr in 2012 for a now-defunct magazine called Yes Yes Yes that was run out of a vintage store in San Francisco. This piece is not a straight appreciation of Stephen, necessarily. He was a complicated human, obviously. Also it’s full of long asides about whatever weird turmoil my life was going through at the time. I considered cutting these digressions out of this version. But I guess, in the spirt of archiving and sharing weird cultural artifacts in all their strangeness, I decided to leave them in. Why not sit through the awkward home movies I spliced intermittently through this profile? Why did I feel the need to do that? Also, why is it so long? Anyway, I do occasionally shut up and let Stephen talk. I think some of his energy is captured here (and actually lots of details about his life). So I thought I would share it for anyone who is interested. Thanks Stephen. You will be missed. —JC
The films in the Oddball archive are stacked, floor-to-ceiling, on rows of industrial metal shelving extending, deep into their Capp street warehouse. One column of metal canisters reads, from top to bottom, neatly labeled, like this:
Poison Prevention: Primary Grades; How Do We Look?; Rendezvous — Space Film; Birds and Their Babies; The Magic Whistle; Let’s Play Soccer; Lintola; Monkey Who Would Be King; Myra; Beyond the Stars: A Space Story.
What is the Dewey Decimal System section that these go in? Flight, Space, Poison and Soccer? Films with the letter “A” in their titles? Which doesn’t even work. These films do not share a common subject, vibe, or even a vowel.
I look out across the packed room, in something like wonder. What if the whole place is organized something like this column. Like, by a secret code, or by some secret system of associations or, like, personal tarot or something. How do you manage something like that? To have all that in your mind? Or, where do you put it? The whole collection, which director, Stephen Parr has been amassing for the last two decades or so contains over 45,000 films — and counting.
* * *
“I just got this film, it’s a documentary about Hugh Hefner, I thought I might show it tonight,” Stephen explains, as we sit down for coffee on mismatched chairs screen right. A disco ball spins above us, refracting the summer evening sunlight that leaks in from the cracks where the blackout blinds don’t quite cover the windows. Stephen begins ripping open a thin cardboard box with a worn box cutter. He pulls out a 16mm film reel and holds it up to the light. Squints at it. Runs his hand over a few discolored spots. “I bought this on eBay — I don’t always buy things on eBay, but occasionally I do.” It’s about an hour before that evening’s screening. He has never seen the film.
* * *
Oddball Films started up, by Stephen’s account, fifteen or twenty years ago. “I don’t really count,” he insists. Besides housing a large and almost unfathomably strange archive of films and videos, about six years ago, Oddball Films began hosting regular screenings — some curated by Stephen, some by visiting artists, students, and friends. By Stephen’s reckoning, Oddball has screened around 700 unique programs so far.
He started the archive as something to draw from for his own work. He was making visuals for nightclubs and performances, by hand. “Now,” he says, “they just have software to combine the images together. It kind of all looks the same after a while — it’s kind of like a lava lamp. My stuff was more — I think, more interesting. Because I cut things up in really unique ways. I used anything from teeming tornadoes to burlesque dancers to atomic a-bomb blasts to ethnographic dancers and I cut it up in a really unique way that kind of forced people to look at it. But not for too long because it was moving too quickly and it had this certain rhythm.”
“It was kind of an experiment.”
Stephen grew up in upstate New York. He studied Video Art and Avant Garde Cinema at SUNY Buffalo at the Center for Media Studies alongside people like Woody Vasulka (founder of the Kitchen in New York), Nam Jun Paik, Tony Conrad, and Paul Sharits. “Basically I researched various forms of multimedia, and their uses in performance. So, I work with lasers, sound installation, I work with video installation. Basically, I had a research grant to study the effects of different types of media on human perception.”
Stephen came to California after Jonestown. After the Dan White assassinations. That’s how he marks it in time. He was drawn out by the open, experimental culture. “They used to do these big kind of — well, now they call them raves — but they used to call them Happenings — and it was kind of this outgrowth, in a certain sense, of the early use of performance, and kind of a West Coast concept of performance art. They called them Happenings or Love-ins or something like that. It was just a really free-form use of media and body-movement and sound and the west coast has always been more open to that kind of stuff.”
Once in San Francisco, he started an after hours club called Club Generic where he put on shows, often with a visual or film component, often showing his own unique collage and multi-screen film work. “By the time I came out here,” he says, “I was more interested in starting more of, like, a live venue for people doing particular kinds of work, whether it was film or video, performance or music — and most people at the time were really kind of rebelling against the kind of self-indulgence of the late seventies — so there was this like punk-new wave aesthetic that kind of permeated things.”
“One of the reasons I started an archive,” he says, “is whenever I went to other archives, they always had these really prohibitive policies — you can’t take the films out, you can’t play the films, you have to have a certain type of academic credential to utilize the resources.”
So, he started his own collection — whatever he could get his hands on, things that no one else would touch.
“I got antiquated medical films. Home movies — home movies, of course have gotten a lot more press and care and interest over the years, and that’s a good thing, but a lot of people just don’t see the value in that. They just see it as a camp. Camp stuff, but there’s amateur films, films made by amateur film makers — people that didn’t want to be Hollywood filmmakers they just wanted to make films about their kids or stories that they told and they would show at cinema clubs or little venues. Films made by guys who were itinerant filmmakers. They’d go and make a film about a town, and they’d move on to the next town. Commercials, television commercials, movie trailers — airplane wing test films, films about psychology. All kinds of films that — how to pave a sidewalk. Films that really have a lot of inherent socio-cultural value, they were how-to films. There’s all kinds of aspects of it. “
Not too long after he started the collection, he started licensing out the films to filmmakers, bands, and other artists. “My first real gig was with Ridley Scott because he was shooting a commercial in a club. And he wanted to know if I wanted to license the clips, and I said yeah, and I could pay my rent just from licensing these clips. So then I started building an archive.” He’s since licensed footage for movies like “Milk,” the show Mythbusters, and bands like, Motley Crüe, Butthole Surfers, Kiss, and Primus, as well as providing footage for PBS.
Eventually all this became Oddball. It’s a weird in-between space. It’s not too academic, but it’s also not too lowbrow. It’s definitely wild. It’s like a wild, trippy, smart thing. It’s difficult to describe.
* * *
Or, maybe it’s just difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what, if anything is going to be playing. The website doesn’t really mention it. It mostly talks about the films for rent in the archive. In fact, I think until recently, it made no mention of the screenings. Once you figure out what the heck is playing, and you decide that you’re actually up for whatever that is, and maybe you’ve convinced your date or friend or whatever that he or she should actually accompany you, you are supposed to call in and RSVP. You can’t just show up — or you’re meant to feel like you shouldn’t just show up. You have to call and leave your name and phone number on the machine. If the screening fills up, you’ll be called back and notified. Once you get there, there is this little sign — black with white letters, and a doorbell, near the top of the door. Says, “RING FOR ODDBALL FILM AND VIDEO.” This seems like a really good point to turn around if you’re not feeling particularly brave. Or maybe, this is the point to get excited. This is something you have to kind of work for. This is an adventure. This is a quest, man. Again, though, if you’re at all skittish, it feels more like — what is going to happen here? What the hell is all this?
The door buzzes and once you’re inside, you truck up a couple flights of wide, creaky, hand-painted wooden stairs, past a carpet shop — I think it’s a carpet shop — to a second door, where you have to ring a second buzzer, and wait again.
It feels like some kind of a test.
* * *
I spent the day before my meeting with Stephen — well, hungover, and feeling generally, you know, in that sad hungover place. Like, the shame-place of that, I guess. It was the fifth of July — I didn’t have to go to work, and didn’t have too much going on, and you know, all my friends were at work, so I decided to bike out to the Marin Headlands. It seemed like a healthy thing to do.
I pretty much grew up out in the Headlands — I used to go when I was real little with my dad to run around in the abandoned bunkers, rusted rebar, and decommissioned military junk. My brother and sister used to party in the bunkers in high school. I used to party out there in high school. We’d drive out and play tag out there in the dark. Mostly, the old concrete bunkers look like a puzzling alien monument. Like, some derelict ritual space with no clues to how it might have been used. Or, you know, on another level, some monumental tribute to the military industrial complex. To the arms race. To planned obsolescence.
I went on the tour of one of the re-constructed batteries once. The docent talked about how they’d made a gun that shot 25 miles, and that was, really the top of the line thing, and then the Japanese came up with a gun that shot 50 miles or whatever — this was during or around WWII, maybe — and they had to come up with a gun that shot 100 miles, so the Americans in the bunker scrapped the old, humongous gun, and sold it as scrap to the Gillette company to turn into razors and started building a 100-mile shooting gun. Well, as soon as the Americans got this 100-mile shooting gun, the Japanese had these long-distance flying airplanes, so the guns were useless — again, the guns were sold them for scrap. Later, in the sixties or seventies, the place was rented out to private companies who would test the effects of different weapons forces on building materials. They could simulate huge explosions — all the way up to atomic force weapons in these long concrete tubes. We looked in the tubes.
Besides the bunkers, the Headlands are huge and expansive and the hills are, I think, just like from a movie about California. Many of the hills were built, in part by the military, to put the bunkers in. It’s this totally re-configured nature space. The ocean crashes below. The red-topped buildings sit empty.
In broad daylight, I saw a turkey, a limping raccoon, and a seal.
When I go out there on my own, I sit in the old, abandoned bunkers and, you know, get quiet. The dusty concrete walls are all covered with layer upon layer of some of the worst graffiti I’ve ever seen. They all smell like piss and shit and rotting piss and shit. There are broken bottles and crushed can pieces everywhere. But, it’s cool inside and it’s shaded from the wind that whips over the cliffs. It’s some kind of peaceful.
Inside one of the bunkers, there is a cut circular pit where one of those giant guns used to sit. It’s got a diameter of about — I don’t know — thirty feet, and is about ten feet deep, I’d guess. The pit is about halfway full of water, and inside, there are fallen branches from who-knows-where, and around the branches, and the muck, spiny green plants grow. And around the plants salamanders swim.
I sat on the edge of the pool and ate a sandwich from my backpack. I thought about things to ask Stephen. I thought about obsolescence. About what the best ways to cure a hangover might be. About all the concrete and all the cannons and the explosions and the razorblades. I thought about nostalgia. The salamanders darted and dived, and floated like debris. I felt hazy.
I layed on the concrete, and felt like I was watching a movie about myself I’d seen a million times. I knew exactly what would happen next at every moment. What rock I would step on, what exact thing I would notice. What thought I would think. The film was boring. I realized I’d been trying really hard to not make it boring — to pump it up — but it was boring. It is unseemly to be bored. People do not like to admit they are bored. It is perceived as some kind of personal failure to be an adult and to be bored. Well, here I was — a free adult human being, able to do whatever I wanted with my time — just on my own, looking out at gorgeous natural beauty, at weathered alien monuments, and I was completely bored.
* * *
“The types of stuff that we collect are really, really unique,” Stephen says. “There’s people who have bigger collections — there’s a lot of people who have gotten their stuff digitized and are putting it up on the web and reaching more people — but, it’s really not, how many people you reach. It’s how you’re reaching people.”
There is something at cross-purposes, it seems, in the Oddball Film concept. I think I hadn’t really felt it — or, I’d felt it somewhat at programs before. On one hand, Stephen is committed, and I believe, genuinely committed to providing easy access to these very difficult and hard to categorize films to a wider audience. On the other hand — most audiences do not actually want to see this stuff, don’t really know how to even watch it, or, don’t have the sort of cultural feelers tuned up to get what is going on. I think at every show I’ve been to at least one person has left halfway through.
“A lot of things we screen,” Stephen says, “are for the 1%. They’re for the 10% of people who are interested in this type of work. I don’t really expect to bring in a large following of people. It’s of interest, but it’s not really why I do it.”
“If you sell a lot of books,” he says, “you think you’re a great writer. If you don’t sell a lot of books, and maybe you have a day job, you still think you’re a great writer. You don’t sell any books at all, and people tell you your stuff is terrible, you still think you’re a great writer. And there’s very few great writers. So, it’s not up to me to figure out if what I’m doing is of interest or not. I just put it out there. It’s interesting to me as far as I can put it together. It’s like Jonas Mekas, the founder of the Anthology Film Archive, once said, ‘The better the film, the smaller the audience.’ I’ve done things that were really avant garde — I’ve done things that were purely ethnographic, things like experimental cinema from India, contemporary experimental cinema from India — I’ve done, like — films like, I did a screening called Downward Facing Dog about dog training and yoga.” He adds, “I’ve seen many film programs with very few people.”
“In San Francisco, people tend to be — it’s very provincial. There’s a lot of very out there stuff, but it’s just as out there as if you showed it in Sacramento, because there’s so many things going on that — it takes a very sophisticated palette to really kind of understand and be interested in the kinds of things that I screen. It’s not just campy film. It’s not — I don’t even use the word ‘indie’ because I rarely show the work of independent filmmakers. Occasionally I do.”
Stephen’s explanation for why he programs the things he does is this: “I put it out there. And I think other people — it will be of interest to them.”
* * *
Which, I guess I am part of that very small percentage that 1% or 10% or whatever that is looking for what Oddball is offering. I usually enjoy coming out to Oddball. Or, I usually enjoy having gone to Oddball, if that makes sense. During the show, there is usually at least one point where, I’m thinking: What the hell am I doing here? The films can be very beige, if that makes sense. Very low-key. Sometimes, they just make no sense. Sometimes the films are excruciatingly slow, depressing. Sometimes they’re frenetic. Often they’re psychedelic. Often they’re sexual — like, burlesque. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like the films being shown are totally holding together. Like, the organization of the films is not tight. Doesn’t produce any sort of meaning, or meaningful vibration. Sometimes it feels like, this is not art, this is not interesting — this is just a bunch of commercials and educational films — films that were dull and exhausting the first time around, and continue to be dull and exhausting today.
* * *
The films that Stephen shows at Oddball are not easily categorizable, as far as modes of looking at this kind of material go. I mean, I think there are many ways of looking at this kind of vintage film material, and maybe two that I can readily identify would be some kind of kitsch/camp mode, and the other being the nostalgia/preciousness mode. Stephen doesn’t go out for either of these — well, not wholeheartedly. It seems like neither have really occurred to him. “Honestly,” he says, “if you look at the word, ‘nostalgia,’ I mean, people are nostalgic about things that happened a year ago. People are nostalgic about MySpace. “
“It’s important to have a sense of history. A lot of things are made — are so far ahead of their time — that you show them now. When you show Island of Lost Souls, the Charles Laughton film — I’ve showed the film over twenty five years ago — I still get the same audience, because nobody’s heard of the film, it’s hard to categorize, but it’s a brilliant film. And everyone that sees it is mesmerized by it but they still don’t understand why no one comes to see it. It’s kind of a hard thing to describe because, like, for instance, anybody who’s ever seen Scorpio Rising [Kenneth Anger, 1963] — there’s probably 1% of cinema audiences who have ever seen the film — those people are — that’s a very small amount of people, so whenever you show the film it’s only for people who are going to be educated. In a certain way, they’re being educated. Because it’s such an arcane film outside of the mainstream, people aren’t necessarily going to want to go and see it, y’know? So, if I’m going to screen a film like that, I might put that on a bill that’s completely different. Some film about — y’know, Boy With a Knife — some Richard Widmar film made in ’53 about a teenage thug — a juvenile delinquent. Actually, Scorpio Rising was kind of a quintessential homoerotic, you know, leather, macho — it represents so many iconic things that people take for granted right now. It predated the whole punk scene, it utilized music — created kind of a visual music. It’s a brilliant film, but most people that are aware of it are either interested in avant garde cinema and already know about it. And how do you put that stuff out there?”
I think spectators come to Oddball expecting nostalgic and kitschy exploitation films of yesteryear — which, there’s some of that — maybe more than Stephen really admits, or likes to talk about — but, really, they’re more likely to see lots of homemade animations, uncategorizable documentaries, and experimental kinetic movies.
“It’s how you present the work,” he says. “It’s not the fact that it’s old. Just because it’s old it doesn’t mean that it represents an older form of consciousness.”
He continues, “A lot of things are available online. But, when you present something in a real-time situation, presented the way it was originally meant to be presented — it’s not so much nostalgia, it’s kind of like, if you eat a tomato grown with seeds that are, you know, really good, unadulterated seeds, it’s gonna taste like a tomato. If you watch a movie on a poorly calibrated video projector, you’re not going to have the same experience. If you watch a movie on a computer, by yourself, you’re not going to have the same experience. So, it’s a really different kind of experience. Like, visually sitting in a room, watching something with people. It’s a commitment.”
* * *
The screening I’m here for is called, “America the Strange.” It’s the 5th of July. So it’s all Americana themed films. So far, the schedule for the night looks like this: Vince Collins’ 200 (1975); All American Meal (1976), Fireworks (1970s), Not So Easy (1973), Sewage Treatment Workers (1970), The Star Spangled Banner (vintage commercials), An American Time Capsule (1968). And now, add to that, this just-opened, wildcard Hugh Hefner documentary, The Most (1963).
The night before I spent running around the rooftops of an abandoned warehouse, shotgunning beers and shooting bottle rockets out of the mouth of a toy dinosaur. Shooting bottle rockets into a golden painted newspaper box. Shooting bottle rockets out of bottles — everyone taking turns trying to out-America everyone else. There were rabbit’s feet in the bed of a truck that Iris took in to her studio. “They’re surprisingly heavy,” she said. Somebody barbecued a pineapple. Somebody wanted to watch Independence Day on VHS. Somebody in San Diego shot off all their fireworks at once. It looked like a mushroom cloud. A cute pink and yellow mushroom cloud. Somebody started to black out. It was me blacking out. I felt the night slipping through my fingers. I stepped outside of myself. Like there was nothing anyone could do to stop anything. Like it was happening to someone else. I watched myself pace. I watched myself write a letter. I watched, transfixed, as I folded it up and put it in my inside jacket pocket. Whatever would I do next? made a drawing of a plant in a pot with the caption: ENJOY YOUR LIFE. I handed the drawing to Iris. She smiled and said, “I think this is for someone else.” I tossed it into the air and biked to BART where I watched myself furiously sending text messages. I got home around 10:00. The Fourth of July is weird. America is a weird place.
* * *
Stephen introduces the night’s program like this:
“If you haven’t been here before, my name is Stephen Parr, I run the archive — the largest film archive in Northern California. We mainly show films from the collection here. The program tonight is a really unique program of Americana-based films — it really runs the gamut. It could be anything from a patriotic film to a psychedelic film. I just got this film in a little while ago — today. I thought a very quintessential American film. It’s a documentary about Hugh Hefner. I think it was made in the early seventies — I spent a lot of money on it, I don’t know why. I thought it would be fun to screen it. I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m hoping it’s in pretty good shape. So we’re going to watch that — I gonna probably throw a couple of the other films out that are not quite as interesting, let’s put it like that. Generally, I like to think you’re here to see what’s on this screen, rather than what’s on the little screen that people like to look at all the time, so I ask you to turn your phones off. If you want to use them you can just go into the other room. Bathroom’s on your far left. So, if you have any questions, I’ll be around after the show. So, thanks again for coming. All these films are — some of the condition of the films varies, and it really depends on where I got the films — I’ll tell a little story again — get a film from say, uh, Mississippi, you know? All the sports films are beat up, and all the art films are like, brand new, nobody’s ever watched them. I got these films from Chico State — this guy, probably nobody ever knew that he was even in the college. Some of the films, it’s like, you open them up, and it’s like nobody’s ever watched them. Guy was just — he had these incredible films, you know, like James Joyce, you know, what was that film — Finnegan’s Wake. Like, a really rare avant garde film. Like, you know, who would have ordered that? Somebody in the film department at Chico State? Hard to believe. But their loss is our gain. I haven’t really seen this program myself — I had some help curating. I may actually pull a film right in the middle if it gets too boring for me. Thank you. “
* * *
After the show, some of the audience quickly gets up to go. But a couple of guys stick around. The regulars. They turn in their seats and start peppering Stephen with questions. Like in his introduction, he is in his element here. Joking, talking expertly about the obscure and detailed histories of some of the more interesting films from the night. It feels good to be here for this — these three or four people having a nice discussion about some very rare thing.
I had planned to stick around, and hear more but Iris texted me during the show something like, “I’m ditching out of work. Want to watch a movie?” Which, I did. It’s all I wanted to do. I’d just spent about two hours in a theater, looking at a screen, but I felt like nothing else right then, than sitting down on a couch somewhere and falling asleep in front of a movie.
(Originally published in Yes Yes Yes magazine in 2012)