Films by Gordon Ball (dvd review)

(Canyon Cinema.www.canyoncinema.com)

US$50 (individual) US$150 (institution)

Some films move you, some films entertain you, and some films enlighten you. Watching Gordon Ball’s films is a transcendent experience, and I’m sure that’s just what Ball intended; viewing them in sequence is to follow the trajectory of a life from ecstatic youth and endless possibility into the more circumscribed and difficult terrain of adulthood, the loss of parents, the burdens of responsibility. But at all times, one is fully aware of a distinct consciousness at work in all of Ball’s films, which are honest, direct, and absolutely pure. Full disclosure: I knew Ball and his then-girlfriend Candy O’Brien when Ball worked as an assistant booker at The Filmmakers Cooperative, then located at 175 Lexington Avenue in New York City in 1966/67, and we became friends and colleagues. I haven’t seen Ball for more than forty years, but I saw many of his early films then, and have kept up with his work from a distance.

His earliest film, Georgia (USA 1966), is a three minute, silent, multiple exposure portrait of a friend originally shot in 8mm, and then blown up to 16mm; Ball was so broke during these days (as we all were), that originally he simply rented the original of the 16mm blowup, rather than a print. Needless to say, the resultant scratches are readily apparent in the film (and, of course, the film had been projected many times in its original 8mm format below being blown up to 16mm, adding to the film’s funkiness and texture), but this does nothing to detract from the evocative poetry and imagery of the film.

Eventually, I had one of my own films going through the lab for printing, and tacked the original of Georgia on the end of my material, striking off a one-light print of the film, which is what survives to this day, and is presented on this DVD. Leslie Trumbull, then the director of the Cooperative, and its guiding light for many years, OKed this somewhat surreptitious operation; I took the original to the lab, waited for it to be duped, and then returned with the print the same day, handing the original to Leslie, to give to Gordon. It was a typical transaction for the era; we all helped each other, shared what we could, and lived a communal existence. Candy and Gordon shared a small apartment on Thompson Street in New York, and Candy worked as a photographer’s model to supplement their income; among other side projects, she also posed for the poster of Shirley Clarke’s harrowing feature length documentary Portrait of Jason (USA 1967).

But living in Manhattan at the time was really, really cheap if you knew how to scrounge a bit, and even though most of us lived on something like $80 a week, if that, apartments were plentiful, there was a real sense of community, and of course, at the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, then located in the basement of the now demolished Wurlitzer Building at 125 West 41st Street, and managed by Greg Sharits, filmmaker Paul Sharits’ brother, there were experimental film screenings, happenings, concerts and dances on a nightly basis. It was a great time to be alive, to be working, making films and exploring the world; Ball was part of this time, as were many of us.

Gordon and Candy took off for Mexico in 1968 as a sort of romantic adventure, but Ball was soon arrested, along with twenty five other Americans in a general round up of youth culture in Puerto Vallarta; this gave rise to Ball’s second major work, Mexican Jail Footage (Mexico 1968; completed in 1980; again, blown up from 8mm originals to 16mm final print), which documents his life, and that of his fellow prisoners, in a remarkably laid back jail, again a throwback to a much more innocent time. Incarcerated for two weeks, Ball and his compatriots sent out for food, played Beatles records, and eventually Gordon was released and deported back to the states.

In this film, Ball began to develop what would become his signature style; the footage is rough, casual, and edited, for the most part in the camera, interspersed with chunks of colored leader, light flares, accompanied by a soundtrack consisting solely of Ball’s dryly sardonic narration, earnestly read from a self-prepared script with mistakes intact. But still, Mexican Jail Footage is a young work, an innocent work, before the circumstances of existence began to change the shape of his life.

Although he completed Mexican Jail Footage in 1980, in the meantime, two key events had transpired in his life. Ball, though born in the United States, spent his formative years in Tokyo, and then moved to the United States with his mother and father in the early 1960s. But his parents’ health began to fail, and in two shattering films, Father Movie (USA, 1978) and Enthusiasm (USA, 1979), he attempts to come to terms with their deaths.  Of Father Movie, Ball wrote that the film was “made spontaneously with news of my father’s death—I kept a friend’s Instamatic Super 8 in my coat pocket as I headed to Winston-Salem and the rest home where my father died of a sudden stroke overnight. I filmed on highway, in his abandoned rest home room, then drove weeping & filming at the same time, one hand on wheel, one holding camera, past the houses—my sister’s, his own—he and my mother had lived in after retirement from life’s work abroad” (Ball website).

Even more harrowing is Enthusiasm, in which Ball documents his mother’s horrific descent into Alzheimer’s-induced senility, using old photographs of his mother, father, and of the family together, while on the soundtrack he relentlessly narrates the step-by-step failure of her mind, her body, and her will to live in minute detail. As critic Linda Dubler wrote of the film, “for the fourteen long minutes that Enthusiasm claimed the screen, a roomful of unprepared viewers was confronted with a filmmaker’s account of his mother’s death, following a prolonged illness with Alzheimer’s disease, a form of premature senility. Ball’s detailed narrative, recited in a voice struggling to maintain composure, accompanied the generally random series of snapshots and posed photographs of his mother, interspersed with passages of colored leader and flares which constituted the visual body of the film” (Art Papers, as qtd. in Ball website).

The DVD also contains Sitting (USA 1977), a nearly structuralist, silent consideration of the act of simply being seated; Millbrook (USA 1985), a tale of coming to personal consciousness by firelight, again framed by Ball’s narration; and Do Poznania (To Poznan): Conversations in Poland (Poland, filmed 1986 and 1988, completed in 1991), which, in Ball’s words, consists of “personal glimpses of Polish life immediately preceding glasnost [. . .] filmed during my two month-long visits (1986, 1988) as American Literature and Culture Specialist at Adam Mickiewicz University, it offers everyday street scenes, crumbling building facades, remains of death camps Auschwitz and Birkenau, Solidarity monument at Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard and traveling shots of idyllic countryside, all in a handheld camera style: personal, raw, rapid, eccentric, intense—the opposite of Lowell Thomas or PBS. Charging the rapidly fleeting images are gists of conversations with Poles in which I took part, re-created back in US—health and financial problems, queuing, environmental issues, Chernobyl, food, communists, anti-Semitism, “free” education and work under Soviet socialism” (Ball website).

All told, the DVD contains seven films, totaling 68 minutes of running time; far from Ball’s entire output (he always walked around with a 8mm or Super 8mm camera when I knew him, constantly documenting the world around him), and much of this footage survives, and is in other works, such as Farm Diary (USA 1970), a 64 minute, silent 8mm account of life on Allen Ginsberg’s farm in upstate New York, but these are certainly his key works. In addition, there is a 38-minute interview with Ball on the DVD which rounds out the collection.

It should be emphasized that in addition to his film work, Ball has also written a memoir of his days in New York, 66 Frames (1999), and also edited three books, including two volumes of Allen Ginsberg’s journals and the Pulitzer Prize nominee Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness (1974). He is also an accomplished still photographer: Ball’s images of his time with Ginsberg, as well as other luminaries of the Beat Generation, have been exhibited in numerous museums, and reprinted in a number of books. So all in all, Ball has certainly had a full life; he now teaches literature, composition and film in the Department of English and Fine Arts at the Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington, Virginia.

Taken together, Ball’s films are the record of a life’s trip from youth to the concerns of later life, and a reminder of the bond between life and mortality. Shorn of any pretense at “artistic” presentation, Ball’s films are rough, raw, and ultimately as celebratory, and as unforgiving, as life itself. These are films that document the journey of one man through a rapidly changing life in an America transformed by the ferment of the 1960s, 70s and beyond; films that foreground personal experience as perhaps the most reliable indicator of one’s own life journey. Ball’s films are unique, idiosyncratic, and unforgettable; they form a body of work that relates not only to the filmmaker’s life, but also to life itself.

(Work Cited: Gordon Ball Gallery, at <http://www.gordonballgallery.com/>)

About the Author


Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His most recent books are 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press, 2009).