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The Wizard of the Magic Screen

The Creative Alliance Celebrates the Opto-Mystic Films of Stan Vanderbeek

Stan Vanderbeek's Flying Circus: The late avant-garde filmmaker and UMBC instructor was a key influence on Monty Python's Terry Gilliam.

By Ian Nagoski | Posted 11/7/2001

Stan VanDerBeek: Retrospective Screening With Family

Creative Alliance (413 S. Conkling St.) on Nov. 9 at 8 p.m.

In the mid-1950s, while American experimental filmmakers such as Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage produced brooding, introspective works out of their private lives--full of ultra-closeups, swinging camera-work, and stark lighting--Stan VanDerBeek designed sets for the children's TV show Winky Dink and You. Winky Dink included interactive sequences in which kids were instructed to put their "magic screens" (sheets of clear plastic) on the TV screen and draw objects into the scenes.

During off hours, VanDerBeek used the Winky Dink animation table to make his own films, surrealist collage animations that were hip, funny, smart, and dreamy: Cold War comedies such as Achoo, Mr. Kerroochev and Breathdeath; studies in superimposition such as See, Saw, Seems; games for memory and narrative like What Who How and Mankinda; and scenes such as the one at the end of Science Friction, when a gloved hand takes hold of the spinning earth, cracks it open, and makes an omelet from its bowels. No surprise that Terry Gilliam credits VanDerBeek's animations as an antecedent for his own work on Monty Python's Flying Circus a decade later.

VanDerBeek's cut-up animations were only the beginning of a 35-year career as a revered illusionist, social observer, and innovator in film. His work helped change the landscape of cinema, putting him in the canon of experimental film next to Deren and Brakhage, and ultimately landing him here in Baltimore as a teacher in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's respected film program. On Nov. 9, the Creative Alliance screens an assortment of his creations and brings together his widow, Louise VanDerBeek, first wife Johanna Vanderbeek, children Josh and Sara VanDerBeek, and artists/former VanDerBeek students Richard Chisolm and Richard Ellsberry to discuss the life and work of an undersung but truly remarkable media pioneer.

Born of Danish and Dutch working-class immigrants in 1927, VanDerBeek studied art and architecture first at Cooper Union College in New York and then at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he met such art luminaries as architect Buckminster Fuller, composer John Cage, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Fuller's utopian humanism had profound impact on VanDerBeek, sparking a lifelong obsession with global communication and technology's potential to elevate and ennoble people.

During the early '60s, VanDerBeek was a whirl of activity. His ambitious, energized personality, in combination with doses of amphetamines, resulted in prolific days of nonstop work on films. He and Johanna moved to an artists colony in upstate New York called the Land, where he built his family's home and converted a grain silo into the Movie-Drome. Inside the dome-shaped theater, audiences lay flat to view collaged projections of slides, film loops, hand-drawn animation, collage animation, live-action footage, and video images above them.

Delving further into cinematic research and development, including early computer animation, VanDerBeek served as an artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bell Labs. Despite the painfully slow programming process, the need for expert guidance, and the unfriendly interfaces available at the time, he wrote, "The computer is a high-fidelity amplifier for human intelligence." The series of computer animations he created in the mid-'60s at Bell with Ken Knowlton, collectively titled Poemfields, foreshadowed contemporary digital design and video. By 1969, he had arrived at the conclusion that "we shall reach the state of the $50 computer within five years . . . and this shall be a computer that can make images, and be responsive to us. . . . The image computer will be as commonplace as the 8mm camera; we [now] enter the age of the 'home movies of computers.'" His foresight and vision are hard to miss, even if his financial projections now sound like wishful thinking.

Through the late '60s and early '70s, VanDerBeek toured North America, Europe, Japan, and the Middle East with his films and his big ideas, creating massive environments of images and light, sometimes for days at a time, using multiple projections and novel screen configurations. He also experimented with TV simulcasting at WGBH in Boston and projections onto steam, which Johanna and VanDerBeek's second wife, Louise, remember as hauntingly beautiful, if, at times, technically flawed--one steam-projection presentation in Paris was marred by rivulets of water running on the museum's floor.

In 1975, he became an instructor at UMBC, where he founded the digital media center and brought many leading lights of the film world to lecture and present their work. Louise VanDerBeek remembers her husband's classes as "chaotic." His top-to-bottom understanding of film offered his students a dazzling array of directions in composition and editing. "There were too many options," she laughs.

His contribution to Baltimore's art scene included a variety of presentations in the early '80s. Louise particularly recalls VanDerBeek's attempt to screen films in an outdoor dome that he had erected. A passing tornado sent the dome flying down the street.

Unfortunately, the constant whirl of inspiration and activity VanDerBeek generated was stilled all too early when he died of kidney cancer in 1984 at the age of 57. "He just burnt himself out," Johanna Vanderbeek says.

The Creative Alliance presentation will feature many of his key films from the mid-'50s to the early '80s, including Science Friction; Breathdeath; The Human Face Is a Monument; See, Saw, Seems; Oh; and Symmetricks, works spanning the period of his social-satire collages through his psychedelic, stroboscopic, computer-derived geometric animations. VanDerBeek's films carry the wild, free spirit that leads his friend and ally, critic Amos Vogel, to praise cinema's ability to "distort shapes, colors, life . . . imitate dreams and free associations by transformations of time and space . . . combine objects and backgrounds (or have them collide). . . . The startling ability of the medium to create even 'impossible' new realities [makes it perfect] for humanist provocation." We take the world of animated and digital illusion for granted, but in VanDerBeek's day, there were new, unseen worlds to explore, not simply "special effects" to add to a scene. These films are like the first photos of the moon--strange, new evidence from the unseen world.

The VanDerBeek family is quick to recall his palpable enthusiasm, charm, and positivity, casting him as a classic inventor type, overflowing with ideas for projects and pushing the limits of technology in the service of imagination. His vision and groundbreaking work resonate throughout television, movies, and video, and helped to create the modern world of digital interactive video--no "magic screen" necessary. Whether you give a damn about innovation or influence or not, the sly humor of the collage animations, the earnest techno-utopianism, and the unique imagination that unite them keep VanDerBeek's work fresh and alive.

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