White Light 2

Weblog White Light 2

I should just admit it. Until recently the name Jordan Belson didn't ring any bells with me. I'd never heard of him or, more probably, I just forgotten him again. He had been mentioned in books I had once read even if it was only in passing. But not always. I must have read the famous book by Gene Youngblood about Expanded Cinema (1970) a long time ago, because Youngblood dedicates a major and positive chapter to the mystic from San Francisco. That chapter would appear to be the most dedicated information that has been written about this experimental alchemist.

by Gertjan Zuilhof

When I told an American film maker and teacher that I wanted to make a programme about drugs and cinema she immediately mentioned the name Jordan Belson. And she promised to burn me a DVD at her school. One glance at the imposing filmography of Belson, starting in 1947 with the short film Transmutation, revealed that in 1962 he made a film entitled LSD and that certainly awoke my interest.

The work of Belson was widely shown in the 1960s and 1970s. Often with abstract experimental contemporaries such as John & James Whitney, Harry Smith and Robert Breer or with historic avant-garde predecessors such as Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger and Len Lye. You still occasionally come across all these names in retrospective programmes, but I would appear to be not the only one to forget Belson. Maybe he forgot himself too.

In the late 1970s, he would appear to have removed a considerable section of his oeuvre from circulation and he seems to be an artist who prefers to withdraw to his laboratory-studio. He would also appear to have survived his era. In a humorous and cynical biographical sketch on, Belson himself indicates how the world beyond Belson changed: "Then everything disappeared. All the goddam distributors, festivals and venues disappeared. I mean, they suddenly just weren't there anymore." At least not for the cosmic mist banks of Belson.

Yet he later made two compilations, Samadhi and Other Films and Mysterious Journey, making part of the old work available. Those two compilations were on the DVD I received and I could start to get acquainted with the cosmic world of Belson.

I should admit to the following right away. Belson's films are vague and woolly. Arty and crafted variants on psychedelic light shows. Youngblood went to great ends to describe in words the Milky Way nebulae and solar eruptions, often using 19th-century painting terminology, but that isn't really possible with work like this. At least not for me. And greater writers than me also found it difficult.

For instance Jonas Mekas once informed his readers: 'have you noticed that I have practically never reviewed a film by Brakhage, the greatest filmmaker making films today?'. Belson may not have the stature of Brakhage, but certainly belongs to the same indescribably domain. Mekas knows the work of Belson, just as he does that of all American film avant gardistes, but sidestepped writing about them.

Youngblood did want to know all about Belson and drugs. Belson tried peyote (the notorious cactus from which mescaline is made) and LSD and various other substances to broaden his cosmic gaze. Later yoga and meditation were enough to see his films before he made them.

Finally there is one more thing I should own up to. I have seen Samadhi and Mysterious Journey several times. While writing I have left it on as wallpaper and yes, I have to admit, it is very well made. That it is kitsch or might be more in the mind of the beholder than in the work itself. And certainly not in the head of Belson because that is filled to bursting with mystic experiences, cosmic storms and sensations be they narcotic or not. Films like this from the 1960s or 1970s are at first light less accessible than abstract films from the 1920s or scientific films form the 1930s with which they do have much in common.

Belson took a path 50 years ago on which few could follow. On the other hand, the same work today with a tune by Moebius of DJ Tiësto would most likely do very well in a discotheque. Maybe we should try that.
And Belson has not given up hope entirely. New software from Apple seems to have given him the instruments he may have waited for all his life. Maybe we shouldn't forget Belson after all.

(image: still from Allures by Jordan Belson)