Experiments in the art of indulgence

Pulp's Mark Webber hopes to offend the middle-class art world with Sixties' underground films.
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The Independent Culture
In the unique creative environment that was Sixties America, experimental films flourished alongside a surge of activity in performance, music and visual art. There were home-movie style documentaries, grand epics, erotic escapades, animated collages, epilepsy-inducing "Flicker" films, excursions into colour and myriad other variations on the genre. As self-indulgent as they were visionary, these low-budget films re-shaped the tenets of the medium; the movement was variously known as "New American cinema" and "Personal Narrative Film-making". Mark Webber, film buff and guitarist with Pulp, prefers the term "Underground", if only because it encourages the same knee-jerk reaction as 30 years ago. Which, he feels, can only be a good thing.

"The press used the term to make out how shocking these films were," says Webber, a small, intense young man with a retro haircut. "They wanted to imply they were all full of nudity, or junkies shooting up, or whatever. You got people coming along under false pretences, to be titillated. Instead, they were shocked at how boring some of it was. A film like Mike Snow's Wavelength, for example, consists of a 45-minute zoom across a loft. But these films provoked a response, in addition to suggesting new ways of seeing."

If people saw them at all, that is. Underground America is a season of films dusted down from the vaults of the New York Film-maker's Co-operative, the American Museum of the Moving Image, and other international collections, curated by Webber for the Barbican. It's an attempt to redress the fact that many of these films have rarely - if ever - been screened in Britain. The season starts with the Beat cinema of the Fifties - the seminal Pull My Daisy, with Kerouac narrating, among others - and runs through to Seventies' Structural films such as Wavelength.

Over 80 titles are included. "The more work I put in, the more I discovered," says Webber, whose obsession was sparked in the Eighties after watching Kenneth Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle at the late, lamented Scala in London's King's Cross. The programme's emphasis on the New York scene is partly because the city boasted the greatest concentration of experimental film- makers; it is also a by-product of Webber's fascination with The Factory.

"I wanted to know why the Velvet Underground were such a cut above all other groups," he says, "and I discovered that it was mostly down to their environment. Andy Warhol might have been the central figure because he had this place where crazies could hang out, but it was these crazies, the people working on its fringes, who were more interesting." Of these, only the single-minded Lithuanian, Jonas Mekas, promoted the genre to any notable degree, founding the New York Film-Maker's Co-operative, Anthology Film Archives and Film Culture Magazine. Others preferred to concentrate on self-promotion.

Some of these film-makers are still living off the Warhol legacy. In New York recently, Webber met the actor and director, Taylor Mead, whose fast-paced film diary, Home Movies: NYC to San Diego, features in the "Around the Factory" strand. Mead's autobiography, Son of Andy Warhol, is to be published shortly.

"Taylor, while incredibly entertaining, is incredibly poor," says Webber. "He lives in a tiny apartment, the floor covered in his belongings, with these channels to walk around. He spends all his money buying cat food and feeding cats in parking lots. It's terrible how these people have been neglected..."

Yes, a rare pastorale featuring graphic sexual imagery and flowers, is by another Factory stalwart, Naomi Levine. "Naomi has been crazy since the Sixties. Everyone in New York told me not to deal with her because she is too difficult - she believes she is married to Warhol, is owed all his money and the CIA are after her. Her films never get shown because she's taken them all out of distribution, anyway. Hopefully, she won't find out we're screening Yes, 'cos she'll probably come over and fetch it."

When pressed, Webber chooses the "Baudelarian cinema" of Jack Flaming Creatures Smith and his ilk as a personal must-see. "They're more poetic than hedonistic," he says. "They present a unique vision in a unique way." Walden, Mekas's film diaries from 1968 to 1974, is another. Featuring footage of Alan Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, it also highlights the debut appearance of the Velvet Underground at, of all places, the Psychiatrists Association Annual Dinner. "The film- maker Barbara Rubin goes around asking all these questions, such as `Is your wife good in bed?' and `Have you got a hard on?'" grins Webber.

The self-indulgence inherent in the films does not, he feels, detract from their watchability: "A lot of these people are interesting enough for their indulgence to be engaging," Webber says. "The Barbican has this reputation of being a stuffy arts institution for middle-class London," "So I'm hoping that some of these stuffy people will be enticed along, and be offended by things that they can't comprehend."

`Underground America', Barbican (0171-638 4141) and The Lux (0171-684 0201), 23 Oct to 8 Nov