Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Category: Documentary

Traditional Home of the Way Out

The Human Be-In, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 1967. I would love it if someone could help me find out who took this photograph.

As I’ve said in the past, I sometimes feel uncomfortable about the place/travel aspect of this blog. I live where I live and am the person that I am. I have the culture that I’ve been brought up with. So to me, everything else is “other” and thus fair game for this website. This is why I like to talk about New York culture, and why I hope to come across an excuse to talk about the South Louisiana/Cajun culture I grew up in. I feel like if I’m talking about my own stuff as often as I’m creating a window on Vietnam or Nigeria or Turkey, at least it’s fair. But then I’m constantly worried that the goal of my blog is to other people through the arts.

I found out this week that someone has already done that. And they’ve done such a good job at it that the piece of American culture they chose to highlight feels not just like another place and time, but another planet.

I’m referring to the BBC documentary series Whicker’s World, in which British journalist Alan Whicker covered social issues in places as diverse as Haiti, Paraguay, and Hong Kong.

In the summer of 1967, Whicker cast his camera lens on San Francisco, and the resulting film is one of those odd examples of earnest British reportage in a world that is decidedly un-earnest — in the case of the UK press reaction to Bob Dylan shown in D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back — or maybe too earnest, in the case of this Whicker’s World thing. The honest, straight ahead, unironic treatment of the Haight-Ashbury scene is wilder for the fact that the hippies are completely honest in return. The documentary doesn’t flinch or attempt to exploit the titillating subject matter, which somehow makes the subject matter seem even stranger.

Poster from the Human Be-In designed by Michael Bowen, with photography by Casey Sonnabend. This event kick-started the Summer Of Love and alerted the media and the wider world to what was going on in San Francisco.

In reality, that world isn’t that far away from me. Yeah, it’s the other side of the country in a city I’ve never actually visited, but it’s a cultural moment that backlit everything that was to come in American culture. My mom had Janis Joplin records as a kid. LSD, not Crack, was the real spectre behind the curtain of After-School Specials and the Just Say No Club. Growing up in America in the eighties, The Sixties was the basis of everything. I don’t think The Summer Of Love stopped being relevant until probably September 11, 2001. And in a lot of ways it’s still relevant. But in Whicker’s documentary, it seems a million miles away. Is this my culture? Is this where I’m from? Worse, what about the society the hippies rejected? If the hippies look bizarre, the larger American culture — as described by the BBC, in any case — feels outright foreign.

I wonder if this is the feeling that inspired Gita Mehta to write Karma Cola?

In Which I attempt to connect all my crushes to Portland, Oregon

Robert Mapplethorpe has nothing to do with Portland. I just love this photograph more than everything in the world. Photo by Mapplethorpe, of course, via the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

I’ve had a crush on Portland for a long time. Thanks to its use as the setting for the Ramona books, it wouldn’t be hyperbolizing to say I’ve always wanted to go to Portland. After reading this Cool Hunting feature on Ampersand Gallery, Portland is back at the top of my list not just because it’s the dream of the nineties, but also as a place to look at art.

Ampersand Gallery, Portland, OR. Image yanked from coolhunting.com.

Sorry, guys. I have to post this. It’s a credit to Carrie Brownstein that this song is not just funny and true, but actually good:

 

In other art and video news, I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries about art collectors lately. Who even knew there were multiple docs about art collectors?

The classic choice is Herb & Dorothy, the story of a postal worker and a librarian who became major collectors of minimalist art in the 60’s. In addition to the powerful narrative, there are interviews with art world megastars like Donald Judd and Chuck Close.

And then, suddenly, Netflix was recommending arts documentaries right and left. Due to my obsession with Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the downtown scenes of New York in the 1970’s, I had to watch Black White + Gray, a doc biography of Sam Wagstaff, who was an important photography collector and Mapplethorpe’s lover. In addition to scratching my Just Kids itch, I was fascinated by the way that people from different parts of Wagstaff’s life had such oppositional views of who he was. There were homophobic Society types, art historians who thought Mapplethorpe was a total gold digger, and Patti Smith being her usual awesome self. It’s rare that docs about relatively uncontroversial figures like Wagstaff convey conflict that way, so I thought that was an interesting approach.

Both of the above films — and many more arts documentaries! — are available streaming on Netflix.

P.S. In researching this post, I discovered the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which has a website full of beautiful images.

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