A Spontaneous, Personal Approach
Ernest Callenbach, in his judge's statement for the 1967 Bellevue Film Festival stated:
“THE INDEPENDENT FILM -- meaning the film made by artists for their own purposes rather than as commercial enterprises expected to bring in a profit -- is especially important at this juncture in film history …. Independent film-makers who shoot their films in somewhat the same spirit as the early pioneers of the industry, are able to adopt the spontaneous, personal approach which is becoming increasingly rare in an industry saddled with monstrous costs. It begins to seem likely that the film history of the present is being written, not on the sound stages of Hollywood, but in the garages and lofts of the shoestring artists who borrow equipment, use outdated film, and turn their friends into performers …. In sorting out these excellent works from the run of independent production, the various independent film-makers’ festivals play a crucial role.”
The late 1960s and early 1970s was an extraordinary time of social and cultural upheaval that touched every American community, including the bustling suburb of Bellevue, Washington. In 1966, the Bellevue Arts & Crafts Fair had just held its 20th Fair. The Board Members of the governing group, called the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Association (PANACA), held their annual wrap-up meeting in August and knew they wanted to expand the Fair to “make it more interesting, vital and current” (in the words of Mary Jo Malone, one of the two co-founders of the Bellevue Film Festival).
So they invited friends of the Fair and members of the community to Ginny Ryning’s house, including Seattle’s newest art critic for the Post-Intelligencer, Tom Robbins (now a well-known author), who had just moved to Seattle from New York City.
Born with a Big Prize
Without hesitation, Robbins said, “Have an Underground Film Festival and offer a big prize to attract people from New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and universities with film programs.” As a member of the New York Filmmakers Cinematheque in the mid-60s, he had watched experimental films every Monday night at the New Yorker Theater. He put them in contact with film festivals, academics, and film groups he knew in order for them to learn how to put on such a festival. Thus the Bellevue Film Festival was born in 1967 under the leadership of longtime Arts & Crafts Fair volunteers Carol Duke and Mary Jo Malone.
The history of the Bellevue Film Festival is a unique story within the multiple histories of the American media arts. Two suburban housewives (and moms), who had degrees in English Literature and Art from University of Washington, took on the daunting task of starting an experimental film festival not even knowing what an experimental film looked like. They lived in a world of suburban society and wealth that was far removed from the edgy communities of mostly poor artist/filmmakers, beat poets, museums, and academics who nurtured and supported this often-controversial new artform.
Art on a Shoestring
The films they were about to show as part of the Bellevue Arts & Crafts Fair were nothing like the Hollywood films they were seeing in local movie theaters. Experimental films were much more personal in form and content, and were mostly made on a shoestring budget. They usually explored the physical material of film as an artform (as opposed to still photography or painting), told personal stories in new ways, or critically examined or challenged the traditions of Hollywood, the visual arts, or the socio-economic politics of the Post-World-War II era.
Most, if not all, of the handful of U.S. film festivals in the late 1960s devoted to short experimental films had grown directly out of a struggling national network of fringe arts communities that supported filmmakers in larger cities like New York and San Francisco, or on college campuses that had film schools, like Ann Arbor, Michigan. The National Endowment for the Arts (then called the National Council on the Arts) had just started supporting media artists and arts groups with grants, which helped to seed the new alternative arts centers around the country where the media arts were being supported. But despite the gap in understanding and direct experience in this fringe artworld, Carol Duke and her Arts & Crafts Fair colleagues quickly learned how to set up and run an experimental film festival that became one of the three most respected in America by media artists.
In the fall of 1966, Carol began renting films from Canyon Cinema Coop in San Francisco, one of the earliest distributors of experimental films. She and her cohorts viewed films by Bruce Baillie (Mass for the Dakota Sioux), Tom DeWitt (Atmosfear), and Scott Bartlett (Metanomen), among others, so they could see for themselves what experimental films were. In early 1967, Carol wrote letters to the emerging network of film festivals and organizations, and received thoughtful instructions from people like Robert Nelson at Canyon Cinema, Jonas Mekas in New York, and others as to how to organize and run a festival, how to attract good work, and how to get the word out to the press.
Adrienne Mancia at the New York Museum of Modern Art wrote to Carol on March 13, 1967: “I frankly do not see how you can do a very good and well publicized Festival in so short a time,” but they forged ahead, undaunted. They even asked the artist Robert Rauschenberg to be the first judge for the festival, since LaMar Harrington (a long-time Arts & Crafts Fair staffer who then worked at the Henry Art Gallery) knew he was going to be in the area at that time. He must have declined the invitation.
Carol and her team also knew how to network and find resources in their own community. As Mary Jo Malone exclaimed, “We kept asking people to help us and they all said ‘yes’ which scared us a bit at first.” They enlisted a film theater located near the Arts & Crafts fairground (the Bel Vue Theater owned by Fred Danz [1918-2009], who ran the local Sterling Recreational Organization chain of theaters) to show the films during the Fair, and they made contact with local University of Washington professors Robert Dale and Ron Carraher to connect with local filmmakers and help screen the film entries for the single judge. They convinced local film companies like Alpha Cine Labs and King Screen Productions to give in-kind prizes. They wrote and obtained a grant from the Washington State Arts Commission for $500. And they offered a $1,000 Grand Prize out of the Fair’s budget that attracted 84 films from across the country to the first festival.
The First Festival
The first Bellevue Film Festival was held from July 28 to July 30, 1967. The first judge was Ernest Callenbach, editor of Film Quarterly, a national film journal out of Berkeley, California. With the help of LaMar Harrington, Callenbach viewed all the film entries in the Henry Art Gallery basement, where Robert Dale ran the projector and a young Henry employee, Greg Olsen (now film curator at the Seattle Art Museum), helped with the judging process on July 17-19, 1967. The first Grand Prize winner selected was Tom Palazzolo of Chicago, for his film O. Other first-festival winners included California’s Last Official Lynching by Ronald Carraher, a University of Washington art instructor, and Profiles Cast Long Shadows by Robert Sperry (1927-1998), a fellow University of Washington professor and nationally known potter.
Carol Duke reported on the first festival to the Washington State Arts Commission: “The reception by audiences (of over 2,000 people) that have had little opportunity to see the efforts being made by the independent filmmakers was most rewarding. This fine reception, coupled with remarkably fine publicity on television, radio, local and nationwide newspaper coverage, makes us feel sure of a much larger festival next year….” In less than a year she and Mary Jo Malone had produced a successful, professionally run film festival that instantly garnered praise and support from the fledgling national media arts community.
The Region's New Age of Film
The years 1967-1970 also saw the birth of other groups in the emerging Puget Sound film community. The Seattle Film Society was formed in 1970 by Robert Dale, Richard Jameson, and others, showing independent and foreign films on a regular basis at the University of Washington and other venues, and publishing the Movietone Newsletter. Art Bernstein and Jim O’Steen opened the Harvard Exit theater in the former Women’s Century Club hall just off Broadway in 1969. It was the home of the Northwest Filmmakers Coop, founded in 1969 by Paul Dorpat, Dave McDonald, John Nonnemaker, and Bob Brown, among others. They published a newsletter called Hand Held and organized a Northwest Filmmakers' Festival in 1969 at the University of Washington. Allied Arts produced an ambitious film festival at the Pacific Science Center in 1968 that seems to have only happened once.
On the commercial front, King Screen Productions was formed in 1967 out of KING-TV with the intent of producing socially conscious documentaries and other original media productions. It lasted until 1972, after producing an Academy Award nominated film, The Redwoods, and other groundbreaking documentaries, and even a feature film. It recruited many talented people to Seattle who stayed on after it closed to help build the region’s newly emerging film and television industry. Alpha Cine Labs and its owner Les Davis founded and produced the Motion Picture Seminar of the Northwest in 1968, which became the premiere gathering of regional and national film professionals that included many artists.
Attracting the Best
The concept of having a single judge for the Bellevue Film Festival emerged from the same jurying practice for other artforms at the Bellevue Arts & Crafts Fair, and it gave the Festival its unique mix of short experimental films every year. Carol and Mary Jo selected judges who were well-respected filmmakers, curators, professors, and journalists in the national media arts community, which helped attract the best filmmakers, who wanted their works seen by them. They included Stan Van Der Beek (1969, a multimedia artist and educator who was a visiting professor at the University of Washington in 1968); Willard Van Dyke (1972, head of the Film Department at the Museum of Modern Art); James Broughton (1973, San Francisco-based experimental filmmaker and poet who later moved to Port Townsend); Frank Daniel (1974, head of the American Film Institute); and John Hanhardt (1977, then Film & Video Curator at the Whitney Museum and now Head of New Media at the Guggenheim Museum).
Almost 1,000 films were screened at the festival during its 14-year run. They included documentaries, personal narratives, animation, and all varieties of experimental short films. Films were screened continuously, starting at 1 p.m. in the afternoon on the weekend, with a midnight program on Saturday that included nudity and more “adult” subject matter in the festival. The Bel Vue Theater was a cool, dark retreat on the (usually) hot July days of the Arts & Crafts Fair, with its noisy crowds and hundreds of booths.
Regional filmmakers from Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver were always showcased at the Bellevue Film Festival, including Seattleites Robert Brown and Frank Olvey (The Tempest); Karl Krogstad (Wynken & Blynken & Nod), Doris Chase (Circles), Bruce Bickford (The Last Battle on Flat Earth), Marvin Albert (Ariope Colliope), and many others. Portland animators Jim Blashfield (The Mid-Torso of Inez), Joan Gratz (A.C. – 16, An Animated Painting), and Will Vinton (Closed Mondays), along with an early film by Gus Van Sant (The Discipline of DE) made before he moved to Portland were screened. And Vancouver filmmakers as diverse as David Rimmer (Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper), Kirk Tougas (The Politics of Perception), and Chris Gallagher (Atmosphere) were shown. Jim Blashfield remembers driving up to Bellevue every summer to attend the festival with a group of filmmaker friends from Portland. The Bellevue Film Festival was key to introducing a new generation of Northwest filmmakers to the world of experimental film.
New and Now Historic
The Bellevue Film Festival attracted many of the best filmmakers of its time, mostly due to the large $1,000 Grand Prize (the most money awarded to a single artists of any festival of that time). The BFF Grand Prize winners included three films from the Northwest. Sean Malone from Seattle won in 1972 with two short personal documentaries made at King Screen Productions called Livin’ on the Mud and Alone and the Sea. Another regional film, Eat the Sun was a 1975 winner made by two Evergreen State College film students, Jim Cox and Steve De Jarnatt, who are both now Hollywood writers and directors. Vancouver animator Marv Newland was the last prize winner in 1981 with Sing Beast Sing. Other Grand Prize winners included some of the biggest names in experimental filmmaking of that time: James Broughton (The Golden Positions, 1970); Hollis Frampton (Nostalgia, 1971); Guvnor Nelson (Moon’s Pool, 1973); Jordan Belson (Light, 1974); and Bruce Conner (Crossroads and 5:10 to Dreamland, 1977).
Now-historical experimental filmmakers such as Bruce Baillie (Castro Street), Bruce Conner (Report), Paul Sharits (Sears Catalogue 1-3), James Benning & Bette Gordon (The United States of America), Ernie Gehr (Moments), Scott Barlett (Moon 1969), and Pat O’Neill (Foregrounds) were also shown at the BFF. Legendary documentary makers such as Les Blank (The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins), Ralph Arlyck (Hyde Park), Tony Buba (Betty’s Corner Café), Jon Else (Mrs. Barney) and many others were prize winners. And early Hollywood directors such as David Lynch (The Grandmother), Amy Heckerling (High Finance), and Martin Brest (Hot Dogs for Gaugin starring the then-unknown Danny DeVito) were screened.
The Bellevue Film Festival also represents the early history of experimental animation, having screened such key artists as Jane Aaron (Interior Designs), Robert Breer (LMNO), Sally Cruikshank (Quasi at the Quackadero), Jules Engel (Train Landscape), Paul Glabicki (Diagram Film), Frank Mouris (Frank Film), and Kathy Rose (The Doodlers), among many others. Within this expansive history, early computer-generated animation classics are found by artists such as Larry Cuba (3/78?), Jordan Belson (Light), Ken Knowlton and Lillian Schwartz (Enigma), Dennis Pies (Sonoma), and John Whitney (Matrix).
A 14-Year Run
The Bellevue Film Festival continued to grow and mature for the next 14 years, ending in 1981 with the demolition of the Bel Vue Theater to make way for expansion of the Bellevue Square Mall. There was no festival in 1980 because of renovations being made to the Bellevue Square Mall near the theater. As the festival matured, it also developed a regional tour of selected winners that went to the Seattle Art Museum, Portland State University, and Vancouver, B.C.
The original format of the festival, with a single judge, short films, a $1,000 Grand Prize, and a focus on film as art was a successful strategy that only changed slightly in the last years when Carol Duke decided to experiment and have invitation-only festivals in 1979 and 1981. Carol Duke died in 1995, but her legacy of the Bellevue Film Festival lives on in the form of a burgeoning regional Northwest media community and a new Bellevue Art Museum Film and Video Festival presented annually by the Museum during the still-vibrant Bellevue Arts & Crafts Fair.