Straight Ashbury Viewing Society
By Jaime Henderson

San Francisco Viewing Society from the California Historical Society's San Francisco Ephemera Collection
San Francisco Viewing Society from the California Historical Society’s San Francisco Ephemera Collection

The Bay Area has long provided experimental filmmakers with an embracing enclave in which to share their films with eager, appreciative audiences. This early flyer for the Straight Ashbury Viewing Society, most likely from 1966, advertises a non-profit film club screening 8 and 16 millimeter film. By the looks of this flyer the fledgling film society seemed pretty attuned to the impact many of their featured filmmakers would have on American cinema.

The Straight Ashbury Viewing Society also showcased the work of Harry Smith, a filmmaker and ethnomusicologist who is most widely recognized for his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music records which documented early American music recordings originally released in the late 1920s and early 1930s.The society’s first program offers some of the major heavies of 1960s American experimental film, including Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage and Jack Smith, who writer and director John Waters called “the only underground filmmaker”.

Many of the other artists whose works were screened by the society are well known for their contributions to contemporary American art and film including Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising, Invocation of My Demon Brother) Bruce Conner (known also for his photography, sculpture, collage and painting),  Shirley Clarke, an Academy Award winning documentarian and co-signer of the 1961 manifesto “Statement for a New American Cinema,” and Albert and David Maysles, direct cinema documentarians who created Salesmanand Gimme Shelter (along with Charlotte Zwerin) and Grey Gardens. Both Salesman and Grey Gardens are included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

The Straight Ashbury Viewing Society flyer also lists screenings of the work of San Francisco filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar, Robert Nelson (both George Kuchar and Robert Nelson were San Francisco Art Institute faculty), Ben Van Meeter, known for the psychedelic imagery demonstrated in his home movie footage of the San Francisco Trips festival and the Human Be-In held in Golden Gate Park and Bruce Baille, who along with Ben Van Meeter, Bruce Conner, Robert Nelson, Larry Jordan and Lenny Lipton, started Canyon Cinema, Inc., owned and operated by filmmakers to distribute their independent films.

Although many of these filmmaker’s works are not widely accessible, some are available to view on the Internet, including Stan Vanderbeck’s Breathdeathshown on the first night of programming at the Straight Ashbury Viewing Society on Friday, July 22nd, 1966.

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