The Return of Robert Nelson

By George Clark

hauling-toto-big-robert-nelson-1.jpgHauling Toto Big, 1999

The Californian filmmaker Robert Nelson (1930- ) has been troublingly busy in recent years. It has been nearly a decade since this underground pioneer and co-founding of Canyon Cinema (along with Bruce Connor and Larry Jordan among others) has had work in circulation. The recent retrospective at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen was the first mounted in Europe presenting over 40 years of activity. The screenings were all the rarer as Nelson had systematically withdrawn all his prints from distribution and been reconsidering his body of work as a whole.

Stories had abounded that he had re-cut and destroyed several of his works, primarily from his highly regarded and productive period in the 1960s where he completed over 20 films. And indeed it is true but not as melodramatic as people feared. While reworking, editing and attempting to save some of his earlier works there were some casualties which “died in the operation.” (Robert Nelson*) But rather than perform a hatchet job on fondly remembered works, Nelson has pursued his distinct path, defending his reworking as one of the rights of being an independent filmmaker as “there are no rules of any kind…I can change them, I can destroy them, I can do whatever I want.”

Nelson’s undiminished spirit is present throughout his work which is at turns irreverent and hilarious and contains an unmatched level of eccentric invention. Nelson’s most famous film and one of the American undergrounds key works is the strangely moving Oh Dem Watermelons (USA, 1965) a riotous refutation of racism, that deftly combines anarchic energy and social consciousness as watermelons are smashed, stabbed and mistreating until they finally revolt. The work is rooted in the ‘60s counter culture and commissioned to accompany the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s politically subversive take on the minstrel show which challenged prejudice by turning the racist format on its head.

Robert Nelson inspects bomb made by Joe Lumoto (center)
for Oh Dem Watermelons, 1965 photo: Bill Menken

Many of Nelson’s works now stand as testaments to a disappearing age in America. From King David (co-dir Mike Henderson, USA, 1970/2002) a portrait of a man met by accident who proclaimed himself to be the ‘King of Kings,’ with the business card to prove it, to More (USA, 1971/2000) that depicts a student street party and includes an absurd baseball game between a straight and a hippie team. His films reflect the social clash and changes that coloured the US at the time. The film also involves characteristic use of text on screen to counterpoint the action from the words ‘cinema-verite’ which accompanies a frantic dance to an offer to give away a 1951 Chevy to the first person to call (which he told us at the screening, was a young man just learning to drive).

Nelson’s work revolves around simple but precise gestures. Nelson attributes this to his training as a painter where the sole lesson to learn is how to approach the canvas, finding the right starting point and poise. With films such as Deep Westurn (co-dir Willam Geis, Mike Henderson, Willam T.Wiley, USA, 1974) you can see this ethos followed through. The film is dedicated to Dr. Sam West who would perform dental work in exchange for art. After his death Nelson and friends met to perform their own distinct type of wake, rocking back on chairs till they fell, “trusting that his ghost would approve our hi-jinks and seeming irreverence.” (RN) The most direct if ironic illustration of this artistic strategy is The Off-Handed Jape…and How To Pull it Off (USA, 1967) made with good friend and regular collaborator William T. Wiley. Posing as faux experts the pair takes it in turn to perform ‘japes’ to camera, creating an index of absurd and pointless gestures.

off-handed-jape-robert-nelson.jpgOff-Handed Jape, 1967

Alongside such improvised works, Nelson produced various complex works built up through layers of editing and processing. Hauling Toto Big (USA, 1997) Nelson’s last completed film is the product of his intensive reworking of his left over sections and uncompleted films. It is a dense and mesmerising odyssey, full of verbal and visual puns, at one point hypnotist tells us ‘sit back in your seat and relax’ lulling the viewer into a dream state in which to receive the dense mythic meanderings of this American visionary.

Seeing Nelson’s work now it’s difficult not to feel it has emerged from a distant and largely forgotten America, coloured by the social and political movements of the ‘60s as well as the decade’s playful energy. An aura has descended upon the work that couldn’t have been imagined at the time. Curious Native Customs (USA, 1985/1999) a bizarre found footage film whose title seems to capture the spirit of with which Nelson views his surrounding and home. The enchantment and alienation that colour Nelson’s America is best captured in his deeply personal Suite California Stops and Passes: Part 1 (USA, 1976/2003). Built from up from places of resonance with Nelson’s own family history the film indexes and charts a series of attractions from the Californian desert a colossal cinema queue parading into a screening of The Godfather. Quietly moving the film is a remarkable synergy of the anarchic, mythic and personal that characterises this extraordinary body of work.

All quotes from Robert Nelson are taken from an interview conducted by curator of the retrospective, Mark Webber, in September 2003.

Following the retrospective five of Robert Nelson’s films have been put into distribution for the first time by the International Short film Festival Oberhausen. For further details see: