JORDAN BELSON: VISUALIZING INNER AND OUTER SPACE

 

 

 

JORDAN BELSON: VISUALIZING INNER AND OUTER SPACE
Rodney Perkins

Experimental film-makers have often been a source of inspiration for the mainstream, especially in regards to special effects. Jordan Belson, who died on September 6, 2011, was an example of an experimentalist who bridged the worlds of the avant-garde and commercial effects work.

Belson was born on June 6, 1926. Although he began his artistic career as a painter, Belson transitioned to film-making in 1947. He made 16mm films using animated cards, but quickly developed new techniques to create a wholly original and identifiable style. He used numerous techniques, but he generally remained coy about his methods. It is known that part of his toolkit included a custom-built optical bench with rotating tables, variable-speed motors, and lights of varying intensity.[1]

 

Imagery from Jordan Belson’s film Allures

 

In 1957, Jordan Belson began a collaboration with Henry Jacobs called the Vortex Concerts. These audio-visual extravaganzas took place at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco, California. The concerts used “strobes, star projectors, rotational sky projectors, kaleidoscope projectors, and four special dome-projectors for interference patterns.”[2] Belson created original films for the concerts; imagery by Hy Hirsh and James Whitney was also used.[3] A large sound system played an electric mix of ethnic music and contemporary electronic music by artists such as Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. In a sense, these concerts were the precursor to the psychedelic laser light shows that occurred at planetariums throughout the 70′s and 80′s.

The Vortex Concerts ended in 1960. Belson’s work on the concerts provided the raw materials for two films: Seance (1959) and Allures (1961). The latter film, which runs nine minutes, is undoubtedly one of Belson’s most important works. Allures is an abstract montage of spirals, collapsing kaleidoscopes, stroboscopic patterns, geometric grids, and spinning shapes resembling atoms. Over time, his style became more organic and ethereal, reflecting such diverse influences as Eastern philosophies, outer space exploration, and psychedelic drugs. Films like Re-Entry (1964) and Samadhi (1967) recall imagery of distant galaxies obtained by radio telescopes as well as visions obtained through spiritual—or hallucinogenic—exploration.

It is not surprising that as Belson’s work gained recognition, his invocations of outer and inner space attracted the attention of commercial filmmakers. Douglas Trumbull’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) ushered in a new era of special effects. Trumbull’s efforts, however, did not arise in a vacuum. The groundwork was laid by numerous experimentalists like Jordan Belson. In fact, the parallels between Belson’s works and the visuals in 2001 has been noted on numerous occasions.[4]

A more concrete link between Belson and the mainstream developed in the late 60s. Excerpts from his film Samadhi were used Gerry Anderson’s film Journey To The Other Side of the Sun (1969). The footage is used briefly during the second act, and is of little consequence within the film’s overall framework.  Belson’s work played a more significant role in Donald Cammell’s bizarre sci-fi film Demon Seed (1977). The film, which is based on the novel by Dean Koontz, tells the utterly improbable story of a highly intelligent computer named Proteus 4 who goes insane in a quest to achieve immortality. Here, Belson is credited as providing “Special Proteus Monitor Footage.” This is an elaborate way of saying that footage from films such as Allures and Samadhi were used as the Proteus 4 interface. Even though his contributions were limited, the visuals are integral part of the film. Like the giant red eye that represents HAL 9000, the swirling psychedelic monitor patterns give the Proteus 4 computer a calm yet sinister quality.

Imagery from Allures as it appeared in the film Demon Seed

 

Belson concluded his commercial collaborations with Phillip Kaufmann’s film The Right Stuff (1983). The film tells the story of the pivotal years in the American space program leading to the first moon landing. He is credited with “special visual creations.” Unlike in Demon Seed, Belson was involved from the pre-production phase. He created brand new material. For example, his imagery shown as the first glimpse at the galaxy by a human being. It is also featured prominently during John Glenn’s first orbital flight around the Earth. He created the imagery of the “space fireflies” or frost particles that Glenn saw as he orbited the planet. Interestingly, The Right Stuff was the only time that Belson worked in 35mm; all of his other works were shot on 16mm film.

Jordan Belson’s visual compositions transcend the limited technology with which they were created, and maintain a timeless quality that more expensive and “realistic” modern-day effects usually fail to achieve. Despite his many achievements, It is surprisingly difficult to actually see most of his non-commercial work. The Center for Visual Music (http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/) sells some of the films on DVD and VHS. Mystic Fire also released a long out-of-print VHS tape. Those people fortunate enough to have a rare opportunity to a theatrical retrospective of Belson’s work should not hesitate do so.


[1] Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, P. Dutton & Co. ( New York, 1960), 158

[2] Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, 359.

[3] Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, 359.

[4] Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, 162; Mario Falsetto, Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis, Greenwood Publishing (Connecticut, 2001), 52.

 

About the author:

Rodney Perkins

Rodney Perkins is a lawyer and writer with interests in film, music, art, literature and ou·tré topics. His website Dark Docs is devoted to the outer edges of documentary film-making. Rodney is also the co-author of 'Cosmic Suicide: The Tragedy and Transcendence of Heaven's Gate'.

Comments

  1. Dave Barber Reply

    Very nice piece. I spoke to him once in trying to find his films. I phoned Canyon Cinema and enquired about his work and they said, why don’t you just phone him up and ask him ? And they gave me his number !
    He told me that he pulled a lot of the films out of distribution because he was worried the prints were getting too much wear and tear. A nice man and amazing artist.

    Dave Barber

    8 yearss ago
    • Kier-La Janisse
      kier-la Reply

      Dave Barber in the house!

      8 yearss ago

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