‘Jordan Belson died in September, 2011 at the age of 85. In his later years, Belson was an intensely private, almost hermetic, figure. The 30 films he made as an independent, artisanal filmmaker are suffused with mystery, navigating inner and outer spaces via slowly mounting flames of deliquescent light, shimmering starfields, and rainstorms of color.
‘The question of how he made those images was also a closely guarded secret. Throughout his life, Belson let slip few fragments of information regarding his filmmaking process. He was careful to distinguish his work from animation, for instance—even though his earliest films were made via traditional animation methods—insisting, “I don’t use liquids or models. I use mechanical and optical effects; and instead of using an animating table, I call my setup an optical bench.” The only extant description of that optical bench is in Gene Youngblood’s 1970 book Expanded Cinema. Belson’s primary means of image-making was a purposefully rudimentary, handmade apparatus, a cobbled-together array of a “plywood frame around an old X-ray stand with rotating tables, variable speed motors, and variable intensity lights.” New modes of vision required new techniques to depict them, and Belson continually sought to refine his methods in order to produce unique effects. Séance (1959), for example, provides one of the first cinematic examples of a flicker effect, predating the work of both Peter Kubelka and Tony Conrad. For Light (1973), he introduced cascades of flickering and undulating particles that had not appeared in previous films. One need only to see the pulsing galaxies of Allures (1961) (which may have, in fact, used animation techniques) or the celestial terraforms of Samadhi (1967) to acknowledge the yawning gap between the simplicity of Belson’s setup and the profound complexity of the imagery he achieved. …
‘Having studied painting at the California School of Fine Art (now San Francisco Art Institute) and Berkeley, Belson brought together a keen understanding of materials, color, and form to his moving abstractions. Like his painter-turned-filmmaker friend Harry Smith, Belson was spurred to start making films after taking in screenings of Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren, and Hans Richter at the Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s. Belson also marshaled a number of systems of esoteric knowledge—Eastern religion, alchemy, Jungian psychology, and intoxication—to imbue those abstractions with meaning beyond the kinetic play of their surface beauty. While undeniably cosmic, Belson’s films are not without their representative qualities. Though he acknowledged the hallucinatory qualities of his 1960s films, Belson held fast to the idea that the flaming, spinning mandalas and spacescapes in his works were representations of an inner consciousness. He claimed, “I first have to see the images somewhere, within or without or somewhere. I mean, I don’t make them up.” At another juncture, Belson said that Samadhi “is intended to be a real documentary representation, as accurately as it was possible to make, of a real place and a real visual phenomenon that I perceived—just as I am looking at you right now.”
‘The otherworldly beauty of Belson’s private spectacle also caught the eye of Hollywood filmmakers looking to imbue their productions with the patina of the metaphysical. Stripped of their original contexts, however, Belson’s transcendental explorations transmuted into sci-fi effects fodder, even in such mildly enjoyable hokum as Robert Parrish’s Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), and Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), in which Belson’s imagery is the seduction tool employed by lusty A.I. super computer Proteus, who, upon acquiring sentience, also develops the hots for Julie Christie. While those examples merely repurposed older Belson footage, Philip Kaufman hired the experimental filmmaker to create special effects for his adaptation of The Right Stuff (1983), which recounted the origins of the American space program. Belson shot over 20,000 feet of footage for The Right Stuff—enough for a feature film—of which roughly three minutes were shown in the finished work. Belson was tasked with creating images of pilot Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier, the Earth, and starfields. He was also asked to recreate the mysterious shimmering “fireflies” that John Glenn reported seeing outside the cockpit of his Apollo spacecraft. (Not entirely coincidentally, Belson’s 1964 film Re-Entry had been inspired by astronaut Glenn’s post-orbit return to earth in February of 1962, and its soundtrack used snippets of Glenn’s radio communications.)
‘For The Right Stuff’s “fireflies” sequence, Kaufman intercut medium close-up shots of a bewildered Glenn (played by Ed Harris) surrounded by Belson’s light flecks with scenes of aborigines singing and dancing around a sparking fire. The camera follows the blaze’s embers as they lift into the night air. The resulting sequence creates the impression that the primitive ritual being enacted on terra firma is aiding Glenn’s journey in the heavens. Regardless of the fact that the film never mentions that “fireflies” were later determined by NASA to be light-reflecting ice particles outside of Glenn’s MA-6 capsule, the invocation of a primitive mysticism via a questionable portrayal of indigenous practices is far removed from Belson’s subjective investigations of human consciousness and perception in his own work. A director with a steadier aesthetic hand, Terrence Malick, studied Belson’s films while working on this year’s Tree of Life, and even approached Belson about creating new work for the project. …
‘Belson would go on to embrace the creative capacities of video editing in Mysterious Journey (1997) and his last work, the aptly-titled Epilogue (2005)—the latter piece commissioned for the Hirshhorn Museum’s landmark “Visual Music” exhibition that same year. In October, a never-before-seen work of Belson’s debuted at the memorial screening. Perhaps this rediscovery marks the beginning of Belson’s own eternal return, his re-entry into a mediascape that bears his aesthetic influence more than his physical imprint.’ — Gregory Zinman, The Brooklyn Rail
Jordan Belson, 1926 – 2011
Jordan Belson @ IMDb
Jordan Belson @ Light Cone
Notes on Jordan Belson – Raymond Foye
RE-ENTRY: Thoughts on Jordan Belson: 1926–2011
Le cinéma cosmique de Jordan Belson
DVD: ‘JORDAN BELSON: 5 ESSENTIAL FILMS’
THE UNKNOWN ART OF JORDAN BELSON
Jordan Belson @ Matthew Marks Gallery
Jordan Belson: Sentience in Celluloid
Review: Phenomena by Jordan Belson; Samadhi by Jordan Belson
Jordan Belson @ letterboxd
SAMADHI by Jordan Belson
The Secret Paintings of a Hermetic Filmmaker
Making Films for the Inner Eye: Jordan Belson, James Whitney, Paul Sharits
The Search for Lost Transcendence: Cosmic mysticism in Jordan Belson’s films and painting
JORDAN BELSON: VISUALIZING INNER AND OUTER SPACE
STiCKY DoT MANDALA ViSioNS [FoR JoRDAN BELSoN]
Jordan Belson Paintings 1950–1965
Tribute to Jordan Belson
from Raymond Foye/The Brooklyn Rail
Film was just a few years old when I was born so it seemed the most modern revolutionary medium I could use. My films are always arbitrary mindstuff: nothing domestic.
In my work I am proceeding from the belief that anything can be animated. I’m interested in what underlies reality.
There are certain givens in my symbols that are based on practice, or just based on things as they are.
Non-Objectivism: To construct real events in an unreal world. As opposed to most concepts of abstraction where they are trying to get away from the physical world, in most cases.
Many of Kandinsky’s images are like visual letters, or a telegram.
Non-objective art wasn’t non-objective, people just didn’t yet know what the object was.
Each atom contains a simplified blueprint of what’s taking place in the cosmos. Protons and electrons moving around the nucleus, like planets around the sun. In this image green below is earth and sky above is blue, but that is not always the case. These relations and terms are relative in the work.
The tangibles and intangibles are mixed in the metaphysic. The image as a container of wisdom and knowledge.
I’ve tried to develop a sure sense of proportion so that if it’s not right, I can detect it. Granted I may not know what to do about it right away….
Intuition is the basis of my aesthetic judgment. The more you allow intuition to speak to you the closer you are to the truth, and the origins of the universe. I feel I’ve given up a lot of ways of thinking about certain things in order to be closer to intuition.
I try with my work to establish a sense of the monument: a spiritual location, like the great temples, the Acropolis. Symmetrical, beautiful lighting, the most advanced architectural thinking operates on a much higher plane than most modern art does.
There are monsters in my work. I used to despair at this. But then I realized I can’t eliminate them. They’re just part of the trip. The key is just don’t let them think they’re in control. The bardo plane contains all these awful gods and demons. They’re just projections.
10 of Jordan Belson’s 30 films
‘In 1952, Belson animated a little masterpiece Bop Scotch, which applied the three-frame exposure of his other animation to objects found on the street. Moving around a manhole cover makes it seem to turn and following the swirling lines in a decorative paving seems to make them sway. Daisies dance and a rock seems to hop about from hollow to hollow in a patterned surface. The effect is enchanting and it became a very popular film.’ — Film Affinity
‘Mandala came out only one year after Bop-Scotch but already showed a marked progression for Belson, who began honing in on what would become his own unique visual perspective. The film is more along the lines of what one traditionally expects of Belson’s work, namely, visually-centered compositions with circular objects at the heart of the screen growing, moving, and dissipating into a cinematic ether. We see geometric patterns of circles move around to the sound of a gamelan, the flow of the animation undulates between smooth and staccato movement. At one point, it appears as if the sun and the moon are swaying in orbit from one another amidst a backdrop of swirling grain.
‘Although Belson’s works operate as stand-alone films, that is to say visual-temporal stimulation crafted to approach a meditative state devoid of outside interference, one might liken his approach to some of the writing of Jung, who describes, in Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, that “the severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder of the psychic state– namely through a the construction of a central point to which everything is related, or by a concentric arrangement of the disordered multiplicity and of contradictory and irreconcilable elements. This is evidently an attempt at self-healing on the part of Nature, which does not spring from conscious reflection but from an instinctive impulse.”
‘Belson employs the seamless, constant movement allowed by the filmic medium to distill the audience’s interaction with his art work down to this “instinctive impulse”. As a concentrated temporal passage, Mandala projects a series of circle-based arrangements not to his own ends but as a way of conveying this self-healing to the audience. As we perceive the film, “we are driven to the conclusion that there must be a transconscious disposition in every individual which is able to produce the same or very similar symbols at all times and in all places.” Jung described this as a “collective unconscious” and Belson achieves a similar experience for his audiences through the non-representational images projected within the sealed space of the theater.’ — arkheia
‘An early animated film by Jordan Belson.’
‘I think of Allures as a combination of molecular structures and astronomical events mixed with subconscious and subjective phenomena – all happening simultaneously. the beginning is almost purely sensual, the end perhaps totally nonmaterial. It seems to move from matter to spirit in some way.’ — Jordan Belson
‘Belson uses colorful abstract gaseous images of light against a black background as a visual recreation of Bardo or the three states of being at the moment of death as defined by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. “Belson aligns the three stages of Bardo with the three stages of space flight: leaving the earth’s atmosphere (death), moving through deep space (karmic illusions), and reentry into the earth’s atmosphere (rebirth).’ — WorldCat
‘Is it possible to create a film that both induces and reproduces a transcendental experience? This thought fascinated Belson and other avant-garde filmmakers of his time, such as James Whitney and Stan Brakhage. The melting pot of counterculture, psychedelics and Eastern philosophy of the late Sixties set the scene in which these filmmakers would create their films. Belson recalls the revolutionary transformation and impact of psychedelics on the arts at the time, having himself experimented with LSD and mescaline: “It somehow set the stage for insights…The new art and other forms of expression reveal the influence of mind expansion”.’ — Sophie Pinchetti
‘A combination of molecular structures and astronomical events mixed with subconscious and subjective phenomena—all happening simultaneously. The beginning is almost purely sensual, the end perhaps totally nonmaterial. It seems to move from matter to spirit in some way.’ — Jordan Belson
‘In Chakra, I was able to transfer the traditional order of the chakras into a film, starting with the first (lower) chakra and working up to the seventh (top) chakra…’ — Jordan Belson
Music of the Spheres (1977)
‘Belson’s works often provoke responses that rely heavily on abstract comparisons to the cosmos and outer space but this is perhaps one of his most celestial films. The opening titles even circle around a planetary surface, suggesting a kind of gravitational pull toward the center of the frame which winks at Belson’s predilection for centered compositions. While the fascination with cosmic imagery is ever-present, the audience’s geographic orientation is constantly thrown into question through repeated zooms both in and out of various objects. The soundtrack, offering a lush arrangement of marimbas, bells, and arpeggiated synths, plays off of the wondrous images Belson concocts on the screen. Shimmering colors evoking the Aurora Borealis, faintly-perceivable molten lava, splashing embers, and rushing waterfalls. Finally Belson zooms out from the serene texture of light reflecting on the surface of a lake to reveal our location within a tropical paradise. An entire universe contained within the sparkling glimmers of luminescence – a perfect metaphor for Belson’s filmography.’ — arkheia
Fountain of Dreams (1984)
‘Belson’s imagery is ever enchanting, celestial colors dissolving into one another in a luminous and abstract dance. The gentle accompaniment of Liszt’s music blends with the swirling lights into a lovely cinematic synesthesia.’ — letterboxd
p.s. Hey. ** Ferdinand, Hey. Ah, you’re heading up here. Is Belgium locked down too? I don’t even know. The lockdown here is annoying, but, frankly, other than art galleries being closed, which majorly sucks, and the obnoxious govt. permission form one must fill in and print out and put somewhere on one’s person before walking out one’s door, it doesn’t feel hugely different than before. ‘Discontents’! I’m very proud of that book. I think it lays out and represents the queer punk era very well in its own way. I really want to get it reprinted somehow. I need to look into that. Big up, sir. ** David Ehrenstein, I think I can guess who you would refer to as God. Let me check. *click* Yes, I was right! ** Jack Skelley, Trade of all Jacks. (1) Thanks for the ©. It’s pretty. (2) Agreed. (2 again) Exactamundo. (3) No one does rhetorical jives better. (4) Ditto. (5) I’ll pay especially close attention to any mysterious tastes that might make appearances in my mouth. (5 1/2) Yes, I do think there was a huge drop post-Peter Green, although I do really like the first post-Green album ‘Kiln House’ a lot. Then the dreary Bob Welch era, although some of Danny Kirwin’s songs during the period are really good. I love Danny Kirwin. He was my big rock star crush when I was young. Then I think the remade FM as Nicks/Buckingham showcase era is mostly solid but utterly unremarkable. (6) No, it’s your playground. I’m just playing. ** Dominick, D!!!! Yes, we decided that ‘Jerk’ should really be preserved for future generations, ha ha, or whatever, since it’s been our most successful piece, and one of our best ones for sure. Oh, Billie Eilish’s performance wasn’t so exciting in and of itself. She just wandered around singing and stood on the hood of a car prop. I just think she and her songs are interesting and that something is going on in them. I feel like she could evolve into an even more interesting artist. That’s it, I guess. I don’t know who Bimini is, but I trust you that that was unforgivable. Love using his time machine option on Jackie Beat who used to be the meanest, scariest, most exciting trans/drag performer in Los Angeles fifteen or so years ago before she lost weight and remade herself into a merely okay, toned down, audience-friendly act, G. ** T, Hi, T. Thanks a lot for thanking them. And thanks re: our lockdown thing. Yeah, this has to be the last one. Trudging along. I hope you’re sprinting through your world. Take care. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. You must have had very, very low expectations about the Grammys. Yeah, the ‘WAP’ bit towered far above everything around it. Interesting/weird that rock was so completely sidelined apart from the borderline nap-inducing Haim. Well, there was that ‘Snuff/Gore (in quotes)’ post here a few days ago. That doesn’t count as ‘torture porn’? If not, are you offering to make such a post? I would be more than interested if you or whoever wanted to, of course. ** Golnoosh, Hi, G. Thank you, thank you so much again! I’m glad you finally got to see the comments. I didn’t know that invisibility problem is persisting. Ugh. Aw, thank you so much for the kind words and the humbling comparison, my friend. Have the bonnest day! ** Scott mcclanahan, Hi, Scott! Thank you, and it’s so great to see you! My pal Zac and I were talking about you exorbitantly the other day and wondering when you might publish a new book. Any hints? Take care, great sir, and much respect to you! ** Jeff J, Hi. Yes, I ended up going for the final day of the ‘Jerk’ shooting. I think, ultimately, it worked out okay. Gisele came around. There’s one key puppet show scene that’s shot in a problematic way, but mostly it looks pretty good. We’ll see when we start the editing next week. And it was melancholy to see the very last ‘Jerk’ performance. It’s been alive and touring for more than ten years. Crazy. A little novel progress sounds like plenty under the circumstances, so … great! I’ve only read a little Bruce Chatwin, but I liked what I read. Do you think I should read more of him? ** Okay. Today the blog focuses on the very beautiful and singular films of Jordan Belson, whose work you may or may not know, but, if not, now you can, and knowing his stuff is highly recommended. See you tomorrow.