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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Alexander The Great

Archivist, showman and international man of mystery Geoff Alexander starts his seventh year as host of downtown San Jose's ciné16 film salon

By Richard von Busack

I'M SITTING in the Cloud Room inside San Jose's Eulipia Restaurant. True to its name, clouds of steam rise from the kitchen, which we can see through the glass wall overlooking the main dining room. Below us, the sous chefs are arranging some new potatoes around a piece of salmon; upstairs, a group of about 45 gourmet movie fanciers are settling down for a menu of found, bartered and scavenged cinema. The regulars are a mixed bunch, ranging from high-tech workers to film students.

Host Geoff Alexander, a slight, fit, nattily dressed, prematurely gray party with a rich tropical tan and an impresario's prosperous smile, hooks up the duel projectors and lays down gaffer tape to corral the power cords. The projectors rattle as they're tested. The fans yak, shake hands, race downstairs for a quick glass of wine before partaking of one more edition of ciné16, San Jose's long-running showcase dedicated to 16 mm film.

First up: Valley of Heart's Delight, a 1948 work by a director known only to God. It's a promotional item of the sort made by city boosters--the kind used under the titles in films such as The Full Monty or City by the Sea as a way of contrasting old-time optimism with the dashed hopes of the present.

This one welcomes investor and tourist alike to the pear blossom­strewn Santa Clara Valley. Two-story factories beckon, including the home of Clapp's Baby Food and the young Westinghouse plant. The film brags about the easy transportation around the valley via the Bayshore Highway (the two-lane country road that preceded 101) and a Coast Daylight locomotive puffing up to San Francisco under a sky so sharply blue it hurts the retinas.

Next is Alex Zanini's 1967 documentary, Quicksilver!, which escorts viewers around the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine, including interviews with some prospectors who still run a small shade-tree business in home-cooked mercury, precipitated with smoky crude-oil heaters. Meanwhile, in the flats, contractors renovate the area, knocking over an adobe building: "It's no match for a modern power shovel," intones the narrator.

Quicksilver is followed by a film Alexander titles San Jose 70/71, since the credits are missing. We observe the long-gone lions and tigers in the San Jose City Zoo at Happy Hollow. We marvel at the small airport where PSA, Air West and Western Airlines jets pirouette around the runway. We visit City Hall, meeting Mayor Ron James and young politicians Norman Mineta and Janet Gray Hayes. Everybody knows Mineta, but Hayes deserves a monument of her own for summing up the appeal of San Jose for now and all time, and in fewer than 10 words, yet: "It's close to a lot of places."

I Must Have Passion

All these indelible images of civic history would most likely have been lost forever if they hadn't been retrieved from the scrapheap by San Jose's own Geoff Alexander. His personal obsession for 16 mm film begat both ciné16 and the new Academic Film Archive of North America (AFANA) that shelters it.

AFANA received nonprofit status in February 2001. "It was an incredible amount of paperwork," Alexander says. "I am the director, which means I can never make any money from it. And you can believe that if there is no money in it, I must have passion."

On Oct. 31, ciné16 began its seventh year, returning to its longtime site in the Speakeasy basement of the Agenda Lounge in downtown San Jose--underground cinema in fact as well as name. There, ciné16 has exhibited most of the 1,079 short films it has played for free in more than 300 eclectic programs.

In the last few months, ciné16 was a moving salon--switching from the Agenda to Eulipia to Blake's Steakhouse in San Pedro Square. Now, in a dark vault underneath the floorboards of the Agenda Lounge, Alexander and his assistants conduct weekly seances of retrieved 16 mm film. What Alexander calls his "die-hard 50 fans" can gather for the Thursday-night screenings. These evenings, in keeping with Alexander's flair for presentation, come complete with prizes handed out by co-host Barinda Samra, a.k.a. "Miss ciné16."

This month, ciné16 will branch out with a monthly series called reel;art at Anno Domini Gallery in San Jose. The screenings will concentrate on fine-art documentaries and abstract films from AFANA's collection. The first program boasts features on abstract expressionists and the sculptor Christo.

The shows at Anno Domini will be curated by Brian Eder and Sherri Lakey, whose Two Fish graphics company supports the gallery. Two Fish's long-running First Friday salons of music and art are already staples of the San Jose avant-garde.

"What Geoff's doing is really amazing and underappreciated," Lakey says. "That he's letting us curate art films here is a great fit for us. It exposes our crowd of urban/contemporary artists to their predecessors."

Alexander's project is part of the national rise in microcinemas--small-size, late-night screenings in bars, clubs and makeshift art galleries from New York to San Francisco. A part of ciné16's mission is what Alexander calls "basic cinema education": showing the kind of foreign classics that used to be hosted in second-run, repertory cinemas before the VCR killed them off.

Just as the reel;art screenings may introduce hip-hop artists to Jackson Pollock, ciné16 gives young filmmakers a chance to absorb such essential works as Rules of the Game, Breathless and Jules and Jim.

Artistic Fix

Over the years, Alexander has insisted that ciné16 was of more interest to audiences than the story of his life. But he's nothing if not a showman. Recently, he has opened up his life on his website: www.afana.org.

In the past, when I'd ask how he makes his living, he tended to change the subject. People understood that Alexander was a high-tech consultant in a field that required a great deal of exotic travel. More than one ciné16 fan came to the same fanciful conclusion: "I think Geoff works for the CIA."

Actually, when AFANA went nonprofit, Alexander started discussing his business. He's made a living as a creator of software development tools. He is also a skilled salesman. I asked a woman I knew if she'd met Geoff at the last Association of Moving Image Archivists convention in Portland, Ore. She gave a well-bred sigh. "Oh, I met him. Everybody met him."

Alexander is a tireless evangelist for the case of 16 mm academic film, in between taking enough business trips to Africa, Burma and Peru to keep his status as International Man of Mystery. From his notes to one program:

    Maybe you've been there yourself, maybe not. I was lying in bed next to my girlfriend, looking out the window, all I could see was beach, ocean, coconut palms on Ko Lanta, an island emerging from the crystal waters of the eastern Andaman Sea. Inside, we huddled under a mosquito net billowing back and forth, its breathing propelled by a sea breeze one way, a revolving fan the other. The bungalow was on stilts, no telephone nor TV in sight, but with plenty of cool fresh water for a hose-nozzle shower after a few hours lounging in the impossibly blue sea. Looking at my girlfriend asleep, lost in her dreams, I realized I'd never been happier, and wanted to take in every last second, remember every sight, sound, and touch. In three days, I'd be back in the U.S. alone, leaving my girlfriend 10,000 miles away.
No, we definitely have not been there, though once we once got to go on a package tour to Maui. Anyway, Alexander lived in Barcelona and speaks Spanish well. He was married there. He sometimes drives a Toyota Land Rover of great antiquity. He has a cat. Put it in his dossier that the cat is spoiled--no animal is as spoiled as a bachelor's cat.

When he isn't sifting through miles of vintage celluloid, Alexander persists as a witty writer on the cultural plight of San Jose. This town that spent a fortune on a piece of cast-stone excrement for public statuary, this city that stood by befuddled as its symphony closed down and then tried to salve its civic pride by flaunting fiberglass sharks--this city is Alexander's home and target.

As he's written on the ciné16 website, "In losing the Club Babylon, the Club Ibex and countless other gems, San Jose is a city that continues to lose its heart, piece by piece. It's a city that seems always to be in startup mode."

"Lord knows (and this is coming from an atheist)," Alexander wrote in another cybermissive, "I've tried to leave this place. A graduate--barely of Leigh High School--I was a square artistic peg in a round hole of surfers, jocks and greasers." (Greasers would be the tough old-time gearheads and bikers made cuddly by the movie Grease and the band Sha-Na-Na.)

"I bounced around to alternative radio (KTAO died here), owned a counterculture record store/comix shop/pinball arcade (died in Los Gatos), taught special ed for two years, fled to Boston."

He finally returning to San Jose in the early '80s. "I rode the high-tech wave and, sometime in the early '90s, came up with an idea that showing films would give me my artistic fix. Not charging for the experience would keep me in the odd sort of philosophical balance that keeps me comfortable."

Geoff Alexander
Photograph by George Sakkestad

And the Winner Is: Geoff Alexander and Miss ciné16 (Barinda Samra) often reward audiences at the salon's weekly screenings.

Begone Dull Care

A short-lived gig as a special-ed teacher first started Alexander exhibiting film. He became a fan of Norman McLaren, a Canadian artist who was one of the early abstract animators. In such shorts as Begone Dull Care and Pas de Deux, McLaren applied the principals of fine art to a medium known then only for entertainment or commerce.

"I started borrowing the projector at night," Alexander told Metro in 1996. "At the time, I lived downtown in an apartment with a balcony. I used to set up the projector on the balcony and show movies on the side of the building next door."

Alexander started collecting films in the early 1990s, when he heard that the San Jose Public Library was getting rid of its 16 mm reels. In dumping them, the library was following a national trend. Schools worldwide are switching their educational materials to videotape. It's cheaper, easier to manage, play and store. Yes, there's a sacrifice in aesthetic quality; even high-resolution video isn't up to the visual standards of projected film. But it's presumed students can't tell the difference.

These days, Alexander and his crew sift through mounds of documentaries made for companies like Encyclopedia Britannica or produced by the National Film Board of Canada and intended for the school trade. This focus makes Alexander not just locally but nationally unique.

Alexander can be compared to Harry Smith. An occasional resident of the Bay Area, Smith picked through countless bins of 78 rpm records in the early 1950s. Out of this pile of records, Smith assembled the Anthology of American Folk Music, a 1952 three-record set that became the bible for hundreds of folk revivalists, blues musicians and rockers.

Just as Smith filtered through those 78s, considered worthless and quaint, Alexander sifts through a similar quantity of used movies, often on their way to the landfill. Currently, he says, he has four big donations on the way, including the private collection of an upstate New York academic, some boxes from a university in Colorado and the film library of the Dallas County Schools.

Some of Alexander's new-found grant-writing skills have paid off, since shipping costs for the Texas lot are being co-funded by the American Film Institute.

"You can never have enough prints of a good movie," Alexander says. He intends to catalog the best versions of the best films and send them off to cities in the United States and overseas. AFANA selects films for screenings in places from St. Louis to Stuttgart. Upcoming satellite branches of AFANA might include Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which Alexander recently visited on business.

"We met with the National Archives of Cambodia," he says. That is, the archives, such as they are: "The Khmer Rouge took all the film out of the country."

Alexander will attend the Association of Moving Image Archivists conference in Boston in early November, where he'll host a retrospective on nonfiction filmmaker Bert Van Bork. A German-born documentary filmmaker trained in fine art, Van Bork specializes in zoological cinema, with protozoa and plankton as his subjects.

"It's the first time in 30 years that anyone's ever done a retrospective on an academic filmmaker," Alexander says. "We're showing Van Bork's 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary Eyewitness, a story of several artists who create work based on their time in concentration camps." (The film will soon make its San Jose debut at ciné16.)

The Association of Moving Image Archivists Journal is slated to print Alexander's monograph on the work of one of his favorites, the polymath humanities filmmaker John Barnes. In many films for Encyclopedia Britannica, Barnes carefully examined the Western canon from the windows at Chartres to the plays of Shakespeare.

Alexander comments that it's always easy to find Barnes films in good condition. "Apparently, they weren't popular in classrooms because they went over the heads of high school students."

Meanwhile, Alexander is also trying to finish a book, provisionally titled The Golden Age of the Academic Film: 1960­85.

"When the U.S.S.R. first launched a satellite into outer space, there was a national panic that the United States was being overtaken in the realm of science," he explains. "Sputnik caused millions to fall into the hands of young brilliant filmmakers. It was almost pure socialism in an educational context. But I have way too much going on to finish this book. I haven't identified a publisher yet, and I may have to self-publish."

Behind the Frock Coat

Alexander's biggest problem as an archivist is that no one understands what he's trying to rescue. Hearing about 16 mm educational film, the public thinks of the health and hygiene films of the 1950s: those reels beloved by penny-ante ironists and derided on The Simpsons and Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Alexander has harvested a few rejection slips for his book on educational film, usually from university presses whose editors assume AFANA's purpose is to make fun of 1950s mental-hygiene films. There already is such a book, Ken Smith's Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945­1970. But though Smith came to mock, he stayed to admire. He describes the upside of these often stilted pictures. Dumb as they were, health and hygiene films provided some basic information to teenagers during an almost total blackout of discussion about sex.

True, some of AFANA's films put the wrong foot forward. Sometimes, these films were printed using cheap color processes that turn everything into 30 shades of magenta. A lofty narrator--some earnest '50s blockhead--often mars the work.

Older readers can remember the slower-going science or math films, droning away in the dark, as the teacher copped a cigarette, and the students snoozed or picked at a scab. And a ration of what Alexander has found deserves oblivion. He especially loathes a certain kind of educational film--what he calls "frock-coat movies"--with actors dressing up as eminent figures of science and literature. ("Why, Benjamin Franklin, what are you doing here?")

Alexander has been known to program an inept educational film now and then just for the sake of contrast. His favorite comedy relief piece is a peculiar MIT-made snippet in which the experiment refuses to cooperate, a phone rings persistently in the background and a lab assistant almost catches fire.

Another occasional offering at ciné16 is The Puppeteer, in which a homely and frightening man uses glove puppets to explain why racism is bad. In the interests of full revelation, I must admit I won a copy of this movie at a ciné16 screening. Having no projector, I stowed my copy in the garage, realizing that the whole purpose of the give-away raffle tickets was just a ruse to dispose of an extra copy of an awful film before it smelled up the warehouse.

Far more often, though, the ciné16 showcases films you'd never get a chance to see. The salon has screened a century's worth of experimental works: legends like Menilmontant, a rare copy of Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico or the seminal surrealist film The Andalusian Dog. Alexander has come up with the rarest documentaries about places and peoples on every continent--stories of ways of almost gone by the time the cameras arrived.

One of Alexander's signal rediscoveries is Paul Saltzman, a master ethnographic filmmaker. If you liked the film Himalaya, you'd love Saltzman. Alexander also promotes the films of Richard Leacock, who appeared at Cinequest in 2001. Leacock is a key figure in cinéma vérité, the technique that, for better or worse, forecasted today's reality shows.

A favorite recurring documentary at ciné16 is The Jean Richard, by Rene Bonniere, which is better than the best episode of This Old House. The townspeople of a village called Petite Rivieres gather in the 1950s to build a huge flat-bottomed fishing boat called a goelette. They construct it outdoors in the middle of a Quebec winter, using hand tools.

Under the Radar

"We're the only venue in the United States for these kinds of films--films going underneath the cinema radar," Alexander says. But ciné16 and AFANA are under San Jose's radar, too, and may be taking off to St. Louis instead.

AFANA made its Midwest debut at the Mad Gallery in St. Louis this October, when it inaugurated a monthly show. The archive's liaison in St. Louis is Emmy-winning filmmaker Margie Newman. Alexander knows St. Louis, having briefly worked as a radio DJ in the Gateway City, and he'd heard about the transformation of St. Louis' once-lethal downtown into newly built lofts.

"The Mad Gallery," Alexander says, "is a brick Art Deco police substation built by the WPA. The city of St. Louis put it up for sale, and the highest bidder was a cop, who was also a painter. He renovated it, keeping a dozen of the jail cells and turning the sergeant's desk into a fine-looking full bar. Today, it's a high-end performance space that can seat 200 people."

Nearly 200 people showed up for the opening night, including a reporter from St. Louis Magazine. Advance work by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Greg Freeman helped. Freeman wrote, "Getting the archive to move here would be a nice feather in the city's cap." That night at the Mad Gallery, a representative of the St. Louis mayor's office invited AFANA to settle in Missouri.

Has anyone from the San Jose mayor's office ever attended a showing of ciné16? "Not anyone who's admitted it," Alexander says.

While seeking a permanent home for the archive, Alexander is finalizing a deal that would allow his archive to be stored at space owned by History San Jose. History San Jose's president and CEO David Crossen is more than enthusiastic about the idea.

"Thank God, Geoff's doing this work," Crossen says. "Those of us who grew up in the '50, '60s and '70s know the importance of the films he's preserving."

Certainly, the archive includes films of special interest to San Jose history. "Yes," Crossen interjects, "but we as an organization are also part of contemporary San Jose. While AFANA is of importance to the country, the fact that it's happened in San Jose is a good thing. It's important that San Jose make a commitment to keep it here."

Alexander thinks big, sometimes mulling over the possibility of AFANA inhabiting the shell of the Greek-revival First Church of Christ, Scientist in St. James Park. Alexander notes, "A church preservation action council did a 1981 feasibility study suggesting good uses for the building. Two of them were as a museum and a movie theater. If I could wave a magic wand, this is what I'd ask for: one architecturally significant building, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 square feet. We would house archives, so we'd need a regulated temperature- and humidity-controlled vault."

Is that going to happen in San Jose? You can pick up such a building for dirt cheap in St. Louis. The city is busily reclaiming its abandoned downtown, full of some of the grandest beaux-arts edifices outside Chicago. (Of course, the humidity eats at these structures, making them expensive to repair.) As bad as the job scene is in San Jose, it's only worse there. Still, in Alexander's communiqués, you hear what you hear everywhere: the complaints of so many artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians that California is getting too expensive to live in. CNN.com says that seven out of the 10 most expensive housing markets in the United States are in California. Then think of the Grand Center district, an official arts district established by St. Louis: three major universities in 10 square miles; median house prices at under $100,000. While there's no such thing in this world as a paradise for artists, and while there are the usual funding shortages, St. Louis is a town you can survive in, and you can see what might lure AFANA away. But for the meantime, the archive's staying put: "We don't know where our permanent location will be, but for the time being this is where we are," Alexander says.

Shadow Fans Mystery Science Archive 2002: Shadowy fans follow the images at ciné16.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Wings of Celluloid

At the Cloud Room, on wings of celluloid, we zoom south to the shipyards in National City, to observe the christening of the USS San Jose. We attend the groundbreaking of the Park Center Plaza, which was even more alienating then than it is now--a '70s sci-fi apron of concrete, made for pedestrians to slink on, under the naked intimidation of bank skyscrapers.

In the high tech of the time, a computer alive with Christmas tree lights is force-fed IBM punch cards. And, this being an educational film, there's a scene of Policeman Dan visiting the local schools to warn the children about drugs.

During intermission, Mike Selic, AFANA's CFO and a four-year vet of WORKS/San Jose gallery, reminds the crowd of the fate of silent films. He mentions how some 70 percent of all silent films have been lost because of neglect, left to rot in storage areas, burned or dumped into the East River. Tonight, in three separate films, we saw pieces of the history of San Jose that most likely don't exist elsewhere. But it's just a sample of what AFANA preserves in a doomed format. "16 mm is going away, and it isn't coming back," Selic says.

This is a peril of the information age--amnesia by obsolescence. New formats leave old ones harder to read and access. In the United States National Archives, records of the last 30 years are kept on decaying tapes and disks, in programs that few computers today can read.

What is surprising is that the effort to save something from the mass sloughing-off of information began as something so low-key, and that it began here. What Shem Lakey had said about her own Anno Domini gallery is true of AFANA: "There's always a pressure to leave, but San Jose needs us. There's a real chance to create a legacy here."

ciné16 takes place every Thursday at 7pm at the Speakeasy in the Agenda Lounge, 399 S, First St., San Jose.

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From the November 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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