Career, WILLIAM FARLEY
One year out of high school, and following the working class tradition of my clan, I was laboring in a huge factory rigging steel. My mother told me that she had shown some drawings I had made to a local artist and that the woman told her I had talent and that I should consider going to art school. This idea was a shock to me as I had no formal art training and I had never considered myself to be an artist by any measure. However, I hated the job I was doing and the prospect of escaping this miserable employment was irresistible.
I went to art school in Boston at Vesper George School of Art (1961-1964) studying commercial art and design, and had the great good fortune to have a recent MFA graduate from Yale, as my teacher. William Georgenes didn't have a lot of teaching experience so he gave the class his Josef Albers design problems as homework. And to my great surprise I was very good at this kind of creative problem solving and thus began my journey to become an artist.
Upon graduation I was immediately drafted into the Service and spent the next two years in Baltimore, Md. working as an Illustrator for an Army Intelligence unit, which developed tools for spies. At night, when I wasn't working as a waiter at the Pimlico Race Track, I was taking art classes, where I discovered sculpture as a new medium for my expression.
After receiving an honorable discharge from the Army I went back to school on the G.I. Bill. Majoring in Sculpture, I received several scholarships, including full paid tuition to Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (1968). Doing my undergraduate work at Maryland Institute College of Art, (BFA 1969) I had the opportunity to meet many of the great poets, artists and musicians of the sixties as well as revolutionary thinkers in other disciplines like Buckminster Fuller and Margret Mead. This exposure was truly life changing because it showed me that following a discipline that interested you creatively could be transformative.
I entered an MFA program with a scholarship at California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland, Ca. (1970-72) where my sculpture became more conceptual and political. One conceptual piece I made after the shooting of students at Kent State who were protesting Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, was an edition of postage stamps showing the back of my head with a pony tail, as an expression of my loss of faith in our government's foreign policy. Some of the stamps, which were all printed on gummed paper with US Ten Cents across them, were found on letters as postage and I was interviewed by the Secret Service to see if I was a counterfeiter. Through the news media it became apparent that the purpose of the stamps was a protest and not an attempt to defraud the government and I was not prosecuted. This sheet of stamps was included in Dana Atchley's Space Atlas (1970) and was my first work of many Mail Art pieces for the Correspondence Art movement.
In my first year of graduate school I was required to take an elective and I chose a History of Cinema class. At the end of the semester the professor gave the students the option of writing a paper about the films, which were shown, or to make a film. I had never made a film before, but had seen hundreds of Hollywood moves as a kid. My mother had decided that she wanted me out of the house on weekends and away from my father's drinking and she used the movie theater as my safe refuge. Making Out (1970) turned out to be very funny and somewhat socially relevant and became a hit on the film festival circuit. And I was hooked. By the time I received my MFA (1972). I had more credits in film production then sculpture courses.
Before and after graduate school I was a member of the Seafarers International Union and worked as a crewmember on cargo ships to earn money and see the world. On one voyage to the Far East I brought a 16mm camera, and one night I was on watch on the bow of the ship talking into a tape recorder about my experience at sea, when a fellow crew member came up to me and began telling me about a terrible incident he was involved in, where in the middle of the night the ship he was steering accidently ran over a Korean fishing boat and the mate on duty talked him into not going back to look for survivors, because they would get in trouble. The resulting film Sea Space (1972), was edited at the Center For Contemporary Music at Mills College, Oakland, Ca. where I later taught film production from 1974 to 1980. The film won awards nationally and internationally and is in the permanent collection of the Walker Museum of Art in Minnesota.
I received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant for Filmmaking (1979). I worked with Joan Jonas as a story adviser on Juniper Tree (1976) and made two films for her production of Double Lunar Dogs at the Berkeley Museum of Art (1984). I performed navigating a camera dolly for Robert Ashley's What She Thinks, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1976) and worked with him again as the production designer for Music with Roots in the Aether, the Gordon Mumma episode (1977). I continued to explore experimental filmmaking within the narrative tradition of story telling and completed The Bell Rang To An Empty Sky, (1977) with Dennis Banks, cofounder of the American Indian Movement, which played the international film festival circuit, and was given an Award of Merit by John Hanhardt at the Bellington Film Festival.
I continued to work as a performer in performance art events; Looking On The Eighties (1980), was a performance piece conceived by Linda Montano and performed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with George Coates, John Duykers and myself dressed as nuns and Pauline Oliveros and Linda Montano, dressed as priests. We performed a walking silent meditation and sang babbling intonations from the balcony of the museum every 20 minutes for nine hours.
I joined the board of two San Francisco art organizations in1980; Langton Arts, a non-profit alternative space, focusing on contemporary art, and The San Francisco International Theater Festival (1980-84).
In collaboration with George Manupelli and Don Novello from Saturday Night Live, we created Become An Artist for the San Francisco Art Institute, which won a Clio for the best public service announcement of the year (1981).
My first narrative feature film, Citizen, I'm Not Losing My mind, I'm giving It Away, (1982) was a fictional film slightly disguised as a documentary. It received grants from the California Tamarack Foundation (1982), and the Zellerbach Family Fund (1983). It featured several Bay Area comedians and Whoopi Goldberg in her first screen appearance. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (1983) followed by a one month run at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1983).
I continued to make short experimental/narrative films with the support of a Western Region Media Grant for Filmmaking (1984). I was commissioned by producer Jim Newman to direct a documentary about an Indian Raga singer, whose music inspired Terry Riley and La Monte Young in their creation of the modern classical music called Minimalism. In Between The Notes, The Life and Music of Pandit Pran Nath (1986) won a first prize at the Chicago International Film Festival, (1987).
Six months after arriving back from filming in India, my younger brother was found dead in his apartment and to help recover from this major loss in my life, I began to research a film which would be a tribute to life. Over the years, I had collected tens of thousands of clips from old documentaries and fictional films, and I began viewing this material and listening to an orchestrated music score I found on a LP. At times, the music and images seemed to illuminate each other, creating a deep subtext of emotional meaning. Thirteen years earlier, I had photographed a shimmering shadow, which had a timeless magical quality to it, but I didn't know what to do with it. It became the opening and closing images to my film about my brother. I sent a print of the finished 16mm film to the composer and asked if he would allow me to use his music? Two weeks later David Byrne contacted me and gave me permission to use his music with no fees. Tribute (1986) was a great success and showed worldwide in the international festival circuit and European television.
I joined two other San Francisco boards in the 1980's, George Coates Performance Works (1981 to 1988) and the Film Arts Foundation (1984 to 1996). I was president of the Film Arts Foundation Board from 1992 to 1996. I also worked on several theater projects, and created film components for George Coates Performance Works and Alan Finneran's Soon 3 productions.
I began teaching part time at Bay Area colleges, which had programs in Film Studies. I did this work for the income and to throw myself into an intense study of areas of film production, which I believed would advance my ability to tell stories. Directing actors and writing screen plays were my primary areas of my investigation and teaching.
In the summer of 1977, I wandered around Ireland for a month filming and met John Molloy, an actor at the Abby Theater, in Dublin. He became the inspiration for my second narrative feature, Of Men and Angels (1989), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for outstanding narrative screenplay. At Sundance, the film was acquired by a London film company for distribution.
During the disintegration of my marriage I made "broke", a (1995) meditation on begging. The musical score was written by Academy Award composer Todd Boekelheide, and performed by the Kronos Quartet.
A major amount of my time in the nineteen nineties was spent writing two screen plays, Close Quarters and 5:10 To Cooperstown. At the Independent Feature Project, in New York (1998), Variety magazine wrote that 5:10 To Cooperstown was a hot prospect. The screenplay was based on my childhood growing up in a family where my father drank and inadvertently lit things on fire. It is a funny and sad story out of the tradition of films like My Life as A Dog, and Stand By Me. I met with executives from Fox Search Light about producing the film, but they were unwilling to give me final cut and talks ended there. I stopped shopping the project after I realized I couldn't be fully honest about my mother in the story with her still alive. She died in 2012 and I am presently revising the script.
My friends Mal and Sandra Sharpe bought a painting in an upscale junk store, which was painted in 1963, and hung on the wall of North Beach's Old Spaghetti Factory, a bohemian nightclub. The mural was of the people who worked and frequented the establishment. The Sharpe's asked me to join the search for all the people in the mural, and record their stories. This adventure became, The Old Spaghetti Factory (2000), which went out on the PBS satellite and was shown in over 95 cites in the U.S.
The Stories (2005) was taken from a story a friend told me about a conversation he had with his father, who was dying. The story represented a profound insight to me, that everything in life is not revealed to you, regardless of how important you believe your need is to know something: in this case his father's seven stories. My next film was Darryl Henriques Is In Show Business (2006), a portrait of an immensely talented comedian whose biting humorous commentary on modern life and the abuse of power delivered him as a darling to the political Left. This anarchistic bent also presented itself when he was being courted by the lions of the entertainment industry and successfully managed to discourage them from making him famous. The film follows him through his daily life working as a caterer and his occasional stints as a stand up comic. It also includes amusing stories about Darryl's antics from Ed Begley Jr, Paul Krassner, and Peter Coyote.
In 2006, with 5 cameras I filmed John O'Keefe's performance of his adaptation of Walt Whitman's Song Of Myself, at the Marsh in San Francisco, CA. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote of the show, "Every poet has his own Walt Whitman within him. John O'Keefe liberated his Whitman and gave it to the open air, much to everybody's delight".
While staying at a low budget ashram in New York City, I met an Italian woman who didn't want to come to the States, but God told her to come find someone to make a film about her life. Arianna's Journey (2007) follows the travails of a spiritual healer following the private directives of a very rascally inclined deity. Her family travels with her on a pilgrimage to holy shrines in Israel and Palestine, to sacred caves in France, and finally to the largest peyote fields in the world, located in central Mexico. The film is in the permanent college of New York University, N.Y.
In 2007 I began to photograph urban and rural landscapes at night in the fog, absent of their inhabitants, where the elementals seem visible and available to be recorded. Photographing after midnight and before dawn in the fog satisfies a deep instinct within me beyond my socialization as I try to capture the drama of the silent light of a liminal world. This work is an exploration of my belief that the photographic image has the potential to reach beyond the rational mind to our innate understanding of the mysterious beauty of the material world.
I was commissioned to direct Shadow and Light, The Life and Art of Elaine Badgley Arnoux (2009), a documentary about an 83 year old woman who paints catastrophes of the 20th and 21st century in pursuit of fame and to heal herself of her childhood traumas.
Recovering from a major financial meltdown, I found a walk near where I lived which changed my perspective of my problems. The generosity I experience in this small bayside park filled me with a sense of gratitude that transformed my perspective. The Walk (2011), is a celebration of a landscape's power to heal and my attempt to honor what it gave to me.
I received another commission to direct Plastic Man, The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish (2014). His life has been one of metamorphoses: first an activist bail bondsman in the 1960s, then a filmmaker, and he now sculpts plastic junk into vividly alive figures full of expression and feeling. Jerry strives for unattainable validation through public acclaim. The film received grants from the Fleishhaker Foundation, and the Lef Foundation.
A week ago, while emptying my mother's house outside of Boston, I went through a hundred years of photographs of my family and found a booklet my mother had filled out about my birth and my early years. Prophetically, she wrote that the first sentence I spoke was "I can see." With this recent revelation, it is not surprising that my filmmaking is actually more a vocation than an occupation. For over 40 years, I have thrown caution to the wind to tell stories that I feel might be useful in understanding the world and the people who inhabit it. Cinema has been the delivery system for this conversation. Finding good stories and being transformed by them has been my agenda and I feel I have been blessed to throw myself into this pursuit with abandon.
© 2014 William Farley