Christopher Maclaine – Beat (1958)


“Maclaine’s next film, Beat (1958), might be thought of as a continuation of The Man Who Invented Gold, since it often cuts back and forth between shots of golden lamps, lights in windows, and gold-colored objects, often situated in the direct center of the frame (in fact, golden lights show up prominently near the close of the fifth section of The End as well). Otherwise, Beat is something of a portrait of the bohemian characters of late-1950s San Francisco, made just as the scene was disintegrating into mass-marketed national media consciousness and North Beach became the tourist’s emblem of the Beat Generation. Once again, Maclaine’s editing technique positively sparkles.

This virtually unprecedented, rapid-fire editing style which Maclaine developed for his films reflects not only his his destitution and sense of extreme alienation. It also reflects his addiction to speed. Stan Brakhage described the experience of listening to Maclaine speak:
“…[a] sentence would break and a new sentence would start that had absolutely nothing clearly recognizable to do with the previous sentence. All these tracks were running simultaneously and he’d leap from one to another, but if you listened long enough, all the stories finally unwound in the whole tapestry of his talking…”
Murphy points out that this is the same principle on which Maclaine seems to have based his editing style: a constant rupturing of the straightforward narrative. The conversation or film will veer off into seemingly random events, only to have those events show up as a crucial element in a later sequence. And to get anywhere with the films, the viewer, as Murphy says, has to “[suspend] judgment until the gestalt can be determined.”

Indeed, Maclaine can be considered a virtuoso of the narrative rupture. Color is intercut with black-and-white; scenes with characters are interrupted by abstract images; disparate juxtapositions abound. And though many of the random-seeming images eventually “justify” themselves in a narrative sense, there is no reassuring sense of an artistic “tapestry” being woven. There is only the tightrope walk between the two poles of “maybe” and “maybe not.” This is one of the qualities that makes Maclaine’s work, despite its pessimism, truly courageous.

Did I mention dancing? This filmmaker is as enchanted by dance as any who ever lived. Shots of walking and dancing feet permeate all of his films. He often edits shots in a way that accents the dance-like qualities of people’s movements – for instance the umbrella woman in Beat who flits at top speed from corner to corner at a four-way intersection like a bird trapped in a cage, or the numerous times he will use jump-cuts to make a person appear to walk faster or slower than they actually are. In a way, all Maclaine’s films could be looked at as choreographic studies – labors of a love for motion and movement.”

“Beat (1958) is weaker, an odd if sometimes powerful essay on alienation whose lack of emotional focus seems to prove that Maclaine’s films need some sort of center, if only for their fragments to fly away from.”


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