Gordon Ball: Filmmaker
Gordon Ball (born Paterson, New Jersey, grew up Tokyo, Japan) began work in film when given a regular 8mm movie camera by Jonas Mekas on a 1966 college visit. Ball worked for Mekas and Filmmakers' Cooperative in New York 1966-1967, a period detailed in his '66 Frames (Coffee House Press, 1999). He hitchhiked across the U.S. and Mexico to live in a jungle-sea-mountain village, was arrested without charge entering Puerto Vallarta at a time of gringo hippie round-up by federales, and shot what would become MEXICAN JAIL FOOTAGE from the inside. Returning to the U.S., Ball worked several years as manager of a small farm retreat for artists and poets established by Allen Ginsberg, with whom he'd work on books and photography over coming decades. The first part of FARM DIARY (1968-1969) is available through Filmmakers' Cooperative. Having entered graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1973, he told his life story under a magnolia tree on Franklin Street in the summer of 1977; made film elegies FATHER MOVIE (1978) one year after father's death and ENTHUSIASM (1980) five years after mother's. MILLBROOK (1985) recaptures a personal psychedelic experience at Timothy Leary's upstate redoubt. For the United States Information Agency (USIA) he taught two summers (1986 and 1988) in Poland shortly before glasnost, making DO POZNANIA (1991). In 1980 he adopted a phrase from Yeats, "technical sincerity," as touchstone for his first-person filmmaking: "Fine or rough, heavy or ethereal, there is always at base an unregretful uncompromising heart and consciousness. It is negligent of all but its own earnest rhythmic awareness: and that, after all, may be what we were looking for--what one person and no other can give us." In recent years he's exhibited and published some of the many photographs he took of Ginsberg and Beat colleagues over three decades. His DVD Films by Gordon Ball was released at the end of 2010, and is carried by Canyon Cinema, Filmmakers' Cooperative, and Re:Voir Video. He teaches literature, composition, and film in the Department of English and Fine Arts, Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Lexington, Virginia.
"A perfect tone poem of a film - within its short time limit, it contains much of the beauty of night and the sensuality of women ... perhaps even 'THE' woman one sometimes sees dancing in the night, but never touches in the flesh. Dreamlike, beautiful - its brevity compacts its power and renders it haunting." -- William R. Trotter
"GEORGIA is a good example of a new genre of film that has been developing lately, that is, a portrait film. In some cases, like those of Brakhage, Warhol or Markopoulos, there is an attempt at an objective portrait of a man or woman; in other cases, like in the case of GEORGIA, the portrait becomes completely personalized, poetically transposed; it may not be as multi-faceted as, say, Brakhage's portrait of McClure, but an inspired portrait nevertheless, in the vein of a single-minded lyrical love poem." -- Jonas Mekas
Note: Project at silent speed.
1966, 16mm, color/si, 4min (18fps)
Sitting meditation study. First work after I laid down camera seven years - thus newskin concentration on breath-body precise rhythm attention.
Awards: Honorable Mention, North Carolina Film Festival, 1977; Third Int'l Avant-Garde Film Festival, London, 1978.
1977, 16mm, color/si, 2min
Made spontaneously with news of my father's death - I kept a friend's Instamatic Super 8 in my coat pocket as I headed to Winston-Salem and the rest home where my father died of a sudden stroke overnight. I filmed on highway, in his abandoned rest home room, then drove weeping & filming at the same time, one hand on wheel, one holding camera, past the houses - my sister's, his own - he and my mother had lived in after retirement from life's work abroad.
"In his two films about the last days and death of his father and the life and death of his mother, Gordon Ball has accomplished something unique in the autobiographical genre of motion pictures. He has reconciled 'still' (as the mind would have it remembering) with 'movie' AND 'document' (in the form of 'home movies') with the 'myth' of his voice track." -- Stan Brakhage
1978, S8mm, color/si, 10min
Wedding song: friend Tom Cleveland gave me one roll of film and camera to shoot his wedding ceremony in bride's ancestral Charlotte, North Carolina house rainy December's end 1977.
Award: FilmSouth, 1979
1978, 16mm, color/si, 4min
"It began with ENTHUSIASM. I first learned of Gordon Ball at the 1979 Atlanta Independent Film Festival when, along with 400 other festival goers, I watched an utterly earnest, painful and serious film called ENTHUSIASM sandwiched in a program of likeable festival fare. For the fourteen long minutes that ENTHUSIASM claimed the screen, a roomful of unprepared viewers was confronted with a filmmaker's account of his mother's death, following a prolonged illness with Alzheimer's Disease, a form of premature senility. Ball's detailed narrative, recited in a voice struggling to maintain composure, accompanied the generally random series of snapshots and posed photographs of his mother, interspersed with passages of colored leader and flares which constituted the visual body of the film.
"Later, at the close of the festival, after five nights of immersion in film and video, ENTHUSIASM was still with me. ... Going over these images is a universal experience. They are pictures that record the fairest moments as reflected in the face one wears in front of the camera. They preserve the memory of a time which existed before we children came. In them, the subject, even when aged, is always alive.
"Ball's story, replete with the mundane, untalked-of details of illness, forms the dark aspect of those fair eternal moments, the face we instinctively turn away from the camera's eye. ENTHUSIASM's drama takes the shape of the tension between picture and word, between the memory we cherish and the one we would often rather deny or forget." -- Linda Dubler, Art Papers
"ENTHUSIASM presents a unique family image brown, black and white, and color photos collecting an older generation's poignant enthusiasm, romances, marriages, social graces and narrative myths, narrated in flashbacks from his parents' graves intermixed with chronologic soundtrack account of their buried histories, awkward, honest and raw-voiced, hesitant and sincere, whereby Gordon Ball makes you cry for life itself." -- Allen Ginsberg
Awards: Sinking Creek Film & Video Festival, 1980; North Carolina Film Festival, 1981.
Collection: North Carolina Museum of Art
1979, 16mm, b&w/color/so, 13min
Paranoid surreptitious in-jail camera held in this prisoner's hands documents daily events and posturings of 25 gringos (and Mexican jailmates) arrested at Puerto Vallarta 1968 without charge. Was there Mexico, DF - Washington, DC collusion behind this round-up from Yelapa ferry boats, private town houses and palm-roofed wall-less jungle huts? It took place during national polarization (of youth culture, official culture) in US; older US tourists were shocked to find more new generation they thought they'd left behind, and official Mexico was already paranoid in the face of coming Olympics (police would shoot 108 people) six months later. Narration's a dense web of comedy, horror and Kafkaesque grotesque behind a succession of raw sunlit images of comely youths imprisoned, male and female.
"MEXICAN JAIL FOOTAGE reminds me of standing by the tracks and watching a train go by - it is so strong, it lasts so long, and it is over so quickly." -- Tom Whiteside
"I can't forget this film." -- Robert Frank
"MEXICAN JAIL FOOTAGE is the best jail film I've seen" -- Jonas Mekas
Awards: Juror's Choice, North Carolina Film Festival, 1981; Director's Choice, Atlanta Film and Video Festival and SF Art Institute Film Festival, 1982; Honorable Mention, Big Muddy Film Festival, 1982.
Collection: Independent Media Artists of Georgia
1980, 16mm, color/so, 18min
For aeons it's been the human family around a fire constructing and refiguring its basic myths: it's our earliest family or tribal "movie." So MILLBROOK recounts a mythical "true story," a life-changing event told against fire, the emblem of consumption and renewal: In the enormous forested estate once used by Timothy Leary, a young couple lose individual identity, merge with decaying leaves and are consumed by maggots as entire universe undergoes entropy, revive as it regenerates and are saved from death by a mysterious familiar stranger.
Award: Atlanta Film and Video Festival
1985, 16mm, color/so, 9min
Do Poznania (To Poznan): Conversations in Poland
Personal glimpses of Polish life immediately preceding glasnost. Filmed during my two month-long visits (1986, 1988) as American Literature and Culture Specialist at Adam Mickiewicz University, it offers everyday street scenes, crumbling building facades, remains of death camps Auschwitz and Birkenau, Solidarity monument at Gdansk's Lenin Shipyard and traveling shots of idyllic countryside, all in a handheld camera style: personal, raw, rapid, eccentric, intense - the opposite of Lowell Thomas or PBS. Charging the rapidly fleeting images are gists of conversations with Poles in which I took part, re-created back in US - health and financial problems, queuing, environmental issues, Chernobyl, food, communists, anti-semitism, "free" education and work under Soviet socialism.
The "voices" I re-present are urgent and multiple, and enrich the images with ambiguity, contradiction and personal history. This film (pronounced "Doe Pohznawnia") is an unpretentious, unconventional, unimposing and uncompromising record of life in the last (and in some ways, worst) days of a regime whose loss of power was just around the corner.
Thanks: Appalshop and Virginia Commission for the Arts
Exhibition (premiere): Virginia Festival of American Film
Collections: University of Virginia, Davidson College
1991, 16mm, color/so, 17min
Gordon Ball's films in 16 millimeter and Super 8 are available from: