exploded view Nelson_Bleu2

By Chuck Stephens

“Could be that all those venal mother-fuckers are us…if so let’s go easy on them.”

A funk-art, found-footage, intellectual brain-bait stoner comedy, epistemological jape, and audience-pleasing masterpiece of the American experimental cinema made in 1970, Robert Nelson’s Bleu Shut (30 Minutes) is exactly 30 minutes long. Hence the film’s full title, and the voice of the woman (our hostess, Diane Nelson) who, during the film, reassures the viewer that this will in fact be the case. Viewers of the film may note that the movie actually runs for about 33 minutes. There is a clock seen keeping time throughout the duration of the film, superimposed in the upper-right-hand corner over whatever else is going on onscreen, which may or may not aid the viewer in this observation. Life and movies are bound to time. Time is, you know…time. It binds all things, the stultifying metronome that regulates each mortal coil and sputtering star…at least until some experimental filmmaker sticks his hand in, starts messing with the hands of the clock, manhandling destiny, telling time to go fuck itself. The wind blows forward and, as Captain Beefheart reminded us in 1969, the wind blows back. The following year, Robert Nelson’s Bleu Shut, in exactly 30 minutes. Running time: 33 minutes. Someone is fucking with you.

Robert Nelson (d. 2012) was a comedian and formalist who made some of the most fondly remembered and often downright confounding movies of his generation. He was born in 1930 in San Francisco and studied painting there, at the California School of Fine Arts, and eventually at Mills College. He came to filmmaking in his 30s, starting with Plastic Haircut (1963), made (as a number of his films would be) in collaboration with the artist William T. Wiley and the composer Steve Reich. Mirth, metaphysics, and a well-lubricated good time seem to have been the prime production orders of the day. The widely seen minstrel show “provocation” Oh Dem Watermelons (1965) soon followed. Nelson was prolific, his films sometimes loose and whimsical, even as the contours of a carefully guiding hand slowly emerged. Bleu Shut is the grand, goofy summa of Nelson’s early work, a crypto-structuralist invocation of the multiple “planes” (as Nelson calls them) of duration at play within every movie/viewer interface, staged here in the terms of “a boat-game and entertainments.” Every minute, a buzzer will sound, a numeral will flash onscreen to count away the time elapsed, and a new question, always multiple choice, will be posed. Most of the questions will have to do with the names of boats. In a sense, the viewer is encouraged to play along with the voices of the Nelsons and Wiley heard within the film, guessing at the boat names and freely associating among the possibilities…until it becomes increasingly apparent that nothing makes sense at all, or that everything does.

That everything soon comes to include found snippets of Hollywood musicals lei-ed with Hawaiian dancers, glimpses of Garbo and Gary Cooper, the whispering inquisitors from Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), some fisheye lens tomfoolery scored to a strumbly hippie drone, a couple of minutes of heavy thrusting from a stag film which almost certainly isn’t titled “The Pink Silk Abysm Befooled, by Robert Nelson,” and other delights. Franks and beans will be served shortly after the 11-minute mark. Finally, Robert Nelson himself appears, sort of. “What I want to do at this moment is tell you what this movie has been about,” he explains, as if in mid-lecture on the subject. Then he senses that there’s something wrong with his camera, an unwanted buzzing sound within. The 30th minute of Bleu Shut (30 Minutes) expires. The film continues. Fingers creep in and skew the hands of the clock. “Goddamn it, what the fuck’s the matter with the goddamned thing?” Nelson approaches the camera, blocks the image entirely. A found image of a fish in deep water appears. Is the movie over? In the upper-right-hand corner, someone’s flipping you the bird.


Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Cinema Scope 80 Table of Contents

    Interviews  No God But the Unknown Pietro Marcello and Maurizio Braucci on Martin Eden by Jordan Cronk I See a Darkness: Pedro Costa on Vitalina More →

  • No God But the Unknown: Pietro Marcello and Maurizio Braucci on Martin Eden

    By Jordan Cronk “Of course it was beautiful; but there was something more than beauty in it, something more stingingly splendid which had made beauty More →

  • I See a Darkness: Pedro Costa on Vitalina Varela

    A moving study of mourning and memory, Pedro Costa’s revelatory new film offers an indelible portrait of Vitalina Taveres Varela, a fragile yet indomitable woman who makes the long voyage from Cape Verde to Lisbon to attend her estranged husband’s funeral, but misses the event itself because of cruel bureaucratic delays. More →

  • Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft

    The prospect of spending an hour and a half with people lacking in notable virtue, alluring vice, or any apparent interest, may seem like an unproductive exercise in forced empathy—but consider this skepticism a function, as opposed to a fault, of these tightly orchestrated, seemingly soporific character studies. More →

  • For a Cinema of Bombardment

    Although there have always been intrepid critics and cinephiles who have engaged with films belonging to the non-narrative avant-garde, there has existed a perception that such films, operating as they do on somewhat different aesthetic precepts, could be considered a separate cinematic realm, one that even the most dutiful critic could engage with or not, as he or she saw fit. More →