Filmmaking literally comes in schools: Anyone who has logged serious time on a festival screening committee learns to differentiate the styles of aspiring auteurs by their institutions of apprenticeship. Oscar-dreaming USC films, for example, glow with Spielberg-Kubrickian studio lighting; job-desperate NYU calling cards overcompensate with Law & Order–liness; and the eternal students of San Francisco Art Institute tend to churn out George Kuchar–inspired neo-beatnik romps. Cal Arts, as MOMA’s appropriately sprawling series shows, fosters a style that’s a bit harder to pin down. A seedbed for both Hollywood’s creative set and the avant-garde, this Los Angeles college appears to have promoted the concept of cinematic playfulness as its own reward (perhaps not surprising for an institute founded by Walt and Roy Disney), launching the careers of both mainstream entertainers like the Pixar team and Pee-wee Herman and pop-cult-tinged gallerists Jack Goldstein, Tony Oursler, and John Baldessari.
The closest this series comes to straightforward narrative are its documentaries, well represented by a strong Gen X contingent: William Jones’s queer Midwestern autobiography Massillon (1991), monologuing traveloguist Bill Brown’s Hub City (1997), Chris Wilcha’s pre-dotcom corporate kulturschrift The Target Shoots First (1999), and Travis Wilkerson’s radical labor history An Injury to One (2002). All evince the same careful attention to the meanings of landscape and environment seen in the work of longtime Cal Arts professor James Benning; Jones analyzes images of a growing California town, Brown ponders the Texas flatland, and Wilcha navigates through the cubicled offices of the Columbia House music club, while Wilkerson investigates the poisoned strip mines of Butte, Montana.
The true surprises here, however, are provided by Tomorrowland’s treasure trove of ’70s and ’80s animation, much of it hand-drawn with a cute-brut charm and the whacked-out psychonaut sensibility of R. Crumb comix, such as the undulating, ontologico-wobbly cartoons of Adam Beckett, Kathy Rose, and Joanna Priestley. Larry Cuba and David Brody, meanwhile, translated this visual music sensibility into early experiments with computer-generated images. Not all this crowd remained underground, however; some of the most far-out examples are by ink monkeys who went on to helm big-time kid pics. Paul Demeyer, later co-director of a Rugrats movie, is represented with Papiers Animés (1979), an animation on ingeniously arranged multiple sheets of paper, while The Nightmare Before Christmas‘s Henry Selick, in his student days, created Phases (1978): a dreamlike story of mythic metamorphosis one might expect from the film boards of Canada or the Czech Republic, rather than sunny Valencia.