I know: The timing is counter-intuitive. Summer is supposed to be the season for doing things outdoors: swimming at the river, hiking, fishing and biking. But without detracting one iota from those pleasures, this article advocates for the less strenuous summer activity of watching regionally themed YouTube videos indoors, in the name of art. Peep them with no eye to productivity. Watch them at noon with hot light slanting through the shutters, or at night while daddy-longlegs agitate against the screen door. Do it just to be a contrarian. It's a choice against the grain.
If you like unclassifiable productions from artists' collectives, genre-busting documentaries and passionate pitches from local gurus/savants/entrepreneurs: good news! You may already enjoy access to a video archive that would be the envy of any earlier moving-picture scholar or Humboldt anthropologist.
The following list ranks a few of the short, independently made, low- or-no-budget films that someone local has posted on YouTube, the world's largest free video-sharing service. I watched pretty much every YouTube video tagged "Arcata" so you didn't have to. No one ever said art criticism would be easy.
Rigorous criteria were applied throughout the process of review. I selected only those videos that seemed uncommonly interesting as moving image experiences in their own rights. For the sake of a theme, I focused on five favorites that illuminated aspects of regional character. Some are documentaries; some were created with commercial intent. Some are simply indescribable. They all watch pretty well in the heat.
1. Jensen Rufe and Steve Love, "Orick, CA, USA."
During his time as a Humboldt State University film student in the late 1990s, filmmaker Jensen Rufe made short documentaries about Humboldt landmarks that continue to be passed down locally through word of mouth. I've now met several people who agree that these films represent one of the high points of self-reflection in our local cinema verité. Rufe and Love stay behind the camera for the most part, talking us through his research in a wry, laconic fashion that recalls the stylings of '80s documentarian Ross McElwee, best known for Sherman's March.
Orick stars here in a Faulknerian turn as a half-abandoned hamlet in a picturesque degradation that seems terminal. Rufe introduces us to cops, burl salesmen and the self-declared town poet. The tour moves from the forest to the rodeo to the foggy beach, where Rufe interviews a woman who bursts unprompted into a wistful song that may haunt your dreams or nightmares.
2. Jensen Rufe, "The Ugliest Fountain in the World (Without a Doubt)." (1999)
Rufe wrote: "this 16 mm black and white film was my MA thesis for grad school at Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA. It is a 13 minute documentary about my attempt to uncover how an ungodly ugly fountain ended up resting for 40 years in the middle of our campus in front of the art building (of all places!), and also about my attempts to get the fountain renovated and/or destroyed." The meditation on public art gets very meta here.
3. The Humboldt Live Sessions: the HiLL
Chuck Johnson's long-running YouTube series presents live, on-location recordings of performances staged by Humboldt musicians at an impressive variety of sites. Locations include: the E&O bowling alley ("Water Tower"), the vista spot off Fickle Hill Road known as Top of the World ("The 51 Cards"), fields of flowers inside the vast Sun Valley greenhouses ("Green & Lilac") and, of course, the quasi-mythical place referenced in the episode title/band name.
Documentary footage of the people and places involved in growing marijuana remains regrettably underrepresented on the 'tube, for obvious reasons. With this video, Humboldt Sessions preserves requisite discretion by adopting a music-video format, in which images have distance from explanatory text.
The clip opens with a long shot on a rippling flag emblazoned with the 1968 "Earthrise" image — a courtly nod to 1960s growers and the persistence of their holistic hippie ways. The sun shines down; in the greenhouse, all you can see are overlapping layers of jagged, sawtoothed leaves in shades of emerald green. A punkgrass band that plays in the manner of Hank III lets rip beneath the tarp as the camera swoops woozily around, zooming in on tribal tattoos. The plants seem to soak up the vibes.
Whether intentionally or not, the clip calls back in a wonderful way to an important prototype for the music video genre — the Beatles promotional film that Michael Lindsay-Hogg shot in the Chiswick House conservatory in May 1966 for "Paperback Writer." Make of that what you will.
4 & 5. ArcataSmokeShop. "The Time Traveler Shop" and "Burn One with Nixon-3D"
Our host "Chet" promises, "I've got some movies to show you that'll trip your head," but actually his unhinged infomercials were already doing exactly that. They were created as promotional material for the now-defunct Arcata Smoke Shop, which allegedly flourished from 1986 – 2011 at Eighth and J streets in Arcata ("Just think of an eighth, and think of a J"), purveying "antique, vintage and ultra-modern pipes from all over the world" to generations of locals and HSU students.
The shop was well named. Everything about this gentleman's look is vintage, from the op-art effects that dominate his video editing to his outsized water pipe molded in the likeness of Richard Nixon. The Smoke Shop will be missed. On the bright side, the author responsible for the account wrote in one of his last YouTube communications in 2011 that he planned to spend retirement "working on 3D movies in the primeval forest."