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Robert Nelson (b. 1930)



Oh Dem Watermelons (1965)
The Awful Backlash (1967)
Bleu Shut (1971)


Known for prankster experimentalism and on-the-spot invention, the films of San Francisco native Robert Nelson are among the defining landmarks of the post-Beat American underground of the 1960s and ’70s. His free-spirited approach, sharp wit, and artistic rigor marked inspired collaborations with William T. Wiley, William Allan, Steve Reich, and the Grateful Dead, and helped shape a language and style for the burgeoning psychedelic culture.

Born 1930 in San Francisco in a family of Swedish immigrants, Robert Nelson studied painting at San Francisco State University and the California School of Fine Arts – where he was introduced to a circle of Bay Area artists that converged into the California Funk Art movement of the 1960s. “This influence, together with the Beat sensibility of the poetry and jazz scenes, and the improvisatory theatre of the San Francisco Mime Troupe (directly involved in his first few films), formed the touchstones of Nelson’s developing aesthetic.” (Mark Webber). His second wife is the legendary Swedish experimental filmmaker Gunvor Nelson, and Nelson started working with film by collaborating with her on two home movies: Building Muir Beach House (1961) and Last Week at Oona’s Bath (1962). Nelson taught at various institutions, including the San Francisco Art Institute, Sacramento State and CalArts, before landing a teaching job at UW Milwaukee in 1979 till his retirement in the mid-1990s. He then retreated in self-imposed isolation to a remote house in the mountains of Northern California – where he began to reassess his filmography. Nelson has influenced a number of major filmmakers, such as Peter Hutton and Curt McDowell. He was the main force in co-founding the independent distribution company Canyon Cinema in 1966, hiring his former student Edith Kramer (later the head of the Pacific Film Archive) as its first director. “After years away from the public arena, Nelson has recently begun to show his work again… This willingness to offer the films to new audiences is unquestionably a result of the care and attention they have received in the preservation activities of Pacific Film Archive (Berkeley) and Academy Film Archive (Los Angeles). Now in his seventies, Nelson speaks of “leaving a neat pile” for after his death, and as part of this project, he is attempting to establish definitive versions of his films.” – Mark Webber Selected Filmography: The Mystery of Amelia Air-Heart Solved! (1962) Plastic Haircut (1963) Oh Dem Watermelons (1965) Sixty Lazy Dogs (1965) Confessions of a Black Mother-Succuba (1965) Thick Pucker (1965) Penny Bright and Jimmy Witherspoon (1967) The Great Blondino (1967) Grateful Dead (1967) War is Hell (1968) Special Warning (1974/99) Suite California: Stops and Passes (Parts 1 & 2) (1976/78) Hamlet Act (1982)