On the Brink of Something: ruth weiss as Filmmaker

[ruth weiss] represents ebullient celebrations of the power of the individual imagination—the imagination of both the characters and the creators—to transform experience idiosyncratically.

Ray Carney, “Escape Velocity: Notes on Beat Film”1

by Steve Seid

ruth weiss is an uncapitalized name and a fully capitalized Poet.

Having fled the rise of Nazi Germany, weiss (b. 1928), through a circuitous set of ramblings, found herself in San Francisco at the amiable age of twenty-four. The City of 1952 was a special place. Perched on the Pacific, it seemed the final outpost of a national destiny made manifest. This encouraged a backwash of artists, dreamers, and schemers who sought out the tumult of opportunity on the aqueous edge of the world. What ruth found as a young poet were the waning strains of a Bohemian rhapsody and its subtle supplanting by the next effusive generation—this one Beat.

Hidden in hip pockets throughout San Francisco of the fifties, especially North Beach, were art galleries, coffee houses, and nightclubs teeming with Beat poets, painters, dancers, musicians, and, of course, the scenemakers, the squares. But another category of artist, the experimental or artisanal filmmaker, was to be found here as well, gradually enticing those from other media. It would take half a decade to seduce ruth, but once bitten . . .

And so it was that in 1960, at the behest of painter and aspiring filmmaker Paul Beattie (1924–1988), the green-haired2 poet consented to coax from the complex body of her work a bardic and visual recitation of love among the ruins to be called The Brink. Built around the musings of two knotty lovers, “He” and “She”—hesitant yet mirthful, wary yet embracing—this forty-minute film jettisons narrative coherence for a vivid evocation of what might be termed “Beat consciousness,” or a skeptical embrace of the moment.

Stan Brakhage, who himself had drifted through San Francisco on several occasions in the 1950s and early 1960s, reported upon viewing The Brink, “one of the most ambitious ‘first’ films I’ve ever seen, attempting to pitch the actors into situations preordained by Ruth Weiss’ poetry yet leave them free of the context, unaware of the poetic narrative intended, to develop synthesis of poetry and image highly structured but containing a residue of very real immediate, almost haiku, feeling.”3 This praise is heaped upon The Brink two years after its completion, yet mystifyingly, in Brakhage’s words, it was already “almost completely unknown.”

As the years passed, The Brink never slipped totally from view, though it shared a general obscurity endemic to the experimental films of the time. ruth promoted the film when she could, releasing in the eighties a murky VHS version that was then surpassed by a low-res DVD. And now, a mere fifty-eight years after its making, BAMPFA’s new preservation print has restored ruth’s film to its former haiku-like brilliance.

Before we plumb the depths of The Brink for its pictorial and poetic improv, let us briefly revisit the Beat bastion in which ruth weiss found herself, a poetics culture certainly dominated by men—other women poets such as Joanne Kyger, Denise Levertov, and Diana Di Prima arrived much later. The poetry scene played itself out in a demimonde of venues—City Lights, the Coffee Gallery, the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, Caffe Trieste, and particularly for ruth, the Cellar.4 This was where, throughout the late fifties, she read with regularity, and, going one further, was typically accompanied by a bass player and percussionist, sometimes a flute or sax.

ruth was not the first to blend jazz with poetic recitation—Kenneth Patchen, for instance, had collaborated with bassist Charles Mingus in the early fifties. And that other influential Kenneth, Kenneth Rexroth, also had dalliances with jazz-based syncopators. But ruth thrived on the spontaneous interplay of verse versus freestyle sonorities. At some level this instinct to bend cadence, stress, and sound—so much at the core of jazz riffing—was the embodiment of the Beat ethos: responding to the moment, conceiving of conventions as provisional, setting free associations free. But all the while, keeping a certain criticality, a framework, a substructure in place like the precise keys and chords in music composition. It was not toward madness, but liberation that ruth ventured. So rather than the tyranny of the page, in performance she could relinquish leading and line for a more malleable form that responded through gesture, coloration, and spontaneity.

No American poet has remained so faithful to jazz in the construction of poetry as has ruth weiss. Her poems are scores to be sounded with all her riffy ellipses and open-formed phrasing swarming the senses. Verbal motion becoming harmonious with a universe of rhythm is what her work essentializes. Others read to jazz or write from jazz. ruth weiss writes jazz in words.

Jack Hirschman5

While Beat poetry and jazz intermingled and thrived, experimental filmmaking also harnessed newfound enthusiasm in postwar San Francisco. This encouraged a burgeoning community of alternative imagemakers and, as importantly, a network of (often underground) venues to disseminate their time-based dissension. From the first wave of paternal progenitors—Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, and Frank Stauffacher—to the brethren of Beat—Jordan Belson, Patricia Marx, Stan Brakhage, and Christopher Maclaine—through the still younger beatific instigators—Lawrence Jordan, Bruce Conner, Dion Vigne, and Ron Rice—and sliding into the slippery sixties, there was a cavalcade of convention-bashing filmmakers. They would have screened their works at Stauffacher’s Art and Cinema series, at Jordan and Conner’s Camera Obscura Film Society, perhaps at John Gutmann’s Art Movies, or a plethora of other above and below-ground venues.

ruth weiss was in constant circulation through this demimonde of artisanal filmmaking, but her first actual participation in a “film” event took place during two performances, dubbed Visio I and II, staged in 1959 and 19606. Collaborating with painter Beattie (then a San Francisco–based artist), and composer/musicians Bill Spencer and Warner Jepson, ruth herself penned two poems, Visio I and II, both of which would later serve as spoken fragments in The Brink. Beattie, for his part, painted intricate drawings on large glass plates to be exhibited via an overhead projector7. What little documentation survives shows these glass transparencies as somewhat figurative renderings, but whether they had a narrative intent is unknown. To Beattie’s projected images, Spencer and Jepson improvised a percussive score. Both Spencer and Jepson would become satellite artists, circling the new music universe that would come to be known as the San Francisco Tape Center, where Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, and Terry Riley reigned. And a few years after Visio I and II, they would create the multifarious score for their first film outing, The Brink.

A third musician, Mel Weitsman8, joined Spencer and Jepson for The Brink. A painter himself, Weitsman knew Beattie and recounted how, at about the same time as the Visio performances, Paul purchased a 16mm camera. “The camera was the thing,” Mel explained9. The newly possessed cinematic apparatus demanded its expression. All Paul needed was an idea, and that’s where ruth came in.

If the impetus for Paul Beattie was the newfound ability to capture moving images, for ruth weiss it was something else: to devise a visual and auditory text with a jazz-like spontaneity and a narrative space that nurtures the nonbinary. weiss’s poem, read in voice-over, eschews the solidity of the narrative “I,” substituting a subject that is nomadic, evolving, and, at times, mythic. Though titled “The Brink” in homage to a single long poem (first published in her book Single out), the film’s voice-over drew freely from the bounty of her verse collections: Blue in green; Figs (a play); Gallery of women; Light, and other poems10; Single out; “Visio I,” and “Visio II.” The final accumulated text, some 600 lines, defies a unitary construct, and this is further roiled by the ambiguous image track. However, the appropriated poetic fragments did acquire a presumed narrative direction, demanded by film’s unceasing 24 frames/second advance.

For the visual track, ruth provided the two essential protagonists, He and She, to serve as the inquiring souls at the crux of the film. He and She were played respectively by Sutter Marin (1926–1985), a Phelan Award–winning local painter, and Lori Lawyer (1939–1991), another painter, who received her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1963. They, along with cameo appearances by sculptor Dave Lemon, painter Jerry O’Day, photographer Robin Beattie (a child of three when The Brink was filmed), her sister Crystal, and ruth’s beloved dog Zim-Zum, constitute the film’s cast.

He and She interact with the film’s manifold settings—a mundane eatery that is Foster’s Cafeteria, the exotic urbanity of Chinatown, the multitude of tract homes in Pacifica, the charmed 1914 carousel in Golden Gate Park, the wooded shore along Richardson Bay, Sutro Heights at the city’s western limit, and Dave Lemon’s seaside bunkhouse in Belvedere11. These locations are captured with elegant black-and-white simplicity—we see gulls swooping, a decaying lawn sculpture, the calligraphic patterns of patched asphalt—and a lightness that doesn’t overburden the prim compositions.

Each day during the film’s production, ruth would appear with the freshly composed script12 whereupon Beattie would load the cast and crew into his van and off they’d go in pursuit of resourceful serendipity, or what ruth once described as “to attract . . . magnetize.”13 Most notorious of these chance finds is a long traveling shot across an uncannily patched street to a telephone pole with an inverted “bus stop” sign. A simple cut brings us to a bus’s interior (and ruth’s only cameo) for a scene in which “the bus lurched too and the passengers sat grim.”

A second order of serendipity can be found in the score, which is more emotive than concrete, more percussive than melodious. Composed by Spencer and Jepson14 with occasional contributions from Weitsman (on saxophone), this collection of sonorities unsettles the easy relationship between poetry and picture. Improvised to an edited visual track, the metallic clangs and clatters, flute passages, bass lines, and piano string strums create a niggling mystery between weiss’s recitation and the images before us. They do not complement them, functioning as sonic stage direction, but rather set them apart with a prickly awkwardness.

If one were to schematize The Brink, a sort of Manichean universe of dark versus light, of nature versus culture, of the rational versus the mystical would emerge. He and She dance around each other seeking both their individual identities and their mutual union. But all about them other voices—ruth’s multitudinous and shifting voice—intrude, seeking meaning in an animistic world where the elements talk (“I am the begin said the water / I was before you said sand”), the landscape morphs (“a mountain just turned bird and tree”), and cosmology erupts (“while planets swarm around”). It is also a place of transience (“the now is always past / the now is always once again”) where one must snatch meaning from the greater “swarm.” And, finally, it is a place where language reaches its limits (“leap-a-ling low / to racky racky rall-ta-ra / and the passing sudden light”) and reverts to mere mystical incantation (“ECO LAMA ETO HEY / ANA SEYNU EHRATA”).

For their part, He and She follow what Ray Carney considers a primary tenet of Beat sensibility: the “supreme allegiance was to remaining faithful to moment-by-moment movements of feeling and awareness.”15 He and She ramble,16 then respond and react to the stuff before them—driftwood on the Marin seashore, the carousel of circular bliss, a decaying statue of a satyr. It is their own natures they seek, and how those natures might meld. But weiss rejects the hard-edge resolution, offering to She, “go to the roundhouse / he can’t corner you there.” Later He will receive the same counsel.

As The Brink concludes, weiss allows guarded optimism the upper hand. A scene, shot in fast motion, has the couple rollicking skittishly amidst a construction site for dozens of faceless tract homes—“rows and rows of boxes / where the trees once were.17 The absence of trees is lamented—“arrest the trees / chop ’em all down”—but a healing process follows.

to clean water use earth
to clean earth use fire
to clean fire use air
to clean air

Amidst the ruins of a once spacious manse, He and She gather detritus from the site. They are reconstructing a shared abode from the rubble—flowers, a can, a mock pennant, postcards, missives from beyond. On one card—with a cancelled stamp but no address—a caterpillar hobbles along anticipating its metamorphosis to pure beauty.18

Driven by an almost reflexive impulse, a Beat impulse, to challenge formal conventions, ruth weiss fashioned an unruly experimental film—her one and only—that is self-referential, improvised, well-tempered, and, finally, welcoming. Renouncing a master narrative or singular voice, The Brink asks all who enter not to abandon hope, but to accept the joy of imaginative participation. What awaits the adventurous viewer is an experience relished in the moment like a jazz ensemble riffing in the key of life.

Weiss’s art throws a party for the senses. It invites the multimedia of jazz and other sounds—composed, improvised, found, and aleatory—painting, and film. It works the crowd and dances with all of the guests.

Preston Whaley Jr., Blows Like a Horn19

The Brink was preserved thanks to the BAMPFA Collection staff Mona Nagai and Jon Shibata, with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation. This essay was written as part of our Out of the Vault project, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.


  1. Ray Carney, “Escape Velocity: Notes on Beat Film,” in Beat Culture and the New America, 1950–1965 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995), 207. 

  2. At age ninety-one, weiss still wears her hair dyed green, an affectation she claims she gleaned from Joseph Losey’s The Boy with Green Hair (1948). Author conversations with the poet, 2018. 

  3. Stan Brakhage, letter to Jonas Mekas, Film Culture, Winter 1962, 80. 

  4. According to a first-person account of the North Beach scene, written by Art Peterson in 2011, weiss was also a waitress at the Cellar. It was here that Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti recorded the famed “Poetry Readings in the Cellar” (1957) LP with jazz accompaniment. 

  5. This quote was found amidst a file of weiss’s papers sent to Canyon Cinema as marketing materials for The Brink’s distribution. The papers were dated 1993. 

  6. Visio I was staged at 707 Scott Street, Visio II at 1031 Kearny Street, opposite The Movie, a theater Lawrence Jordan had founded in North Beach. From original postcards supplied by Robyn Beattie. 

  7. There was precedent for the glass slide format. Starting in the late 1940s while teaching at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Sara Kathryn Arledge began a series of painted glass slide transparencies, measuring 3¼-by-4 inches. These slides were collages, including fragments of stage-light gels and direct drawing with various substances. The slides were then sandwiched and displayed using a slide projector. 

  8. Mel Weitsman (b. 1929) was married to ruth weiss from 1957 to 1963. He would go on to found the Berkeley Zen Center in the late sixties. 

  9. Author interview conducted with Weitsman, January 2019. 

  10. The titular poem, “Light,” is dedicated to Elias Romero, pioneer of San Francisco light shows and a collaborator of Bill Spencer and Warner Jepson. 

  11. A central location for the shoot, Dave Lemon and Jerry O’Day’s dockside “bunkhouse” in Belvedere was the remains of a codfishery that burned in 1937 and was then occupied by artists until the early sixties.  

  12. In a similar vein, about Christopher Maclaine and his influential film The End (1953), Stan Brakhage recounted how the artist would show up at Jordan Belson’s house each day. “Here are your photographic directions for the shoot today,” he’d call out. Interview with Brakhage by Brecht Andersch and Timoleon Wilkins, “Christopher Maclaine and the San Francisco Film Scene in the 1950s,” in Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid, eds., Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 55. 

  13. Quoted in an online essay by Kari Adelaide Razdow, dated August 31, 2011.  

  14. William “Bill” Spencer composed for dance troupes, including Anna Halprin’s, theater groups such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and eventually Steven Arnold’s short films. Like Warner Jepson (1930–2011), Spencer often worked on the periphery of the San Francisco Tape Center. Jepson’s early efforts were accompaniments for dancers, leading to the complex score for “Totentanz (Dance of Death),” commissioned by the San Francisco Ballet. He also composed the film scores for James Broughton’s The Bed and Arnold’s Luminous Procuress

  15. Carney, “Escape Velocity: Notes on Beat Film,” 194. 

  16. This freestyle means of improvised acting has many antecedents among the avant-garde, but most obvious might be Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief, shot in San Francisco in early 1960. The film’s protagonist, sad-sack ironist Taylor Mead, plays the city like an instrument with discordant spontaneity. weiss, who was a friend of Mead’s, said she shot a scene with him “doing a Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire routine by the Coit Tower,” but the scene was cut from the final film. Recounted by Estíbaliz Encarnación Pinedo in her 2016 dissertation, Beat & Beyond: Memoir, Myth and Visual Arts in Women of the Beat Generation (Universidad de Murcia, Spain), 321. 

  17. This, incidentally, was filmed several years before folksinger Malvina Reynolds made the same “Little Boxes” famous in 1962. 

  18. One of the most infamous of San Francisco Beat films is Christopher Maclaine’s The End. The Brink might be seen as an antidote to its fatalism. Where Maclaine begins and ends his film with catastrophic footage of an A-bomb explosion, weiss begins and ends her film with the transformational presence of a caterpillar. Between those bookend shots, weiss debates the possibilities of redemption, whereas Maclaine sends his half-dozen characters to a predestined doom. 

  19. Preston Whaley Jr., Blows Like a Horn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 70.