Toney W. Merritt: As I Am

Presented by Canyon Cinema
Toney W. Merritt
in person for Q&A after both screenings!

The Bay Area–based independent filmmaker Toney W. Merritt has been creating work for over 50 years. His unique corpus of personal films and videos draws upon and subverts numerous experimental, narrative, and documentary strategies and techniques, and is distinguished by an unusual combination of playfulness, opacity, and formal concision. As a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in the late 1970s, Merritt was part of a thriving subculture of personal cinema and radical individualism. Like many of his teachers and peers of the time, such as James Broughton, Mike Henderson, George Kuchar, Robert Nelson, Dean Snider, Babeth M. VanLoo, Marian Wallace, and Al Wong, Merritt made art firmly rooted in a San Franciscan bohemian tradition and style. Iconoclastic, performative, and disarmingly funny, his work belongs to a broader repudiation of the aesthetic seriousness that dominated experimental cinema culture in the 1970s. Utilizing a reflexive comedic sensibility, films such as EF (1979), Asiam (1982), and Lonesome Cowboy (1979) elaborate a recurring character (played by the artist); Merritt’s tongue-in-cheek, 30-second Revolution—part of the longer Conquest Piece (1982)—subverts the romanticized iconography of the Black political radical by way of an unexpected pirouette as a pun on “revolution.” As Merritt explains, these films “place emphasis on the individual’s place in the world; Who a person is as opposed to What they are. These films contain a measure of angst, irony and humor. Without the latter, it would all be bullshit.”

Featuring works made between 1974 and 2022, Toney W. Merritt: As I Am marks an occasion for both celebration and reflection. In 2020, Merritt’s studio and his entire personal archive of film materials were completely destroyed by the Walbridge fire in Sonoma County. The horrifying devastation is documented in Merritt’s 2022 video A Fire’s Poem, which opens the program. A Fire’s Poem is followed by the premiere of 10 new preservation prints, recently created from the only extant copies of Merritt’s films—the distribution prints in the Canyon Cinema and SFAI collections––and with the support of the National Film Preservation Foundation. We hope these new exhibition copies will spark further recognition, and additional restorations, of Merritt’s underappreciated but consistently adventurous artistic output. 

– Brett Kashmere

Screening line-up: A Fire’s Poem (2022), A Kiss of Death (1974), By the Sea (1982), Conquest Piece (1982), Lonesome Cowboy (1979), Not a Music Video (1987), Asiam (1982), Masked Incident (1979), The Shadow Line (1985), Welcome to the House of Raven (1997), EF (1979)

Q&A to follow both screenings

Film Descriptions:

A Fire’s Poem (2022, 4 minutes, color, sound, digital file)

“Fire is a living entity that requires, no demands, respect. Trail camera footage from 2020 Walbridge fire on the ridge above our home.” (Toney W. Merritt)

A Kiss of Death (1974, 9 minutes, b&w, sound, 16mm)

“A meditative black-and-white short on the devastating effects of drug-use (in the personification of heroin). First screened in the Bay Area in a program of death-related films at the Oakland Museum of California.” (PARACME)

By the Sea (1982, 1.5 minutes, color, silent, 16mm)

“A film made from my old studio apartment on Telegraph Hill. A portrait of sorts.” (Toney W. Merritt)

Conquest Piece (1982, 5.5 minutes, b&w, sound, 16mm)

“I can only say that I set up the situation for this, what I believe is a very humorous film; but it is Nancy that made this film.” (Toney W. Merritt)

Lonesome Cowboy (1979, 0.5 minutes, b&w, sound, 16mm)

“My late friend and fellow filmmaker, Dean Snider and I had a contest to see who could make the shortest film with a sound track. Lonesome Cowboy, a self portrait, clocked in at 29 seconds. Dean’s film, Hey!, was a single frame with a fleeting image of bales of hay. The prize? The loser, me, paid for breakfast at the U.S. Restaurant on Columbus Avenue.” (Toney W. Merritt)

Not a Music Video (1987, 7 minutes, b&w, sound, 16mm)

Featuring Glenn Spearman on tenor saxophone. “A very playful, spontaneous film made with and for people for whom I have high regard.” (Toney W. Merritt)

Asiam (1982, 5 minutes, b&w, silent, 16mm)

“A look at how I perceive people sometimes see me, and I them.” (Toney W. Merritt)

Masked Incident (1979, 5.5 minutes, b&w, sound, 16mm)

“A film exploring the concept that everything isn’t what it seems to be.” (Toney W. Merritt)

The Shadow Line (1985, 13.5 minutes, b&w, sound, 16mm)

“A film adaptation of a chapter from a novel by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (Solaris). A story of genius and frustration.” (Toney W. Merritt)

Welcome to the House of Raven (1997, 3 minutes, b&w, sound, 16mm)

A dance.

When magic is a verb.

The Beginning of the End.

The End of the Beginning.

EF (1979, 4 minutes, color, silent, 16mm)

“A film that is open to interpretation of the viewer.” (Toney W. Merritt)

Approximate Running Time: 60 minutes

About Toney W. Merritt

Toney W. Merritt has been an independent filmmaker for more than 50 years, completing over 30 personal films and videos; experimental, narrative and documentary. His films have screened at various venues such as the La Cinémathèque Française, Paris, London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, Anthology Film Archives, New York, Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, the Oakland Museum of California, the de Young Museum, San Francisco Cinematheque, New Nothing Cinema, San Francisco, and the Ann Arbor and Mill Valley Film Festivals. Canyon Cinema currently distributes over 40 of his film titles spanning 1970 to 2023 and included Merritt in the Canyon Cinema Pop-Up (2013) exhibition at Kadist, San Francisco. He taught film production and digital editing at City College San Francisco for 18 years, and screenwriting for the San Francisco State University’s Digital Video Intensive Program. He was invited to present as a writer/director at the 2007 Squaw Valley Community of Writer’s Conference, and invited in 2008 to serve as a screenwriting instructor. Merritt was the Program Director for the Mendocino Film Festival from 2014–2015 and curated the inaugural Healdsburg Flix Mix Short Film Festival in 2016. Merritt has served on several Boards of Directors including San Francisco Film Arts Foundation. He has also served as a panelist for various festivals such as the SF International Film Festival and as a grant panelist for Independent Television Service, (ITVS) and the Rockefeller and Jerome Foundations. Merritt received his MFA in 1979 from the San Francisco Art Institute. He is based in Healdsburg, California.

1h 0m
Toney W. Merritt
16mm and Digital
First Showing
May 16, 2024