In the history of The Doors or the life of Jim Morrison, Sheldon Renan’s name may never have come up before. However, Renan is one of the people whose life intersected Morrison’s for a brief moment. In 1969 Renan spent three days in a dark room watching films with Morrison when the two of them were judges for the Yale at UC Santa Cruz Film Festival.
Sheldon Renan has a long and distinguished career chronicling underground films. An article Renan wrote on Andy Warhol turned into an offer to write the first book on Warhol – a project that morphed into his book “An Introduction to the American Underground Film”, the first history of experimental medai and a book that reportedly convinced Gus Van Sant to become a film director.
Renan went on to found the Pacific Film Archive at the University of California Berkley. Produced and wrote “The Japanese Film” and “International Animation Festival” series for PBS. And directed underground documentaries such “The Killing of America”.
His work often brought him into close encounters with legendary figures. He introduced Andy Warhol to Salvador Dali (‘a very surreal experience’). Lunched with Francois Truffaut and Fritz Lang. Often arranged private screenings for directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. And on October 17-20, 1969 Sheldon Renan and underground filmmaker Robert Nelson joined Jim Morrison in judging the Yale at UC Santa Cruz Film Festival. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Renan about his experience with Jim Morrison.
DE: What impression did you get of Jim Morrison?
Sheldon Renan: In judging a film festival you usually watch about 300 shorts in 3 days. And when you sit in a darkened room watching that many films with somebody you get kind of a contact vision. You begin to see things through the eyes of the people you’re with. Emotionally, Morrison seemed to be like a teenager. He was a little “pouty”. But at the same time he was an extremely sophisticated viewer and seemed artistically mature. He also showed us his own film “Feast of Friends” that had only recently been completed.
DE: As a filmmaker yourself what do you remember or what were your impressions of “Feast of Friends”?
Sheldon Renan: It felt like a privilege to be seeing a film that was essentially unseen at that point. And it was an amazing film, deeply subjective, pure point of view, continually moving through life/space with everything moving around and past you.
Morrison didn’t mix much with Bob and me. He had insisted on bringing friends-who were dressed in fringed motorcycle leathers-to the judging sessions. He mostly hung out with them during and after the screenings. Friends seemed important to him, especially given the name of his film “Feast of Friends.” They were like an oxygen tank for him. He was different from anybody I’d ever observed, a definite outlier, but at the same time he seemed to be engaged in life in a way I’d never seen before. It was like he was moving through space, and things were just bending around him. Just like in his film.
DE: What else do you remember about the film festival?
Sheldon Renan: Morrison had an extremely clear sense of what he liked. Each judge had a certain amount of money we were could award to the filmmakers. Bob Nelson and I each spread our money among several films. But Morrison gave all his to one film.
DE: What film?
Sheldon Renan: It was an autobiographical film by James Broughton, deeply subjective and poetic film. And at the end there was a reverse montage of pictures of Broughton’s face, a series of selfies, that took you all the way back to Broughton’s early childhood. It was the opposite of “Feast of Friends”, but I think Morrison was attracted to it because both films (his and Broughton’s) exhibited the same totally sure sense of self. Morrison knew who he was, and Broughton knew who he was-while many of the other films just flailed around visually.
DE: You’ve observed underground film since the 60’s. How have underground films changed over this time?
Sheldon Renan: The 60’s underground film was the beginning of the democratization of media. Someone once asked Jean Cocteau when films would become an art like poetry. Cocteau said when filmmaking cost the same as a pencil and a piece of paper. Well, we’re close to that now. Every smart phone can shoot can shoot video now. The videos you see on Vine are very similar to what some filmmakers shot in the 60’s. L.M Kit Carson, a filmmaker and friend from those days who recently died, had been shooting serious videos in Africa using a Nokia phone.
But the main thing is that moving images, video, has become a natural data type that young kids use naturally without even thinking about it. So making a film today isn’t, in effect, daring the Gods like it was back in the 60’s. For decades if you wanted to make films, you had to be a corporation, or a maker of didactic films, or working in the industry in Hollywood. In Europe avant-garde films like the films of Man Ray were financed by wealthy aristocrats. But today, literally anybody can make a film or video – and has it distributed for free by Youtube.
Sheldon Renan used his knowledge of experimental and “expanded cinema” to write and produce special venue media and themed entertainment for Disney, Universal, Sony, Intel and Apple. He is currently writing another book, this one about the future of Connectivity. The working title is “In All Ways Entangled”.
I would like to thank Mr. Sheldon Renan for taking the time to talk to me regarding his experiences, impressions and thoughts on Jim Morrison and film. I would also like to extend special thanks to Rod Pitman for connecting me with Mr. Renan.
Mr. Renan’s 1967 book “An Introduction to the American Underground Film” is available for free at Archive.org.
Subscribe to The Doors Examiner and get article’s as they’re published, just click the subscribe button below. Thank you for reading The Doors Examiner!