Made for less than $1,000, OffOn (1967) is a dazzling cinema poem, and one of the first film/video mixes in American cinema history. The film is loud, aggressive, and boldly colorful; it fuses abstract shapes with images taken from life (an eye, a woman dancing, a couple on a motorcycle) with abandon, and directly assaults the audience.
Created by Scott Bartlett with Mike MacNamee, Glen McKay and Tom De Witt, OffOn used a series of film loops by Bartlett and De Witt as the basic source material. These film loops were then fed through a video effects system, and filmed directly off a television monitor. Bartlett and De Witt edited the material, and intercut the filmed “videoized” footage with direct film loops. The resulting assemblage was then set to an electronic soundtrack created by Bartlett, De Witt, and Manny Meyer.
The impact of OffOn is hard to overestimate. It exploded on the film scene and instantly polarized viewers, many of whom considered any sort of hybrid between film and video inherently suspect. Bartlett became an overnight celebrity on the college film circuit, and OffOn was added to film collections at museums around the world. In addition, Bartlett’s romantic, West Coast cool sensibility clashed with the then-prevailing “structuralist” school, best typified by Michael Snow’s epic film Wavelength (1967), which dealt exclusively with the properties of film grain, color, light, and various color stocks.
In stark contrast, OffOn demolished the artificial boundaries between film and video, and set off a wave of similar works that fused video, then an emerging medium, with the filmic image. Bartlett, whose first film, Metanomen (1966), pushed high contract black and white cinematography to its limits (and which was also made with assistance from DeWitt), opened up a new and controversial art form with OffOn, which represented the first time that film and video had been so effectively intertwined.
For Bartlett, OffOn was also the film the would define his short career; after making a few more short films, most notably the trancelike Moon 1969, which went through various versions before its final release, and 1970 (1972), an autobiographical film which summed up his life to date, Bartlett more or less withdrew from personal filmmaking.
In his later years, despite the security of teaching positions at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Maine, in addition to generous fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Film Institute, Bartlett never recaptured the magic of OffOn, or of the era that helped to create it. Scott Bartlett died on September 29, 1990 at the age of 47, as a result of complications from a kidney and liver transplant.
Nevertheless, Bartlett’s work stands as a testament to the personal vision created with a group of friends during the highpoint of the 1960s in San Francisco. A pioneering work in the best sense, OffOn explored the boundaries of video and film, and unleashed a new and explosive art form that redefined the experimental film.