Downtown Film and TV Culture, 1975-2001 brings together essays by filmmakers, exhibitors, cultural critics, and scholars from multiple generations of the New York Downtown scene to illuminate individual films and filmmakers and explore the creation of a Downtown Canon, the impact of AIDS on younger filmmakers, community access cable television broadcasts, and the impact of the historic downtown scene on contemporary experimental culture. The book includes J. Hoberman’s essay “No Wavelength: The Parapunk Underground,” as well as historical essays by Tony Conrad and Lynne Tillman, interviews with filmmakers Bette Gordon and Beth B., and essays by Ivan Kral and Nick Zedd.
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About the Author
Joan Hawkins is associate professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University.
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Downtown Film and TV Culture
By Joan Hawkins
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2015 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
In the Movie-Viewing Machine: Essential Cinema and the 1970s
'We want false, polished, slick films – we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don't want rosy films – we want them the color of blood' (Everleth 2007). These are fighting words, and they came from an embattled crew with much to fight for: the founding members of the New American Cinema Group, who issued their uncompromising First Statement in 1962, not long after film critic Jonas Mekas and film and stage producer Lewis Allen first convened the 'free open organization' at a meeting in a Manhattan theatre. They were not the first such alliance to come together in New York's small but indefatigable avant-garde film community. Maya Deren had assembled a similar gathering in 1953, and five years later a group that included Al Maysles, Donn Pennebaker, Shirley Clarke, and others set up the Filmmakers Inc. cooperative on the theory that banding together for mutual aid, comfort, and support would help personal, experimental cinema survive, and perhaps even thrive, in the inhospitable surroundings of mid-century America.
One of the factors that distinguished the New American Cinema Group from its forebears was its membership, which included such Downtown luminaries as photographers Robert Frank and Bert Stern, painter Alfred Leslie, actors Peter Bogdanovich and Ben Carruthers, film exhibitor Dan Talbot, and film-makers Gregory Markopoulos and Lionel Rogosin as well as Jonas Mekas, who had founded Film Culture magazine with his brother, Adolfas Mekas, in 1953 and had become the first film critic of The Village Voice in 1958. Although the group had little lasting impact on the practices or popularity of experimental film writ large, it strengthened a sense of camaraderie and purpose within the community that reached an important culmination in 1968 when Jonas Mekas and Jerome Hill, an independent film-maker and patron of the arts, began planning a sort of unofficial headquarters for the movement. Their scheme bore fruit in 1970 in the form of Anthology Film Archives, one of several modestly scaled venues located in the former Astor Library Building, now known as the Public Theater, at 425 Lafayette Street in the heart of Greenwich Village.
Mekas conceived of Anthology Film Archives as a library, museum, film-preservation facility, and exhibition space for excellent cinema of every kind, from the most challenging avant-garde works to top-flight art films from abroad and even occasional Hollywood productions that reached heights of aesthetic excellence despite the financial contingencies that obtain in commercial studios. As the institution's first major project, Mekas and five like-minded colleagues – film-maker Stan Brakhage, film-maker and poet James Broughton, film-maker and curator Peter Kubelka, critic and playwright Ken Kelman, theorist and editor P. Adams Sitney – came together as a Film Selection Committee, meeting intermittently between 1970 and 1975 with the aim of establishing an Essential Cinema Repertory that would not just represent but actually define the art of cinema as these proponents envisioned it. (Brakhage resigned from the committee when its requirement of unanimous consent for each selection gave way – not surprisingly, given the realities of group interaction – to a policy of majority rule. Those who knew him would agree that he was not exactly a team player.)
The result of their labours was a list. On it were some 330 films arranged into 110 programmes that would be screened on a rotating basis in keeping with the idea that like foundational works of literature, music, and other fine arts, great films must be intensively studied and periodically revisited if they are to be properly understood and appreciated. As a bonus, the committee recognized that screening three programs a day would allow the entire selection of masterpieces to be shown over the course of a month or so, providing a rapid-fire education in film history to students of cinema who could otherwise get such schooling only by travelling to film archives and museums around the world.
Sitney outlined the committee's threefold mission in his introduction to The Essential Cinema: Essays on Films in the Collection of Anthology Film Archives, Volume One, an edited collection published in 1975 (no subsequent volume ever appeared). Theirs was a critical venture, singling out the 'most sublime achievements' on the basis of artistic value undiluted by any other consideration; it was irrelevant whether a film was innovative or influential, and there would be no attempt to balance the repertory in terms of genre, period, nationality, or anything except the aesthetic worthiness of each individual work. It was a polemical enterprise, opposing 'contemporary film criticism' by taking a stance 'philosophically oriented toward the pure film' (Sitney 1975: xi, original emphasis). And it was an open-ended project, grounded in the informed judgements of its members and subject to processes of adjustment, modification, revision, and expansion forever after.
As an exercise in practical criticism, the committee's modus operandi was concrete and particularized in some respects, idealistic and diffused in others. On the specific side, films would qualify for inclusion entirely on the basis of formal properties such as photography, editing, sound montage, wholeness, and unity. On the hazy side, just how those properties would be evaluated remained on the level of personal taste, and 'the pure film' (Sitney 1975: xi) was left tantalizingly undefined, perhaps on the presumption that the committee members would know it when they saw it. But it is ever so where critics and curators are concerned, and the Essential Cinema group was no exception.
Nowhere was the venture's idiosyncratic nature more apparent than in the auditorium where the collection was screened. Designed by Kubelka and named the Invisible Cinema, it was a 90-seater 'machine for film viewing' and constructed on principles derived from what Sitney described as 'serious investigation into the aesthetics' of cinema spectatorship. Its perhaps self-contradictory aim was to produce an experience that was simultaneously 'communal' and 'extremely concentrated on the filmic image and sound, without distractions' (Sitney 1975: xi). All of the room's furnishings – seats, floor, ceiling, and walls – were black, and the walls bore special drapes, coatings, and insulation to maximize acoustic purity. The seats were equipped with hoods and blinders that shielded the viewer's peripheral vision from outside interference while the film was on; and taking a lesson from the practice that Alfred Hitchcock had introduced for the initial run of his 1960 classic Psycho, no one was admitted once the picture had begun.
Operating on the oxymoronic premise that 'the communal spirit is strongest and most effective in the absence of disturbance from one's neighbors', the Invisible Cinema reflected the freewheeling Downtown ethos in its eccentricity, but not in the way it regulated and policed its patrons, right down to how 'the viewer should sit and his position in relation to the screen'. The theatre was deemed a machine in the same way that camera, developer, printer, editing machine, and projector are machines, and the spectator implicitly became one as well – the kind that French film-philosopher Gilles Deleuze would call a desiring machine, looped into an assemblage devised by (male, self-appointed) connoisseurs of 'hearing, posture, and projection'.
The defining elements of the assemblage were of course the films on display. Since all were chosen between 1970 and 1975, they constitute a snapshot of a particular moment in avant-garde film history. Many of them can be described in terms of categories devised by Sitney in his hugely influential book Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, first published in 1974, when the committee was nearing the end of its selection process. Some selections were trance or psychodrama films, centred on a figure who experiences reality through a consciousness – perhaps somnambulistic or possessed or mad or intoxicated or divinely inspired – that differs conspicuously from 'normal' awareness; these works included Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Broughton and Sidney Peterson's The Potted Psalm (1946), Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947), and Brakhage's The Way to Shadow Garden (1955). Others were lyrical films, in which visionary consciousness is not channelled through a protagonist but expressed as unmediated cinematic experience, as in Bruce Baillie's Quixote (1965) and Castro Street (1966) and Brakbage's Cat's Cradle (1959), Sirius Remembered (1959), and Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961). From lyrical film evolved the larger-scale mythopoeic film, exemplified by Baillie's Quick Billy (1971) and Brakhage's 250-minute The Art of Vision (1965), an elaborated version of his 78-minute Dog Star Man (1962),also in the Essential Cinema line-up.
The animated or graphic film was represented by such works as Len Lye's Free Radicals (1958), Harry Smith's No. 12: Heaven and Earth Magic Feature (1958–1961), and Jordan Belson's Samadhi (1967), while the interrelated apocalyptic and picaresque categories were exemplified by Christopher MacLaine's aptly titled The End (1953) and films by Robert Nelson (e.g. Bleu Shut ) and Larry Jordan (e.g. Our Lady of the Sphere ). The category of structural film – comprising works in which technical means and formal organization are predominant in the content of the film – was very much in the ascendancy when the committee was at work, and it was generously represented by such works as Ernie Gehr's rigorous Serene Velocity (1970), Tony Conrad's flickering The Flicker (1966), Hollis Frampton's puzzle picture Zorns Lemma (1970), George Landow's minimalist Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966), Paul Sharits's obsessive T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1969), and Michael Snow's transcendent Wavelength (1967).
Among the other American film-makers who made the Essential Cinema's final cut were Warren Sonbert, Ken Jacobs, Andy Warhol, Bruce Conner, Marie Menken, Willard Maas, Andrew Noren, Pat O'Neill, Robert Breer, Joseph Cornell, Robert Flaherty, Douglas Crockwell, George Kuchar, Mike Kuchar, Ron Rice, Jack Smith, Frank Stauffacher, John and James Whitney, Gregory J. Markopoulos, and Robert Beavers, as well as Mekas and Hill from the selection committee itself. Except for Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu's features I Was Born, But ... (1932) and There Was a Father (1942), all the non-American films and film-makers hailed from European countries. The most copiously represented European directors were Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer, with seven films apiece: Bresson's span the 25 years from Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944) to Une Femme douce (1969), while Dreyer's cover the 44 years from The Parson's Widow (1921) to Gertrud (1965). Surrealist cinema was represented by four films each from Luis Bufiuel and Man Ray, and Dadaist cinema was exemplified by Rene Clair's classic Entr'acte (1924).
Other notable selections included: Jean Renoir's masterpiece The Rules of the Game (1939); Albert Cavalcanti's tone poem Rien que les heures (1927); Jean Cocteau's explosive Blood of a Poet (1930) and Orphee (1950); Jean Epstein's impressionist horror tale The Fall of the House of Usher (1928); Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi-sponsored documentaries The Triumph of the Will (1934–1935) and Olympia (1938); F. W. Murnau's poetic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927); Erich Von Stroheim's naturalist epic Greed (1924); Georges Franju's ferocious Blood of the Beasts (1949); Jean Genet's homosexual ode Un Chant d'amour (1950); Humphrey Jennings's public-spirited Listen to Britain (1941); Walter Ruttmann's sweeping Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927); Kubelka's abstract Arnulf Rainer (1960); Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934) and three earlier works; three films by Hans Richter; and unspecified works by Louis and Auguste Lumiere, Georges Melies, and Laurel and Hardy, to be chosen afresh for each program in which those film-makers had a part. Also well represented was the Soviet Union, with five films apiece by Alexander Dovzhenko and Sergei Eisenstein, eight by Dziga Vertov, and one by Vsevolod Pudovkin.
Narrative features in the collection ranged from those mentioned above to Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925), D. W. Griffith's massive epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman's The General (1926), Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis (1949) and The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966), and Orson Welles's inevitable Citizen Kane (1941). Not all of the selections have stood the test of time, with regard to critical favour if not intrinsic merit; for instance, neither the three Marcel Hanoun films (including A Simple Story ) nor Karl Valentin's comic short Der Firmling (1934) are much remembered today. As a whole, however, the Essential Cinema films offer an aesthetically astute encapsulation of key artists, works, genres, and tendencies in avant-garde film before 1975.
One of the stranger aspects of the Essential Cinema project was its unexpectedly short lifespan. Anthology Film Archives relied on Hill's philanthropy for its financial lifeblood, but those who controlled his foundation after his death (from cancer) in early 1973 had different ideas about where the money should go – certainly not to acquiring the peculiar little films projected over and over at 425 Lafayette Street in what had to be the weirdest excuse for a movie theatre in New York or anywhere else. All expenditures for Anthology were soon terminated, and the Invisible Cinema was replaced by a conventional Public Theater auditorium under a different management.
Forced to find a new location, Mekas reopened Anthology at 80 Wooster Street in the SoHo district. This was an extraordinary stretch of roadway in the 1970s, holding such illustrious Downtown institutions as the Performing Garage – home of Richard Schechner's bold Performance Group and its even more brilliant successor Elizabeth LeCompte's exhilarating Wooster Group – and the Kitchen Center for Video and Music, an avant-garde arts and performance space. Mekas and company fit right in with these distinguished neighbours, but their venue was small and unsophisticated; patrons sat on metal folding chairs, and each screening was preceded by a tape recording of Mekas appealing for funds.
Anthology lived on at 80 Wooster Street, then at 491 Broadway, and finally at the corner of Second Avenue and Second Street in the converted East Village courthouse that serves as its present and permanent home. One might have expected the Essential Cinema Repertory to survive along with the organization that spawned it; but when the Invisible Cinema closed, the Essential Cinema entered a state of suspended animation in which it has languished ever since. Although the collection is still regularly screened, Anthology's website speaks of it in the past tense, offering little hope that it will ever be resurrected as an active and growing enterprise. 'It was an ambitious attempt to define the art of cinema', the website explains, but it 'was never completed' (Mekas). The audacious undertaking will most likely remain unfinished forever, not a living repertoire of essential films but rather a time capsule of the films that seemed essential to a small selection committee in the first half of the 1970s. Although it is incontestably a valuable collection, it is destined to appear increasingly quaint and static with every passing year.
Excerpted from Downtown Film and TV Culture by Joan Hawkins. Copyright © 2015 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Downtown Cinema Revisited ~ Joan Hawkins
Downtown Body ~ Ward Shelley
Part I: Moments
Chapter 1: In the Movie-Viewing Machine: Essential Cinema and the 1970s ~ David Sterritt
Chapter 2: No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground ~ J. Hoberman
Chapter 3: At Last Real Movies: Super 8 Cinema from New York ~ Tony Conrad
Chapter 4: Downtown’s Rooms in Hotel History ~ Lynne Tillman
Part II: Scenes
Chapter 5: The Blank Generation and Punk/Downtown History ~ Mark Benedetti
Chapter 6: Birth of the Blank Generation ~ Ivan and Cindy Kral
Chapter 7: Downtown Godard ~ Jonathan Everett Haynes
Chapter 8: ‘A Crack in the Veneer’: A Conversation with Beth B ~ Beth B and Joan Hawkins
Chapter 9: Lydia Lunch, The Right Side of My Brain ~ Chuck Kleinhans
Chapter 10: Pleasure and Danger: Bette Gordon’s Variety ~ Joan Hawkins
Chapter 11: Interview with Bette Gordon ~ Bette Gordon and Joan Hawkins
Chapter 12: The Time of His Life: Spalding Gray ~ Laurie Stone
Chapter 13: Mixing Bag Flour, DIY, Lo-Fi, and Oulipo: Jon Moritsugu’s Mommy Mommy Where’s My Brain ~ Jack Sargeant
Chapter 14: Cast Iron TV and Friends: Artists’ Public Access in Manhattan ~ Teresa Svoboda
Chapter 15: TV Party: A Cocktail Party That Could Also be a Political Party ~ Benjamin Olin
Chapter 16: The Case of Electra Elf: Towards New Possibilities of Underground Counterculture in the Twenty-First Century ~ Nick Zedd and David Sjöberg
Chapter 17: Cock Worship: Todd Haynes, Fassbinder, and Queer Praxis ~ Chris Dumas
Chapter 18: Downtown’s Queer Asides ~ Lucas Hilderbrand, Alexandra Juhasz, Debra Levine, and Ricardo Montez
Part III: Memorials
Chapter 19: Canonization and No Wave Cinema History ~ Mark Benedetti
Chapter 20: The Downtown Scene in the Digital Era ~ Laurel Westrup
Chapter 21: You Had to Be There: The Downtown Archive and the Future of an Impossible Past ~ Richard Toon and Laurie Stone
Chapter 22: The Centre Cannot Hold: Blank City (2010) and the Problems of Historicizing New York’s Independent Cinema of the Late 1970s and Early 1980s ~ Juan Carlos Kase
Chapter 23: Experimental Films ~ Chris Kraus
Filmography and Videography ~ Mark Benedetti