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November 25, 2017

A Look Back: The American New Wave 1958-1967

Cover of the American New Wave 1958-1967 program catalog

In 1983, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, along with Media Study/Buffalo, created a touring retrospective of avant-garde films, primarily feature-length ones and a few shorts, which they called “The American New Wave 1958-1967.” To accompany the tour, a hefty catalog was produced that included notes on the films, essays by film historians and critics, writings by major underground film figures and more.

The retrospective was created at a time when financially viable independent filmmaking was on the rise, such as films made by John Sayles, Wayne Wang and Susan Seidelman. According to the co-curators of the retrospective, Melinda Ward and Bruce Jenkins, the objective of the tour was to:

provide a more adequate picture than conventional history affords us of a rare period of American cinematic invention and thereby prepare a coherent critical and historical context for the reception of the new work by the current generation of independent filmmakers.

The full list of films that screened during this tour is below, but it included work by John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Robert Downey Sr. and George Kuchar.

Since the tour occurred prior to the explosion of the Internet, there are very little records to be found online as to where these screenings actually occurred. The catalog notes that it began with a 3-day symposium at the U.S. Film and Video Festival in Park City, Utah in January, 1983. (The U.S. Film and Video Festival would eventually evolve into the Sundance Film Festival.)

The only online reference to the program screening somewhere is on the Berkeley Art Museum – Pacific Film Archive’s archive website. BAMPFA screened the full program from September 6, 1983 to October 4, 1983 on a succession of Tuesday nights.

While knowledge of the actual touring locations is limited, the catalog produced for the tour includes a wealth of information on underground filmmaking of the 1960s. Print versions of the catalog can be found for sale on Amazon, while somebody uploaded an incomplete PDF of it to Archive.org. (The PDF is missing page 14.)

Most fascinating are the reprinted diary entries of Jonas Mekas ranging from December 10, 1954 to sometime in 1963. These are Mekas’s raw thoughts on major events happening in New York City as the underground filmmaking world was cementing itself as a viable film movement. Some of the revelations found in these diaries are:

May 5, 1959: Mekas meets Ron Rice for the first time. Rice was a fan of Mekas’s “Movie Journal” column in the Village Voice and was anxious to start making movies, so he asked to meet Mekas for advice.

July 14, 1960: Mekas, his brother Adolfas and Barbara Stone are all arrested in Connecticut while scouting for locations for a film, mostly likely Guns of the Trees.

August 27, 1960: Mekas and Lew Allen arrange “another” meeting of “the Group.” (These meetings will eventually form into the New American Cinema Group. See Sept. 28 below.)

September 10, 1960: Again, Mekas makes mention of “the Group’s” meetings. (It’s just interesting to note that there were several meetings prior to the next pivotal one.)

September 28, 1960: At Lew Allen’s office at 165 W. 46th Street in New York City, “the Group” officially votes to declare itself the New American Cinema Group, based on a motion by Mekas. After the meeting, several of the Group meet at Emile de Antonio’s place to begin crafting their manifesto.

September 30, 1960: Mekas presents the first draft of the Group’s manifesto at a meeting at the Bleecker Street Cinema, which is owned by filmmaker Lionel Rogosin and managed by Adolfas Mekas. The manifesto is approved. Harold Humes writes a second manifesto, which is supported by Mekas. You can read the official manifesto as submitted by Mekas here.

January 7, 1961: The New American Cinema Group meets at 414 Park Avenue South and votes to establish a distribution center for their work. Amos Vogel opposes the action, saying that his Cinema 16 group should be the only distributor of independent films, but he is shouted down by Ron Rice after Mekas points out that Vogel refused to distribute Stan Brakhage‘s Anticipation of the Night. (The distribution center would eventually become the Film-makers’ Cooperative.)

Two candid photos of meetings of the New American Cinema Group

Following Mekas’s diary entries is an article by Taylor Mead on his acting career, both on stage and screen. Mead doesn’t offer any major revelations like Mekas, but he does write in detail about acting in a 1961 film called Passion in a Seaside Slum, directed by Bob Chatterton, aka Robert Wade Chatterton. The book Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980, notes that Mead’s collaborations with Chatterton are usually overlooked in the “official” history of underground film, but are essential to understanding the representation of homosexuality in avant-garde cinema.

Next, there is an interview with Shirley Clarke, who offers her personal recollections of the creation of the New American Cinema Group and the Film-makers’ Cooperative, as well as reflecting on her own filmmaking career.

Filmmaker Shirley Clarke directing The Connection

Following these personal remembrances, the catalog prints several articles on some of the specific films in the retrospective. The articles are:

The Savage Eye and Shadows by Jonathan Rosenbaum. (Rosenbaum later updated the article in 2010 and eventually put the revised version on his website.)
Pull My Daisy and The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man by J. Hoberman (Hoberman and Rosenbaum were collaborating on the book Midnight Movies at the time these articles were written.)
Nothing But a Man and The Cool World by Noel Carroll
Babo 73, Hold Me While I’m Naked and Hallelujah the Hills by Richard Peterson
Come Back, Africa and The Brig by James Roy MacBean
David Holzman’s Diary and Portrait of Jason by Wanda Bershen

The catalog then gives a partial filmography of important films in the underground, foreign and Hollywood scenes from 1958-1967; and lists important political and social events going on at the time these films were made. There’s also filmographies of the filmmakers in the retrospective; as well as a bibliography of books and publication articles on underground film.

Lastly, there is the full program of films in the retrospective:

Program I
The Savage Eye, dir. Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick
Shadows, dir. John Cassavetes

Program II
Pull My Daisy, dir. Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie
The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, dir. Ron Rice

Program III
Nothing But a Man, dir. Michael Roemer
The Cool World, dir. Shirley Clarke

Program IV
Babo 73, dir. Robert Downey Sr.
Hold Me While I’m Naked, dir. George Kuchar
Hallelujah the Hills, dir. Adolfas Mekas (Watch a clip)

Program V
Come Back, Africa, dir. Lionel Rogosin
The Brig, dir. Jonas Mekas (Watch online)

Program VI
David Holzman’s Diary, dir. Jim McBride
Portrait of Jason, dir. Shirley Clarke

Gallery of Select Photos in the Catalog:

Online Cinema

November 18, 2017

Remedial Reading Comprehension By George Landow

Remedial Reading Comprehension by George Landow (1971).

Although P. Adams Sitney‘s Visionary Film gives a completion year of the film of 1971, an on-screen copyright notice gives the year as 1970.

Most references to Remedial Reading Comprehension discuss the autobiographical nature of the film. In an article about autobiography in experimental filmmaking in The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, Sitney quotes Landow, who says of his own film:

There is a relationship between the personal and the non-personal images which is roughly the same as the relationship between the first image and the next-to-last image.

The first image is of a woman sleeping; and the film’s concluding images are of Landow himself running.

Film still of George Landow running

While Landow says that there is a personal connection between himself and the film, Sitney argues in Visionary Film that Remedial Reading Comprehension and other films by Landow at the time are devoid of psychology; while Fred Camper in a review of the film in Film Culture 52 claims that Landow is not describing his own psychological being or reality, but instead is describing the structural interrelationships between different forms of filmic perception and knowledge.

Given the title of the film, there is considerable text contained in it. About three-quarters into the film, Landow includes a sequence of text flashing on the screen. The bootleg copy of the film above (source unknown) is too blurry to read this text; nor has the Underground Film Journal come across a source that reprints or identifies the origin of the text.

However, most references to the film address primarily the text phrase “This is a film about you … Not about its maker” that appears on-screen in two sections.

Finally, though the film is credited solely to George Landow, Camper’s Film Culture review claims that John Schofill provided Technical Assistance. Schofill was another underground filmmaker at the time who would later become the Chairman, Filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.