published OCT 2015 DOCUMENTARY magazine
From Laura Israel’s ‘Don’t Blink–Robert Frank’
This year’s New York Film Festival (NYFF) featured a healthy offering of portraits of artists in its Spotlight on Documentary strand, including Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words; Walter Salles’ Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang; Rebel Citizen, Pamela Yates’ profile of Haskell Wexler; and Jacob Bernstein’s Everything Is Copy, an homage to the filmmaker’s mother, Nora Ephron. In addition, Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink—Robert Frank screened in NYFF’s Main Slate.
For Don’t Blink, Israel created a rapid-fire collage of Frank’s still photos and avant-garde films, as well as recent footage of the artist with friends, colleagues and his wife, June Leaf. An ambitious music track featuring the Velvet Underground, The White Stripes, Johnny Thunders, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith makes for a bracing complement to Frank’s work.
Following his landmark photo study The Americans (1958), Frank teamed up with Beat Generation legends Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac to make Pull My Daisy (1959), one of the iconic American underground films. Irreverent and outrageous, the film starred Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso with a guest appearance by William Burroughs. Don’t Blink features gorgeous clips from Pull My Daisy, as well as Sin of Jesus (1961) Me and My Brother (1969) and the legendary Cocksucker Blues (1972), commissioned—and buried—by the Rolling Stones.
Equally gorgeous are the many full-frame representations of Frank’s still photographs; his 1970s Polaroids and negatives with captions scratched onto the surface encapsulated the unstudied, often partially blurred style of shooting he has always favored. Frank’s work has been described by critic Max Kozloff as a mode of “abused pastoral, pervaded by themes of loneliness and isolation.” For many years Frank’s subject was American culture, while in later years he shifted his focus to more personal, autobiographical concerns.
Filmmaker Haskell Wexler (center), subject of Pamela Yates’ ‘Rebel Citizen’
Structured as a conversation with filmmaker Haskell Wexler, Rebel Citizen details his unusual career as both Hollywood cinematographer and courageous indie doc director. Perhaps best known for Underground (1976) and Medium Cool (1969), Wexler discusses the making of both films. Since the Weather Underground was still on the government’s most wanted list, Wexler and collaborators Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson had to shoot in a secret location and could not show any faces or other identifying aspects. An FBI attempt to seize the footage resulted in subpoenas served on all three filmmakers, and the film was pulled from circulation. With massive support from the film community (and top-notch lawyers), they succeeded in having the subpoenas revoked on First Amendment grounds.
No less ambitious, Medium Cool was one of the first theatrical films to mix actual news footage with a dramatic storyline, portraying the infamous riots of police against demonstrators outside the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. His account of tracking the actors and trying to shoot amidst the melee of cops, protesters and tear gas in the streets is fascinating. Citing Godard as major influence on the film, Wexler points out a striking sequence of a car accident when the camera and operator are suddenly revealed onscreen and a slow zoom turns the screen into a white flare. This recalls the famous opening sequence of Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), where Raoul Coutard’s camera slowly tracks towards us until only the camera operator is in the center of the frame.
Now 93, Wexler shows no sign of slowing down, speaking enthusiastically about recent projects like Who Needs Sleep? (2006), exposing the dangers of the excessive hours required of workers on Hollywood films, and Four Days in Chicago (2013), about the Occupy Chicago movement.
From Walter Salles’ ‘Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang.’
Made by Brazilian director Walter Salles, Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang takes us on a journey with the Chinese filmmaker through the locations of many of his films. He visits his childhood home in Fengyang after 29 years and is remembered by the neighborhood ladies as a scamp. Between multiple clips from The World (2001), Jia and his wife, actress Zhao Tao, describe how it was inspired by stories she told him about her life as a dancer. He is eager to tell stories of everyday people since he feels individuals as subjects were wiped out of Chinese film history after 1949. That impulse also informs Still Life, a portrait of laborers leveling an entire town of high-rise buildings so a huge new dam can be constructed in Three Gorges. The project destroyed over a thousand towns and villages and the film creates a haunting portrait of dislocation, juxtaposing the rubble-filled landscape with the magnificent natural surroundings.
Jia’s 2014 film Touch of Sin was banned in China for its unflattering portrayal of current Chinese society. The filmmaker remarks how he began to hear many reports of violence and then researched the topic, so the film is based in part on actual incidents. All four episodes culminate in sudden and shocking violence—a woman sauna attendant stabs her oppressor, a laid-off worker murders rich big shots in his village, and a kid from Hubei jumps off the balcony of a factory dormitory building after suffering a series of setbacks. All these characters are caught in the jaws of historical change, feeling exploited and dehumanized by others who now value only material objects. Jia mixes a tough realist style with occasional flashes of surrealism in hard-to-forget scenes such as one of prostitutes working in a luxurious nightclub who march out in Vegas-style versions of Red Army uniforms.
Towards the end of the film and the journey, Jia offers an eloquent account of his father’s suffering during the Cultural Revolution, his subsequent destruction of his many diaries, and his concern for his son’s safety after seeing his films. Clearly this is a legacy that resonates throughout his films.
Wanda Bershen is a consultant on fundraising, festivals and distribution. Documentary clients have included Sonia, Power Trip, Afghan Women, Trembling Before G*D and Blacks & Jews. She has organized programs with the Human Rights Film Festival, Brooklyn Museum and Film Society of Lincoln Center, and currently teaches arts management at CUNY Baruch. Visit reddiaper.com.
Ted Hope is an independent film producer. He’s produced over 60 films. This is his blog.
Guest Post: Wanda Bershen “Recognizing Where Indie Film Began”
It seems that most Indie Film Makers & Lovers think Indie began in the late 80’s or early 90’s. There is a lot to be gained from the study and appreciation of those that came first though, and looking at the roots might point us to a better future. I was pleased to see one of those films, David Holtzman’s Diary, recently get new attention, and pleased again when Kit Carson’s post on it, brought some comments that opened my eyes to other work from the period. Wanda Bershon, guests today, to share some of her knowledge of the initial—and essential—Indies.
“Not only was DIARY a pioneering film, there were quite a number of other people making “indie” films at the time. Check out ICE (Robert Kramer, 1969), LIVES OF PERFORMERS,(Y Rainier, 1972), WINTERSOLDIER (1969), CHELSEA GIRLS (Warhol, 1966) BRANDY IN THE WILDERNESS (Stanton Kaye, 1969), and that is only the beginning. American Indies was a 50s-60s-70s phenonmenon—too little known and screened today.”
Posted by by Wanda Bershen on June 9, 2011 on Hope for Film Blog
Having posted the above comment in June re: Kit Carson’s remarks on this blog about DAVID HOLZMANS DIARY (1969) – pointing out the many other interesting films of that period which rarely get screened – Ted Hope suggested doing a guest turn on HOPE FOR FILM. So here goes.
For whatever reasons the history of American “indie” film is often told as if it started in the early 1980s with work by Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, Lizzie Borden, Claudia Weill, et al. That term refers to feature length films for the most part. Meanwhile there is a large body of work (also feature length) made in the 1960s and 70s which does not get much attention these days, and does not often get screened. Much of it is highly innovative and constitutes the earliest exploration on this side of the Atlantic both of definitions of documentary styles, of drama styles and includes some impressive hybrid combinations.
Indie film history really started in the late 50s and 60s with a number of pioneering films mixing documentary and drama elements, of which the DIARY is an enduring example. Jim McBride followed up with MY GIRLFRIENDS WEDDING (1969) – a very funny film about her getting a green card, and PICTURES FROM LIFES OTHER SIDE (1971) about their cross country trip through 1970s America. Both would today fall into the category of “personal” films. This early work is rarely seen and to its credit UNION DOCS recently screened both.
Another film in this vein is BRANDY IN THE WILDERNESS (Stanton Kaye, 1969), – a partly actual and partly fictionalized portrait of the world’s most dysfunctional relationship, told by each in turn. Cast as film within a film, Kaye and girlfriend Brandy travel cross country, visit friends, fight and end up in California with dog, cat and baby. Shown at the Cannes festival and at MOMA, the film was a kind of counterculture hit.
Then there is Robert Kramer whose film ICE (1969) was a B&W feature drama with himself as protagonist about a group of Weatherpeople types living in NYC and planning a major protest action (as the term was then). Subsequently Kramer made the 3 plus hr long MILESTONES (1975) about a bunch of former war protesters in the post-Vietnam era trying to put their shattered lives back together. It was shown at both the Cannes and NY film festivals. Both films were shot and edited with a cinema verite look, and a strongly ironic tone which underlines the social critique they embody.
Recently restored by Milestone Films, WINTERSOLDIER (1969) is a searing doc of a staged War Crimes Tribunal organized by VVAW in Chicago in 1969. Made by a collective, it is a kind of cinema verite account of a live event. Young vets back from Vietnam talk in very graphic terms about what they saw and did (and are horrified by) – a very different view of the war than that reported in any media.
Perhaps better known but rarely seen is Shirley Clarke’s PORTRAIT OF JASON (1969), a diary of the amazingly articulate street hustler, representing the class tensions at home during that era. Jonas Mekas’ film THE BRIG (1964) is another fake documentary portraying soldiers confined in a U.S. Navy ship and the three guards who beat and humiliate them. An interesting example of mixing documentary and drama is Haskell Wexler’s drama, MEDIUM COOL (1969), which incorporated actual footage of the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 into its narrative.
At the same time Emile de Antonio was turning out hard-hitting documentaries. De Antonio’s specialty was his amazing use of archival footage with no narration to create powerful social critiques, another relatively new approach to documentary. Several from that period are IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG (1968), CHARGE AND COUNTERCHARGE (1969) and his inimitable portrait of Nixon, MILLHOUSE; A WHITE COMEDY (1971). Does anyone remember NO VIETNAMESE EVER CALLDED ME NIGGER (1968) by David Weissman filmed at an anti-war march from Harlem to the United Nations in 1967? The title is a quote from Mohammed Ali on why he refused to serve in the war. The 60s also saw the rise of the “cinema verite approach” in films by Robert Drew, the Maysles brothers, Don Pennebaker and the recently departed Richard Leacock. Those films have managed to stay in distribution and garner considerable visibility on the festival and museum circuit.
Simultaneously (early 70s) the Women’s Movement was taking off and women began to direct in a variety of styles: Barbara Kopples’ powerful HARLAN COUNTY USA (1976) belongs to this period. Another first was Barbara Loden’s drama about a working class woman, WANDA (1970), set in the eastern Pennsylvania coal region, with Loden’s powerful performance in the title role. Elaine Mays’ MIKEY AND NICKY (1976), about a couple of small time gangsters played by actors John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, was shot with 3 cameras to allow substantial improvisation by the actors. WOMANHOUSE (1974) by Johanna Demetrakas chronicled Judy Chicago’s now famous feminist art project – taking over an old house in Hollywood and with her students turning it into multiple installations portraying women’s lives. And there was Yvonne Rainier’s groundbreaking LIVES OF PERFORMERS (1972) using a combination of experimental form and documentary to tell a personal story.
Also adding to the lively film culture of that time were a number of filmmakers who tend to be called “experimental” and whose work bridges documentary and re-enactment. Ron Rice’s wacky road movie THE FLOWER THIEF (1962), featuring infamous Warhol actor Taylor Mead, is another trip through dystopian America with a distinctly “beat” aesthetic. And throughout the 60s and 70s Warhol was making films in the Factory (also usually tagged as experimental). His famous and innovative feature CHELSEA GIRLS was made in 1966 consisting of two 16 mm-films being projected simultaneously, with two different stories being shown in tandem.
It is worth pointing out that all this work was made on film – 16mm, sometimes 8mm, sometimes in combinations – an entirely different process than working with digital tools. Editing was laborious, done by hand, cut by cut. All effects had to be done either in the camera while shooting or at a film lab equipped for things like optical printing.
Looking back at all this “independent” film in the 60s and 70s I am struck by how much experimentation was done in terms of mixing documentary stylistics with fiction and/or re-enactment. Notions of “truth” in terms of photographic representation were a major concern. TV went through a rapid development and a major expansion in the 60s and 70s and famously brought home the “living room war”. Perhaps that growth combined with the volatile politics of those times also contributed to the pervasive suspicion of media and to the innovative approaches to independently made films.