Still from Pestilent City (1965)
Still from Pestilent City (1965)
New York in the late 50s. Like the Abstract Expressionists, like the Beats, filmmakers were advocating for freedom from convention and the expression of real feeling. They demanded a cinema liberated from Hollywood, from ‘the system’. They wanted, in the words of critic Jonas Mekas, films that were 'less perfect, but more free.'
This season presents a selection of films made in New York in these years. Here are films shot on location, which capture urban life in its raw, unrefined state, and with a spontaneity and immediacy that is new. Some go further, developing a first-person shooting style which allows us to inhabit the filmmaker’s way of seeing - this is the birth of American indie cinema as we know it.
In this edition of Screen Notes, cinema curator Tamara Anderson introduces each of the filmmakers in the season.
John Cassavetes grew up in Long Island, the son of Greek immigrants. His career began as an actor, primarily in US TV series and B-movies. His reputation as a rising star helped recruit other young actors to the workshop he started with a friend, Burt Lane (future father of Diane), in 1956. Classes ran a few nights a week and were designed to teach students to act ‘naturally’, so that their work didn’t look ‘staged’ or ‘artificial’; the idea for Shadows grew out of a group improvisation at one of these sessions.
There had been other American indie films before this one, but the ethos behind Shadows, as well as the conditions of its financing and shoot, make it emblematic. Financed partially from Cassavetes’ own pocket (leaving him heavily in debt), and partly from a crowd-funding campaign he launched on local radio, it was largely shot and edited on borrowed or donated kit. There was a skeleton crew of just 5-6 people; all outdoors shooting was done without permits, with the gang bribing policemen or making quick getaways when caught. Above all, the events and characters of the film were quarried from his actors’ real lives and experiences – as well as his own. The highest value was placed on their freedom and authenticity in performance.
In its final version, Shadows was premiered at Amos Vogel’s legendary Cinema 16 film club in November 1959; the audience responded with sustained ovations. Cassavetes would go on to direct a further 12 films, becoming the archetype of the uncompromising indie director and a hero and mentor to the New Hollywood generation.
'The main advantage of making a film in the way we did was that we had complete freedom. It was probably as free a film as has ever been made. It gave absolute freedom to the actor.'
John Cassavetes, quoted in Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001)
Stan Brakhage is one of the most influential experimental filmmakers in history; incredibly prolific, he made over 300 films in his lifetime. As a young man he moved first to San Francisco, where he became ensconced in the thriving poetry scene, and then, in 1954, to New York, where he sought out such luminaries as avant-garde filmmakers Maya Deren, Marie Menken and Joseph Cornell, and composer John Cage.
It was in New York that he achieved his major artistic break-through: ditching narrative, Brakhage began to explore the film surface, the lens, and the printing process as means of personal expression, free of constraint to anchor the film in any other subjectivity than his own. Anticipation of the Night (1958) is the first expression of this new first-person, lyrical cinema.
Brakhage married in 1957 and left New York for the Rocky Mountains. In subsequent films he drew deeply on his personal life: he more than once filmed his wife June giving birth, turned their lovemaking and arguments into cinematic subjects, collaged and superimposed footage of his family life in rural Colorado.
'When I was living in New York in the 50s and 60s I became an avid gallery-goer. I discovered Turner, who is probably still the most pervasive influence on me because of his representations of light. I was also strongly drawn to the Abstract Expressionists—Pollock, Rothko, Kline—because of their interior vision. None of these so-called abstract painters—going back to Kandinsky and earlier—had made any reference to painting consciously out of their closed-eye vision, but I became certain that, unconsciously, many of them had.
To me, they were all engaged in making icons of inner picturisation, literally mapping modes of non-verbal, non-symbolic, non-numerical thought. So I got interested in consciously and unconsciously attempting to represent this.'
Stan Brakhage, quoted in ‘All That is Light: Brakhage at 60’ in Sight & Sound 1992-3
Peter Emmanuel Goldman
( b. 1939)
A native New Yorker, Goldman shot a feature, Echoes of Silence (1965), and a handful of shorts in the city in his mid-twenties, before moving to Paris for a scholarship under Jean-Luc Godard. Made on a shoe-string using a 16mm Bolex camera, Echoes was shot in and around the flat Goldman was sharing in Greenwich Village, edited at night, and set to music plucked from LPs in his own collection. For this, and his next, Paris-set feature Wheel of Ashes (1968), Goldman was widely acclaimed, hailed by Susan Sontag no less as 'the most exciting filmmaker in recent years.' But just as soon he dropped out of sight – a spiritual crisis at the end of the decade led him to leave France for Denmark, then Israel, and abandon filmmaking altogether. In 2015 he published a novel, Last Metro to Bleeker Street, based on his early life. Today he lives in Florida.
Marie Menken was one of the major figures in American indie cinema from the 1940s until her death. She trained first as a painter, winning a scholarship to the Yaddo artists colony in upstate New York, where she met her future husband, the poet and filmmaker William Maas. As a married couple, they hosted wild parties their Brooklyn Heights penthouse, where guests included Maya Deren, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Richard Wright and Truman Capote; some accounts make them the model for the boozing, rowing couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, another friend and guest.
For many years Menken worked night shifts as a teletype operator at Life magazine to finance her own creative practice, and that of her husband. Her lyrical, non-narrative films were an inspiration to Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage and brought her into the orbit of Andy Warhol: she appeared in several of his films, including Chelsea Girls (1966), and documented him and his entourage in her own. Unlike his, her films were all under 22 minutes long, her motto being 'Make them short – always!'
'There is no why for my making films. I just liked the twitters of the machine, and since it was an extension of painting for me, I tried it and loved it. In painting I never liked the staid and static, always looked for what would change the source of light and stance, using glitters, glass beads, luminous paint, so the camera was a natural for me to try – but how expensive!'
Marie Menken, c. 1966
Born into a wealthy New York family, Shirley Clarke broke young with her privileged background to study contemporary dance with innovative choreographers including Martha Graham. From there she turned to film; in the 1950s, the success of her early shorts, together with her work as activist and organiser, placed her at the centre of the burgeoning American independent filmmaking scene. Clarke was one of the first – and the only woman – to sign the New American Cinema manifesto of 1961; she was also active in the cinema verité movement, helping to establish the influential production cooperative Filmmakers Inc with DA Pennebaker and others. Her feature films The Connection (1961) and The Cool World (1964) were landmarks of their time, heralding an unflinching new cinematic realism focussed on pressing social issues. John Cassavetes, a friend, borrowed her camera to shoot his film Shadows (1959).
'Right now, I’m revolting against the conventions of movies. Who says a film has to cost a million dollars and be safe and innocuous enough to satisfy every 12-year-old in America?'
Storm de Hirsch
Storm de Hirsch was a key figure in the New York avant-garde film scene of the 1960s, and one of the founding members of the Filmmakers’ Co-op, the influential distribution outfit for independent film. Her creative life began as a writer: in the 1950s, she published poems and art criticism in small magazines, and later the poetry collections Alleh Lulleh Cockatoo (1956) and Twilight Massacre (1965). Her poems demonstrate an interest in shamanism, magic ritual, incantation, and eastern religion, passions which resurface in the films she made between 1962-75, some of which she referred to as ‘cine-songs’ or ‘cine-sonnets’. The work is abstract, and employs techniques including hand-painting, emulsion-scratching and kaleidoscopic lenses to create unique poetic abstractions she likened to prehistoric hieroglyphs.
'I wanted badly to make an animated short, but I had no camera available. I did have some old, unused film stock and several rolls of 16mm sound tape. So I used that — plus a variety of discarded surgical instruments and the sharp edge of a screwdriver — by cutting, etching, and painting directly on both film and [sound] tape.'
Storm de Hirsh to her friend Jonas Mekas on the making of Divinations
Born in Chicago, the son of a photographer, Pennebaker dropped out of engineering school at Yale, finding work as a carpenter. While living in the West Village – where his roommate was a young William Gaddis – Pennebaker began painting and fell in with experimental filmmaker Francis Thompson whose short film N.Y., N.Y. (1957) deeply inspired him with its kaleidoscopic energy and abstraction. The success of his own first film, the documentary short Daybreak Express (1958), led to an invitation by filmmakers Richard Leacock and Robert Drew to join their new company, Drew Associates, in 1960. While working on the firm’s early productions Pennebaker used his engineering know-how to help devise a fully portable, 16mm synchronized camera and sound recording system that made it easy for filmmakers to stay close to their subjects, moving quickly and unobtrusively. This huge technical leap forward allowed for the advent of a new kind of observational documentary filmmaking – so-called ‘direct cinema’ – that sought to record the action without interference.
To date, Pennebaker has 60 directing credits to his name, and at 94 is reportedly raising funding for his next project.
One of most celebrated photographers of the 20th century, Helen Levitt captured candid views of everyday life on the streets of New York City. A life-long New Yorker, she photographed working-class neighbourhoods such as the Lower East Side and Spanish Harlem, documenting the theatre of life as it played out on stoops and sidewalks. Less well known is her work in film, which began in 1942 when she was hired by Luis Buñuel to edit his pro-American propaganda films. In 1945-6 Levitt and friends James Agee, a writer and film critic, and painter Janet Loeb took 16mm cameras to East Harlem. The resulting film, edited by Levitt, revisits the subjects that had made her name as a photographer – in particular, children caught in unguarded moments of joyful play out on the street. In the Street was immediately hailed as a milestone in independent cinema. Levitt’s involvement with film continued, notably as a cinematographer on The Quiet One (1948) and The Savage Eye (1959). In later life she collaborated with noted left-wing documentarian Emile di Antonio on his anti-Vietnam War film In the Year of the Pig (1968).
Born into a well-to-do Swiss family, Rudy Burckhardt abandoned med school when he discovered photography. Emigrating to New York City in 1935, there he witnessed and photographed the birth and rise of such groups as the Abstract Expressionists and the New York School, fostering friendships with key figures including Willem de Kooning, Alex Katz and Jackson Pollock. For decades he was a constant on the New York cultural scene, so much so that his friend the poet John Ashbery once called him a 'subterranean monument'!
His practice as a filmmaker existed in parallel with his career as photographer; as well as its artistic community, he photographed and filmed the streets and skyscrapers of his adopted city, charting the demolition and construction of its changing neighbourhoods. In all, he made over 90 short films in different genres, including many collaborations with his artist, poet and dancer friends.
William Klein grew up in Brooklyn and served in the US Army in Europe after WW2 before studying painting in Paris, where he was briefly assistant to Fernand Léger. Some of his early photos were spotted by Alexander Liberman, American Vogue’s legendary art director, who invited Klein to New York to work for the magazine. Published in 1955, his first photobook, Life is Good and Good For You in New York, was a sensation, its urgent, blurred and grainy style of photography capturing the New York streetscape as never before. In Paris it was championed by filmmaker Chris Marker; through Marker, Klein met director Alain Resnais, who encouraged him to try filmmaking. Broadway by Light (1958) is a dizzying, dazzling study of New York’s famed theatre district, with a focus on the play of lights and shadows, colours and forms in motion.
After this first short, Klein developed a career as a filmmaker in parallel with his practice in photography, racking up a total 22 directing credits including the fashion industry satire Who Are You Polly Magoo? (1966) and a segment of the landmark anti-Vietnam War portmanteau film Far From Vietnam (1967). He lives in Paris.
Filmmaker, artist and poet Jonas Mekas was a leading figure of avant-garde and independent cinema over many decades. As a filmmaker, he is best known for his ‘film diaries’ which record, with a poet’s eye, and with no plan or script, his day-to-day activities, as well as those of his peers on the New York cultural scene.
But almost as important as his artistic practice was his tireless work as a promoter and organiser. In 1955 he co-founded and begun editing the magazine Film Culture, the most free-wheeling and radical publication of its kind. Three years later, he joined the Village Voice as its first film critic, using his column to champion the work of underground filmmakers.
In 1962, he co-founded, with 20 others, the Film-makers Cooperative, a distribution outfit whose manifesto railed against artistic censorship and criticised the 'morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring' mainstream cinema of their time. For its first five years the cooperative operated out of Mekas’ own Manhattan loft, which became a gathering spot for like-minded subversive artists, including Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and Salvador Dalí. It was here, famously, that he was arrested on obscenity charges for screening Jack Smith’s gender-bending Flaming Creatures.
Across his career, Mekas made over 60 films and published more than 20 books. Upon his death earlier this year, the New York Times noted that there could be no disputing his legend as 'the leading champion of the kind of film that doesn’t show at the multiplex'.
'… we are for art, but not at the expense of life. We don’t want false, polished, slick films – we prefer them rough, unpolished but alive; we don’t want rosy films – we want them the colour of blood.'
(From the Filmmakers’ Coop manifesto, 1962)
Bebop New York: Birth of American Indie Cinema
This season presents a selection of films made in New York in these years. Here are films shot on location, which capture urban life in its raw, unrefined state, and with a spontaneity and immediacy that is new.
This is the birth of American indie cinema as we know it, featuring films by John Cassavetes, Stan Brakhage and Shirley Clarke.