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Posts Tagged ‘Experimental Cinema’

S.F. Trips Festival, An Opening – Ben Van Meter

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

People often ask me what experimental cinema was like in the 1960s; here is the answer.

Ben Van Meter’s S.F. Trips Festival — An Opening is one of my favorite films of all time, for a number of reasons, but the main reason I like the film so much is its’ economy of images; made for less than $100 to final print, van Meter shot the film over two nights — January 21-22, 1966 — on two and a half rolls of Ektachrome color reversal film, running each reel through the camera multiple times to create a labyrinth of images, effectively conveying the ecstasy and beauty of the scene in a very short space of time — roughly nine minutes. I’ve seen this film literally hundreds of times, and it never fails to impress me as an absolutely accurate document of a time and place now lost beyond authentic recall.

No money, just sheer inspiration and artistry, and a real commitment to embracing chance in the process of creating the film. Now, it’s here for everyone to enjoy; this used to be the model for experimental cinema until the Hollywood dominant model took over sometime in the early 1980s — the film school model — but even the most casual viewing of this film reveals the incomparable richness of Van Meter’s work. And all the editing was done in the camera; this is straight out of the Bolex, simply spliced together. Back then, nobody had the money for more raw stock than was absolutely necessary, but they made a virtue of penury, and they tried to jam as many images as possible into their films; the result is dazzling.

Absolutely stunning; click here, or on the image above, and see for yourself.

Maidstone, and The Films of Norman Mailer

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see Rip Torn and Norman Mailer battle it out in Mailer’s film Maidstonefor real.

Criterion continues to surprise and delight with their ongoing Eclipse series, which brings back to public view forgotten and often brilliant films from the classical era of cinema.

The latest Eclipse box set, Number 35, is entitled “Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer,” and features the title film, Maidstone, about Mailer’s fictional quest for the Presidency as the pompous Norman T. Kingsley, as well as his first improvised feature, Wild 90, which is of much less interest, and Beyond The Law, centering on one violent, boozy night in a fictional police precinct in Manhattan. All of these films were largely improvised; Wild 90 is completely made up on the spot, dialogue and all, and is fixed in one location, a dingy warehouse; Maidstone is set in a lush country estate, where Mailer gathered his friends and associates for five days of improv filming; and Beyond The Law follows the same format. The results, especially with Maidstone and Beyond the Law, are extraordinary.

As the Criterion notes for the set observe, “Norman Mailer is remembered for many things— his novels, his essays, his articles, his activism, his ego. One largely forgotten chapter of his life, however, is his late-sixties kamikaze-style plunge into making experimental films. These rough-hewn, self-financed, largely improvised metafictions are works of madness and bravado, all starring Mailer himself and with technical assistance from cinema verité trailblazers D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. The most fully realized of his directorial efforts is the blustering, brawling Maidstone, a shocking sign of the political times, in which Mailer plays a filmmaker and presidential candidate who may be the target of an assassination attempt. Along with Mailer’s other films of the period—Wild 90 and Beyond the Law—it shows an uncompromising artist in thrall to both himself and a new medium.”

The actor Rip Torn was one of the principals in Maidstone, and in the film’s most notorious scene, convinced that the movie needed some more action, attacked Mailer with a hammer and bit off part of his ear in a very real, completely unstaged fight sequence. The film as a whole is a compelling exercise in self-psychoanalysis, but for me, Beyond The Law, shot in gritty black and white, with a cast that includes Rip Torn, George Plimpton, Mailer and a rogue’s gallery of hanger ons, is the gem of this group.

There will never be filmmaking like this again. Completely self-financed and shot in 16mm, these are films that Mailer made, at a great financial loss, simply because he felt had to express himself as a non-commercial, experimental filmmaker. Later in his career, Mailer directed a straight dramatic feature, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, based on one of his novels, but it’s a dull, commercial film, indifferently executed by a professional crew. Here, in these early, exhilarating, gloriously undisciplined and freewheeling films, he captures not only his own vision of the world he lived in, but also the essence of New York in the 1960s.

These are films not to be missed; it’s good to see them finally on DVD.

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.

Monday, May 14th, 2012

At last! At last! At last!

Robert Downey Sr. has been a friend of mine since the late 1960s, and his films have been criminally neglected since then, and for years he’s been telling me about a box set of his movies coming out, and now, finally, it’s here from Criterion.

As Criterion’s notes point out, “rarely do landmark works of cinema seem so . . . wrong. Robert Downey Sr. emerged as one of the most irreverent filmmakers of the new American underground of the early sixties, taking no prisoners in his rough-and-tumble treatises on politics, race, and consumer culture. In his most famous, the midnight-movie mainstay Putney Swope, an advertising agency is turned on its head when a militant African American man takes charge. Like Swope, Downey held nothing sacred. This selection of five of his most raucous and outlandish films, dating from 1964 to 1975, offers a unique mix of the hilariously abrasive and the intensely experimental.

The set includes Babo 73 (1964), in which Warhol superstar Taylor Mead plays the president of the United Status, who conducts his top-secret international affairs on a deserted beach when he isn’t at the White House (a dilapidated Victorian), in Robert Downey Sr.’s political satire. Downey’s first feature is a rollicking, slapstick, ultra-low-budget 16 mm comedy experiment that introduced a twisted new voice to the American underground scene;

Chafed Elbows (1966), a breakthrough for Downey Sr., thanks to rave notices. Visualized largely in still 35 mm photographs, it follows a shiftless downtown Manhattanite having his “annual November breakdown,” wandering from one odd job to the next;

No More Excuses (1968), in which Downey takes his camera and microphone onto the streets for a close look at Manhattan’s swinging singles scene of the late sixties. Of course, that’s not all: No More Excuses cuts between this footage and the fragmented tale of a time-traveling Civil War soldier, a rant from the director of the fictional Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and other assorted improprieties;

Putney Swope (1969), Downey’s most popular film, an oddball classic about the antics that ensue after Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, his voice dubbed by a gravelly Downey), the token black man on the board of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is inadvertently elected chairman. Putney summarily fires everyone else, replaces them with Black Power apostles, renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc., and proceeds to wreak politically incorrect havoc; and finally;

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight
(1975), ‘a film without a beginning or an end,’ in Downey’s own words, this Dadaist thingamajig—a never-before-seen, newly reedited version of the director’s 1975 release Moment to Moment (also known as Jive)—is a cascade of curious sketches, scenes, and shots that takes on a rhythmic life. It stars Downey’s wife at the time, Elsie, in an endless succession of off-the-wall roles, from dancer to cocaine fiend.”

Downey Sr. is a one of a kind original, a brilliant satirist, and a take-no-prisoners filmmaker. Buy this set immediately; these films are essential documents of the 1960s, and some of the funniest films ever made, and I honestly never thought they’d see the light of day.

And now they’re out on Criterion, no less! Congratulations, Bob; long overdue!!

Inner and Outer Space

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see Edie Sedgwick in one of Andy Warhol’s most brilliant films, the two-screen, 33 minute Inner and Outer Space (1965), the only one Warhol’s films to incorporate the use of videotape, creating a hallucinatory monologue/duologue between Edie in front of Warhol’s Auricon 16mm film camera, and Edie onscreen, in a previously shot video.

I first saw the film when it came out in a rare screening at The Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, and many years later, at The Whitney Museum in a restored print in 1998, which confirmed my initial impression of the film — it’s absolutely original in conception, design and execution. Callie Angell, the late Warhol historian, wrote an excellent essay on the film in Millennium Film Journal 38 (Spring, 2002), in which she notes that “Outer and Inner Space is a 16mm film of Edie Sedgwick sitting in front of a television monitor on which is playing a prerecorded videotape of herself.  On the videotape, Edie is positioned on the left side of the frame, facing right; she is talking to an unseen person off-screen to our right. In the film, the ‘real’ or ‘live’ Edie Sedgwick is seated on the right side of the film frame, with her video image behind her, and she is talking to an unseen person off-screen to our left.

The effect of this setup is that it sometimes creates the rather strange illusion that we are watching Edie in conversation with her own video image. The film is two reels long, each reel is 1,200 feet or 33 minutes long, and the videotapes playing within the film are each 30 minutes long. The two film reels are projected side by side, with reel one on the left and reel two on the right, and with sound on both reels. So what you see are four heads, alternating video/film, video/film,  and sometimes all four heads are talking at once.

Warhol was able to make this film in August 1965 when he was loaned some rather expensive video equipment by the Norelco Company. The summer of 1965 was the time when portable, affordable video equipment designed for the home market first became available to the general public; a number of different companies, including Sony and Matsushida, were developing their own home video recording systems and beginning to market them at prices ranging from $500 to $1000 each.

The Norelco video equipment was a rather high-end system costing about $10,000, and it was loaned to Warhol as a kind of promotional gimmick.  That is, Warhol was quite well-known as an underground filmmaker at the time, as well as an artist, and the idea was that Warhol would experiment with the new video medium, see what he could do with it, and then report on his experiences in a published interview and more or less give his endorsement to the new medium and specifically to Norelco’s product.

The Norelco equipment was delivered to Warhol’s studio, the Factory, on July 30, 1965; in fact, the arrival of the video camera and the ensuing conversations about it between Warhol and his colleagues are some of the events documented in the early chapters of Warhol’s tape-recorded novel, A. During the month that Warhol had this video access, he shot approximately 11 half-hour tapes (at least, that’s how many Norelco videotapes have been found in the Warhol Video Collection).

One of the interesting things about Outer and Inner Space is that it contains, in effect, the only retrievable footage from these 1965 videotapes. The Norelco system utilized an unusual video format, called ’slant scan video,’ which differed from the helical scan format developed by Sony and other video companies, and which very quickly became obsolete. There are now no working slant scan tape players anywhere in the world, the other videotapes which Warhol shot in 1965 cannot be played back, and the only accessible footage from these early videos exists in this film, which Warhol, in effect, preserved by reshooting them in 16mm.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here; it’s a remarkable essay on a brilliant film.

Jerome Hiler’s “Words of Mercury” at the 49th NYFF

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

A frame from Jerome Hiler’s Words of Mercury (2011)

Jerome Hiler is running his new film, the 25 minute, color, silent Words of Mercury (2011), at the 49th New York Film Festival on October 8th and 9th, 2011; here’s what he has to say about his newest work:

“At the very end of Love’s Labour Lost, as the cast is frolicking around, a messenger comes in to announce a death which brings a sudden shift to the very end of the play.  One of the most comical characters, now newly sober, ends the play with a quick dismissal of the audience: ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.  You that way – we this way.’

Words of Mercury is, if nothing else, economical. It was shot on reversal film and is being screened as original. Its layers of superimpositions were all shot in the camera. Half of the many fades in the film were made by submerging the original film in a black liquid. The film is silent. The shooting ratio is low and there are areas which are unedited since taken from the camera.

I generally shoot first and ask questions later, but I’m struck at the influences that I see in Words of Mercury because they reach back to the very first times that I saw great 16mm films in the early Sixties: Marie Menken, Gregory Markopolous, Stan Brakhage and my lifetime companion Nathaniel Dorsky.”

If you’re in New York, don’t miss it.

Anthology Film Archives

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Film is such an ephemeral art form; it must be constantly preserved in order to survive for each succeeding generation. One of the most important and influential archives in the world for the study of experimental and avant-garde film is Anthology Film Archives. As its website notes:

Anthology Film Archives is an international center for the preservation, study, and exhibition of film and video, with a particular focus on independent, experimental, and avant-garde cinema.

Founded in 1969 by Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill, P. Adams Sitney, Peter Kubelka, and Stan Brakhage [. . .] Anthology has grown [. . .] to encompass film preservation; the formation of a reference library containing the world’s largest collection of books, periodicals, stills, and other paper materials related to avant-garde cinema; and a remarkably innovative and eclectic film exhibition program. Anthology screens more than 900 programs annually, preserves an average of 25 films per year (with 800 works preserved to date), publishes books and DVDs, and hosts numerous scholars and researchers.

Fueled by the conviction that the index of a culture’s health and vibrancy lies largely in its margins, in those works of art that are created outside the commercial mainstream, Anthology strives to advance the cause and protect the heritage of a kind of cinema that is in particular danger of being lost, overlooked, or ignored.”

If you’re in the New York area, a visit to Anthology should not be missed; here is a link to its website, or you can click on the image at the top of this post.

A Few Words on Marie Menken

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Marie Menken was a someone whom I knew in the 1960s; when I was working at the now-defunct Life magazine as a contributor in the late 60s, writing on experimental cinema, Marie was working there too, watching the teletype machines on the night shift to see if anything important came in — it wasn’t her passion in life, but it was a living.

Her real life was the cinema. She’d been making experimental films since the 1940s. In this, she is one of the pioneers of American experimental cinema, along with Maya Deren, whom I blogged on earlier. As critic Jonas Mekas observed, “The realist sees only the front of a building, the outlines, a street, a tree. Marie Menken sees in them the motion of time and eye. She sees the motions of heart in a tree. … A rain that she sees, a tender rain, becomes the memory of all rains she ever saw; a garden that she sees becomes a memory of all gardens, all color, all perfume, all mid-summer and sun.”

Some of her key films include:

Notebook (1940–62, in which she collected her favorite shots and scenes in a sort of moving scrapbook); Hurry! Hurry! (1957); Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1958–1961); Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945); Dwightiana (1958–59, a stop motion animation film made to comfort a sick friend); Glimpse of the Garden (1962, one of her most lovely films); and Andy Warhol (1965), in which Menken compressed a day at the factory into 22 minutes, through the use of single-frame photography, so that everything moves by in a blur of ecstatic motion.

Marie Menken dancing with Tennessee Williams at The Factory

By that time, Marie had drifted firmly into the orbit of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and appeared as an actor in a number of his films, most memorably The Life of Juanita Castro (1965) and Chelsea Girls (1966). But it was in her own films as a director that her spirit shone forth most brightly. All of Menken’s films are very short; they’re really cinematic poems, in which Menken becomes one with whatever she’s filming. A superb documentary has been made of her life, Notes on Marie Menken (2006), by Martina Kudláček; recommended viewing.

Here’s a link to her film Arabesque for Kenneth Anger.

John and James Whitney

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

The Whitney Brothers at work on an early film. Photo: Carl Machover.

John and James Whitney were pioneering artists and experimental filmmakers; here’s a link to an excellent survey of their work, and of abstract imagist filmmaking. The Whitney Brothers were among the very first, and the most inventive, in harnessing the power of computers to create images of dazzling, trancelike beauty, as in James Whitney’s Lapis (1966). I’m also partial to their earlier works, such as John Whitney’s Celery Stalks at Midnight (1952), an abstract animation set to a popular song of the period.

As this very interesting website notes, “In the early 1960s digital computers became available to artists for the first time (although they cost from $100.000 to several millions, required air conditioning, and therefore located in separate computer rooms, uninhabitable studio’; programs and data had to be prepared with the keypunch, punch cards then fed into the computer; systems were not interactive and could produce only still images). The output medium was usually a pen plotter, microfilm plotter (hybrid bwn vector CRT and a raster image device), line printer or an alphanumeric printout, which was then manually transferred into a visual medium. [The] two main centers of computer art activities [at the time were]: The Murray Hill lab, Bell Laboratories, New Jersey, us (now AT&T) and Technische Universitat Stuttgart, de (Max Bense).”

Click on the image above to see James Whitney’s Lapis (1966) in its entirety.

Jerome Hiler

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Jerome Hiler in 1970

Jerome Hiler might be called the phantom of the cinema. I have known Jerry since about 1965, when I borrowed his Bolex to shoot a film of my own at St. Theresa’s Church across the street from his apartment, and even then, living on the lower East Side in a small flat, he had already amassed many hours of gorgeous 16mm footage, all neatly edited into related segments on large stacks of 400′ reels; I sat there, entranced, for hours, watching his work, all of it silent, which knocked me out then, and does still.

But Jerome is a very private person, and doesn’t really feel like sharing his work with the world — at least for the most part. I may be one of perhaps 100 people who have seen several hours of his work; in the mid 1980s, I sent him several thousand feet of outdated 16mm raw stock, Ektachrome reversal film, and he promptly went out and shot several brilliant short films with it, including one called Acid Rock, so named because near the start of the film, the camera passes over a trolley car with the words “acid rock” scratched on it.

The film consists of three rolls of film straight out of the camera, with only three splices in the completed film, to put them together to make a 9 minute silent film of almost indescribable beauty. To my knowledge, this was the first film he exhibited publicly, sometime in the early 1990s; and, at this point, Jerome had been making films for nearly forty years. Since then, Jerry has changed the title of the film to Gladly Given, and expanded it “a bit from three rolls at this point.”

When I wrote about Jerry’s work in my book The Exploding Eye, I did a long interview with him for the book, and then asked him to send some stills from his work. He laughed, and responded, “that’s like saying to a poet, ’send me a word’ — I can’t do it.” I laughed too, but on a certain level I understood. At 24 frames per second, one image can hardly capture the essence of an entire film, no matter how evocative it might be.

Lately, Jerome has been into stained glass rather than film, although he recently completed a feature film, Music Makes a City, and he also teaches and lectures from time to time, but of course, I wish he would hold a marathon screening of his work, just as it is — pull out any ten or twelve 400′ reels, and run them for an unforgettable evening.

Lloyd Michael Williams

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Lloyd Michael Williams was part of the 1960s underground film movement.

Lloyd Michael Williams was one of the many experimental filmmakers working in New York during the 1960s; his most complex and personal film is Line of Apogee. However, he also made a series of delightful short films, of which Wipes (1963), winner of the Grand Prize at the Canyon Cinema Film Festival in 1964, is perhaps the most accessible, and at a running time of just one minutes, easily fits into nearly anyone’s schedule.

You can view it here.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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