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Taylor Mead 1924 – 2013

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Taylor Mead, center in the photograph above from the 1960s, and one of the authentic stars of the American underground film, has died at the age of 88.

As Elaine Woo wrote, in a sharply observed and deeply sympathetic obituary in The Los Angeles Times on May 11, 2013, “Taylor Mead, an underground cinema legend whose comic charm and sense of the surreal inspired Andy Warhol and other seminal figures in the alternative film world, died Wednesday in Denver. He was 88. A fixture of bohemian New York who was also a poet and artist, Mead was visiting family in Colorado when he had a stroke, said his niece, Priscilla Mead.

Called ‘the Charlie Chaplin of the 1960s underground,’ Mead was an elfin figure with kewpie-doll eyes who appeared, by his count, in 130 films, starting with the 1960 art house classic The Flower Thief. In a review for the Village Voice, film critic J. Hoberman pronounced him ‘the first underground movie star.’

He later became one of Warhol’s first superstars, appearing in films such as Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of and Lonesome Cowboys. He also was known for his work in Ron Rice’s The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man and Robert Downey Sr.’s Babo 73. Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch, who cast Mead in a moving vignette that closed his 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, considered Mead one of his heroes.

A dropout from a life of privilege, Mead allied himself with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other early leaders of the San Francisco Beat scene of the 1950s before settling in New York to eke out a living as a member of its thriving arts underground. He was a familiar face on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he wandered the streets with a notebook, read his poetry in coffeehouses – often against a background of a Charles Mingus recording – and fed feral cats in the predawn hours.

‘Taylor was a spark who inspired filmmakers, poets and artists on both coasts,’ said Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, which sponsored a Mead retrospective last fall. ‘He saw his life as his art and his art as his life and didn’t separate them the way we do today.’ He was the subject of Excavating Taylor Mead, a 2005 documentary by William Kirkley that knits the actor’s personal history with later struggles to hold on to his decrepit New York apartment and maintain his free-spirited life.

Born on the last day of 1924 in Grosse Pointe, Mich., Mead was the son of a wealthy businessman and his socialite wife who divorced before he was born. He floated through boarding schools and a number of colleges before his father found him a job in a brokerage house, which was not to his liking.

Openly gay since he was about 12, he left the East Coast in the mid-1950s, hitchhiked to California and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. Inspired by Pull My Daisy, a short 1959 film based on the Kerouac play Beat Generation, he collaborated with Rice on The Flower Thief, a somewhat haphazardly structured film shot with a handheld camera that features Mead wandering through San Francisco coffeehouses and dives carrying a flower, an American flag and a teddy bear. ‘There was no plot, no planning,’ he told the Philadelphia City Paper in 2005. ‘It was … extremely spontaneous, and all of us were just crazy anyway.’ Village Voice critic J. Hoberman praised it as ‘the beatnik film par excellence,’ with Mead playing ‘a kind of Zen village idiot.’

In 1964, before Warhol was a pop-art mega-celebrity, he invited Mead on a road trip to California for the opening of a gallery show. They wound up making Tarzan and Jane Regained…Sort Of, a spoof of Hollywood adventure movies that was Warhol’s first partially scripted feature. It starred Mead as a Hollywood Tarzan cavorting with a naked Jane in a bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel, exercising on Venice Beach and having a bicep-flexing contest with Dennis Hopper as a rival Tarzan. Mead would appear in about 10 Warhol films over the next decade.

Calling himself ‘a drifter in the arts,’ Mead also acted on stage, winning an Obie Award in 1963 for his performance in the Frank O’Hara play The General Returns From One Place to Another. He published poetry and three volumes of his journals, displayed his art in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and read his poems weekly at Manhattan’s Bowery Poetry Club. ‘His whole campaign was, stay creative, active, busy. And he did,’ said filmmaker and friend Clayton Patterson.

He made his biggest splash in decades in 2003 in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, a loosely connected series of vignettes with a wide-ranging cast including Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. Critics were moved by Mead’s performance as a janitor on a coffee break who doesn’t want to go back to work. The film ends with Mead closing his eyes to the strains of a favorite Mahler song, which resonated with his colorful past:

I am dead to the world’s tumult,

And I rest in a quiet realm!

I live alone in my heaven,

In my love and in my song!”

Taylor Mead, one of the authentic figures of the American avant-garde.

On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

A scene from Peter Emanuel Goldman’s Echoes of Silence; click here, or on the image above, to see an excerpt from the film.

I have a new essay, “On The Value of ‘Worthless’ Endeavor,” in the latest issue of College Hill Review.

Here are the opening paragraphs: “In the 1960s, working in New York, I was part of a group of filmmakers who created films out of almost nothing at all; outdated raw stock, ancient cameras that barely functioned, often borrowed for a few days from someone else, a few lights, the barest outline of a script, and “financing” that consisted of donated labor both in front of and behind the camera. Nobody had any money; we lived in cheap apartments that cost as little as $100 a month, worked a variety of odd jobs to keep the wolf from the door, and plowed nearly everything we made back into films; films that had no market, no commercial value, and were so resolutely personal that it seemed that no one, outside of a small circle of friends, could ever possibly find them of value, worth or interest.

Sync-sound filmmaking equipment, only recently invented at that point, was beyond our financial range; so, like the early silent filmmakers, we were forced back to the primacy of the image, and we created films of deeply romantic intent using a few costumes, borrowed props, and the barest of sets. Another defining characteristic of these films was their calculated sloppiness, since we were dealing with second-, third- and fourth-rate equipment and film that was often of deeply uncertain origin; even then, it was all we could afford. So we would use every possible frame of what we shot, down to the last bit of leader streaked material at the end of the roll, in a desperate attempt to capture every last bit of our vision on film.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

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!!

Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960)

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

A few blogs ago, I wrote a piece about Jean Vigo, whose life’s work has just come out on DVD. I wish I could say the same for experimental filmmaker Ron Rice, whose 16mm $1,000 feature film The Flower Thief (shot in 1959; released in 1960) is one of the signature works of the New American Cinema, and a film that I haven’t seen for much too long. It’s 75 minutes of pure, raw, sensual beauty.

There’s a newly restored print of the film at Anthology Film Archives, but a movie this poetic, free-spirited, inspirational, improvisational and “brilliant on a budget” needs a DVD release, so it can be seen by a wider audience.

Ron Rice was one of the original wild men of the New York underground film scene; working with the brilliantly gifted Taylor Mead, Rice improvised the entirety of The Flower Thief on location in San Francisco, shooting the film on 50 ft. cartridges of outdated, surplus World War II aerial gunnery film donated by none other than Sam Katzman, the most notoriously cost-conscious producer in Hollywood, at the absolute last minute.

Rice was known for his brash, insistent personality; he once wrote a letter to producer Joseph E. Levine demanding that he finance a film for him. Levine demurred, but Katzman came through; one of the most unlikely and fortuitous alliances in all of motion picture history.

The finished film is raw, anarchic, and utterly assured, all at once. Rice uses very inch of film available to him, and Mead’s Chaplinesque everyman is the perfect artistic collaborator for such an enterprise; the film gets its title from a hastily staged sequence in which Mead “steals” a flower from a street vendor, and then, imagining that the police are after him, makes good his “escape” in a child’s Radio Flyer truck down a San Francisco street in blissful slow motion.

As Rice said of The Flower Thief, in the program notes for the film’s premiere, “in the old Hollywood days movie studios would keep a man on the set who, when all other sources of ideas failed (writers, directors) was called upon to ‘cook up’ something for filming. He was called The Wild Man. The Flower Thief has been put together in memory of all dead wild men who died unnoticed in the field of stunt.”

I had the good fortune to meet and work briefly with Mead in the 1960s at Warhol’s Factory when it was located at 33 Union Square West, and really, all you had to do was turn the camera on, and Mead would do the rest, improvising hilarious and touching sequences with whatever props came easily to hand.

The Flower Thief actually had a commercial theatrical release in New York City at the Charles Theater, and became a substantial hit, easily earning back its negative cost — the $1,000 was for developing the film, creating a sound track from old records and bits of poetry, shooting an optical sound track for the release print, and then striking a print — that’s all.

Writing in The New York Times when the film was first released, critic Eugene Archer recognized The Flower Thief for the masterpiece it was and is, stating that “Rice, by deliberately flouting established movie making traditions, reveals himself primarily as a professional rebel rather than the leader of a new movement. But in the highly specialized area of experimental films, he has produced a major work.”

Editing was done on a primitive Moviscope viewer, and the entire film was shot silent. None of this detracted from the film at all; it’s a magical, transcendent, gorgeous testament to the freedom of the human spirit, and to Mead and Rice’s shared conviction that you can do brilliant work with absolutely minimal resources — all it takes is genius.

Rice went on to make several other films — including Chumlum (1964), The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963), and Senseless (1962), but died in 1964 in Mexico at the age of 29 – the same age as Jean Vigo. It’s a tragedy; a real loss.

It’s also sad that you can’t easily see The Flower Thief, but at least prints still exist; when in Manhattan, check out Anthology Film Archives and see if it’s playing. It’s a one of a kind film; a trip back in time to a more innocent and forgiving era, when individuality was prized, money didn’t matter as much, and the world wasn’t caught up in the false frenzy of a neverending 24 hour news cycle. In short, it’s a window into a world that once existed, and to which we can never return.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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