"Every frame was precious": an interview with wheeler Winston Dixon.
Wheeler Winston Dixon, the prolific author of books on Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, American experimental cinema, and film theory, history, and criticism, has also been making experimental films and videos of his own for the past three decades. Dixon's career spans the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, including such early works as The DC Five Memorial Film (1969), which interweaves home movies of Dixon's 1950s Connecticut childhood with footage shot in 1969 in New York City and at a farm upstate; Quick Constant and Solid Instant (1969), featuring a Fluxus group performance piece and a poetry reading by Gerard Malanga; and Madagascar, or, Caroline Kennedy's Sinful Life in London (1976), in which a fictional Caroline recovers from a hangover. Later works include the cleverly edited Serial Metaphysics (1972), an examination of the American commercial lifestyle recut entirely from existing television advertisements; and the feature-length What Can I Do? (1993), a rigorous and tender portrait of an elderly woman who holds dinner party guests in thrall to her difficult family life. In April 2003, Dixon's films were honored by a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. Here, Dixon discusses his work with the Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, in an interview conducted February 10, 2003.
GF: Let's start with your obsession with movies. When did you first realize that you were interested in movies and the moving picture art form?
WWD: I was born March 12, 1950 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I first realized that I wanted to make movies when I was about four years old. I recall sitting in a crib and looking out the window at a church in the distance. There was a cross on top of the cathedral, and I wanted to capture that image and keep it with me always. That was the first image that I remember.
GF: It doesn't seem like you had any problems conceiving of yourself as an artist. That seems peculiar because that's a difficult thing to come to for many people.
WWD: I always wanted to be a filmmaker from the time I was four or five. I just have never not known this, and I've never understood how people could say, "I don't know what I want to do with my life." When I was about 10, somebody gave me a 16mm print of Strange Illusion, a really interesting Edgar G. Ulmer film, and I learned how to thread it in a 16mm projector that someone loaned me for a weekend. I watched the film that one weekend something like 20 times. I just memorized it. Later, I was involved in film societies, and began traveling into New York City to see films, and meet some experimental filmmakers.
GF: Tell me a bit more about these film societies; who was there, what you saw, and the like. With videocassettes, they're pretty much defunct. But this was all 16mm film projection.
WWD: In New Brunswick, at the Public Library, they screened classic films in 16mm format every Saturday or Friday night, for free. This was when New Brunswick was a small town, maybe 30,000 people, around 1955-58. That was when I first saw Len Lye's films, the Marx Brothers, Maya Deren, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Rene Clair. There were very few women filmmakers that were known to exist at that point. Nobody knew about Alice Guy Blache. It was an entirely male canon, even though the entire series was run by a woman, who was, for the period, quite knowledgeable about film.
GF: I think this is really important, because the history of film clubs is really the beginning of cinema studies in the United States, as well as Europe. What did you get out of those screenings?
WWD: Well, I saw right away that there were two models. There was the Hollywood model, and there was the independent model. The independent model attracted me more, because you didn't have to deal with all of the sets and the casts and the crew and the money and the overhead. And independent cinema at that time was very cheap to make, so it was a possible alternative.
GF: It must have felt a little odd to be a very young person with these older people at the film club. But another thing that's important to remember about these early film clubs is that it was the first time people were looking at films as an art form.
WWD: Yeah, that was really important. Up until the late 1940s, other than in a "fan" sense, people had no appreciation of the Hollywood past. People had no appreciation of experimental films. Very few people wanted to make films. Most people had their own 8mm cameras, but they made home movies with them. Look at the fourth New York Filmmaker's Cooperative catalogue, which came out in 1966. At that time, although it was completely open to everybody who wanted to make films, there were only something like 100 filmmakers listed, and the catalogue itself is only 177 pages long. Even in New York, experimental filmmakers were a renegade breed. Now, everyone wants to make films. That's when I got involved in the Coop, when it was still a pretty fluid scene.
GF: So how did you make the jump from 8mm to 16mm?
WWD: When I was about 14, I bought my first Bolex 16mm camera, and from that point on. I began to make 16mm films with optical sound tracks and never looked back.
GF: Did you have any friends that you would show these films and maybe make films too?
WWD: My friends at this point, even when I was 14, were mostly graduate students at Rutgers University. Robert Atwan, Donald McQuade, Mark Gibbons, Dick Arthur, Robert Pingree; these were all people who were passionate about film, and supported my work.
GF: Did yon ever feel odd that you were hanging around with people who were 20 years older than you were?
WWD: I was already aware that I was very much an outsider, even from the time that I was a kid. People would go outside and play baseball or football with their sons, and I just didn't understand it. Sports never interested me, or the whole idea of being a "team" player. I just couldn't see the point. So, for me, art was a way to reformulate my existence. For example, Our National Anthem, which I made in 1967, was composed of high school pep rallies intercut with Hitler youth rallies; my not so subtle comment on the regimentation of football. Amazingly enough, I ran that film in high school for the football team. I remember that they were very supportive, and they liked it a lot.
GF: I take it they didn't get it?
WWD: No, they did get it, but they thought that it was nervy, and they liked it. It had footage of the team burning a dummy of the opposing team in effigy, around a huge bonfire, and then I intercut this with stock footage of Nazi storm troopers and anything else I could find, heavily under the influence of Bruce Conner. The whole idea of burning this other person in effigy as a "morale booster" for the team amazed me. So that was high school.
At Rutgers, I was hanging around with people who were much older, people who were thinking, and questioning American culture. They were basically involved in creating stuff, creating art, creating literature. So by the time I was 14, I was already involved with the graduate program at Rutgers University, hanging around a group of graduate students, going to their parties, and dividing my time between that and New York City. When I found the people at Rutgers University, I just walked in on the film screening one day. It was open to the public. I started talking to the projectionist. I said to myself, "This is it. These are the people. I'm talking to them. We're on the same level here." And the next thing you know, they drew me into their circle really fast.
GF: Let's talk about some of the stuff you were interested in at the time.
WWD: Well, I was obsessed with comic books, pop culture, television shows like The Untouchables. American International films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Invasion of the Saucer Men. I also really liked a show called Open End, hosted by David Susskind. And at that point, it really was open ended! It would start at about 10 o'clock at night and run until everyone was exhausted, depending on the topic.
New York television in the 50s and 60s was sort of an extension of your living room. It was another living room somewhere, with a camera televising the discussion. Soupy Sales did a live hour long show every day, which I adored. There were no glitzy sets, no replay graphics, just some people in a room. It was very amateurish, very "from our home to your home." It was mostly live. Now, in 2003, we're going back to live TV, but it's live TV intercut with video clips and other image sources, and it loses its liveness and its immediacy. The interesting thing about 50s live television was that it was raw. When videotape first came in, you couldn't edit it, it had to be a straight run; we're talking the very early 50s here.
So I saw a lot of films, and knew it was my life. From the time I was four or five, I was covering my walls with stills from movies. I knew a lot about movies. I could rattle off statistics. There was no "standard" film history out there. There were no film historians, there were no cult movies. It was really something I was doing on my own.
GF: I wanted to talk about how you helped create the first film course at Rutgers.
WWD: I helped create the first film course at Rutgers because a bunch of us were involved with film societies, and it seemed the next logical step to make film into part of the curriculum; this was about 1966. The film society screenings were free, and they were always packed. There was no formal canon then, and films were very cheap to rent. The programming was wildly eclectic. Eisenstein one day, Freddie Francis the next, Luis Bunuel, Mascot serials, Flip the Frog cartoons, Astaire and Rogers musicals, W.C. Fields, Chaplin, Renoir, Rene Clair, Lumiere, Arzner, anything and everything we could lay our hands on. I remember one night we ran three hours of Nazi newsreels; another night we ran hours and hours of Army training films we got free from Ft. Dix. Anything that would run through a projector. We also ran all-nighters quite a lot; we ran literally thousands of films.
Around 1966 Richard Poirier, who was the Chair of the English Department at that point, along with some graduate students (Richard Arthur, Robert Pingree and David Altschul), decided that it was time to create a film course. We were all invited over to Dick's apartment, which was then on Memorial Parkway in New Brunswick. During the course of an afternoon, over a bottle of wine, we drew up a list of 15 "certifiable classics", including Triumph of the Will, Strike, Citizen Kane, Duck Soup, the obvious choices. Then we said "that's it. That's the first film course." The first year that the course was inaugurated, I did a lecture there (they let me off from high school to do it) on Ingmar Bergman's The Magician. That was my first public lecture on film. I remember I was incredibly nervous. But it went very well, and I knew I had found what I wanted to do.
GF: And your first real teaching was at Livingston College, in the Art Department?
WWD: My first permanent teaching job was in 1969 teaching film at Livingston College. I was hired in December, 1969. I graduated from high school in 1968 and went to England in the summer of '68, and lived at Jonathan Miller's house; I had met him at Rutgers when he came there to do a lecture and screen his superb 35mm film of Alice in Wonderland. We got into a discussion, and he told me to come and see him when I came to London; and when I arrived, he was as good as his word. I crashed on the couch in the living room for a month or so, soaking up everything I could. London was exploding with films at that point, particularly in the new Arts Lab in Drury Lane, which had three theatres running simultaneously; Jonathan turned me on to that, for which I'll always be grateful.
I came back to the States and got a job working at Life magazine as a writer, because I was so heavily connected to the underground scene in New York; Tommy Thompson hired me and was the person who first taught me how to write. I worked there until December of 1969. In December of 1969, Life folded, although it came back a few years later and then folded again. We all went to the Life closing party, and just at that point, the job at Livingston opened up. I presented a screening of my films and I was hired. I began teaching the students how to make films, 16mm films with optical soundtracks. Every student had a Bolex. It was so incredibly cheap it was unbelievable.
GF: And then you started teaching at Rutgers?
WWD: I taught at Livingston from 1969 to 1972. I went to Rutgers in '72. I was just basically projecting there for two years. In '74 I started teaching there. I taught at Rutgers from '74 to '84, and I also taught at The New School in New York for one semester in there, too, in '83.
GF: Let's go back and start talking about your involvement in the Filmmakers' Cooperative.
WWD: I heard that the Filmmakers' Cooperative existed in New York City. I got on the bus and went into New York and gave them one of my films, around 1965 or so. They were located at 175 Lexington Avenue. I met Leslie Trumbull, then the secretary of the Coop, and I gave him a copy of one of my early films. Things were so informal, I just said, "I'd like you to distribute this. Here's the film. Here's a little bit of text about it." Then I left. I remember calling him up from Penn Station, saying afterwards, "We've never really discussed how much you're keeping, how much I'm keeping. What's the financial break here?" And he said, "Oh, we keep 25%, you keep 75%. You should have asked that before." And that was the beginning of that.
GF: So you were hanging around at the Coop and also the Cinematheque.
WWD: The Coop and the Cinematheque, which was then on 125 W. 41st Street, in the basement of the now destroyed Wurlitzer Building. I made a lot of films then.
GF: A lot of these films are really short. How would you describe them? Were they assemblage type of films? Did you use appropriated images or shoot them yourself? Were they structuralist? What kind of films were they?
WWD: Well, Gee Whiz (1966) was shot in color in 8mm, intercut with shots of planes blowing up and Michael Landon turning into a werewolf in I Was A Teenage Werewolf. Then I blew it up to 16mm and released it, without a track. The second silent film, 60 Seconds of the City (1966), was basically just a sort of Bridges-Go-Round (based on Shirley Clarke's film of that title) approach to New York City; footage of New York at the time.
Jon (1966) was a 45-minute film starring a guy named Chris Saia, and that was made in 1966. I shot that in Regular 8mm sound, with a Fairchild 8mm sound camera. This was sync sound, the standard 8mm Fairchild camera, and was then considered the technological marvel of the age. It had a magnetic stripe on the side of the film, and took 100' loads of 8mm film. The sound quality was terrible, but the camera was lightweight, and completely portable. The film was about a 16 year old kid and his problems in high school, highly autobiographical.
GF: It strikes me that it wasn't hard to get in on a scene. Was that partially because you were handy with technical equipment, or was it just a really open scene?
WWD: It was open scene. You could walk in the door, and if you were perceived as being useful, you were allowed to stay. That's basically it.
GF: Who were some of the other filmmakers hanging around at this time?
WWD: Shirley Clarke; I remember her being very kind to me. Gerard Malanga and I fell in very rapidly. Bob Cowan. Warren Sonbert. Jerry Hiler. Nick Dorsky. Jud Yalkut. John Dowd, a very fine collage artist in the school of Ray Johnson, was working at the Cooperative. Gordon Ball, also a filmmaker, was working at the Coop, as well. Marie Menken worked at the Time/Life Building. When I was working at the Time/Life Building, Marie Menken would come up and we would sit and talk. Ernie Gehr was working at the Cooperative. He began making films in Super-8 I later met Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, and Joyce Wieland.
I remember running some early reels for my film The Visionaries at Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow's loft in New York. Filmmakers would get together and have chamber screenings and run each other's movies. I mean, basically yov had a projector, and you had a wall. We'd all sit around and run each other's films.
GF: Experimental film now seems so incredibly competitive and so hierarchical. I can never put my finger on what kind of a scene it really was then. Did you all seem like kids running your films, having a good time? Or was it already becoming hierarchical?
WWD: The film scene, when I became aware of it in New York, was very nonhierarchical. Jonas Mekas was publishing his column in The Village Voice called "Movie Journal" saying, in essence, that "film should be open to all." There was a long period of the 60s, from '60 through '68, where valuations were not made; everyone was considered to be a creative artist with something to say. All styles and methodologies were encouraged; nothing was censored, and there were no "schools" of thought or practice.
One of the things that I've done in my book The Exploding Eye (1997) is to talk about the people who have been dropped by the wayside, people who were superb filmmakers but have somehow dropped off the radar. Rudy Albers, Rudy Burckhardt, Norman Berg, a lot of great people, some of whom have resurfaced. Yayoi Kusama, whose comeback after years and years of wandering in the wilderness. Valie Export. Carolee Schneeman. She was pretty notorious during that time. Charlotte Moorman, Steve Anson, Takahiko Iimura, people like that.
But then in 1968, Michael Snow made Wavelength. People were deeply impressed by the film and saw it as the first film which really played with the structural qualities of the motion picture image. It's a very sophisticated and accomplished work. There's no getting around it. But Wavelength suddenly became a model for all other filmmaking. Structuralism took over as a school and dominated independent production for all of the 1970s. Unfortunately, that's what really killed the 60s film scene more than anything else.
The critical establishment embraced formalism with a frenzy, and all other styles of filmmaking were thrown out. This marginalized a number of enormously valuable filmmakers, many of whom simply left the scene. Jerome Hiler, for example, never even exhibited his films; he had his first exhibition in 1995. He was making films from 1964 on, but he never screened them, or made prints of them. So, until 1968 it was an open scene. Suddenly it became a very closed scene. The minute the Filmmakers Cinematheque in New York City closed down, that was the end of it. It turned into Anthology Film Archives, at the Public Shakespeare Theatre, running a closed set of films called "The Essential Cinema," and suddenly, except for a few places like UP Screen, Millennium, and The Collective for Living Cinema, there was no place to show your films. So that put a real stop to the whole 60s film scene in Manhattan.
In the sixties we made films about people, about their lives, their concerns, their loves and passions. The seventies were very sleek and empty, more concerned with structure, form, and a certain kind of ascetic rigorousness. I didn't really care for it; I'm a romantic. It was also the height of disco, which was omnipresent in New York City in the early 70s, and which, of course, was absolutely brain dead. WKTU, "Disco 92," played disco around the clock; it was awful. Most people just followed the crowd to Studio 54, but that struck me as really dull and elitist. Everything I was against. But then CBGB's started putting on The Ramones, Blondie, Television, a lot of interesting New Wave bands, and that was something of a haven. But there was definitely a sense of paradise lost; it was just too good to last.
GF: Are a lot of your films autobiographical or artistic statements about autobiography? There were a number of other filmmakers who are working in this area.
WWD: Well, Jonas made single-frame diaries, Warren Sonbert made very lyrical diaries that were simply one reel tacked onto another, all shot on 100 foot loads.
And then, of course, Gerard Malanga. Gerard for me is perhaps the most brutally marginalized film artist of this period. He's remembered for all of the work he did at The Factory, and that was considerable, but that was just the surface. People know his work with Warhol, but they've forgotten In Search of the Miraculous (1966), or Preraphaelite Dream (1967). Gerard made extravagantly romantic, deeply moving films, but they're never shown today. I know he still has them; he's the complete archivist. I wish he'd put his stuff back in distribution, but of course, that's his choice.
GF: It sounds like romanticism went out, and as romanticism went out, a number of women filmmakers and a number of filmmakers who made diary films, films of personal experience rather than formalist films were left out by the critical hierarchy that was being formed in the early 70s.
WWD: Well, the most shocking example was Joyce Wieland. When Anthology formed "the essential works of the art of cinema," this was an attempt to close the canon and say, "for all times, certain people are in, certain people are out." This was something that I disagreed with then, and I still disagree with; it's reductionist, to say the least. Joyce Wieland was left out, Stan Vanderbeek was left out, lots of superb filmmakers were simply pushed aside, along with their work.
Stan Vanderbeek was one of the original experimental filmmakers who built the scene in the 1950s; he made so many beautiful films, and built his own movie theater, the Moviedrome in Stony Point, New York. He also was an early pioneer in video, and his cut out animated films had a deep influence on advertising and satire. But he was cut out from Anthology, and his films with him. There were a number of people whose works were eliminated by this process, and I think film history is poorer for it. But they're coming back. You can't keep them hidden forever.
GF: Let's go backwards and talk about that time when the film art scene was a love fest. I'm curious because I can't even conceive of a time when people shared equipment, shared time, shared values, the way you've talked to me over the years.
WWD: Well, I made my first sound film, Numbers Racket, in 1966. I took the tape soundtrack to a place called Manhattan Sound to get the soundtrack shot, as an optical soundtrack. They cut it, and then when they were through, they just put it in a can and said, "here, take it to the lab," and didn't charge me for it.
Another example: when I was in London in 1968, I wanted to make a movie but didn't have a Bolex. Through David Curtis at the New Arts Lab, I went over to someone's house and simply borrowed his Bolex. I went away and shot the movie, which I called Distance, and then I brought the camera back. Nobody would trust you to do that today. I remember I bought the 16mm raw stock for that film, 4 100' rolls of black and white negative film, for ten shillings each, which at the time was about $1.20. So the total production cost of that film was $4.80. The optical soundtrack cost nothing, and the film processing was eight bucks. The final print was $10 for a one-light 16mm composite print. $25 for a 12-minute 16mm sound movie. That kind of freedom doesn't exist any more.
We shared food. We lived a communal experience. You could crash at people's apartments by just calling them up and saying, "I need a place to sleep." People shared equipment, they shared talent, they shared time. People were allowed to be themselves, and we were all considered outcasts. We were all living on the margins of society. We were all engaged in work that most people thought was worthless. One big, happy, dysfunctional family.
GF: Would it be too much of misconstruction for me to say that perhaps you all thought of yourself as one being, one body, as one creative entity rather than so much of an emphasis being put on the individual artist into a hierarchical system where one is better or best?
WWD: No, I think that's absolutely accurate. I think we all thought of ourselves as making different kinds of movies, but that we were all part of one gigantic entity that was making movies together with a common purpose. We all thought we would live forever, that time was somehow frozen. We would never get older, and we would keep making art for the rest of our lives on the margins of society. There was Aldo Tambellini, Lloyd Michael Williams, and my God, who else? I shouldn't forget Piero Heliczer, who made films during this time in 8mm, "because it was as narrow as a gauntlet." Piero was a superb poet, and made extremely moving films; unfortunately, he was destroyed by the "end of the 1960s" phenomenon, and died a very tragic death. He was one of the first to run his movies at The Village Gate, and was a key player in the early days of the New York avantgarde. It was inexpensive to live in New York City. If you didn't mind living on the Lower East Side, you could rent an apartment for about fifty bucks a month. Can you imagine that today?
GF: I want to talk more about this whole issue about collaborative work of the community. It sounds as if, and I get the impression from reading and from living with you and talking with you for many years about this 60s underground film scene, that everyone worked as a movement together. Male, females, gay, queer, bisexual, people of color, white people, everybody worked together. But looking back through the history that's being written now, we get individual star narratives. We get a history that I don't think reflects accurately what you're telling me. For example, Warhol is pretty much written up as an individual artist. It sounds like his films were, came out of a collaborative process and a lot of people were involved in that process.
WWD: Warhol's films were a collaborative effort. Bud Wirtschafter assisted with the camera, Ron Tavel wrote many of the scripts, Gerard Malanga acted in them and turned Warhol onto many of the individual performers. But also, Warhol's films have come to stand for the 1960s underground scene, when in fact it's really a complete erasure of so many other people. For example, there's Scott Bartlett, who made beautiful films that mixed video and film, such as Off/On, and though his films had an enormous impact on the scene in San Francisco, they weren't embraced in New York. People who were working in video in the early 60s were seen as being somehow less pure, and there was a peculiar debate about video being less "legitimate" than film. People didn't even want to have their films previewed on film because video was such a "debasement" of their art. So video/ film mixes were inherently suspect. Of course it was all nonsense, but at the time, people took it very seriously.
But in the early 1960s, all of the experimental films were a collaborative effort to some degree, and nobody made any money. These films could be complete features, like Peter Emanuel Goldman's Echoes of Silence, which was made for roughly $1,600. Goldman shot the film silent, and then used scratchy records from his own collection for the soundtrack, because he couldn't afford new copies. Yet Echoes of Silence was shown at the New York Film Festival, and Jean-Luc Godard, Amos Vogel, and Agnes Varda praised it as one of the greatest films of the festival. Ron Rice's The Flower Thief was made in 1960 on fifty foot loads of aerial gunnery film left over from World War II.
GF: When we look back at art cinema, experiment cinema of the 1960s, we tend to look for artistic firsts or something that's unique to individual artists. Ways of using the medium in a different way. Is that they way you were looking at it then? Who could push the limits the furthest, who could embrace stakes, who could ignore commercial filmmaking rules?
WWD: Everybody wanted to develop his or her own individual style. Bruce Conner was the collage filmmaker; he made all the films out of clips from old movies. Kenneth Anger made films that were involved with the homoeroticism of the motorcycle gangs, and basically that was his scene. Jud Yalkut made films that were about light shows and video, and he was working with Nam June Paik and other people, like the USCO light show group. There was also the idea that every frame was precious. Experimental films in the 1960s films were extravagantly sloppy, especially Jack Smith's films, or Robert Nelson's stuff. These films refused to be contained. Leader streaking, punch holes, scratching the film, baking it: anything was permitted.
GF: Your films are unbelievably dense. What was the reaction from your friends, colleagues, peers, other filmmakers to your films?
WWD: My films were perceived as an assault, which was fine, which was the way I intended them. I always ran the soundtracks very loud. I remember being told to turn them down many times, but I never did. But, of course, my favorite band of the period was The Velvet Underground, and their motto was "turn it up." I remember Takhiko Iimura made a film called Shudder, in which he used strobing black and white alternating frames on the screen, like Tony Conrad's The Flicker. But it had a sound track that was very abrasive, bursts of loud sound interspersed with complete silence. I remember it was screened at one of the New York Avant Garde Film Festivals, which in this case took place on a tug moored in Lower Manhattan. Jim Krell was running the projector. We put the film on and left the room for 40 minutes, because nobody wanted to watch the movie; it was just too intense. When the film was over we all came back into the room and changed the reel.
GF: Turning to your own work, how about we start off with In Crystal Towers?
WWD: Well, In Crystal Towers was shot in 1967 when I was 17. And it's in three parts. The first part is various different views of this cupola on the Highland Park High School, which is this great piece of Georgian architecture. I spent a whole summer morning photographing that. The second half was reedited footage of worldwide famine and disaster on the screen, while Walt Disney talked to a reporter on the soundtrack about his early animated features; I liked the contrast between the images and the track. The images were people dying and starving and getting shot while Walt Disney was talking about making an animated cartoon.
GF: Our National Anthem, 1968.
WWD: That's the one I ran for the Highland Park high school football team. The track wins The Velvet Underground performing "European Son for Delmore Schwartz, " which was mostly just screening feedback. I used every piece of stock footage I could lay my hands on, in addition to footage that I had shot, the high school pep rallies intercut with youth rallies.
GF: Where did you get the Nazi stuff?
WWD: Somebody gave me 1,600 feet of Hitler youth rallies. They just gave me the film one day at a laboratory. The owner said, "Would you like these Hitler youth rallies?" and I said, "You bet." I also intercut a 1940 version of "Our National Anthem" with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in it, TV commercials, China Doll footage, academy leader, anything at all.
GF: Let's talk about Three Day Night (1969).
WWD: Three Day Night was shot in three days and a night in 1969, on 12 100' rolls of Dupont Superior 2 B/W negative stock. The film stock, of course, was outdated. I shot it as fast as I possibly could. The cast included my friends Michael Downey, Joseph Seigh, Rich Mahr, David Hildreth, and Donna Hildreth. I scored the film to Howard Hanson's "Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth." It was made for $100, total. I printed the negative as the final image. There were long stretches of complete silence, and then the music would come back in again. It was a quietly melancholy film, about walking through life and walking through adolescence.
GF: People think of the 60s as one big love fest, and forget that a lot of the environment of the 60s was extremely repressive.
WWD: It was illegal to be gay. It was illegal to be gay in New York City. This was way before Stonewall. It was a love fest in a way, but it was a love fest taking place at the time of the Vietnam War.
Something I want to mention here before I forget is that in 1970 I created a piece with Michael Downey, Philip Cohen, and Dennis Druzbik in which we destroyed 27 television sets on this stage in Scott Hall at Rutgers University. This was a reaction to the way that the media was projecting the images of the Vietnam War in the news. We spent the whole summer collecting television sets, and formed a band called Figures of Light. We gave one performance only, in which we destroyed the 27 television sets with pick axes and sledge hammers, along with some mannequins and some large mirrors. We started the performance by driving a motorcycle down the hallway on to the stage, and smashed a record player playing American in Paris. An entire audience of 200 people in Scott Hall leapt on the stage and destroyed everything. Afterwards, we threw all the trash into this huge truck that we had hired to take everything away to the dump.
GF: Let's talk about Wedding (1969).
WWD: The total cost of that movie was ten bucks. It was one black and white reel of film. David Hildreth was marrying a woman named Donna. We shot the film; it just documented that one particular day in a 100 foot take. There were no cuts at all in the reel. It just went straight through. I scored it to Gabriel Faure, and I was very pleased with it. It's just three minutes long.
GF: Quick Constant and Solid Instant (1969-70). The track was by Gerard Malanga, and it contains a "flux mass" by the Fluxus Group? What's that?
WWD: Gerard came out and did a poetry reading at Rutgers and also showed his film The Recording Zone Operator, which he shot in 35mm sync-sound Technicolor / Techniscope in Rome, but never finished. We ran the black and white workprint with a tape track. I've always loved The Recording Zone Operator; it stars the Living Theatre troupe and Anita Pallenberg; it's sort of an early version of Wings of Desire, but it's only been shown twice in public. During his poetry reading, I recorded a soundtrack of him reciting "A Last Poem: Tentative Title," and that became the track of Quick Constant and Solid Instant.
The visuals are of a Flux Mass at Douglass College, at Voorhees Chapel, performed by the Fluxus group. Dancing gorillas were smashing cardboard coffins, priests with a .45 were shooting blanks at the audience, saying "bless you." BAM! "Bless you." BAM! Exlax cookies were handed out to the audience, who ate them and had violent cases of the runs. Lots of children were dancing in the aisles and sitting on the necks of the gorillas. It was a very joyous and life affirming spectacle, the kind of thing that's seemingly impossible today. John Wallington's paintings were in there, and Rod Townley, the poet, is shown on his motorcycle at the beginning of the film. This was shot on film that was 20 years out of date, but we used it. It was just amazing. We would just shoot anything. You had to. You know, raw stock that's been through a fire. Whatever we could put in the camera was used; we had no money at all. Happily, that film still exists.
GF: The DC 5 Memorial Film, from 1969, was also shown at the 8 1/2 Film Festival in New York in 1969. You call it a memorial to Tony Richardson movies.
WWD: The DC 5 Memorial Film is one of my favorite films. The soundtrack is Charles Ives's 4th Symphony, 4th Movement. Basically, it's in four parts. It opens up with rephotographed home movies from my 1950s childhood, in which I'm climbing in and out of a fallout shelter in Connecticut, in a leopard skin Halloween costume. That goes into some footage of my friends walking in the woods, and then into footage of a big, all out party I shot at The Sanctuary, a nightclub in an old renovated church. For this sequence, I ran the reel through the camera 10 times, with the lens stopped all the way down. There's also footage of John Dowd in there, with his incredible museum of 1960s memorabilia, and then John himself at the very end of the reel, signaling the viewer with a light in a rather ominous manner; it suggests that all we've seen is about to end.
This evaporates into white leader, and drifts into the final sequence in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, in which the five women walk through the top level of the building, photographed with available light. They'd just come back from a Peace rally in Washington D.C., protesting the Vietnam War. We just shot them just being alive while everybody around them was dead. My favorite shot in the film is near the end when the women are all hugging each other on the escalator, just acting with a sort of animal, feline grace. Again, I think it cost about $50 to make, complete to final print, for a ten minute, color, sound film.
GF: Devotion for Travelers (1969)?
WWD: That was a really beautiful movie; that's one of the movies I'm really sorry doesn't exist anymore. It was shot in 1969. The poet Rod Townley, who was a friend of mine, received a commission (and this will give you some idea of how the 60s operated) to drive a sports car from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles in 2 1/2 days, but only if we could get it there in 2 1/2 days. I couldn't drive at that point, so I just took along the Bolex. We left from Philadelphia; we stayed up all night the night before, and then got in the car and drove. The first night we stopped in Nashville, the second night in Albuquerque, and the last night, we got to Los Angeles. Rod delivered the car, and I took off for San Francisco, because LA seemed dull and dangerous.
When I got to San Francisco, I looked up a guy named Terry Barlow, whom I hadn't seen in years and years, and just walked in on him unannounced. The trip was shot in black and white, and the other stuff in color negative. I shot Terry Barlow in Golden Gate Park, doing an improvised dance next to a carousel. Roughly seven minutes long, color, sound; for many years, this was my most popular film, until Serial Metaphysics came along.
GF: We talked a lot about the films from the 1960s. You were quite busy right now, right? Finishing high school, teaching, making films, hanging out at in New York, doing draft counseling. Did you hang out at Warhol's Factory a lot?
WWD: I was never really a fixture at The Factory. I really hung around at The Factory for just two years, in late 68 and 69. The person who brought me into The Factory more than anybody else was Gerard. Actually, I was more interested in Gerard's work than I was in Warhol's. He was just at The Factory, so that's how I came to be at The Factory. And also Warren Sonbert, whose early work I really loved. We were all romantic filmmakers, so we all felt a real kinship to each other. But, yes, during that period I was going to high school, I was also hanging out at The Factory, I was writing at Life magazine, doing draft counseling, and making a lot of movies. I lived in London during the summer of 1968, which was absolutely gorgeous. Then I started teaching at Livingston College in January, 1970.
GF: What about London Clouds (1970)?
WWD: London Clouds was shot in the summer of 1970, and that was about a young boy who dreams of immortality. That still exists, in fact. It's a very straightforward film, one image dissolved into the next, all very carefully done. It has titles that appear over the various different images identifying one space as an open field, one scene as a legend, one scene as a dream; it's a very peculiar film. It's only about four minutes long. Phil Cohen helped me with the soundtrack on that.
GF: I guess that would bring us up to Serial Metaphysics, 1972, which was shown at The Whitney Museum in 1973 and then again in 1974. It was also shown at the Oberhausen Film Festival and several other film festivals.
WWD: Serial Metaphysics is my only film in which I did not shoot anything, not one frame of original footage. It was all found materials. I traded a print of a movie called When Comedy Was King for 72 hours of television commercials. It was edited in a single night, New Year's 1972. I was riding around on the Rutgers intercampus bus, and I was bored. So I went over to Livingston College, where I had a film editing setup.
In a single night, I edited those 72 hours of commercials down to the 20 minutes that is Serial Metaphysics. It is a very beautiful film, and my editing skills at that point were really razor sharp. I cut the whole thing with a Moviscope, which is just a silent film viewer, and a pair of rewinds. About a week later I composed the soundtrack on a reel-to-reel recorder in the mixing studio with some help from Jeff Travers and Phil Cohen. I sent it to The Whitney Museum of American Art while I was teaching at Livingston. I was pleasantly surprised when David Bienstock, who was then the curator at The Whitney, called me up and told me he wanted to run it. It's all about the American commercial vision that offers you of an endless dream of a life of plenty, security and happiness, and how this dream is merchandized, especially to children.
The images in Serial Metaphysics that I think that are the strongest are the images of beauty, and the way that they're underscored and repositioned. One woman looks impassively at the camera, and then suddenly blows a huge bubble of bubble gum. Towards the end of the film, a group of children are playing organized sports at a school. When they go back to classes, we discover that the school is really a prison, and they're all locked into individual cells. Everything in Serial Metaphysics is for sale. The way that I made films at that time, I would think about them for a week or two and then I would make them. And this, I thought, this is what I'm going to do with the commercials. And suddenly, the structure for Serial Metaphysics came to me out of the material. You look for the structure that arises out of the material.
GF: Okay, let's move on to Tightrope, 1972.
WWD: Tightrope, which still exists, was shot at Indian Lake, New York, where Jon Voorhees was building a summer house. It's single framing of the house, and it's a very concisely constructed evocation of the group of us living communally in the house at the time. That film really summed up the essence of single frame for me. The single frame format could be serene at the same time that it compacted an enormous amount of information. It didn't have to be nervous or jittery.
GF: One dramatic concern that I see throughout a lot of films that you're talking about is a voice of the everyday. Not necessarily the mundane everyday, but celebrations. Weddings. Feasts. Parties. Is this different from other filmmakers of the time period?
WWD: No, I don't think so. We were all seemed like one extended family, and we all took care of each other. I remember in the summer of 1973, I hitched out to San Francisco and spent the summer with Jerry Hiler, Nick Dorsky, and Warren Sonbert, again with no advance warning, just turning up at Jerry's door. I was so exhausted I fell immediately to sleep, and when I woke up a day later, Jerry had done all my laundry and put it next to my bed. We went to this enormous party in the hills, and sat there drinking wine and screening movies, and it was just a beautiful, relaxed event. I remember Warren photographing that, asking me to look off in the distance dreamily. There was a sense of the carnivalesque in the everyday, the special moments that make living really something really inspirational.
GF: I think that's remarkable about your films. They seem to celebrate life, commonalities, the fun of filmmaking and being a part of a scene. I guess in some ways many of your films remind me of the early work of Barbara Hammer. She seems to have been equally involved in romanticism, which I think to a large extent was devalued when formalism in film became the fashion.
WWD: I think you're right. Looking at Barbara Hammer's film Nitrate Kisses, that's essentially what I was trying to do in my films.
GF: Where did you screen your films during this period?
WWD: All the films that we made during this period could be shown anywhere. My favorite place to show films at that time was outdoors on a sheet tied between two trees in the summertime. Everybody would be sitting around, drinking beer and eating food, and we'd wait for the sun to go down and then we would run them on the sheet. Greg Sharits, who is somebody I haven't mentioned, who ran the Cinematheque in 1968 or so, was the person who encouraged me to run as many images as possible. And to not be so, shall we say, structured in the way that we looked at images, at the way that used images. I remember I did the projection along with Rudy Albers on a public performance of his films called Silent Music at the Cinematheque. We had two hand held 8mm projectors, and we used them to project images on the screen or onto people in the audience.
GF: Back to a piece in which you used stock footage. Arrivadernci Roaches. You shot that in August, 1970. You write that it "involves the ignominious death of 10,000 roaches." What was that about?
WWD: Arrivadernci Roaches, which we spelled Arrivadernci, not Arrivaderci, was a rather bizarre comic film. Basically, we were living at a house at 42 Remsen Avenue in New Brunswick, NJ; I was the superintendent of it. It was falling apart, but I got to live for free on the top floor, and for one summer, it was OK. But in the basement, there were so many roaches that they were crawling over everything and everyone. So we finally had to call the exterminators. The night before we brought in the exterminators, we all gathered in the basement and sang choruses of (singing) "Arrivadernci roaches, good bye goodbye to roach," to the tune of "Arrivaderci Roma." We ripped down various different wails in the building while we were filming, and you could see literally thousands of roaches climbing over everything. It was one minute and thirty seconds long, so I think that's about right.
GF: Flash Trendy (1971)?
WWD: Flash Trendy was one of my favorite films of this period. It was shot in the spring of 1971. Jon Voorhees and I were making a film for the city of Newark on educational programs for young African-Americans. It's also about the making of the documentary film, and also documents Ray Davies and the Kinks appearing at Philharmonic Hall the night that Ray Davies was so drunk that he knocked over all the amplifiers. It's a very, a very beautiful film in the sense that it really captures all of my friends. It's closest to a film like Alfredo Leonardi's The Book of Saints of Eternal Rome. But again, it's disappeared.
GF: One thing that's been bothering me throughout this entire interview is the fact that you say over and over again, "I have no idea what happened to this film," or, "I threw this film out." How could you be so cavalier with your work? Was it that you didn't value the films, or that the films themselves weren't valued by the critical establishment in the 1970s?
WWD: With the closing of the Cinematheque in New york, as I mentioned, it was harder to get shows of your work. So after 1970 I didn't do so many screenings in New York. Well, for many, many years these films were lying in storage, and it became an enormous burden. I wanted to get rid of the past. So, one morning, I threw out about twenty boxes of original 16 and 35mm film negatives and tracks in the trash, and that was the end of that. Many of the films we've talked about, plus a bunch of others we haven't, including outtakes and other materials I'd collected over the years. Interviews with Harry Smith, Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton; a whole bunch of stuff. I had mixed feelings about it even as I did it, but it just seemed like it was time to say "everything must go."
GF: You threw them out?
WWD: I know, it's shocking, but I'd dragged them around for thirty years, and I was tired of it. Also, I recalled Bunuel's observation that he wouldn't be in the least unhappy Wall his films were destroyed; film is essentially ephemeral, anyway. So it seemed like a cleansing act. The past can smother you, and inhibit you from moving forward, so I always had this strangely ambivalent approach towards archiving my work. Some of the films we've been discussing are short, minor films. But when we get to something much more ambitious, I am annoyed that I didn't hang on a little longer. But these are choices you make, and you can't go back. Some of these films; I don't really care. Others, I regret not taking better care of.
GF: Can we talk about Damage (1974)?
WWD: Well, the end of the 60s were an enormous shock for me, as they were for so many other people of my generation. Warren Sonbert left New York for San Francisco and never came back; he continued making films in San Francisco for many years, and then, of course, he died. Gerard Malanga left The Factory in 1970 and eventually founded his own archive, which is now located in Brooklyn. A lot of people gave up making films. The cost of film suddenly went through the roof. Video came in, and people began shooting that instead of film. 1969 was a really pivotal year. The 60s were a very protected period where even people who couldn't get along in the real world could survive in New York City. The 70s were the cutoff point. So basically that was the end of the era. Damage came out of that. It's a structural film, in a way; a barn takes four minutes to explode, frame by frame, from a sequence that really runs about six seconds. Scored to Bach; it's a rather inexorable metaphor for the end of the New York era.
GF: Even though the community of the 60's experimental scene fell apart, it seems like you managed to hold together some sense of community, and you also found your own voice as an individual artist with Un Petit Examen (shot in 1974; released in 1976).
WWD: Well, the full title is Un Petit Examen, and Not So Damned Petit Either, or The Light Shining Over the Dark. John Vasilik and Jim Krell shot the film with me. The three of us comprised the crew for the whole film; we shot something like 6,000 feet in 16mm in two days flat. It's a very heavily autobiographical film. Un Petit Examen is a really complicated movie. I worked on that film with Kevin Fitzgerald, Peggy Tompkins, and Bryan Hildreth as the actors; it's a film about a young man coming to terms with his father's unexpected death, and his son, who attends an upper crust boarding school.
During this period, I worked part time at Rainbow Film Effects in New York; I did all the special effects for Un Petit myself on an Oxberry printer, which I learned how to operate. But all the raw footage for Un Petit was shot in two days flat with Vasilik and Krell. We drove across three states, and did about fifty set-ups a day, all in sync sound, using an Eclair NPR, which was a breeze to shoot with. The miracle is that 90% of it came out; we had only had to do one evening of pick ups for the final sequence, which we shot about two months later.
GF: Do all your films have a common theme?
WWD: I believe that every filmmaker makes the same film over and over again. Every novelist writes the same novel over and over again, and all painters pursue one theme throughout all their work. I really think that all artists have one basic theme that they pursue. When I look at them, my films are about community, loss, and regeneration.
GF: Dana Can Deal (1976)?
WWD: Dana Can Deal is basically about a boy I saw at a summer camp in Indian Lake, New York, a brain-damaged young boy who was staring at the lake and wondering if he jumped into the lake, would he drown or something. Suddenly he jumped off the edge of the diving board with great force into the river and swam very quickly back. His name was Dana, and I said, "Boy. It looks like he can really take control of that situation." And a friend of mine said, "Oh, yeah. Dana can deal." So basically what it means that no matter how damaged you ale, perhaps you can still deal with life.
GF: Madagascar, or Caroline Kennedy's Sinful Life in London (1976)?
WWD: This is a short film based on an incident I read in the National Enquirer, a really innocuous item about Caroline partying late at night with Erskine Guinness, the heir to the Guinness Brewery fortune. I imagined Caroline waking up the next morning, recovering from the excesses of the night before, and trying to mix some orange juice in a blender, but being so out of it that she used three cans of gin instead of water to make the concentrate into OJ. It's an odd film; runs about 1:30.
GF: Some of your most significant films to date, and they still exist. The Diaries (begun 1976; completed 1985) is composed of footage from 1966 to 1976, is that correct?
WWD: The Diaries is a split screen movie. It has two projectors running at once, at least for most of the film. I was influenced here by Warren Sonbert's later films. What Warren did was something that infuriated everybody that knew him, and in fact still infuriates people today. He made early films like The Bad and the Beautiful, and The Tenth Legion, and then he would re-edit them into other films later. But he wouldn't preserve any copies of the originals, which would then cease to exist. I did the same thing.
The Diaries was an attempt to reshape material that's in my early films; I decided to go into the cutting room and just put the stuff together. It's really all of the key moments, I think, from all of the films that I no longer felt were individual entities or didn't deserve to be, or weren't strong enough, compiled into two reels. I edited it around 1976. It's really an evaluation of all of my experiences in life up until that period.
I also want to talk about An Evening with Chris Jangaard or The Decline and Fall of 1960s London. This was shot in 1974 at the exact same that I was making Un Petit Examen, with the same equipment. Chris Jangaard, who was a friend of mine, was about to be deported to Sweden. He'd lived in London during the height of the 1960s madness and knew everyone in the scene during that period. It seemed valuable to me to have an oral history of Chris, and I'm very glad I did it. We had the equipment sitting around from Un Petit, and about 2,000 feet of outdated film, and in one night, right before we went out and shot the last day of Un Petit, we shot 2,000 feet of Chris talking about his life in three hours. Jim Krell and John Vasilik shot the film; I interviewed him. The very next day, the INS showed up at Tech Hi-Fi, where Chris worked, and took Chris straight to the airport, and I never saw him again.
In 1976 I went to Hollywood and got involved with TVTV, which was a pioneering video commune. I became their sort of editor in residence. Harold Ramis was with that group, along with Bill Murray and Michael Shamberg, all at the very beginning of their careers. This was when I flirted with the idea of going to Hollywood. I was an editor on the Bob Dylan Hard Rain special, which was edited by a lot of different people and, which got shown on NBC. I edited most of the TVTV series that ran on PBS called Supervision, and I edited a special 90 minute show called The TVTV Show for NBC, starring Debra Winger, Gerrit Graham, Bill Murray, and lots of other now-famous people, which was TVTV's last major commercial effort.
Editing The TVTV Show was the most brutal thing I've ever done in my life, because it brought home the difference between editing your own stuff and editing other people's material. If you're editing your own work, you're pleasing only yourself. In this particular case, I not only had to please Michael Shamberg and Alan Myerson, the director, but also the actors, who would wander in and make suggestions, and the NBC network censors. Endless recutting. Certainly I've cut many of my films multiple times, looking for different densities, different values. But the values that they were looking for were lowest common denominator values. This is when I began to learn Hollywood comedy editing: here comes the joke, this is the joke, that was the joke. I hated it, and that's when I realized that Hollywood and I were working on entirely different value systems, which is even truer today. So I left, and I'm not sorry I did.
For the last 20 years I've been mostly doing writing. But in 1993 I shot a feature film, What Can 1 Do?, starring Anna Lee. The film presented the story of a woman who holds a group of people in her apartment captive overnight, and insists that they listen to her life story. Anna Lee's monologue is intercut with long sections of the script being presented to the audience in huge of texts that roll by on the screen. The other people in the film are essentially spectators, who have to listen to her talking. What Can I Do? was shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles, using a crew of my ex-students who are now working in the industry, and some of the crew members from the film Glory; Freddie Francis, whom I've known for several decades, was kind enough to introduce me to Steve Mathis as the DE and he was just fabulous.
It was nice to work with a really efficient commercial crew, who were also pleasantly surprised that I knew what I was doing and didn't waste their time. We shot Anna's close up first, about 96 minutes of that, and then the extras, and by the time we got to the dolly shots in the afternoon, and the close ups of people smoking, drinking wine and coffee and the like, it was obvious we were going to finish in one day. Altogether, we shot 20 400' reels in 10 hours, which is a lot of coverage. The editing was also quite easy; I cut it in one weekend at Ross Gaffney in New York and then used a music track by some mad Russians who came through one evening as a background. We mixed it the next day, in 35mm, and that was it. I sent a VHS copy to Larry Kardish at The Museum of Modern Art, and he loved it; he was instrumental in getting it screened there in early 1995.
GF: One of the most remarkable things about the film is that, as a viewer, you want to identify with her, but she's singularly selfish and a living emblem of colonialist, white supremacist values. But on the other hand, you are drawn into her struggle. It's a film that distances you at the same time that it draws you in.
WWD: She's endlessly sympathetic and yet very tragic towards the end of the film. And I was very pleased when Anna Lee agreed to do this script, because it was such a difficult script for her to do.
GF: What's next?
WWD: I have three new books coming out: Visions of the Apocalypse, Film After 9/11, and Straight: Constructions of Heterosexuality in the Cinema, and then a retrospective in the Spring of 2003 at the Museum of Modern art, put together through the kindness of Josh Siegel and Steven Higgins. MoMA has also agreed to archive the original printing materials for my films that still exist, which means that they'll be preserved, including the films for which only the prints survive, which are now classed as "originals," and need new internegatives, optical tracks, and release prints made if they're ever going to be screened again. The screening coming up at MoMA is the last public screening of my work; I'm donating everything to the archive.
GF: How do you feel about that?
WWD: Relieved. At this point, if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't throw anything out. I don't think. But I'm glad to leave the responsibility in other hands. The MoMA Film Preservation Archive is arguably the world's finest facility of its kind. They have all the originals and prints of my work, and I leave it to them to preserve my films for the future.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is Associate Professor of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln and Editor-in-Chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her most recent books include Performing Whiteness: Postmodern Re/Constructions in Moving Images (State University of New York Press) and The Experimental Film Reader (Routledge), co-edited with Wheeler Winston Dixon.
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|Author:||Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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