AN UTTERLY AMAZING and necessary series, “New York, 1962–1964: Underground and Experimental Cinema,” curated by Thomas Beard and Dan Sullivan at New York’s Film at Lincoln Center, comprises twelve programs of movies—short ones, long ones, and ones in between—all made by filmmakers living and working in New York in those years, all of them programmed at the time by the late Jonas Mekas at the peripatetic Filmmakers Cinematheque, all of them at least mentioned by Mekas in his Village Voice “Movie Journal” column, and almost all of them at one time or another distributed by the Filmmakers Cooperative. It was a world that few people knew existed beyond the filmmakers themselves, their good friends, and some devotees like me and my then-husband, the theater writer-director Richard Foreman. The two of us had wandered into a screening at the Charles Theatre on Avenue B in the late 1950s and, figuratively speaking, never left. People often ask me what it was like to see underground films in the early ’60s, and I always say that, most of the time, there weren’t many people in the audience, but I almost always saw something that excited me and changed what I thought a movie could be. I had always loved movies, but these were different. I can still feel their radical difference today, even as the internet and phone cameras have made the category of “avant-garde” or “experimental” ridiculously overpopulated. Perhaps one of the ways to define that difference is by the sense of risk one felt in these movies. You were aware that film was expensive, and it was a gamble every time you exposed a frame of 16 mm or 8 mm. You had to have a vision, stick to it, and then make what you ended up with cohere in a form that perhaps no one had ever seen before. These works were film-specific at a moment when the aesthetic of medium specificity had permeated every genre of artmaking. And because they are medium-specific, you haven’t really seen them if you’ve only watched them on YouTube or UbuWeb, where most of them look and sound like shit.
The series includes works that are part of Anthology Film Archives’ Essential Cinema collection; many of these show at Anthology about once a year. But many do not. This is a rare opportunity to see, for example, Jack Smith’s unfinished Normal Love—although it won’t be the adventure it was when Smith himself projected it, narrated it, and once forgot the take-up reel so the film (camera original) unspooled all over the floor. At 120 minutes, it occupies the entirety of Program Six, and on Saturday plays back-to-back with Smith’s masterpiece, Flaming Creatures, and Ken Jacobs’s Blonde Cobra, a film for which the term “underground” could have been invented. Among other rarities: Nathaniel Dorsky’s lyrical Ingreen, sharing a bill with Andrew Meyer’s Shades and Drumbeats and one of the most influential films in the history of gay cinema, Gregory Markopoulos’s Twice a Man. If you are unaware of the degree to which the history of avant-garde cinema is inextricable from the history of LGBTQ+ cinema, the films just mentioned—along with Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Andy Warhol’s Blow Job and Screen Tests (Reel 16), and Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth—make the case.
My advice: See everything, but if your time and financial resources are limited, use them on the aforementioned Christmas on Earth and Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World. For many years, Clarke’s film was only available in a scratched and torn 16-mm print. Happily, it is now restored in 35 mm, which is how it will be shown at Film at Lincoln Center. The first fiction feature to be shot entirely on location in Harlem, The Cool World was based on a novel by Warren Miller and adapted for the screen by Clarke’s frequent collaborator Carl Lee. It stars Hampton Clanton as a teenager who, heartbreakingly, gets caught up in a culture of gangs and guns. The film is as much a document of uptown street life just before the period of Black Power as it is an early landmark of American neorealism. The most transgressive and transcendent movie in the series and in the history of American underground film, Rubin’s Christmas on Earth is a double (superimposed) 16-mm projection, the smaller image framed inside the larger. The sound is a live radio (or was meant to be live radio), so that the past tense of the image would always collide with the present tense of the sound. Made when Rubin was only seventeen, the film is a direct, aggressive countermove to the phallic vision that dominated American avant-garde film, and movies in general. Christmas on Earth opens with a close-up of a vagina, its landscape spread across the larger of the two superimposed images so that it becomes both a spatial and temporal frame, and a centerpiece from which the action issues. Rubin had originally thought of calling the film Cocks and Cunts. Or vice-versa. There is no narrative, merely a series of sexual couplings seen in close-ups and long shots: men and men, women and women, a dog and a cat fooling around, occasionally a woman and a man. The action is filmed in two diametrically opposed styles. In one, bodies are painted black, with breasts and genitals outlined in florescent white, so that the couplings seem ritualistic. In the other, the lighting is bright and direct, and whatever mystery or eroticism has been suggested is thereby removed. A film that must be seen to be believed, it’s rarely seen due to the twin projector set-up. (Ignore bootleg DVDs; they’re worse than useless.) This Sunday at 2 p.m. might be your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“1962–1964: New York Underground and Experimental Cinema” runs at Film at Lincoln Center in New York from July 29 to August 4 and coincides with the Jewish Museum’s exhibition “New York, 1962–1964” and Film Forum’s series “1962…1963…1964.”