Showing posts with label Jonas Mekas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonas Mekas. Show all posts

Film Culture Vol. 1 No. 1



Film Culture Vol. 1 No. 1 (January 1955)



(images from Lost, Lost, Lost by Jonas Mekas)



Filmmaker Profiles



























One Breer, Please...

Re-posting this interview in light of the passing of yet another singular avant-garde artist, Robert Breer, R.I.P.

[the following was included in the No. 56-57 Spring 1973 issue of Film Culture]


JONAS MEKAS: I don’t know if it will work, but ideally I’d like to concentrate only on your last three films, 66, 69 and 70.  I think that they differ from all the others.  Or no?  What do you think?  Do they differ, for you?

ROBERT BREER: Yes, they do.  But you know, Form Phases IV is very much like those films.  Form Phases IV was made in 1956 or something, and tha was my last abstract film until the film 66 which was in 1966 or 1967.  In between, I made those collage and animated cartoons and people films.  66 was very much a return to Form Phases IV.  It’s a funny kind of retrogression, I guess. 66 was purely geometric, abstract.  69 was another abstraction; and then, 70.  They have numbers and they group together, developments of each other, I guess.

MEKAS: Most of your films before 66, I mean the period between 1960 and 1966, deal with certain collage areas-even the films with people.  They don’t go that deeply into the explorations, in a sort of minimal way, of color, the illusions of the eye, the…I don’t know how to describe it.

BREER: But that’s where I started.  My first film, Form Phases I, in 1952, as a matter of fact, it’s an abstract film.  That is an abstract film, and it came right out of my paintings and elements in it were taken from my paintings.  In fact, it was meant to be just an elaboration on the painting I was working on at the time.  I wasn’t really interested in film; I didn’t know if I was.  So now I am going back to that again.  I don’t paint anymore.  Oh, I fell into a certain dead end in the painting, at that time, and the neo-plastic ideal.  Films were very liberating, so I took advantage of it.  I wanted to see some things I’d never seen before.  Actually, those collage films were in the same spirit as the abstract paintings, trying to distill the essence of the medium.  For me, film was another medium that permitted mixing all this other extraneous stuff, ideas and words and configurative elements that I couldn’t justify putting in paintings anymore, and I was sort of trying to come to terms with conventional cinema as opposed to film, but still, very basically, abstract, you know, examining the material, what was possible in film.  So now, I’ve come back.

MEKAS: Parallel to your film work, you continued working on your moving sculptures.

BREER: I made paintings and films for about six years and I kept on painting.  Gradually, I stopped painting.  And then I went through a period when I cam back here from Paris, well, for maybe two or three years, when I didn’t do anything but films.  Then  I wanted to bring film back into… I got disoriented by the theatrical situation of film, by the fact that you have to turn out the lights and there is a fixed audience, and when you turn out the lights you turn on the projection light and you project the piece of magic on the wall.  I felt that this very dramatic, theatrical situation, in some ways, just by the environment of the movie house, robbed some of the mystery of film from itself.  My early sculpture was an attempt to make films concrete that could be seen in daylight.  Well, the kind of effect that I got out of flip-books, where you hold something in your hand and you flip three images together and they flow into one image.  And that is a very concrete situation.  It’s something you hold right in your hands, something that you are looking at in normal circumstances, under light, without sitting in a chair, or something, and art is always presented that way.  In a gallery, you walk around and look at it on the walls.  I couldn’t go back to static painting anymore after film-so I started making objects that had some kind of development in time and yet could be looked at as concrete objects.  So, I started making these bent wire objects and mutoscopes, flip cards.

MEKAS: You may be interested to know that there is now a screen invented which allows one to project films in bright daylight.  As a matter of fact, the brighter the room, the more clear the image will be.

BREER: Well, there is one already, it’s called television.

MEKAS: But this new screen is specifically designed for projecting films.  I don’t know the principle, but it was demonstrated half a year ago.

BREER: Well, I still felt a kind of remoteness between the projector and the screen.  The pleasure I get out of making drawings and then looking at those drawings immediately, is something I thought I lost somewhere in cinema.  It was made up for by these effects that you couldn’t get any other way, these collage effects, but I still felt a loss there and I wanted to get closer to the direct action of an artist or somebody making art, I guess.  Even a screen in daylight, when you can now get a very bright image, still seems to me that the image on the screen has gone through a mysterious process, it’s back in the booth some place.  So it’s trying to be concrete about cinema that got me into making sculpture, and the things that creep around on the floor came five years ago, I guess.  There was a period when I was searching around for something that would be the equivalent of what I thought was-I hate to use these words-mystery….and wonder…killing words…It’s a very fragile thing for me and I felt that it had to be distilled somehow and isolated and it had to be really strong; it ‘had’ to be.  It seems like a contradiction in terms, but they had to be singled out, with nothing extraneous around, just that phenomenon, and I don’t know how to describe that, I don’t know what it is, I guess it’s what people see when my things are successful, that’s what they get.  So that these things move around on the floor, just dumb objects, and all they do is just move around very slowly, and I try to keep it as simple as that.  There are a lot of ramifications, but I am not talking about film now, of course.
BREER: I am trying to explain the evolution, you know, back and forth between films.  I never quit making films, but I just change emphasis.  It’s something about the work habits that makes me go from film scale back to concrete objects.  It’s a kind of nice, stimulating process for me.  If I get bogged down in making objects, or somehow I come to a point where there is nothing going on, I can use this change of scale and material to revive my ideas.  There are some practical things about that, working in a small scale, the way I do with the films, just sitting in one place, and…It has a lot to do with the…kind of….declaring the limits to the means ahead of time so that then you can work within these self-imposed limitations and you don’t have to think about the limitations anymore.  In that sense, I guess, it’s kind of conceptual.  This is the effect that you are going to get…Like, I made ‘Breathing’ as a film.  A little self-consciously, I had a sing up, and I was working on the…I work in strange little rooms and places, I like to do that…to get myself a room some place and close to the door and sort of work in there….So, I had a sign for making Breathing, which involved making thousands of drawings over a period of a couple of months-and I had a sign which was going to be the title of the film, for a while-I’ll be damned if I can remember it exactly-I think it was: THIS FILM IS WHAT IT IS WHAT IT IS WHAT IT IS WHAT IT IS-and had the sign around and that was a reminder for me, as a kind of discipline that I didn’t refer to anymore after I wrote it, but it was there to remind me that I was making a really concrete film; I wasn’t going to digress; I was going to keep on making ‘direct’ film.  So it is a kind of compulsion to define my limits.

MEKAS: A “direct” film?

BREER: Well, in that case, I was drawing on cards and animating and the temptation, with my background, when I start drawing, is to let things flower out into other areas and make cartoons and bring in extraneous material, and so forth.  In this case, I decided that the limit was going to be…I was going to keep very close to direct, concrete imagery.  It is my own, private classification…I didn’t invent it, the term, but that was my meaning of it.  I guess, that the movement of that line, and its place on the screen, and its density, the rhythms, and so forth, were going to be the totality of the film, and I’d concentrate on that.

MEKAS: This is a silly question, but could you try to sum up, what, for you, cinema is, as opposed to painting?  Are those two directions, areas, clear?

BREER: I use the word “threshold” a lot, when I am thinking about what I am doing.  I have a notion about conventions or disciplines, they are inter-changeable words for me.  The sum total of the, let’s say, cultural history of the…
MEKAS: Yes, we were on the word “threshold”.

BREER: Yes.  Somewhere, in all my work, I tried to amaze myself with something, and the only way you can amaze yourself is to create a situation in which an accident can happen.  The accident is relative to what you’re trying to do.  It’s only an accident because it’s unforeseen.  And somehow it always gave me that opportunity.  It’s narrowing down now, in such a way that the accidents are smaller and smaller…That’s the terrible thing that happens with the kind of control that you have.  Still, it’s very important.  And that’s where I consider the threshold of what I know about a given medium and what happen when I violate that threshold at the moment I consider I am doing something worth pursuing.  So, every film has to get me interested, while I’m doing it.  This has to happen somewhere along the line.  It’s a notion, like…It’s probably an old idea about avantgarde, you know, about breaking ground and about defining limits of something by breaking those limits all the time.  I consider limits very important, if only to serve as a basis for rupturing, you know?  This is the only reason for doing this thing, it’s a matter of bringing life into something.  You break a leg and you know what your are made of; if you get sick, then you know what you are, or, maybe in a more positive way, if you have some great paroxysm of joy.  I mean, sexual revelation, all kinds of physical revelations, like that.  And in an art form, it takes a more formalistic…

MEKAS: Do you see any different steps in your work-can you group your work in some way, in groups?  Periods?  Technique-wise or subject-wise or threshold-wise..?

BREER: Yes, because I have tried a lot of different things, to amaze myself.  I guess, there are.  The first films were working out painting problems.  But my work habits are such that for a long time I used to alternate from one kind of film to the other-the other being an antidote to the one I just did.

MEKAS: From anecdote to antidote…

BREER: Yes.  The anecdote was one of the things that bothered me, so I used to alternate between them, I guess.  If you went back and looked at dates and things, you’d see that I went from collage things, very dense kind of, chopped up imagery, to something that I…that would serve least in working as an anecdote, and that’s when I got into the line…the flowing…the kind of floating through things.  And so I really alternated those types of films.

P. ADAMS SITNEY: You mean, did one collage, and then one…

BREER: Yeah.

MEKAS: When I say “groupings”, I don’t necessarily mean groups that are separated in time.  They could be overlapping.

BREER: That’s right.  They do.  They overlap; they almost alternate one after another.

SITNEY: When did you start the alternation?

BREER: Right at the beginning.  I went first from geometric films, in 1942, that first, little one, Form Phases I.  A lot of bad and successful experiments…I had to work through everything I had seen, too, and try everything I had seen.  So it started right at the beginning.  I went from that fairly rigid constructivist type film to using flowing inks, and so forth.

SITNEY: Which ones?

BREER: They are on ‘that’ reel…I don’t know if they are on ‘that’ reel.  Well, there were more Form Phases…Some of them are mainly titles…very out of frame, you know…unhappy lighting, and so forth.  But still, the basis was there.  Once I did that, O.K., enough of that…now it’s time to break up everything and do the other thing.  It got to be kind of a habit, doing that.  I don’t know how long you want to go on…

MEKAS: If you have time, we can run as long as the tape runs.

BREER: O.K… It doesn’t show very well on the films that I show normally, because I suppress a lot of films.  What I found was that when I make a film which I really like very much, I try to make a sequel to it.  And that was always…it was just the energy that I put into that film, the impetus of it it carried over into another footage which sometimes would be called, you know, a sequel to the previous film.  I mean, I’d have Recreation 2, which was a result of making Recreation 1, where I really tried to exploit what I discovered in that film.  Those were very self-conscious efforts and usually not as interesting as those first ones, and that stands to reason.  And so there is always that little film after the one that I considered good.  Then I’d throw all that out when I realized what I’d done.  Later on, I quite making those sequels, I’d just eliminate that stage.  I realized that that was my way of dissipating the energy by making a phony film…I’d just spend it out until it was really driven into the ground, then I’d start all over again.  It’s a strange business of self-hypnosis, you know.
    Generally, there is a shift, I guess, from the early geometric things to when I decided that maybe I could break out of these notions of plastic formalism altogether.  The cinema really provided an opportunity to forget about continuity, that’s one of the things about cinema which was there waiting for me, as a trap.  I decided, since I don’t know about continuity, I don’t have to think about it, and I’ll just put it out of my mind, and I’ll do it in a very methodical way, which was by fracturing, shattering the image so there wasn’t a flaw in it.
    So that the collage thing was a kind of deliberate-like the first ones, Recreation and the loops I made before that-were done really in a kind of deliberate feeling of wonderment: “What the hell will this look like?”  You know, that kind of thing, and “I don’t want to know, I can attach no value to it.  I don’t know whether this is cinema or not, it doesn’t matter.”  It was that kind of thing.  Then I go back and try to incorporate some notions of control and construction, and so forth.  I think Jamestown Baloos was a film where I felt I was riding kind of high on that film and mixed in everything, every discipline I could think of, very conspicuously, and would carry it off just on the level of drive and euphoria, and it would work because I’d will it to work, that’s all.  Then, after a more sober reflection, I’d go back to another film.  Then, there are films that I did out of…

MEKAS: Horse Over the Tea Kettle seems to me to be one of those films with several satellites…

BREER: All of them…A Man With His Dog Out For Air, I did it to celebrate the birth of a child, and also because Fanny way in the hospital, I had a week of being alone.  I worked very intensely…Those films are done deliberately very quickly, so that I don’t think about them.  They are done in…I don’t work in anger or anything like that.  I kind of work best when I am well fed and well screwed and everything…very peaceful, happy with myself and feeling quite congenial, and that’s when I work best.  Nothing works out of anger…

SITNEY: It seems, there are films, like Horse Over Tea Kettle and Man Out For Air, they look like they were made first on cards, or something, first on drawings and then film.  Other films look like they were made at the projector.

BREER:  There are cards, of course…This is the scale thing in cinema that intrigues me, and I don’t know what I means, but I started working on these small cards.  Man and Dog was made on regulation size 8x12-or whatever-sheets of paper.  The problem there was covering that amount of area in depth through several thousand images, it’s a lot of ink.  I scratched film too.  But it’s really against my better judgment.  I knew that the results would be limited to looking like every scratch ever made…So then I came to these cards, and I don’t remember how I discovered ‘that’ as the way of doing things-it seems very simple-minded, but certainly it was the right scale for me, because they allowed me to work very quickly and eliminated a lot of the…Oh, there are so many advantages, I don’t want to go into it, but working on cards, it was a beautiful thing that happened to me.  That, of course, makes the images look very direct, because of the scale-the line is blown up, it’s almost like a drawing on film.  Is that what you mean by having that kind of presence on the screen?  It does.  But the thing is that working on cards, you can work through five images, relate five images together, you know, the light would shine through five cards.  If you work on film, even 75mm film, at most, even with McLaren’s device of seeing, overlaying, you know, with the prisms seeing-two images one on top of other-you can’t do that.

SITNEY:  It’s not what I meant.  What I was asking is this: some of your films look like they are cleared out completely in advance.  The images were made on cards, or paper.  Others, like Recreation obviously were made while the camera was going.

BREER: I see. That’s right.  That’s a good point.  That’s what I was telling Jonas, before you joined, that I like to work in a room…The thing about film is that you can…I take a long time working out something, I refine it way down, I am very reductive in my work.  I sit and I look at them, at a box I’ve made, for days at a time, you know, until I’m absolutely at ease with it.  I might change something after a week or so.  With film, I like the same amount of control.  The interesting thing about film is that the act of filming sometimes can be very wild.  I permit myself full freedom with film because I know that I can chop it up later, or I won’t show it, I can burn it more easily, I can destroy it, or I can reconstruct it.  So that puts a kind of curb on this tendency to distill everything all the time, that’s what’s nice…

MEKAS: It’s funny-but yesterday I spoke to some writer who said she had just destroyed all her writings, and she said, if this would have been film, probably she wouldn’t have destroyed it.  She felt the writing was much easier to destroy….and film, she wouldn’t destroy, she thought.  And now, you say, you can destroy it because it is film.  Sculpture-you wouldn’t destroy that easily…So I am interested in these subtle gradations of destruction…

BREER: I mean, it’s harder to do away with it, you know.  More concrete, that’s what I was saying; one objection to film was that.  It’s playing off of this discipline, narrowing down, narrowing down, narrowing down….Sometimes it goes beyond the limit of felicity, you know, you get….it dies.  Well, with the film, you can chop off the dead extension of that kind of energy, or do it all over again. 

MEKAS: I will  go back to the attempt of grouping….I am curious that you don’t find that much difference between your last three films and the previous films.  I projected, yesterday, to a group of people, here, at Anthology, your film 69.  And I could talk about any other film, any film-but I practically couldn’t say a word about 69.  I don’t know how to approach it, or how to talk about it, although it may be my favorite film of yours.  I don’t know how to begin to talk about it.

BREER: I couldn’t talk about 69 either for a while.  Because I am one film beyond it.  I think 69 goes from a kind of very deliberate, repetitive opening sequence that seems to be very locked in on itself, and gradually disintegrates, right?  And it goes dark, and it ends dark.  Things break up completely.  Somebody asked me at the Flaherty Seminar or some place, what was the meaning of the last part of 69 when the flow that was previously there, on the screen, began to break into pieces?  And I said that that was the analysis of the synthesis.  I broke up those motions and actually shuffled the cards to get that effect, you know-I shuffle and shoot them, and I shuffle them again and I shoot them again…

MEKAS: It was done on cards?

BREER: Yes.  So then, I was analyzing the construction of the film.  That’s part of my idea about concreteness and exposing the materials of film itself and that was the way of doing it.  But I think that film…

SITNEY: When you shuffled the cards, how many frames did you take of each card?

BREER: Well, only one.  There’d be one or two, it depends.  Sometimes four, it’s something I decide while I am shooting.  This is what happens with age and experience…I’ve been working the same way for so long a time now that I finally have the shooting rhythms and the drawing rhythms and the screening rhythms sort of built in.  I know, if I hold this four frames…-I don’t think about it anymore, it’s reflexive, you know.  It’s not necessarily a good thing, but that’s what’s beginning to happen, and I can pretty well predict how it’s going to look now.  That is very bad.  This means I make pure films or I won’t make films after a while.  Because, as I say, I can’t surprise myself anymore without going out of my way.

SITNEY: Although you use cards, it seems the materials changed in the last three films, haven’t they?  66 is one material, 69 is another, and 70

BREER: Yeah.  It’s a question of getting the right image.  You know, all of those films are concerned with, or use, single frame alternation, working out, let’s say, interweaving, three different themes, maybe, by alternating the images of them, you know, until finally you can stack up about three or four things, like working on a fugue.  Instead of double exposing or overprinting all the material, I just alternate the frame.  I can do that, because I have frames in my hand.  Those cards are frames.  And so I am playing with a piece of film, really.  I am editing with individual frames. 

SITNEY:  The actual materials that you put on top of the cards seem so different.

BREER: In 69 I used the kind of self-sticking commercial plastic with different colors, called zippatone.

MEKAS: Your earlier films were not noticed much for your use of color.  Color is more noticeable in your last three films-subtle blues, and yellows…

SITNEY: You say you use zippatone-you cut the shapes out?

BREER: Yeah.  You use the knife and a rule for straight lines, and things that you are told not to use, in art school, but it takes the sentimentality out of the line, it takes the nerve out of the line, you know, lines are enervated, like the free flowing cartoon films.  And that has a certain quality I was trying to eliminate and so the films are more brittle, the edges are sharp.  Now, in the last film, I used pray paint, and a knife, so that the combination there is soft and hard.  You noticed, in the last film, some of the shapes dissolve into softer shapes.  Even if they have hard edges, the triangle turns into a lumpy shape.  And it is a kind of intellectual comment on the evolution of form, from geometric to organic that takes place in that film all the time.

MEKAS: I see that you are still using all the tools you used in painting and sculpture.  Now you use them to make films.  I think it’s funny.

BREER: I guess I do.

SITNEY: Was 69 hand-drawn?

BREER: Oh sure.  That was done with a knife and a straight edge for a straight line.  There are elements of free lines there, but very much reduced and eliminated.  You know, there are things you don’t see in the films, that I cut out.  I had one still reminiscent of the earlier films, incongruities that I put in to sort of define the film.  I have a feeling that , well, one you mentioned in 70, when that big dome shape, which is a slow zoom, approaches, it seems like it is incongruous, it is very disturbing, it’s something like a piece of dust in your eye, and you’re looking at the thing in the convention which is predictable, and then this thing comes in and it seems to be discordant.  I’ve always done that, that’s the basis of the first film, mixing things up and then…There are still leftovers of that in these films.  I have a feeling that it’s like…stepping off the screen or turning on the lights, so people know that they are in the theatre, it’s something to break up the format, so that you can better appreciate the format.  Otherwise you get absorbed into a discipline, you have no reference points anymore, except maybe to put your hands in your pockets or something, but I inject those things for myself.  It’s like taking the camera off the stand and walking outside with it in Fist Fight.  It’s a deliberate intrusion.  It’s for myself.

SITENY:  But in general, in Fist Fight, there were more intrusions.  Fistfight wasn’t made on cards, was it?
BREER: No, that was every size, every format.  I decided then that that was too…as an antidote to a film I made before, I’ve forgotten which.  BreathingBreathing I shot over-I shoot these films over.  Breathing I shot four or five times in 16mm.  I edited it and then I arranged the cards the way I wanted.  I took it into town and rented a 35mm camera for one day; I shot something like, I don’t know how many frames, over 8 thousand in a day, for ten hours without even standing up.  I never made a cut in the film.  All the images were in exact order.

MEKAS: You mean, you used it as is, in big chunks?…

BREER: It was all shot in one day.  But I had shot it several times before, and I went back and edited my images, so that when I got back my 35 print, I didn’t have a splice, which is a kind of tour-de-force.  I don’t know why I did it that way.  I think I am just more at home with the cards, and no reason to cut film if I can…you know, I feel it’s kind of artificial that way…

SITNEY:  With Fist Fight, did you cut the film or did [sic] it directly?

BREER: Oh yes, sure.  I always, you know, edit a lot.  But with ‘Breathing’ it was also money saving.  I wanted the quality of 35.  So I made sure that I could do it very quickly.

SITNEY: But Fist Fight seemed to consider all the techniques-cartoons, and collage, and…

BREER: That’s the throwback to Jamestown Baloos.  All my films refer back and it might take a few years to finish them.  I think everybody must do this.  So now I have gone back to Form Phases.  I have no interest in Form Phases at all now.  But I just notice that there is this, after all these years, this funny kind of connection.  As if all other stuff drops out of sight.

SITNEY: But there is something in Jamestown Baloos that I haven’t seen in any other films, that tri-part structure.

BREER: Yeah.  It was a triptych.  And I was actually thinking in terms of the triptychs that I had seen, I guess, in Germany.  You know, they fold, they close, and I think there is one in a Northern German town (Lubeck), in a big church there…I don’t know whose it is, maybe a medieval German artist-it’s black and white on either side and color in the middle, and this was, I think, the basis for making Jamestown Baloos that way.  Three parts.  The color is silent, and the other two parts have sound on them.  So that the film is…the idea was that it’s a completely symmetrical piece of film, it has no real beginning or end, you could close the black and white things in…I think of the films as objects sort of, rather than continuities.  You should be able to hold them upside down.  But that is not true, you can’t show them backwards, it wouldn’t make any sense…I think of them as blocks of time, in which no time takes place.

SITNEY: It seems to me that Blazes and Form Phases came together.  The shape of one and the speed of the other, and something new is born of that union in the last three films.  But each of the three films, they seem to be quite different.

MEKAS: You didn’t play before with the screen itself.  But in your last three films, you seem to make the audience conscious of the screen and of the space into which we are looking, in some way.

BREER: Well…For one thing, in 69, I was flowing those things way back into space, and yet it is a flat screen.  The first time I was making films, the idea was that I could accept film on the basis that the screen was a flat plane.  And that was a painting discipline brought over to film.  It was a flat plane on which things took place as they do on paintings, the whole neo-plastic ideal, which came out of cubism, I guess.  Concentration, awareness, and even a heightened use of the picture plane.  You know, Cezanne shuns the use of perspective; he permitted himself to go behind.  Well, if he went behind the plane a certain amount, you have to come forward a certain amount, to finally locate that plane right on the wall, and that was the idea of painting as a concrete object.  Picasso slapped a newspaper on the Cubist painting; that declared it was an object independent of its references.  And, of course, this was brought into film, from the neo-plastic disciplines of Mondrian.  I think any art discipline, or any kind of expressive disciplines are arbitrary.  They are useful at the time, as a means of explaining oneself to oneself or whatever it’s all about, but, they’re perfectly open to complete violation.  I don’t think there is any sacrosanct-I don’t believe, in other words, the picture plane is…It’s an interesting concept.  It’s valid if it’s done right.  The truth is somewhere in how it’s done, not in itself as some kind of moral edict, you know.  What the hell is wrong with the hole in the wall?  So when these things are flowing back in space, they’re still on the white surface and they’re drawn things, so maybe, it’s a violation of a principle that I used for a while, and that’s what you’re talking about.  But I still…..Oh, blah-blah-blah….Jesus!

Mekas:  This talk was not intended to be a methodical, chronological discussion anyway.  I wanted to ramble around the margins of your work.  So it’s fine to blah-blah-blah.

BREER: The…One gets seduced by ideas.  Like Andy’s approach to the turned on camera, a one-to-one time ratio thing.  It’s a marvelous cleansing kind of thing.  My God, it seems like the most obvious thing-the best things always are-and, for me, it was a very cleansing thing, because…You know, the time when you are working on an animated film, the time ration between the amount of work on images…the scale of working from small things are eventually shown at my dimension, large or small, which we don’t have much control over-from all thse little drawings, it takes you a day to do one second…All these things you have to come to terms with, somehow.  It means that the film discipline, animated things, for all your control, you’re really giving up a lot.  Unless you finally come to terms with that.  And that’s what I’m trying to do.  I am trying to make sense, biologically, or kinesthetically, with myself, between what comes out on the screen and how much time I put into it.  I don’t know if it’s a matter of just developing a rationale for that, or actually making some kind of time connection.  So that when I do, when I work for a year, in a little room, to make a film, and I shoot it all on one day and then it’s projected for twenty years after that on different sizes of screen-I am aware that this is all; I did it all at first, in that one room.  It become direct.  It seems like the long way around, but I don’t know another way.  But that’s why these dumb creeping things of mine, I spent a year and made thirty pieces.  I had to run them all day long.  I make one and add it to the others, and I kept adding, and it was one big piece, like a tapestry which got bigger and bigger, and they’re all related to one another.  I can only work on that with all the others running around me.  I kept expanding out from the one thing I started with, and it bothers me when I think that they are all dispersed somewhere in different places and that they’re not running and, you know, all destroyed now, really.
…Well, it’s this tremendous scope of possibilities of cinema.  Brakhage’s view of…encompassing the universe, you know…I don’t know, I have to quote you, from your lecture (to Sitney)…but the romantic ideal, the cosmic view…of incorporating the whole world in the film…Whether you use the word “world”, “universe”, the symbol like that…

MEKAS:…or that little room in Palisades, New York…in which all those things are put together…

BREER: …I think there is this compulsion, I think you are right.  What you’re defining, the kind of cinema, Brakhage and Blake, the poet-are cases of self-consciously doing this and incorporating signs and symbols of this effort in their work, in really successful work it takes…cosmic ramifications.  It can be just as radical a change in somebody’s life to see a….to have an experience of film that excites them.  Film can be something utterly banal…I guess, what I am saying, every artist is working for this kind of final nirvana in his work, it has to encompass all truth, truth about everything.

SITNEY: Do you think of some of your films as more particularly successful than others?

BREER: Oh, yes.  I am not very happy with some.  There are parts in Fist Fight that bothered me very much.  But I learned not to go back and hack at it.

SITNEY: Which parts?

BREER: Let’s say, that there are parts that I like very much and the rest I am indifferent to.  Parts that I like very much, I think people will be surprised…I mean, they’re the emptiest parts…and why should anyone know it?  I don’t know, maybe people see it this way too, but from comments and things I…I kind of like the parts that have to do with rather sparse structure.  It’s hard to say that about a film like that, so full of imagery, but…

SITNEY: I am interested in what you consider “sparse structure” in that particular film.

BREER: Well, there are sections in there that I could tell you about, like after these racing cars appear, where there is a little line that goes across the screen and there is a certain glimpse of cartoon imagery and a thing that falls down this way (Breer demonstrates), and then maybe nothing for a while, and another image that comes in, and there is a kind of severity in the structure there that I like.  What I don’t like are the things that seem more…they’re more amusing or distracting.  You see, that film started as an autobiographical film and all the elements are photo-album-kind-of-memory-things and I just changed it into Originale film, halfway through.  Actually, it was done by that time.  It was to be called ‘Cookies’, or something.  So I used all autobiographical material, thinking that was the most neutral metrial I could use, because it was so personal that it was all loaded with emotional stuff, emotional references, that that material would cancel itself out; it was better than avoiding it, you know.  But now, it seems, when I look at it, the things that…my own picture in there bothers me, and things that do refer to the stuff I am most familiar with…

SITNEY: How did you get the sound?

BREER: Oh, that was taken from five performances of Stockhausen.  I had fifteen hours of sound, I had long tapes, and I picked out stuff.  I have sort of the feeling I’d rather have-in the spirit, I’d rather have Fontana Mix by Cage rather than  Stockhausen.  I am not a profound admirer of Stockhausen.  I admire him, I guess, in a way, and I dislike him very much in other ways.  But he saw it, and I don’t know what his real feelings were, but he said he wanted to take all his own music and chop it up the way my film was, but he probably felt like burning what I did to his sounds.  Which is reasonable.  Because, in fact, even on that track, one of the actors criticizes the happening, very critically of Stockhausen and I think he was sincere.

SITNEY: I think the soundtrack is particularly successful.

BREER: Yes, it’s probably because of the Stockhausen stuff.

SITENY: No, no.  There is a sequence where you see a gallery.  I guess it’s at your gallery and you hear all kinds of noise in there and it works together very successfully.  I think due to the qualities of the sound, it has a special quality that suggests a room and space…


SITNEY:…with special images in the film; it works very well.

BREER: You know, my sound often has special qualities because it’s recorded in the room where windows are open, and you hear the airplanes or other things.  Some of the sounds are made by hanging the microphone out of the window, and there are accidents that I use all the time.

MEKAS: This is a film which you said bothered you.  Which ones do not bother you?

SITNEY: I ask more dangerous questions…

BREER:  It’s funny.  I don’t know how to explain it, but my…Well, let’s see…I have some nostalgic feelings about cartooning.  There is a thing, I was going to be a cartoonist, when I was a kid, and I thought that the beauty of that was that I’d be able to stay at home and work, you see…and I liked that idea very much.  The other thing was tempting too, to get tuberculosis and be able to work under, you know, hospital conditions, so I wouldn’t be bothered and I could play with the nurses, probably…and probably, what comes from childhood memories of working, sick and drawing something…So cartooning still has attractions to me.  It’s like Fahlstrom said about animation one time, that it’s you own little universe.  You can create people and destroy them and make a whole world and…So it’s that, combined with-it has to do with the joy of drawing.  It’s a very joyous thing, drawing.  A marvelous thing.  And so I like to…Right now I’m doing that.  I’ve got a kid’s film in the can.  It got way out of hand.  It’s something I’m doing for the Big Brother of Sesame Street.  And it got to be more work that joy.  The confines are too small.  But it’s kind of a sickness I have.

SITNEY: I’ll ask a more dangerous question which we never ask anyone.

BREER: Wait.  I haven’t yet answered your other question.

SITNEY: I am curious, and you have to answer this honestly: what do you think about the selection of your films by the Anthology Film Archives?

BREER: Oh…Welll…I am honestly pleased to have my films selected.  I was surprised in some sense, but not amazingly surprised by the choice, when I saw it.  I thought that it was historically correct, in my own little history, to pick out Recreation, because, after all, this is the first showable single frame collage film that I did, and since a lot of my work followed that-that made sense.  And also, it’s a film that has a lot of spirit to it.  That’s okay.  It’s a good film.  I’ll tell you honestly, I don’t like the way they look together.  But obviously, it’s very subjective…

MEKAS: Which of the films would you add to what we have?

BREER:  I thought about it, and I don’t know.  When a group of august judges chooses your films, you get a little…You have a moment of wondering whether your evaluation is worth anything at all.  So that the films which I felt kindly about were, for reasons that had nothing to do with the film at all, such as Horse Over Tea Kettle.  You are asking…It is a dangerous question.  An artist, what does he think about his own work?  And how valid is what he thinks about it?  That’s what made me think how valid my own stuff was.  I am glad that anything gets through at all, I am happy for that.  It sounds super-modest, but…

SITNEY: We always wanted not to have the work which was the most polite to us, which would please…but to try to get the works which we felt had the greatest investment of energies and the….

BREER: I guess, what I would, for my own image, public image, have liked, it would be sort of wider spread, more examples further afield, less similar.  Except for the last three films.

MEKAS: I’m certainly for having in Jamestown Baloos.

SITNEY: Well, I mean, I don’t think we can rehearse here the debates that occurred.  But there are other films that various members of the Selection Committee would want, the things cancelled out…But I think ‘Jamestown’ is important.

BREER: Jamestown Baloos, I felt, was a turning point.  It was a breakthrough for me.  I’ve never shown Recreation with Jamestown.  I always like Recreation, but when I make my own programs, I wouldn’t show Recreation because I felt that it was contained in Jamestown, in the middle section, the same kind of film was in there, and I didn’t want to be repetitive.  So those two kind of play again each other.  So I don’t know now, whether you want to show them both.

SITNEY: It’s not the question of that, no.

MEKAS:  I have a few questions here.  You’ll have to be very fast.  It will have to be from the top of your head.  Try not to delay.  Name three colors!

BREER: Oh, my God…Well, Red.  Green.  Yellow.

MEKAS: Name three red things, objects-whatever comes to your mind, whatever.

BREER: Well, I have to name the flag, and blood, and I have to name red.

MEKAS: Name three blue things.  Anything blue.

BREER: Sky.  Must I say water?  Shirts.

MEKAS: Yellow?

BREER: I have to think of urine, and yellow…I tell you yellow is a Buddhist color, a color that is very ephemeral.  It’s a color of nothingness.

MEKAS: Drop three names of three artist, no matter from what field.

BREER: If you promise not to print.

MEKAS: You don’t have to choose the very, very greatest ones.  Just rattle off the names.
BREER: Vigo.  Oldenburg.  Frank Stella.

MEKAS: Now you have to rattle from the top of your mind twelve disconnected words.

BREER: I have a feeling I’ll pay for this….How many?  Twelve?  Oh shit.  Mother. Film. Discipline. Flying. Floating. Lightness. Cat. Dog.

MEKAS: Your are thinking.

BREER: Oh, I’m not supposed to think.  Card. Rug. I want to know the results of this.

MEKAS: These are very innocent…

BREER: It’s not all innocent.

R.I.P. Owen Land

"By the way, the film was booed at the Cinematheque and it was cut off before its proper time (twenty-two minutes).  Someone shouted, and he meant it as a joke: 'Another genius was born tonight at the Cinematheque!'  But I state it here in all seriousness." 

- Jonas Mekas on George Landow aka Owen Land circa 1965

An Object of Nature

Unsere Afrikareise, without a doubt some of the most visually/audibly challenging 12.5 minutes in all of cinema.  The following brief interview is once again from Mekas' Movie Journal, which I've recently just reread for the umpteenth time (Mekas' unbridled enthusiasm, swimming throughout Movie Journal, is perfectly exemplified in the opening paragraph)...

(Stills via Anthology Archives, copyright Peter Kubelka)

Planting the Tree of Life: David Brooks

Like many I recently had a chance to attend a theater screening of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and while there were several  sequences of an intense and weighty moment-to-moment/frame-to-frame clarity and specificity,  I was little reticent invoking a term like “visionary” considering the previous precedence of a considerable amount of the film’s formal strategies (albeit on a much humbler scale).  Such precedents have previously been highlighted by several very knowledgeable sources, from Belson to Davis, Brakhage ((indeed when many years ago Marie Nesthus, writing on the influence of Messiaen on Brakhage, wrote that "Each begins with the 'ordinary' material of life and filters it through his complex and highly sophisticated/totally naive artistic consciousness in the attempt to depict a reality based on interior (or perhaps, transcendent) truth" she could have just as well been speaking of Malick)) to Baillie, Beavers to Dorsky, and even Scott Nyerges, from whom Malick chose to license work directly.  While in some alternate reality it would somehow be possible for the film to prominently acknowledge these various poles of influence, I recognize that harboring some form of malcontent over the issue is completely unproductive and unfair, and would instead like to use the recognition sparked by Malick’s film to bring a few of these various works closer to the forefront.  One such film that I have not yet seen mentioned is David Brooks’ The Wind is Driving Him Towards the Open Sea.  Like Malick’s work it is a restless and somewhat tortured exploration that vibrates on both a macro and micro wavelength, with a montage that cascades in a manner at once jarring and fluid.  It is a work of remarkably assured vision for a filmmaker who at the time was only in his early twenties.  Tragically it would be his final statement, as a year later he was killed in a car crash.  In all my searching since having seen the film I have only come across two reviews of the film, one from Fred Camper and the other, as one might expect, from Jonas Mekas.  I’ve included Mekas’ review along with his fiery eulogy (both can be found in his Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema 1959-1971):

(stills via Anthology Archives)


The film is available for rent from the Film-makers Co-op, along with several other works by Brooks which I have not yet seen…

Adolfas Mekas

Another melancholy post to make, this time to recognize the passing of Adolfas Mekas, brother of Jonas, whose passion for cinema easily equaled that of his more (publicly) prominent brother.  It was Adolfas who co-founded Film Culture magazine back in 1954 with Jonas, a magazine that continues to be an endless source of fascination and insight for me even many long years after its cancellation (as evidenced by the many scanned pages to be found here on this blog).  Best wishes to his many friends and family...      

(the Mekas clan from Reminisces of a Voyage to Lithuania, via Anthology Archives)


"'We' means Adolfas and me."
(-Jonas Mekas in A Critical Cinema 2)

Words of the Week

Words that make the heart skip a beat...

"And now, for the next couple of months, I will do nothing much else but work on completing and editing all of my film footage that I still have on my shelves, fading. It will be my last movie as a film, my Fading Film."

-Jonas Mekas in The Brooklyn Rail

This Is the Place...

(scroll down to Mekas)

Making It Essential

(Essential Cinema committee)

Earlier this week Mike Everleth over at Bad Lit, a site that should undoubtedly be near the top of your bookmark list, transposed The Essential Cinema repertory list, along with some of the history behind its conception.  To this day the list itself can serve as a very positive tool for those looking for valuable insight into some of the aims associated with key members of the movement at that time.  While the road to making the list seemed by all accounts predominantly paved with good intentions, there is no doubt that this effort rubbed some the wrong way.  In fact Scott MacDonald, a key scholar of the avant-garde, named his essential series A Critical Cinema in outright opposition to the committee’s repertory label of The Essential Cinema.  In a Critical Cinema 4 he muses:

"In The Essential Cinema there is a photograph of the Anthology Film Archives selection committee (Ken Kelman, James Broughton, Sitney, Mekas, and Kubelka), the group that had selected 'the Essential Cinema'-the 'nuclear collection of the monuments of cinematic art,' to use Sitney’s phrase-that would become the repertory of Anthology Film Archives.  Stephen Shore’s photograph of the committee, it seemed to me then, perfectly captured the dimension of Sitney that I was rebelling against.  There is something rather forbidding about the photograph, something arrogant, even hostile; and, in the 1970s, when so many of us were coming to grips with issues of gender and sexuality, and confronting whatever dimensions of patriarchy had infected us, this photograph seemed particularly reactionary…Of course, the committee’s presumption in selecting the ‘monuments of cinematic art’ seemed utterly typical of patriarchs everywhere."

Another key figure who had struggled with selection process was Stan Brakhage, who had written a mere two years earlier a fiery letter to Jonas Mekas concerning his withdrawal from the Filmmaker’s Co-op (which is an issue worthy of examination all unto itself).  In the following letter to P. Adams Sitney, Brakhage, among other things, highlights some his concerns surrounding the task proposed by the committee.

(and while we are on the subject of list-making, be sure to check out the 'best of the decade in avant-garde film' poll conducted by Film Comment magazine.  What say you?...)

Possessed by Sight

 BEAM 14:

Eden, glossolalia of light
Mountain the gods stept from, spoke to fork
Some sparkling logos
as O hoher Baum im Orh!
quadricornutus serpens, caduceus phantastikon, or
la ou nos la voions plus espesse
vas, at the same time orb and eggshaped
Matrix of Harmonies
orders, opening back, beyond, and within, Laoco├Ân of cacoon
splint crystal, glaux, grey matter spun
Out of thy head I sprung
thread not a dream by a single Being, but one of omni-
silk-seed of waves hummed back
vast cortex
tensile, unstill

He who “would chain fire,
And have the wind move in regiments
of cubed air”

 (As Bohm posited: at zeropoint
of energy
a cubic centimeter of space = 10,000,000,000 tons

uranium) underneathunder

unuterrable number

an intricate quiet


He who
obsessed by light,
possessed by sight:

cellophane in cellophane of salamander slid within a flame

(to pin to the shimmer a name)

Beauty is easy.
It is the Beast that is the secret.
“it escapes from its sphere
as from a hole”
-- its symmetries like trees with long shadows

A mirror held
to the horror

“we can imagine a butterfly
to pass back into the chrysalis”
like a cat’s eye in

at the end of its tether
the inter-


((Text from Ronald Johnson's ARK, one of the four or five works of literature constantly by my side))

((Images from the 1993 film Stellar by Stan Brakhage))


On a side note, for all those who haven't visited it yet, Jonas Mekas' new website is up and running... 

Under the Hill

Shortly after completing what many would consider to be his crowning artistic achievement, Film Portrait, Jerome Hill, a Renaissance man in the true sense of the word, passed away at the hands of cancer.  Though many nowadays probably do not know his name, his legacy lives on through his foundation, through several of the most artistically vital institutions he helped create, and in the memories of the many great artists he helped to sustain.  Jonas Mekas opened the No. 56-57 (Spring 1973) issue of Film Culture with the following moving requiem:


Only four weeks ago, Jerome Hill’s film ‘Film Portrait’ was screened at the Museum of Modern Art, and he was there himself to talk, to answer questions.  He was thin and white.  Very few people knew it, but he knew it, and his close friends knew it: Jerome has been ill, very ill.  He collected his strength to come to the screening, to see his friends, to see the screen sing for the last time.  The film was beautiful, the projection was beautiful, and the screen sang.  Jerome received an enthusiastic and warm reception for his film.  It was a perfect, beautiful crowning of a very humble life of a very great artist.
     No, Jerome Hill didn’t receive proper recognition during his life.  From his friends, yes: Stan Brakhage, Peter Kubelka, P. Adams Sitney, James Broughton, a few others saw his work and praised it and told him what a great artist he was.  ‘Film Portrait’ will remain among the masterworks of cinema-a  masterwork of form, of treatment of an era, an extraordinary work of animation and color.  I cannot go into all its values and all its beauties here.  But the film critics, during his life, they looked at Jerome, they looked at his work, and they couldn’t see it: they saw his grandfather’s railroads behind him, instead; they discussed the railroads, and the money, and they missed the colors and the movements and the glories of cinema.  And so one more artist is gone, and now we can begin to praise his work!  Will it always be the same?  Why can’t we praise our living artists!  No, Jerome won’t add a single frame now, he made his last film.
     One of the extraordinary things about Jerome was that while everybody around him was getting older with the years, Jerome seemed to get younger and younger.  His work got younger and younger every year.  His cinema began at Warner Brothers, and it ended in the lines of avant-garde film.  His progress was slow and painful.  He had to free himself from many society, family and commerce traditions.  But he was freeing himself and opening himself continuously, until, in the early ‘60s, his search brought him into the lines of the avant-garde film.  After that, he seemed to discover his own style, and he threw himself into the making of the ‘Film Portrait’, his crowning achievement.  His films and his paintings exploded with little bursts of ecstasies.  
     Simultaneously with his own creative work, he became very sensitive to the creative work of other film artists and he did everything to assist their work.  Probably nobody will ever know the extent of help he has given to independent film-makers; because of his humility, practically all help was given anonymously.  But I can tell you this much, that neither the Film-Makers’ Cooperative nor the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque nor Film Culture magazine nor the Anthology Film Archives would exist or be what they are, if not for the kind help of Jerome Hill, who came always just at the right time, whenever our heads were sinking below the water line; without pampering-but never letting us down in real need.  The whole movement of the American avant-garde film of the ‘60s would have taken a completely different turn, much slower and thinner, without the help of Jerome.  I am not writing here a history of the American avant-garde film; I am writing a last tribute to Jerome.  So I am talking in very general terms, and I am skipping details and names and figures.  But when such a history is written, that history will be dedicated to Jerome Hill.
     But now Jerome is gone, his body.  The American avant-garde film is a chapter in the history of cinema, a fact of cinmea [sic], a reality of cinema that cannot be turned back.  The cinema will never be the same again.  And a long line of works of great beauty has been created.  A form of cinema exists vaguely known as the avant-garde film, that will have to be discussed, analyzed, taken into account by whoever makes cinema, teaches cinema, or looks at cinema.  Will there be another Maecenas for the art of cinema, for avant-garde film?  Will there be anyone to whom we’ll be able to turn in real need?  The creation of art and the Maecenas of art go hand in hand.  An artist, in order to create, doesn’t need a wide acclaim and a wide audience: give him two or three friends, one critic, and one Maecenas, and he’ll produce great works and he’ll expand the vision and ideals of humanity.
     Yes, it’s very possible that we are at the end of a great period of creativity in American cinema; it’s very possible that Jerome Hill’s death marks the beginning of another stage of the American avant-garde film: the stage of preserving for posterity what has been created.  It was the genius foresight of Jerome that he thought about that too: during the last three years of his life he put himself completely behind the creation of the Anthology Film Archives, a place in which the works of American avant-garde film-makers can be preserved and seen in their full glory.  Yes, even here, Jerome was younger than many of us: he was in the future.  He knew that it’s not enough to create, no: taking loving care of what has been created, taking care of the flowering fruits of the human spirit, which is art-he knew that that was the other side of the matter, and they both made One.  Such was the work and wisdom of Jerome Hill.  
     But death has its own wisdom.  Jerome Hill died on November 21, in the afternoon, in St. Luke’s Hospital.  Upon his wish, he was cremated.  A small funeral service was held for family and friends at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Madison Avenue at 72nd Street, at noon on November 24."
(Village Voice, Dec. 7th, 1972)

((This will be expanded into a full filmmaker profile sometime in the near future))


Shadow of a Doubt

As is fairly familiar knowledge by now, John Cassavetes first work, Shadows, actually exists in two versions, the first having undergone significant revisions after various private screenings left a desire for further change.  Upon the release of the second version, a bit of controversy was created when those smitten with the first version, exemplified by Jonas Mekas, did not take kindly to the new incarnation.  Eventually the first version fell out of circulation, and to most, out of existence altogether, until many years later, after a prolonged search, the film scholar Ray Carney was able to track down a print.  The controversy was re-ignited when the Cassavetes estate, including Gena Rowlands, objected to the release of the first version, and interesting questions soon arose as to who could rightly lay claim to it. 


Excerpt of a letter to John Casssavetes from Amos Vogel, written 11/17/59 (reproduced in full in Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society)

“….There remains a serious problem, of which you already know.  I refer to the fact that a number of people—including Jonas Mekas and Gideon Bachmann—feel that the second version, as shown by us, is totally inferior and a ‘commercial compromise.’  I have spent hours with them, attempting to convince them that they are wrong.  Jonas intended to make a public attack on the film at our showing, but I convinced him to first write you, since he also plans to write in SIGHT AND SOUND and elsewhere about the new version.
    There now does exist a controversy in New York regarding the film, and a confusion as to what is the ‘proper’ version.  I have discussed this with Cassel and assume he has told you about it.  I cannot discuss it in detail in a letter, except to say that you must have a very clear-cut stand on the issue, as shown, for example, in your decision to send this new version to the various festivals and to have this be the version that will be distributed.
    You will further confuse the issue, were you to decide to permit the earlier version to be show.  The result will be that you will compete with yourself and create confusion in people’s mind, so that they will think there are two SHADOWS in existence.
    For example, it is now being stated by certain people that Kingsley financed the new version; that it was done in accord with his wishes, and that thus it constitutes a commercial ‘betrayal.’  You and I know that Kinsley stepped out of the deal at a very stage; and that, in fact, the changes are due to your desire to strengthen the film, not to commercially compromise it.
    Nevertheless, you will have to take a very strong stand, it seems to me, in favor of the new version being ‘the’ film.  I realize that this is none of my business; I am simply giving you my opinion; in fact, I do not wish to become involved in this matter and prefer my name be kept out of it completely especially since the decision rests entirely with you.  By my opinion stands…..”

From an article in The Village Voice by Jonas Mekas (included in Movie Journal-The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971)

January 27, 1960

"It may seem to some that enough has already been said about John Cassavetes’ Shadows.  After seeing it again last Tuesday at the Film Center, in its original version, and after comparing the exultation of this audience with the perplexity at Cinema 16, I definitely feel that the real case of Shadows is only just beginning.
    I have no further doubt that wheras the second version of Shadows is just another Hollywood film—however inspired, at moments—the first version is the most frontier-breaking American feature film in at least a decade.  Rightly understood and properly presented, it could influence and change the tone, subject matter, and style of the ntire independent American cinema.  And it is already beginning to do so.
    The crowds of people that were pressing to get into the Film Center (Pull My Daisy was screened on the same program) illustrated only too well the shortsightedness of the New York film distributors who blindly stick to their old hats.  Shadows is still without a distributor.  Distributors seem to have no imagination, no courage, no vision, no eyes for the new.
    Again, I stress that I am talking about the first version of Shadows only.  For I want to be certain not to be misunderstood.  I have been put into a situation, one which a film critic can get into only once in a lifetime (I hope).  I have been praising and supporting Shadows from the very beginning (see Cassavetes’ letter, Village Voice, December 16, 1959; Ben Carruthers’ letter, December 30, 1959), writing about it, pulling everybody into it, making enemies because of it (including the director of the film himself)—and here I am, ridiculously betrayed by an ‘improved’ version of that film, with the same title but different footage, different cutting, story, attitude, character, style, everything: a bad commercial film, with everything that I was praising completely destroyed.  So everybody says: What was he raving about?  Is he blind or something?  Therefore I repeat and repeat: It is the first version I was and I am still talking about.  (Here is the stay-away identification marker: the second version begins with a rock-and-roll session.)
    I have no space for a detailed analysis and comparison of the two versions.  It is enough to say that the difference is radical.  The first Shadows could be considered as standing at the opposite pole from Citizen Kane; it makes as strong an attempt at catching (and retaining) life as Citizen Kane was making an attempt at destroying life and creating art.  Which of the two aims is more important, I do not know.  Both are equally difficult to achieve.  In any case, Shadows breaks with the official staged cinema, with made-up faces, with written scripts, with plot continuities.  Even its inexperience in editing, sound, and camera work becomes a part of its style, the roughness that only life (and Alfred Leslie’s painting) have.  It doesn’t prove anything, it doesn’t even want to say anything, but really it tells more than ten or one hundred and ten other recent American films.  The tone and rhythms of a new America are caught in Shadows for the very first time.  (Pull My Daisy does it too, perhaps better, but it came out one year after Shadows.)  Shadows has caught more life than Cassavetes himself realizes.  Perhaps now he is too close to his work, but I am confident he will change his mind.  And the sooner the second version is taken out of circulation, the better.  Meanwhile, the bastardized version is being sent to festivals and being pushed officially, while the true film, the first Shadows, is being treated as a stepchild.  It is enough to make one sick and shut up."

Excerpt of a letter to John Casssavetes from Amos Vogel, written 11/20/59 (reproduced in full in Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society)

“Despite the fact that Jonas Mekas promised me not to write anything about the film until after having spoken to you, you will be by the enclosed that he rushed into print with his first attack on the film.
    By referring to a ‘commercialized version,’ ‘in no way to be confused with the original’ which was shown at Cinema 16, and then urging people to see the presumably ‘un-commercialized’ version elsewhere, he has compounded the confusion which I warned you would exist if two versions of what is only one film continue to circulate.
    It is clearer now that the ‘other version’ should never have been publicized and certainly should not continue to circulate.
    Retroactively, he cheapens our showing and your artistic integrity.  While as a critic he has a perfect right to his opinon, we are both harmed by this.
    For this reason, I have already sent a strong letter to Village Voice and urge you to immediately send them a strong statement of your own, upholding the version shown as ‘the film’.  Perhaps it would be good to even wire them, asking them to be sure to print your statement…”


Excerpt of a letter to Amos Vogel from John Cassavetes, written 1/19/60 (reproduced in full in Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society)

"...Your letters regarding the reception that the film received at Cinema 16, along with the many that were sent to me because of the screening, certainly helped to fill the expectations that we all had for the film when we originally started..."


Excerpt of letter written to The Criterion Company from Al Ruban, business manager of the Cassavetes estate

“…stating clearly that we do not approve the inclusion in the creation of a DVD by the Criterion Collection of any film footage, picture and/or track of or alleged to be of Shadows the John Cassavetes feature film, other than the full complete version restored and preserved by UCLA Film and Television Archive…”


Excerpt from essay by Ray Carney detailing his search for the long-lost first version (a the complete essay can be found here, with a considerable amount of additional background information and further exposition on a whole host of issues involving Cassavetes):

“…One could ask whether the discovery proves Jonas Mekas right; but that’s the wrong question. It doesn’t really matter. The two versions of Shadows are sufficiently different from each other, with different scenes, settings, and emphases, that they deserve to be thought of as different films. Each stands on its own as an independent work of art.
    The real value of the first version is that it gives us an opportunity to go behind the scenes into the workshop of the artist. Art historians X-ray Rembrandt’s work to glimpse his changing intentions. Critics study the differences between the quarto and folio versions of Shakespeare’s plays. There is almost never an equivalent to these things in film. That is the value of the first version of Shadows. It allows us to eavesdrop on Cassavetes’ creative process–to, as it were, stand behind him as he films and edits his first feature….”

(all stills from the second version of 'Shadows')