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ArtForum, May, 2007 by P. Adams Sitney
Saul Levine has been one of the most underrated filmmakers in the American avant-garde cinema throughout his more than forty-year-long career. His one-man program at the New York Film Festival last year was his first, although he had been included in group screenings there before. The five films selected were so old (made between 1967 and 1983) that they were promoted as restored artifacts. Only in the past decade has New York's Anthology Film Archives devoted occasional programs to him. Yet if someone were to write a critical history of the avant-garde cinema in Boston (as David E. James did for Los Angeles in his magisterial 2005 book, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles), Levine would be its hero. He seldom leaves the city, where, as a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art, he has been one of the most influential teachers of filmmaking in the nation, and his energies have for decades sustained the larger community of avant-garde filmmakers in Boston.
The chief reason for his neglect, or isolation, may not have been his geographical location, however, but rather his long commitment to 8-mm and Super 8 formats (although he has blown copies up to 16 mm for distribution by the Film-Makers' Cooperative and Canyon Cinema since the 1970s). A figure of the perennial Left, Levine has identified with and championed the small gauges as if they were marginalized citizens of the republic of cinema. By example, he has taught his students to cling to their artistic freedom by seeking out the least expensive modes of filmmaking and, as Emerson wrote in the essay "Experience," to "hold hard to this poverty, however scandalous, and by more vigorous self-recoveries, after the sallies of action, possess our axis more firmly." As a consequence of this ascetic attitude toward the medium, Levine embraced video much earlier than did those of his fellow filmmakers who shared his passion for the texture of celluloid. For instance, Stan Brakhage--with whom Levine studied in the early '70s and who was, more significantly, the greatest influence on his work--resorted to painting on film in his last years rather than make the switch. When the expenses of 16-mm production temporarily drove Brakhage into a detour of making first 8-mm films (in 1964) and later Super 8 films (in 1976), he thought of his engagement with the smaller gauges as exemplary for younger filmmakers. Of those who followed his example, Levine has been the most persistent. He started shooting 8 mm in 1965, with Salt of the Sea, and to this day remains faithful to the small gauge.
Viewing a large span of Levine's work in a short time reveals the grand scale of the project lurking within the humble titles and modest formal ambitions of his insistent efflux of lyrical films. In a sense, to use the terminology of William Butler Yeats, perhaps the foundational poet for this filmmaker who once imagined that poetry would be his vocation, Levine's work might be seen as the antithetical counterpart to that of Jonas Mekas. They both give us a vivid feeling for daily life lived in urban America over the past forty years (add at least ten more for Mekas's oeuvre); few other major avant-garde filmmakers are as convincing at disclosing a world filled with other people as Mekas and Levine (the tragically short-lived Warren Sonbert was of that select company). But whereas Mekas, an irrepressible vitalist, depicts his ambit as a perpetual celebration, an ongoing party attended by art-world celebrities, Levine continually probes the margins of the gritty surroundings in which he lives and works for flashes of illumination, purchased at the high cost of a skepticism that seldom permits him either the ecstatic self-exhibition that characterizes Mekas's onscreen moments or the melancholy of Mekas's quite moving voice-over interventions. Surprisingly for a filmmaker so taken with Yeats and so influenced by Brakhage, Levine shows no tolerance for mythopoeia.
Beginning in 1967, with roughly a dozen short films under his belt, Levine spent six years reediting 8-mm prints of the Chaplin shorts Easy Street (1917) and In the Park (1915), incorporating television images of an antiwar protest in which the Boston filmmaker participated. The result was The Big Stick/An Old Reel (1967-73), his self-tutorial in montage, the ascesis of narrative, and the beauties of caustic rhythms. In the early stages of that work's construction, Levine was teaching filmmaking at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts, but he would soon be fired, if not specifically for his role in occupying a campus building during a protest over the dismissal of an African-American secretary, then for his political activism generally. Together with (my future wife) filmmaker Marjorie Keller, then a student forced to withdraw from Tufts over the same protest, Levine moved to Chicago to attend graduate school and to edit the national SDS newspaper, New Left Notes. A dual portrait of Keller and himself amid rounds of political protest is at the heart of Levine's most impressive early film, New Left Note (1968-82). Its title conjoins the SDS publication with his still ongoing series of films, all called "Notes," which may well be his central achievement as a filmmaker. (He has made thirteen films in this series to date.) The deceptively modest term identifies the primary conceit of these films--that they are epistolary gestures, made to convey the news of what is happening in the filmmaker's life--while suggesting that they are also unitary points in an extended melody. The rapid montage of New Left Note effectively levels and integrates the welter of events and perceptions amassed in the film: Nixon on television, thousands gathered on the New Haven Green to support Bobby Seale, friends soaking in a public fountain, street marches against the war in Vietnam, and luminous glimpses of the filmmaker's domestic life with his new girlfriend. New Left Note was an early intimation of the persistent emphasis on companionship that would become a hallmark of Levine's cinema. In the video works of the past five years, we can see clearly the remarkable capacity and talent for friendship that has been a primary source of his artistic strength since he began to make films. In his ongoing series "Driven," begun in 2002, Levine rides in the front seat of an automobile while one of his friends talks about his or her life for eighty-two minutes (the maximum length of a single take using his digital camera). The ten installments he has made to date unwittingly disclose the generosity of the filmmaker. He is often quiet, patient with the occasional long pause when his driver falls silent, yet he is willing to talk about himself when questioned, as he is by filmmaker Asma Kazmi in the 2005 episode he made with her. By having his subjects drive him around the city at night, he disengages much of the self-consciousness inherent in the interview genre. Because of the choice of his subjects, or perhaps by the sheer dint of his own antinomian personality, the monologues inevitably turn to narratives of resistance to institutions, laws, family pressures. Levine's low-key mode of inquiry and his genuine passion for listening have an infectious power. Sometimes his driver makes it easy for him: The filmmaker Joe Gibbons, to whom he devoted two installments in 2002, is an ironic raconteur who does not require Levine's skillful intervention to fascinate us for almost an hour and a half at a stretch. What is remarkable is how engaging the filmmaker manages to make his less flamboyant interlocutors.
The "Driven" series illuminates the sometimes elusive persona at the heart of Levine's finest films. They intimate his acceptance of, almost resignation to, isolation, which gives a melancholy, elegiac air to many of the early films; yet at the same time they reveal his hungry curiosity about the lives and feelings of others and his democratic joy of being in company. In a retrospective light, we can see the "Notes" as gestures toward absent friends, sometimes unnamed, whose very absence inspires him to weigh the events of his daily life. The exquisite, brief, lyric Crescent (1993) is paradigmatic of Levine's mature art. With a handheld camera, the filmmaker pans several times, over the course of three or four shots, between the sliver of a moon at sunset and distant lights. By the last of these shots, night has come. On the sound track we hear Levine's conversation with filmmaker Pelle Lowe, who tells him the story of an umbrella her father had made for her mother. When Lowe asks Levine if his parents also told stories of their youth as they grew older, he says no--their stories came from when they were younger; in old age they fell silent. The dialogue is utterly natural, beautifully timed, as if it were spontaneously occurring as Lowe and Levine sat observing the moon and the night lights. Lowe, like many of the subjects of "Driven," was a student of Levine's, whom he encouraged, nurtured, and promoted, although I suspect he would resist that description of their relationship: He is so thoroughly a democrat that he acts as if he merely provides the already formed filmmakers in his classes with equipment, shows them films he admires, and makes a few observations about their work.
The poetic strength of Crescent derives from the tensions between the images and the sound track. Image alone never carries Levine films. His silent films depend upon editing so fast and insistent that the tiny 8-mm frame is nearly overwhelmed with the labored cutting and gluing. The montage of his Note to Colleen (1974) programmatically devalues imagery per se, juxtaposing people and portraits, natural objects and painted images, at what may be the Washington Square Art Fair in New York. The film asserts that filmmaking, at least as Levine practices it, is a relational more than a representational art. Here and elsewhere he makes capital of his limitations as a cinematographer (apparently related to his poor eyesight). The title of the portrait Portrayal/Near Site (1977-78) calls attention to his nearsightedness, but Levine compensates by filming a young woman extremely close up, as they make love on the grass. At its most compelling, Levine's photography conveys an erotic intensity, especially in capturing intimate moments with women: Thus, the shots of Keller stand out in New Left Note, and whole films such as Note to Poli (1982-83) and Portrayal/Sheryl Kaye (1977) indicate the visionary power of sexuality for the filmmaker. In Whole Note (2000-2001), he achieves an equally loving intensity by fixing his camera on his father in the last days of his life. But Levine can also generate a successful film from a mere nothing, as when he examines a black-and-white photograph of the young Picasso clipped from a magazine and taped to a windowpane, in Shmateh III (1983-84). The series title borrows the Yiddish word for "rag," to underscore the throwaway status of the image source. Yet another, later series, "Light Licks" (1999-), sidesteps the problems of imagery by generating almost musical rhythmic structures abstracted from colored light sources.
The critical turning point in Levine's early career came when he acquired a Super 8 sound camera in 1976, just as he was losing his job teaching filmmaking at SUNY, Binghamton (again his political activism got him in trouble). Thus, the title of Notes of an Early Fall (1976) refers to the season in which he returns to his family home with his new camera to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, as well as to the aesthetic fall from the grace of pure vision into the worldly cacophony of synchronous sound (in a hyperbole of Brakhage's polemics) and the fall from a prestigious position in what was at the time the strongest academic program in avant-garde filmmaking in America. For most of the film's thirty-three minutes, the filmmaker turned his back on his earlier montage style; instead, he fixed his camera on images of repetition: He shot a phonographic record so warped the needle flew randomly into a range of three or four grooves for nearly two hundred cycles; then he filmed a small bird trying to pass through a closed window over and over again, children playing in a park, and animals pacing in cages in a zoo. Late in the film he brought these elements together through montage and intercut them with a portrait of his family on the eve of the holiday. There is a brief image of President Carter on television, speaking of our misused resources as if he were telling the nation of the filmmaker's predicament.
"The record is by Champion Jack Dupree, a New Orleans pianist and blues player who often did 'talking' blues," Levine wrote in response to my inquiry about the warped disk. "The LP is called Tricks, from a talking blues entitled 'Tricks Don't Walk No More,' a whore's lament about the change in work with the advent of automobiles. On the record we're mainly hearing a cut about his dog not recognizing him when he comes home from a long road trip, since his wife has another lover. The song also refers to racism and him getting beaten up by the police. He's very funny in a dark way. He lived mainly in Paris to escape from a society he saw as white supremacist." Levine himself is "funny in a dark way" in this crucial film and in its companion piece, Departure (1976-84), which depicts the anxieties of his friends and colleagues at Binghamton as they anticipate leaving the university environment. In this film, he combines talking interviews with montage, directly cutting across, and thereby disrupting, the sound of the single-system Super 8, violating the implicit rules of synchronization. (On a filmstrip the sound runs more than a second ahead of the image to allow for the threading of the projector. Conventionally, sound and picture are edited on two independent tracks and then "married" in a final print. Single-system sound cameras were designed for home movies, with no provision for editing.)
Whereas insistent repetition was an expression of frustration and blues in Notes of an Early Fall, it would become a focus of exuberant playfulness in the second of Levine's Raps and Chants (1981-82). There, filmmaker Caroline Avery sits for her film portrait, thoroughly amusing herself, and presumably Levine, by hitting the buttons on a tape recorder to improvise a sound composition out of fragments of music and protest chants. As if responding to the rhythms of Avery's pizzicato, Levine sometimes records images so rapidly that he obliterates the sound for a few seconds. The calculus of silence and sound, art and song, eros and time, at stake in this film, and in his major work of the early '80s, reflects a favorite poem of Levine's, "After Long Silence," in which Yeats wrote:
Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.
His film Notes After Long Silence (1984-89) takes its title from Yeats's poem and fuses an encounter with Levine's former wife and her two children from a subsequent marriage with images of sex, construction work, the war in Vietnam, and B. B. King singing on television. Here, Levine's version of the "supreme theme of Art and Song" recalls that of Brakhage and especially of Brakhage's longest 8-mm film, 23rd Psalm Branch (1966-67), in which he struggled to raise the pain and confusion of his response to the Vietnam War to the cinematic equivalent of silent song. In deviating from Brakhage's mode by utilizing fragmentary synchronized sound, Levine crafted his own version of the crisis film, in which the labor of filmmaking continually constructs and mourns a world on the verge of dissolution. But he resists Brakhage's drive toward resolution, as if a synthetic or culminating moment were a fiction that failed to console him. Instead, montage becomes a form of insistence, a coefficient of the political pressure that must be ceaselessly renewed in the face of entropy. This seems to be the wisdom of the three-part series composed of A Few Tunes Going Out: Bopping the Great Wall of China Blue (1978-79), Groove to Groove (1978-82), and A Brennen Soll Columbus N Medina (1978-84). The first focused on his friend the filmmaker Dan Barnett (who left his position at SUNY, Binghamton, at the same time as Levine) as he assists a woman with the editing of her thesis film; the second, on radio DJ Mai Cramer and Levine himself at his editing table; and the last, on patriotic songs, centrally those recalled by the filmmaker's mother and aunts while Ray Charles sings "America the Beautiful" on TV. These films underscore the uniqueness of the auditory environment of Levine's cinema: a world of broken syllables, Yiddish jokes, nearly forgotten songs, phrases and music seeping out of the omnipresent television. His films assert the imperative to reconnect shattered sounds and pictures into a speech that does not disguise their cacophony.
P. ADAMS SITNEY IS PROFESSOR OF VISUAL ARTS AT PRINCETON UNIVERSITY AND THE AUTHOR, MOST RECENTLY. OF EYES UPSIDE DOWN: VISIONARY FILMMAKERS AND THE HERITAGE OF EMERSON, FORTHCOMING FROM OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS NEXT YEAR.
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