Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film (2012) Movie Script

These were our home movies.
Until one day, my dog peed on them.
I thought it looked cool!
It was the 60s:
peace, love, rock
'n' roll, hippies,
and experimental home movies.
I grew up watching films,
showing films, making films!
My dad worked for television,
his dad worked for Hollywood,
my mom painted every day...
My parents screened films
at home for their friends.
I saw all sorts of films.
My dad invited experimental
filmmakers onto his television show,
and he invited them and
their films into our home.
These days, most of my friends
and colleagues are filmmakers.
I wanted to shoot in the streets,
and I wanted a camera
that could take a knock.
You can do all kinds of
things with the Bolex,
but the Bell & Howell,
let's just push film through it.
Art has only one function
as far as the artist
himself is concerned:
that is to follow his visions.
I'm trying to paint the images
that flash through my mind,
that spark in my
hypnogogic vision...
Art can be anything,
and that's what produced
the "avant-garde".
I never made compromises and
really already a long time ago,
I didn't care anymore if
anyone likes it or not.
We did not think about history,
we were in the present, and we
were doing what we wanted to do.
We were friends, and we
were all crazy about cinema.
I filmed every day. I filmed
with friends, in school.
There were no rules.
We were totally free.
Images were everywhere.
Images were my life.
Images are still my life. And
my life is images, images...
Nobody's going to close
us, because we're crazy!
Arguably the greatest
city in the world...
Whether it's the greatest city
for experimental filmmakers
remains to be seen.
There were much better experiments being
done in Prague, in Paris, in Berlin,
long before there were
great filmmakers here.
But a half century ago, just
about a half century ago,
I started working in New
York for an arts series
where we did everything
we wanted to, every week.
We were in pre-production, production
and post-production every day.
It was difficult to put
experimental artists on television,
because television doesn't
like experimental film.
It's unpredictable;
sometimes it's a little edgy;
sometimes the filmmaker
obviously has something in mind
that the studio executives would rather
not be shown to an all-family public.
We were always told:
children are watching!
Be careful of what you
do! Children are watching!
He was right, I was watching!
This one fascinated me.
The screen was no longer a window
into a world but a flat surface,
and yet the squares seemed to
recede into a third dimension.
This is one of the first abstract
films ever made by Hans Richter in 1921.
I used to have pieces of
film of different formats,
just as a kind of a souvenir from
different film shoots that we did,
and I would bring them home and
you saw what film was all about.
It was like pieces of paper.
You had to work on it. I remember
you used to draw on film leader,
and scratch on film,
and paint on film.
A lot of other filmmakers have done this,
but you didn't know that at the time.
I was eight years old
when I met Hans Richter.
He lived not far from our house.
He was a painter but he
also played with film.
He was 85 when we
filmed him in 1973,
and I had the distinct feeling that he
was preparing himself for a summing up.
I just improvised, as I do in...
I give chance a chance, as I
do in painting, as I do in film.
That was the main credo of Dada:
the discovery of chance as
a possibility of expression.
I didn't know anything
about filmmaking,
I had just a table,
on both sides light,
on top the camera which
couldn't move up and down,
so I cut cardboard,
small very thin cardboard,
squares and rectangles,
I think 40 or 50,
from very small to big, and
white, light grey and dark grey.
And later on when I needed
black I just used the negative.
Richter wanted to
go beyond the frame,
so he started painting
variations of forms on scrolls.
The filmstrip was also a scroll,
and allowed him to paint in time.
Time was becoming a new
dimension for the artist.
Rhythm in my opinion is
the essence of filmmaking,
because it's the conscious
articulation of time.
And if anything is at
the bottom of filmmaking
it is the articulation
of time, of movement.
You had never seen an abstract
film before making Rhythmus 21.
There wasn't any.
So there was no example
I could relate to.
This was so as if you
stepped into an empty room
where there is no space.
It was really an eerie
experience which I loved.
I must have been
influenced by Richter,
because years later I also made
a film with receding rectangles.
And this film got me into
a filmmakers' cooperative
and there I met many more filmmakers,
some of whom also became friends.
Then I realized I had become
an experimental filmmaker.
I didn't even know what that meant!
But there I found myself on
the wrong side of the tracks
with dozens of other poet
filmmakers, free radicals.
They were totally free,
and they pushed film into
radical new directions.
I grew up making films
and I'm still making films.
In this film I'd like you to meet
my friends and see their films.
Let's watch one, a four-minute film
from 1958 made without a camera,
what we call "direct animation"
just by scratching with a
needle onto black film stock.
It's not as easy as it looks.
Len Lye scratched for weeks,
an hour of film stock, just
to get four good minutes.
You know that film, Free Radicals,
well it was made 15 years ago.
And when I see it now, I
think it still holds up.
But I'm into a different
type of kinetic art.
I'm composing figures of motion.
This I'm showing to represent
a person, that's the scale.
He is six foot high,
and they go through this arrangement
here which I call the Universe.
And sixty foot above
them then is the Universe,
and in they go to see a most
amazing kind of grouping,
a grouping which
symbolizes nature, energy...
Lye experimented in sculpture too.
Now you wouldn't call a painter
or a sculptor experimental,
but that's the word that
stuck for film artists.
I understood the promise and I
got fascinated by film itself,
and I made quite a number
of experimental films,
but only experimental films in
the proper sense of the word.
I got into making abstract films from
Hans Richter and seeing his things,
Leger for instance, you
know, where he plays...
but none of them did
this kind of thing.
But the idea of experimental
film turned me on certainly.
I suddenly found that
everything was permitted.
You could go anywhere
with any material.
You should not hold back.
Your whole unconscious, your whole belief
should sputter out, should come out.
It was really trying to find
a new form of expression.
Experimental film has been around
as long as film has been around.
But all the early
works are now lost.
The earliest experimental
films that still exist
were all made at the close of World
War I in 1919 and the early 20s.
Those artists,
frustrated by the war,
wanted the post-war world to be radically
different from the world before the war.
So they experimented in all forms:
cubism, Dadaism, surrealism.
This film was made
by Viking Eggeling,
also a Dadaist and close
colleague of Hans Richter.
He died one year after
this film was released.
The whole tradition of
avant-gardism of course
came out of rebellion against
the society, completely.
In 1914 the World War
I was such a drastic
disaster compared to previous wars,
which were jockeying of potentates,
but World War I was so destructive.
The little society of artists
were disgusted to such an extent
that they threw out art also.
Although the filmmakers were expressing
complete freedom and playfulness,
this was sometimes
misinterpreted as rebelliousness.
Between the two wars, some German
filmmakers got into trouble.
The Nazis banned this film
made by Hans Richter in 1927,
Ghosts Before Breakfast.
A friend of mine had suggested to make
a film about rebellion of revolvers.
Now you can't make a film
about rebellion of revolvers
because a revolver that
rebels doesn't shoot,
so not shooting is not an action,
you know, it's just
a piece of iron.
So I discarded this.
But I said all right we
make a rebellion of objects.
We all wore bowler hats.
At the time we didn't want
to be recognized as artists
so we all had bourgeois bowler hats
like the businessmen in
Wall Street or in London.
So we put black strings
through the bowler hats,
a piece of cardboard
inside, a long stick
and swung these bowler
hats in front of the camera.
And it looked awfully nice.
It looked like a swarm of pigeons!
Suddenly a kind of rhythm developed
which became a kind
of political satire.
I thought I could see in his face
when he told us about his early days
that he was reliving
the period before
the collapse of Germany
with the third Reich.
He had told us for example
that the Nazis saw right away
that surrealism and experimental
films had to be banned
because if objects
could get out of control,
human beings could
get out of control.
And he lost a lot of films because
he got beaten up the Nazis, the SS.
If you look at the film
Ghosts Before Breakfast
you'll see scenes of thugs
punching into the camera.
That's actually an experience he
had and he carried on his person,
when he escaped, films that
he thought were of value.
Richter was political, he was
a writer, he was a filmmaker,
and we have here in the coop collection
Ghosts Before Breakfast with the reel
that has the swastika on it.
So this is actually the reel,
you can see the iron cross.
Hans Richter was not alone.
During the 1930s and 40s, many
European artists and filmmakers
came to America where they met
American artists and filmmakers.
For example, Maya Deren
met Alexander Hammid,
an accomplished Czech filmmaker
forced to leave Prague.
The two married, and he
taught her filmmaking.
Together, the young newlyweds made
Meshes of the Afternoon in 1943,
now considered one of the most important
films of the early American avant-garde.
I'm interested in the fact that
the war engendered the radical art.
Yeah, the American art wasn't taken
seriously by anyone until then.
And it's those
Europeans who came over,
who taught 'em a few kinks,
they all tried to measure up
to the exciting European art
that they'd become acquainted
with, and kind of overdid it.
And their overdoing it
made it more attention
grabbing than the European art
who were getting complacent in
accepting their importance, you know.
Tell where you have been,
tell what you have seen.
The Mekas brothers, Jonas and
Adolfas, also emigrated to America
from Lithuania because of the war.
They dreamt of making films, and
as soon as they landed in New York
they got hold of a 16mm
camera, and they did make films!
They documented daily life in the
immigrant communities of Brooklyn.
From this would evolve the
diary style of filmmaking.
Jonas also started writing
for a small neighborhood paper
called The Village Voice,
promoting experimental films.
Suddenly the Voice
multiplied its readership,
and Jonas became an
influential film critic.
We wanted to share
our films with...
among ourselves and all
others interested in them,
and so we rented
spaces to show them
and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
You know the Village Voice as a newspaper
took off during newspaper strike.
It was the only paper in New York
for however long that strike lasted.
And it went from a circulation of 200
people to 200.000 people or whatever.
And I guess it stayed up
there ever since, I don't know,
but that's when it
became a big newspaper.
At that point or at that time,
Jonas was writing his little
column which then became widespread.
And Jonas included
me very generously
as one of the important
avant-garde filmmakers.
It was a very specific scene
and it was surprisingly
separate from the art world.
There was the experimental film
world, which was more or less downtown,
and uptown was more or less
at that time the art world.
Not that the Museum of Modern Art
didn't show experimental films, they did.
But it seemed as if people from
the art world didn't come downtown,
except for when Warhol would show at
these theaters that Jonas used to use.
There was the Charles Theater
in the Lower East Side.
You could show up with
a roll of film or a film,
and they would show
it, and let you in free.
I said I have a short film, and
it was all originals, you know,
and I could play it with
78rpm phonograph records.
And it happened that Jonas was in
the audience on this amateur night.
He found out where I lived,
and I had no telephone - poor
- and his card said to call him.
And I phoned him on
a public telephone.
He said he wanted to show the film.
I said well, it's not really
a film, it's just rolls,
and I can't afford
to make a print of it.
He gave me the name of a lab
and said "charge it to me."
And so I said, "I
have a second film.
Can I bring it in also?"
I mean, this was an angel, right?
Jonas started organizing
screenings and helping filmmakers,
even though he had no
finances of his own.
Twenty years ago when
I applied for the visa,
my first visa to America,
Jonas Mekas was my
financial sponsor
although he didn't have
a penny in the bank.
Luckily the American consulate
in Tokyo didn't check his bank,
so I could sneak in.
Now twenty years later, today Jonas
is as bad financially as at that time
but as good at that time
editorially, if I may say.
There was an audience
at the beginning?
There was an audience
at the beginning?
Yes, yes there was
always an audience!
That's very optimistic. A
very optimistic statement...
you assume there was
an audience, yes, hmm...
I thought the audience
was mostly other filmmakers
that would, you know,
go to the Charles,
and I don't really think
until Jonas had the Voice
to get at the news that there
were people making films,
people making film art,
that an audience
began to come around.
Then it was really a good audience,
mostly artists, and very serious.
Well, pretty serious.
I showed New York Eye and
Ear Control in 1964 or 65
at one of these theaters of Jonas'.
It was shown with
a film of Warhol's,
and he always had a huge entourage
so that normal audiences
were maybe ten people,
that would be about it
- the same people too -
but whenever he was there,
there was a huge crowd.
And New York Eye and Ear
Control was shown first,
and his group hated it, they
threw things at the screen
and stomped and whistled
and all that kind of shit,
which was really rather annoying.
But when it was over, Andy and
I think it was Gerard Malanga
ran back to the projection
booth where I was standing,
and they were very excited! They
said, what is this? This is fantastic!
Who made this? Who are you?
And all this kind of stuff.
Where most artists and filmmakers
were leaving Europe for America,
Robert Breer did the opposite. He
left America for France in 1949.
Robert Breer
experimented in animation,
making every frame different
from every other frame.
I can remember one of the first
times publicly was in Paris,
and Agnes Varda
was invited and I...
the two of us were invited
to show our avant-garde films.
Agnes Varda, and then
myself, got up on the stage
and stood around there and talked
a little bit shyly, at least I did,
and then showed our films.
And my films I remember being a very
mixed reaction with the audience,
and somebody coming up to me angry
because I was destroying
their vision with my film.
And it was an explosion
of hostility afterwards.
Instead of any supportive applause
there was this long silence
and then hostile questions,
one being a man
standing up and saying,
"Mr. Breer, I see you
don't respect Napoleon."
I'd made fun of Napoleon in
one of my other films I guess.
Anyhow in general they were offended
by how disorganized my films looked.
When I made this big step for
me and small step for mankind,
when I went to changing radically
not just the shape of frames
but doing it, changing the
shape, 24 times a second,
I just put whatever came to my
mind on the table under the camera.
So at some point it includes
the head and face of my cat
whom I grabbed and stuck under the lens
for one shot, for one or two frames.
So that's how I made the film.
That was completely
nonsensical or radical,
depending on how you look at it.
Nonsensical for most people,
because the film had been...
the big achievement of film was to record
movement smoothly as though in reality
and of course it made film the
most wonderful medium in the world,
and what I was doing was
trashing it, in a way.
But I was trashing it in the name
of something new and different,
you know, "avant-garde" which in
the painting world was important.
Do it here.
When Courbet painted his
L'Apres-dinee a Ornans,
which showed normal common people,
and he painted it in a big format,
it caused a scandal
which almost ruined him,
because the big format had
been reserved for big themes,
religious themes, etcetera.
So the only thing is, when you smoke
your first cigar, maybe you vomit
because your body receives something
he is not sure he will survive,
so that's the shock,
from any kind that is new.
So, the fact that you don't have
success does not come from cinema,
it comes from doing something which
brings people into another realm
where they have not been before
and they get scared, that's it.
Isidore Isou actively pushed
film into this new scary realm.
He too had emigrated in
1945 from Romania to Paris,
and there he created
the Letterist movement,
making poems, paintings, films,
and writing political theory.
Letterism was an attempt
to break art forms down
into their constituent
parts or letters,
building new languages
out of the rubble.
Maurice Lemaitre
joined his movement
and he too started
creating Letterist films,
aggressively pushing the art of
film into uncharted territory.
The Letterists made films
from scraps of found footage,
scrounging used strips of film
from garbage bins behind film labs.
People tell me
filmmaking is expensive,
but all you need is a dark
room with running water,
some chemicals and some free time.
Do-it-yourself is the credo
of the independent filmmaker.
The ideas come from
your tools and materials.
Many of these experimental film
artists didn't start in film,
even though there was film. They
started in graphics of some kind.
That was certainly
the case with Richter,
who was always a
draughtsman and a painter,
and it was the case
with Vanderbeek too,
who was making collages, and
then he filmed these collages
and then he filmed these collages in a
way which enabled him to move them around
so that on screen you had
what amounted to animation.
Years later, Terry Gilliam
took some of those same ideas
for those montage sequences
you saw in Monty Python.
Those come right out of Vanderbeek.
Stan was living with a group of other
people in a kind of communal situation
about two hours from New
York, north of New York.
As I remember it, the Moviedrome
was literally built in the woods,
and became like an
adjunct to his house.
Stan's idea was that all over
the world there should be places
where people could
go and see movies.
They should see movies the
way you would see the heavens,
you'd lie on your back and look up.
To me this was a
homemade planetarium.
How many films were actually
shown there I don't know.
But he was always experimenting
with different kinds of projectors
and different ways of
introducing an audience to a film.
We sat in the Moviedrome,
leaned back against the wall...
It was never completely
finished! There was always,
"watch out there's a gangplank
there... don't trip over that wire..."
He, after all, was the man
who filmed on naked dancers;
he filmed on steam...
I once went to a theater
where people danced in steam
and Vanderbeek projected
his films against them.
So that was one side of
Vanderbeek. On the other side,
he was able to go into Bell Labs
and talk his way into them giving him
money and studio space out in New Jersey,
so he may have been slightly
mad, but he wasn't a madman.
Vanderbeek was always a
wonderful contradiction to me.
On the one hand he was
outrageously experimental.
You could never imagine Stan
saying "nah that'll never work."
If you suggested something
he'd say, "well let's try it!"
He was a Dadaist,
an American Dadaist,
and he worked in many media.
On the other hand, he
was very self-disciplined.
I think this served him very well.
He was a decent businessman
on top of everything else.
Later I did another
documentary with Stan.
And he invited us up to MI to film him in a space that he
called the Architecture Room.
It was the size of
a big living room,
floor to ceiling, all four walls,
banks of electric equipment,
all in service to a little
monitor on a table with a keyboard.
Suppose we consider the computer
a tool, very much like the hammer,
although we don't know what to
make with it or what to do with it.
So for the last two years
I've been here at MI as an artist fellow at the Center
for Advanced Visual Studies,
and the attitude I've had is to explore
what these new technologies mean to us.
I believe that there's an
enormously important future
in the development of new
communications systems that artists,
literally all around the
world will try to deal with.
You could draw a
picture of a house,
the way a child would
draw a picture of a house,
and then you could enter a command
which would rotate that 360 degrees.
Jesus was Stan excited!
This was a big deal in those days.
I remember at one point
in the filming a dog
walked through the architecture room.
Nobody paid the slightest attention.
Everyone was glued to that monitor.
I'd like to show
you now a small film
that I actually jokingly
call computer fingerpainting,
which uses a system
very similar to this one
that we just are working with now.
It's called Symmetricks.
Your children, 14-15 years old
will be able to work with
this in probably 3-4 years.
Art schools of the future
will teach programming
as much as they teach life drawing.
There's a whole new
definition of communications
which are now in our hands potentially,
if we can get our hands on them.
I wonder what Vanderbeek
would think now,
where the average iPhone has
more computing power in it
than a million
architecture rooms at MIT.
It was Vanderbeek who coined the
term 'underground cinema' in 1963.
He was a founding member of the filmmaker's
cooperative and even drew the logo.
And like the other
filmmakers, he seeked out ways
to finance his prolific
filmmaking hobby.
I wondered about this
and I asked Jonas Mekas.
I asked him, how a poor
immigrant, working in factories,
could afford to shoot so much film?
During that period I made
Lost Lost Lost and Walden.
I always managed to
buy a roll of film.
I mean, you do all kinds of jobs,
factories, all kinds of places...
You can always afford one roll
of film per month or per week.
On 8th avenue and 50th
street there was a place
that was selling black and
white film for like one dollar.
Everybody said, ah look at the
quality, this black and white,
like washed out, that
interesting quality-
no that's because
the film was outdated!
And you could buy it cheap.
So it was not... it was
cheaper than video today.
Because okay, you do video,
but then you have to edit it,
you need other technologies,
and it's becoming more
expensive than film.
Film was cheap.
Hunger, you know.
Just hunger, man.
Walking one night, walking
home through Chinatown,
man there was a bag of garbage food
in front of one of the restaurants
and spilling out
of it were greasy -
this is going to
disgust you, folks!
greasy spare ribs, cold greasy
spare ribs thrown out in the garbage.
I looked at it, picked up a
couple and began to eat them.
Yeah. That was the worst.
Even though filmmaking
was exciting,
especially so-called experimental
filmmaking was an exciting way to go,
but I could never sell them
to large numbers of people,
and that came as a shock
and a disappointment to me,
I didn't know what the hell to do.
Didn't Len Lye go on
strike as a filmmaker?
Oh he quit making films
and he was very disappointed
because he was given a Brussels
or some prestigious award
which had a little
bit of money with it,
as the most, the best,
avant-garde filmmaker,
but because there was no follow-up
and no real money from that,
he was disgusted that he
got that much attention.
Before his strike, Len Lye had been
working as a filmmaker for hire,
for the British post office.
This was one way experimental
filmmakers could make a living.
He was allowed to experiment
at the post office,
where he pioneered and innovated
in almost every film technique.
This film, Rainbow Dance, using
one of the first color processes,
involved very complex
printing tricks.
This was 1935. While most
films were in black and white,
Lye's film stood out like fireworks
from the features it often preceded.
Audiences loved it.
The Post Office Savings
Bank puts a pot of gold
at the end of the rainbow for you.
No deposit too small, the
Post Office Savings Bank.
OK, well we'll loosen it
all and get in what we can.
Lye segued into the art
world through his sculptures,
but his films were never
part of the art world.
Galleries couldn't sell films.
The filmmakers found
themselves in a no-mans-land,
between the commercial film
industry and the art world.
The galleries are hostile.
Its place is artificial.
I mean, people doing this thing like
making limited numbers of prints.
For what reason? Only to make
something artificially rare.
It's horrible. It's a lie.
The modern art museums always had
the filmmaker part of the museum -
it's probably still true
- are the poorest part of the museum.
I don't know how long that will
last but I'm sure it's still true.
They don't, they aren't
given nearly as much money
as the main part of the art museum,
because the art museum can still
sell these unique pieces to people
because art collecting
is anal, you know?
I thought these
films were great art.
I wanted galleries and
museums to recognize that.
So in 2005 I started a gallery
to try and show experimental
films in the art world.
Here is the FIAC art fair in Paris,
in which I invited Jonas, Peter
and others to show their work.
Peter Kubelka started making
films in Vienna in the 50s.
He invented a new approach to
filmmaking called metric montage,
based not on the content of
the shots but on their length.
He made ADEBAR in 1957,
showing it both as a
film and as a sculpture.
The work was 50 years old when
I suggested we try selling it.
In fact, when I showed the film
in Alpbach, the print broke.
And this film cannot miss a frame.
If you miss a frame or two,
the rhythm will be gone.
So I said, no more and the print
will only live further like this.
Then I put it on
these wooden things,
and it would move in the wind,
and then during the night it got wet
and then the wind would tear it apart,
then the people came and
started to snip off pieces...
This is for example, this
is the most sentimental shot.
It starts as the movement.
It starts with a man and a woman
and then the woman dances
out and the man remains alone.
See, this is the Hollywood departure,
but Hollywood takes 90 minutes for that
and I take exactly 52 frames.
A little more than two seconds.
-Yeah, a little more than two seconds.
My films are made like sculptures,
they are not made on an editing table
or with the help of the
projector because at that time -
it's not even my merit -
because I was too poor
to have a projector,
and too poor to have
an editing table.
I had just enough money
to film that minute.
In fact I had two
minutes of material,
one Arriflex reel of 60 meters
which is two minutes, that was all.
And I had one light
which I put on the wall
so I couldn't have even filmed the
faces, because there was not enough light.
It was only enough
to get silhouettes.
So an important factor in the making
of my films were my life circumstances.
So these are as much
sculptures as they are film,
but in addition, they
are their own score.
When you read the film like this,
and you know how fast you read,
and you can learn this much faster
than learning to read a musical score.
If you work on it for
two weeks you can do it.
Memorizing, you can memorize it.
And for example you
can measure the speed.
The way artworks are
handled now is very strange,
namely as a commodity
of business, you see?
It will change again, it will get
over, but today now this is horrible.
And it creates a completely
new genre of people
who do something which
they call art but it isn't,
it's commodities,
decoration, and so on.
So I wanted to ask you,
how did you guys meet?
It was December,
end of '63, December,
maybe it was the last day of the
year, in Knokke-le-Zoute Belgium,
in the experimental film festival
which was run by the great friend,
great guy, Jacques Ledoux.
-Yes, it was this guy.
So the screening of miscellaneous,
some so-so, mostly pretty bad movies
that many people liked and
applauded and had great time.
And then this film comes up
and it says Arnulf Rainer,
and the audience is
silent. Everybody's silent.
Then some people begin
to make some noises.
Then I think maybe there
were even some boos.
And then some left.
Reaction was to me so disgusting
that I left immediately, did
not want to see anything else,
and leave the theatre, and I
see this guy standing there,
sort of like he had been
beaten on the head with a board,
sort of, you know pretty quiet.
I said, that must be Peter Kubelka!
So I came and I said, boy that
was great! That was a masterpiece!
We stayed friends all
our lives since then.
We never had a falling out
and we always are friends.
And we do different things
and we are still friends,
we are friends despite everything.
There is a question of
solidarity and recognition,
that somebody else is doing
that is not commercial, not,
though it's something
very, very, very different,
but like somebody who is doing...
you feel solidarity with somebody,
that, yeah we are in
the same area, you see.
And influence is something else.
So there is like friendship, more than
influencing, you see, which gives you,
helps you to do the
way you want to do,
because somebody else is doing
the way he or she is doing
with no compromise.
"No compromise" is how Stan
Brakhage made his life work.
Over five decades he filmed
or painted close to 400 films.
He too struggled to make a living
even though he is considered one of the
most important figures in 20th century art.
He lived in Colorado.
Here we see him filmed
by Jonas Mekas in 1967,
and here we see him in New York
with Jonas, filmed by me in 2000.
Three years later I was invited by
French television to interview Brakhage,
sick with cancer, at
his new home in Canada.
It happened to be
his last interview.
He told me his films
were like poems,
and should be understood
and felt as poems,
an adventure in perception.
At least what my integrity was
that I did not fake being a poet
and for that reason I believe
that the muse who permits -
who is that part of human consciousness
that permits the creation of an art or not -
allowed me to do
something with film.
Huh! And you can say, what! For me?
Film for me? Thanks a lot!
Every time you turn around
it costs you a fortune,
it'll destroy your whole
life, you know, you can't...
Press the button but once and
you've spent fifty dollars, you know.
But anyway, that was the
gift that was given to me,
and so long as I remain true
to that and the other arts
(and I've always been very careful
therefore to do so, to be so),
I could be a filmmaker.
It is made with my
fingernails, with my spit.
"This is the spit of
the poet!", you know.
The spit of the filmmaker, as I
won't fancy myself as a poet, nope.
The spit of the filmmaker!
And it's made from
the nails themselves,
feeling, pressing,
making an impress
of whatever feelings there are
to them in space and shape and so.
So thus maybe a little film is
being born, maybe not, who knows.
But I'm trying, I'm trying.
I'm trying from this
sickbed to sing a song.
I miss Stan.
We had real serious shadow hunger,
and we were looking for
a movie to grab onto.
One time we walked into this theater
that was showing Green Mansions,
'cause maybe something might
be happening with that movie.
And it ended up with us trying to find
just something to have an experience.
Like looking at the film - it was
a color film, a big color film -
so if somebody was sitting and had some
gap between their arm and their body,
you might want to look at
the film through the gap,
so it would have this
shape, or upside-down.
And we ended up with our heads against
the screen looking up at it like this,
and an usher came and very politely
told us that we would have to leave.
But it was out of desperation.
The film industry was even less
receptive than the galleries.
Finally the filmmakers got together
and took matters into their own hands.
Led by the Mekas brothers,
they set up their own distribution
cooperatives and networks and cinematheques,
and these are still active today.
Nobody wanted to
distribute our films.
So we had to create our
own distribution center.
Possible, not possible,
there was nobody who wanted to
distribute them to begin with.
How did everyone know everybody
else to get together at first?
I called them, my brother, myself,
we called them in January '62,
said it's time that we create our own
film cooperative distribution center.
And about 25 filmmakers,
or about 20 or so,
came and we all
said yes let's do it,
and we created our own
distribution center.
OK, you're visiting the New American
Cinema Group, the filmmakers' coop,
founded in 1961 by a group
of 22 New York artists.
The coop was founded as
part of the counterculture.
It wasn't just isolated
New York Film Coop.
It was part of a movement,
like Free Cinema in England,
or the French New Wave.
And the manifesto is that
it's a personal vision.
It's: anyone can make a movie; you
can make a movie for fifty dollars.
So what they did is formed a network of
distribution, exhibition, publication.
With money generated
from distribution,
the coop even helped
sponsor some filmmakers.
Jack Smith,
when the cooperative advanced
monies for Normal Love,
he pulled out, he refused to pay,
so that the filmmakers suffered.
In 1970, Jonas and friends
founded a museum for film
called Anthology Film Archives.
The idea behind its founding was to
create a museum for the art of film,
that was solely focused
on film as an art form,
and it came out of the screenings
that were happening at a place called
the Filmmakers' Cinematheque in
New York City in the mid-1960s.
And Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill,
Peter Kubelka and P. Adams Sitney
were the four people who are
responsible for founding Anthology
and for realizing this
idea to create a museum
that would be a permanent
home for the kinds of
avant-garde and experimental
and personal films
that they were screening at
the filmmakers' cinematheque.
The idea was that we'll
establish a collection
which will slowly
grow as time goes,
always every year adding new
titles of the most representative,
the best of what is being done
in cinema as we move ahead.
What you see on the first floor here
where the prison cells used to be,
that is the first floor film
preservation area, or vault.
It took nine years, from the time Jonas
acquired this building for Anthology
to raise the funds and do the
work to renovate this building.
During the last 20-30 years,
cinema has branched out into
numerous directions and branches,
very personal documentary
films, diary films,
very personal, small, poem,
little poems maybe one minute
long, maybe ten minutes long,
maybe six-seven hours long.
There's a variety of
different approaches to cinema
that has developed during
the last 2 or 3 decades.
And Anthology Film Archives
is dedicated to the screening,
preservation and study
of all these directions.
I remember going to - what was
it called, the invisible cinema? -
that was built by Peter Kubelka,
where you sat encased in a black box,
with only one opening namely forward
where you could see the screen,
isolated from everyone
else in the theater.
It was only the screen and
you, only you and the screen.
It was a very specially designed
theater that was Kubelka's...
dream. -Did you like it?
Yes, that was a dream theater.
Jonas Mekas was in charge, and
he was the most exciting person,
I mean he just got
excited about anything,
and he got excited
about just leader.
And so I decided well if he can get
excited about leader I'd just do leader.
And so I just did a lot of
leader, and it was exciting.
Since 1970 when we
opened, what happened?
The native American
Indian cinema happened,
the black cinema, the
Asian-American cinema,
the gay-lesbian cinema,
so many varieties of other cinemas
came in and they all need homes
because commercial movie theaters
are not going to show them,
so Anthology became home to all
the alternative forms of cinema.
Even with no funding, no audience,
no way to make a living, no
means to finance their art,
the poets of cinema, the
experimental filmmakers, go on.
New young filmmakers
appear on the scene,
children replace their
parents, the coops continue.
Life goes on, cinema goes on.
One of the things that's
happening now on the scene is fear.
You know, evictions,
the economy's bad...
When I went to
Hannover, I went to...
the Hannover museum had a
recreation of Kurt Schwitter's studio
that was bombed by of
course the US forces
while he was in the
studio creating his art.
It was like, all right, if
you're an artist you create,
no matter what the political
climate, it's part of your...
it's part of being political, is to
create, to express your personal vision.
My ambition was to capsize
the United States of America.
Did it work?
Art is something really necessary
for the survival of mankind.
That's the challenge as
I see it, for the artist
and as well for the fabric
of our whole society.
We must reach out,
somehow, communicate,
balance our senses,
and live a good life.
I don't know what it means, but
art means nothing in this sense.
It means only what it is.
Art means being.
It's a new form of being.
The artist is not a holy man, but
he is on the way to be a holy man,
and when he creates, he is holy.
That is the duty of the artist.
That does not mean that
he has no social duty,
of course, but he is a part of the
time, he is a product of the time.
What he expresses is only what
the ordinary people do not hear,
do not hear, feel or sense
as clearly as he does.
My dear friends, we've only
seen a handful of filmmakers.
This is only a very
small part of the story.
We've only scratched the surface.
From generation to
generation, cinema is evolving.
Today, dozens of filmmaking
communities everywhere
are inventing new techniques
and bringing us new images.
Some use new technologies, but the
old ones are still surprising us.
Artist-run film labs, coops,
festivals and microcinemas
are multiplying all over the world.
Today, making a film is
easier than ever before.
There are so many, hundreds
of films to see, and to make.
But today I only have one for you.
This one. Free Radicals.