The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of
1960s American Experimental Cinema
THE EXPLODING EYE: A RE-VISIONARY HISTORY OF 1960s AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA will explore the work of lesser-known American experimental filmmakers of the period from 1960-1969. Although the works of a number of cinema artists during this explosive era of American filmmaking are well-known to the contemporary scholar of independent cinema, there is an entire body of work created in the 1960s which has been overlooked, work of considerable beauty and influence that was enthusiastically received when first released, and which is still available for viewing today, waiting for rediscovery that is long overdue.
Figures covered in THE EXPLODING EYE: A RE-VISIONARY HISTORY OF 1960s AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA include Barbara Rubin, Robert Nelson, Stan Vanderbeek, Paul Sharits, Robert Breer, Ben Van Meter, Warren Sonbert, Ron Rice, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Marie Menken, Gerard Malanga, Jud Yalkut, Scott Bartlett and many others. All of these filmmakers shared one thing in common: a highly personal and deeply felt vision of a new and anarchic way of looking at film and video, fueled by the inexhaustible Romanticism of the era, and the fact that film and video were both very "cheap" mediums in which to work during the 1960s.
Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol's assistant, produced the beautiful films In Search of the Miraculous (1967), Preraphaelite Dream (1968), and The Recording Zone Operator (1968); the last film mentioned was shot in Rome, Italy in 35mm Technicolor/Techniscope in the winter of 1968. A different vision is that of Ron Rice, whose feature film The Flower Thief (1960), was shot in 16mm black and white using 50' film cartridges left over from aerial gunnery equipment used during World War II. Rice's Senseless (1962), and Chumlum (1964) are also worth noting; the New York Herald Tribune described Chumlum as "a bizarre dream, in riotous color."
New-Narrative filmmaking in the Independent American Cinema can be seen in Stanton Kaye's Georg (1964) and Brandy in the Wilderness (1969); Larry Kardish's 80 minute Slow Run (1968) is a relaxed and sensual narrative possessed of enormous power and intelligence. The pioneering montagist Max Katz should be remembered for his dazzling editorial construct Wisp (1963), and his 77 minute feature film Jim the Man (1970). José Rodriguez Soltero produced Jerovi (1965), Lupe (1966), an elegiac remembrance of Hollywood actress Lupe Velez, and the rigorously formalist feature film Dialogue with Ché (1968), which was successfully presented at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals in 1969, and widely reviewed.
Vernon Zimmerman's Lemon Hearts (1960), stars the gifted actor Taylor Mead in no less than eleven roles, and is an improvisational comedy shot on a shoe-string budget in San Francisco. Ray Wisniewski's Doomshow (1964) and Bud Wirtschafter's What's Happening? (1963) are documents of "happenings" (partially staged theatrical-events) featuring such pioneering New York artists as Allan Kaprow, Yvonne Rainer, La Monte Young and Dick Higgins. Ben van Meter's S. F. Trips Festival: An Opening (1967) is a gorgeously multiple exposed record of a "happening" on the West Coast, and has much in common with Wisniewski's and Wirtschafter's work.
Jud Yalkut, originally a New York based filmmaker associated with the USCO Lightshow group, has continuously made films since the early 1960s, of which Kusama's Self-Obliteration (1967), a record of a "happening" conducted by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and US Down By the Riverside (1966) are perhaps best known. Masao Adachi's Wan: Rice Bowl (1962) is an early example of Japanese expatriate American cinema, as is Edd Dundas's The Burning Ear (1965). Robert Downey Sr., whose popularity was widespread in the 1960s, produced the satiric narratives Babo 73 (1964) and Chafed Elbows (1966) earlier in his career; they have not been screened publicly for more than a decade. Satya Dev Dubey's Barriers (1967), shot in 35mm, is the work of an Indian expatriate in New York.
A group of influential feature films by New American Cinema artists seldom screened today includes Jock Livingston's Dadaist-influenced comedy Zero in the Universe (1966), David Secter's Winter Kept Us Warm (1968), revolving around a gay love affair on a Canadian college campus, Dick Higgins's The Flaming City (1963), a hard-edged "Beat" epic about Manhattan life on the margins and Robert Kramer's Ice (1969) dealing with a futurist cell of political revolutionaries; all of these films are certainly worthy of revival. Christopher MacLaine's films Beat (1958), The Man Who Invented Gold (1957), Scotch Hop (1959 and The End (1953) are all documents of the San Francisco "Beat" era; seldom screened today, these films provide a tantalizing peek into the world of a vanished yet still influential subculture.
The late Scott Bartlett's films Metanomen (1966), Off/On (1968) and Moon (1969) exemplified San Francisco's preferred form of cinematic discourse for a later generation of artists, poets, writers and videomakers; indeed, Bartlett's Off/On is one of the first films to mix film and video imagery together into a spatial congruent image mix. The visual structures of Bartlett's films influenced the images we see on MTV today, as well as the digital special effects employed in many contemporary feature films. During his life, Bartlett was sponsored by such filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola. Yet today, despite their undiminished impact and undeniable influence, Bartlett's films are seldom shown.
The works of Shirley Clarke and Maya Deren are well-known, but the films of their contemporary Storm De Hirsch are often marginalized. De Hirsch's Goodbye in the Mirror (1964), to pick just one film from De Hirsch's considerable body of work, is a 35mm feature film shot in Rome dealing with the lives of three young American women living abroad; screened at the Locarno and Cannes Film Festivals in 1964, and in Vancouver in 1966, this transcendent and ambitious narrative film is only one example of early Feminist cinema that led to the later work of Yvonne Rainer, Jane Campion, Sally Potter, Julie Dash and others.
Dorothy Wiley and Gunvor Nelson's Schmeerguntz (1966) and Fog Pumas (1967) operate in a zone of feminist discourse which has been more widely appreciated abroad, particularly in Sweden, than in the United States. Carolee Schneemann is best known for her films Fuses (1964-68) and Plumb Line (1968-72), which both deserve wider exposure. Naomi Levine, Marie Menken and Barbara Rubin have also created works of considerable depth and beauty. This list of women in the world of experimental cinema could be extended with other names of individuals who have worked in the cinema for many years, but who have yet to receive the sustained canonical inclusion their work so clearly deserves.
These figures are just a few of the many individuals covered in THE EXPLODING EYE: A RE-VISIONARY HISTORY OF 1960s AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA; the book had its debut at The Museum of Modern Art on November 7-9, 1997, in conjunction with four screenings of independent films from the period, and a series of lectures by Wheeler Winston Dixon.
Critic Susan J. Hubert writes:
In THE EXPLODING EYE, Wheeler Winston Dixon surveys the films of the 1960s' American independent cinema movement. According to Dixon, these films "continue to have enormous repercussions in contemporary cinema practice" (1). He focuses primarily on obscure works, although he also includes well-known films and artists. A short epilogue covers 1970s filmmakers whose work is continuous with the experimental cinema of the 1960s. Among the filmmakers discussed in The Exploding Eye are Sara Kathryn Arledge, St. Claire Bourne, Robert Downey, Sr., Amy Greenfield, Barbara Hammer, Pedro Heliczer, Gerard Malanga, Yoko Ono, Barbara Rubin, Warren Sonbert, and Andy Warhol.
Dixon is eminently qualified to write on the independent filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s; he has written several books on cinema studies, is the [former] Chair of the Film Studies Program at the University of Nebraska, and is an independent filmmaker whose career began in the 1960s. "In the 1960s," Dixon writes, "the entire fabric of human existence was being called into question, and discourse in both the arts and abstract philosophical inquiry was being practiced in the open, as part of the social economy of everyday existence" (1). His main purpose for The Exploding Eye was to initiate "the process of historical renewal which this period so necessarily requires" (5).
Following the introduction, in which Dixon argues for the continuing importance of the independent cinema of the 1960s, THE EXPLODING EYE provides a compendium of the movement. The entries, which are imbedded in a continuous narrative form, are arranged in alphabetical order by filmmaker. In addition, the book contains seventy-three illustrations, which include film stills and photographs of the filmmakers. Dixon also lists rental outlets for most of the films in the book. The presentation of material, however, resembles a film documentary more than a reference book. Dixon includes excerpts from interviews, correspondence, and other writings by the filmmakers, and he strives "to privilege the voice of each artist above all other considerations" (p. 4). Although Dixon's voice is also present throughout THE EXPLODING EYE, he never steps completely outside the world of the book. His perspective shapes the documentary style of presentation, but it is never the view of a spectator.
Dixon "seeks to present a new, more unifying history of the experimental cinema (of the 1960s)" (p. 4); he provides the unifying perspective and succeeds in capturing the artistic excitement of an innovative period in filmmaking [. . . ] Dixon clearly demonstrates that the experimental films of this era deserve more critical attention, and THE EXPLODING EYE will be an invaluable resource for new studies of the independent cinema of the 1960s.
About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at UNL. His many books include A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press and Edinburgh University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film, written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (Rutgers University Press and I.B. Tauris, 2008; second edition 2013). As a filmmaker, his complete works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, following a career retrospective at MoMA in 2003.
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