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Neither/Nor Series with Film Critic Eric Hynes

Posted February 12, 2013

We are excited to announce the first edition of Neither/Nor, a new annual collaboration with our other half, Ragtag Cinema. This series celebrates the art of film scholarship, while offering a historical overview of “chimeras”—films straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction. Every year a film critic will select and present four films.

In the inaugural Neither/Nor, film critic Eric Hynes takes a look at New York City chimeras from the late 1960s. Eric is a widely respected freelance writer whose work has appeared frequently in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, and Slate.com. Other outlets include Cinema Scope, Film Comment, SundanceNOW and The New York Times. He is a staff writer at Reverse Shot, where he’s also the host and co-producer of the Reverse Shot Talkies video series.

For each Neither/Nor selection, Eric has written an essay and interviewed a filmmaker. These essays and interviews will be appear in a monograph available at the Ragtag box office. The first two screenings in this year’s series will take place at 6pm on February 26 and 27 at Ragtag Cinema, while the second two will be part of True/False 2013. Neither/Nor is underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

We’ll let Eric take it from here and introduce this year’s series and its films.

Chimeras have existed since the advent of film, a form that has always simultaneously offered to record and represent, to capture and simulate life. But as filmmaker Jim McBride says, “Something was in the air” in the mid-to-late 1960s, particularly in New York City, where the likes of McBride, William Greaves, D.A. Pennebaker, as well as transients Peter Whitehead and Jean-Luc Godard, were making gloriously uncategorizable works of cinematic art. It was a moment when everything and everyone seemed to be riding, or even embracing, the edge of things, when films and politics and morality suddenly seemed undefined, up for grabs, subject to reinvention. With the Civil Rights era giving way to Black Power, Kennedy idealism ceding to Johnson’s military morass, Beat Dadaism transforming into hippie agitation, and mod Godard morphing into Mao Godard, it was as if utopia and dystopia were both within reach—if not one and the same.

For these four filmmakers, as well as other fellow travelers in New York and beyond, it was a moment when politics, formal curiosity, and the sudden mobility of both the camera and sound recording invited an approach to cinema in which every shot, every gesture, every decision seemed less a statement than a question. Reality and fiction were constantly being blurred—for serious and for play, and ever sincerely. The four films in this series were all recorded during 1967-1968 in New York City, and all are both invaluable time capsules of that moment and impossible to box or bottle up. There are resonances and ricochets between these four films—having all drunk from the same wild New York well, with its fly-on-the-wall documentarians and Warholian flair, its Actor’s Studio interiority and Living Theater political absurdity, there would have to be. Viewed together they represent less of a cinematic leap forward than a scattershot concentric expansion into the beyond—beyond genre, beyond the limits of film itself.

Filmed over the summer of 1967, David Holzman’s Diary marked the advent of cinema verité by slavishly albeit fictionally aping it, while 16 months later the vanguards of that movement subtly aped themselves in 1 P.M.; in between, The Fall would both deconstruct and co-opt the movement’s objective approach, while Symbiopsychotaxiplasm cajoled its flies on the wall to swarm to the center of the room. Method actor Rip Torn bustles through 1 P.M. (as he would several chimeric films of the era), dadaist destructivists make mischief in The Fall, a salty nude model steals the show in Holzman’s, and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm closes the circle with a former Method man making an entire film crew into an extension of his own directorial performance. News and politics of the day buzz between background and foreground of all four films, from Vietnam and the Newark riots to ubiquitous activist Tom Hayden. And in the most startling overlap, an elevator rise up a half-formed skyscraper in The Fall is almost exactly matched in 1 P.M.; while the former metaphorically implies a toppling in its very title, the latter ends with a literal, time-lapse dismantling of a city tower.

Rising and falling, accumulating and dispersing, evoking and projecting, destroying and creating, these are films whose true common thread instability. And it’s instability that makes them, still, vital. Their very form—their deliberate unwieldiness—makes them perennially modern. Strictly speaking, they’re neither documentary nor drama, scripted nor spontaneous, true nor false. They’re neither/nor, and therefore pretty much anything they want to be.

Neither/Nor 2013 Selections:

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (dir. William Greaves, 1968, 75 min.)
February 26, 6pm, Ragtag Cinema

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is the cinematic equivalent of a ship listing, steadily and helplessly, over a waterfall. In the summer of 1968, venerated veteran filmmaker William Greaves set out to shoot an independent film in Central Park. The project entailed three different cameras recording three tiers of action: one filming a fictional scene in which multiple sets of actors would perform the same dialogue about a squabbling married couple; another capturing the making of that scene, triangulating the actors and their assigned camera; and a final camera widened out to the whole community of machines, actors, crewmembers and bystanders. Both in terms of the camera set ups and the rotation of performers, it’s clear from the start that process was of more importance than product. What’s not immediately but soon becomes clear is that the process was just as fucked as the product. Yet as cinematic train-wreckers go, it’s not that Greaves is hell-bent on torturing anyone, it’s more that he conducts himself with such benign ineptitude that everyone begrudgingly goes along with the inanity—for a while. It’s only when the crew starts asking questions, and steals away to record a secret bull session in which they question the wisdom of everything they’ve been asked to do, that they entertain the possibility—like prisoners realizing they’ve been caught in a maze—that Bill Greaves has been neither benign nor inept. And that’s when the film transforms from a curious shambles to the closest a meta-textual making-of whatsit gets to a thrill ride.

1P.M.  (D.A. Pennebaker, Jean-Luc Godard and Richard Leacock, 1972, 90 min.)
February 27, 6pm, Ragtag Cinema

It was like a Sixties-era cineaste supergroup. And like all such assemblage, it was destined to dissemble, to be a dream team deferred, to elicit a mess of metaphors pitting sums vs. parts. Over here you had the inexhaustible trailblazers of Direct Cinema, the most celebrated and pejoratively pegged flies on the wall, Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. Over there you had the notorious JLG, Jean-Luc Godard, the international arthouse superstar turned ardent political provocateur. Throw in method acting madman Rip Torn, rock n’ drug culture messengers the Jefferson Airplane, cult heroic polemicists Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party, national leader for Students for a Democratic Society Tom Hayden, and black nationalist poet LeRoi Jones (the soon-to-be Amiri Baraka), and you pretty much had boho 60s rabblerousing incarnate. The story is that it didn’t really come together. The story is of bafflements, bruised egos, and abandonment—a film left unfinished, and participants free to foster their legends elsewhere. Yet that story is ultimately irrelevant to the cinematic record, to what you can actually see with your eyes. Everything in 1 P.M. is shot with the same busy curiosity, simultaneously offering an astonishingly rich record of its time and place, and, by dint of the filmmakers’ many fabrications, offering an auto-critique of cinema verité itself.

The Fall (Peter Whitehead, 1969, 110 min.)
Thursday, February 28, 5pm, Little Ragtag

The Fall is a bow shot and parting shot for Peter Whitehead, a 30 year-old British filmmaker who dropped the mic and scarcely returned to the stage after all was edited and done, literally wandering the desert to teach falconry in Saudi Arabia the decades that followed. This would be tragic if the film didn’t entail a career’s worth of ideas and developments deployed at once. In town for the 1967 New York Film Festival, Whitehead was cajoled into training his lens on Gotham, the de facto capital of a civilization he found both kinetically alluring and politically deplorable. From that autumn through May of 1968, he would shoot a daunting spectrum of activity: a pro military rally in Washington Square Park, an anti-war march on D.C., art openings, art happenings, poetry readings, football games, dance parties, photo shoots, Newark in smoldering ruins, and the tide-turning sit-ins at Columbia University. An essay, a dialectical exercise, a visual and sonic experimentation, a documentary, a stunt, a record, a statement, an idea, a harangue, a grenade, an opus, The Fall presses hard against its time and place until it pulses outward to the past and future, then back in on itself, as exhausting as it is exhaustive, as totalizing as it is total.

David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967, 74 min.)
Friday, March 1, 7:30pm Little Ragtag + Saturday, March 2, 8pm Big Ragtag
With director Jim McBride!

David Holzman’s Diary comes on as a first person, documentary-style, chronological diary of David, a young man recently unemployed and potentially going off to war. David rambles for the camera about his ambitions and ideas, shoots his home and surroundings, and generally tries to give a wholistic sense of his life. The footage is so raw that it seems to be edited in camera, with David visibly switching the machine on and off, and including interstitial sequences of placement, light flares, and distorted sound. Yet it’s all a fiction. Released in 1967, director Jim McBride’s movie anticipates (and pre-satirizes) the next half-century of first-person cinema—of video cam monologues, of YouTube exhibitionism, of faux confessionals, of media’s psychic irresolution. McBride’s film is a fiction, but his script anticipated the dialogue of our contemporary lives. Do film and other media bring us closer to, or farther from, ourselves? Are we ever alone? Are we ever in control of the devices we’re meant to control? Are reflections of self ever anything but fictions? Are fictions ever anything but reflections of self? David Holzman’s Diary captures a moment when modern man was able to see better than he ever had before, yet his sense of self only got murkier.

-Eric Hynes

 
 
 
 
   
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