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On The Value of "Worthless" Endeavor
Wheeler Winston Dixon

In the 1960s, working in New York, I was part of a group of filmmakers who created films out of almost nothing at all; outdated raw stock, ancient cameras that barely functioned, often borrowed for a few days from someone else, a few lights, the barest outline of a script, and "financing" that consisted of donated labor both in front of and behind the camera. Nobody had any money; we lived in cheap apartments that cost as little as $100 a month, worked a variety of odd jobs to keep the wolf from the door, and plowed nearly everything we made back into films; films that had no market, no commercial value, and were so resolutely personal that it seemed that no one, outside of a small circle of friends, could ever possibly find them of value, worth or interest.

Wheeler Dixon in 1969; photo by Bruce Nadelson..
Wheeler Dixon in 1969; photo by Bruce Nadelson.

Sync-sound filmmaking equipment, only recently invented at that point, was beyond our financial range; so, like the early silent filmmakers, we were forced back to the primacy of the image, and we created films of deeply romantic intent using a few costumes, borrowed props, and the barest of sets. Another defining characteristic of these films was their calculated sloppiness, since we were dealing with second-, third- and fourth-rate equipment and film that was often of deeply uncertain origin; even then, it was all we could afford. So we would use every possible frame of what we shot, down to the last bit of leader streaked material at the end of the roll, in a desperate attempt to capture every last bit of our vision on film.

Shoots were organized informally; for Gerard Malanga's film In Search of the Miraculous (1966), for example, Gerard and the late Warren Sonbert, a gifted filmmaker in his own right, simply went up to the Columbia University library on an early morning and staged an impromptu dance sequence (which opens the film) in matter of minutes, which Warren photographed while walking behind the pillars of the library, so that the viewer's vision is serially obscured at regular intervals throughout the three-minute sequence. Every last frame of the footage was used, and the shoot itself was completed in fifteen minutes or less.

Often, since these films were what Man Ray would describe as "cinepoems," the structure would simply consist of shooting material that seemed to circulate around a certain theme or subject. Then, when a creative critical mass had been achieved, the filmmaker would rent or borrow editing equipment for a marathon weekend editing session, in which the material would be integrated in a fashion that was dictated by equal amounts of chance, intuition, and thematic resonance. If the finished film was to have a soundtrack, it was usually compiled from vinyl records — often scratched to death — that would be mixed and remixed on ancient reel to reel tape recorders, and then, if one was able to arrange it, transferred to an optical sound track in a clandestine "midnight session" at one of the city's many sound transfer locations, so that final print would have a proper soundtrack for screening at festivals.

In the mid-1960s, there were perhaps four hundred people in all of Manhattan who were engaged in such work, existing in the most poverty stricken circumstances, defiantly, but also consciously, as an artistic decision, rejecting the Hollywood model of script, stars, narrative cohesion and gloss, for a rougher, tougher, more resolutely stripped down vision of life. Peter Emanuel Goldman, for example, created his superb film Echoes of Silence (1965) out of nothing more than a large supply of outdated 16mm film, a spring-wound Bolex, and existing sets and locations, using his friends for actors. After starting the film with other performers, and then discarding the material, Goldman realized that by simply keeping as close as possible to the actors' faces, and more or less setting them in a situation and observing them, an essential reality came out the material that had otherwise eluded him; shot for a total of $1,600 to final print, the finished film was screened at The New York Film Festival in 1966.

In San Francisco, Ron Rice shot his feature film The Flower Thief (1960) on outdated World War II aerial gunnery film donated by, of all people, the legendarily cost-conscious Hollywood producer Sam Katzman. Rice worked with the sublimely talented Chaplinesque Taylor Mead, and he completed an entirely improvised 75 minute film on a budget of less than $1,000, with the soundtrack comprised of —once again — snatches of classical and pop music from old, scratched up records, interspersed with segments of Beat poetry. As Rice said of the film in the program notes for the premiere, "in the old Hollywood days movie studios would keep a man on the set who, when all other sources of ideas failed (writers, directors), was called upon to 'cook up' something for filming. He was called The Wild Man. The Flower Thief has been put together in memory of all dead wild men who died unnoticed in the field of stunt."

There are numerous other examples, both well-known and obscure. Andy Warhol shot his seventy- minute feature film take on Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange, rechristened Vinyl (1965), with a scenario by Ronald Tavel, in a single afternoon in 16mm sync sound for a total budget of roughly $300 to final print, using donated labor and performers who worked simply because they believed in the project. Robert Nelson shot the memorable attack on racism, Oh Dem Watermelons (1965) using the services of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, with music composed and performed by Steve Reich, again for a few hundred dollars.

Vernon Zimmerman's astoundingly ambitious twenty-six minute film Lemon Hearts (1960), featuring Taylor Mead playing no less than eleven roles, was shot for a total cost of $50 to final print, using every possible means of economy and barter. The film offers a poetic, tragi-comic vision of the absurdity of modern life, as Mead wanders through the ruins of some demolished Victorian houses while musing on the soundtrack about the heartlessness and futility of "civilization."

None of these films had an audience, or a hope of making even their minimal production cost back; they were created because their makers wanted to create them, and found congenial talented colleagues who were willing to participate in what was then viewed as utterly "worthless" work. Now, all of the films listed above are acknowledged classics of the avant-garde, and if they have retained their air of invisibility over the years because they never made the move to DVD, and in many cases are "orphan" films with no one to care for the originals, they still reside in difficult-to-see prints in archives and museums as authentic talismans of the era, and have now ironically attained a degree of rarity and value simply because the vision they present of the world is at once so raw and innocent that it authentically recalls a time which is almost incomprehensible to the contemporary viewer. Created out of nothing, these films now hold the poignant vision of a vanished culture, in which money was something that was a means to an end, and inherently suspect, because the moment that significant capital was invested in a project, it almost inevitably became compromised.

For make no mistake about it: all of these films, though created by loosely thrown together teams of actors and technicians, were the result one person's concept. And for each of these films, as rough hewn as they were, and within the considerable limitations of the film's budgets, the filmmaker's vision alone was the driving, informing voice of the work. Today, with the easy availability of video production, nearly everyone has tried their hand at making a "film" of one sort or another, but often these projects are parodies of other films, or genre pieces, informed by the history of film itself, but existing within the boundaries of conventional narrative, rather than coming from a place entirely outside the existing culture. These were outlaw films, made by people who paid dearly for their work (Ron Rice, for example, diedat the age of 29 in Mexico City of illness and malnutrition, simply because he spent every penny he had on making his films, which left nothing for his own existence, something akin to the equally tragic example of the 1930's French filmmaker Jean Vigo).

Today, when one visits Manhattan, which has now been gentrified beyond all recognition, there are no cheap apartments, no places to hang out and drink coffee all day because you have no money for food, no cheap loft space in which to create raw, powerful work out of scrap material, no lower East Side "alphabet city" of mean streets where apartments could be had for as little as $50 a month, and little or no community dedicated to the pursuit of supposedly "worthless" work. The outer boroughs are also outrageously expensive; it used to be, in Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe's words that "only the dead know Brooklyn" — now it too has become a tourist friendly recreation zone.

Andy Warhol, in the early 1960s, found it hard to sell his early pop paintings, because they seemed so "easy" to make — being silk-screened in a matter of seconds — that it seemed that Warhol would always be there to make another painting, and then another, and indeed, in 1962 or so, one could buy a Warhol painting for as little as $100, if one went directly to the artist's studio, then located in a rundown firehouse with no heat, water, or electricity. And, of course, despite the fact that his brother Theo was an art dealer, Vincent Van Gogh was unable to sell a single painting in his entire lifetime; today, he's an industry. Henry Miller spent much of his life writing and working in a cabin on books that he thought no one would ever publish, living on the barest necessities, and cadging loans from Frances Steloff of the Gotham Book Mart — for many years, his pleading letters for $20 or $40 were stuck up on a bulletin board in the front of the story, mute testimony to the circumstances of Miller's precarious existence.

The only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or banks. With the current deepening financial crisis, it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of "outlaw" art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove — in the long run — dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists listed above created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation in the cinema, and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It's only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn't point in a new direction. It's the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.

Contributor's Note

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at UNL, and with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly film journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books include the 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; forthcoming, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; second printing 2011), 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; five printings through 2011). 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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