In some ways, American cinema is actually too well known: the commercial cinema, usually known simply as Hollywood has dominated a majority of world film traffic since about 1918, and currently seems as strong as ever. Yet, Hollywood constitutes just one kind of American cinema; since at least the 1910s, alternative, parallel currents of cinema have existed, offering alternative voices and visions to those promoted by the large commercial studios. Through the screenings, specific examples of these “independent” American cinemas will be analyzed, tracing their development and emphasizing the unique contributions each has made to American film culture.
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For most people, African-American cinema began with Spike Lee, John Singelton or Julie Dash back in the 1960s; a few might go back further to the first films with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, or Eartha Kitt. Yet in fact an independent cinema, made by and for African Americans, existed since at least 1915 until the early years of the 1950s. These films—comedies, musicals, westerns, and social films—usually featured all-African American casts, and were shown almost exclusively in African-American neighborhoods; “white” America hardly knew these films existed. This program will trace the history and development of this remarkable if little known chapter of American cinema, featuring clips from several films as well as a screening of Spencer Williams’ remarkable The Blood of Jesus (1941).
Tuesday July 18
Altered Vision: American Avant-Garde Filmmaking, 1943-1969 (RSVP here)
During the 1920s, largely in France and Germany, a new kind of cinema began to emerge. Very often made by artists already associated with other artistic media, these “avant-garde films” were a kind of an aesthetic protest against the dominance of the Hollywood film model, demonstrating the many possibilities for cinematic language. Although there were some examples of avant-garde filmmaking in the US prior to 1940, it was really in that decade—with the sudden availability of cameras sold off by the US military, and the drastic improvements in 16mm film stock, that a newly-energized film avant-garde erupted in the US. From a wide variety of backgrounds, these filmmakers made works that were not only daringly personal, but which continually pushed the boundaries of film style and language. This program will explore the intellectual and artistic roots of this movement, tracing its development through various phases and tendencies. Four short films, each exemplary of a tendency within the US avant-garde, will be screened. These include: Meshes of The Afternoon(1943; Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid), A Movie (1958; Bruce Conner), Cat’s Cradle (1959; Stan Brakhage), TOUCHING (1968; Paul Sharits).
Wednesday July 19
An American Neorealism? The case of “Salt of the Earth” (RSVP here)
In September, 1945, Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Cotta Aperta (Open City) opened in New York City. Unexpectedly, the film became a massive success, opening the doors on the US film market for foreign-language subtitled films as well as signaling the emergence of a new approach to filmmaking that would be called “neorealism.” The neorealist approach influenced filmmakers around the world, including the US; by 1947-48, its impact could be seen in a number of Hollywood films. Yet perhaps the most perfect example of American neorealism is a little-known work released in 1953, Salt of the Earth. Made by three filmmakers who had been blacklisted and forbidden to work by the studios for their political positions, the film chronicled a strike by some Mexican American miners in New Mexico; roundly denounced as “communist propaganda,” the film was violently attacked by the Hollywood studios and right-wing pressure groups. The film was hardly screened, and would have disappeared had it not been that a new generation of Americans in the late 1960s revived it and proclaimed it a cinematic landmark. This program will first look at the impact of neorealism on American cinema, and then focus on the development, suppression and resurrection of Salt of the Earth, which will be screened in its entirety.
The coming of sound cinema in the late 1920s in many ways proved problematic for documentary cinema: early sound equipment was fragile and heavy, and it was practically impossible to bring it “out in the field,” requiring filmmakers to record voiceover narrations instead. But by the late 1950s, a number of documentary filmmakers in the US, France, Canada, Poland and elsewhere were pioneering the use of highly portable sound recording equipment using magnetic recording tape. This led to nothing less than a revolution in documentary film production throughout the world. In this program, the evolution of American documentary since the early 1960s will be addressed, ranging from the earliest “synch-sound docs” such as Primary and Crisis, to the work of artists such as Frederick Wiseman, the personal documentaries of Ross McElwee and the most recent experiments of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Sequences from the following films will be screened: The Plow that Broke the Plains(1936; Pare Lorentz). Crisis (1962; Drew Associates), Hospital (1969; Frederick Wiseman), Sherman’s March (1985; Ross McElwee) and Leviathan (2012; Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Padaval).
Richard Peña has been at Columbia University since 1989, becoming full time in 1996 and being named Professor of Professional Practice in 2003. From 2006-2009, he was a Visiting Professor in Spanish at Princeton University. Professor Peña has also served as the Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Director of the New York Film Festival from 1988-2013. At the Film Society, he has organized retrospectives of many greats of the film world, as well as major filmseries devoted to African, Chinese, Cuban, Polish, Hungarian, Arab, Korean, Japanese, Soviet and Argentine cinema. He is also currently the co-hsot of TV Channel 13’s weekly film program, Reel 13.