The Savage Eye (Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, and Joseph Strick, 1960)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Savage Eye.

Los Angeles at the end of the 1950s. A recent divorceé arrives to break free of the past and journeys into the tawdry side of urban life, seeking refuge in salons and strip clubs, among poker-players and faith-healers, near boxing rings and in the drag scene. Out of the darkness, a voice speaks to her, questioning her cynicism and prodding her to find inspiration in the world around her. A hallmark of the direct cinema movement, The Savage Eye is an experimental documentary made over four years, told with poetic elegance by filmmakers Sidney Meyers, Ben Maddow, and Joseph Strick and featuring music by renowned composer Leonard Rosenman and footage shot by acclaimed photographer Helen Levitt and cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Jack Couffer.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • Restored high definition digital transfer with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New video interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith
  • People of the Cumberland, Sidney Meyers’ 1937 short film directed with Elia Kazan, Jay Leyda, and Bill Watts
  • In the Street, James Agee, Helen Levitt, and Janice Loeb’s 1948 short film on street life in New York’s Spanish Harlem
  • Muscle Beach, Joseph Strick and Irving Lerner’s 1948 short film
  • The Quiet One, two versions of Sidney Meyers’ 1948 film, one featuring a narration by Gary Merrill and another featuring a previously unreleased narration by James Agee
  • The Steps of Age, Ben Maddow’s 1950 short film for the Mental Health Film Board
  • Interviews with My Lai Veterans, Joseph Strick’s 1971 short film
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum

Standing with hallmark works of the first American New Wave like Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1957), John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy (1959), and Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1961), the experimental documentary The Savage Eye began with Joseph Strick filming in and around Los Angeles on a wind-up Eyemo camera. Strick would co-direct, produce, and edit the film with Sidney Meyers and Ben Maddow on a $65,000 budget, shooting over four years of weekends with an impressive trio of cinematographers – Helen Levitt, the celebrated New York street photographer; Haskell Wexler, soon to break into his legendary career in Hollywood; and Jack Couffer, a noted naturalist and filmmaker and a key figure in Disney’s nature documentaries like the True-Life Adventures series. Maddow, a former Bellevue orderly and government relief investigator during the Depression, had already established himself in Hollywood with scripts for films like Framed (Richard Wallace, 1947), Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown, 1949), and The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Maddow was later blacklisted for his left-wing background but he still wrote scripts with Philip Yordan as his front, likely contributing to Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) and Anthony Mann’s God’s Little Acre (1958). Sidney Meyers was best known for his twice-Oscar nominated documentary The Quiet One (1948), about a troubled African-American boy and the sensitive care he receives at a reform school. Although credited as written by novelist and critic James Agee, The Quiet One was a collaboration with Agee, Meyers, Levitt, and painter Janice Loeb. Maddow’s friend and collaborator Irving Lerner, with whom he made the short film Muscle Beach (1948), also contributed to the production of The Savage Eye but left midway through filming. For his part, Lerner received credit as a technical advisor.

The Savage Eye blends documentary footage of Los Angeles with scenes of a disillusioned woman, Judith (Barbara Baxley), freshly arriving by airliner and waiting for her divorce to come through. Despite resembling something of a modern twist on the city symphony, it’s surprising that The Savage Eye does not find consideration in Thom Andersen’s monumental documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003); even more so given the film’s direct connection to Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), an aesthetically similar film which benefitted from the direct collaboration of Wexler and the cinematography of Robert Kaufman, who worked as an assistant on The Savage Eye. Sound is infrequently diegetic in The Savage Eye. The film instead roots itself in an intimate dialogue between Judith and a disembodied male voice (Gary Merrill) credited as “The Poet” and which describes itself as her angel, her double, her conscience, her god, and her ghost all at once. The description imagines a witness and evokes thoughts of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), however it may be that Merrill’s angelic insistence speaks on behalf of Judith’s new home, the City of Angels.

Jonathan Rosenbaum observes in Judith and the Poet’s exchanges the religious overtones of “lapsed Catholicism” and notes that they resemble “a tortured version of a confessional.” For Judith, LA is a yearlong purgatory where she waits for her divorce and relishes in a punishing desire for nothingness, while the Poet presses Judith away from denial and toward a kind of awakening. Judith, living in a forlorn apartment complex with sundry other women also living on “bourbon, cottage cheese, and alimony,” passes the time in department stores, poker halls, beauty salons, and as the other woman to married man Kirk (Herschel Bernardi). The Poet observes her existence and calls her a “lunatic” enduring “the day with ceremony.” The Savage Eye underlines Judith’s existential crisis with shots of mindlessly repetitive oil derricks nodding within the LA cityscape, contrasting them with scenes of poor men and women whiling away their time on worn-out porches and of middle class housewives practicing yoga and seeking retail therapy in department stores. These liminal spaces and liminal actions evoke the lexicon of film noir or rather, as Imogen Sara Smith describes, “the cold gray ashes left behind as the noir cycle burnt itself out.” Certainly Los Angeles is the perfect site for such a filmic crucible with its flat, obliterating sunlight burning away all illusions and niceties. “The sun outside is a block of stone,” declares The Savage Eye, as grave and apropos a turn of phrase for a meaningless existence as is likely to be found in a film purple with prose.

Despite her best efforts to embrace her self-erasure, Judith is still uncomfortable with her nihilism and finds herself frequently engaging with the Poet, even pleading for him to remain despite his challenging humanity. As Smith notes, The Savage Eye is rooted in tensions between subjective and objective, interior and exterior, fiction and fact. Voice-over narration became popularized in post-war Hollywood due to its use in wartime documentary and concerns over factual realism, and then became destabilized by the subjective view of film noir. The Savage Eye blurs such boundaries by presenting a dialogue between the omniscient authority of the Poet and the willfully despirited perspective of Judith. The film binds this dialogue into its imagery by clever uses of montage that connect one perspective to another. While Judith embraces the “two-hour license” of being pampered at a salon, the Poet cautions against such opiates and the film transitions from hair-brushing and facials to the absurdity of various vibrating exercise machines. The sequence turns dark with surgical footage of a nose job, ending with a shot of medical tools that cuts to a rhyming image of Judith’s creams and perfumes, summarizing the Poet’s perspective with the visual collapse of it all into vanity. This focus on the physical world, on people and objects, describes a decidedly anti-Cartesian view which dominates The Savage Eye. Our bodies are key to our mental and spiritual state. Much of Judith’s negativity and cynicism is expressed in her revulsion with the corporeal – with pawing, lecherous men; with the contorted faces of spectators jeering at pro-wrestlers, roller derby queens, and boxers; with the “pigs in clothes” carousing at a New Year’s party; and with a burlesque show’s “women invented by men” and their “big, monstrous, stupid double features.” Late in the film, Judith attends a faith-healing service presumably out of some desire for transcendence and redemption, but the scene of old women crying, speaking in tongues, and shaking in orgasmic euphoria proves to be too much (and probably too false) for Judith to bear and she flees, crashing her car on the motorway.

The Poet wishes Judith would break free of “the prison of the body,” however he does not confirm a Cartesian split between mind and form but rather advocates the mind’s connection to the body and in turn to the shared physical world around Judith. He chastises the opiates of beautification (where “magic turns cold, painful, and fantastic”), commerce (“bargain saints”), and loveless affection (“masturbation by proxy”). Death and near death linger around the Poet’s words, from a Gates of Heaven-esque pet cemetery (“They bear more than their natural burden of human love”) to the image of a dead body that accompanies the Poet’s demand the Judith remain awake to feel “the agony of comprehension.” Judith’s spiritual epiphany arrives in a hospital bed, under an oxygen tent, having survived her car crash. With her head bandaged, she is fed “with blood and air.” Like in the salon, she recalls her infancy and is relieved by the care given to her, but effect is expansive, not regressive. She imagines the blood donors whose actions give her life and she loves them. She dreams of her “resurrection in a party dress” and a montage of jubilant drag queens symbolizes Judith’s desire for liveliness, strength, and possibility. It is through her physical shock that Judith realizes that “we’re all secret lovers of each other” and, as such, she is reborn “to the world like a bride and a stranger.”

With its short runtime for a feature film, its unglamourous view of Southern California, and the provocative ordinariness of its imagery, The Savage Eye runs against the grain of Hollywood cinema and situates it comfortably in the early American New Wave of John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke. Most significant is the central role of Judith and the performance of Barbara Baxley, likely best known for her role in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) as Lady Pearl. Judith is an uncharacteristic female character for American cinema, being unapologetically childless and punishingly alienated. Her solitude, as Imogen Sara Smith considers, is a rare subject in art – “lonely women characters are common enough, but willfully anti-social loners are typically male.” That harsh, flat light of The Savage Eye reveals every crinkle and crag in Baxley’s face, ensuring that time and disappointment are not lost in her otherwise childish, doe-eyed countenance and she is often unlikeable despite the pity she evokes. She manages to be just imperfect enough to convincingly rub shoulders with the ordinary Angelinos she mixes with in clothing stores and bars. The Savage Eye is the product of a knot of talented, left-leaning, realist artists responsible for various celebrated documentary and docudrama works and the urban spaces of LA prove to be a bounty for their populist faiths and consumerist suspicions. As Gordon Theisen detects, The Savage Eye might even be read as an antecedent to Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), interrogating the same psychological isolation, lurid atmospheres, and moral confusions.

The Savage Eye is a brilliant masterpiece full of art and life and courage. It stands as an unconventional city symphony, a moving cine-poem, a fascinating time capsule, and a West Coast rendering of New American Cinema principles voiced contemporaneously from the East Coast. As if anticipating Jonas Mekas’ demand for a new cinema in a 1960 issue of Film Culture magazine, The Savage Eye is not a rosy film, but one coloured in blood. Sadly, The Savage Eye is drastically underseen, a problem made worse by Image Entertainment’s modest DVD being long out of print. The Criterion Collection would be a perfect label to return The Savage Eye to hard media and bring the film to the attention of many film fans who are either unaware of it or unable to access it. And a desirable package would be easy to put together – just commission an essay and an interview from a pair of the label’s frequent contributors and load the disc up with a number of important short works made by The Savage Eye‘s various artists. A cover treatment for a Criterion edition of The Savage Eye should reflect a mid-century modernist style while also keeping an unconventionally conceptual spirit. Accordingly, Polish illustrator Pawel Jonca would be a perfect choice for such a commission, embodying the aesthetic of that time in his art and having the imagination and talent to undoubtedly produce something perfectly suited to this singular film.

Credits: Imogen Sara Smith and Jonathan Rosenbaum are unquestionably responsible for the two best writings on The Savage Eye and so they were tapped to provide a discussion and an essay respectively. It also helps that both are friends of the Collection. It should be noted however that the version of The Quiet One narrated by James Agee is only rumoured to exist, but we can hope it surfaces for this imagined release.

This post was also influenced by Gordon Thiesen’s brief discussion of The Savage Eye in his book, Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche, as well as A.H. Weiler’s 1960 review for The New York Times, Henry K. Miller’s interview with Joseph Strick for the BFI, cigar joe’s article at Noirsville, Joe Baltake’s post at the passionate moviegoer, Conor Bateman’s discussion at 4:3, and Deane Williams’s profile of Helen Levitt for Senses of Cinema.

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