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

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Interviews with My Lai Veterans (Joseph Strick, 1970)

MMC! concludes its short film preview of our next Criterion Collection proposal with Joseph Strick’s Oscar-winning documentary short, Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970). With Haskell Wexler and Richard Pearce behind the camera, Strick interviews five former American soldiers involved in the My Lai Massacre of March 16, 1968, a search and destroy mission by the US military that killed hundreds of defenceless Vietnam civilians. Notwithstanding orders that barred them from speaking about the event, these veterans candidly describe the orders provided, the expectations that were held, and the brutality that proceeded. These accounts resisted the misinformation about the massacre circulating officially and offered chilling insights on some unimaginably outrageous acts.

Muscle Beach (Irving Lerner and Joseph Strick, 1948)

Our next stop on the way to MMC!’s forthcoming Criterion Collection proposal brings us south of the Santa Monica Pier to the original Muscle Beach and to Joseph Strick and Irving Lerner’s Muscle Beach (1948). Strick had met Irving Lerner and other left-wing filmmakers through connections with a youth theatre company in New York. After enrolling to study physics at UCLA (because “that’s where movies were made”), Strick signed up as an aerial photographer searching of U-boats off the Atlantic coast during World War II. He worked as a copy boy at The Los Angeles Times upon his return to civilian life and shot Muscle Beach on weekends with the assistance of Lerner and using an army surplus bombsight camera with a “bottle-glass” lens and rigged up with a viewfinder made from “sellotape and paperclips.”

Muscle Beach is a warmly satirical look at an emerging subculture of bodybuilders, gymnasts, and exhibitionists. Originally constructed in 1934 by the Works Progress Administration as a park on a public beach, Muscle Beach in the 1940s has become a standing joke in trade magazines and a source of innuendo in Hollywood gossip columns. The short responds to this view with a lighthearted celebration of soaring feats, flirty sunbathers, and playing children, buoyed by music composed and sung by folk singer Earl Robinson with lyrics by screenwriter and poet Edwin Rolfe. Muscle Beach played in competition at Cannes in 1949, won a prize at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1951, and became a cult favourite among film clubs.

In the Street (James Agee, Helen Levitt, and Janice Loeb, 1948)

Our second stop along the way the MMC!’s next proposal brings us to New York’s Spanish Harlem in the 1940s and In the Street (1948), a short documentary made by a trio of brilliant American polymaths: critic and novelist James Agee, photographer Helen Levitt, and painter and screenwriter Janice Loeb. The three friends shot the film in 1945 and 1946, near where they lived, with Levitt editing the short into its final version. Originally titled I Hate 110th Street, a phrase captured in an image of children’s chalk graffiti that opened an early version of the film, In the Street began with footage originally shot by Agee that directly engaged with his subjects, capturing the vitality of children mugging at the camera with gleeful abandon. Levitt’s approach for additional footage mirrored her trickery in still photography. Pointing her camera at Agee or Loeb, her sister-in-law, as decoys, she used a right-angled viewfinder to catch her true subjects unawares. While Agee’s footage anticipates the direct cinema movement, Levitt’s sideways gaze reveals urban life at its most unmediated, save for her expert framing. Theorist Siegfried Kracauer hailed the documentary as “reportage pure and simple,” presenting a collection of seemingly random experiences infused with an “unconcealed compassion for the people depicted” and a tenderness that never converts them into “anything but themselves.” The short was also a favourite of Charlie Chaplin, who never tired of imitating its young participants.

People of the Cumberland (Robert Stebbins, Eugene Hill, Elia Kazan, and William Watts, 1937)

In anticipation of our next proposal for the Criterion Collection, MMC! will lead the way a series of “Son of Wholphin” posts focusing on a group of short films that will set a path to and through our next feature subject. We start with People of the Cumberland, a documentary short from 1937 directed by Elia Kazan, William Watts, Eugene Hill (credited as Jay Leyda), and Sidney Meyers (credited as Eugene Hill). The film concerns a progressive adult education project, Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School, located in the mountain community of Monteagle, Tennessee. Demonstrating the School’s impact on the impoverished coal mining region, the short pivots toward the growing labour movement and advocates for a “new kind of America” free from economic exploitation and privation. The film was made under the auspices of the Work Projects Administration, a New Deal agency, and as part of the Federal Arts Project program. Written by Erskine Caldwell and Ben Maddow (credited as David Wolff), the short is an excellent document of its time and a rousingly populist essay thanks to the narration of Richard Blaine and the footage shot by Ralph Steiner.

Hinterland Remixed, Mobilize (Caroline Monnet, 2015), and Sign-off (Brett Bell, 2011)

I recently had the good fortune of attending the book launch for Andrew Burke’s Hinterland Remixed: Media, Memory, and the Canadian 1970s, a deep dive into the true north’s televisual archive and collective memory that includes considerations of the Hinterland Who’s Who vignettes, Michael Snow’s La Région centrale (1971), and SCTV. Professor Burke’s discussion and accompanying presentation diverted into a number of unexpected areas – the L’Atelier national du Manitoba film and art project, Kern-Hill Furniture Co-op commercials, electronic musicians Boards of Canada, the With Glowing Hearts short film (Ted Remerowski, 1979) – however two contemporary works stood out: Caroline Monnet’s Mobilize (2015) and Brett Bell’s Sign-off (2011).

Caroline Monnet, a Canadian artist of French and Algonquin heritages, obtained access to more that 700 films from the National Film Board of Canada to create Mobilize, an intense and passionate portrait of Canada’s indigenous people. With footage from the rural north and urban south, from traditional crafts to modern industry, Monnet captures the dynamism of the indigenous Canadian experience and, with the feverish score of Inuk artist Tanya Tagaq, provides a kind of sizzle reel made up of what the filmmaker calls “images of indigenous people kicking ass on screen.” MMC! fans may recognize scenes from Don Owen’s High Steel (1966)! Brett Bell’s Sign-off presents an absurdly nightmarish take on With Glowing Hearts and the anachronism of the television station sign-off culminating the day’s news and entertainment with a collage of landscapes and symbols set against the patriotism of the national anthem. Bell, born and based in Regina, Saskatchewan, creates something wonderfully weird and distinctly Canadian in Sign-off and for that MMC!’s heart does glow.