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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The Steps of Age (Ben Maddow, 1950)

MMC! returns to the work of Ben Maddow, this time with him in the role of writer/director and working in collaboration with Helen Levitt as producer and Sidney Meyers as editor. Maddow’s short film The Steps of Age (also known as The Stairs, 1950) was sponsored by the National Association of Mental Health, produced by the Department of Mental Health for the State of South Carolina, and organized by the Mental Health Film Board, and it focuses on the strain of aging and retirement through the figure of Mrs. Potter (Rose Spencer), a 62 year-old woman challenged with a listless husband forced into retirement and then the difficulty of moving in with her daughter’s family. The short ultimately promotes the need for empathy, respect, and appreciation by Mrs. Potter and her daughter (played by James Agee’s younger sister Emma), along with an acceptance of old-age and the changing roles that accompany it. The Steps of Age garnered a Documentary Short Oscar nomination, losing to Edmund Reek’s Why Korea? (1950).

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.