by A.A. Dowd Essays Feature Articles Film

Under Construction: Notes on the ‘Notes’ of Saul Levine

August 7, 2010

Most of us are loathe to admit it, but the job of a film critic is, more often than not, that of a glorified publicist. The best among us aspire to more—to enlightenment, to intellectual engagement, to the communication of everything this oh-so-young artistic medium is capable of conveying. On our best days, we get there. Other days, working the beat, grinding out the copy, we forget the difference between what we do and what those Hollywood mad men do. We forget that, in the information age, any publicity is good publicity. The nagging obligation so many ambitious writers feel to be part of some theoretical “dialogue”—to weigh in on the Movies of the Moment, to get a word in edgewise at the watercolor—increasingly controls what’s being seen and what’s being written about. There is some value, certainly, in engaging with the popular texts of our culture, in understanding where they came from and what makes them so successful. But when critics devote the entirety of their public platform to these buzzed-about properties, they’re letting taste/moneymakers dictate the dialogue. Whether they know it or not—and whether they pan or praise the movie in question—critics are acting as just another arm of the PR machine. (And, increasingly, a free one at that.) No matter what unique spin you’re putting on it, do we really need another take on Avatar or Inception?

If the very best we critics can hope to be is glorified publicists, the least we can do is perform a little pro-bono work sometimes. Or, to be less glib about it, to write about works that haven’t already had gallons of ink spilled on their behalf—filmmakers that could actually benefit from a little critical attention, and films for which said attention might also benefit, by way of spirited recommendation, an audience hungry for something new. To that end, the most serious blind spot in contemporary film criticism is the vast, eclectic canon of modern and classic avant-garde cinema. It’s scarcely shocking that the mainstream press, with its direct and indirect ties to the Hollywood studio machine, continues to almost completely ignore experimental film. Until someone finds a way to transform these wholly independent works into sellable commercial product, the newspapers and magazines won’t waste the margins on them. What’s disheartening is the way that web critics, a group far less beholden to such considerations of circulation, seem just about as ignorant of or apathetic to these movies as their “professional” contemporaries.

Don’t let me get carried away: there are, of course, some critics who regularly write about the avant-garde. Rosenbaum’s still fighting the good fight (these days without any Chicago Reader editors breathing down his neck and chipping away at his wordcount), while Fred Camper continues to make his name championing the most criminally ignored figures on the fringe. And the great Michael Sicinski has proven time and again his adeptness at elucidating seemingly impenetrable works, writing beautifully and accessibly about films others might deem too difficult to even absorb, let alone dissect. It’s with a tip of the hat to these brave and impassioned wordsmiths that this column was conceived. Alternating Currents will operate as a periodic retrospective, with each new entry devoted to a different active filmmaker of the avant-garde. Since exposure is a major goal of the project, I won’t be tackling the iconoclasts, the proverbial big dogs—no Brakhage, no Jacobs, no Anger, no Deren, no Warhol. Not to start with anyway. The focus will be on largely unsung artists, filmmakers whose work has yet to generate much in the way of written/published critical analysis. And it’s through the study and examination of said figures that I intend to expand my own knowledge of/familiarity with these marginalized texts.

Chest-pumping mission statement aside, I’m no authority on non-narrative cinema. It’s my sincere hope that this column will be a shared voyage of discovery—one that might mirror, in an ideal case, the boundary-pushing arcs and aims of the very filmmakers being featured. Let’s follow their lead into the great unknown.

AC #1. Under Construction: Notes On the ‘Notes’ of Saul Levine

Saul1There’s something naggingly incomplete about the cinema of Saul Levine. No slight intended. Really, such a quality is intrinsic to the appeal of his films, those fluttering transmissions of stream-of-consciousness nostalgia. This is rough draft cinema, work perpetually in progress. One can see the filmmaker’s tireless tinkering in the space between frames, like the telltale fingerprints of stop-motion animators. Levine began many of his films in the ’60s and didn’t finish some of them for another forty years. Watching them today, you get the impression that they’re somehow unfinished still—that somewhere out there, Levine is hunched over an editing block, toiling away at a new cut, forever organizing and reorganizing his footage.

This is not a precise cinema. Levine doesn’t cut like a surgeon. His films scream and stretch at the seams. Splices announce themselves loudly and proudly, rudely even. The mark of the maker is evident in these jagged tears in space and time, in the negative divide between shots, a netherworld made possible only through the hands-on application of analog editing. Duration is not an essential component of these works; some feel as though they could be three hours or three minutes and the cumulative effect would be the same. They move, but not in straight lines. They seem to begin and end in the middle, as though we were leaping into them mid-stream, mid-sentence, mid-thought. If there is a structural integrity, an organizing principle, it is an inherently emotional one. It’s only through feeling that one can make sense of the flurry, the furious tempest of images (and sometimes sounds) that this filmmaker conjures. Even then, searching for closure in his pictures seems a fool’s errand. They stretch out infinitely into the ether. They churn like the endless flood of human memory.

Saul Levine has been making movies for over forty years, consistently and prolifically, always pushing the boundaries of both the medium and his own distinctive modus operandi. He’s influenced several generations of filmmakers, both through his own work and through his teachings, especially as a revered faculty figurehead at the Massachusetts College of Art. His tics and techniques, his habits and hallmarks, are burned into the modern makeup of experimental cinema. And yet Levine remains something of an unsung hero, even within the already-marginal contours of the avant-garde scene.

Much if not all of this has to do with his formats of choice: 8mm and Super8 celluloid. Even among rigorous champions of DIY cinema, 8mm is oft regarded as fundamentally inferior, a debased media fit only for the home-movie floundering of amateur documentarians. But Levine’s work is a blistering corrective to these wholesale dismissals. Has any other filmmaker devoted himself as completely, as passionately, to the wild possibilities of the small gauge? His movies boldly demonstrate the qualities of the media that its detractors willfully ignore: its intimacy, its scraggily lucid textures and tones, the otherworldly spectrum of light and color it effortlessly picks up. And, of course, its sheer accessibility.

In 1988’s hilariously indignant Submission, Levine enters a 8mm film festival by directly calling out its programmers, a group of avant-garde mainstays (Jonas Mekas included) who have been historically unkind to the format. “Why should I pay $15 to be judged by people who have essentially been the enemy?” he inquires aloud, adding: “I should be judging.” This isn’t arrogance. There really is no one quite as qualified on the subject.

Of course, it was for purely practical reasons that Levine first started mucking around with 8mm. Born and raised in Connecticut, he made his first films at Boston University, but found the 16mm cameras assigned to him impossibly cumbersome. He wanted something lighter, more portable, a camera he could wield easily and on the fly. His aunt introduced him to 8mm, which was not only ideal for his pick-up-and-go concerns, but also considerably cheaper and easier to develop. Necessity breeds invention. The fledgling filmmaker took to 8mm immediately, finding in its strengths and limitations the perfect tool for tackling his laundry list of artistic aims, his adventurous aspirations. He’s never really looked back, though he has dabbled in digital in recent years.

Levine is, by both plain-as-day perception and his own admissions, a scribbler. He doesn’t so much make grand declarations as work out his messy thought process on film. For him, cinema is a blank canvas on which to pour his mind, heart and soul. If his movies seem unwieldy, sometimes difficult to process, it’s because what we’re essentially witnessing is an unfiltered expression of self. Avant-garde cinema is characterized by its singularity—these are films made, more often than not, by one person with one vision. Even by those standards, Levine’s work is wholly, achingly personal. It can be hard to get your head around his head.

Context helps. A hearty portion of his body of work belongs to a series he began way back in the 1960s, one that he still regularly contributes new entries to. These are his “Notes”: cluttered and anecdotal pictures, observations on life and community, love letters to friends and family, teeming documents of interior and exterior space, and exhausting, exhaustive jottings straight from the mind/memory of the artist. The word “note” takes on layers upon layers of meaning. Various definitions illuminate various functions of the work.

note |nōt|: “an official letter sent from the representative 

of one government to another.”

Saul0Levine is often referred to as a political filmmaker, but I remain unconvinced. It’s not that I doubt his convictions, it’s that his pictures don’t seem to operate as polemical texts. They’re too madly digressive, too intrinsically expressionistic in their aims. Not that it’s difficult to see where that perception came from. As an artist, Saul grew from the rich soil of the 1960s counter-culture. For a time, at the very beginning of his career, teaching and filmmaking seemed to take a backseat to activism. Having been fired by Tufts University for his role in various protests and demonstrations—the first but not the last time he would lose a teaching gig for such reasons—Levine moved to Chicago to work with the Radical Students for a Democratic Society. He was there in ’68, when the riots went down. His camera was rolling.

Possibly his most well-known and well-regarded picture, 1982’s New Left Note, established a rhetorical link between Levine’s ‘Note’ series (then in its infancy) and his role as Editor-in-Chief of the radical publication New Left Notes. It took him 14 years to finish the film, which incorporates footage from various rallies and marches, antiwar demonstrations, civil rights gatherings, infamous clashes between police and protestors, and pertinent television clips. These days, rapid-fire montages of street-level activism register as counter-cultural cliché, radical ideals re-packaged as boho-chic affectation. Levine’s seminal New Left Note predates this commodification of dissent. It’s the real thing. (One wonders if Brett Morgan strung up the film and took notes himself before going to work on his exhilarating if unsophisticated Chicago 10.)

Owing a clear debt to Eisenstein’s propulsive labor epics, the silent New Left Note unfolds in endless fast-forward, leaping jerkily, kinetically from one demonstration to the next. It’s Levine at his most speed-demon energized, an aggressively and hypnotically edited valentine to rabble-rousers everywhere, those vocal and mobilized proponents of change. As an aesthetic experience, it’s downright thrilling: history brought to manic, warp-speed life. As any kind of overview of leftist politics, it leaves something to be desired. What is Levine saying with this boisterous blitzkrieg?

He’s certainly not trafficking in clear-cut messages. The filmmaker seems after the beating, invigorated heart of the active left. There is infectious warmth to this portrait of a united community, but also a big question mark at its center. With a couple of notable exceptions—Levine and his girlfriend, some faces in the crowd, a sleeping beauty in the backseat—the merry masses register as mere blinks of color and movement, often aestheticized into faceless anonymity. One could say Levine meshes them together into a propulsive single entity, progress personified, but that denies their important role as individuals.

Silence feels, in this particular case, somewhat insufficient. These movements were steeped in song and rhetoric. When the film lingers on a pair of speeches mid-way through—one from a women’s lib gathering, the other from a Black Panther’s rally—I wanted to soak in the sentiments, not just get the gist. Levine defaults to a certain, easy us-vs-them dichotomy. He starts the film with Nixon on a television set, half-submerged in a fuzzy glare, a featureless phantom, the enemy, the opposition. The bad guy introduced, the film begins proper, and the good guys pick up the fight. What they’re fighting for remains a glossed-over given.

Shit-hot agitprop, New Left Note is supremely valuable as a snapshot of a time and place. It’s “political,” though, only in its affection and appreciation for the people of the movement—a hearty humanism that would come to regularly characterize Levine’s subsequent efforts. Even as he remained invested in various social action causes, Levine began to turn his gaze inward, to examine his own life and that of his friends. The broader scope and reach of New Left Note thus proved something of a red herring, though it did hint at a future motif: life glimpsed from a distance, the outside world as maddening mirage, tantalizingly out of reach. Here was an outsider who truly lived his ethos, on the outside.

note |nōt|: “a short informal letter or written message”

Saul2Levine has claimed that one of the reasons he got into filmmaking in the first place was to explore new modes of communication. “I was writing letters to friends at the time,” he claimed in a 2003 interview. “I wanted to see how that would translate into film.” Many of his early efforts operate as cinematic correspondences, overstuffed with half-remembered anecdotes and evocative recollections. They speak truths that written words can only hint at, emotions that transcend the limitations of spoken communication. These are notes passed directly from one beating heart to another.

Reportedly a favorite of the artist’s own pictures, 1969’s Note to Pati is a kind of “wish you were here,” a filmic postcard made for a friend touring the West Coast. An idyllic (if jaggedly assembled) vision of winter bliss, the movie depicts a Boston suburb blanketed in snow. Many of Levine’s favorite subjects and trademarks are contained within this modestly scaled mash note. Adults and children, frolicking together in the outdoors. People and objects shifting in and out of focus. Thick blemishes on the print, expanding and shrinking, taking on an organic life of their own. And birds. Lots and lots of birds.

Though allegedly a product of his imperfect eyesight, Levine’s rough-hewn images—his quivering compositions, his shallow depth of field, the occasional, whitewashing lens flare—lend his films the hazy hindsight of faded memories. Note to Pati feels like the echo of an experience, stitched back together from fragments of shared remembrance, an almost-forgotten daydream re-constructed piece by piece. The images of carefree adolescence reinforce a vague sense of familiarity, as though this were a transmission from some collective childhood, one that belonged to all of us. The winter weather belies a billowing, encompassing warmth.

note |nōt|: “a brief record of facts, topics, or thoughts, 

written down as an aid to memory”

Saul3When Saul Levine isn’t talking to his friends he’s talking to himself. He might have been a straight documentarian if hard facts interested him as much as soft light. He’s into the feel of a place, the sense of a person. His films often have the unkempt quality of an artist’s notebook: pages upon pages of observations and insights, scrawled and etched in strokes both broad and delicate, spilling over into the margins, overlapping one another. Perhaps only Levine himself could make perfect sense of these myopic maelstroms. The rest of us must content ourselves tracing tangential strands.

Levine’s Notes to himself are among his most challenging and sophisticated achievements. They play with juxtaposition in ways that suggest both free association and measured intellectual montage. While early films like New Left Note employ machine-gun editing for visceral effect, later efforts demonstrate a growing inclination to hang back, to patiently occupy an isolated mood or moment. It took him a few years, but what Levine was learning to do was let his pictures breathe.

His ongoing activism having cost him another university position, Saul returned to his family home in the autumn of ’76, new Super8 camera in tow. It was here that he shot 1976’s claustrophobic Notes of an Early Fall, a portrait of home as prisoner’s lament. Images of restless captivity dominate this thirty-minute tone poem: long, lingering gazes out open windows; a small bird making frequent, fluttering attempts to pass through a closed window; zoo animals pacing, pacing, pacing in their cages; the incessant blare of the idiot box, offering a tinny (and occasionally spot-on) commentary track; and a severely warped blues LP, Jack Dupree’s Tricks, caught in a skipping, purgatory loop.

Much has been made of the joyous vitality of Levine’s work. Me, I detect a much stronger whiff of melancholia in his films, an intense loneliness not always acknowledged by his most ardent fans and supporters. The man that comes through in Notes of an Early Fall is quite clearly in a funk. He aligns himself with Dupree (who sing-speaks of oppression and hardship) for the sake of commiserative duet. And he paints his mother in a somewhat unkind light, as the spectral warden of his domestic jailhouse. It’s a downbeat picture, oozing with impotence and frustration.

Tinged with a sadness all its own, but also possessed of a jack-rabbit pulse, 1989’s Notes After Long Silence invests the artist’s complex, latter day musings with an energy reminiscent of his reckless early pictures. This is probably as close as Levine has gotten to a travelogue of his own scattered brain—places, memories, visions, sounds, and television programs, all in a tumultuous tango. Fragments of footage from old war movies. Extreme close-ups of genitalia. City construction. A dish being prepared. Birds. Trains passing in the distance. B.B. King, squealing an infinite solo. All elements engaged in an overlapping dialectic: weaving in and out of each other, crossing at obtuse angles, intersecting, dancing, clashing, fucking. Fighting for attention, for precedence.

“That’s the American way of life,” goes a random sound byte, and one could make the case that this is a more political film than New Left Note. King and those construction workers, agents of dubious “progress,” spar melodically. Righteous noodling, a protest song for the people, competes with the thunderous thud of the jackhammer. This is the evolution of Levine as an “idea filmmaker,” using pointed parallel to reinforce his agenda.

And yet I still see less politics and more personality in his distinctive m.o. The heartbreaking common ground shared by Notes of an Early Fall and Notes After Long Silence is the sometimes-vast plane dividing Levine and his subjects. Catch the filmmaker indoors, with a friend or family member in his crosshairs, and you could practically reach out and touch the familiar faces onscreen. Outdoors, though, among strangers, Levine keeps his distance. He reconfigures his gaze, swapping invasive, warts-and-all intimacy for reluctant voyeurism. And he treats his human subjects, glimpsed from afar and (likely) unaware, like the elusive star attractions of a nature documentary. (That Notes of an Early Fall features both man and beast in quick succession only reinforces this impression.) Levine will even go as far as finding a foreground obtrusion—a tree, or a pillar, or a doorway—to shuffle into the frame line, creating a secondary buffer between himself and his alien subjects.

There is an intense loneliness implicit in this indoor/outdoor dichotomy, a wistful longing to the artist’s portraits of people. When he lingers on the charmed life of total strangers, seen playing in the streets or the park, a naked desire burns brightly from behind the lens. He wants to reach out and connect with these oblivious angels of the afternoon, but the distance is too far. What’s truly troubling is how Levine’s visions of his own family reverberate with far more ambivalence. To this filmmaker, Home is a double-edged sword. He seems comfortable but never content there.

note |nōt|: “a single tone of definite pitch made by 

a musical instrument or the human voice”

SaulOne can sense an internal tension in Levine’s work between an instinct towards pure observation and one towards rhythmic repetition. To simply describe his films as “home movies”—as some certainly and understandably have—is to deny the playful patterns, the cyclical splicing of space and time that they employ. A background in music seems to inform his kaleidoscopic editing choices; the cameo appearances of Dupree and King operate as more than just appreciative shout-outs or gestures of artistic kinship. Levine is putting himself in dialogue with these blues brothers, jamming with them. His instruments of choice? A razor blade, an editing block and rolls upon rolls of raw celluloid.

The three-part A Few Tunes Going Out (from around 1978 to 1984) draws direct parallels between the two mediums, quite literally equating the filmmaking process with that of music composition. And yet, rather ironically, it’s Levine’s silent abstract films that most clearly demonstrate an inherently musical sensibility. “Ecstatic flicker films, inspired by jazz,” is how the artist himself has described these subliminal fever dreams. They feel like his most intuitive efforts, probably because Levine stumbled into them wholly by accident.

Searching for a visual segway device, some kind of expressionistic bridge between different acts—in so much as you can divide his work into anything resembling act structure—the filmmaker discovered a nifty visual effect. By opening up the f-stop all the way, by letting light flood in and bounce around within the camera, Levine could create a fascinating fissure between total darkness and a kind of solar sunkiss. “Light Licks” he aptly named this cycle of films, finished during an especially prolific period early last decade.

Fields of black alternate rapidly with blinks of hot mercury. The light seems to dance over the surface of the dark. Crimson crescents flash from the top of the frame to the bottom, evoking the awesome spectacle of a solar eclipse–or, in more intimate terms, the effect of staring at a bright light from behind closed eyelids. In 2000’s I Saw the Light, Praise the Dark, that brilliant bright arc seems to settle permanently into the background. In the transcendent finale, this abstract symbol of the sun suddenly disappears, dramatically replaced by the unmistakable visage of the real sun, peaking out from behind the clouds. It’s the closest this filmmaker has come to a cathartic climax—or, for that matter, a twist ending.

Detour, from 2002, the most dreamy and transporting of the Light Licks series, begins with a recognizable image, one Levine has returned to again and again: the moon. A single white orb in the center of the screen, shifting in and out of focus, dancing in the murky grain, multiplying, getting bigger and smaller, but remaining a focal point. If at first it looks like simply a solitary light source, the singular shape of moon craters begin to flicker into focus.

But wait, is it actually the sun we’re staring at? At the the two minute mark, clouds swarm around it, a single bird trots around in its ethereal glow, and then the light shows of the past entries in this series commence anew, like epileptic daydreams. At the five and a half minute mark, we’re in a park, watching adults and children playing together. Human subjects have found their way back into Levine’s work, co-mingling with the abstract, co-inhabiting the fluttering frame. And then, around the eight and a half minute mark, neon signs begin to blink in the pitch black night, the title spelled out in broken light letters on the darkness. Suddenly, the moon is indistinguishable from approaching headlights. It’s a beautiful confusion of beacons. If these films are songs, this one’s a shoegaze ballad. “Falling Asleep At the Wheel,” Levine might have called it.

note |nōt|: “a particular quality or tone that reflects or 

expresses a mood or attitude”

Saul5Filmed at the beginning of the new millennium, Whole Note represents something of a culmination for Saul Levine– of his interests, his concerns, his techniques. His maturation as artist and thinker seems to peak here, with a picture that feels blindingly personal, even by the standards of this unusually candid filmmaker. The title proves incredibly appropriate: this is the paid-off promise of Levine’s decade-spanning master project. It is, among his sprawling sketches and elusive ellipses, a rare feat of completion.

Whole Note is a eulogy, plain and simple. A portrait of an old man facing imminent death. It gains immeasurable impact if you know that this elderly figure, drenched in shadow, immersed in stillness and quiet, is none other than Levine’s aged father. The footage is from the last days of his life. Levine was there, camera in hand, to document these final breaths.

A frail figure, dwarfed by the space of his home, drifts softly through the daylight hours. We see him watching TV, eating, reading, and falling asleep while reading. He seems to fade a little before our eyes. Levine shoots his father in silhouette or in static long takes. The pacing is patient, exceptionally so. Especially when compared to the often frenetic gallop of Levine’s usual jumbled collage-films. Here, he lingers and stares and waits. The filmic grammar is simple, clean, honest. No tricks, no razzle dazzle. Time seems to pass in long dissolves and back-and-forth match cuts. Days fall away like gossamer. It’s a film of haunting, workmanlike poignancy.

Levine doesn’t run from the gravity, the affecting loneliness of this funeral march. But he also doesn’t sentimentalize the material. Nor does he romanticize his father; here was a man who allegedly never totally approved of his son’s lifelong passion, his devotion to the cinema. A familiar ambivalence colors Levine’s gaze, even when standing over a proverbial death bed. But he is not unkind. There’s forgiveness and respect in the dignity he affords the old man.

A goodbye letter from a son to his father that doubles as an investigative journal entry—Levine sorting out all of his conflicting feelings, his misgivings and affections, for his dying dad—this Whole Note exemplifies and validates the discursive nature of Levine’s cinema. And there is, at last, an unmistakable conclusion—a period instead of an ellipses. In death, finality is imposed. Not for Saul, though. He scribbles and scrawls on. Forty years of filmmaking, and it still feels like he’s just getting warmed up. Closure is overrated. There’s freedom in the unfinished.

Saul Levine has spent the last several years transferring his 8mm and Super8 work to more durable, preservation-friendly 16mm prints. Some of these are available to rent from The Film-Makers’ CooperativeCanyon Cinema and Lux. A comprehensive assortment of shorts are collected in “Saul Levine: Super8 Films, Vol. 1,” from TVEYE Video. On August 18th, the MassArt Film Society will host a retrospective of his work, “Breaking Time: A Portrayal in Four Parts and Three Reels.” For info on that program and others, visit the MassArt blog.

Some of Levine’s work is also available online at Light Cone, on Vimeo and on YoutubeNew Left Note (1982), Submission (1988), Notes After Long Silence (1989), A Few Tunes Going Out (1978-84)