The Filmmaker as Rebel

By Richard Horwich
Barney Rosset Associated Press/Rosset Archives

“From the Third Eye”
Edited by Ed Halter and 
Barney Rosset
Seven Stories Press, $29.95

Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press, is one of my heroes. He devoted his time and money to publishing writers hitherto banned in this country, like Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce, and defending himself and his enterprise in court. Eventually, his interests expanded to film, and he both bankrolled and commissioned movies by European filmmakers — some of them already celebrated on the Continent, some unknown. An offshoot of these projects was The Evergreen Review, devoted entirely to articles that dealt with the theory and practice of cinema between 1958 and 1973.

“From the Third Eye: The Evergreen Review Reader” is a selection of these pieces. Reading them one after another in 2018 is a very different experience from what it must have been like to browse among them 50 years ago. Some are as timely today as they doubtless were when they were first published; others hold a kind of antiquarian interest, reminding or teaching us (depending on how far back our memories stretch) how passionately people felt and wrote about art and politics (which many of these writers regard as synonymous) back then. 

Some of the players are still boldface names — Americans like Norman Mailer, Dennis Hopper, Andy Warhol in his filmmaker’s hat; Frenchmen like Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Francois Truffaut. Others, not so much. I had never heard of Lita Eliscu (three of whose gossipy pieces appear here), L.M. Kit Carson, or Frieda Grafe. I’ve never seen (and I’ll bet you haven’t either) Glauber-Rocha’s “Black God, White Devil”; I must have missed William Klein’s “Mister Freedom,” and I barely recall, but couldn’t describe, Ralph Nelson’s “Soldier Blue,” though, according to one critic, it was “an extremely important American film.”

Actually, American filmmakers and critics alike are underrepresented among these pieces. It’s a little disappointing that nothing by Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, Susan Sontag, or Richard Schickel made the cut, though a number of lesser-known homegrown critics — Parker Tyler, Amos Vogel — did. Or that the films of Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Orson Welles are mentioned only in passing or are completely ignored.

There seems to be an unspoken assumption that Hollywood (and perhaps America itself) is nothing more than the center of crass materialism, aesthetic vulgarity, and economic exploitation. For Jean-Luc Godard, Hollywood means no more than “the imperialism of this ideological product which is a movie.” When Americans do surface in the book, they often appear ridiculous. Dennis Hopper, in an interview on the making of “Easy Rider,” describes the drug-fueled mess that resulted when he and Peter Fonda wanted to shoot a scene during Mardi Gras but thought it came three weeks later than it actually did. 

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to test the convictions and predictions of these writers against the historical outcomes they often tried to anticipate. Amos Vogel thought that television might “never be able to develop its full potential”; Jerry Tallmer added that “television and drama are water and oil, they simply do not mix” because “the smallness of the television screen must defeat every cinematic purpose of every frame of every motion picture ever made.” 

But Annette Michelson was onto something when she noted that “the camera is supplanting the fountain pen for many people, especially the young.” And Nat Hentoff, in “Participatory Television” (1969), gropes toward a vision of the internet when he foresees a future in which cable TV systems will proliferate to the point where “television will be democratized . . . to provide separate and individual channels by geographic units of reasonable size down to a thousand or fewer households.” Or biological units of one, he might have said, if he could have imagined the future of tech.

The pronouncements of these writers aren’t free of the jargon and gibberish that critical enterprise always fosters, the worst offender being, in my unsurprised view, Norman Mailer, who wrote, in his long and incoherent essay on “Last Tango in Paris,” this fascinating sentence: “So, too, is the audience at ‘Tango’ an interfarct of middle-class anal majesties.” And later, “In America, even the Jews have come to look like the French middle class, which is to say that the egocentricity of the Fascist mouth is on the national face.” Turns out he didn’t like the movie because the sex is simulated. 

The common theme of all these writings is, unsurprisingly, revolution. But the iconoclastic urge to pull down institutions, laws, and even countries took many forms among the auteurs who made up the New Wave and other schools and approaches. Andy Warhol’s “Sleep” was rebelling against the conventions of moviemaking themselves, and Vilgot Sjöman’s “I Am Curious (Yellow)” against sexual censorship and repression. Dziga Vertov (father of cinema verité) railed against films defiled by impurities like “music, literature, and theater,” but Arlene Elster is “quite eager to find the cinematic equivalents of Beckett, Burroughs, and Nabokov.” 

Ideology is regarded by most of the writers and filmmakers as an unmixed blessing: James Agee, who wasn’t around to defend himself, is accused of being “shallow when compared with the best critics and theoreticians of the Continent.” Jerome Tarshis describes a film that depicts a girl masturbating while seated on an American flag, which he applauds as evidence that “the filmmaker, whatever else he was doing, was Making A Statement.” Jean-Luc Godard faulted Manet for painting a train station just for the way it looked, oblivious to the fact that it had been the scene of a railroad workers’ strike. These were times in which a Lincoln Center film festival was denounced and threatened with violent disruption for its “cultural imperialism.” 

The last few essays, from the early ’70s, are attempts to grapple with the problems of film sex, with some commentators attempting to work out where the line is between art and pornography, and others seemingly indifferent to the distinction: “Pornography may make you throw up, but it hasn’t killed anyone,” writes the sexologist Phyllis Kronhausen. The abuse and exploitation of the actors in those films, particularly when they were children, simply wasn’t an issue.

One of the editors correctly notes that these “articles about cinema read like documents not just from another time, but another world: an alternate universe.” Despite the uneven quality of the articles when taken singly on their own terms, together they do show us, if not an alternate universe, at least a previous one. The book’s main appeal may be to students in the film departments of N.Y.U. and U.S.C., but the rest of us, even if we’re just movie or history buffs, will find some meat on its bones.

Richard Horwich taught literature at Brooklyn College and New York University. He lives in East Hampton.

Barney Rosset lived part time in East Hampton. He died in 2012.

The cover of the July 1968 Evergreen Review featured Vilgot Sjöman’s “I Am Curious (Yellow),” a film that rebelled against sexual repression. Right, an advertisement for the Grove Press film division that ran in the review’s July 1970 issue.