Looking back at Counter Culture, Counter Cinema: An Avant-Garde Film Festival


The Museum Of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), with Pacific Design Center, and Charles S. Cohen presented Counter Culture, Counter Cinema: An Avant-Garde Film Festival, a three-day celebration of films focusing on the long-term alliance between experimental cinema and counter-culture activity.  The SilverScreen Theater at the Pacific Design Center at 8687 Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. October 14-16, 2010,

Co-curated by David E. James and MM Serra, the festival presented films selected from the collection of the New American Cinema Group/New York’s Filmmakers’ Cooperative. A half-century of films and videos from the early 1960s to the present explored sexuality, politics, communal experiments, and transgressive appropriations.

In the late 50’s and early 60’s American Independent filmmaking was gaining international respect: narrative films with a documentary feel, like the Mekas Brothers’ “Hallelujah the Hills” and “Guns Of The Tree”, Shirley Clarke’s “The Connection”, John Casavettes’ “Shadows”, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s “Pull My Daisy”, and breezy documentaries like Bert Stern’s landmark “Jazz On A Summer Day,” all riding on the seminal work of Robert J. Flaherty (“Nanook Of the North”) and cinéma vérité pioneer Jean Rouch and inspired by neo realism and the “New York School Of Cinema”.

In 1960, Jonas Mekas co-founded the self-help New American Cinema Group, creating a revolutionary model for distribution of independent film. As a response to Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 series’ refusal to screen Stan Brakhage’s “Anticipation of the Night, ” Mekas and a group of over twenty filmmakers discussed ways to promote, finance, exhibit and distribute all independent films.
In 1962 a group including Stan Vanderbeek, Ron Rice, Rudy Burckhardt, Jack Smith, Lloyd Williams, Robert Breer, David Brooks, Ken Jacobs, Gregory Markopoulos, Ray Wisniweski, Doc Humes, and Robert Downey, launched The Film-Makers’ Cooperative, inspiring similar collectives- San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema and the London Co-op. In their first statement, they rejected censorship and “the interference of producers, distributors and investors until our work is ready to be projected on the screen.”

After years of screenings at Lionel Rogosin’s Bleeker Street Cinema, and an arrest for showing arrested on obscenity charges for showing Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” (1963) and Jean Genet’s “Un Chant d’Amour” (1950), Mekas organized the touring shows, the New American Cinema Expositions, which showcased American Independent films to Europe and South America.

Credit The Venice Film Festival (the world’s oldest film festival) with launching the influential New York School of Cinema on the world. Like Britain’s Free Cinema (Anderson, Mazzetti, Reisz, and Richardson), inspired by neo-realism, these New Yorkers shot on location, using non-actors and spontaneous hand held camera. Sidney Meyer’s documentary “The Quiet One” (1949) won the Critic’s Film Award at Venice in 1948. Morris Engel’s “The Little Fugitive” won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1953. Truffaut later claimed that Engel “showed us the way to independent production with [this]fine movie.” Lionel Rogosin’s neo- realist inspired “On the Bowery” received the Grand Prize for Documentary in 1956; his anti-apartheid film “Come Back, Africa” won the Critic’s Film Award at Venice in 1958.

The Anthology Film Archives opened on 425 Lafayette Street in 1970.  Mekas became the director of the film museum, screening space and library, and began the compendious Essential Cinema project, establishing a canon of independent cinema, working along side Peter Kubelka, James Broughton, Stan Brakhage, Ken Kelman and P. Adams Sitney.

The artist owned and run, non-profit Film-Makers’ Cooperative holds a collection of about 5,000 titles (in formats from 8mm to video) made by some 900 artists. Directors of non-commercial films deposit prints, which are rented to schools, museums and other cultural organizations. The collection boasts early European dada and avant-garde films as well as its priceless collection of American films.

Redevelopment in 2000 forced the Cooperative out of its office on Lexington Avenue and 31st Street. It moved into P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (or the Clocktower Building) in Tribeca, in favorable rental agreement brokered by the Museum of Modern Art.  On December 31st, 2008 P.S.1 sent a 24-hour eviction notice to the Cooperative in order to create offices for Art International Radio an Internet project by Alanna Heiss, the founder and outgoing director of P.S1. Despite letters of protest from The New York Public Library, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Fine Arts Library at Harvard and Los Angeles’s American Film Institute, there seemed to be no solution until visionary developer Charles S. Cohen offered Film-Makers’ Cooperative a five-year lease with a symbolic rent of $1 a year. The new offices at 475 Park Avenue South (& 32nd Street) provides four times the space as the co-op’s former Clocktower Building location, an air-conditioned archival environment to protect the priceless collection and a 15-seat theater for the use of scholars and researchers.

Mr. Cohen, who Jonas Mekas described on opening night as “sent from the angels,” was an executive producer of “Frozen River,” the feature-length film that earned two Oscar nominations (2008), Cohen presented MM Serra, Executive Director of the Cooperative, with a $25,000 check to help cover their website.

“I was in a position to help, and I thought that I should,” Mr. Cohen told Larry Rohter of the New York Times. “They are a wonderful group doing important work, and there is no other place to go and see this kind of thing. They needed a storage space for their archives, and this meets their needs.”

Serra considers the guest speakers a vital part of the program. “I have asked pioneer filmmakers Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs and Carolee Schneemann and a host of other filmmakers in the festival program to journey across the country with me for this historical East Coast-West Coast convergence of cinema innovation.”

“This is an historic event that gives Los Angeles the opportunity to look back on the past 50 years of avant-garde cinema, “ says Cohen, PDC president/owner and a MOCA Trustee. “We’re honored to have some of the pioneers of the genre here in person to discuss their contribution to the art form.”

Works by Mekas, Schneemann and Jacobs were featured in individual programs. Feminist filmmaker, mixed media and performance art pioneer, Carolee Schneemann’s films recaptured the female nude from the male gaze of the past centuries of art, emboldening younger female and male artists.

Program 1: Underground Classics included the infrequently screened (on the West Coast) work by Puerto Rican artist Jose Rodriguez-Soltero.  “Lupe” featured Warhol transvestite diva Mario Montez as Hollywood star Lupe Velez. Charles Ludlam and other members of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company appear (Lola Pashalinski and Bill Vehr.) The camp classic will be featured at the London Tate Modern in the upcoming 3rd Fashion In Film festival (as will Rice’s “Chumlum”.)

Program 2: California Counterculture at the Film-Makers’ Coop.
Highlights of the California Counterculture program included Bruce Baillie’s haunting “Valentin de las Sierras.” Hand held images shot from horseback introduced a rural Mexican community. Extreme close ups of the horse’s face, a guitarist and a running dog summoned a vanished time in Mexico, reminiscent of the Mexico described in Juan Rulfo’s novel “Pedro Paramo”.

Donna Deitch (“Desert Hearts”, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”), a surprise guest in the audience, was so moved by the riveting program, she expressed interest in revisiting her early works, deposited at the Cooperative. Hopefully she will consider a DVD release of her experimental work.

In a Q & A, Lenny Lipton asked the younger members of the audience how they related to the material. Lipton, the former chief technical officer of RealD, had fallen out of touch with the Independent filmmaking community, although his textbooks “The Super 8 Book” and  “Independent Filmmaking” have remained classic textbooks. Lipton expressed his initial reluctance at attending the screening.

Lipton’s 1965 “We Shall March Again ” depicted the conflict at a 1965 Berkeley peace march when protesters, marching to the Oakland Army Induction Center, were turned back at the Oakland-Berkeley border by armed police. Lipton chronicles the night march on October 15, and the daylight conflict on the following day. For audience members from that era, the film showed a Who’s Who of counter-culture activists Including Berkeley Barb publisher Max Scheer and a baby- faced Paul Krassner.

Scott Bartlett’s throbbing psychedelic “Offon” records part of an electro-videographic jam between Mike MacNamee, lightshow artist Glen Mckay and Scott Bartlett. The kinescoped jam was edited by Bartlett who developed a proto-electronica soundtrack with composer Manny Meyer and Tom DeWitt (who supplied the film loops.) The optically printed saturated colors (as high contrast and vibratory as the poster art of Victor Moscoco) and nature-rich Rorschach images are indelible, especially for those who remember West Coast light shows.

Program 3: Ken Jacobs program. In his introduction to the Jacob’s program, David James described different eras of the work of Ken and Flo Jacobs: Dada or street theatre, structuralist and documentary, and credited Jacobs with producing a filmic equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. “a Loft” (2010) with it’s progression from images of the object dense eclectegaria of the Jacobs loft into a morphing pseudo 3d pulse of agitated volcanic vortices, uses Jacob’s homemade “Nervous System” machine to create illusory depth manipulating duel projected 16 millimeter film strips and a rotating shutter. The film approximates Jacob’s famous hand run Nervous Magic Lantern shows.  Jacob’s credited his wife and collaborator Flo Jacobs, who declined to speak in the Q & A, with any scrap of “taste in the work.”  Jacobs was asked about the technique he used to arrive at the morphing roiling images in his “Krypton is Doomed.” Jacob demurred, stating he wanted the alchemy to remain mysterious. “Krypton Is Doomed” features a neo-baroque central moving image, which under Jacob’s manipulations creates a futuristic impact. The images play over a soundtrack of the original Superman radio play, paused and restarted for meditative and narrative effect. Jacob’s extraordinary “The Pushcarts Leave Eternity Street” (2010) uses silent footage to summon an alternate world version of the lower east side. Jiggering frames seem to have churning vortices of movement, many flowing towards or away from the spectator in alternate waves. Pushcarts, housewives, a Billy club swinging cop, and a boy tossing a ball emerge in this ambiguous, elegiac yet threatening thirteen minutes of transformed image. Jacob’s dances the movement forward and back. A moment with a ball suspended in air is breathtaking.

Jacobs studied painting with Hans Hoffman. His work seems to be a continuation of Hoffman’s push pull theory which explored volume and the technique to translate three-dimensionality to a two dimensional plane. Hoffman, whose work intersects Fauvism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, advocated the artist’s spiritual connection to nature and the artist’s material. Jacob’s work perfectly illustrates Hoffman’s quotes “Space is alive; space is dynamic; space is imbued with movement expressed by forces and counter forces; space vibrates and resounds with color, light and form in the rhythm of life.”

Program 4: Jonas Mekas (Founder of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, Anthology Film Archives, Pioneer Filmmaker of the New American Cinema.) Known as the “protector” of independent film, Mekas’s extensive filmology of subjective cinema documented seminal life-style moments of the 60’s and essayed the loneliness of his Lithuanian exile and sense of displacement (“Lost, Lost Lost.”) His diary-like works display a poetic superimposition of fragments, imagistic and fragile, which he has described as “miracles of everyday, little moments of Paradise.” Mekas’s “Birth Of A Nation” portrays the nation of independent filmmakers. His snippets of outtakes, including a screen test for a young Jim McBride, and countless scenes of the families of Mekas, Kubelka and Jacobs, creates a portrait of a charming recherché bohemia.

Unlike the soft images of Mekas film work, his web-based video “365 Day Project” 2007 crackles with pixel brightness. Mekas set himself the task of filming one film a day for a year, come rain or shine; a daunting project he has no intention of repeating. The selections he chose served as surprisingly lyrical shorts. “January, 9” is an amusing scene set in the bookstore below Guillaume Apollinaire’s House. Mekas’s pal, French artist-activist Jean-Jacques Lebel presents him with an original drawing and a copy of the last Futurist Manifesto, both signed by Apollinaire, and irascible, opinionated Mekas expounds to Lebel and Mekas’s young assistant. “February 21” is a meditation on the tabloid pillorying of Pop star Brittany Spears. “Nervous breakdowns are very necessary. The artists that don’t go through Nervous breakdown, I don’t trust them. I don’t think I even Like them. They’re too square.” For an artist “to be too normal is a disaster,” opines Mekas. “March 1” is a Madonna concert shot from above on Mekas’s video camera. In one mournful section, “March 28,” Mekas hums in the background as he strokes the dead branches of a broken tree on the sidewalks of Sutton Street, Brooklyn. It’s unaccountably moving to see him caress the tree, which seems to stand in for nature and the world.  “June 21” films a flowering bush to the music Nick Horn. It’s a blissful postmodern equivalent of an impressionist plein-air landscape by Cézanne or Pizarro.

Program 5:Unruly Bodies, Transgressive Appropriations. Juan Suarez & MM Serre curated a dynamic program with a driving presence. Showcasing films from many of the Coop’s board members, this “board-certified” program was termed by many audience members the most exciting program of the festival.

Abigail Child’s “Mayhem”, a classic in appropriative filmmaking mixed clever noir reenactments with 30’s Japanese porn. Subverting and reclaiming male rape fantasies, Gender Performance artist Diane Torr appeared as both a perverse male figure and a woman at risk. A threatening sound track functions as what Child  terms “Sound As Character”, driving the cut together neo-noir meditation on the nexus of fear and desire. With Diane Torr, Ela Troyano, Plauto, Elion Sacker, Rex West. Additional sound: Christian Marclay, Charles Noyes, Zeena Parkins, and Shelley Hirsch.

In “Male Gayze” (1990) then 23-year-old African American dancer Jack Waters (Naked Eye Cinema) addressed issues of race and class, and fetishism of the black male figure. When a photo of Water’s headless torso, (originally posed for the private collection of an important Dutch male choreographer) circulated as a commercial poster and post-card, exploited Waters questioned the male commodification of his ‘exotic’ body.

In “Color Of Love” Peggy Ahwesh’s ‘ready made’ appropriation of a distressed 70’s pornography whose damaged surface glows with found colors. Ahweash’s manipulations of the Super-8mm porn, her repeats, slowed and sped-up sections, all to a tango score, created a kaleidoscopic appreciation of sexuality.  Fruity images of the cunt, vegetal in its lush power are simply unforgettable

Smith and Lowles’s “Rich Tourist”, with it’s staged, posed erotic dmz, seemed inspired by Jack Smith’s sensual poly-gender images.

Jasmine Hirst’s “Trailors” is a provocative “selection” of films she hasn’t made. Intensely personal, Hirst displays a portrait gallery of woman artists she met at “The Center Of The World. As her artists pals die or go MIA, Hirst addresses the subject of suicidal wishes and mixes in some of her 1997 8 millimeter interview with Aileen Wournos on Death Row. Wournos tried to set the record straight, filming with Hirst, with whom she had a five-year correspondence. Hirst is working on an unfinished documentary about the executed Wournos.

MM Serra’s respectful portrait of body artist and self-amputee “Chop Off” must be seen. No words will do this film justice. Serra interviews Chop Off, allowing him to contextualize his extreme body modification and show us his art of self-severing digits. Serra overcame her initial squeamishness to create an empathetic graphic encounter. Serra, in a post film discussion, recalls asking the artist “I see the finger as phallic. Do you consider this an act of castration?” “No”, answered the artist R.K. “I’m an artist. It’s part of my artistic process.” “Chop Off” recently showed at Tribeca and at the Sundance festival, to MM Serra’s surprise. Serra termed the artist “Michelangelo and David in one”. Interestingly, RK considers himself transgendered because his sexuality is linked to pain.  Serra’s upcoming project is “Bitch Beauty,” a film about Ann Hanavan.

The program ended with the jubilant “I Love Jesus” by Ann Hanavan.
Hanavan frolics with a horsetail butt plug to the Punk lyrics “I’ve seen the troubles and the evils of this world ” (Joy Division “The Drawback.”) Like Maya Deren decades before her, Hanavan uses a mirror and a camera to film her body as art. Reclaiming her sex-worker past, Hanavan’s auto-erotic costume play, shot in snippets each day before work, celebrates her sexuality. Self-taught filmmaker Hanavan, who survived street years as a junkie-prostitute, is a board member at the Filmmaker cooperative.

Program 6: Carolee Schneemann (performance artist, filmmaker, painter (Los Angeles Premieres)
Originally a painter, Schneemann was involved with Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and the Judson Memorial Church’s art program, where she participated in such seminal projects as Oldenburg’s Store Days (1962) and Robert Morris’s Site (1964). Rebelling against the misogynist tradition of the male-dominated art world of the time, she recuperated the female form by using her own nude body in her work. Although her early assemblages were largely overlooked by the establishment critics, Schleemann was championed by Oldenburg and her poetry was published by Robert Kelly. Her iconic Meat Joy (1964), a filmed version of her Kinetic Theater group’s “erotic rite” featured near nude dancers coupling in geometric than abandoned configurations. Dancers rolled over each other, pulled each other’s bodies in and out of centripetal patterns. They played with dead fish and chickens, rubbing the body parts over their own bodies in alternately playful, meditative or ecstatic moves. Covered in paint, their bodies reflected the joyful then mournful ritual in which flesh, alive and dead, was transformed into a material.

“Precarious” (Schneemann, 2009) was a one screen version
 of an interactive installation at the Tate Modern in 2009. Spectators wandered through a 360-degree field of projections, (a system of mirrors designed by Scheemann twenty years ago to approximate the 3D experience.) Schneemann’s meditation on movement and imprisonment featured a masked Schneemann dancing (while thinking about captivity within the film frame) Snowball, the famed dancing cockatoo, dancing to rock and roll, a field of orange suited Philippine prisoners dancing in a community rehab program, and Eisenstein’s images of Russian dancing bears, who are guided by torturous spikes in their mouth.

“Mysteries of The Pussies” (2010), a performative lecture shot in Pori, Finland, illustrated Scheemannn’s cathartic force. She asked a prim local librarian to translate her lecture form English to Finnish. “What should I wear?” the librarian asked only to reappear in a little black something, transformed into everybody’s “Librarian Fantasy”. Schneeman and her imprompto partner evolve a surprising stage intimacy, crawling over each other bodies like the filmed cats projected behind them. ” Her only instructions were to translate what I was saying in a certain rhythm and to evolve actions relating to the cat sequence,” explained the pleased Schneemann. “Ask The Goddess”(1991) a sort of avant-garde version of Carol Burnett’s audience interactions, reveals Scheemannn’s activist worldview and sage philosophy.

Schneemann was the first collaborative artist to work with the Judson Church dancers. Later, as the company became more rigid, the dancers began to resist her concepts.  She preferred to work with people with developed sensuality that “I’d see in bars or clubs, to evolve contact improvisation. I didn’t want to teach them to dance.”

Her film “Fuses” (shown in the opening night selection) in which Schneemann collaged-over images of her lovemaking with partner, composer James Tenney, was considered the first feminist erotic film and was often banned or censored depending where it was shown. On Sunday night, Scheemannn explained that male art critics accepted the piece, but feminist and female critics are still slow to accept it.

When asked in the opening night Q & A about the cross-pollination between her various medias, and how they influenced her film work, Schneemann, an elegant beauty, described the influence of living with a composer. In “Fuses” she used the idea of musical notation, strictly composing shots as units of music.  She described her camera moves as brush strokes moving from the edge of the screen inwards in strict musical alterations.

During the post screening Q & A Schneemann wondered.” Why are their why no protest s? We’re in two wars. ” She described our current culture as a “suppressed assassination-culture, a patriarchal culture” suffering from passivity. “All the presidents seemed to be Manchurian Candidates’ and everyone is in a state of unconscious terror.”  responding to an impassioned audience comment about the
“False nostalgia of young people who envy the 60’s era  and feel powerless to do anything now”, Schneemann remembered the Love Fest era as ” purposeful, optimistic and relentless.  Women were auxiliary.  You were accepted if you looked good, could fuck and cook, ” and remarked that this although the current  era has evolved a cultural inclusivity absent during the 60’s. Nowadays when “we can’t even organize our “desktop, we’ve experienced a erosion of any sense of civil liberties, a watering down of civil rights and feminism.”

Program 7: The Art of Seeing: Underground Gems
I was thrilled to see Ron Rice’s “Chumlum” on the closing night Underground Gems program. I’ve waited forty-six years to re-see this jewel on the big screen. Like Jack Smith’s work Ron Rice creates a sensual blurred-gender utopian vision, both innocent and haunting.  “Chumlum” featuring Mario Montez, Gerard Malanga, Jack Smith, Beverly Grant, Francis Francine & Joel Markman is a sensual textured orientalist dream, shot while Rice assembled props for Smith’s “Normal Love.” Bodies lazing in hammocks, overlaid by faces in dramatic makeup create a blissful ‘fairy’land untrammeled by the strain of the ensuing four decades of gender politics.  Tom Chomont’s films were another highlight of the Program 7: The Art of Seeing: Underground Gems. Chomont’s “Ophelia/The Cat Lady” mixes homemade footage and borrowed footage from genre classic “The Creature From the Black Lagoon”. His rapid montages of color positive, high contrast black and white imagery have an erotic trance like pulse reminiscent of the ‘Thought images’ in expat Gregory Markupoulus’s early work.

Curated by David E. James and MM Serra. David E. James is the author of “Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties,” “The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles”, editor of “To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground.”  “Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker” and co-editor of the forthcoming  “Optic Antics: The Amazing Cinema of Ken Jacobs.”

Filmmaker and renowned curator MM Serra is the Executive Director of Film-Makers’ Cooperative, the world’s largest archive of independent media. Serra curated the six-part experimental film series “Cinema of the Unusual” at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center from 2007-2008. Her new film, Chop Off, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight Series in 2009.  


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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