Taking Note: P. Adams Sitney on the Films of Saul Levine

By Sitney, P. Adams | Artforum International, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Taking Note: P. Adams Sitney on the Films of Saul Levine


Sitney, P. Adams, Artforum International


Saul Levine has been one of the most underrated filmmakers in the American avant-garde cinema throughout his more than forty-year-long career. His one-man program at the New York Film Festival last year was his first, although he had been included in group screenings there before. The five films selected were so old (made between 1967 and 1983) that they were promoted as restored artifacts. Only in the past decade has New York's Anthology Film Archives devoted occasional programs to him. Yet if someone were to write a critical history of the avant-garde cinema in Boston (as David E. James did for Los Angeles in his magisterial 2005 book, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles), Levine would be its hero. He seldom leaves the city, where, as a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art, he has been one of the most influential teachers of filmmaking in the nation, and his energies have for decades sustained the larger community of avant-garde filmmakers in Boston.

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The chief reason for his neglect, or isolation, may not have been his geographical location, however, but rather his long commitment to 8-mm and Super 8 formats (although he has blown copies up to 16 mm for distribution by the Film-Makers' Cooperative and Canyon Cinema since the 1970s). A figure of the perennial Left, Levine has identified with and championed the small gauges as if they were marginalized citizens of the republic of cinema. By example, he has taught his students to cling to their artistic freedom by seeking out the least expensive modes of filmmaking and, as Emerson wrote in the essay "Experience," to "hold hard to this poverty, however scandalous, and by more vigorous self-recoveries, after the sallies of action, possess our axis more firmly." As a consequence of this ascetic attitude toward the medium, Levine embraced video much earlier than did those of his fellow filmmakers who shared his passion for the texture of celluloid. For instance, Stan Brakhage--with whom Levine studied in the early '70s and who was, more significantly, the greatest influence on his work--resorted to painting on film in his last years rather than make the switch. When the expenses of 16-mm production temporarily drove Brakhage into a detour of making first 8-mm films (in 1964) and later Super 8 films (in 1976), he thought of his engagement with the smaller gauges as exemplary for younger filmmakers. Of those who followed his example, Levine has been the most persistent. He started shooting 8 mm in 1965, with Salt of the Sea, and to this day remains faithful to the small gauge.

Viewing a large span of Levine's work in a short time reveals the grand scale of the project lurking within the humble titles and modest formal ambitions of his insistent efflux of lyrical films. In a sense, to use the terminology of William Butler Yeats, perhaps the foundational poet for this filmmaker who once imagined that poetry would be his vocation, Levine's work might be seen as the antithetical counterpart to that of Jonas Mekas. They both give us a vivid feeling for daily life lived in urban America over the past forty years (add at least ten more for Mekas's oeuvre); few other major avant-garde filmmakers are as convincing at disclosing a world filled with other people as Mekas and Levine (the tragically short-lived Warren Sonbert was of that select company). But whereas Mekas, an irrepressible vitalist, depicts his ambit as a perpetual celebration, an ongoing party attended by art-world celebrities, Levine continually probes the margins of the gritty surroundings in which he lives and works for flashes of illumination, purchased at the high cost of a skepticism that seldom permits him either the ecstatic self-exhibition that characterizes Mekas's onscreen moments or the melancholy of Mekas's quite moving voice-over interventions.

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Taking Note: P. Adams Sitney on the Films of Saul Levine
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