The Reeler


April 6, 2007

Re-living the Living Cinema

Jacobs, Child, Hoberman among many highlighted as NYC film institution remembered

(Photo: Anthology Film Archives)

When a group of young film students at SUNY Binghamton took avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs' cinema class in the early '70s, they were so inspired by his tales of cutting-edge movies and alternative exhibition spaces (such as New York City's Millennium Theater) that they wanted to further these new ideas by setting up something of their own. Thus was born one of New York's premiere film venues: the Collective for Living Cinema, which opened its doors in 1973 and showcased work by Stan Brakhage, Yvonne Rainer, Jack Smith, Dziga Vertov and Abigail Child (among many others) before closing in 1992.

"What the Collective did was continue a number of the ideas that had developed in Ken Jacobs' class into a more public sphere that had to with showing more avant-garde films -- and also slide shows and video in the context of all kinds of other work, Hollywood movies, ethnic movies and documentaries," said filmmaker and critic Jim Hoberman, a former student at Binghamton and one of many Collective members taking part in this weekend's semi-retrospective On the Collective For Living Cinema at Anthology Film Archives. Cross-curated with another group of artists in a collectively run space -- Orchard 47 Gallery -- the event restores the memory of the Collective through a series of programs that will re-examine its history and impact.

"I kept feeling the ghost of the Collective of Living Cinema, because the Collective was a filmmaker run institute," said Orchard co-founder Jeff Preiss, a co-programmer of the event and former Collective board member. "The show is trying to recall the sensibility of the Collective. We didn't want this to just be a nostalgic experience, so we're also showing a lot of recent films, [including] films by younger filmmakers who weren't even around at that time."

The Collective was able to attract audiences of different ages and sensibilities because of the varied programming that it provided, mixing together different genres, artistic styles and even time periods in its programming. "As we were graduating, we were trying to figure out a way to continue that kind of immersion in film and what we could do to keep doing our filmmaking and create something in New York City like we had in Binghamton," said Ken Ross, one of the original founders of the Collective. "They weren't films that were normally accessible, whether it was a film by an avant-garde filmmaker who was young and not in the established canon or maybe it was Stan Brakhage coming with a premiere of something. Maybe it was all Black films or Yiddish films. We always wanted to shake it up and mix it up."

Binghamton guru Jacobs recalled the Collective's showcase for everything from the avant-garde to industrial movies. "Old, new, American, European, Asian, whatever," he said. "There was even a series of Japanese gangster thrillers that [composer] John Zorn had made available to them ... That was a real good feisty little institution."

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Preiss told The Reeler that although the selections work together as a unified whole -- supplying in a few nights a diverse sample of what the Collective was all about -- programmers wanted to highlight historical films such as Sigmund Freud's Dora, which is rarely shown. The film is paired with James Benning and Bette Gordon's more contemporary work United States of America. Gordon, who went on to make several independent features, credits the Collective with helping to launch her film career. "In 1981," she said, "I showed a film there called Empty Suitcases that was picked up by the Whitney Biennial. But the first place I showed it, of course, was the Collective, which was my home and my home base. And it was the film that really propelled me."

Like Gordon, many young filmmakers felt that a strong point of the Collective was that it allowed artists and filmmakers to experiment -- and very little was off limits. "I had been involved in a theater called the Theater of Gibberish and we did a number of slide shows at the Collective -- a number of performance pieces" said Hoberman, whose own Mission to Mongo -- an experimental film featuring postcards found on the streets of Chinatown -- will screen at Anthology on April 8 along with several other works by avant-garde filmmakers. "I also did one series called Hollywood Agit-Prop, which was a mix of anti-Communist and anti-Fascist films that were made in Hollywood in the '40s."

By its second decade the Collective was showing work that stressed the political as well as the avant-garde. "One of the significant aspects of the Collective in the '80s," said Abigail Child, "was that filmmakers who had been brought up on structural and formalist filmmaking decided to put content to it and used formal invention. I think maybe because we were baby boomers and we were brought up in the Civil Rights Movement, women and gay people and people of other dimensionalities started making films. And it's very formal, but it's definitely engaged with issues in the world." Child's curated show at Orchard on April 20 gathers the newer work of Collective veterans Peggy Ahwash, Ken Jacobs and Leslie Thornton and addresses political content through formalist filmmaking.

"The philosophy was to get to see films in a different way than just what they would see in a commercial theatrical cinema and to understand film as an art," Gordon said. "To explore film in the way that other artists also explored their medium, which was using elements of time, space, color, light, texture so that filmmakers foregrounded the artistic aesthetics of the medium as well as the ideas and interesting ways of telling a story that may be different than commercial Hollywood."

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