Hurwitz’s Last Interview
In 1990, as Hurwitz was nearing the end of his life, he sat for an extended interview that was meant as a look backward over his life and work’s extent. As the interview unrolled over two days, some of the material repeated other oral histories, even some on this website, some was completely new, or told from a new perspective.
The interview was produced by Tom Hurwitz, Leo’s son, and Ellen Fryer, both of whose voices appear on the video. It was shot by Burleigh Wartes.
A debt of thanks is due to Calvin Skaggs and Lumiere productions for its digitization and transcription.
Interviewers: Tom Hurwitz and Ellen Fryer
Camera: Burleigh Wartes
REEL 1 - Origins of His Family, Early Childhood
So we’re going to start chronologically. Okay, I was born… Even before you were born, tell us a little about your early family history and as you talk about it, maybe think about ideas and trends that have affected you throughout your work life. Wow. Well, fortunately I don t have any knowledge of very early history of my family. There are no genealogical trees. So, I begin with my parents who lived in Russia in a town near Kiev and hey had four children. The oldest one about 9, when they decided to come to America. Or maybe 7, because my father came to America first in 1898. And then, worked here for a couple of years to earn enough money to send for the family. And they came in 1900. What was he? What kind of a man was he? What was he like? He was a teacher. He taught Hebrew and other subjects as well. A teacher in a small town being really a tutor or sometimes teaching a group. In fact he was my mothers teacher. My grandfather brought him from Kiev, where he met him to this town to teach the children of the town what they needed to learn.
My mother, who was the oldest in her family, was his pupil. That was his trade being a teacher, but ideas and contact with the world was what he was about. He was an anarchist, some kind of a socialist anyway. Later he called himself an anarchist, when he got here, and was concerned with justice with the importance of society allowing for peoples needs being responsible with peoples needs. So he came to America. He came to America primarily, he had already had a family of four, because in Russia, the problem of education was very difficult for a Jewish family, especially a Jewish family that didn’t have very much money. So in order to have the choices of education, that was his basic reason for his coming here. Was a background of causes, backgrounds not being a comfortable place for Jews to live as it might be. But the basic reason was, in search of potential of education. That was one of the, that was part of the clear environment of the family, values of education. That ties into your mothers father too. Right. What was his story?
Well, by trade, he was a ..he owned a general store. Grocery store. My videos are going to be edited, is it possible for you to mention the subject and not use he. My mothers father was a, owned a store, a general store, grocery, shirts, dresses and so forth, in this small town of Risava(sp?) and, but again, his life was in what he could understand and learn of the world. My grandmother used to complain that when he went to Kiev he would spend all of his money on books, and bring all books back to the small town instead of what he was supposed to go for. He was, I remembered him slightly, he died when I was about four I guess. He was a rather gentle man, quite handsome, and tender as I remember but maybe just being a grandchild, a grandfather is tender. He had reddish hair, and a beard, something like mine I think. Was this the enlightenment at the time? Were they the first generation of people who read about things other than religion? They were early in that, that is in other words, the tight community of Jews bound by orthodoxy. That was breaking up. My grandfather, that same grandfather I talked about before, he was no religious, he had broken away from the idea of the literal meaning of god and he saw no real meaning in the rigid structures of Judaism. His ideas, he had a spirituality, but that spirituality he felt was not bounded by the tribe, by the clan, by the religion. He was in no doubt affected by what was called the enlightenment at the time. And the existence of people like Tolstoy and Kropotkin and so on had created explosions in the minds of people who were of this kind, this intellectual search. And my father, was also one of those people.
My father had grown up in a religious family, and I have an idea, but I don t know much about his father and mother but I have an idea that they were part of the old tradition. My father being the eldest, broke away from it and his brothers, sort of followed him, but he was the kind of he dynamo of the family. He has reflected that tradition of the people he admired in the names of his children. Right, right and it’s interesting you see. Tell us about that please. Right, it’s interesting that the names of the children that were born in Russia are Bill, William, Elizabeth, Rosetta, Marie. Names that don’t have particular associations that later children had. When it came to America, the names of the children are Peter, for Peter Kropotkin, Sophia, for Sophia Perovskaya who was a woman political leader, an anarchist persuasion. Eleanor, and Eleanor was named after an American radical woman, whose name I don’t remember and me Leo, who’s named after Tolstoy. So in a way, what he was doing for the children, and I mean I don’t know what my mothers role was, I m saying it s my father, I don’t know if it was my father, very likely it was both of them, but the force of those ideas and those feelings that sent them to America, ended up in the names of the children. So, tell about where you were born, the community in which you were born, and the house, how the house was like into which you were born, and I don t mean the physical house, I mean the spiritual house and the relationship amongst your brothers and sisters, what their quest was and how that affected you. Gosh, well you ought to ask those questions individually because it is very difficult for me, I find myself obliged to do a biography or an essay and I am not very good at that. Well, just start with I was born, in a house, in… go as far as you want to go and I ‘l ask you or prompt you. Right. Interesting thing is, that, memories come with all kinds of, in many dimensions, some of them dimensions are in focus, and some of them are out of focus. So it s like a field of not quite graspable stuff, that somehow has to be entered. So there for I m trying to pick out, for the moment, as more emergency than those other things. I ’l be more specific. No, this is a general characterization of the problem of calling on memory. Cause there is a lot of stuff there that becomes a novel in relation to almost every question. I was born on Mesero street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
And lived there until I was 2 years old. And then moved from there to Keeps street, I think the number was 384 Keeps street, which was near South 2nd Street, not very far from Meserole Street. Keeps street I remember, and Meserole Street, I think I remember. That is, I must ‘ve visited there because my grandparents still lived on Meserole Street. And I remember a brewery there. And the brewery, I remember a sign of the brewery, that is in the restaurant that I eat in, and that I have eaten in the past twenty something years on 72nd street. And one day I looked at the sign and said I know this sign, because this sign came from my childhood from when I was five. I remember the sign it had a crescent moon on it and as I eat there, I know for sure, although I haven’t been able to confirm it with anybody, that that was the sign on the brewery when I was 2 years and 3 years old. At any rate, the brewery plays a role in my birth. My brother tells me that on the given morning of June 23rd on 1929, he was shooed out of the house and he and his friends sat on the wall of the brewery while I was being born in the house. My mother was a midwife, and my aunt Hanna was also a midwife, and she had tended at my birth. My brother tells me that kids threw stones against the window of the apartment on Keeps street on Mesero street. And the stones were thrown because our family was known to be radical. At one point I thought it was, the stones were born because a new Jewish kid was coming into the world, but later on I learned the stones were thrown because we were a radical family. After I learned of that, that became very symbolic for me. And one of the things that feels as if it was invented, that my life was built on one form of radicalism or descent or individual judgment without regard to or against the social norms and customs ideas and so I have very often, not infrequently felt the stones against the window.
The issue at this point was circumcision. The issue at this point was circumcision that’s right. Here was a Jewish child who was not going to be circumcised. Can I just ask you why you weren’t? I mean that s pretty unusual, even today? Well, you have a different thing today. At that time, circumcision was taken by my parents as being an unnecessary disturbance of the body, simply for ritual purposes, to define you as a Jew. They found themselves defined as a Jew, by virtue of their ideas, and their spirituality and didn’t need the ritual thing. And they felt it was an unnecessary cutting of a child so they did not circumcise the male children of the family. Now in this house, there were several people, you were the youngest of these children. So your brothers and sisters in a certain sense have forged their way into the world, in America, before you had time to prepare… could you talk about that?
Well, it was a family of tremendous vitality and I felt that as a child too. The vitality, one of its expressions was the kind of vigor in talking about ideas and what was happening in the world whenever the family gathered around the dinner table or whatever. And you have people who were very interested in all kinds of things. My elder sister, Elizabeth was a teacher, Rosetta was a teacher, Marie became a teacher, my brother Bill was not a teacher, he was a salesman. Those were the grownups in the course of my childhood…
REEL 2 - Life with Family, Emphasis on Education, Politics in the Home
I was talking about, my sisters and brother. To name what they were doing, is not to give you the feeling of what was around. They had a tremendous amount of vitality and interest in what was going on in the world. For example, Elizabeth began as a teacher of school. Now part of that was an economic thing, how do you earn money in a family that had very little money. But she was interested in that right? but she was also interested in dancing and they were interested in the neighborhood playhouse and she took lessons in dancing and became a dancer and a dance teacher. Rosetta was interested in many things among which was psychoanalysis which was sort of at the beginnings of being heard at all in America. And she became, later on she went to Vienna, and became a Child Analyst, one of the earliest child analysts in America, at which Marie followed her in. So you had an atmosphere that was interested in Art, in Science, in New Developments and so forth, how much of a role did that play in my early life, cause now I m talking about when I am really very young, and don’t quite know and I would have to dig back for specific memories that don’t come up now.
But the general atmosphere which I felt flowed from my father which is that education is the reaching for those experiences that man has accumulated. And that was an exciting vision and an exciting opening for anything that was learnable you see. That sense, which I m not articulating too sharply for what it was, was inherent in the background from the earliest time that I could remember. The symbol of this to me, hearing about it, was this dinner table. Could you talk a little about that. What went on around it? Yeah, I remember the dinner table much more sharply later on. After we had moved from Williamsburg to Borough Park, and lived in a larger house or larger apartment in a frame house. Where there was a fairly large dining room, and a round dining table, and of course we had a fairly big family. 8 children, after a while some of the children left and got married, but it was always a big dinner table full of people and sometimes uncles were there coming in after dinner or guests friends of family coming to dinner and the table was a vital place. You know, it wasn’t just a place where people ate. And nobody asked questions of what you do today or how did you spend the day. That question was never asked at me at whatever age I was. The subjects were whatever was on the minds of people involved, and that could be psychoanalysis and, it could be the causes of war it, could be the causes of poverty, it could be socialism it could be what Karl Marx really thought and felt, it could be philosophical questions that my father was involved in.
It could be related to art, and why it was at a time that modern art was beginning to be heard and talked about and was laughed at also and so on. All of this stuff were around the table. And if I was a kid of six or seven, I was absorbing all of this stuff. Some of which I could attach to. And from a personal point of view I remember being the youngest and therefore, nobody invited me to speak. Leo what do you think? Nobody invited me, so I listened with tremendous attention and when I had something to say I held onto it and I found a moment, a break in this rapid flow of conversation in the family. And then I would put in my idea as quickly as possible, as sharply as possible you see. Now that comes to mind because it is a, it became a characteristic, that is the need to find a moment of saying the necessary thing affected my whole mode of talking to people. That is when you ask me to talk about a whole set of things, that is not me, that is not part of me. When you, when we re in conversation, then I respond with considerable sharpness. Anyway, it derived from that experience at that dinner table of little Leo having to get his 2 cents in and dashing for the wedge that opens up. Now I don’t particularly remember that, these very important notions of the seven year old or the eight year old or nine year old, created any sparks or fireworks, I don’t particularly remember that, but I did kept them out. My father would be the patriarch with white hair sitting in the only seat that had arms at the table and frequently, he was the generator of what, at least what started it all. And then it moved around very actively and then the conversation could go on if it was a cold season into the back parlor or parlor. And I would sit on the floor or whatever or if it was warm weather onto the porch. And the conversation would go on, and then some uncles would come over and they would join in the conversation and so on. And my father would say what do you think?
So in these conversations, I use the word expectations but what I mean that, what expectations influenced you in the world of anarchism, justice, education, what were the things were you led to expect…? It s a good question, its a very good question and I have to.. What did I expect? What did I lean towards? What was the world going to show to me? I know the meaning of it, and I have to search for the answer. Al right, okay. One of the expectations, lets start with the negatives. Nobody in my family told me, that I should become a lawyer or a doctor or lead me toward anything, it was a free floating family in which the expectation was that you would find your own line, your own destiny, by being exposed to what there was in the world. I had the feeling that whatever I did was not only important to me but to the world. This from early, when I didn’t know what I was going to do, why that’s so I don t quite know, it wasn’t simply a question of choosing a way to earn a living or choosing a profession, was choosing something that had the potential to illuminate, to set fire to other people, to start something, to get things moving. I don t know how that s reflected in my childhood and it must be, but at least that s the sense of what I had of expectations before I knew what I was going to do because you were going to do something right?
Now I remember a conversation with my mother, and I think we were on a train, going to Ash berry park. How old I was, I don t know 10, 11, 12 maybe? And somehow the subject came up of what I was going to do. And of course the two most common things you could do was be a lawyer or be a doctor and I, when the question came up of whether I was going to be a lawyer, my mother later told me cause I don’t particularly remember the conversation so it may have even been younger than that, I said no, I m not going to be a lawyer because you have to do things that you don t believe in. You have to represent people who may be dishonest. I didn’t think I could fit into that mold. And being a doctor, I had ruled out, but the thing that evidently game me trouble at that time, I think I was probably 7 or 8 being a doctor, the thing I had trouble with, is that how I would earn enough money, being a doctor when I couldn’t turn down people who didn’t have money, and now there was a very important doctor in our family, doctor Mandelbaum(sp?) who was just a lovely soul, and who you knew treated people regardless, on the basis of their need. And not because they had any money and he accepted what money they had. And the exchange of money was always very subtle. And unless you didn’t hand the money, you left the money under something on his way out, and he knew about it or whatever. So money wasn’t part of the thing. What were your first memories of film? Wait, let me ask a question. I was just wondering, when you said that your father was an anarchist, intellectually? or was he actually active organizationally both in Russia and here.
My father was an anarchist and I think mostly it was in his thinking and in his head, although he was a member of a group here in America. I know he and my mother went to meetings, and followed important people like Emma Goldman and so on. I don t think, oh and he was also at one time a trade union organizer. In other words, he was, his ideas entered his activity. I think he helped form the union in a shirt factory that he worked in. But I do remember he later became more of a social democrat than an anarchist, but the anarchism remained basic to his feeling but quite late, they went to meetings of various kinds. I didn’t know particularly what they were about but I know that on a given night they would go to a meeting a special event where there was a speaker and so forth. I was too young to be part of that. I think they had an idea that I was not to be propagandized or pressured. I was on the line of something else… Well, we were talking about what you wanted to do when you grew up and I sort of threw film in there. Well as you could expect, my becoming a filmmaker had roots in many things and looked at now from this perspective that it was inevitable. At that time, it was the soil for that development. Am I giving that to you fairly clearly? I remember my first movie, when I was about four years old. And I went with my sister Sophia, who was five years older than I, and with my sister Eleanor who was three years older than I.
And it was a some kind of a nickelodeon thing, and I remember the immensity of image and the image was absolutely extraordinary and it was so real, and obvious so not real at the same time, and it was a silent image, and talking, when the mouth talked, it was as if someone were talking. And, the life was there. Life on this extraordinary scale, in which you could see the image blown up. So, the vividness of the image is part of that whole experience. And it was an absolute wonder, extraordinary. At the same time, I had this strong feeling, even from my first experience, that it was jerky. Not jerky in the sense that the image was jerky, jerky in its continuity. That is the individual image was real but the connection of the images was false, jumpy, made me say something is missing in between. So the flow, I was reacting to the fact that, as a I look back at old movies now, and even current movies, I see this insensitivity to the flow of life, that s a potential of the cutting in film, and the thinking in terms of image interacting with image and so forth. So I thought that very early. And you continued to feel it.. And I continued to feel it. And I was so that my reaction to films was not only that it was jerky, but the language was crude, and the effect of image absolutely wonderful. But that the substance of the images were nonsense and silly for the most part. So my reactions were vehement. Vehemently enthusiastic, and vehemently critical. And this as a child too, so it became focused.
Later on, and still is. It s born out for the most part and what I see now, although there has been a great deal learned and a great deal of skill in the language of image. But frequently, if you look at anything, but frequently the sound, is the cover up of the crudity of the development of image. Now I got off the subject. When I got, there were many other things when I was growing up, I became interested in this also because of the atmosphere in the family. I became interested in all the arts, I was interested in Isadora Dunkin, I was interested in Walt Whitman and I was interested in poetry, I was interested in dancing, I was interested in painting, and so forth. But not so much to do, but somehow be part of. So as I grew up and go to school these things.
REEL 3 - Harvard, Early Interest in Film, AntiSemitism
I was saying, that going to museum, when I was a kid. You know when teacher would take the whole class to a museum, metropolitan, museum of natural history and so forth. And, in school life, that was an outing. The museum became no importance, whatsoever but the kids being together and being free to march down the hall and look at this and look at that and make jokes, and so forth it was an outing, it was a kind of glorious recess. What I found in those things that I was very interested in the museum, wherever I went. And therefore, it didn’t only remain a school thing, but I went by myself or I went with my family. And I began to go to galleries, even in high school, to see what was being shown that was new, Picasso exhibit or whatever.
So by the time I got to college, I took very few courses in art. I took one course with a wonderful guy who became a friend of mine, Robert Field. Kind of a basic course of what is art, with active doing drawings and things like that. But asides from that, I didn’t take any courses in art. But, I sat in on practically everything that was given, especially where slides were shown, as it had to be in an art course. So, somewhere along in my sophomore year, I realized that that would be the direction of my life. That s really what I was interested in, and that it would be film. That my whole thought about film, and I thought of it in terms of the fact that it was a medium that was very young and very crude, and there were very exciting things that had been developed in it. And the whole new language of film, the whole interaction of image was there to be discovered. And very little had been laid down. I was at the beginning of a new language. And so with that kind of excitement, I decided that film was for me. I then began to look at films in that particular way. I didn’t really do very much in film, and of course it was nothing like now. There were no courses in film, film was that kind of a not very cultured medium. Except a few advanced people thought of it as being a medium equivalent to any other art medium. So there was no place to go and study it. You could read a book, and when one book came out on film technique, it was absolutely great. There were a couple of articles you could read, but very little that have been done before. And most of your thoughts were in your head, and you could carry them on experientially, in terms of what it is you wanted to do. What is it you wanted to do? Because when I was in school, everybody wanted to go into film, but for you, what was your experience like? That s right, I was the only one I knew in my class of 900 or 1000 who wanted to go into film, that knew of. You took a few steps at that time to pursue that career while you were at Harvard. Am I correct? That s true. Oh that s right.
I asked myself the question, how do you learn about film, in addition to the way I was learning about it. By looking at film, by looking at paintings, by hearing music, by reading poetry and so forth. And I felt that film was a kind of a symphonic art, that included all the other arts. The arts of time, and the arts of image. So I felt, that what I was doing in relation to other arts I also began to paint a little bit what I was doing and what I was absorbing was of importance to my work in film. If I read a novel or a play that related to the time dimension of film, if I saw a painting that related to the expressiveness of image. So that was my way of learning. But I asked myself, how do I really learn, how does an artist become skillful. And because I was soaked in art history, as well, I said of course the best way to do it is by being an apprentice of somebody who is an artist.
Who wants to teach you. Now, Chaplin, was the only American filmmaker that I felt was doing things consistently of interest, depth and conscience, as well as imagination. But conscience of the artist of doing the thing so that it was not a indication of what was to be, it wasn’t a seduction, it wasn’t a spectacular usiveless new medium. It was a rounded, a complete, a perfect statement of what he could make beginning with his early films. And by now, it was 1927 or so, so he had begun to make even long films. He made the kid and what was the name of that…, I ‘l think of it later. Anyway, that’s the way I felt about Chaplin. I had some contact with , indirect contact, with Chaplin, because a friend of my brother-in-law, Gora Monson, was Waldo Frank, who was a writer, and considerably experimental in his ideas. And I’ve met him on one or two occasions, and he was an enthusiast for Chaplin. He d written a very good essay on Chaplin as an American artist. So I felt I had a connection there. And on one occasion, when chaplain was in town. Waldo said, lets go over and see my friends Gora and Elisa my sister and brother in law. And they went to visit them on Grove street. But unfortunately, as Gora and Elisa would tell you, they were not in, so Chaplin didn’t come to visit them. At any rate, so Chaplin was part of my life in this in an indirect way through the twenties. And so I wrote him. I wrote him saying what I had arrived at, that I wanted to become a filmmaker, and I considered him the only film artist in America who was worth studying with, and I’d like to become an apprentice and I work for anything, even just to hang around. and see what filmmaking is and would be like.
And I never got an answer. So I went on to become a filmmaker in any way that I knew how. Some years later, in the early 40s, the story does come around to itself. That is I met Chaplin, and I was on the coast and there was a party and I had an idea for Chaplin that a friend of mine and a friend of his thought was a good idea. And so he arranged this party for me to meet Chaplin. I start to talk to Chaplin about this idea, which was what to do with, how to utilize progressive people in Hollywood, not to do junky films, but to do good films. And I considered him a key figure in that, which could be done after the war. Anyways, so I talked to him about this. He was interested in this and he was much more interested in me and much more interested in himself. And much more interested in the film that he was working on at the time, which was a Hitler film, The Great Dictator, and so he spent a good deal of time doing scenes from The Great Dictator and scenes that he had set unfortunately, I had to throw them out and so on. And doing them with this body in this kind of muted way, but with tremendous vitality, and you could see how his ideas, where his mind comes from. You see, that is in other words his thinking was with his body. And in both in activity and in the implications of activity. So it was a kind of an extraordinary experience. At that time I explained to him that I had written him a letter when I wanted to go into films and I never got an answer and probably had never got past his secretary. So he, at that time, I had made Native Land, and I was thinking about Strange Victory, in a matter of fact so I was in tune with him. He was doing a film about fascism and so was I.
And, so he indicated that he d like to see Native Land. So we arrange a screening of native land and he brought Una, and sat behind her in the screening room. She was very young. So he whispered to her every once in a while to orient her to what was going on. Anyway, he was tremendously enthusiastic about Native Land, so that was my, closing of the circle. Let s go back to how a Brooklyn boy gets into Harvard. It doesn’t have to be elongated, just a question. Even to apply as a Jewish boy, isn’t that unusual? Well I tell you, I didn’t ask those questions of myself. That is in other words, where the pressure came to do things. I did them. Regardless of whether, It might not be the idea, very seldom consulted anybody. What happened was, that my sister Eleanor had a friend named Paul Anderson, which she married him actually, I don t know if this was before or afterwards, and Paul was an interesting guy. He was a kind of an intellectual bum. He had written an article in Harpers or Atlantic Monthly about tramping through America. He had been a hobo. But he also went to Harvard. He was going to Harvard at the time, or just finished, or whatever. So this hobo, a rough guy, who was really quite nice and friendly, said, Why don t you go to Harvard? I was thinking about applying to schools so I said, okay how do I do that?
He said why don t you write? I have to have a scholarship if I m going to go, so. He said, well why don t you contact the Harvard club in New York. So I called the Harvard Club, and went in to see them and asked them how I apply to go to Harvard and what the scholarships were and so forth. So I got some data, and I applied and I applied for a Harvard Club scholarship and I applied for a… I didn’t know whether… I applied to Columbia University as well, so I knew there was a Pulitzer scholarship to Columbia, so I applied for that scholarship as well. The Pulitzer scholarship carried a stipend with it as well as tuition. The Harvard Club scholarship was only tuition. And it was a munificent sum of 250 dollars a year, 125 dollars a semester. But that meant, you know, you could get a room for 125 dollars for the semester. So, I got both scholarships, and I was able to accept the Harvard Club scholarship and the Pulitzer Scholarship. They said that if I didn’t use the tuition part of the scholarship, they would pay me the stipend. So I got the stipend from Pulitzer for four years and I got this one year tuition scholarship. So all that meant that I needed to earn my food. So I got a job in the dining halls working about 17 and a half hours a week as I remember and going from the sweaty kitchen I was a waiter but you move in from the sweaty kitchen and out was quite a…I d go to my class, all sweaty much more sweaty than I am now, so that worked out very well. I covered all my expenses without any money from home. There was very little money from home. I would get an occasional ten dollars, or something, which I would have something to buy.
Anyway it all started from Paul saying, Why don t you think about going to Harvard, I said okay. You graduated with a major honors also. Yeah. Also the thing that not getting the.. Well, I was not very interested in grades, and felt even more than I shouldn’t be. But on the other hand, grades were the key to whether I would get scholarships from year to year. My feeling was, and it wasn’t too difficult for me but the subject matter of what I was doing was what was really interesting. And since I was involved in almost anything I dealt with, and I was bright, I got very good grades. I got grades enough to get new scholarships each year for my tuition. And then one year, in addition to that, I won a Paul Free exhibition scholarship it was either my junior year or my senior year which was an additional stipend of 150 or 250 dollars, and that was given to the person with the highest or most consistent grades or whatever. So, without paying attention to grades particularly, I got very good grades and I graduated summa Cum Laude. And I was in the first group. There were groups 1, 2, and 3 that students were classified in and I was in group 1 each year. I therefore thought when I got out of college, although I knew I was going into Film at some point, how I was going to get into film, I didn’t know. And I thought it might be a good idea for me to try to get a fellowship and study in Europe and study as well as feel out what film life was like in a place like Germany, which had produced some interesting films.
So, I applied for the Sheldon fellowship on the advice of a tutor who thought I would certainly get it because my grades and all my performance indicated I would. And the Sheldon Fellowship was given to the field I was in which was Psychology and Philosophy. Every year for the past however many years, and the year I applied for it, it was not given to my department and not given to me. And when I asked my tutor, his name was Underwood, was a lovely guy, I said What’s Up? He said, well it’s because you are Jewish. And they probably had to many Jews on the scholarship list. And..
REEL 4 - Prejudice at Harvard, Graduating into the Depression
Not getting the Sheldon Fellowship, was the first time that I felt being Jewish resulted in some kind of personal loss. Something I felt. It isn’t that I wasn‘t aware of anti – Semitism around me, and there was a considerable amount of it. That is, who wanted to be your friend, who would do more than be someone to say hi to, or have some occasional thing to talk about in relation to a class. So there was a feeling of anti-Semitism in the community. But my reaction to it was that I didn’t particularly want these people to be my friends, so I found my friends where I found them, and the were people who were interested in things I was interested in and had ideals related to my own. I did have one episode, and I m not sure that it was, if it had to do with anti-Semitism, but it had to do with what class you were in anyway. I mean not class in terms of sophomore but in terms of social class. I used to study a great deal in the library of the fog museum because it was one of these places that were empty. Hardly anybody studied there, and it was great place to study because when you needed a cigarette on your way out, you could go and see wonderful two pictures on the way out in the museum. And spend a little time with the pictures and go out on the steps and smoke a cigarette. Now in the library, occasionally was a young woman whose name I got to know, whose name was Phyllis Baytch(sp?).
And who had kind of a peach-skinned face, a lovely face. And, I was not particularly easy by getting to know new people, but I kind of liked her and she stood on the steps occasionally. And we got to talking a little bit as we smoked, or as I smoked, I don t whether she smoked. So on one occasion, trying to get to know her a little better, and maybe a little clumsily, I said, Professor Whitehead has Sunday Teas, and would you like to go? They are quite nice. And she found some way of indicating lack of enthusiasm, which I didn’t follow through. She knew my name and I guess, I felt I didn’t fit in her social class as somebody to go out with or to go in to a professor s house on a Sunday, for an open house or a tea maybe wasn’t as exciting as she wanted it to be. At any rate, in a few days, the Harvard Crimson came out with lists of the people who were in group one and group two, this class, class of thirty, group one, group two, group three and so forth and who had gotten 5 beta kappa’s and so forth. And she had evidently read my name as being in group one and having elected 5 beta kappa’s or something like that. And so when we were smoking on the steps of the fog museum that day, she said to me, You were talking about going to Whitehead s one day. And this suddenly came up, and I said there is something suspicious about this. I didn’t know about the, what the Crimson had that day, or maybe I did, I don’t know and I didn’t respond either. So, that s my, those were the two experiences. One was definitely anti-Semitic. the other thing maybe was, but I had won certain badges in life that overcame the problem. Do me a favor, in reference to the experience with the fellowship, just say that was my first experience of anti-Semitism. Something along those terms so we can wrap it up . We really don t have that sentence. I thought I began this with that. So, I don t know quite the meaning, even now, sharply, of this experience, with this young woman, quite what it meant at the time… …I don t mean that, I m sorry. I am going to come to that.. At the time, it was clear to me, and I didn’t like it. That there was some kind of social attitude in it, in which at first, I was unacceptable being the same person for other reasons, I became acceptable. And so, it was kind of a shop experience and I didn’t want to have anything to do with her. So those two experiences were related. And the first experience, of not getting the Sheldon fellowship, was really the only clear instance of anti-Semitism as it affected me personally. In all other ways, I could take it or leave it and laugh at it or be indignant, or whatever, but not feel it personally. So, your experience in Harvard ends in 1930. What was it like coming back to New York after 1929, in the beginning of the depression? What was the effect on you? Well, I must say, I was not ready for the experience. Can you tell me what experience it was? For the experience, I was not ready for the experience of leaving college and finding a life. I wasn’t going to continue in school. Because I didn’t get the Sheldon fellowship. I was going to get into film somehow. How I was going to get into film? I hadn’t received an answer from Chaplin and I didn’t know any other way. I could go and did, go to the studios that were around New York and apply for job. There was in Astoria, there was the “pathe” and there was, what was the big studio? Paramount, right? And I did go round to various places that related to film see if I could get a job. And somehow get in and found what was going on. But I then realized that there was a depression on, which I hadn’t quite realize before because it didn’t affect me. And I, so there were no jobs. So I had to find a way of earning some money and somehow preparing my self for film. I got a, borrowed a camera from my uncle. We had to make stills and pay attention to photographing in a way that I have never done before because I sensed that. I bought in a ponn brokers shop a set camera, a French camera, which run about 17 feet of film, 17 seconds of film silence speed, 35 mm, normal film. You could use it as a film camera and you could use it as a still camera. So I used it as both, I was making a little film about subways, which was called “sick transit gloria mundi”. And I had a little scenario about traveling in the baus of the earth and so on. So I made some images for that. I thought maybe I could accumulate enough material with not making more than anymore than 4 seconds shots. No shot could be longer than 4 seconds and some could be less. I knew the danger of short shots but on the other hand a 4 second shot could be somehow woven in. So I could get 3 shots, maybe 4 shots as well as some stills in a roll of film. I took it to a professional place, that developed and printed movie film for printing. So that’s one of the things I did to prepare my self for film. And I earned some money at whatever I could do. I did some tutoring, I did some work in a sandwich shop and then I thought I would convert my interest in photography to do portraits. So I offered.. Right? This was during the summer and I and a friend of mine Edie Rolph, who was very skinny, went to sign up for a job on the subway, building a subway, in the particular field of underpinning. That is every building along 8 avenue had to be underpinned at its corners with a concrete pile going down in the earth to rock. Otherwise these buildings would come down when they dug the subway and the earth would slide. So we were in that team and you work in a cellar, they could work out in the open in some places, but the first work was in a cellar and people who were more experienced than we, dug the holes and I took the rocks and the earth up in banquettes and transfer it to the street. That was the job. When the inspector came around, he had a problem with the fact that the hole would get filled with water and I had to pump it out. And if you didn’t have a pump there was nothing you could do but hang around in a cool cellar in a hot July day. And do your work by just doing nothing, until they came along with the pump. And anyway, the inspector came around at that time and was not pleased by the fact that we weren’t working. But we couldn’t work, but anyway, he noticed that Edie was very skinny and probably had his shirt of, so his rips got out of his body, and he immediately fired Edie for being skinny. And I was transferred to a place where there was no water problem. Was somewhere on 7th avenue north of central park. And in a very very hot sun and we were digging from the outside a hole to cast this concrete pillar down. And I was again lifting up rocks and dirt on to a pile on the sidewalk. And then my job was to shoveled stuff into a wheelbarrow and take it to the street in a bigger pile. Well I had never used a large wheelbarrow before with a heavy load and I did not learn until unfortunately a little bit later that the art of lifting a wheelbarrow is to push down. Because if you don’t push down, if you lifted up the unevenness of the weight in the wheelbarrow will simply spill out. That’s what happened I loaded the wheelbarrow, first time I pulled it up like that I lifted it and I didn’t push it down. And I started to push it and it all fall over and in that point the inspector came by. This was, so I, he didn’t say he was an inspector, I don’t think. At any rate I learn my lesson very fast then I pushed the staff back and I continued that day and the next day. But on the third day I was fired too. Not being skinny but for loosing the balance, not learning fast enough the balance of the wheelbarrow. Probably was not very serious to your life to take these jobs, obviously it was a serious world out there, beginnings of the depression 30-31. How did that affect you? You talked about being radicalized? W hat was that need? Of course I was radical before the depression but you could say that I was radicalized. I was radicalized in a sense of my life more than my ideas got tight to this whatever who s creating the social fisher in society. And it did affect me personally as well that is I couldn’t jobs and I had to leave barely. And Edie Ralph, the same guy I talked about before, and I took an apartment on university place and shared an apartment. He earned money by, he was very good in making signs for local stores and restaurants. At dog and brow and coffee for 15 cents or 10 cents maybe at one time. Anyway, made a good sign for that and he earned some money that way, I earned some money by taking portraits of people with a 6 and a half, 8 and a half camera. That somebody bestow on me. However we had very little money and sometimes we didn’t have enough money to go out and buy food, cause we had to save money, some coffee and go home. If we needed a meal, so we would eat. I remember that we didn’t have any bread and we went on the roof. We lived one flight from the roof, great roof, and we brought up a dark peanut butter and 2 spoons and we had a meal with peanut butter. So it affected us personally but not in a way where you would desperate. However the pressure of the world was such that, you know, from a time when there were relatively few people unemployed,. Millions were unemployed 15 million, 16 million people unemployed. And you could see them on the street, on bread lines, on unemployment lines and homeless lying on park benches and on the street and so forth. And it was clear that there was a responsibility for that. That is a general attitude was that it was everybody’s individual problem. This was during the hover period. Was an individual problem and charity could take care of the worst cases. But it became clear and that clarity began to run through peoples minds who hadn’t thought about it before. That’s something was causing this thing, not the individual, it was a social disease, a social illness that created this unemployment. That the question of whether somebody should have a job or not was not an individual question. It was a question for society handle. It was societies responsibility to provide the possibility of jobs. Or if not jobs, then unemployment relief and social security. And to guard the individual who shouldn’t be on this tempedious see without any support or life lines. So that became the basis becoming radicalized. Your attention went to why does this happen. And what do you do about it.. So, that could got converted into film for me by the fact that organizations were developing, that is unemployment organizations…
REEL 5 - Depression, Hunger March, Film and Social Action
You asked whether I paid attention, or we paid attention to the signs in the street of unemployment and so on and poverty. Compared to now, now since your only defense, your only way of doing something about a homeless that you see is to do nothing, at least most people feel that way. There is an evasion in a sense, literally evasion of what you see, a neutralization of feeling cause where can it go. In the early 30s it was such a shock. If you remember that we had just gotten through a period of prosperity, which was more prosperity in words and promises than actual prosperity. But America was the land of prosperity, and would be that because it was America. So when you began to have many people unemployed, and people fired, and their earnings go down even if they weren‘t fired, this was a tremendous shock and as it increased, the number of unemployed, the number of homeless, you were tuned to it, and you couldn’t get it out of your mind. In fact, you had to think with it, you had to think with these ideas. But the time was different, because many people were feeling this and felt that something ought to be done.
As I said before, unemployment councils were organized. You had a very active and vital and imaginative communist party at the time which start up and stimulated people, and stimulated other organizations into existence, like the unemployment council. And, stimulated them to demonstrate and say what the hell is going on? Why do we have this unemployment? Society has, the state has to take responsibility for it. You have to devise a relief, social security and so forth. Which was then formulated, before Roosevelt, into ideas that later Roosevelt, took over. So that there was the response to what you saw was connected with action that you felt needed to be taken. There were hunger marches to Albany, hunger marches to Washington. From all over the country, and as I was about to say before. One of the first films that I made was a film called, Hunger 1932. And I made it in connection with the film and photo league. And, it was important, I had seen some film footage of other hunger marches, and I felt that they should be dealt with, in a way, that was less pure news real, this and this and this personality and this many people marching and so forth. Less news reel than some kind of coherent form of news reel type but of wider structure. So, I volunteered in the film and photo league. When people said, who wants to go to Washington and cover the hunger march? I said, I do. And there were a couple of cameras around given by people who were rich like Sydney Howard who was a playwright at the time and sympathetic towards what the filmmakers were trying to do. So we had a few imo cameras which I got to learn, I knew how to work it, an imo? camera. Felt comfortable with it. And we got a few rolls of film, and I went up to Boston to start with the hunger march in Boston and we marched through the cities and went by truck from city to city. And there was an accumulation, tremendously, a powerful accumulation of people.
So by the time we got to Washington, there were three thousand of us, or 3500 and we were considered very dangerous people we were cornered off by the cops with shiny tear-gassed guns and so forth on this outline section of Washington, New York ave. in fact. And we sat on New York Ave. for 3days, because the cops couldn’t let us march to give our petitions to congress. And they were petitions for unemployment relief, for unemployment insurance for various forms of social security. Putting the responsibility for this social condition on society. On the third day, I had a camera in my hands, so I could move between the marchers who were locked up on New York Ave, and I could go through the police line because I had some kind of a fake press card. And I come back, so I was part of the, I had the knowledge that we were going to march, police are not. And that was, that word was spread to the police as well. On this day, I was with the marchers, we lined up on New York ave., in a column, maybe 8 abreast. And the cops were above, with their shiny tear-gas guns and dense down below on the road into Washington. I mean packed, I don’t know, 10 deep, with their guns and billy clubs and they would start set the march. A guy by the name of Benjamin, I don t remember his first name, at the time was head of the unemployment councils and he led the march. And we started to march, into these phalanx of cops. And as we marched we just marched through, and that’s how we got there, they gave way. And we marched through Washington, to the capital, turn in on potitions. There were many people in the streets and although you knew that the congressman would be glad to turn deaf ears to this thing, it was kind of an eruption that they simply had to deal with. And it represented far more than the event itself, and it was not a ritualized thing at the time. It was something new in the world.
Mass demonstration, mass protest. So that began to simmer and was one of obviously the things that stimulated Roosevelt and his advisors to find a set of ideas that would begin to accommodate this dangerous development among the unemployed, and among workers too who were not unemployed because they knew what dangers were in store for them. So it was misinterpreted by the members of the ruling class as a threat of revolution. There was no threat of revolution. It was simply a bold and direct statement of what was needed. It was far from having the strength of anything that could overthrow a system, but they were scared. They were scared. There had been revolutions in the world before, not many years ago, before that, and that was the basis for developing a new deal, out of the sense of threat of the what s now called the underclass. You take for granted something hat as talk which is not necessarily taken for granted by modern filmmakers You speak of yourself and the crowd as one voice. You don t separate yourself from the aims of the demonstrators. Obviously, that was central to what you were doing. My relationship to what I was doing, was in no way characterized by that demand of objectivity that modern documentary filmmakers put upon themselves. And I use objectivity in quotes. Truth yes, in other words was it was important to be truthful. But it was important too, this was a human question, one could not be objective about it. If you entered it at all that is, ask the question. Do individuals who are evicted, deserve to be evicted?
When they have no money, and they have lost their jobs, not for their own doing. If you have to answer that question and you are a human being, then you have to answer it in terms of the fact that if you have a camera in your hands, then your camera is to be used to make clear that truth. And you don t have to say that this side of the question and that side of the question because there aren’t those sides of those questions. One side of the question is blind, deaf and cruel and the other side of the question requires compassion and connection and activity, and it was very simple. So I made my film with that in mind. Without cluttering myself with the idea that I had to do with some phony reason of a network which didn’t exist at the time, because there was no such thing as television, conform to this abstract idea of objectivity. And of course, it s this so called objectivity, which isn’t objective that is the reason for the mildness, the lack of vitality, the lack of depth, in most documentary films that are made either for television or not for television. Because the artist doesn’t say I have to enter this thing, I have to find the truth as I can see the truth. There are very few people who do that in modern filmmaking. That s the only basis of an art of vitality, is to have that approach. You know Van ? can t say, I m going to be objective and I m not going to take the side of the academy, but I m also not going to take the side of these crazy twentieths. I m going to be somewhere in between and go paint a picture that way, you see. You lose the heart of the pressure for saying something, and if you lose the sense of pressure for saying something, you lose the vitality and the imagination of the medium itself.
It becomes formularized very quickly. As most documentary films today are. There s just as much basis for discovering new forms of film now as there ever was. Because a film is a very own medium. And further more, any rich medium, like poetry or painting, goes on from novelty to novelty. New things develop because new things need to be told and said. Since you re on this subject, which is something I m very keen on, I just want to talk about that. It seems to me that the cult of objectivity may have in fact had its seeds in the development that the point of view is propaganda and it came out that objectivity was not propaganda when in fact it is. Well you re right, the whole question of objectivity began much earlier than television. It began in the 30s. Shortly after this time that I ve been talking about, the depression, we formed an organization called Frontier Films to deal with the truth of the American experience in film, whatever form of film we were dealing with, we wanted to deal with the truth of it not with the make believe and not with the dream wish and not, and so our early films, inherited the qualities, I was talking about in my early films and it seemed clear that you had to have a point of view. A point of view, somebody could say it was propaganda, but you could say, no it s the truth, let s talk about that. You weren’t scared by the idea that it was propaganda. In fact, if you were dealing with propaganda for something that was true, that was fine.
Now, this was a new medium. Nobody was interested in, except of us few of us people, right? Once we developed the idea that you could make a film like heart of Spain, like people of the Cumberland, like native land, then a lot of other people began to see that these films could be used for institutional purposes, for education and so forth. So very quickly, a group was developed, groups were developed to use this new medium of documentary films for much more complicated sponsors. And sponsors who demanded caution, which was named objective. So if you made a film about the south, you went in and described conditions in the south but you were not vehement about it, and you showed what the people who didn’t have money and people who did have money and you were objective, you left it alone. Or left it alone in some configuration that conveyed an underground conclusion which was in any way not socially challenging. This became, the documentary film was taken over by people like that. Frontier films lost some people because it was considered too radical, too dangerous, too much concern with truth. So we lost, people like Ralph Steiner, Will Van Dyke, began to be uncomfortable and furthermore where was the money. Where could you get money to make films. We had trouble raising money. Every film had to be dug out of the ground. And we weren’t paying ourselves salaries. I figured out at one point that over a period of years, that my salary came to 11 dollars a week on the average. It was a tough job. There were people who were interested and put in money, and we raised money from sources that were like nickels and dimes and stuff like that. (con d) But you could get a lot of money by forming a foundation or connecting with a foundation for education in the schools and then you make a series of films about social subjects and so forth. And all those films are tame, You could go to the libraries and find them, I don t really remember the name, but some of them were made by Ralph Steiner and Will Van Dyke too.
REEL 6 - Question of Objectivity, Structure in Filmmaking, Workers Film and Photo League
The objectivity that became so important after the introduction of television, began as I said, long before and basically its an accommodation to a liberal point of view. And by liberal I mean a not strongly held point of view. A point of view that allowed everybody to say their own piece, without searching for the truth you might not be able to find. But it was much more civilized than what later developed in television. Because now, you are so called objectivity was sharply defined to have no point of view what so ever. And, to really destroy the tissue of meaning in any story you re dealing with, you destroy the tissue of meaning by virtue of assembling a certain number of facts together because anything else is dangerous. It s dangerous to have people around who can think.
How would they destroy the tissue of meaning? Well all you have to do is look at television on any day and the question. Basically you destroy it by not asking the question that would illuminate it, that would illuminate your story, why it s happening. So let s see if I can give you an example. Savings and loans. Yeah you have savings and loans reappearing all over again, again and again and again. And you never get an insight into what really was being done and why it was being done. You don t get an insight to who wanted to make money fast and where the pressures developed for letting loose on assurance that these loans and so on were going to be repaid. And you have the conformity of everybody that s going to a system of people were making a lot of money. The making of money, the devices for making money, the way in its causes the forgetfulness of people and nobody s asking the question, well there are many many questions around that are just not asked. Whenever I hear that story, I don t learn anything new.
Or, all I learn is, I don t know very much about it either. All I know w is the subject keeps coming up. And, or the specific involvement of the president s son is also treated with a shattering of causation and content. What did he do? What did he know? What did he ignore? What does he think now? All those things that any child can ask are not asked and not answered Can we talk about news reels? Why don t you talk about what was out in the movie theaters when you began to move towards film? This is when I began to get interested in film. You immediately took a stand against these films. There was something wrong with all of them. Okay. I ll give you a phrase you can use, the limitations of art as a commodity. When I became aware of film, and became, and searched, and became interested in myself doing film. I attended much more sharply to what was going on. And my wanting to make films had a direct relationship to the kind of films that were being made. And were not using the medium or that source of f insight feeling and talent of the artist that I had known in all the other arts. You had essentially a mechanical medium. A medium whose skills, and they were remarkable skills, were mechanical. You had a feature film in which, which was basically a wish dream. A dream of success for somebody who started out maybe without any hope of success. William Hayes. In a feature film, your basically formula was to create a wish and have obstacles to that wish and have positive fulfillment. The formula of boy wants girl, boy meets girl, boy wants girl, boy gets girl is part of that formula. But that simple formula of the gift of fulfillment of your wish in this dream world of film, was key to the structure and the content of most films in a very simple way. And Hayes, of the famous Hayes committee, in one speech indicated that of course, most Americans of recent immigrant origin, first and second generation, they were locked up in cities, and didn’t t know the open spaces. And didn’t t know, had their daily struggles and troubles. So of course, the film gave them what hey wanted. Gave them their open spaces and gave them their fulfillment of their wishes.
See that was his formulation of what was going on and the stimulation of what produces point of view was. They had a tea, now that is, the strength of that idea, you can only get in a form of commercialized art. It was centered. It was a key industrial idea that had the imagination and the skills of individuals working on it. And that is essentially, a destruction of the artistic possibilities of a medium and the substance of feeling an idea and where reality can come into a medium. An excluded reality. That was one of the things that was around me. A second form of film was what went with the feature, which was the news reel. And the news reel, was as interesting a series of clips that you could get that tied in with what you might be reading about, and later on hear on the radio about but which told you and you nothing, you see. And they weren’t really news. That is in other words they were spectacles. So that part of the news reel was the bathing beauty contest or divers or reversing divers coming back onto the platform. And a strike in homestead Pennsylvania with a bunch of people on the streets, sort of threatening. And somebody arriving by boat from Europe. And somebody shaking hands with somebody else. The head of the chamber of congress meeting Douglass Fairbanks or somebody like that. That was news. A news real with very little content but with interest. And both silent. So you had an attempt to utilize the reality of the world without at all touching it. Now then, when march of time, then there were some shorts, and the shorts were either comedies and generally the comedies had more reality than the feature films that were supposed to be about reality. But also, they tended to fall into formulae.
And then along came Luce of Time Inc. saying there is a big hole here. We have to, not only to do news reels, we have to do an essay about news. We have to go into it with depth. And they developed it a formula, a very loud and vigorous voice, telling you from on high, what the world was like in every, but also without ever getting down into the substance of things but dealing with as much of surface excitement as you could deal with. And it was this general environment of film that was so empty. And indicated how much more you could do that gave us the basis for doing something in film, there was no trick to make very interesting films, and to make them interesting as films in a subject matter by simply dealing with a reel. So we felt we were doing something entirely new, on the other hand it was entirely necessary, entirely obvious, it needed to be done. But, it had to remove itself from the commercial pressures that made for the continuation of all these forms, simple forms that films that had developed. Those forms of film were restricted because, in a movie theater you had a feature film, you had a short, you had a news reel, that s it. You had to have it any time, every time. So, to break that down, you had to break down the very basis of it, which was, that the purpose of making films was to get as much money in the box office as possible. So, the tactics of the film and photo league must be very exciting given this, that is, the way they worked. At least at the beginning. Well tell me about approaching the film and photo league. The film and photo league, when I discovered it, seemed like a remarkable institution of fine people, like myself who were interested in using film to deal with the realities of the world. I didn’t t know very much else about them. There were varied kinds of people in the film and photo league. There were people who were sort of straight-political, there was a guy named Harry Alan Potankin (sp?) who had an extraordinary sensitivity, who wrote about film. There were other people specifically interested in film like Sam Brody. There was an organizer type like Tom Brandon. There was a wide range of people, there were some people who were just interested in camera work. And some in hanging around and being interested that film should be used in a different way. So, you had a focus of a very good idea. It was not broad. But the idea was, deal with the realities of life. If there were people who were sleeping on park benches in union square, photograph them and show them. If there are signs that people were looking at indicate the need for jobs, photograph that. Photograph people on breadlines and so forth. Photograph their faces. Not just events, you never saw a face in a news reel that wasn’t combed or polished face. Deal with reality. So the aims were extremely good, except that, the problem was you had no structure. You had what was called a mass organization.
And, you had very little money. And as I mentioned before, if a film was to be done, you d ask for volunteers to film. Now the people who volunteered were not necessarily good. They might be, they were interested, and they try to have the right exposure, and they would talk to each other, and respond to each other, but you didn’t necessarily have a point of view that related to film. So in general therefore, the work of the film and photo league, was also of a simple news reel kind. It was informed with more compassion, more insight, you looked in places that the news reels didn’t look in. But it didn’t t have very much coherence or development of an idea. Before we talk about what it didn’t t have, I want to talk about what it did have. There were some extraordinary things, cause one of the things that excited me when I heard about it was the idea that for the traveling, when the news reel goes and projects, what did they do with the films that they made. Well, I was moving on to what stimulated me and how to go beyond the limitations of the film and photo league but I don t mean to say that within those limitations very important things weren’t done. They were done. And so it is important, if you have any record, for example, of hunger marches now, it s because the film and photo league was interested in it. And something was shot. If you have records of people having a colony, building a colony of shacks on the east river at 14th street, then it was because we felt that was important to shoot. It was important to have a record of these images. As I indicated before, we were not commercial, we didn’t have theaters to go into, we had nobody to buy our film. So we had to organize, and this was done before I became member, had to organize brigades of people to take the film to organizations. And with so called, portable verify mm projectors, which were quite heavy, but handle able devrized mostly. The films were taken to organizations that wanted to see the news reels in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, Manhattan and so forth, unions, social clubs, unemployment councils and so forth. And a kind of an underground distribution, we wouldn’t have called underground at the time, but a kind of underground distribution was developed, by the same people and some others who shot the films.
REEL 7 - Film Influences, Heart of Spain, Conflict with Film and Photo League
Alright, well, in talking about my experience in film, during the twenties and during the thirties, in terms of discovering a new medium, in terms of the sense of this narrow youth of the medium in American film, commercial film, and what you saw. They began to come build a vision of some very different kinds of film, created a great stimulus. There were some films from Germany, there was a film like John Dark, from France. There was most of all the Russian Film, the Russian silent film at first then sound film as well. And the Russians of course were freed from the commercial core of the film industry by the revolution. And Lenin was bright enough to know as he said that for us the most important art is film, and what he meant was, with film you could reach people on a very wide scale, as you could with no other art. So film was stressed, politically, and then you had an extraordinary thing happen you had suddenly the emergence, where you had nobody before who was interesting at all in filmmaking, you had the emergence of extraordinary talents in filmmaking, including Podovkin(sp?) and Eisenstein and Dovchenko and Bar(sp?) and many others. Preceding, of course, the importance of these filmmakers, was the pressure to make films that were of vital importance how to reach people, how to reach people with new realities, and there was a total freedom and a sense, as this was going on, of a discovery of a new medium. And, so the whole idea of montage, the idea of the basic expression of film being the interaction of images creating new meanings, by virtue of the interaction, not containing any image, was a tremendous stimulation.
In terms of my experience later, it was narrow because it had to do with images, but it didn’t t have to deal with individual interaction, it didn’t t have to do with the structure of images, which had to mature later but that created such an extraordinary vitality and extraordinary discovery, and at the same time it was freed of the blank face of the movie screen, of the movie idol. Reality came in, you saw real faces, and real textures of people of dress and of everything else. So there was this tremendous stimulation both in the development in the art of film and the promise of it as well as in the release of the content of reality. Talk about some specific things, that the Russians did, that were tried by the American. Later, you mean? Well, no, I mean during this period. I m not sure I understand what you mean. Well, for example, certain ways you approach editing, or structuring a film, or beyond the fact that these were films that were committed, they were also ways of looking at the whole medium of film that were different. Yes. Well, uh. Which of the Russian films, perhaps might be a good example? Something that influenced you and your work? Well, in a film called Arsenal by Dovchenko, you have a depiction of war and you have a very simple thing, you have the relationship of somebody who s experiencing war and is alive with a dead person. A dead face, a dead hand, a dead hand in the dirt and so forth. The interaction of that makes for the sense of reality of war. The inner experience of war, not something which is a story, not something that has the purpose of heroism or the reverse. So that s one kind of example. A famous Eisenstein sequence from Potemkin, a woman who loses her baby on the steps is another example of that in which he builds the excitement and the tragedy of the loss of control of the baby carriage under the threat and later on the actual shooting by the soldiers, and this baby carriage taking off with the baby itself, and the tremendously uncontrolled emotion, in the face of the mother, and in the faces of the other people on the steps. The interweaving, the undercutting of these elements to us to create the event, not in terms of simply the action of the event that you created in the theater, but of the interaction of the images. Now they did it with great self consciousness, and with great attention to how he was doing it. At the same time, it was very powerful, but at the same time, it, for me, puts a limit on the power of montage.
So that you free the power of montage by not calling attention to it, by making it part of the blood flow of the film, by making it part of what enters the audience, not by what is drawn to the audience: I m doing this, and I m doing this, and I m doing that. It was a kind of a necessary step in the development of a powerful language of film, And far better of course than not using the language of film as most films don t. I m going to get out of context, but we re in the area, um, you carry that, especially in Native Land, but I think also in Heart of Spain. In Heart of Spain, you take that understanding into practice, in Heart of Spain. Do you want to use that as an example as the next step forward in terms of the montage? Well, these things, like the simple meaning of the word montage, or cutting are very difficult to talk about, very difficult to reduce to language. Unless you make them over simple, that s one of the problems. So to talk about montage without having something to how once or twice or so forth just see what goes on inside, the internal life, is very difficult, but I ll try anyway. Well, we have something to show. We ll show Heart of Spain. Part of it, you know what I mean. Right. Heart of Spain was the development of the, the development of the use of cutting in Heart of Spain came from my response to both the stimulation and the limitation of the use of editing in the Russian and other films as well. And one of the things I wanted to do was to, first of all, I had a tremendous optimism that you could put anything together. i had to. For Heart of Spain, I had some material that was shot in Spain, and then I had some material that I got from many sources including the news reels. And I had to put them together in a film. Uh, So, my drive was to make something whole, and make something that didn t draw attention to itself as medium, but use the power of the medium. I ll try to giv eyou some examples. First of all, i created a structure of a film, which I call the plot. And I think everyone in documentary film should have. That force in a film that moves, not simply tells a story, a and b and c and d like a laundry list, but has moves like the element of a plot into its interaction and into its resolution. To go into that now, I can, but it s uh, it would take us astray. The editing, the structuring of the first sequence, may illustrate what I m trying to talk about, you see the editing is based on the idea that a city, Madrid, in the middle of war, becomes a, even though people who are wounded walk around in it, it becomes normal, it becomes he accepted thing. you don t see anything special until something breaks out of the sky and people scurry and run and people are hit by bullets and bombs. And you have this vast shock and disturbance, and then you have the renewal again of the things becoming normal, until you begin asking yourself, when, when, when, when, when, when will it happen you see.
So it s that idea that the first long sequence of the heart of Spain, is based on. And so the editing follows from that key idea. And the key idea itself is, as you can see, a kind of plot idea, it is a kind of idea that carries within it, it s own dynamics and tension and resolution. So that the cutting of the normal, so called normal material, to create the sense of the norm, to create the sense of the ease, the sense of threat of something that might break in and might break in and doesn’t t, then does break in with vast explosions, creates a different kind of interaction of images, and if one is self-conscious or conscious of how those images are put together, you destroy the very basis of feeling that that is to create because I wanted to put people in the middle of civil war in Spain, in the middle of the attack of the Fascists in Spain. So therefore I had to devise a method whereby the flow was so fluid, so much below the level of consciousness, that the images turned into each, by interaction, by development, by configuration, by choreography in such a way that they were not, their impact was there, but one isn t aware of what you re doing, technically. And this is of course, not only your problem with filmmaking, its a problem of art in general. In general if art calls attention to its mode of doing, its structuring, it s going to inhibit the impact. Let us come back to Van Gogh (?) again where you have a revolutionary technique, if it calls attention to the technique, as one big blob of paint being placed one next to another you then don t have the impact of the life of the tree, or the life of the flower. He was after the life of what he was seeing, and he founds the means to do it. But the means tend to suppress itself unless you look at it once, twice, 3, 4, 5 times. And then you can find the means, which you can do the Heart of Spain as well. One question about the Heart of Spain, there is some discussion within the frontier film about how to approach the idea of the film, were there various ideas, how did you come about to be the person who did it, did you discuss this concept, was your concept ahead of the time or did they already know you, or did you just sit down with the material? Was that too many questions for you? No, it wasn’t too many questions. How did Heart of Spain come to be and how did it relate to frontier films? These again are hard things to talk about. You have a general background of interaction, see I was… We all get to Frontier Films and how it was founded and all of that stuff a little bit later, so if you want to answer this question now. The specific thing is, I ll give you what I asked you, when I talked to my father he said, well they had all of this footage, they didn’t t know what to do with it, they talked to me, I gave them my ideas, and nobody liked that idea. Now, looking at the film, I know why that idea wasn t liked. My question to you is, I guess, you told us what it was… …Alright, uh. This is in the days we had formed ? Ralph Steiner and I, Paul joined us. We were on our way in forming frontier films, with Sydney Meyers, and Lionel berman, and Irving Lerner and so on. And one day I wake up in the morning and living on 17th street, and Herbert Klein, who I had worked with on New Theater Magazine, comes in and says you got to make this film for me Leo, I came back, we shot some film in Spain. Gazapotty and I had shot some film in Spain. And I said, where do you come off shooting film? He never had shot a film in his life, and didn’t t know anything about it. And Gazapotty(sp?) was the cameraman in Hungary.
And has never gotten any film before. So I looked at the footage and I got up and got dressed. I looked at the footage, and nothing was longer than 4 feet long, 3 feet long. The cameraman didn’t t know that you had to run the film. Maybe you d want to come back to that shot twice. But, he had very little film, and he was used to clicking one shot. So he shot, two feet, three feet, and I m talking about 35 mm feet you know. So, I said I don t know what I can do with all that, Herb, maybe I can. But in any case, it doesn’t t make a film. If we make a film we have to need other material. I didn’t t know if I had the time for it since I was working on a script for Child Labor at the time. So, he pressured me, and I said of course, we don t have any good films on Spain, we d have to try and do it. And in which case, what we d have to do is, I give three weeks or four weeks to this, we d have to get footage from elsewhere and I had to sit down and write a script, and uh, which I did. And, on the basis of the footage and on the basis of the footage I hope I could get, we quickly went to places where we could get footage, and at that point that was a rare thing for anybody to do and we had friends who were progressive, Vice president of café news, was a good friend of mine and very sympathetic with what I was doing, so I got footage at laboratory costs. Otherwise, we couldn’t t have possibly made it. There was no money to make these films. So we got that kind of film, and with the script, I cut together a sequence. Paul Strand worked with me most closely, which meant that he sort of came in once a day, or once every other day and I went over with him what I had done and we interacted and I got a fresh sense from the outside.
And then when I had something in a rough cut, or something lose that had a larger structure, I would call in the other people and we would have a screening, and I would get their response. That was the nature of a collective work. But it was all funneled through me. And I felt I had to go back to the other film. So I did it very quickly. I worked day and night on it at an improvised cutting room at HTR Laboratory. And made the film.
REEL 8 - Work with The Workers Film and Photo League: Hunger, Scottsboro Boys
I made Hunger 1932 in the Film and Photo League with several other people like Leo Seltzer, Sam Brody was involved in it, Robert Delduka, were the main people besides myself. And that was the main film that I made for the film and photo league. That s why my relationship with the film and photo league ended. We met every week and we talked about other films and the possibility of producing other films and so forth. During this time I was approached, not through the film and photo league, but directly by the ILD, which was the international labor defense, to make a film about civil liberties. And I was delighted to do it, I talked to the people of the film and photo league and obviously ILD didn’t t want to be involved with the film and photo league. But I was a member, and I talked to the other people. In my house, I was living on 16th street at the time, I made a illegal cutting room, in my bedroom because the film was nitrate. But I couldn’t t afford a cutting room, but I don t know where I gathered the footage from, but probably the same way through this guy at pathaynews and other places. And I made a film called Sweet Land of Liberty that included several of the struggles for civil liberties in that period. That was 1933 I think. Does that exist now? No. As far as I know, it doesn’t t exist. I cut it and turned it over to the ILD, and they used it and I don t know for what. I couldn’t t involve myself in film preservation. I was trying to make films. At any rate, they were pleased, and they wanted me to make a film and I wanted to make a film on the Scotts borough boys.
Since the trial, a new trial was coming up, the first Scottsboro trial, in Scottsboro, Alabama. People from the film and photo league had gone down and made some shots. And they made a little film about it. Now there was going to be another trial in Dacateur. They had moved the venue because Scottsboro was a town in which a riot could be developed with a lighting of a match. So, they wanted me to make the film, and I wanted to make the film, so I went down alone, with some imo camera and some film in my pocket and a little bag. And I went down with a still cameraman, and I don t remember where he was room, I can t remember his name. And with some writer, who was coming down to write, so we had a ride in a car. I don t know whether I should tell you. It was my first time in the south you know, so i ll tell you what happened. So, we go to Scottsboro, because I want to make some shots and Scottsboro, because that was where the trial was not held. As a preparation for Decateur, and Scottsboro was a little sleepy community with a square, and lovely lawns, and official buildings and stores and buildings around and I look around and I think the first thing I need, I ll come down and shoot. The first thing I need is a long shot, and I see a window up there with lawyers offices, and I walk up a tall flight of steps, and I go to the lawyer s office, and I tell him, meanwhile, the people who I am with they go to other parts because they have to do their thing to get material in Scottsboro, and I go into the lawyer s office and I say I am making a film about the Scottsboro trials. We re on our way to Dacatuer but we d like to make some shots in Scottsboro and there s a long shot from the window here, do you mind if I use your window. So they re very polite to me and they ask me to wait so I waited for somebody who would give me the permission. And I wait, and I wait and I m beginning to lose light, and I say, well how long do you think I ll have to wait. By now, I am beginning to get the idea that I m waiting because they got me inside some kind of an office prison. And they don t want me around, so I wait and I wait and I wait until these other guys, the writer and the cameraman are gathered and brought up here and I m not allowed to make my shot. And we re told to be on our way to Dacateur. So there s no relief yet. You re in the south, and it s the first time you re in the south and you know all about what can happen, and it looks like it s going to happen. And the fact that there I was, kept there on the presumption that I was going to be able to make the shot, but I was just being held in prison for a while. So we get into our car and we re relieved until we pull out and there s another car behind us. So we don t know what s going to happen, so the only thing we could do was go. So we got trailed for miles outside of the city. And we don t know, it s getting dark now, it was dusk, and we don t know if we ve lost our tail or not but in any case, we re driving on and now it s really dark and we ve got about 40 miles to go to Dacateur. And, suddenly, I wasn t driving at the time, the driver zooms to the left because something is in his way, and the headlights picked up a wagon. He didn’t t quite make the turn, and he grazed the wheel of the wagon with the side of the car, but in that moment of time, I saw that there were about six guys standing up in the wagon, who were obviously coming home from work. And it was a wagon drawn by a horse, I don t remember. And what I saw was these people were arcing, hit by the side of the car, and these people arced into the side of the road.
so of course we stopped and in the darkness, we tried to find people and see if anybody was hurt. And fortunately nobody was hurt. The wagon was righted, it had turned over on the side. The wagon was righted, but somebody was missing. And the somebody who was missing was a guy who was still lying there in the dark. We found him. And he seemed to have trouble with his shoulder. At this point, this was a tremendous illumination for me, because I was in the south for the first time right? These were all blacks. While we were talking to the guy who had trouble with his shoulder, a car came up with white guys in it and they asked what was going on, and we told them that we had hit this wagon that didn’t t have a taillight, and grazed it and everybody seemed all right except this one guy. And the guy who was driving the car said, well do you want to go on? I couldn’t quite believe my ears. I said no, we want to see what we can do with this guy, whether he was badly hurt. We were not too far from the town, I don t remember the name of the town now, no we were not too far from the store with a telephone, and I thought that we ought to go and look at this guy in the light so that we could see whether it was a bruise or whatever. Anyway, we went to the store with these two guys who were in the car. One of them turned out to be a sheriff, the sheriff of Scottsboro and made perfect sense of anything that could happen. Cause I didn t know what they knew about us, what had spread around, and after we got through with the doctors, I led, I asked him, where he was going, and he said that he had a cousin who lived in town and he d go there. And I took him across the street.
And unconsciously I touched his arm as we crossed the street and I felt with everybody looking at me, what was this white guy gently touching the arm of a black guy who now had a bandage all over him. So he then went on, and we got the hell out of Scottsboro, again, and went on to Dacateur in the middle of the night. Now you left the Film and Photo League. Do you want to finish up with Scottsboro? Did you make the film? Yes. Well it doesn t really exist. It doesn t make it any less important, but it doesn t exist. Uh, now you were, you decided at one point, that you needed another vehicle, another organization to work at. Tell me a little bit about that decision, was it a hard decision? That was very important.
It wasn t a decision, it was a process. The thing about the film and photo league was that it was the only place where people were interested in making films about real things. And at the same time, it was structured as I said like a mass organization. People interested in civil liberties, lets say, or whatever. And the relationship to films was very spazzmotic and uncontrolled. And it depended on the individual as to whether there was any development in his learning to make films, in the handling of films or not. So being in the film and photo league for a while, and I invited Ralph Steiner to join, maybe he joined on his own, Paul Strand was in New Mexico and Mexico later but he wasn t around. Sydney Meyers joined the Film and Photo league and Lionel Berman joined the Film and Photo League. And Irvine Lerner had been a member, then ? joined the film and photo league. So we had a group who were responsive to my ideas. My idea was, we should make a development within the photo league that allowed for our growth as filmmakers, and for handling material, handling film in some more complex, subtle and structures that would be more than just news reels or extended news reels. But there was a vast art of film and medium of film to deal with. And I thought it was a very exciting project. So together, we devised the idea. First we had a school, which was Ralph Steiner s basic idea, and he taught what he knew which was photography. So we had a school, and we taught something about film and the history of film and editing and the language of film, photography and so forth. Well were you experts? Well we were making ourselves experts. People who wanted to know about it, so we were the only people who knew about it. It s as simple as that. And, there was nobody else to teach. I mean, who could you call on? They didn t have real experience and they had nothing to teach you only teach you formulas, you know, you have a guy from Hollywood who shot film, he couldn t tell you anything about camerawork that you were interested in. He d tell you how to expose properly, but composition was stealthified and so on. So we felt we knew more than anybody, not knowing anything, we knew what we did. It wasn t hard, you simply had to have the hunger and the vitality so we developed an idea that there should be the film and photo league as it existed now as a mass organization and we should allow for people who come into the film and photo league who are really interested in films and in becoming filmmakers to become part of a special which we called Shot Troops. There were actors Shot Troops at the time and writer shot troops at the time. This was an influence of the Soviet Revolution. But in any case it was, it took life seriously, you know, you had a job to do. Sometimes you called it a, well we had other names for it too. At any rate, this group would then have the job of making films and training themselves, and training each other and training the new people who came in. And the film and photo league would set up projects that should be done, and we wouldn t do it on a hit and miss basis. We would do them with an idea of script and development and showing them to each other and so forth.
Well this idea was so, seemed so dangerous to Tom Brandon and Sam Brody and Leo Seltzer and other people, that the idea of changing the shape of the Film and Photo league was, they found political terms to indicate how dangerous it was. For one thing it was elitist, for another thing, I think it was trotskyite too. I think it was, yes. And Tom Brandon was the key spokesman for keeping the film and photo league the same as it was a democratic mass organization as films were somehow made. And there was no response to the idea of developing, I explained that even in the Soviet Union, that you didn t have a mass organization making films, you had filmmakers. And film groups developing! And anywhere films were made, you had to focus on the development of those skills, talent and ability to reach reality and that kind of concentration of energy and work to develop a new medium.
REEL 9 - Joining the Communist Party, Struggle with the Film and Photo League
What I didn t feel at the end of yesterday was that kind of more, a sense that was filled with a couple of more examples of what life in the radical movement was like in the 30s. What did it feel like? i mean it s very very different now. Yeah. My problem at this point now is to find the momentum and the surrounding ideas of what we talked about before so the problem of focus. Um. The, I think you can look at it from a point of view of what happened from the change of view from the late 20s to the early 30s. In the late 20s you had the whole atmosphere and propaganda of the America that was on the rise, prosperity, and cause it didn t really exist except for the small class of people but that was the atmosphere. The general feeling was one of individualism, me first, isolation and so forth. With the impact hat these vast social upheaval, beginning to reach people where they lived, they were at first, all these subtle changes. People tried to go on, life depends on them. But when there was the realization that nothing they did affected the existence of 16,000,000 people unemployed, or the lack of jobs or the homelessness or whatever, then you began to get a refocus in people s lives. And people who were concerned for themselves, their class, their intellectual tribe, began to be connected with society. And they realized that what was happening, the devastation was a result of some social fault, earthquake fault, which they then had to find out what it was and what it tended to. And that in a way created a sense of community between people. People who needed to organize before the other person was a stranger, now that person was not a stranger. Organize politically, organize economically, and trade unions. Organize in terms of cultural organizations and so forth. You had this interaction, interplay and therefore a new feeling, a new spirit, a new thing that in which you faced people. That is in other words, if I met a group of people in a room, in my house on 17th street, and I didn t know Lionel Burman before, he was a friend of Sydney. And I didn t know some other people around.
Well, it wasn t only the question of getting to know somebody. I twas also the question of getting to know what their connections to their world and your world were. And they could become comrades, very easily. Or they could be on the way to becoming comrades. And you could say hey look, I m a member of the Film and Photo league, and if they indicated an interest in film, and the problem with the film and photo league is such, and these are some of my ideas. Oh sure, that s an exciting thing, I m going to join. So it s that kind of atmosphere, of vitality and very different from today. From most areas that I know about, and that I ve experienced there. THe individual is the island. Talk about being a member of the communist party. Why did you join? What did membership entail? What was attractive about it? Both to workers and to ? Well, um, one didnt join the communist party so easily. It came after much rumination and much thinking. Um, what was its attraction, what was it s stimulation. In the light of what we were talking about before, one of the key, the communist party was, a key existence that created a focus in this complexity, in this difficult way of understanding the world. And was creative in terms of action, in relation to it. That is, first of all, if you looking at your world, and it s all very different from anything you thought. And there were forces operating in society that don t care about millions of people who were unemployed. And it s a class society, then it requires changes. How do you change it? You have to organize it, you have to think about it, you have to study and so forth.
If there are unemployed, what do you do? Just have unemployed? You form unemployed organizations, unemployed councils. You find leadership. You create conditions whereby things happen. The Unemployment march to Albany, to Washington. To Deliver petitions and so forth. Petitions to deliver particular things and particular needs and requests. So, these communist party was kind of a live center for such thinking. It took the analysis of their world and the problem of what you do about it really seriously. Therefore you develop a great respect for it. Nobody else did. Socialist party did. The liberal and the republic organizations at the time were floundering. They were floppy. THen the communist party developed a great following. Especially among the intellectual, who a few years before had sneered at it, as an organization out there, way out there with cockeyed ideas. Such as capitalism was headed for a general crisis, that was the formulation. And a general crisis came along, how the hell did they know about it right? So, there were, turnovers, and you had the intellectuals of the time like ? and Waldo Frank, hundreds of peoples whose names I dont think of at the moment. In all fields, feeling hat this was a center, a magnetic center, what else do you want to know? Well. I said before, joining it was not a simple matter. You knew it was there, you knew people who belonged to it. you found out that you had meetings every tuesday night. They discussed things, they had an educational part of the meeting.
THey might have particular things to do, like going through the neighborhood if it was a neighborhood branch and trying to sell the daily worker to people on the third floor back and the third floor front to people who didn t know and so forth. And if it was a unit that was involved in some kind of cultural activity then they discussed the cultural problems. The repuation of the party was, the things were rigorous, things were disciplined. Except of the idea of democratic centralism, that you could freely express yourself when key questions were discussed. Under the questions of basic policy, you then followed the basic policy for when it was decided in party, in congress would or caucus or whatever. So it was a serious thing, you were just not joining something, you were joining something to participate, and joining something in which you had to, to that extent, cease to be that isolated member that you originally were. So it was difficult. I didn t know whether I wanted to do that, but I see party members around who were pretty jerky characters anyway, and I m not sure. I m a pretty intellectual character, and I can think my way through. And I can work on New Theater Magazine as a editor and if people wanted to discuss with me about what party responds tothis magazine I say that s okay. At one point, a man who I did not later have any real love for, herbert Klein, who was a very promoting type fellow, was self-promoting and who was managing editor of the New Theater Magazine, promotional editor you could say. He asked me if I wanted to join the party.
And I said, I m going to think about it and that sort of set the thing in my head. And after a while I think I wanted to join the party. I didn t join in his branch, I joined in another branch which was the neighborhood branch. And we did those things: we went around with the daily worker and tried to sell it to people in the neighborhood, we discussed various things which were topics and issues of the time, ask questions of them. I remember going to a door, you know when you open the door it s a stranger you know, it could be shirtless on a summer day, and said Oh you re from the communist party, What was it like? and you know it was interest like that, but very little red baiting on the part of simple working class people. Who, one felt had been fed with all kinds of anti-communist stuff. Which for some reason was rather, and occasionally, someone would open the door and say I want to talk to you about the Daily Worker and the Communist Party, Bang, the door goes into your face, and it s very hard to climb the next flight of stairs. But the party was not illegal? No, it was legal. As a party it was legal, most of the time, since its founding.
In 1917, 1918. But that doesn t mean anything in terms of American life. The poitical organization can be hounded, and hounded as if it were illegal and there could be tremendous pressure on it and on individuals. In other words, nobody looked very kindly on the communist party except for people who were interested in them. I was, let’s see, I joined in 1933 I think. And my joining, by the way, wasn t any kind of a leap. I was the same person the day I joined as the day before. It was simply, I had lost the resistance of being part of an organization. All my ideas and all my activity were the same. Except, I went to meetings on tuesday night. In my group, there were people of all ages, I was 24 in 1933. People coming in tend to be young, but that wasn t… people were 45, some were 50, some even older people. My group, probably had a range from 23, 24 to 50, 55. Maybe there were ten or twelve members in the whole group. It was not a party of a narrow age group because some people have been in it since 1917 which would be 15 years before. Okay, let s move onward. Before, I m going to have to get the beginnings of why you left the film and photo league and when you decided to start. So let s go through that. We know what the film and photo league was about, but we don t know what you found that was frustrating with it. So, let s go through that. We know what the Film and Photo league was about, but we don t know what it was that you found frustrating with it. Right. Well, the, as I remained in the film and photo league, I had all kinds of ideas for the improvement of the development of what we called revolutionary film, and revolutionary filmmakers. We were people who were assembled by chance. You know, little pieces of cosmic dust from here and there and we had a film and photo league. And the shooting of the film was very random, depending on what people happened to know and what people happen to be serious about. And then some people didn t know very much, and some people weren’t really interested in shooting. So my relationship to it was, how do we take this organization which is unique, and which is, because of its interest in reality of American life, and the utilization of film, to portray that. How do we move this organization toward richer, fuller, more functional basis doing the same thing, but doing it well. So for example, we did news reels, or extended news reels. Well you could make essays on film, you could do stories on film related to working class problems and working class people and related to the threat of facism and what not.
REEL 10 - Moving Out of the Film and Photo League, Forming NyKino, Plow That Broke the Plains
I was saying that there were all kinds of, other kinds of films, and other kinds of penetration of meaning. And uh, conveying of what qualities and textures of life were it could be done. And on the other hand, there wwas also the problem of how do we train ourselves, there was no place to go to be trained unless you went there was one school in the world, and that was GIK in Moscow, which Jay did go to at some point, probably a little bit later. But otherwise, the idea of a film school was a crazy planetary idea, you know. So, we had to train ourselves. We did start a little film school. Excellent, as the experts that you were. Experts that we were, we were indeed better than anybody else around cause we face certain problems in film that nobody was facing. We faced what film could do as a medium. You look all around and film as a medium of interaction of image didn t exist. We had to create it, I could create it in my head as I walked along the street. And I knew I was better, and more advanced than anybody else around. Whoever was working in hollywood, or Pathay news, or whatever. So I had, we had no problem with that. What we dug out, we dug out and we taught, and we taught some others in the school. And there were some people, where you have technical problems like photography, which Ralph Steiner knew, and so he taught principles of photography.
But other areas, where the, principles had to be dug out, we went on our own. We also felt, I also felt the need for a workshop, which we called a shock troop. And as I was indicating, somewhere along the line, a shock troop is a group of people who is seriously interested in the development of art. You had shock troops in the theater, in the actor s laboratory in the theater. You had shock troops in the ?, people who were concerned. Seriously, who wouldn t want to be called professional or moving toward professionalism because that all had a commerical tone and tinge to it, and indeed it still does. These were people who were concerned with the heart of the matter itself. So, I felt that we ought to have, and people who I got to join the league, also felt that we should have a basis for developemnt and for production and for training in the cost of production and increasing the spectrum of this new art medium. Developing new forms. Give me the names of these people and talk about how the Oh, the people. Okay stop, stop tape. Right, I think I indicated before. You shouldn t say that, because we ll be cutting things in and out. Right, it helps me to think. I just want to talk about the group of people you took out of, let me tell you what I m getting at, what I m getting at is there were terrible emotional feelings, I know that because I ve heard them fifty years in the event of pulling the group out of film and photo league. People who ? the idea of the film and photo league couldn , and just, I just want to hear abou that process. Right, before we get to that, are we rolling? Yes People who, when I became interested in the film and photo league, I then sought other people who could enrich it and make it more lively. Steiner was interested in the film and photo league. And I had worked with him, and he joined. Sydney Myers, who was a musician and not a filmmaker, lot of people who came from the other arts, Ben Madough who was a poet but not a filmmaker, who wanted to be a filmmaker, I said come and join us at the film and photo laegue. Lionel Berman, who managed a firm of tanning, leather Tanning, he was interested, so he came. And a number of other people.
And Jay Lyda, had known about it, he may have been a member before, as was Irving Lerner. Both have had experience in film. What happened then was, we were kind of a new generation in the film and photo league, and they grew up a antagonism, and these new ideas which I expressed before about what film and photo league could grow into were abrasive to people like Leo Seltzer, Tom Brandon and people who they influenced, like a sweet guy like Robert Del Duke, who really didn t conern himself with this stuff. He just liked to go with the camera on a march and photograph what was there. He was a lovely guy, but people who were engaged, because this group from the outside, who had been there now for some time, were disturbing the environment. The environment really was, what was called the mass organization, a group of people who met at a given night, and who talked about film occassionally, screened something, and then responded by volunteering to do certain projects, which we had money for, film for, and camera for and it was that kind of hiddenness production. Now given the energy of the interest in the fact that people lie on park benches to sleep right? Or are in lines trying to get a job that doesn t exist, are on breadlines, and this is important to show to people, which is not shone in news reels. Given the vitality of that pressure, even such disorganization,results in something very interesting, you know, that is, who went out to Union Square to photograph, on a given afternoon, people lying on this bench and this bench on the grass, sitting and talking, their clothes, their faces, and so forth. Whoever would photograph something like that, whoever considered it relavent.
But that was the fact of American life, untold, so there was a great deal that was there, but a great deal of much more that could be done. And as I said, resistances developed. When I specifically proposed the formation of a group of people who would take it upon themsevles to develop and grow this new thing called revolutionary film, or progressive film or whatever and learn and be able to . Can you say that again? I want to start a new frame. When I proposed a new idea of having a group, a production group, a shock troop who would undertake, to grow this revolutionary film and train people, train ourselves, and develop forms in which the content could be, the new forms of content, there was an increase in resistance. And, it was voted down. I went to an executive committee meeting and explained it as fully as I could, Brandon was the organizer, and I, and as sympathetically as I could, and they turned it down. And I felt that it was sectarian, and I couldn t bump my head against the wall anymore. So I said, and this we had discussed before with the other people who were in my team, I said well, in which case, then this is going to have to be done. THis isn t the matter of the film and photo league, this is a matter for the revolutionary movement.
This is a matter, we need this kind of film, we need this kind of filmmaker. So we ll have to do it on the outside, we ll have to do this somewhere else. We ll have to form another organization. Well, you know, that was, there was a world call do it unionism. Do it unionism was like, well if you had a union like the ILGWU, you formed a union in competition with the ILGWU, it was like a sin. So, we were do it unionists. And we were trotskyists, and we were elitist and whatever names could be found, which gives you a clue to an aspect of the movement, which was parochial and sectarian because it had to develop its own life and it had to develop its own large family, see, you had to be distrustful to the people who wanted to break up that neat little package of life you see. So, I left with all these names in my ear. Why I wasn t troubled by it, I don t know, but I wasn t troubled by it. And, I had a lot of comrades who felt that what we were doing was the thing you had to do, it was important. So we set out to find a new organization which was Nykino. Now, Nykino, New York film, New York Kino. So we had this group of about six or seven or eight people, and we met, once or twice a week at Steiner s studio, which was at 110th street. Steiner and I were working together and one of the jobs that we were doing together, we converted into a Nykino job. He had shot, he was a great unfinisher of film, Steiner, one of his problems in his life was how do I become a filmmaker, he had been a still photographer. He handled the film camera quite beautifully, but he didn t see anything beyond the shot he was making. He didn t know what the configuration of shots were, he didn t have any feeling for the phrasing and the building of the continuity and the feeling of the idea with shots.
And that s why he was very dependent on me, and that s why he wanted me to work with him, although he was ten years older than I with very much more experience. And so, what I did was to take his films, it was a film on, which we called Granite when it was finished, on people who were mining Granite, the workers, quarrying. And the material he shot, which he had no idea of where it was going, and make the film, he carried, with the help of Irving Lerner, had carried a H20 to a conclusion, which may have required a little more. He also had material for a film called Surface Seaweed, which I neatened up, which didn t have very much structure, it was kind of repetitive. Nowadays, because of the form of repetitiveness, it might sit very well. Uh, and Pie in the Sky was unfinished. He had gotten together with Illiad Kazan, and Irving Lerner was part of the team at the time. And they shot this mateiral, a kind of a spontaneous basis. Comedy about religion. The ideology of it was sort of random but some of the material was really nice, and they didn t have enough material to make the film. Irving Lerner worked on it, it did come together. I looked at the material, we talked it over, and we decided it had to shoot some other stuff, and I finished that film. i made it into the best little thing it could be, I think. So that was the work of Nykino, of my being in Nykino, although the others of Nykino were not specifically involved with this work except for screenings and general comment and discussion. The work, of the group that met in the evening, cause all of these people had a job of one kind or another, I didn t have a job, I earned money with Ralph Steiner had good connections with good magazines like Latest Home Journal and so forth. So Occasionally, we would get a photograph to do, like a bunch of grapes, a pattern of fruit or a silk stocking.
Or a shoe, or, sometimes we would have a column, in Harlem s Bizarre of various items. It could be decorative items, or clothing items and so forth, so we made these photographs, and the big photographs, paid a fair amount of money, and the small photographs didn t play so much. So I drew a salary of 15 dollars a week, which was pretty big for me at that time. I could get along on it. And then the rest of the money went into Nykino treasury. I have a complete thought. THe other members of the group, Sydney, Lionel Berman, and so on, Jay, we looked for projects for them too, and we discussed the projects. And we were going to make a march of time, that was really good, in which, documentary and enacted material would be placed, and in which the stories long enough, where you can really get into them and convery something in them, and we started to make, what I think was called the World Today series. We wanted to make a sample so we did, and one of the elements of that World Today was, a little film called black legion. I don t know whether I have a copy of that or not, but it was very effective thing that was reenacted. How about Sunnyside? Sunnyside was also. You gotta do that out loud. So let s cut.
REEL 11 - The Transition from Nykino To Frontier Films
So let s roll. Why don t you just back up a little bit and talk about the World Today. The black legion episode, Well talk about the World Today, because I m not sure that we got the picture of what that exactly was. It s clear. It s clear? Okay, then start again, black legion episode. The black legion episode, was somewhere, which I remember to be between 4-6 minutes. And the Sunnyside episode, which may have been longer, 13-18 minutes. We did this on the principle, that was the principle of doing it. Not like the march of time, bang bang bang. Whatever story required whatever length, it got that length. It was like a magazine, a real film magazine. And you didn t want to convert a story like Sunnyside, which went into a minute into Headlines. THere had been, in Sunnyside, LI, queens, a remarkable rent strike, in this kind of pleasant community with green backyards and so on. Middle class and lower middle class community, paying relatively small rents.
And the agency that ran it, it had been built partly with public funds, I believe, but a private agency ran it. And they wanted to extract more money from the renters, so they got together, and formed a tenants organization, that was extremely powerful. And because all the units were two family units, one and two family units, there was a great deal of movement involved, in organizing. You had to get a great deal of family together, you had to have brigades that did Paul Revere work, you know. They had to be alert all the time, because once the rent strike happened, they started evicting people. THey had to resist the evictions, as soon as there was a hint of an eviction, the gathered people, in the house, and outside of the house, and they dared the marshalls to come in, and the marshalls didn t come in. So this went on for some time, it was a very militant middle class tenant strike, and it obviously needed doing. So this group, this Nykino group, I had little involvement in it myself, as I was involved with other things, my involvement was in the thinking through of the project, and later on, in the guidance of the relationships and the cutting. But they did this thing, and it was quite an extraordinary job, with people who had never worked in film before, by and large. Lerner had some experience, but he wasn t he active one in the group, Jay had some experience, but he wasn t the active one in the group. The active people in the group were Lionel and Syndey and so on, and they had no experience before. But they did an extraordinary job. Out of the need to learn, and to development what wasn t around in fund of knowledge. So, anyway.
THere was a transition then of Nykino, Nykino was thought as a transitional organization anyway. It was a transitional organization to some organization in which we would have a group of people, maybe four, maybe six, maybe seven, maybe varying between four and seven, and eight, who would be on staff permanently because then we could really make films. It took you a really long time if you could only shoot on Sunday, or Saturday and Sunday. It took you a long time to make a film. Or sometimes, you could make it night, but it took a lot of nights because how long could you work at night to get up and go to work in the morning. So that was the idea. Frontier films were meant to be staffed in that way. I had been the only member of Nykino, who was paid. Steiner didn t have to be paid because he was well-off. And so the idea was now to expand the idea of a paid staff. Paid meaning very minimal. 35 dollars a week was what we had plan in the budget, but a family could live on that. And, we then, proceded to try to raise money. Now we had some films to show to raise money, and we did raise some money from people, rather wealthy people who were interested in the left, and interested in the development of culture and responsive to this idea of this new, bold step in the art of filmmaking. Without any, you know, working in a little corner, we took on Hollywood, we took on Industrial Film and so forth.
So we raised some money that way and then Isabelle Sool came along and said I ll form a committee of 1000, so she had stationed a committee of a 1000, and when we rented a little office space, we had a little room for her which her committee of a 1000. She was a rather big woman, so she filled this little room very fully and with her committee of a 1000. And she sent letters to 1000s of people to get nickels, dimes, dollar bills, 5 dollar bills, 15 dollars into this pool of money for this great new organization. We formed an advisory board, which included everybody who was of importance to the cultural field. You know, Aaron Copland, Malcolm Cowley, to Michael Gold, to everybody, Randoll Hicks. Everybody wanted to be, had something to do with this great new spring of life in filmmaking. So, that s how frontier films were born. That s beautiful. Okay let s just pause here for a second. Okay let me cut back a little bit because during the Nykino period, as I indicated, there were things going on in terms of this, I had said that I was the only one, Steiner and I were the production group, meeting day after day, and night after night, when needed, but into this picture came Paul Strand, who had recently done a film Rayday, a wave in Mexico, and was on his way to the Soviet Union to visit and maybe to get work as a filmmaker and photographer. ANd on his way he indicated that Steiner knew him, I had known him before because I had, I was an editor of creative art magazine, and we did an article on him, so I needed things for illustration so I had met him before and knew something of his interest.
So we asked him when he came back from the Soviet Union, whether he was interested in joining the Nykino. And he indicated, yes, he was. We told him what it was about, we showed him what we ve done, and he showed us the wave, so he became a member of Nykino. Now we had a group of people, the ones who did Sunnyside, who met once or twice a week, and shot at night or on sundays, aNd people who were full time. At that point, Payler Rentz, who Steiner had contact with, wanted to make a film for the resettlement administration on the dust storms. And where could he go to get people to make such a film, there was no place to go. You had to come to us, now this could have gone to some people in the film and photo league, but he wouldn t have been satisfied with the level of work, I don t think. So he came to us. Were we interested in making a film on the Dust Storms. We said we were very interested. And uh, I said well, is there a script? No, there was no script. I said alright, I ll write a script. So I began studying the subject, he provided some material that had been articles, and Fortune Magazine, there was a whole question of the plains becoming dust. It was a dangerous development, there had been a drought, this prairie land, which was basically too dry to be plowed, had been plowed for commerical reasons, for making a buck, and now you re going to have, you have land that was becoming a dessert. So it was very important and exciting subject. So I sat down and I wrote a script, an outline for a script, and I sat down with Paul and with Ralph and a couple, showed a copy to Payler, he was not a very talkative fellow, a very strange guy.
I never got a feel of him, of making a connection. Steiner, I think, made a pretty good connection to him, Paul couldn t make a connection to him either. So at any rate, things began to happen, without our knowing about it. The weather was moving into fall, if we were going to shoot grass, the plains as we knew before, they were ?, made into a dust bowl. We had to quickly go to Montana and Wyoming. So bang, off we went. Now we needed a shooting script and he said he would send us a shooting script. Or he would give us a shooting script, which he didn t. We were handed a script at the time that we took the train at Grand Central Station, to go out west, first to Buffalo, then to Chicago, then to Wyoming. We got a wire telling us what to do, and we never got anything to tell us what to do. And we couldn t, the script was absolutely unusable. Somewhere I may have a copy of that script I hope I do, it was a wonderful thing and a great piece of humor, for us. At any rate, we get to Wyoming and there the plains are rich, we go out and photograph, the grass blowing in the wind, miles of grass and the grass roots at the fences, and the beginnings of dust blowing around the roots and so forth. All wonderful stuff that you could do without a script, and then when we had shot for three days or so, we said oh what the hell, what are we gonna do? Because I wrote out an outline script, not a shooting script. So we were like we need a shooting script. Grass great, though we don t get any answer back. I said, whoa, we got to sit down.
Though we had to go to Texas after, which we, to the dust storm region. And on the way in a town that we called, it was called a Lion s Nebraska, we stopped. The train stopped there, so we stopped there for a couple of days. And I said I d sit in the hotel room and write a shooting script, which I did. ANd I don t know whether it was Paul or Ralph, it must ve been Paul, who didn t like the, name of the town a Lion s Nebraska, so he called it the asshole of America. It was a really lovely town in which the, you came to the end of the town, in a few blocks on each side, and the rest of the place was plains, it was wonderful for a new yorker who had never been much out of new york except into the suburbs with a different kind and sense of country, mostly come from, well by this time I had some experience with country. But, it was just an absolutely wonderful experience, anyway this was the asshole in america for Paul. We went on, then with the script to Texas, Dalhart. And there we centered again, and photograph the results of the dust storm. And the dust storm, there was no dust storm at the time, but there were blowing winds. And therefore you could take small elements where you had blows, and make dust storm footage, which we did. So we come back to new york with this footage. We feel it s pretty good and maybe we need a few news reel shots and so forth, but we can make the film. And Paylor Rentz, I was supposed to edit the film, and at this time we made an enemy of Paylor Rentz because we told him his script stank and we needed a shooting script and didn t have it and we made a shooting script, shot it, and send him a shooting script too so he would know what was going on.
At this time, I think I was a persona known grata, and so was Paul, a persona known grata, because Steiner wanted to compromise all the time and be nice, and somehow smile our way throguh this thing, but we didn t think we could smile our way through this thing and make a good film or make even good footage for a good film. So that was part of the friction within the group. But it was pleasant friction, Steiner was a very pleasant guy until later. The result of this antagonism, the pair, was we were excluded from the finishing of the film and the first we saw the film was an invitation to see the film, the big opening, and we were the cameramen, that s what we were credited as. So we had a big opening of the film, and it got a lot of kudos. The film, at first, I was very disappointed, all three of us were very disappointed with the film because he developed a lyricism, a kind of high toned, loud lyricism, that didn t fit the subject and furthermore it left out causation. Why did the ground, why was the ground made into a dust bowl? Who did it? Why? That was left out. THe simple motive to make a buck regardless of what you do to the earth, and what you re going to do to the next forty years of the given territory, or the next 100 years was the simple cause of it. And it had to do with the development of he large agricultural companies. So that had to be somehwere in the film if you re going to treat it right, it wasn t. The film was photographic, it was very beautiful, almost too beautiful in a way, that shouldn t have been emphasized as much as that. But it also had a way of expressing too. My first reaction was an exaggerated reaction because I wasn t taking into account that in the environment, very little of this kind of dealing with this kind of subjec, was being done. So at least the subject was being dealt with.
There was a dust bowl being created, it posed a problem of what to do about it, it tied in with he Roosevelt Administration to try to do something about it, to deal with the environment, so it had a core, something very good to come into this film world. Which I was not tolerant enough of, at first, later on I realized that to be the case and I was, and when I say I, I mean we, the three of us, were very disappointed that this film resulted from the kind of energy and imagination and stirrings that we went into the film with.
REEL 12 - China Strikes Back, People of the Cumberland, Kazan, Frontier Films, Starting Native Land
So I was going to ask you a question about your collaboration with Paul. A little bit of detail on China Strikes back. After we formed frontier films, having a nice office in 723 7th ave, and a little bit of money to work with and a core group, which included Steiner, Strand and myself I think. The beginning. Uh, we began to make some films, some of the films fell in our lap. I told you before how Herbert Klein delivered me this footage in which I made Heart of Spain. A young man, who was, whose name skips me at the moment, who was a dancer, and had been in China, and found a camera, an IMO somewhere, and handled it very well. He decided that he was going to Yan An Province, where the communist, the communist chinese who had made the long march, from the south all the way west, who were settled in Yan An and were operating out of Yan An. They seemed like people who were really going to take over China. If Chiang Kai SHek was corrupt, and Mao ZeDong was the profit of China.
His name almost came to me, in tht moment. Anyway, this guy, a young man, i don t know he was about 23 years old, I was as young as that too, but, he had blonde hair, and he looked about 16. He took a camera and took some rolls of film, 1000 miles into the interior of China and photographed the chinese community, what was then red china with Mao ZeDong, Zhou EnLai, teaching classes with black boards, very serious, crude armies with Mongolian ponies, military formation for guerilla war, and the general relationship to the population to the place. The red army was the people s army, and it s relationship to the people had to be non exploitative. That was the material he came back with, and it was unique in the world. He came to us, where else was he gonna go? He wanted to make a film but it was not a filmmaker. So of course we saw the material, and we had to make a film of it. And this was then a sign to, the group that developed from the secondary group of Nykino. And some of htem were on staff, and some of them were not on staff. THey made a film, my relationship to it, and paul s relationship to it, and Steiner s relationship to it was indirect and advisory, but when they had started to put things together and they thought they had a film, it was clear to me that they didn t have a film. It was a kind of a descriptive, could ve been a piece in a film magazine in the world today of how the Red Army lives in the 1000 miles in the interior of China. It didn t explain, it didn t deal with what the Red Army was about, what Chinese Communism was about, what it had come from, the relationship to the invasion of China by the Japanese and so forth. The nature of Chiang Kai Shek.
And so on. So it just couldn t be a film, it was a little interesting episode. So that was the problem of battling back and forth. How to convert this into a film and it required then, a whole new element in it that had to begin it and end it. And that required stock footage and so on. And so the background in what the need for a Red Army and the development of China toward Communism was, became part of the film and developed into quite a nice structure. I never felt that it was as coherent and tight as it should be, I still feel that way when I look at it, but it s a rather good film. You know, much better than any film made outside of Frontier Films at the time. The other film that was made also by the same group of people, The Cumberland, and that film came about because there was a lady named Ethyl Clyde who inherited the money from the Clyde lines, which was a very big freight and tourist line of steam ships. And Ethyl Clyde was a lady in her 70s, very proud of her legs. SHe wore silk stockings and was proud to show you that her legs were like an 18 year old girl. At any rate, she lived in some fancy community in long island and she was a wonderful woman, and she saw what we did and she said, that was great, and she tod us how she d come to use her money for purposes that would help change the world. Help, not as charity, not to give her money to people who needed it, but specifically to use on, to change the conditions of poverty and the conditions of injustice and so forth. So she was interested in the school of the south called the highland of folks to which she had given money. She wanted us to make a film of the highland of folks school.
And, we said fine. She had 3000 dollars right off which we could begin with and we set up a Steiner, Kazan, Kazan was involved in this and he did a terrible job, went into the south, into Cumberland, and without an adequate script, began to shoot. And the stuff was rather awful.And some of the footage that was awful which we tried to save but didn t quite save was from that early shooting. ANd when they came back with it, the footage, Steiner and Kazan, we decided we had to reorganize the thing, write a script and send another crew down. We eliminated Kazan as part of the crew. This was the first film he had done by the way, he had only worked in theater. He went at it with great arrogance as if he knew everything. And Sydney Meyers, whose name at that time was Robert Stebbens, went down instead of Kazan with Steiner and shot footage on the basis of the script which we now supervise, knew that could be made into a film. So it was mad einto a film, and a pretty good film. So how did the idea of Native Land get going? What was the genesis of the film? When did it start? i need some dates here. Frontier films was organized and incorporated in 1937. So when we talk about people in Cumberland trying to strike back, it s in 1937. One of the key ideas was, to select a film, a key film to do for Frontier Films, which would be the basis for its development, not a short film but a long film, and what were we to do. We had a number of ideas. One idea was, an idea of child labor, which shows a considerable amount of that at that time.
ANd we did some work on the child labor script, had begun it in the Nykino period. We were looking a large film that would represent Frontier Films. Another idea we had was the story of the architect. What does an architect face coming out of school? Serious man, what does he do with his architectural knowledge in this depression and in this society that doesn t use architecture? And then the ? committee in the senate issued volumes of testimony, and they were very exciting although. Well the Fallathomas committee investigated the violations of civil liberties in the rights of labor. It dealt with the whole organizing process of labor and explored where it was that labors rights were being violated during this whole period of the early 30s into 37, 38 actually. There was 65 volumes of testimony and 67 volumes finally. It was extraordinary. It was headed by senator LaFollette and Thomas who were very honest men. The political equivalence of nowadays, I couldn t tell you. At any rate, Leo Huberman whom I knew slightly wrote a book called, the labor spy racket, which dealt with a small amount of testimony. That was printed by left wing publisher, I don t remember now, but it may have been Modern Age Books or something like that. It was printed in the earliest form of paperbacks. There were no paperbacks at the time. Paperbacks were introduced in the left of America.
To get books out that were inexpensive. And now this was a very exciting book. ANd that called our attention to the work of the LaFollette Committee which was totally ignored in the press. We knew about it. So I spoke to Leo and got him to be an advisor on film if we did a film based on the findings of the LaFollete Liberties Committee. And that was the birth of Native Land, which was, the idea of which was to create a film based on the finding of the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee that would deal with the struggles in which to organize labor. But it was set within a larger context, that is it was set within the development of struggles for liberty in America. So, a new form had to be developed, a new form that embodied the possibilities with a lyrical passage that could deal with the subject of development of the American subject of freedom. That could deal with episodes that might be 3 minutes long and an episode that could be 20 minutes long and The interweaving of documentary footage between these episodes. So it had to develop an entirely new form that didn t exist. Now did this form come to you immediately? Was it something you knew that this film had to be made, did you discover that a long time ago?
No, I knew that that it had to be a new form, and it had to be a new form to do these various things. That is in other words if the film needs the background of american freedom, you dont have a whole film to go into it. You go from 1775 to the present. You need some form of quick development of what the feeling of the struggle of freedom of America and the pride in it was. So that had to be some kind of a lyrical form, so you knew that had to develop right. You knew you had to deal with the subject of growth of labor, labor struggle of labor unions. But then that had to be done briefly too. You knew you had to deal with the labor spyracket right? What, all around there were spies o prevent trade unions from doing, to destroy trade unions. organized by chambers of commerce and big corporate business. And that needed a brief sequence if we get a sequence like, that had many episodes that could add up to like 20 minutes. So you began to get an idea that was not yet crystalized of this structure. That had to be new because you had to deal with it. And you were going to deal with it like a continuing struggle into the future cuase it wasn t ended. You didn t have an ending into the episode. So those were the elements of a new form and we sat down, I wrote an outline, the treatment outline of the film after we had talked osme of these things over. And then Strand and Steiner and I went over this outline and I said well, we got to have a rather detailed shooting script. Not neccessarily detail of shot by shot by of sequence by sequence and the key elements that we need.
We had to have that. Without that we couldn t shoot. THis was the kind of film where we on the cuff from the series of stimulating ideas or basic structure which we already had. So I sat down and wrote a shooting script which I have a copy of and from which we shot the film. And that shooting script contained…
REEL 13 - Making Native Land
Okay so, what about the fact that you still needed dramatic material entering Um… I was leading up to the fact that the shooting script. Let me finish this idea. The shooting script of native land contained the basis for the new form. The new form involved documentary material, enacted material, stories of varied lengths, 3 minutes, a minute and a half, 5 minutes and 35 minutes. It involved being able to go back to episodes dealing with actuality. Lyrical episodes, development of, massive development of the great union movement in the 30s and so on. So the shooting scrip contained that potential for the development of that form in quite a clear way. But it was a shooting script that was say, a hinting shooting script. That is in other words every time we came to a sequence I had to spend the night before and the nights before writing a real shooting script.
So for example, the opening episode, which is a struggle for freedom in America since Plymouth Rock maybe had fifteen shots of ideas, they were ideas for shots. When we came to shoot them, we had to shoot 1000 shots for that episode and then when i came to edit it, I had to work them into, let s say 300 you know. In a flow of movement and flow of idea and flow of lyricism that contained the idea, now what I m trying to get at is that a form does not develop on the basis of simply prefiguring it, into a script. THe form developed and in a sense the script continued until you had finished the film because if you look at the shooting script, you will see the potential of the film. But then if you look at the film you ll see all kinds of elements that are not in the shooting script. That grew out of the shooting script to be sure but are new things. They are the development of the script in film form. Resulting from shooting and resulting from the ideas of change in shooting and resulting from editing. In a very strong way because when you edit a material you find all kinds of elements of connection, interconnection, interweaving and backward reference and so forth that is something you just cannot have in your mind until you have the material. So that s the development of the script as well. So, the new form was a process of growth. you knew taht it had to have a new form and that it had to contain certain elements. And it grows and when you have the film there it is, there s the film and the new form and you want to feel as if there is nothing strange in it. It s experimental but nobody has to know it s experimental.
It flows like life is. And I must say that the responsive people to the film was like that. Nobody said hey this is an entirely new form. Nobody said that at all. They said you know I was interested in what happened in the form of the film. THey had never seen a film like that before. And a film, an hour and a half that had no story, but had the coherence of a plot, the coherence of a story with many different kinds of material and episodes. It was a remarkable gathering and talent this film. Talk about some of the people who were involved. Well people who were involved are the people who, the people who were involved in the production are the people we talked about before. THe people who were involved in the acting were people who were doing equivalent things in other parts of the world in the theater. So a man like Art Smith was a member of the group theater and uh, he had never worked in film before. And most of the people who had worked in native land had never worked in film before. So we didn t have any, didn t have to break down any conventions already established in the minds of the actors who could just go and do things. So there were many actors in the film who we went anywhere, how did we find the black guy in the sharecropper sequence?
We didn t know anybody who could fit that part. So we put out a little note somewhere and some professional paper, maybe backstage or something like that whatever it was at the time. Interested in black actor for rural part. And a guy walks into our office, he s very tall and very lean, and has the most beautiful face you ve ever saw. And a lean body and was absolutely right. I had walked into the room, I hadn t been there in the beginning and there were all these people around for this role and there were other roles too and I saw this guy and I said, he s our man. And I talked to whoever was there, who was involved in organizing or casting, I don t remember who it was at this time and uh I called Paul out of some office and said What do you think? and right, he became the sharecropper. Uh he had never done any actor before, he was a model, photographic model, and a painting model. So we found our actors where we could. Some in the theater like Mary George who was the farmer s wife, Fred, her husband Fred, was not an actor at all, he was a farmer. He lived on that farm that we photographed on. So our problem was to photogaph him with an actress wife and make it work in terms of reality and that s a problem we had throughout the whole of the film. Many people were not actors, some were actors. But it was part of the principle of breaking down the tradition of if you had enacted in a film, it had to be done in a way that an enacted film had to be done.
The problem was to create scenes in which real people interacted with each other. For people you could feel as real people. That was a product of not only the acting, it was a product of the photography, of the choice of scene and so forth. The nature of the action, you could develop action that could overcome the difficulties of a non-actor. How does a non-actor fall? Now that s a real problem. And this sharecropper guy, had a problem in falling. He had a problem of falling when he was hit by a bullet. Well, I had to break up that fall into a series shots of different parts of the fall and emphasized the violence of the disturbance of the quiet air of the country side by this bullet, by this fall. And at the same time I overcame the same problem of how do you enact the fall when you re not protecting yourself as an actor from being hurt. I did that by shooting different parts of the fall in a way that was necessaril percussive as I would do with anyway. Even if he had been able to fall, neatly. By the time we got to the other scene, where he ran. WHich was actually earlier in the script, where he ran to the barbed wire and was, later, and ran to the barbed wire and was later shot reaching for the barbed wire. By the time we go to that he became a more experieced actor. He could hit that barbed wire, which was made of twine, waxed twine rather than wire, he fell against that with considerable reality and credibility it was quite wonderful. I didn t have to make shots to overcome how he hit that wire.
I shot it in a way that was expressively, the images were expressive of the nature of the event. It wasn t a single image of his hitting the wire. But his hand, his face, his body and so forth, but I didn t have to do it to solve a mechanical problem, acting problem. What s the um, what was special about the way the gun was fired? Did the sequence leading up to them, the piece of the sequence where they walked that road. Well, the idea there was to have this ambush behind leaves that the two sharecroppers didn t know existed. ANd that bursted this quiet air of this country road so a good deal of it is shot through leaves and with the cocking of the gun in the foreground and leaves, and the two small figures beyond. And then, after the first shot, which disperses them and doesn t hit them, the guy moves out of his hiding place and pans the gun with the white sharecropper. And the black sharecropper is killed on the road. The white sharecropper runs to the barb wire. Now Howesly Stevens was an actor. The black man was not an actor. Um… I forgot what I was going to get to. Is this your first experience directing actors?
I want to do something before we get to that. I wanted, I think we should show this sequence because I want to do the beginning sequence, I want to do the former sequence and I want to do the sharecropper on the road sequence. Can you tell us what s happening in hat scene, just set the stage of the scene in each one. Set the stage. Just yeah. Yeah. Well. The sharecropper s sequence begins with people in flight from church that has been raided. And in that church there had been a meeting of sharecroppers to organize a union. THe beginning sequence is very bare, you have the scattering of the church, you have people in the woods running, and you have people emerging, a white sharecropper emerging from behind leaves onto a road. The white sharecropper creeps up to the road and sees that there s nobody there. He sees that there s nobody there and he calls out to his companion who is a black sharecropper, a wonderfully looking tall black sharecropper. They come out, the, one of them is wounded by the previous experience, so thye have to hold onto each other as they walk down the road. As they walk down the road, one of the vigilates who had chased them out of the church, is standing behind a tree and a bush watching the road, and watching for a point where he can shoot them. And while they rewalking down the road, his gun is pointed at them, cocks the trigger, and he shoots. Why don t you do the same thing for the Labor s spy? I want to set up, well okay, what was it like,well I think the scene is very powerful, there s a lot of questions that you can ask about the directing, you could ask about did it grow out of just the LaFollette, or was there a personal thing from experiences? All right, tell about the writing. Well. the labor spies sequence was stimulated, I told you, by this book by Leo Huberman. This small book called the Labor Spy Racket. So that gaveus a kind of a clear basis for the idea of the whole sequence, then we did a lot of reading on the actual reports, which are very detailed and marvelous stories. One of the stories involved, I don t know, but Leo Huberman goes into very fully but maybe he does. A trade union organizer named Frankenstein, was organizing the auto workers union and a very close friend of his who was also in the union, not only his friend, but the family were friends. He stayed at each others houses, the kids joined each other, they had meals together and they went into the country and shared a house together and so forth. ANd all the time, Frankenstein was being spied at. THe other guy had been recruited by the spy agency that was out to destroy this fledgeling union. That was only one of the means to destroy the fledgeling union. In other words, to raid and to destroy union headquarters, to find them in hiding, in their houses where they were eating and so forth. So there was plenty of violence. One of their basic techniques were to spy on them and use the spying as a means of destroying the solidarity.
So they bought labor spies. They bought htis guy who wasn t particularly well-off and needed the bucks and agreed to spy on his best friend. And that became the basis for the key story in Native Land and the Labor Spy Sequence.
REEL 14 - Making Native Land, Releasing Native Land
In facing the production of Native land, which had many sequences requiring actors, I was entering along with other areas of the filmmaking, a totally new motive work for myself. THat is I had never cast a film before either you know, so I had to learn how to cast. ANd when I say I, I mean an interaction with primarily, Paul, to some extent, Steiner, but mostly Paul. We were in charge of this production. Uh, so I was entering something new but I ve been enterring something new all the time. And I had prepared somewhat for it too, that is in other words, I paid some great deal of attention to the problems of acting. i had read Stanislovsky. I had friends who were in the group theater, they were actors. I had invited one of the directors of the group theater whose name skips me at the moment but shouldn t, to come and talk to us about problesm of acting. I went to the course in theater collective in problems of theater and acting. So i had a general kind of background with some immediate experience in preparing scenes and so forth.
Nevertheless, I didn t feel secure. I didn t feel secure that all the other problems of direction of his complicated and vast film that I was doing was like, what is the shot? What is the sequence of shots? Do we do shooting script at night? That, doing all this and the acting, and the direction of the acting was maybe too much. SO I decided that I needed help. And I, we got first a theater director, whose name evades me at the moment. I ll call him Bill. Uh, who was around the group theater but was not part of the theater. And, he had not done anything in film at all, but he had done a good deal of work with actors and his mode of working with actors, I thought, was rather stiff. But at the same time he was very skilled and I made it clear to him that I was going to use him as the medium through which I would reach the actors and we would begin in a uncomplicated way. So as not to confuse the actors, who we didn t necessarily work with for a length of time. He would deal with the actors and I would whisper in his ear, I would tell him in advance what I wanted, and in our rehearsal I would tell him when it was right and so forth, right and what the problems were. So it was like an acting coach but with more direct contact between him and the actors. After a while, when the actors were around long enough, they could accept the idea that there were two directors. That there was a director of the director and a director of the actor. They became quite comfortable in general situations, and I functioned with him right behind his shoulder, working into his ear. He had very little sense of what filmed required or the fact that I was interested in only what was happening in the face and only what was happening in the hand and not necessarily what he was workign for which was the whole, as if it were shone on the stage.
So it was a very interactive relationship that had to be created. The nature of the relationship had to be created. That s the way we worked, and at a certain point, he got a job that paid more money than the 35 dollars a week that we managed to afford. You see I paid him 35 dollars a week which was my salary, but I didn t get 35 dollars a week, so my salary got to be much less. But the people who came in and weren t on staff got 35 dollars a week because that was the norm. Anyway, he got a better job, and the shooting on Native Land was very Intermittent. The structure of the film was made to be able to be shot in that way. In fact, we had seven thousand dollars when we started, and we started to make this big film right? We started to get money as we moved along, we d have to stop every so often, show the footage to people and say, we want to go on and if you want to go on with us, then give us money. Contribute money. That s how we went from sequence to sequence. After we would finish a sequence, we would stop, we would show the rushes and raise the money for the next sequence. Meanwhile we were getting credit at the labratory, who knew we were peculiar people. THey were lovely guys at HGR labratory, and they knew we were peculiar people doing something noncommerical and because they were interested in quality, and so we managed to get the things shot with many intervals. This film took three years to make because there were intervals of 2 months, 3 months, 6 months, before we could shoot again.
Well in the course of this time I developed, I then, when bill left, I don t know whether, right away I got somebody else, but the problem of directing this kind of thing was too big. I didn t want to take on the full job of dircting the actors. I wanted to be able to give the problem to somebody else with my direction. So, there was a guy named Al Sachs. He was a very talented member of the Actor s Lab Theater, in fact he was the organizer of it. And we invited him at one time to come and join us at Frontier films. When we, in Nykino, when we were interested in what the problems of acting were as a matter of fact. Well he, was my acting coach in the second part of the shooting, and I worked in the primarily same way with him. In fact, it was easier with him because he wasn t as ritualized a person, as Bill. He was very free floating you see we could float back and forth and develop our ideas in advance, then we could develop our ideas right on the set and so forth. So it was a very good relationship. You had some interesting sources from your extras too, just tell me a little bit about our Ku Klux Klan sequence. Well, as I told you before, we found our actors and our extras wherever we could find them right?
When we were deciding to shoot the Ku Klux Klan sequence, where could we get 50-100 people to put on Ku Klux Klan uniforms? Where do you find the people and find a location at the same time was proper for the plan sequence. So it occurred to us, I don t know who had the idea at the time, but it was absolutely the right idea. There were left-wing anti-fascist camps, like Camp Unity, within 60 miles of NYC, with campers who went for five days, for 2 weeks and so forth. So we decided we d go up there, and talk to people who ran the camp, and get, and shoot at night, since it was a night sequence, and get the campers to do the exciting thing of being part of the film. Well, i got in front of this vast audience of 3000 people, or 2500 people an I said to them, you re all anti-fascists. and that s why I m talking to you, I want you to play the part of fascits in the film we re doing. Members of the Ku Klux Klan. I told them something about the film and what it was based on, and what it was to do, and i got volunteers. I didnt get many volunteers, cause they spent very active days and very active nights as campers. Adult campers in this kind of community. But I got enough, and I don t remember the woman now, who organized the seamstress work of making the costumes, but in any case, we got these people down to the edge of the lake and shot the sequence at night, with some light and torches, and but the people who joined us, and who thought it was very exciting, didn t realize how much work and how much waiting there is in a sequence.
Well that training had to go on at the same time. We had to train them to be actresses and actors.And by the time you got to 2 o clock, you wanted to run to four or five in the morning, they began to get tired because they had a very active work/play day and they had to get up the next morning to play again. So it was hard to hold on, we had to do the shooting so we had the most numbers in the early part of the evening, and the least numbers in the last part of the night. So it was a kind of improvization we had to do. But on the other hand, they really worked wonderfully, cooperatively. So talk about the release of Native Land. How was it received? When Native Land was finished, we showed it to various people to our advisors, to trade union people to trade unions and so forth, it was received with tremendous enthusiasm. Stop for a second, I have this structure in mind that I want you to deal with. You had to get the thing shone… Let s cut for a second. The response to the film, we had done some thinking before. Some considerable thinking with some considerable clarity of how to release such a film. And it was clear that we re not going to get cooperation from commerical distributors, although we tried them at various points. We didn t do it conceptually. When we showed it to commerical distributors, they resremainedponded very favorably to the film except that it wasn t for them, it didn t fit into their scheme of selling their film objects. However, we had an idea that was going to counteract that. Which was that wih the cooperation f the trade unions, and the various mass organizations that were interested in this film, we had a direct connection with masses of people. And we were going to start, since frontier films was going to start a new movement of film making, progressive filmmaking, we were going to start by creating an audience, by utilizing an audience that was there. So we had talked to trade union leaders and trade union representatives about our idea, which was that, when the film was ready, we were going to go to small independent theaters, or small independent distributors with neighborhood theaters, and put them in the neighborhood theater, and promote the film in the neighborhood of a big trade union local. Leaflets were put out by the trade union itself, by the theater itself and have people talk t othe meetings of the trade unions not only how good this film was, or interesting to see, but how it was the basis of the future films that will reflect their lives. There was a whole idea, we were going to create a mass base for a new form of distribution beginning from the bottom up, not from the top down like MGM and so on. That was a great idea and it would ve worked.
It was a lot of work, I assure you. I wouldn t consider making the next film, for a while. But I couldn t anyway, but what happened was, the day before we got a release print of Native Land, was December 7th, the day of Pearl Harbor. And so we saw the film on December 8th. For the people who saw the film, the film still remained the same. But there had been a strong change in the direction of america, right? Now we were fighting fascism at last. We had declared war they declared war on us and therefore we declared war on Imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany. And we were in World War II. Before this, we were on the edges of it, supplying material to our allies, or our future allies, the Soviet Union and Great Britain, France, resistance in France. But now we were in it. And, the, had changed the whole picture, in relationship to the mass organization that we were dealing with. Now the focus was fighting Fascism on vast people s front. A war, a whole nation against Fascism. And, the communist party thought, which was key to contact with all the other organizations, to stimulate the other organizations, to back this idea of distribution. THe communist party had very sectarian thoughts about this. Now is not the time to deal with the problems of the class struggle. Class struggle had been absorbed into the people struggling against fascism. Why disturb things by talking about the class struggle? We are in a united front with an american industry and american corporation to fight Hitler, to fight fascism.
So the communist party became ? to the problem of because we weren t in a position to organize separate unions and massive organizations. We needed somebody to make calls and say hey these are good people. So I went to see William Foster who was the chairman of the communist party. Stop there for a moment.
REEL 15 - Releasing Native Land, Communist Reaction, Reviews and Response, WWII Starts
I went to see the chairman of the communist party, William Foster, after showing him the film. Him and some others the film. My contact with the party was very limited. But here it was crucial to have their cooperation. So I explained to him what was in my mind that in a period of anti-fascism and fighting a war against fascism, you could not act as if class struggle was suspended all over. You still had the problem. There are people who are going to try to get workers to work for too little, who didnt want them to organize, it would go on during this period. So you would have to hold your differences on one level, and cooperate with big cooperations in fighting Hitler.
You had to do both. He felt it was disruptive and that it would interfere with the central struggle against Fascism. That finally we had arrived at, after years of trying to swing America to take an anti-fascist position so that there should be no war, but now that you had war, you had to organize and defeat Fascism. It was a very strong argument but it didn t mean anything to me. So as we sat in his office, his building is on east twelth street on the eigth floor if I remember, he said I know how yu feel. I feel the same way, I just finished a book. He opens the bottom drawer and says there s the manuscript. I m going to have to wait until the war is over to publish it because it deals with the class struggle. Well I tried to talk him out of it, but I wasn t able to. And so therefore, the whole scheme of the organization of a grass roots distribution was dead. So we had to try all other forms of distribution. One of which was to take a theater, which was a world theater on 49th street near 7th ave and run it, see how long it would run. It ran for three months, didn t make a lot of money, but sort of made its way. It didn t matter to us that it didn t make a lot of money. But there was no stimulation, there was no way of stimulating the distribution companies to take on this film which everybody felt was very powerful. You know, you never saw anything like hat. THey were going to reorganize their promotion agencies or invest money in it since it didn t have any star you see. Paul Robes had been in some film, but here he did the voice of the film, and he wasn t the big movie star anyway. He was a star in Black films. And nobody, later on, many of the actors would go on to Hollywood and become well known, but nobody knew them at that point, and there was no key star or key plot as it was normally known.
So, the distribution was a great struggle. Some guy, whose name I don t remember anymore, there are a lot of names I don t remember, saw the film he was a business man he saw the film and he thought it was marvelous, he thought he could organize a distribution. He had some sort of connection with distribution, he was an independent. He thought he could organize this he was like Do you want to do it? and I was like, Go ahead! But he didn t get very far either. He got some bookings in various places, he knew theaters in Pittsburgh and so on, and the showing the world theater did stimulate what was known as the art market. So there were special theaters in detroit, maybe two theaters in Chicago, a theater in Denver, and the film was distributed in that way. But not with the massive idea that we had to begin with. And I had to come to the conclusion that the motion picture medium was not necessarily a mass medium. It could be a mass medium, it could be a medium of talking effectively to a few people the way a book of poems talks to a few people. You know, literature is not a mass medium either, except in some respects, generally, generally, not always, the worst medium pieces in literature get the largest mass distribution, and the most money put into their promoton. That is not true of a certain aspect of literature that develops primarily through schools and criticisms and so forth. But at any rate, I had to take an entire different view of film medium than I had up until that point. And it was a more realistic view. If you could give me in one capsule, what the theme of Native Land was. The theme of Native Land is that there is no end of the struggle for freedom of the American People or any people. That it has to be constantly struggled for. And that one of the great dangers to people is the relaxation that comes from a victor in the struggle for liberty. Cause that s the point in which the reactionaries, the corporations, the fascists whoever are the enemy of the people utilize and break up the struggle. THat s teh whole thing. That s very similar to the whole theme of strange victory, isn t it? Yes, that theme is embodied in all of my films. There are a number of themes that are in almost all of my films. One theme is that, and the necessary alertness that living requires. It s a very obvious thing but you don t get that in movies. The theme has to do with the kinship of people and the connection between people who don t know each other and the necessary particularization of that idea, otherwise you lose humanity, you lose human connection and that s in every film. You said something interesting, when you were talking about the basic principles of your family, that the basic values had something to do with empathy and passion, in the hierarchy of values. Are those part of your hierarchy of values too?
Well yeah, obviously. That is in other words behind the idea of kinship or other connective, waht is it, the connective tissue between people, it s just not the kin that I m a cousin to you in some kind of distant remote way or cousin to somebody I don t know in some remote kind of way, it s that the inherent connection between human beings is our capacity to feel what each other feels. Our capacity to join them and their experience. And without that, is empathy. Withou joining people with that experience, you destroy the human connection, and you destroy kinship, you have what we have in our society, so much of. It s true, compassion and kinship come into to be at certain times and at certain events, well basically our society is a fractured society which each individual thinks that his own or her own needs are separate from others peoples needs. And that snot true, that s not true. We are bound by this human connection and the need for empathy, otherwise we don t have a human society. And everything in our society, primacy of money values, the nature of the competition tend to destroy it. By our society, I mean capitalism. Capitalism and the development of any bureacratic structure which in a matter of fact tends to destroy that thing because it s so simple to go back to the, I was going to say the infantile state, where you re concern with only your own being or whether only your hunger is satisfied. It s a peculiar thing. In that infantile state, also the structure of human connection is born.
And becasue the infant relationship to the grown up, and especially the mother, and the mother s breast, is on of connection. The child is never alone, and that connection of family, of being together, becomes the basis of the development of kinship and the development of the wonderful ideas of the world. Which are, treats your neighbors as yourself. The next episode, or the next movement that I want to get into is the Progression, because the moment the war starts, you find that you can t get a job, but I want to link that with the Blacklist because that s part of the same movement. I would like you to begin how a revolutionary movement inspires or is met with it s repression and what that meant for you. You know that the blacklist began long before I was blacklisted. Before I even knew I was blacklisted that is. to be in the forefront and use your own name, writing articles called revolutionary film, it subjected you to surveillance and the reactionaries, who were interested in who were developing new ideas, and who are the dangerous subversives right in their terms. ANd also the people who are nervous, you know the people who want to get along in the world, they re liberal, they believe in what you believe, but don t get too excited about it you know. Don t get too direct about it. Keep it quiet. So that went on and developeed into a new form after Native Land.
And after I had problems of distribution of Native Land, i should say that Native Land was reviewed in an interesting way. That is if you look at the times review of Native Land, you ll find that it s very enthusiastic about it as a film, very excited about it as a film, but wary about its content you see. And it was a quiet way of saying, look out my friends you local distributors my friends, be careful of this film. That was a general tendency in the mainstream media, eveyrbody thought it was great and wonderful and so forth but just be a little wary about it. When I had come to the end of trying to promote native land, and had deposited in other people s hands because i wasn t a promoter anyway, Paul helped me in this too. We seemed to be the only two people who were interested in this. But it had to be turned over in a certain time. I then had to face the problem of now what do I do? What kind of films do I make? And the obvious answer is, we re in an anti-fascist war, and all my background leads to the position where I can make films about fascism or about the struggle against fascism very well in part of my bones. And I have also demonstrated that I can develop the necessary forms o do that thing right? So I did try to get jobs in government agencies. The first thing paul and I did was to go down to washington and to the department of war, it was the department of war then, if I searched hard I could find the name of the guy, who was perfectly willing to talk to us, and the idea then was we wanted to do some films on the war, about the war, in various motivations and campaigns.
Then we had several specific proposals, and we were going to let the basic unit, paul and I, or maybe one or two other people, to make these films. And we were listened to very respectfully and so forth, but nothing came. And it was clear that we were not, whatever our background was, however it led to the idea that we were the right people to do this, we still couldn t do it. So later on, the phrase, premature anti-fascists was applied to me and that was what was happening there. We were premature anti-fascists or subject to suspicion. If you became fascist when American had to go into anti-fascist, when America had to go into the war, then you were an okay fascist. But if you saw a nature of fascism before, as far as 1932, 1933, you were suspicious. So I began to feel the heavy hand of, and I tried other government agencies. I tried OWI, and OWI had to say, We need you Leo . So I said, how about making a film about the lend-lease, going across the northern Atlantic to the Soviet Union. WHy don t we get on a convoy and do a film about what it s like to bring raw materials to the other side of the fascists. I thought that was a great idea. So write a script! And I sat down and wrote a script. And that script was, well I thought that was a great script, in fact they memeographed it, and they sent it around as a model form for how other people should write their scripts. And they told that to me very directly, and they indicated that some guy whose name I could remember if I tried, indicated in an unhappy way that the film was a great idea, but my being involved with it made it a stone wall. I was also, Irving Lerner was also part of the bureaucracy there and he later told me that there was all kinds of talk behind the scenes and he knew that I couldn t be used.
But I didn t know it. I had to try where I could try. So they decided to drop that. Well at the beginning, they were going to use it as for both the domestic OWI and overseas OWI although I had written it for overseas OWI, that s how great they thought the script was. THen Blank, it became nothing. So then, I went into Phil Dun s office. Okay, I can t do that, what else do you have for me? He says, I don t have anything for you Leo. I said, Look down your list maybe something quite safe that I could do. So he looks down the list and says we need a film on sports, with the idea that the building of the body of young men through sports is very important in the idea of the fight against fascism. I said, I think i can make that film for you. We mostly had to make it out of stock footage right? Yeah, so he says okay go ahead. I had bulldozed him into it, and he knew that I shouldn t have gone ahead. But I went into it, I gathered the stock footage, I had a cutting room at OWI on west 45th street and I cut together a film, which they liked very much, silent. And then I was going to write a narration, but I thought I shouldn t, I should bring in somebody else. Lynn Riggs, who had written the play on which Oklahoma was based, I met him, and he hadn t worked on a film and I said, do you want to work on a film with me? And he said yes, so I proposed Lynn Riggs to do the narration, it had to be a very spare narration, and we wrote a narration together. Then I screened the narration and film, and everybody liked it, everybody liked it and…
REEL 16 - Films During the WWII, CBS Television, The Blacklist Begins, Kazan Names Names
So, we have a screening for the big shots of OWI to see if this mild little fun film about sports which is a choreography of movements of all sports, high jumping and running and football and soccer and everything. Leading to the idea that something happens to the human body. When it goes through this stuff. So they see the film and I ve introduced nothing subversive in the narration and it s purely anti-fascist in a mild way, and they think it s great. But now, they have to have an excuse for not finishing the film. Everything was finished. I had the music done, Kleinsinger, narration was done, the image was done, the sound was done, all I had to do was put it together in a mix and get the negative, have the negative cut. But they had to find a reason to stop it. ANd I ll tell you what the reason was. And i remember the words almost exactly, he said, In a period like this, when the fascists in Italy are calling us barbarians, because we bombed Rome, and we had slight bombings in the edges of Rome, not a really strong bombing, but anyway it was a big mistake, the Fascists called us barbarians, we don t want to prove to them that we re barbarians by paying such attention to the human body. So I listened to them. This is Robert, his last name I don t remember, he was a big hollywood film writer, he was the head of overseas OWI. Robert somebody. And I said to him, Robert, you know that s crazy. That s crazy, you re going to hand the human body over to the fascists? They do films about the human body in an entirely different way that we do.
Without the feeling, democratic feeling, that s inherent in this film. You re gonna hand the human body over as subject to the fascists. You re nuts. And I walked out of the room. And I took the film with me and I had it for a long time, but it was a nitrate film and it began to deteriorate. And Peggy and I had to take it into the Hudson River, and drop it into the river, otherwise, we might ve had some explosions here, or fire. So i don t have the film. Somewhere I have the music I think, and I have the narration, of course. Anyway, I should say about these episodes of blacklist and repression, that they came as no surprise to me. I wasn t an innocent like many other people, who later in hollywood, after being accepted as progressive, found themselves on the blacklist. They felt very indignant about it and so forth and so on. And they hadn t done very much in terms of the content of their films, just the label that they were progressive. But I had none of that feeling. I knew that I was working against the stream of the media, against the stream of filmmaking. In America I had tried to create the basis for revoluntionary film, or basis for progressive film if you want. It was not digestable of the industry and therefore I had to expect that, as much as they might want to use my talent as they did, OWI wanted to use my talent, later on Pathay wanted to use my talent. But they never went anywhere because they didn t dare have a film that says directed by or edited by Leo Hurwitz. And this continued.. so how did you wind up starting CBS news? Well I have to have a preliminary to that. I still needed a job right? And I was exploring. And I decided that new york was out now, maybe I could find a job on the coast. So I went out to the coast with Native Land. And I showed it to various people out there, including David Selsnick. And after trying many people to get jobs, I, David Selsnick had the bravery to hire me for 13 weeks on a film called, which later became Since you went away. It was a sequence. The film had basically been done. And I asked him after he showed it to me why he wanted me. He didn t need me really. SoI worked on a sequence that never got to be part of the film and wasn t needed in the film. I wrote a sequence, the thirteen weeks ended and he had no more room for me in his studio. I tried also, while I was there, to work with the film unit, the government film unit that was making the why we fight series. It was a series of film, do you know them? Uh, the nature of the enemy and so forththe nature of democracy, and so on. Of course I was very well prepared to make such a film and I received wonderful treatment, and long talks in peoples offices and so on. But it became clear that there was a blacklist and I wasn t going to be hired. I decided that the experience in Hollywood had ended. That it was no freeer for me than in New York. THat I was going to head back to New York and maybe on the way stop in Detroit, where I had heard that the UAW wanted to do films. So I stopped in Detroit and I met the people there.
We had a very good time and we weren t quite ready. They made films later, so I went back to New York, where I found that my friend Gilbert Seldes was now part of CBS and forming a experimental television unit to be prepared for the postwar period, to develop television as a network. Television hadn t been done at all until that time. I could talk to Gilbert quite directly, and I could tell him about my experiences, I didn t have to hide anything from and I didn t have to get anything indirectly from him. If he felt that he couldn t hire me he couldn t hire me. THere was another guy there by the name of Miner, what s his first name.. uh, theater director, a very well known theater directly who was also fairly progressive guy, and he had to agree to it. So they both agreed to hire me with all my clap trap. Subversive background, but it was a unit in which nothing was to go on over the air. We were simply practicing to create the crews, to create the forms, of television production which hadn t been done before. And what was a, news show on television and what was a magazine show on television, and what was a dramatic show on television. So, and it was, purely, we didn t even have any recording devices until later. So we were just making stuff in the air for us to look at ourselves. So it seemed pretty safe to them and I was hired in forty four, I guess. And Not only that, but when people started coming back from the war, executives, like a man whom I think is called, Lowe, lovely guy, he was vice president. And he wanted to learn about television. And television was completely new. So they sent him to me, and he became my pupil. Whenever I did a show, I explained to him what was going on.
Both before the control and in the control room experience, he developed the necessary information he needed as vice president in charge of television. At a certain point, somewhere in 46, I felt I had enough. It was very exciting to be in a new medium, and a thorough experimental period. We may have gone on the air briefly, before I left. But that would ve been once a week, at night, to five thousand sets in new york. There were not more than those 5000 sets. So I was still not a disturbing entity. But at a certain point I felt I really had enough of this, there was no more, I didn t want ot settle down into a routine. Maybe I would want to come back and have a job later, but I needed o do something, i needed to make a film. At that time, Bonnie Rasset came to me and said he had money to make a film, an anti-fascist, against the discrimination. Was I interested? I said sure I am. I said, is there a script? No. So Alright, I ll write a script and then you ll see whether or not you want me to make the film. So I wrote the script for Strange Victory. We went and made the film through the next year. And then when i came back to CBS at some point, I don t quite remember at what point, because I needed a job, for a while, I found that I was, by that time it was in the post-war period. And, the cold war had been initiated, and the preliminaries of mccarthyism had set in. So when I left CBS, they said whenever you want to come back Leo, come back to our open arms. We need you, we want you any time. When I came back, cool, nothing, they would see, and I didn t get a job at CBS.
I did get a job with an outfit called Civain and Company, an independent. Civain was an Mrs. Civain were very lively people. And they wanted to, they were the first people, who were outside the network, who wanted to develop programs for this infantile network that was developing. And I talked to them and I talked to them very frankly, and I told them what had happened to me and it didn t scare them at all. Oh by that time, I had been working at the united nations. Yes, as director of film production of the united nations. I scared the state department but they couldn t do very much about it once i was in. But the renewal of my contract was another matter and they could get in there and prevent the renewal, so i was only there for a year and a half. Stop there. You ask me questions as we go along, because I don t know where i ll get onto your line or not. Well, to me it s interesting that, that sequence in Native Land, so eloquent about the process of betrayal. And betrayal has been a significant element in your life, especially in this period that we are talking about now. What was the context of that betrayal? Well. You have to realize that our take is as important as I said before, that that betrayal, so far as it happens, not necessarily happens in the future, was expected. That is I did not, I knew how I was working, I didn t try to fit in and say I am a member of the, or the filmmaking industry, I can do what you want me to do perfectly, which I could. I did say that. but I didn t say that I am, those are my values. And I didn t hide my other values. So that kind of betrayal by the OWI, and the people there, Phil Dun and Robert whatever his name was, and even Irving Lerner, who was quiet about the whole thing, being in the bueraucracy you see. He was quiet about the whole thing. All those things were fully expected, I expected them. that s the nature of the world I came in to struggle. I cmae into film with the idea that I was not going to join the film industry, that I was going to do something quite different and unacceptable to the film industry. Chaplain, was extraordinary becuase he could do the unacceptable and make it acceptable. See that s his great genius, he could do the independent and deal with life with real insight and make it acceptable, and it was partly where he came into the film industry and his knowledge that he had to shape it himself and become a distributor, and have this extraordinary genius of being a popular and loved performer,while at the same time his ideas are very radical, or pretty radical. Well I was not person, and I didn t expect to be. And they deported Chaplain.
And in the end they deported CHaplain, right. They suppressed his films. But the betrayal turned into a different character when, as we moved into the cold war period you see. THis is the time you re born. You were born in 1947 right? And that puts a certain kind of pressure on me in the time of the beginnings of cold war, as to how I get jobs. now up to now, I got gjobs in various ways, and I stayed with them as long as I could. I recently had a long job, quite secure with CBS, and I decided to break it, right? ANd it came a notch too far from your birth because you re in the film, and Strange Victory comes out of that episode, and I had to make the film, which was Strange Victory. After Strange Victory was made, I have to somehow get back into an area which there was some money. We don t live at a very expensive level, but on the other hand, we can t live at a very abstemious level that we did when we didn t have you because your needs were important. It was part of the whole deal. So, then that timed in with the development of the blacklist movement and the cold war. I mean, various publications began to be developed. SOmewhere back on those shelves, was a booklet, published by ?, which was a book of names, seemingly quite innocent, including me and Mrs. Roosevelt. These were the people that you stay away from. And sen all the producers of film and television, these are the people you don t hire. Red Channel. Red Channels. Right. And there were other publications of htis kind. Weekly publications and so forth. I began to find myself on these lists, although for some reason or oher, I think I know the reason, people were being called up on the American activities committee, and the mccarthy committee and so forth, and I wasn t. I didn t have that pleasure or honor, and I think it s simply because I was no part of hollywood. If I was in hollywood, I would make a big splash in the press. That is if I were a writer of MGM, or if I had been working at the time for Selsnick then they knew that they could get a big splash, and it was worthwhile calling me up, but they didn t find it worthwhile, so I didn t have that experience. But, with it came more formalized blacklist of the beginnings of the 50s. And, How did that affect people who were close to you? Well the chief person it affected was Kazan, who at that time was a theater director and had begun to work in films. He was a name that could get a deal of publiciy about. So he was called up before a committee and he told what he had to tell. He dropped all his ideas and his principles and he did what they asked him to do, Name the people who you think are members of the communist party. He didn t know whether I was a member of the communist party or not, I never told him. I wasn t in the party with him. But he named me among others.
As being in the communist party. He knew other people in teh group theater, where he was a communist member with other people. He knew that they were, but he went out of his way to name me. He may not have named me as directly as that. But on the basis that he had a suspicion that I was a member of the communist party. So that began to appear, I began to be swung into the red channels and this kind of thing. Tha twas harder to take, because I liked Kazan as a person very much. I accepted his friendship. I can t say I wasn t wary of him as a friend, because he was over theatrical, and overstated his enthusiasm and his friendship. And I had a hard time with people like taht. So i am rather cautious with that kind of theatrical overstatement which is clearly not the real thing that you re feeling. Sometimes it s done for a perfectly good reason. But I didn t have any suspicion that he wasn t firm in his political principle.
REEL 17 - Blacklist Betrayals, The Role of the Artist, Art as Commodity, How Leo Sees Himself in this Society
The other, which you call betrayal, was in relation to somebody who was much closer to me. And that was harder for me to absorb instead, and still, after many years is hard to absorb now. And, he was my best friend for a while. Closest friend, although I had other close friends. And that was Ben Maddow, who in a sense, i had brought into films.
Cause he was a poem, and he came to frontier films, and I said come and join us and so on. We worked together, on many projects, including, Native Land. And we were very good friends. I introduced him to the woman who he later married, Frida Flyer. And uh, I thought our relationship was pretty stable. He moved out to california, during world war two to work with the film unit, a film unit in kova city, a government film unit. And, with Wiliam Whiler. And as a result of that experience, got into making Hollywood films. So he stayed in Hollywood, writing hollywood films. Basically because of his connection to Whiler, who knew he was a very big talent. While he was in Hollywood, and I was in new york, if I went to Hollywood, we would see each other, and spend time with each other, talking in his backyard, and having dinner and so forth. And when he came to New York, he would inevitably come to see me. We spent as much time as we had, together, without the pressure of friendship between us. Then there comes a period, which is at the end of the 50s or in the early 60s, i can t locate the time, when he doesn t come to see me anymore, and I know he s been in town. I don t know quite why. So, we have mutual friends, including Sydney Meyers. And Sydney Meyers is an easy person to talk to about the ? of the human soul and your own ?. So Sydney knew all about it. Ben had told Sydney. When I asked Sydney what was going on here, Sydney told me taht Ben had named me in an appearance before a sub-committee, an activities committee, and named his other friends. He said he had named only people who he knew had been named before, that was his justification or rationalization of it.
So it was a tremendous shock, and obviously it was accompanied by great guilt cause he didn t come to see me anymore. He couldn t stand my being his friend. So from that day, to a day in Hollywood many years later, when I met him on the street, on Vine Street, and he said why don t you come over, just because he said it and didn t mean it. I said okay. And I came over, hoping we would be able to talk about this, when I went to his house. And, as soon as I came, his two daughters who were about, 4 and 6 or 5 and 7, were brought into the scene and remained in the scene for as long as I was there. And we didn t go back down into the backyard to talk which is normally what we did. Frida was there, and the two kids were there, and gradually they developed a game in which they made a census of all their dolls in the house to me, and we had a mass organization of dolls, the names, the histories and so forth. And that was the occassion, and he didn t sa a word about anything. And I knew there wasn t going to be a word said, and I didn t dare do it in front of his kids, and Frida for some reason or another, that s me. So, I left, just as soon as I saw that nothing was going to happen. Since which time, I saw him once, and that was at a museum of modern art occasion, when I spoke on the photography of Levitt, Ellen Levitt. THere were three people who spoke, and I spoke on the photography of Ellen levitt. Becuase she was too shy to speak herself, so she asked me to speak upon her photography. and I loved her photography so I did.
And, when it was finished, a group of us were up in the lobby, in a kind of a ring. And I was sort of in the center of the ring. And somebody then dips down underneath the hands and between the legs of the people in this ring and holds a hand up to me and I don t know who it is. And uh, I grabbed the hand because somebody wanted to say hello, it was a very cute way of saying hello. And I pull him up and it s ben maddow, and I drop his hand as if it were rice. which it was. I didn t want to shake hands with him. it was a means of trying to say lets forget about this thing without going into the content of it. And that s one of the characteristics of people who betray you. When, I shouldt ell you of a specific incident when the, Kazan too. It was on one occassion, where we were crossing broadway on E7th ave. It was very wide. He was on the E side and I was on the W side, and I saw him (this was after hte betrayal), and I wasn t going to talk to him at all. He came toward me with open arms as if we were going to embrace, as if it were 3 years before that, as we would ve embraced. And he had the need too, to say I m a good guy Leo, and forget about all this thing. It doesn t count. ANd I saw him, and I knew I wasn t going to pay any attention to him, and I walked right by. And that ws the last occassion I saw Ben Mado, Gadget Kazan. But anyway, that was his characterisitic, and later on it showed up in various other ways that the person who betrays you has to become your best friend. The middle of a group of people, and shake your hands with joy and pleasure. You ve talked about the conspiracy of the artist, what did you mean by that? Wow, now we re into a big magila. We have, Can art be separated from politics? You have been an artist, a real artist, even your kind of artist, okay and gone to this period and not risk. That s a very good question. I could not have gone through this period with the ideas in my head, with the feelings I had, with my interactive reaction to the environment and what needed to be done. I couldn t be an artist without that becoming an essential part of my work. But I lived in a certain time, and in a varied time, and my films are very different. So the conspiracy of the artist applies to a film like native land or strange victory , and it also applies to this island , and it applies to discovery of a landscape. So what do I mean by the conspiracy of the artist. I mean a very simple thing, that the true artist has to tell the truth. It s a conspiracy to tell the truth. THe true artist cannot phony up the events that he s dealing with, to the rituals or to the sponsorship, you see. So even if you have a man like Goya, doing portraits of people who were upper class people, who are very proud of the marvelous portrayal of silk and beads and so forth, if you look at the faces you can see what Goya thought about them, and he didn t think much about many of them, some he did, and that comes out truthfully too. And there were some very bitter and miserable simple minded people, among these big shots, and goya could not face the face without telling the truth about the face. Now, he overcame the problem because he was in his time. He was a master at painting.
And you look at that painting, and the shape of the painting, and the glow of the satin, and everything else, makes people stay away for why would you deal with my face in this way. He creates a kind of a pattern of response to himself in which he is allowed to do that. People sit for him, knowing they are giong to be treated honestly, you know. So that s what i mean by the conspiracy of the artist. In rembrandt you have the same kind of thing, and wasn t successful, and could be successful if you paid attention to what do those burger what. But he couldn t deal with it that way, he had to tdeal with it the way he saw life, whether it was a tree, or a face. And he had to respond with reality to his world. There are periods where you have extraordinary, skillful artist who are not honest. Who am I thinking of, Van Dyke, is sort of in between. He worked for the upper class, but there s a certain amount of truth in him. The followers of Van Dyke, what were their names, one began with a B…anyways, they were the followers of Van Dyke and they could paint tapestry like pictures. But they re phonies. They re marvelously skillful, and they were paid a lot for them, and so on, but he knew himself, the man I m particularly talking about (his name I forget), he knew himself because he writes a letter from bath where he s on vacation and doing what he calls landskips, not portraits. And he writes somebody, what a pleasure it is not to do portraits and be free to do landskips and do what I wanted to do. So he knew where he was pouring falseness to accomodate the commercial market.
And it s quite true that his landscapes dont have that quality that his portraits do, providing a tremendous limitation because he doens t join the conspiracy of the artist. So even, the problem of the true artist, even if he s working within a ever system, is how to escape into truth. How to escape into truth, and that s a very interesting way to approach, looking at art at the museum. How does that apply to you? How does that apply to me. Well I formed the phrase, the conspiracy of the artist. How does that apply to your work? What is your search for truth? That modern, by and large, with some great exceptions is a ever limitation on the meaning of art. It s narrowing down, a narrowing of the spectrum, down to the formalities of art and the exclusion of feeling and the exclusion of content. It s not the total exclusion of feeling because you can have feeling about several squares and interaction with each other, or green and interaction with blue. But the limitation on all other eras of art, deal with the experience of man, the experience of people. And have a range that includes what people look like, what their world looks like, and what their insides are like. That range of field is absent in most modern art. Not in all, most. So now you have a terribily narrow range and it isn t worth very much.
It isn t worth very much. It sells for a lot of money, and you do have variations. There are people who are phony in the sense that they have found a design that they repeat and repeat and repeat with cleverness, and there are some people who respond with sensitivity, to the different fields they are working on. They abstracted from its reality, the abstracted from their own feelings, but some overtone happens. And I m thinking of an exhibit of motherwell that I saw at the museum of modern art. But had that character, it had that content that I thought. So, i m againts the grain, I m against the screen of modern art. But I m not against the screen of the art of Kater Kolvitz, who is an extraordinary artist, and hardly paid attention to in modern art. Or Bert ? or.. Well why is there this strain, this flow that is running in the opposite direction from the flow that you re running in and why is i so powerful. Okay, essentially, it ties in with a number of things. We re talking about the nature of the era that we re living in and the primacy of the individual ego, and what s mine is mine. We re also dealing with an era in which you have come to a point, it s developed over long periods of time, where art is done for the market. You don t have art done out of itself, right? The way Cezanne had it done out of itself right? Or Van Gogh? Out of the pressure of self, out of the pressure of insight. YOu have the pressure of hte market.
Modern art had developed to the point where it became successful. It was promoted. One of the characteristics of its promotion is, and this is true, that each artist, in order to be successful, has to make his art a signature. Once he arrives at a form, he musn t go too far from it. Otherwise, t won t be recognized. It won t be the can of soup that you want to buy. It won t be the warhol that you re used to. So he has to stay with the ritual of Warhol. The pressure of the market limits what the soul can say. Not always squeezing all of it out, sometimes it makes it into a fake, sometimes it makes it into a very narrow thing. And then you have so much publicity because there is so much money in the art market and the museums are paying so much money that you approach these things as important. They are important before you look at them, before people look at them. That s characteristic of modern painting and me of the other modern arts. Characteristics of film is the dominance of the market as well. And it takes the elimination of a great deal of the human content, that has gone into art, that will go into film, that occassionally goes into film. Because the people know that the media can hold it. But the film can do what the novel can do, the play can do, the poem can do. It s an extraordinary medium if you stay with what needs to be spoken. What you as an artist needs to speak. But tthere are very few of us in the film medium, in america anyway. And very few people with a line of work. Occassionally you ll get somebody who will do the work, great, you hope the next one will also be good, but generally the next one isn t very good because the problem of how are they going to earn enough bucks to live on. Too risky.