Cecile Starr Interview
Cecile Starr was born in Nashville, Tennessee on July 14, 1921 and died in Vermont, December, 2014. During WWII she worked at the Australia News and Information Bureau, associated with the Office of War Information and at the March of Time as she moved amongst the greats of documentary filmmaking of the period and Greenwhich Village: Grierson, Flaherty, Damien Parer, Alexandre Hammid, Joris Ivens, Helen van Dongen, Raymond Spottiswoode, Helen Levitt, Henwar Rodakiewich, Willard Van Dyke, Boris Kaufman, Irving Jacoby, Ricky Leacock and Aram Boyajian, whom she married in 1957, as well as James Agee and Iris Barry. In 1949 Starr started writing film reviews for the Saturday Review of Literature, taught film and film history from in the Graduate Program 1955-1961 at Columbia University and created and coordinated school film programs for the Lincoln Center Education Department in 1967-1968. During this period she was particularly active contributing to Sight and Sound, Film Quarterly and Filmmakers Newsletter. She was an instructor and consultant in film and film history at the New School for Social Research and Hunter College in New York City, the New York Society of Ethical Culture, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Walden High School. Starr also consulted for the United Nations World Health Organization, the Institute of Adult Education, The Public Library Inquiry, the Film Council of America and the Mental Health Film Board. As Producer, scriptwriter and Consultant on 4 films including Fellow Citizen: A. Lincoln (1972), Islamic Carpets (1970), Richter on Film (1972) and Rembrandt and the Bible (1967), Starr turned her scholarly interest in film to a practice born out of her research. Starr also published the books Experimental Animation: Origins of a New Art (1968), (with Robert Russett) Ideas on Film: A Handbook for the 16mm Film User (1971) and Discovering the Movies: An Illustrated Introduction to the Moving Image (1972).
Deane Williams Interviewed Cecile Starr in Burlington, Vermont 16/08/’11.
Deane Williams is Associate Professor in Film and Television Studies, Monash University, Melbourne. He is editor of the journal Studies in Documentary Film. His books include (with Zoe Druick), The Grierson Effect: Tracing Documentary’s International Movement (2014) and Australian Film Theory and Criticism 3 vols. (with Noel King and Con Verevis) (2013-15).
Cecile: Let’s go backwards a little. You asked how I got into this. My first real job was at the Australian News Bureau. I got that because a fellow I had known in college at Louisiana State University he came up to New York at the same time I went to Columbia graduate school. He was going to Harvard business school. He introduced me to his sister, his name was Peter Fritsch, her name was Mia Fritsch and she had just met a new boyfriend whose name was Jim Agee. I went to dinner at Mia’s house with Peter. Jim was there and was very much in love with Mia. Though he was married and had a previous wife divorced and he was young, the relationship with Mia lasted the rest of both their lives. Peter and Mia’s brother, the Fritsch family, were kind of early refugees from Nazi Austria. Their brother Henry was married to an Australian woman whose name I forget. She was working for the Australian News and Information Bureau, but she came down with TB and her doctor said she had to have bed-rest for a year. So I was looking for a job and they asked me if I would take her job. Her job was listening to recordings. This was now 1942 and the recordings were from the Australian government which were newscasts about what was going on in the war in the South Pacific area where we had some bases and other European countries had some territories. New Guinea. Was it the Dutch that had divided up that place? I started listening to recordings, which were the size of big dinner platters. They were brought in by truck every morning from Montauk, the far end of Long Island. They were received by radio and recorded because it got a clearer sound than if it was recorded in the city. It was from Australia. I then took these recordings about 10 o’clock in the morning and played them on a transcribing machine, typed them out, then we called the messenger and the messenger took them by hand to the New York Times, the New York Herald Review and the New York Daily News. There were 6 or 7 major newspapers at that time. And that was how we got news from what was happening in the war in the South Pacific. I had to look all these places up on a map, but the maps didn’t tell me where Iwo Jima was or places that nobody had ever heard of before.
One of the first things I remember of my time at the job is amusing. I had a wonderful boss, his name was David Bailey and he was a newspaper-man stationed in New York. He became the government representative for news from Australia in New York. I remember he called me into the office one day and he said, “It’s ok with me if you take the job for a year. But you’re gonna have to learn how to spell ‘Sydney’”. And a lot of other things I had to learn how to spell. But there I was about 21 or 22 years old and I worked there until the war ended. He left and went back to Australia, but then it became a kind of a routine bureaucratic governmental office. Before it had been free-wheeling. The wonderful photographer George Silk would be in and out of the office. Damien Parer was in and out. It was a fun kind of a news-man’s front-page type place and so when her health improved and she came back, they put me on another job and I stayed until the end of the war. At the end of the war I wanted to go and be a researcher for Time Magazine. That was my big ambition and I had a friend of a friend who worked in personnel where they screened people to hire ¬– so I told her what I wanted. She said the only opening they had at the time was for a temporary secretary at the March of Time. Which at the time was a very popular, theatrical thing, where every month they put out a new commentary type documentary with some reenactments in it. Well I said I would take whatever they had and what they assigned me to was a 16mm reedited version of those issues of the March of Time that they thought was useful in schools. They were called the March of Time Forum Edition and I so that was 1945 and ‘46 I believe. And during that year Iris Barry (curator for MOMA) had a three-month show of documentaries at the Museum of Modern Art. I worked in the Time and Life Building and the March of Time was about 10 blocks away in another building on Lexington Avenue and so I had in effect 2 bosses I had a Time Inc. boss and a March of Time boss, so if I wasn’t in one place they assumed I was in the other and vice versa. But the chances were I was at the Museum of Modern Art looking at the entire history of documentary film marvelously assembled by Iris Barry and ending with the almost current films that had been made at the Office of War Information in New York for the last 2 years of the war as countries were being liberated. Certain films were made specifically for those countries to tell the people that America was a really nice place that there were people from their homeland. One film was called Swedes in America (Lerner 1943) it was taken in Minnesota where there was a tremendous settling of Swedish and other Scandinavian people. Anyway that was the gist of it, as well as making films that showed how democracy worked – because some like Italy had been under Mussolini for a decade or more. So and that’s where my husband Aram Boyajian was working. Right out of his film school training he was hired at the OWI and as an apprentice editor and then as an assistant editor and most of the people whose films I had seen at the documentary shows they ran each program for 2 days and often I went back the second day.
So I didn’t meet Aram then but we were travelling in the same small circle of New York documentary film people. It was so small that one could have a party and invite everybody. And there might have been 40 people in a hall who were connected to that part of the film world. The OWI had become a major centre for the most talented people, many of whom had come as refugees from various parts of Europe and many who had been connected with either outright communists or very far left organizations in Europe. They were excellent filmmakers. They had a lot of experience. Their hearts were in the work, they really believed in documentary as a force for what we now call changing the world for the better. Many of the films that I saw in the show that Iris Barry put together were really very beautiful films and they really quickly absorbed the American landscape and the American way of relating to country people, farmers or union workers and so forth. They really laid the foundations for the post-war documentary world to come. Meanwhile I worked one year at the March of Time and then they decided the school thing wasn’t gonna go and they asked if I wanted a job on the magazine, but meanwhile I had been totally immersed in documentaries and I said ‘look I feel as though I’ve gotten on the street car and I don’t know where it’s going, but I wanna stay on it until I get to the end of the line’. Well I’m still on the street car today and I’m 90 years old. It’s been a long ride, but I have enjoyed it tremendously. And that’s how I met, again, became closely associated to Aram who became my husband later and almost all my friends.
Deane: Cecile did the filmmakers come to work at the OWI? You were saying that the filmmakers came from other countries.
C: No they came here earlier. But there was a sort of, they all knew each other. They came at different times. For example Alexander Hackenschmied who became Alexander Hammid had come over to make a film. He’d made films in Czechoslovakia, one of which was a strong political film, Crisis (1939). Then he left because it wasn’t a good place to stay, but he left in order to make a film in Mexico. Two films were made, feature length films in Mexico, at about the same time. One with Paul Strand the photographer and the other which Hammid made. Then he went on to California and met Maya Deren. He married her and they made Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) together. Maya was a very fiery, extraordinary human being but he was rather quiet and mild. He was very bright and very talented. They didn’t live together very long. Well when he came to New York he was invited to work for the OWI. I’m not sure that he worked there permanently the way Aram did, but maybe he was invited. But the OWI closed because the opposition in Congress did not want the OWI films shown in this country. They didn’t want any film that reeked of democracy, they thought it would all be used against them, just like today. The filmmakers then began making films freelance for the State Department. Various films, documentary types settled around New York. But those filmmakers who were the most orientated toward the left tended to leave the country. I’m trying to think, John Ferno who had made Easter Island, a film made in 1934. Wonderful film. He worked at the OWI for a while then I think he went back to Holland. Joris Ivens. He made films in China and South America. He didn’t work at the OWI, but he did make films for the government. He made a film which I saw at Iris Barry’s show called Power and the Land (1940) about rural electrification, for somebody who had been bought up in the city it was very well made and very clearly put together. He’d already had 15 years or more learning and moving around and he had to be extremely talented from the start. The woman that he lived with who had worked with him when he first started out in Harlem. She worked for the OWI, her name was Helen Van Dongen and so you do get the picture of New York being the real centre of real documentary and drawing people from everywhere.
The film that I saw at the Museum of Modern Art that impressed me the most primarily was Nanook of the North (1922). I was simply overwhelmed by that film and I have been a defender of Flaherty ever since and really very much influential in helping Frances Flaherty form and helping run the seminars for the first three years of its existence. At the end of 3 years she felt she could not go on and I managed to get the funding to continue it and work with her. That’s the same time I got married, had children and didn’t mingle as much as I had before. In a few years from that Aram got a job with NBC television and we spent 3 years in Paris so I was out of it in a whole lot of different ways. If I’ve made it go in circles, that’s just the way it went. It didn’t go in a straight line.
D: No that’s ok. When did you become involved in the Flaherty Seminar?
C: In 1950. Just let me back up a little bit. When I left the March of Time I went to a reading at teacher’s college at Columbia where they had a magazine called Film Form Review. They had invited me and several other people to come up and screen some films. This was sponsored by the Institute of Adult Education and they wanted to see documentary films used for meetings with groups of people who would talk about health problems or international affairs or whatever. So I went to the meeting and I said at the end I’m not working at the March of Time anymore, so maybe I shouldn’t join your group, they said ‘oh well that’s fine come and work for us’. So I went and for 4 years we worked every week. We sat down from one to five o’clock and looked at every documentary we could find. Also semi-documentaries that would relate to a topic that a women’s club or a teenage discussion group would want to talk about, look at and see and this magazine became the instrument by which we published these formulaic evaluations. What was the film about, how well was it presented, technically and aesthetically and how good was it for discussion, what kind of questions would it bring up? So I saw again a lot of the films from a different point-of-view that I had seen before. It was a wonderful jog for a lot of reasons. This was in 1946 and I stayed until 1949. I left there because Raymond Spottiswoode, who had been a Grierson acolyte in Britain and then in Canada had moved to New York. They had set up an independent film production company. Raymond made a couple of films with other people who left for Canada, including Grierson, who was practically driven out by the McCarthy movement who was ruling in on top of us. That’s probably why a lot of these very far left people scattered. The whole world was theirs watching, but they didn’t want to stay and be hammered and clubbed to death by these idiots. But it didn’t affect me because I’m not a joiner of anything. Even if I were, whenever I am a member of anything for than 3 weeks they ask me to leave because I always say what I think and that was not the place to do that. It was always place to say what other people thought.
So I think Raymond or somebody persuaded the magazine called the Saturday Review of Literature – a weekly, middle-brow literary magazine – that they should have a column about thought provoking 16mm films. He was a very good writer and for about a year he wrote a one page editorial and film reviews of new releases. Many of the readers were librarians. At the same time in a distant area, mainly based in Chicago, the libraries were thinking that they should be distributing 16mm films out of Grierson’s Canadian project. They were considering putting projectors or travelling showman into all the areas of Canada during the war in which he had just spread to get a sense of relatedness for these far flung people with different ethnic backgrounds and so forth. The public library would be the centre for this film circulation and exhibition. So the column that Raymond wrote was read and acted upon pretty quickly. Well as soon as I heard about it, around ’48 or ’49, and I was working for this magazine, I thought to myself: ‘I would like to be the person that sweeps the floor in the room where they write these articles because this is the thing I crave. I crave it so much that I can’t call them on the telephone. I can’t write them a letter. In fact I can’t even buy the magazine and read what he says. I just have to pray’ and that’s what I did and about a year after Raymond started I went to a meeting working for this magazine in Atlantic City and I was registering at the hotel and I gave my name to the clerk and there was a tall gentlemen standing next to be. He said ‘Oh are you Cecile Starr? I’m Raymond Spottiswoode. I’ve been wanting to meet you’. Well I wanna tell you, I react physically. I almost went through the floor. I couldn’t believe it. And I went on during our registration and he said ‘I’ll see you around and I need to talk to you’. It was like 3 days and I never saw him again. I stuck to my guns, I’m not gonna call him. I had a part-time job working at a place called the Princeton Film Centre which was in Princeton, New Jersey but they wanted an office in New York and they asked me to work part time and run the little office in New York. I was sitting at my desk in the Princeton Film Centre on Madison Avenue. It was raining and I had ordered in my lunch and the phone rang. The guy said, ‘It’s Raymond Spottiswoode. I wonder if you could come out and have lunch with me?’ and I said ‘no I can’t, I’m eating my lunch right now. It’s raining and I’m enjoying it’. So he came over instead and he said ‘I have to go back to England for 3 months, could you possibly take over my column while I’m gone?’ And again I almost fainted and pulled myself together and said well I could do almost anything for 3 months and he asked if I would write a sample column for him. I met him a week later at a cool café and I gave him my sample and it was terrible. He read it and his face got longer and longer and he said ‘well ok. I mean it’s just for 3 months so I guess we can do it’. And he never came back and I had the job for 10 years. That was from 1949-59 and I got to meet all the people whose films I had seen at the Museum of Modern Art and at our local screenings in Columbia. Filmmakers like Hammid, Rodakiewich, Willard Van Dyke, Irving Jacoby, Ricky Leacock and Aram. After working for the OWI, Aram was hired by Jacoby and Van Dyke to be their permanent, in-house film editor. So they organized a group called Affiliated Film Producers. And all these same people came in and out including Helen Grayson. Eventually Helen Levitt did some work for them, but Aram edited almost all of the films. They knowingly hired a number of the American filmmakers who had not been blacklisted because they weren’t important enough you might say, weren’t well known but they were very close to or possibly affiliated with the Communist Party. Looking back now we see how many make it clear that they were members of the party. It was a very fashionable thing for filmmakers to do in Hollywood and in New York and they happened to be among the very most talented people, which was the reason that I was so much in favour of them. The books they wrote were interesting and the films they made were very well done and opened up new ways of thinking. I am some kind of an idealist and I believe that if you believe something you should act upon it too. Not by joining something, but by doing something.
So I tried to set up a little film society down in the [Greenwhich] Village where I was living and I hoped that neighborhood people would come and see some of the films that had been shown at the museum. I found out right from the start that it was something I couldn’t handle because I had to carry in a projector and screen. Willard Van Dyke came to one meeting and Frank Beckwith who had worked at the OWI came and they all told me things about the background and when I got the job writing every week at the Saturday Review I kept seeing more and more films, I kept meeting more and more people. I was very close to the very active group of film librarians in the public libraries all over the country for about maybe 10 years. This was the center of how films, before television of course, got circulated and how my readers at the Saturday Review would get to see these films. I was involved in a lot of controversies on both sides of the political fence because I was always looking at the film and I was always looking at the film as being the property of the filmmaker. It didn’t matter to me who the sponsor was or what the cause was. I particularly felt that there was a worldwide rebellion against Flaherty because he was so great. I had a chance to meet him three times, briefly each time, and I thought he was indeed a truly great human being. I met Grierson just once. That was in 1955 at the Edinburgh Film Festival. But I did know very well a woman, Janet Selman who came to New York working for the National Film Board of Canada. She set up their New York distribution office. Those films that originated out of Grierson’s circle were extremely popular in the United States because they were so well made. They were so consistent. Then there was Norman McLaren who everybody loved. I met him several times through Janet. She had started at the film-board as Grierson’s secretary. She used to tell me about him. She said that when she took the job there had been 4 or 5 women before her who each lasted a week or a month or something because he was so devilishly difficult to work for and she was like riding a wild horse and breaking the horse and she said that she was determined to hang on and she did. She stayed right through the war and then they sent her to England after the war as a kind of bonus, so she got to meet all the people there because there had been a tremendous exchange between the two groups. Then she was sent to New York to set up the office here and through her I met a lot of new Canadians and English people too. It was very personal, there were like 40 people and everybody knew everybody including some of them married each other. When Alexander Hammid was divorced from Maya Deren, he married Hella Hammid who had been the second camera-person on Maya Deren’s films. It was like marrying her sister. Well there was another small circle that was outside the government and that was run by a guy named Julien Bryan who had made travel films in the ‘30s and who then began making social documentaries in these countries that he spent time in such as China and South America. He had a little circle that included a number of filmmakers who went on independently such as Pennebaker. That’s where I met Pennebaker. I used to tell Pennebaker I knew him when he was the office boy. He said ‘no he wasn’t the office boy he was the assistant’ but he was very young, very bright and very talented. The film he made in 1953 called Daybreak Express (1953), that’s his first independent film, is one of my all time favourite experimental documentary films. Also working there was, can’t think of his name, but he became an independent documentary filmmaker. He lived to be quite old and then he went into triple screen shows and Hammid became his partner.
D: The guy who made New York, New York?
C: That’s right, Foster. Then Pennebaker made Daybreak Express. He made it in a weekend! And Foster took 6 years to make NY, NY. And he said I’m gonna show him how to make a film. Well I like New York, New York. We saw it in several stages before it had finished. The problem was he kept adding and adding and adding. It’s a very inventive film and he was a really nice guy.
These two, Pennebaker and Foster got their start at Julien Bryan’s little group. Which was differently oriented from the Grierson group. The Grierson group involved Irving Jacoby who had met Grierson in England in the early 30s and came back and set up the Film Institute at City College of New York where Aram went to take film classes when he came back from the army and when Jacoby moved to the OWI he invited Aram to go with him, that’s how Aram took his first job in film. That was Irving Jacoby’s big circle. Irving also bought into the OWI this close friend of Helen Grayson who we were so fond of, Boris Kaufman. Boris did some work for the OWI. First he went to Canada where they offered him a fulltime job at the film-board and he turned it down because he said he really wanted to make feature films and as he had done with Jean Vigo in France. He came to New York and he did work for the OWI now and then and for the Affiliated, where Jacoby and Willard Van Dyke set up their post war company where Aram worked for the 10 years that the company existed. George Stoney was the other person who was a disciple of Grierson. He had gone to England. He was a southerner by chance. Would you believe it, I was a southerner too. Stoney was a close good friend of my family in Nashville, TN. I knew him before he became a filmmaker. So he graduated from Georgia or wherever he started his business with Nicholas Reed then settled in Washington DC and really took over New York City. He has his own very widespread, group of people who have followed him into an extremely political, but not a political party type situation. George is older than I am. He’s about 96. He’s something! He doesn’t stop. I’m just amazed at his vitality. Did you know any of his work before? You have seen All My Babies (1953)? That is his great film. That is the high that I think of him as, and the low is the film he made side-swiping Flaherty’s Man of Aram. I not only didn’t like the film, it reduced my respect for George as a filmmaker because he is not Flaherty and he never will be. He might have had the chance to be if he stayed in the south and done the kind of things he did before he made All My Babies. I made a list of 15 or so documentary films of that period that I think are the high points of where the American’s made film history. All My Babies, Helen Levitt’s In the Street, Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express.
D: Can we talk about where your teaching at Columbia comes in.
C: In 1953. I started at the Saturday Review in 1949 and I stayed 10 years. I was a very timid person, always in the background of everything. It doesn’t seem possible from the way things fell in my lap, but when I got the job at the Saturday Review for example I was the only person who had ever seen virtually all these films and Raymond Spottiswoode knew that and that’s why he gave me the job.
D: So could we talk about your teaching?
C: I discovered that I was becoming a good spokesperson for the films that I cared about and that I didn’t need to think about Hollywood-type films because they ruled the universe and I was interested in going into the little corners where good filmmakers were just not known and their films weren’t seen. So I began thinking that I wanted to teach. I had a friend, When we married in 1957 we bought a summer house in Fire Island, about an hour and a half away from Manhattan. By that time Aram was working in television and summer was his busiest season because the shows started in the fall and everything was hurry-hurry, quick-quick throughout the summer. But he’d come out on weekends and out on Fire Island I renewed an acquaintance with a Evelyn Gerstein, a beautiful woman who had married and had children and had a career in film interviewing Eisenstein in the New republic in 1928. I mean Evelyn really, really, had a foundation in film and I got to know her personally because she and her family had a house not far from ours on Fire Island. She had written or co-edited a book on Flaherty at this time with Richard Griffith from the MOMA and if you were the film director at MOMA you were invited to teach, speak, whatever, He was teaching at Hunter College in the middle of Manhattan and I thought I’d like that this is what I should do, that I’d have a captive regular audience every week so by the time I got around to telling him he said that he had given up the teaching but had offered it to Evelyn. She was teaching the same history of film, summer, spring and fall semester but her husband wanted her to give up the summer semester so she could be out at the summer house in Fire Island. So she recommended me and I got the job and the class was limited to 30 people and it was a history of film and I’m trying to think if there was 1 class or 2. It was a busy schedule for 5 or 6 weeks. You would never forget the first day of teaching. Hunter was in a woman’s college, the first day you would not have needed a stethoscope to hear my knees knocking together. Here were young people who didn’t know one thing about film or me or anything else. It was just terrifying to me and at the same time I’d given up smoking and so every day that I went out for lunch I’d treat myself to an ice-cream soda. That was my reward for getting through the morning session without smoking. Anyway, I loved the teaching that I was doing and I felt I had a real affinity to showing films that so clearly demonstrated the point I wanted to make that they hardly knew that they were learning anything, they simply absorbed it. It wasn’t like work to them and I remember that at the end of the first year, when they were handing in their final papers because we gave regular grades, I was sitting at my desk or it was their test and they had written in answer to the essay questions that I had written for them, there was a line of 5 or 6 people in front of the desk all the time and I said to the first few in line ‘you don’t have to wait, you just have to put your paper down and I’ll read it and you’ll get your grade’ and each one of them wanted to come up and say how much they’d enjoyed the class and I realized that despite my nervousness that I really had a knack for presenting this material. If I might brag, and I guess I should the only person that I thought who had this better than I did was Henri Langlois, the man who founded the Cinémathèque Francais, because when we lived in Paris we’d gone to a number of programs that he had done and I felt that he had the great gift specially of putting together short films or putting a short film with a feature or three or for short films. I think this is instinct rather than information. I felt that I had gift and I think I still do.
D: So you screened films as part of these classes?
C: Yes, oh yes, that was the whole point. I’m a big believer that what you have to say about the film is a distant second to what the film tells you about itself and especially even if you get the slightest bit of guidance into it. So, anyway the second or third year I was teaching at Hunter I had previously met Shirley Clarke and I had seen her first film. By that time I had been invited, I would never have dreamed of it, of writing a monthly 16mm film column for home viewers to see important films by the Hearst magazine called House Beautiful which was on a crusade then to promote the Guggenheim architect, Frank Lloyd-Wright, against the kind of glass box-like forms that were coming out of France. The magazine was more than just about pretty flowers I your living room. It was becoming something of substance you might say. Anyway I started writing for them and I think they continued that for about 6 years and I wanted to go out to Lloyd-Wright’s Western establishment and I didn’t do that but I talked to the people around him and I did find out that he showed 16 mm films every Friday night on his little home projector again before television. This was 1954 or so.
So any way, I had met Shirley Clarke and her first film, Dance in the Sun (1953) about this dancer. Her husband Bert brought it over because she had to go somewhere else. So I looked at it and I told him that I thought she was very talented but because I’d seen a lot of first films, and this one, really the obvious mistakes were original, they weren’t the same mistakes that everyone else had made and I’d be really be glad to see anything she made afterward. Meanwhile she and Bert and Wendy her little girl went to Paris for 6 months and I thought ‘well she’s just a frivolous person, she’s never going to do anything else’ because you don’t just leave town and do whatever you want to do. When she came back she got in touch with me and she showed me her next film, I think it was Bullfight (1955) with the dancer Anna Sokulov, that she had studied with and danced with and was a tremendous supporter of and Sokulov was a very left-wing dancer who did dances about workers uprisings, that Russian sort of stuff. I got to know Shirley a little bit and I said to her that if you are going on to make films you’ve got to learn something about film why don’t you come and sit in on my class which is starting in the summer here and you’ll find it interesting. I had a little self-confidence after my first year of teaching. Well she did and I remember very well. It was a class room which we’d divided into two sides with a portable screen on a tripod, Shirley sat in the seat, first row nearest the aisle and the entire time that the film was on she was sitting like she was trying to get into the screen. She was a very talented person, much up on most of the arts not just dancing, full of energy, an extremely dynamic person with a loud, raspy, taxi-driver type voice and I could just see she was just absorbing the entire thing and she did. There was a great delight to have given her this chance and in the class and somebody who was in the class and had registered was a guy named Gordon Hendricks and he kept telling me that he was very important and I just thought, he was a kind of withdrawn person, but bragging a lot and I just thought ‘well you know I’ve got 30 other people here I have to pay attention to’ and he was very angry when he found out that he had paid for the course and that I had invited Shirley as my guest. I guess Shirley must have spoken to him, I certainly didn’t. I didn’t ask her to register. I just told her to come. About a year later I found out that all the things he’d been telling me were really true, he’d written a book about the really early history of film like 1900 or something on which he is really known as a world authority. I think he’s often quoted even so. But that was part of my experience of teaching at Hunter. Now George had been invited to take over Hans Richter’s position of Director of the Film Institute at City College which was where Aram had started out and he hated it, he hated everything about it and he didn’t intend to stay. And he had a good friend who taught at Columbia, Erik Barnouw who wrote a book, which I didn’t think too much of, but Erik Barnouw wanted him, told him that if you don’t like City College come and teach at this new department that they were just opening up at Columbia on the Graduate Level on film production and film studies, Erik was the director of it, Erik had been a radio authority and he was now becoming a film authority. George said, ‘no, I’m not going to do that but I’ll recommend Cecile Starr’. He had known me from the early days of the Saturday Review. I had written articles about the work he was doing in the South. I had met him over and over when visited my uncle in Washington DC who was friends with other people in George’s circle. I imagine that George was involved in a lot of far-left causes for which my two uncles who were well off, most likely gave some sort of support, whether it was $100 now and then which was big money in those days, or introducing him to the right people or George and his then wife Mary who was English who he met when he was working with Grierson in the 30s. George recommended me and Erik Barnouw hired me.
D: When was this Cecile?
C: I started at Hunter College in 1953, I was there 1953, 54, 55. I started at Columbia in the summer of 1955 and stayed there until 1961 when Aram got a job in Paris and we were in Paris for three years. When I came back in 1964 the entire film world had changed. There was no more 40 people in New York, there were 400 people. There was City College, there was Columbia, there was NYU and NYU especially, was churning out. We were giving a Masters for 2 years of graduate work. NYU was giving a Masters in 1 year and we were taking in 20 students a year and they were taking in 150, whatever they could get. So New York was a very busy place at that time. Anyway, I stayed teaching and I loved it and it was there that Peter Bogdanovich walked in one day and Brian de Palma walked in one day and they didn’t either of them register, I was a very liberal minded person and I said, ‘if there’s a seat, you can sit in it’ and Peter came to classes, Brian de Palma came only to this seminar that I did for graduate students who were writing their thesis and I remember he showed my his first film which he at shot at Columbia when he was an undergraduate. Both of them were UGs so they couldn’t have registered for my course if they’d wanted to, but I was always interested in anybody, I was never interested in the establishment, you might say the framework of what was going on. I was very loose. In fact I tried to get Barnouw to hire Shirley Clarke for a summer session to do a production class and his attitude was ‘never heard of her’. My attitude was ‘you look at somebody, you look at their work and you say let’s see what she’s gonna do with this. It’s gonna be different’. So 3 years later he hired her once she’d made a name for herself. And that never impressed me as umm, well how would I say it. He was someone I never considered my superior. He was the director, I was a teacher. A director of the department, and I was a teacher but I made my own rules. After a certain point, well Stoney went to teach at NYU and it began to change then because that was when they produced Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, that was when she met Martin also was as a student tat NYU and several of the people I don’t remember now because I wasn’t involved with them, that’s how I became a teacher. Does that seem to answer the question? I taught classes first in documentary, the summer class that I taught taken over from Roger Tilton, who moved to California and I’m involved with him in another way, that was the course in documentary course, then I taught full-time, documentary, history of film and the seminar for the graduate students. Because I had a Masters degree which I’d obtained at Columbia Teachers College as part of the work I did for this magazine which was published by the Institute of Adult Education at Columbia Teachers College. So when I went to this job after the March of Time, and looked at these films and wrote about them, I also, at the same time, since they couldn’t pay me much, they gave me a scholarship to take the courses that I needed to get my Masters degree.
D: So you did that in Film Studies?
C: They didn’t have film studies. I did take the only course they had which was called Audiovisual Education. I can’t remember I think I have a transcript of it somewhere and that was where I first heard about the cooperative movement that had started in Denmark after the war when they had only their dairy industry and they stared making butter cookies and selling them all over the world and they were co-opting the farmers so they could reach markets that they wouldn’t individually been able to reach. I had taken a course in from a Scandinavian whose face I remember but whose name I can’t remember. His first name was Per P-E-R which is a common name. It was there that I felt again that documentary film had opened my mind. The idea of a co-op rather than a competitive market or situation was where I landed where I wasn’t in any way a communist or in any way a capitalist. I wasn’t in any way interested in the money that my jobs would bring, because they brought me very little, but of the kind of growing that I did from one job to another and the people I met and the films that I saw because I was always an outsider and the film world opened up the whole universe to me and neither of these two sides liked my attitude. Which is, I liked religious films that were about the beauty of nature. I liked communist made films that were about the power co-op in the mid-west. These were all human thoughts that I really enjoyed and I did try to make a distinction, when I was writing, between the film that had something interesting to say, but didn’t know how to make a film and the ones that knew how to make a film but were really very muddled about their ideas and then when you got the two things together these were what I thought were the top films. And so I particularly resented the far left for their jealousy and their attacks on Flaherty. I felt that the little I knew of hi and the much that I ken of his work. He was gifted so far outside anybody’s being able to judge him that you only made a fool of yourself if you tried to do it. And I thought George Stoney’s having visited Aran was so far beneath George I was embarrassed for him but that was Eric Barnouw’s idea and that was a political idea and I really, in my view, they belittled themselves so much and of course it’s been taken up as something that is equal to Man of Aran well, it’s not equal to one shot of Man of Aran and when you see in George’s film the interview he did with Maggie, who had been the young wife in the Flaherty film and who is now a 50-60 year old woman in George’s film in her bedroom there is a photograph on her dresser taken out of the Flaherty film and that is so more magnetic than all the mush that I felt George was pulling out of the people to say. “did he give you breakfast’ all the measly little things. I felt that George should have being doing something better with his time. I guess he knows it.
D: Cecile there are a couple of people we haven’t talked about who were at the OWI, which is Helen Levitt and Janice Loeb?
C: Janice Loeb wasn’t at the OWI.
D: Was it Ruth Orkin?
C: No, neither was Ruth. But I can tell you a little bit about Helen. Helen Levitt …That’s a kind of commemorative to the younger brother Bill Levitt who worked with them on The Quiet One, on the business end of it. He wasn’t an artist himself but it has a lot of information about Helen as a child and her family and the things that you hardly ever know about someone who is well known. Helen I met, I think I told you about when I met Jim Agee at Mia’s house for dinner. Helen Levitt was there in 1941 with a black guy who, I didn’t know until I read it in here, who she lived with for 9 or 10 years. Coming from Nashville and New Orleans I had never seen a white woman dance with a black man. So I wasn’t going to forget Helen. Helen forgot me fast. I didn’t see her again for maybe 10 years but she went from her still photographs where she first met Jim Agee who was the person that she admired and, in my opinion, loved, more than anyone she ever knew in her life. He was a wonderful person, also, I told Helen, very frightening, and she said, but he’s so gentle and how could you be frightened of him. Well he was a force, lets put it that way and sometimes out of control if he drank too much. Helen got to the OWI from being a still photographer, to becoming a best friend of Janice Loeb who was a very wealthy young woman, painter I believe, who was attached one way whether formerly or as a donor I’m not sure, to the up and coming Museum of Modern Art at the end of the 30s. She and Helen became fast friends and she got Helen a one-room, one-person exhibition of photographs at the Museum. She got Helen a job at the Museum cutting films for Bunuel. I just love how these people (moves hands in a gesture of interweaving). Isn’t that incredible! … who Iris Barry had hired because she couldn’t wait to hire all the rejects, people who had to leave Europe in a hurry, you know. She hired Helen and they took documentaries about South America and cut them for South American audiences and put Spanish narrations onto them for Nelson Rockefeller who was head of the Inter-American connection also attached to the Museum and to South America. She worked there for a while and when that job finished one of the people at the OWI hired Helen to come there as an assistant Editor (Aram was also there as an apprentice), to Helen van Dongen who has been Joris Ivens partner, you might say, for many years. Aram feels he learnt a great deal from Helen van Dongen but she was known as a very difficult person to work for. Aram was always very easy person to work for. He learnt very fast, he moved very quickly from one top job, from editor to assistant, to writer of documentaries, to assistant producer to producer/director of documentaries, and then in the last 15 or maybe 20 years he was making his own films for the networks because that has been an entirely new field for documentary. Helen, instead of working for the meanest person up there, got a job working with Henwar Rodakiewicz who was one of the nicest people. I did an interview with Helen Levitt where she named Henwar Rodakiewicz and Alexander Hammid as two wonderful people that she’d gotten to know and really admired what they could do with a rather dull field of documentary. I believe that while she was there she went out with cameras and starting filming In the Street because she didn’t really take to the idea that a documentary should have a script and that you should go out and know what you were going to shoot and arrange to have it there when you needed it and so forth. And that’s how documentaries were made on 35 mm film by the way, with a crew of 12 you know. Our good friend Helen Grayson who directed her first film for the OWI did just that. She was given a script, she was given a crew, 12 people including script girl, 2 lighting men, 2 camera assistants, sound, the whole works. And I think Helen wanted to know what would happen if you did like “I go out with a camera, me, and I just, I don’t know what’s going to be out there. I just see what I can find”. She went out, but she didn’t want to go by herself. Helen and I had something uncommon that I told you a little bit about me. That is to say, Helen was never disciplinarily strong. She didn’t have the kind of drive and perseverance that other people had. She had feelings that she was able to put into her work that she didn’t care what else was happening anywhere else. She didn’t want anything that anybody ever had. I didn’t want to be the Director of Columbia University Film Department or of Cinema 16 but I liked what they were doing part of, and they didn’t like that what I was saying about part of. This part is good, this part not so good. Helen had that kind of mind. She tended to be her own boss. She made In the Street, she shot it, I think, with Janice, because she didn’t want to be alone, for two reasons. She just didn’t have that. ‘I want to sit in one place and watch the world go by’ and it also made her more comfortable to be on the street talking to a friend rather than looking like someone who is just hanging around trying to figure out what’s going on. I think with a still camera she could make her shot and move but with a moving camera she had to get some sort of continuity or some familiarity with the scene. So Janice went with her. Well the first person she asked was Jim. She wanted, she loved Jim Agee and so did a hundred other women. He was, I got to know him through Peter Fritsch. For 3 or 4 years I saw him several times a month and then I knew Peter, who saw him more often and Mia I became friendly with. Helen took up with everybody who was friendly with Jim. She became Mia’s best friend. She became best friends with the woman that Jim’s second wife, to whom he was married when he met Mia. She went to Mexico with the second wife, because the second wife was going to have a baby and she got her divorce there I think. At that time, that’s where people went for uncontested divorces. Divorce was not easy to get in New York State. You had to prove, there had to be a witness to infidelity and so forth. Anyway that’s why Helen happened to go and take pictures in Mexico. She would never have gone by herself. That hasn’t been written about. But I happened to be close into the whole family when, Alma was her name, came back and Helen came back from Mexico, they did not want Alma to move back into the apartment that Jim had had, which he kept because they wanted to separate everybody and I had a friend who was leaving an apartment in the Village and they got me to get that apartment for Alma and put my friend’s friend in Jim’s apartment which I also visited quite a bit and Helen was there to help everybody. So the first person that she asked to go out and shoot a movie on the streets of New York that looked like her still photographs what would happen if they moved, not just in the frame but out of the frame and he followed them. So Jim, she told me, went twice with her and that was the end of that. She said, he had other things to do. She said he had a gift for photography and she felt that he understood her photographs better than anybody alive and understood her and when Jim was charming he was charming. So she had the chance to meet Jim through Walker Evans but Jim became the lifelong attachment. After Jim died she remained Mia’s closest friend. Not just Mia but Jim and Mia’s children, She became like a foster mother too. She never talked about this but I happened to just witness certain portions of that part of her life. And I didn’t talk about it either except I remember one time when I said that Jim scared me to death. She said, ‘how could you be afraid of him, he was so gentle. He was…’. Well I’m sure with her, because she totally adored him, that’s what he was you know.
D: But James Agee wouldn’t have shot any of the film would he?
C: He did shoot part of In the Street, on two days, he went out with her and she told me what he shot. And then she wanted to go out some more and that’s when Janice agreed to come out with the second camera. I think she said that the day she went … I think. I have it written down. I think the two days she went with Jim she gave him the movie camera and she used the still camera of more or less the same material so you do see some times affinities there. With Janice, Janice brought her own camera so you had two different cameras but she also told me some of the things that Janice shot.
D: Were they both 16mm cameras?
D: A lot of the literature says that it was an 8mm.
C: Wrong. She never mentioned an 8mm camera. One of the reasons that I would like to write down what I call a ‘fact sheet’ about In the Street is that if you put together all of the mistakes that have been put out in print you would have a different film! It’s amazing that people think they heard it somewhere – whatever. I wouldn’t have known the difference and I have published some reviews and things that said the wrong thing too because nobody can know everything about everything and so we just pick our facts right or wrong you know.
D: Did they use a right angle lens?
C: That’s right. She used, not a right angle lens. She used a camera that the view finder. You could point the camera in this direction abut the view finder and the lens would be going in this direction. I do have it written down but I couldn’t say it any more properly than that. She did not like the wording that I had used or somebody else had used and I had quoted “hidden camera”. She said it was not hidden, the camera was in plain sight but you didn’t know you were being photographed.
D: So she’d be looking that way and the people would be over there.
C: That’s right. Therefore having a companion was a handy way of disguising because you could be talking to somebody.
D: Which is similar to what she did with Walker Evans in Many Are Called. The subway photos.
C: Yes, she copied those. I have something written down about that but I’m not sure about those subway things. Anyway, how I got involved if we skip to 1972. In the late 60s Amos Vogel was working at the Lincoln, he had closed Cinema 16, it had become so successful that it cost him so much money to full-page ads in the New York Times that he was losing money and he closed it after the first or second year that he didn’t make money. It didn’t support itself but it had grown, grown, grown and you would think that was going would last but it didn’t. He got a job at Lincoln Centre which had started a film festival after having made the decision that they were not going to be involved with film, they became involved. They invited Richard Roud from England who went to all the European festivals to come to New York with that accumulated knowledge for that year and Amos to bring to it the connection with the American scene and the two of them were supposed to make the New York Film Festival. Richard Roud sort of took over as the chief decider of what was going to be shown but Amos was more or less in charge of organizing the New York facilities, and publicity and that sort of thing.
C: Why did I say that?
D: 1972 you said?
C: Ah yes. The Federal Government was giving out grants to take the Arts into public schools and Lincoln Centre got a big grant and one of the aspects of it was to take film into New York area public schools about which Amos new virtually nothing but I had some experience because when my children started in the private school near where we lived in New York I, as a volunteer went in every week with one of the seventh grade classes, and began showing them Ghosts Before Breakfast [Hans Richter 1927] and In the Street, and things that I thought kids that age could understand and enjoy and learn from and they did. I enjoyed it, the teachers enjoyed it, the kids enjoyed it and Amos knew about it and Amos asked if I would put on one program that would go to 106 schools, private schools, religious schools and public schools from 6th grade to senior high school, it was the same program and it was just the sort of thing I loved doing because it had never been done before. That was specialty, something that had never been done before. Now what happened? It went very well. I had to get the equipment, get a van, get the moveable projector for an audience of sometimes 3,000 people, kids in an auditorium. Get somebody to run the van and the projector, choose the films, get the films, the upkeep of the whole thing, go to 106 schools in one school year. It worked very well. I had maybe 6 mishaps but I thought that was terrific. Amos [Vogel], was a very close friend of ours, my husbands before we married, much closer to him, decided he could do it himself the second year and I did not like that at all. There are certain things when I don’t like it, I do not like it. He was going to show my program! So I had my text copyrighted and I made it into a book which I extended beyond the early part, up to the coming of sound and feature films. It’s called Discovering the Movies and its intended for High School students and teachers. I felt they were both on the same level. At the time they certainly were and would suspect that it is not much better today. Teachers are not really well informed about film. Anyway, I out the book out and the publisher who agreed to take it on, I urged them to try to put out 6 films that would go with the book that the teacher could actually show. Ghosts Before Breakfast was one, Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express was one, they had to be very short, that you could get them into a class period, 45 minutes period and talk. In the Street was one, so I asked Helen, we knew each other casually, would you be willing to make an agreement with Van Nostrand-Reinhold to distribute the film. The Museum of Modern Art had prints that they rented but they didn’t reach the same audience that a book publisher would reach. They were quite different audiences. So for a couple of years we did that and I was the overseer and when the man who was the head of that publishing house left, or maybe before, I’m not certain, I’d have to check the dates, they discontinued the film part and I said to Helen, I’m going to ask everybody who those 6 films belonged to, if I could continue because I’d like to see what happens when you say ‘these are films that could be understood by children’, especially as they had started making classes or after school activities of ‘give a child a camera and tell him to go shoot whatever he wants to shoot. I thought In the Street was something, I knew it fascinated audiences of all ages and that many people, like Aram and me have seen the film many, many times. So I asked Helen about that and she said fine and so from, now let’s see, the book came out in 1972 and starting maybe 4 years later Aram and I started distributing half-a-dozen films at home which I could do because he had been a film editor so we had a table. We had a maid’s room, but no maid, so we put a table in there and rewinds and those days this was all hand work and he [Aram] was the force behind the actual handling of the films. He would inspect them when they came in, he would splice them. If we needed new prints he had worked with all the labs so he knew what he was doing and I knew nothing about it but I knew how to publicize the films and I kept the money records. We priced the films very low because, and I told Richter and I told Helen, I don’t want money to be a deciding factor on whether these films will reach new audiences. I wanted to know whether they’re interested or not in what I’m interested in. So, it then turned out that Helen began referring to me, she knew Aram very well and she knew me pretty well, she began referring to me any enquiry that came in about the film. So, I became her correspondent for all kinds of things and at that point TV …
So my goal in all of this, the early Hans Richter films, the [Alexandre Alexandrovitch] Alexeieff’, Night on Bald Mountain (1933) (and he kept making new films and he wanted to handle them). When we were in Paris we became very close toward Alexeieff and Claire Parker and I asked him then that was the early 1960s if I could take Night on Bald Mountain back to New York and see if anyone was interested and that was the first film that I actually distributed. Then I made two little films about filmmaking. I did an interview with Richter about the early 1920s experimental films he made; these were films that cost $500. They were really home made. Aram cut them and put the sound track together and so forth. I did one with Carmen D’Avino. He was an animator, very talented. My film is called A Talk With and About Carmen Devino. But I won’t go into that.
So I had these films and I was learning. I felt that if I was going to write about films, I wanted to know all about everything. I didn’t want to just sit there like I was royalty and say, I didn’t like it at all when people showed me films and wanted my opinion outside of being a reviewer and the film was awful. You couldn’t, it was too late to say anything. I really wanted to know how the people felt and what their backgrounds were, why they made the films. Aram bought in a live-in salary because he had an occupation. He was in a union, several unions as time went on, that paid decently. He was never at the top, but he was almost always at the top of whatever he did. He was well employed by the best people around.
I remember saying to Helen one day that somebody had come with some crazy proposition and they were pestering me and I said, you know I’m beginning to understand how difficult it is for somebody like Flaherty or Aram or Richter or whoever. How in the hell do they stay alive in this world where people are trying to capture them, use the name and then tell them what to do, you know? I said, how do you keep from going crazy when you get these incredible propositions that I can’t even believe that they are telling me. I asked of Helen, what do you do? She said, I give it to somebody else to do.
D: To you!
C: (Laughter). Yes! So that was how we stayed on very close terms. I acted on Helen’s behalf when I knew what she would say. When I wasn’t sure, I would write her a card. I would call when I was in town. I would say some guy wants to go to Europe and take the film In the Street and he wants to show the King of Prussia, but I never heard of this guy and what do you think. Most often her answer was do whatever you feel like doing. These were the people I worked with the best.
D: She obviously trusted you wholeheartedly
C: Exactly. And when I didn’t trust myself, I at least passed it through her head so if she had an opinion I was safe. And if she didn’t, well then if I made some stupid error I was safe cos she didn’t know any better than I did and that really worked well. My relationship with Alexeieff and with Richter and D’Avino was always the same way. It was just something extra that I was doing and usually everybody I know would say ‘Are you crazy, or something?’ Well, I was trying them out. That was the part that I really liked. I remember on a number of occasions and people would write in and ask if I would distribute their films. But that would become too much like a business and I was dealing with people I knew, which was something else.
D: What about The Quiet One?
C: Well Helen shot most of In the Street in the period between ‘43-45. She didn’t shoot it all in one year, it just sat there in her apartment. In 1952 she edited it for the first time, or finished editing it in ’52. She showed it – a friend suggested the title cos she couldn’t think of one. She was gonna call it ‘I hate 104th street’ which was the way the film opened with a graffiti that said that. She took that out and she liked In the Street, and re-edited it and showed it at the Museum of Modern Art. They took prints and distributed it through their library, which was the most influential place.
D: So they sold prints?
C: They did not sell, they only rented. If somebody wanted to buy it, like the BFI, then the museum would then have Helen take it over from there. That’s when she began shifting things to me as a member of the group. So, meanwhile Janice was her closest friend. I’m not sure now how this goes, but there are two women who teach at Columbia who came to see me about a year and a half ago who are writing a paper about how The Quiet One got made. They are tracing the history of the film. One teaches sociology and the other teaches English. I gave them all my information. They’re digging into the roots of the boys home where it was shot. The story that I know is that Janice was asked to donate money to this school, maybe because somebody had seen In the Street. It was shot and not released until after The Quiet One was made, around ‘48 or ‘49. It was made because Janice decided she didn’t just want to give money to the school. She thought why not make a film? use their familiarity with the Harlem scene. She wanted to make it not only about the school but about what bought a typical boy to the school, that he had nothing else to turn to. Nothing, no grandmother, mother, friends, nothing worked for him.
So Helen and Janice spent a lot of time, a considerable amount, at the school going into different cases and they chose the boy who was the least active in the school situation and were reading case studies, observing the treatment of the boy and so forth. They came up with a plan and a script. They had it marked some scenes where it was re-enacted, like the scene with the boy and his grandmother, which didn’t have sound, and the scene where he visits his mother, which did have sound. I think she spoke and said ‘oh you again’ or something. I didn’t have much to do with The Quiet One because it went from 16mm into blow up by one of the very successful distributors in New York of off-beat films and it opened as a theatrical release. Helen’s brother, Bill took over the management of the film. He didn’t have anything to do with the making of it, but getting the distributor, the blow up, the promotion and entry into a lot of festivals where it won lots of attention in Europe. They really liked films that showed the seedy side of America. It wasn’t just indiscriminate. They especially liked really well made films that the State Department did not particularly want to show.
D: Chances are you would have been brought in later on to write the narration.
C: Let me just tell you, I’ll go quickly. Helen and Janice did the research, the script – which was rather loose – and the casting. They went out, Helen especially, looking out on the streets and inquiring about boys who could be the quiet one. They were referred to this one boy – I forget his real name – who played Donald in the film. They tested him and they liked him. He had to be a rather sullen looking person but bright enough that he could work in a formal situation, because other kids who would have qualified with slightly different personality problems would have said ‘What the hell do you mean standing over here and looking up this way’, you know? He was amenable and compatible with them. Helen is a very quiet person. I didn’t know Janice well, I did a little work for her, but I’m told she was a rather dynamic type. Anyway, that’s what Helen and Janice did. They hired Sidney Meyers to direct the scenes that had performances in them, where you had to get up the steps, had to do this. Not strictly speaking documentary so this would classify as a kind of docu-drama film today. But in those days people thought everything they saw was real. So Sidney was then the director and he came in at the point where they were ready to shoot the film. He did not have anything to do with the other parts of it. Sidney was the main editor after it was shot, but probably only on the scenes that he had shot. Helen and Janice edited the scenes that they had shot, the boys playing with the bubbles and chasing butterflies, walking up and down the Harlem streets and so forth. They hired a cameraman that had never shot a feature film before. I forget his name but he did a marvelous job. It was like instinct that works for situations like that. So Sidney was the main editor of the main parts of the film and Helen and Janice edited their parts of the film.
Sidney was a first rate film editor and a very close friend of Helens. So that would go back and explain one reason why our team worked so well together because she only cared about people she knew and liked and trusted and admired and felt comfortable with. I think she was more comfortable with Aram than with me. But I had a harder role to play. I had to come to her with some goofy stories and for example, this is rather important.
A writer at the Village Voice at the peak of its influence and popularity wanted to make a film about Helen in connection with the ‘92 show of photographs that Helen was going to have at the Metropolitan Museum. She wanted to use that occasion. She may have come a year and half before then. Helen referred her to me, I liked her and I thought a film would be a great idea. Helen said N-O, no! The first thing I learnt about my dealings with Helen was that it was her film and what she said goes. I didn’t pester her at all, but this woman kept coming back to me, saying things like ‘We could do this, we could do that’. Helen said that after she was dead we could do it.
So anyway, somebody is now trying to make a film who doesn’t know Helen and who we know nothing about. The guy who is managing Helen’s major estate just doesn’t want anything to do with it. He’s kind of shoved her over to me and I have to deal with her. To me, Helen does not want a film made about her. If she did, she would have had it made. One of her friends who were filmmakers, so if she wanted.
The Quiet One, ok.
So Sidney did his part, the film is edited and she then told me (Helen) the only thing that Jim (Agee) was connected with was when the film was shot, edited, sound laid in, was he was asked to write the narrative. I don’t think Sidney had any voice in the actual production. Now in the end when we wanted to put In the Street on a DVD Helen said no. People kept asking for it because the museums had given away all their 16mm equipment. They want stuff 2000 years old, but if it’s a film they throw it out the window. You know what I’m talking about? Oh! Anyway, Jim wrote the commentary and Helen asked Jim to read the commentary over the film. She loved everything about Jim and she thought his reading was wonderful. But when they took it to the distributor for the blow-up for the theatre it was going to be more than a money raising film for the Wiltwyck school, which was what it was intended for. We would have an evening showing it to Park Avenue people and ask for contributions. It was going to go into theatres and compete with real movies. But they did not like Jim’s voice. Helen thought it was the best it could be, but they wanted an actor who enunciated more clearly, so they got hold of Gary Merrill who did it. I think his reading is quite good, but the guy who now runs the estate thinks that the narration is not good. There are people who are negative about everything. He wasn’t involved in the film at all, this guy who is in charge of Helen’s estate he doesn’t think the narration is good; however he has learned of the existence of one 16mm print of Jim reading the narration on the finished film. He knows that now with Jim’s position in the world as a major cult writer and filmmaker that this is worth something. He assigned it to me, but I got no way with it. We located it, but getting the rights is difficult. When there are films, B-films, there are very often entanglements, who does this belong to etc.? Didn’t belong to the people where it’s located, doesn’t belong to Helen. So it’s sitting somewhere, but it exists and the thought is that some day it will be released on DVD with the two versions. Of course it would be a big asset to its distribution.
D: Yes, that would be a big event
C: When the question of In the Street came up, I asked Helen if we could put out In the Street first because I think In the Street has to be seen 100 times before you can really sit back and say ‘oh that looks nice’. It was so startling. Once you’ve seen one shot, you’ve missed the next three because you haven’t gotten over the one. You know? But she said no. I did always listen to her. There was nothing else to be said on the subject. I have postcards from her where the message is ‘Of course’. I had asked her something or other and that was the answer. So no was the whole story you see. Anyway at that time she said to me she did not want In the Street on the same DVD. First she didn’t want DVD. Somebody told her something and she didn’t like it. I remember this was an Australian thing actually. Somebody in Australia set up a museum, a film department. They wanted In the Street on HD or something that wasn’t common at the time, maybe not even today, and they wanted to pay a reasonably good sum, maybe 12 or 1500 dollars for the rights to show it permanently in that format in that museum. I had to clear that with Helen because that had never come up before and she said no. Then that was another year of my life because they kept sending me legal documents and so forth, what are you gonna do? And Helen said she didn’t want it to go beyond the VHS that we had made especially for her circulating show at The Met and 6 other American and Canadian museums. That was as far as it was gonna go. She said tell them to buy the 16mm print if they wanna show it. That was selling for $150 they could have afforded it. They were offering something gigantic. Anyway, she didn’t like the new media. We had some samples made on DVD and asked her if she would come and look at them and she said ‘no’. She would not, didn’t care to look at them. She didn’t want it on DVD, but if it had to be DVD it was not to be on the same program with The Quiet One, because she said The Quiet One is not my film. It is Janice’s film. It was Janice’s idea, it was her money, she was the producer, she was the person supporting the cause and Helen saw what is actually a vast difference between In the Street and The Quiet One, even though there is some similar footage there.
Several things happened, one Janice married Bill Levitt (Helen’s brother) who was the business manager of The Quiet One, they left New York and went to Colorado and started running a ski lodge. Gave up film entirely and they had two children and after about 15 years they were divorced, but Janice continued to live in Salt Lake City which was near the ski place in Utah where Bill stayed on and he became the mayor of this town to 600 people or something and held that job, ruled the ski world in that town. There was a separation of distance and the fact that Janice was now Bill’s friend and not so close to her. I don’t think (I’m saying this in a bad way) it gave Helen the distance to see how different the making of In the Street was. Meanwhile Helen had acquired a coterie of photographers, and film specialists who adored In the Street. I was one of them. Every time I wrote her or spoke to her, which had to be 50, 60, 70 times minimum I had to say this is your great gift to the world. It will never go away and she heard it from a lot of people. In fact she began to believe it to such an extent. One of the last things she ever said to me was ‘I think it’s possible that In the Street is the best thing I ever did’.
So she had done 6 or 8 books of photographs. She had had shows all over the world. At one point she had asked me to have a PAL VHS made of In the Street and send it to Cartier-Bresson in Paris, which I did. I asked her 6 months later, because I never heard anything more about it, did he get it? She said oh yes he got it and he sent me a wonderful note. I said would you show it to me. I asked if I could use a quote in any the promotion material that I do and she said she would think about it. But she never thought about it and I never asked her again. It meant so much to her that she didn’t see it as a business statement. Which of course, is how I saw it. But she began to realize that this was a unique document that she had made and that In the Street had so many defects in it including the fact that it was made at a time when you really couldn’t, you didn’t have the equipment or the money to do a really good inside scene with people walking around. Anyway everyone enjoyed The Quiet One. It was a great big success and then it fell out of favour because it was a film about more or less hopeless black children made by well off white women. That became a big no-no after the social revolution that came in the 60s, I guess. It’s just recently been rediscovered you might say but it will never have the standing that In the Street had because In the Street will never be out of date. It’s so out of date, it always was out of date. It was silent, it was handheld, there were just scenes of things, it didn’t really tell you anything, It told so much.
D: It’s a classic in that way.