Friday, January 6, 2017

AND THE NOBEL PRIZE GOES TO…


     I was delighted when Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature last month.  Some writers continue to question the Swedish Academy’s choice but Mark Ford, in his New York Review of Books piece, “Why He Deserves It,” makes a strong case for Dylan’s worthiness. And Joyce Carol Oates, Bernard-Henri-Levy, Salmon Rushdie and Billy Collins, among others, agree with Ford.

     “Most song lyrics don’t hold up without the music and they aren’t supposed to,” Collins says in an interview. “Bob Dylan is in the ‘2% club’ of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and guitar and his very distinctive voice.”

     Allen Ginsberg always embraced Dylan as a poet. “I heard ‘Hard Rain’ and I wept,” he tells interviewer Jeff Rosen in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, NO DIRECTION HOME.  “Because it seemed like the torch had been passed to another generation of Beat illumination…  I was knocked out by the eloquence of ‘I’ll know my song well before I start singing.’”

      Jonathan Lethem, whose 2006 Rolling Stone interview might be the best piece of Dylan journalism to date, says in the October 2016 issue of Vulture:

      “…(H)e’s the bard of the age so I didn’t find it either to be a shock or objectionable.  It was almost like, Let’s graduate him to the highest award we can think of and be done with it. 
     “If I could quibble,” he continues, “it would be with the Nobel committee’s specific citation of him as a ‘poet.’” Disagreeing with Collins (about terminology but not Dylan’s merit), he continues,  “A lot of Dylan’s writing dies on the page (but) that’s beside the point…  He’s in the oral tradition.  His work isn’t meant to look like a Wallace Stevens poem. But I like the fact he’s kicked up a controversy again, because controversy is intrinsic in his identity and his accomplishments.”
     I like it too.  But in my view, the controversy is a tempest in a teapot.  The Nobel Literature Committee honored Dylan, in their words, for “having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.” In NO DIRECTION HOME, Dylan recalls influences from that tradition: Hank Williams, Johnny Ray, Odetta and the astonishing John Jacob Niles (crying and playing Appalachian dulcimer.)  Muddy Waters, Peter LaFarge, Dave Van Ronk, Cisco Huston.  And Woody Guthrie!
     Pablo Picasso’s assertion that “good artists borrow, great artists steal” surely applies to Dylan as he absorbs Guthrie’s tone -- his stance and his themes -- or as he reworks Niles’ “Go ’way From my Window” into “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”  Lethem, in “The Ecstasy of Influence,” shows that purloining previous works to create new ones is quite natural. And for nerdy fans like me, awareness of these “thefts” is delightful. There’s pleasure in hearing musical allusion – Fats Domino’s impact on McCartney’s “Lady Madonna” vocals, say, or Mendelssohn’s presence in John Williams STAR WARS score – just as awareness of literary allusion entertains good readers.  With Dylan the influences are manifold and, therefore, even more fun to catch.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpaAeqBhwrM
    For Lethem, again, Dylan’s genius isn’t about the words literally on the page: “The action is in the almost theatrical power of his embodiment of his language. Not in poetry per se.”  For the vocal compositions to have their full impact you have to see and hear them performed.
     The physical beauty of the songs -- listening to them performed live without yet seeing them played and sung -- was my first supercharged experience of Bob Dylan. 

     Barely 13 years old, standing outside Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in August 1965, I was puzzled when those inside booed “Like a Rolling Stone.” It was one of only two Dylan tunes I knew, and I loved it. Not only was it the number 1 song on my favorite AM station, this anthemic rant against the poverty of privilege made me move and groove, blissfully unaware of Dylan’s roots in a more orthodox folk world that was shocked by his latest electrified incarnation.
     The other Dylan song of which I was aware was “Positively Fourth Street.”  I won the record in a WMCA “name it and claim it” contest and I played the grooves off it.  The rock that I knew and loved at the time was about holding hands, never dancing with another and, when really complex, falling for leaders of gangs. Now, here was a song about betrayal -- damned if I even knew what that was at 13 – which made the angry tone of Dylan’s vocals stand out.  But Al Kooper’s lilting organ fills were downright gleeful, or at least they made me feel that way.  What an amazing contrast!
     Devouring this embodied rock and roll, setting my hi-fi on replay or listening to Dylan on my transistor radio (after all, the songs “had a beat we could dance to”) happily coincided with eighth grade English classes covering rhyme and meter. That made the songs even more powerful for me. I connected them to poetry.  I even discovered that both singles were written in second person, a rare voice in rock lyrics.
     And encouragement from English teachers – not the maudlin, sanctimonious kind going on about “rock poems” in Frederick Weisman’s HIGH SCHOOL, but really cool ones – led me back in time to the pre-electric Bob Dylan. That Dylan wrote and performed "protest” songs, classical ballads such as “Boots of Spanish Leather” (featured since 1996 in the Norton Anthology of Poetry) and imagist confessional lyrics.
     I already knew the giddiness of dancing “’neath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” from The Byrds “folk rock” cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But eating trail mix with my pals Ricky Newman and Harriet Moss, in Harriet’s basement after school one day, I discovered “Chimes of Freedom.”
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
                                                                           Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsake’d                                                    Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake                                                                                                                                   
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

LBJ had barely begun his relentless bombing of Vietnam as we memorized “Masters of War.”
Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

     And this is where the “new poetic expression within the songwriting tradition” begins to take shape.  Bob Neuwirth observes on the DONT LOOK BACK commentary track: “No one had heard these kinds of (political) songs outside of union halls and labor rallies.  But there they were.

     As soon as I do look back and discover the Dylan of protest songs, however, he astonishes again with the miracle of Blonde on Blonde. The first double album ever, as far as I know, stays ahead of a nascent counterculture with “Rainy Day Women” from which my pre-teen buddies and I discover that we “must get stoned.”
     When I hear “Visions of Johanna,” I can actually seejewels and binoculars hang(ing) from the head of a mule” – probably at the same time my parents inadvertently introduce me to Dada during trips to the Museum of Modern Art.  “To live outside the law you must be honest,” from “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” becomes a motto.  And “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the first song ever to take up an entire album side, opens me to the truth -- later affirmed by Leonard Cohen -- that the deepest romantic love, especially Chelsea Hotel romance, is in 6/8.
     I follow Dylan in the gossip columns (Rolling Stone had yet to publish its first edition), where it’s rumored that he’s been in a motorcycle accident.   Then John Wesley Harding is released and I discover Western outlaw heroes, St. Augustine, lonesome hobos, escaping drifters, and watchtowers from which you couldn’t even see Jimi Hendrix on the horizon.
     For me, at this point, Dylan isn’t (in what I think is Lethem’s sense) embodied yet. I haven’t completely felt his theatrical power. But that changes on February 24, 1968:  I sneak into a Carnegie Hall side entrance and watch a sold-out Woody Guthrie Memorial concert. The gods and goddesses of folk are there – Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Odetta, Richie Havens, Judy Collins, Arlo… And Dylan appears, with The Band.
     He’s the headliner on a show without one. He tears through “Grand Coulee Dam,” “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Mrs. Roosevelt” as though Guthrie wrote rock’n’roll.  The music is mesmerizing.  
     But, really, it’s the way Dylan stands.  He’s a reverse image of Woody, his hero. Where the Oklahoman’s guitar neck points to the sky, the Minnesotan’s points to the ground.  Like a divining rod.  As though he uses it to find life-giving water.
     It’s also the way Dylan approaches the mic to belt into it… like a jungle cat ready to strike.  His own body’s electricity makes his eyes twitch as he wails. The energy is so powerful the lyrics lose their meaning; I can’t take my eyes off of him.
     A few months before the concert, DONT LOOK BACK opens at the 34th Street East Theatre.  If memory serves, it’s still playing as I jones for another look at Dylan weeks after the show.  And there it is again in grainy 16mm black and white, almost as hyper-real as Dylan in the flesh: his handheld image, lithe, twitching, androgynous, divining and divine; I get my fix of Dylan in a cinema verite documentary as fresh as the music itself.
     A year later the ever-transforming bard appears on television, on Johnny Cash’s variety show, to promote Nashville Skyline.  Now he’s a crooner! He sings “Girl from the North Country” with Cash, another hero of his, and it’s a rare gem of a performance.
    
     After that, time, for the true fan, passes slowly.  I’m off to college more than a year later and, finally, New Morning is released. On a cold slushy day in Ithaca, I walk past the ghost of Richard Farina and the living spirit of Thomas Pynchon to a record store on Eddy Street, and discover still another side of Bob Dylan.
      Track One, “If Not for You,” is the first Dylan song covered by a Beatle.  The title track, “New Morning,” like the “weatherman” lyric in “Subterranean Blues,” becomes part of the Weather Underground’s lexicon.  “The Man in Me” later becomes the first Dylan song in a Coen Brothers film, sonically synonymous with THE BIG LEBOWSKY’s Dude. 
     “Day of the Locusts,” finally, seems most resonant today; it helps explain why the winner of 2016’s Nobel Prize for Literature was loath to attend the December 10th ceremony in Stockholm.  The song is about Dylan receiving an honorary Ph.D. from Princeton in 1970.  Its lyrics suggest that Dr. Dylan, whose commencement companion is David Crosby, took some sacramental medicine to celebrate: “The man standin’ next to me, his head was exploding/I was prayin’ the pieces wouldn’t fall on me.”  In the next verse, Dylan sums up his Princeton experience: “I sure was glad to get out of there alive.”  Yes, he writes, “…the locusts sang and they were singing for me.”  But were these creatures benign, like the song’s “birdies flying from tree to tree,” or deadly like Nathaniel West’s and Yahweh’s?
     The lesson of Princeton is don’t go to events where you have so little in common with your fellows that, “There (is) little to say, there (is) no conversation.” 
     Over the years, Bob Dylan attends Grammy presentations and Kennedy Center gatherings – where he can consort with musicians and perform instead of speaking about his music - but not the Academy Awards. (He’s in absentia when he wins an Oscar, in 2001, for “Things Have Changed,” his song in Curtis Hanson’s WONDER BOYS.)
     Of course, there may be more to it. “Masters of War” is still in Dylan’s repertoire on The Never Ending Tour. It’s hard to imagine a poet who will “stand over (war-makers’) graves ‘til (he’s) sure that they’re dead” traveling to Sweden to get a prize, no matter how lofty, named after the inventor of dynamite.  But he doesn’t turn down the award, after all, as Jean-Paul Sartre did in 1964; that might seem disrespectful to its many worthy recipients and suggest false modesty. Instead, he sends Patti Smith to the ceremony, where she performs “Hard Rain:”
    
     As I look back over the 46 years from Dylan’s Nobel Prize to his Princeton Ph.D., his prolificacy during the first decade in which he writes staggers me. The magnitude of his body of groundbreaking work seems as significant as his personal embodiment of it. So does its diversity. Back in 1971, while Dylan’s still in the first fifth of his career, he provides another cinematic delight.  His music for Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID not only contains the classic (yet ever-changing) “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” it underscores his own performance in the film as an enigmatic character named Alias.
     On August 1st that same year, I see Dylan, embodied again, at the Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden.  He performs “Hard Rain” and “Times… Changing.”  Then he teases and delights, playing the intro to “If Not for You” to ease not into that song but into “”Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”  Identical chords for different aspects of romance! So physical! So musical! And Dylan, in a denim jacket and jeans, flanked by George Harrison and Leon Russell, is radiant. As Woody Allen once said, “I’m vibrating like a tuning fork.”
https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x558aoa
     In early fall, still 1971, Dylan releases “George Jackson,” his elegy to Black Panther Jackson, who was shot dead by a San Quentin Prison guard. It’s an inspiring reminder of Dylan’s unabated and often revolutionary iconoclasm. Light years, it seems to a 19 year-old, from his “protest” period, yet further to the left than anything he’s done.
     And the hits keep on coming! Street Legal features “Changing of the Guard,” a song that will become Patti Smith’s best Dylan cover.  Blood on the Tracks contains Dylan’s most evocative narrative verse songs yet, “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Desire features the saga of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and an ode to New York mobster Joey Gallo, along with a couple of the most tender love songs he’s written.
     Just before Desire’s release I see the embodied Dylan anew, at his Rolling Thunder Review’s “Night of the Hurricane,” a benefit concert to get unjustly convicted middleweight Carter out of prison. Again, we’re in Madison Square Garden.  The band is stellar – Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Scarlet Rivera, Neuwirth, Ginsberg, T-Bone Burnett (later of Coen brothers fame) and a host of studio musicians. Dylan’s vocals are crisp. The show abounds in theatricality, with its star in whiteface make-up.
     And then, as if in a dream, I meet him.  Still with a penchant for gatecrashing, I get into the Felt Forum after-party by reading the guest list upside down and claiming to be Michael Ochs, Phil’s brother. (Sorry Michael, I hope you got in, too.) The room is filled with heroes: McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Baez, Sam Shepherd, members of The Band, assorted New York literati. There’s an overabundance of charisma. Yet when Dylan enters, time stands still, all goes quiet.
     I lose my idol in the crowd, then, to my amazement, find him standing next to me at a buffet table. It’s a moment I’ve fantasized many times. We make eye contact. I say, with remarkable ease, “That was a great show!” And Dylan responds with his signature Iron Range rasp:  “Thanks, man. I love playin’ New York.  Because audiences are honest.  If you’re not good they let you know it.  But if you are they let you know that, too. And, yeah, they did seem to like it tonight.” 
     He was so authentic, so present.  I, on the other hand, wasn’t ready for a connection.  So my response must have seemed like Ralph Kramden getting caught by Alice doing something really harebrained; “Homina-homina-homina-homina,” I think I said.
     Over the next four decades, the hits continue.  “Jokerman,” “Unbelievable” and “Things Have Changed” stand out for me among the literally hundreds of unique, genuine and even groundbreaking songs the Nobel laureate writes between our brief encounter and the present. There will no doubt be more.

     I continue to be deeply moved as Dylan embodies his music.  The concerts I attend -- a MILLER’S CROSSING post-production crew outing to Jones Beach, a show in Anaheim, one in Toronto, another at the Hollywood Palladium – are grand moments. Yes, of late, he sits at a piano for much of the show and sometimes his voice tires after a few numbers. But he’s still electrifying. It’s still theatre. And he continues to:
…build a ladder to the sky and climb on every rung/                                                 (and he stays) forever young.   





Sunday, November 27, 2016

AN INTERVIEW WITH OLIVER STONE

Three years ago, nearing the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, I interviewed Oliver Stone and  published the piece on Truthout.  Here it is:

The Oliver Stone Interview, Part II: JFK - Truthout

www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/20032-the-oliver-stone-interview-part-ii-jfk

The film remains a masterpiece of writing, directing, acting, cinematography, design and editing (regardless of one's take on what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963).

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

TEACHING

     I just completed a semester teaching film editing at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and I loved it.  I spent everyday with students of cinema whose enthusiasm was unbridled.  I revisited movies that inspired me when I was their age: THE GRAND ILLUSION, LA STRADA, BREATHLESS, THE GRADUATE, BONNIE AND CLYDE, and THE GODFATHER, to name a few. And I shared anecdotes and assigned published interviews with amazing editors -- all in order to pass along my beloved craft!

     There’s no better place to do that nowadays than a university or conservatory. It was different when motion pictures were edited on celluloid – run through clacking Moviolas or humming Kems and Steenbecks, spliced together with scotch tape.  There was a real master/apprentice system in cutting rooms, with assistant editors learning their craft directly from editors and directors. But that arrangement has changed. 

      When I started in feature post-production in the late seventies, a key part of the assistant editor’s job was to find pieces of film for the director and editor.  Working on MANHATTAN, as Woody Allen and Sandy Morse repeatedly viewed Dianne Keaton’s close-up and the subsequent shot of Michael Murphy, for example, I’d head to a box containing the tail of Keaton’s shot, then to one containing the head of Murphy’s. As scrutiny continued, I’d roll down to the actual frames that might be needed. If I did my job well, I’d have the correct piece in Sandy’s hand as soon as she asked for it.  Of course, such efficiency would have been impossible if I hadn’t been in the room listening.  So I began to learn the craft of editing -- why to trim a given shot or extend another, why to restructure a section of the movie, delete a whole scene, or be wide instead of close -- by eavesdropping.

     But in the mid-nineties, digital systems eliminated finding pieces of film as an assistant editing task.  Now the editor presses a computer key when she and the director need to extend or change a shot; as a rule, the assistant works on sound and visual effects or organizational assignments in a separate space. Thus classrooms, not cutting rooms, have become the best venues for teaching our craft. We try to involve assistants in the process by discussing our cutting choices at the end of each workday or when we turn scenes over to them for temporary sound effects editing.  But these brief chats are no substitute for the fulltime immersion of yesteryear.

      It was exciting, then, to share the invisible art at North Carolina’s prestigious film conservatory. I began by teaching the fundamentals of cutting I learned so long ago when, filled with misconceptions, I found myself retrieving pieces of celluloid for editors and directors. Back then I believed, as most lay people do, that the primary goal of editing was to fix mistakes. It isn’t.  As I told my students, the more essential (and more exciting) task is to make sure great moments wind up in the finished film. Forget perfect match cuts.  Forget anything but allowing yourself to be moved by the best material, then figuring out how to use it.

     We read an interview with Thom Rolfe, co-editor (with Marcia Lucas) of TAXI DRIVER.  In it, Rolfe talks about Robert DeNiro’s iconic “You talkin’ to me?” monologue. When the editor viewed dailies, DeNiro’s performance blew him away, but the scene’s lack of coverage – of other angles to cut to – seemed problematic.  Yet Rolfe couldn’t not use the actor’s brilliant work.  So use it he did!  And, to this day, I’ve never heard anyone complain about the way this brilliant scene is put together.

     The TAXI DRIVER monologue provided a perfect segue to classes I taught on the primacy of performance itself.  Before I actually worked in the industry, I’d read theoretical writings on editing by filmmaking pioneers Eisenstein and Pudovkin, and I knew that movies with great chase sequences won Academy Awards. Thus I came to the craft thinking it was, first and foremost, about picking shots that would produce some sort of cool effect when juxtaposed. That’s why I was surprised, on my first feature film, to see Woody Allen and Sandy Morse invariably consider performance above all else when selecting takes.

     In class, I explored such issues as emotional complexity and authenticity – keys to performance selection - using interviews with film editors Dede Allen, Anne Coates and Sidney Levin.  I screened clips of awe-inspiring work by Marlon Brando and Vivienne Leigh, Al Pacino and John Cazale, and Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina.  We even discussed photos and paintings of great, expressive faces.  I taught what I had learned in cutting rooms:  when constructing a movie’s first assembly, great acting trumps great camera movement, great composition… everything!

     Once I’d gotten across the idea that excellent performance is the most important criterion when selecting takes for a first cut, I pulled the rug out from under my students by telling them that after the first assembly of a motion picture, its pace might become even more important than what the actors are doing.  I assigned an interview with Dede Allen about Robert Rossen’s THE HUSTLER, in which the legendary editor talked about how painful it was to lift one of Paul Newman’s best moments from the film. The deletion was necessary because THE HUSTLER’s audience had already garnered the scene’s information from an earlier bit that couldn’t be removed; Dede and her director discovered the movie was more engaging when it ceased to be redundant; the audience would never miss a performance of which it was unaware.  

     And I talked about similar experiences of my own: as an assistant, I watched Sandy Morse and Woody Allen eliminate an entire character from STARDUST MEMORIES because the film as a whole had already said everything the additional character might.  Years later, Josh Radnor and I also removed a character’s plotline – one that seemed important in the script but not in the rough cut - while working on his movie, LIBERAL ARTS.

     There were so many delights in sharing the craft of editing: talking about uses of sound effects and music, about the difference between pace and rhythm, about intentionally breaking hard and fast rules… And more! 

     I got to work with extremely capable student editors on their senior films and advise others on independent projects. I brought Editor’s Guild and ACE president Alan Heim to campus, where he screened ALL THAT JAZZ for an ecstatic crowd, and watched students mature right before my eyes as he worked with them one-on-one. I had the privilege of teaching alongside brilliant and dedicated editing colleagues and pedagogues from all filmmaking crafts and areas of cinema studies.

     Most surprising to me, though, was the realization that teaching makes me a better editor. Having to articulate what I know and how I know it enables me to focus more sharply. And at times, it helps me come up with creative solutions to cutting problems more quickly. 

     Other editors tell me they’ve had similar experiences.  David Bondelevich, film professor at University of Colorado Denver and past president of Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) and Cinema Audio Society (CAS), shared this quote: “To teach is to learn twice.” (Joseph Joubert). David sees his need to state complicated ideas in simple terms as an exercise that has enhanced his craftsmanship.

     Norman Hollyn, ACE, esteemed author, editor and professor of cinematic arts at University of Southern California, agrees, and adds that he learns from those he’s instructing. “Questions that our good students ask,” he says, “help me to question my built-in assumptions about editing, open me up to other forms, and (perhaps most importantly) teach me how to better question myself.”

     Norm’s insight resonates deeply for me. It captures not just how dazzled I was when a student showed me her favorite K-pop videos – the first I’d ever seen - or when she and other students showed me truly original work.  It also reminds me of what a living, breathing entity the student/teacher relationship is, and how, consequently, filmmaking itself continues to evolve and inspire!

    


Friday, June 12, 2015

JUDITH MALINA

     Judith Malina, co-founder of The Living Theatre, died on April 10th at 88 years of age.  I had the privilege of meeting her about seven years earlier, while renting an apartment on New York’s Clinton Street, a few doors from the company’s performance space.  On my way home one night, I asked a troupe-member on a smoking break if Ms. Malina was still active.  Yes, he said, she was directing their upcoming play about Edgar Allan Poe. 

     When I told him how deeply her work had affected me long before I ever thought about working in the arts, he suggested I come inside to meet her.  She was gracious, grand and generous, ultimately inviting me to watch rehearsals whenever I liked. 

     Sitting in on that process was eye opening for me because Ms. Malina’s brand of theatre was designed to seem spontaneous and unrehearsed.  Yet to make the play feel as alive and in-the-moment as she wanted it to - to allow for alterations in tone as audience responses varied from night to night - the core of the piece had to be crystal clear to actors and rehearsed with rigor and precision.

     Decades ago, when Judith Malina and her husband, Julian Beck, made their biggest waves, a term like “spontaneity” would have been too tame for them; “revolutionary” was more appropriate.  Mr. Beck, Ms.Malina and their troupe were pioneers in exploding conventions as basic as the imaginary fourth wall between spectators and performers.  As basic as actors wearing costumes.

     That’s right, costumes!  The first time I saw Judith Malina, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1968 performance of Paradise Now, she was stark naked.  Naked and challenging onlookers with the chant, “To be free is to be responsible.”

     The production sent shock waves through all of pop culture.   Jim Morrison’s arrest for indecent exposure onstage in Florida came shortly after he’d seen Paradise Now.  Ms. Malina and Mr. Beck were his muses.

     A sequence in Brian DePalma’s 1970 film HI MOM, known as “Be Black, Baby,” depicts an underground theatre performance in which bourgeois white patrons are brutalized by an acting troupe and love it.  DePalma’s brilliant faux cinema verite set piece ends with an audience member declaring, “Clive Barnes was right!”  Mr. Barnes, a New York Times reviewer, was indeed an early supporter of Ms. Malina and Mr. Beck’s work.

     Spurred by such critical support and a modicum of commercial success, other theatre companies engaging in radical experimentation began to reach wider audiences.  Richard Schechner’s Performance Group on New York’s Wooster Street triumphantly staged Dionysus in 69, a confrontational approach to classical characters comparable to The Living Theatre’s Antigone. The San Francisco Mime Troupe travelled the country with innovative outdoor productions of Brecht.  And Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Lab Theatre toured the U.S. with its aim of “encountering the spectator – intimately, directly, not hiding behind… wardrobe mistresses, stage designers or make-up artists.”

     But Judith Malina’s late sixties success hardly overnight; The Living Theatre was founded in 1947. At that time, its focus was not on the fourth wall, but on dramatic language.  Conventional playwrights simply didn’t capture Ms. Malina’s vision of how to awaken audiences from their somnolence. So the company staged productions by Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and William Carlos Williams, among other non-traditional playwrights.

     Later, they took on gritty subject matter with dramas like Jack Gelber’s The Connection (1959) – about heroin addicts - and Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig (1963) – about a Marine prison.   Both were adapted into powerful films, the former by Shirley Clark in 1961, the latter by Jonas Mekas in 1964.  Mr. Mekas’s made his movie to preserve Ms. Malina’s Obie Award-winning production after the IRS shut down the company’s West Village space.  His cinema verite-style filmmaking and the company’s acting were so intense that, according to critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, European viewers thought they were watching a documentary.

     Meanwhile, The Living Theatre’s tax problem afforded Judith Malina an opportunity to merge life and art.  Dressed as Portia from The Merchant of Venice, she defended Julian Beck at his tax evasion hearing.  But her performance was not successful, at least from a legal standpoint.  

     So The Living Theatre spent the next few years touring Europe, developing ever more radical form and content for their work, returning to the U.S. in 1969 with bold productions of Frankenstein, Antigone and the infamous Paradise Now.  Like novelist/activist Emmett Grogan (Ringolevio), they were reborn during their decade of self-exile on the continent.

     The fertile ground of 1960’s popular culture, however, proved to be exceptional.  After the company’s 1968 tour, The Living Theatre remained intact and innovative, but their cage rattling took place on the fringes.  And in 1975, Judith Malina made an unforgettable foray into the mainstream, playing Sonny’s (Al Pacino’s) mother in DOG DAY AFTERNOON.

     According to director Sydney Lumet, casting Ms. Malina was Mr. Pacino’s idea. And it paid off in spades, much as casting Lee Strasberg as THE GODFATHER PART II’s Hyman Roth had.

     Director Milton Ginsberg pointed out to me how generous and courageous it was for Mr. Strasberg to take the part:  his reputation as a groundbreaking acting teacher on a par even with Stanislavsky was secure regardless, but anything less than greatness in Francis Coppola’s film might have tarnished him.  The same was true for Ms. Malina. Her achievements in avant-garde theatre were legendary, and run-of-the-mill work in DOG DAY would have disappointed her admirers, myself included, and potentially diminished her stature.  But what she delivered was awe-inspiring.

     During the time I spent with The Living Theatre in 2008 a company member shared a story about Al Pacino’s ongoing support of its co-founder. When Julian Beck died in 1985, the multiple Academy Award-winning actor paid for the funeral and burial, asking in return only that no one mention his generosity to the press.

     Ms. Malina couldn’t afford to pay herself; avant-garde theatre simply doesn’t make money.  When she appeared in DOG DAY AFTERNOON, in fact, the production had to cover her bus fare to New York from the Vermont commune on which she lived.  And in 2013, even with considerable contributions from Al Pacino and Yoko Ono, The Living Theatre was forced to close its Clinton Street space.

     The theatre shut its doors for good, and Judith Malina went to live in the Lillian Booth Home for Retired Artists.  She’d had a 66-year run.  Not bad! 

     As I write this piece, I reflect on how her life and work connect to filmmaking.  Of course, there are the movies themselves – THE CONNECTION, THE BRIG, DOG DAY AFTERNOON (along with ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, AWAKENINGS, LOOKING FOR RICHARD and even an episode of THE SOPRANOS).  There are the motion pictures she influenced: HI MOM, THE DOORS and others.  And there’s the age-old bond between theatre and cinema per se. 

     But Judith Malina’s strongest link to making movies is that her uncompromising nature and her vision continue to inspire all of us who got to see her work.  She dared to be bold and authentic to a degree most of us forget we can.  Her legacy makes us aim higher.