In Search of The Miraculous – An Interview with Gerard Malanga About Making Movies
Where did it begin? When Gerard got that first camera from his parents at age 11 and shot a mysterious image of the 3rd Avenue El train on it’s last day in life? Or was it when he discovered Orson Welles in 1953 watching Citizen Kane for seven nights in succession on television? Or when he joined Andy Warhol in the Factory and got the idea to make the ”Screen-Test” portraits, filming a person for three minutes with no script or instructions, resulting in timeless moving and emotional portraits…
I didn’t actually ask Gerard all of these questions in the interview, but things tend to pop up anyways. Knowing Gerard and working with him for a few years now, there are two things I instinctively know and love about him and which explain everything. Gerard is a very curious person and he is a doer. He will get an idea and go through with it. Things happen when you’re around Gerard. I see in him the same little boy who decided to go out and shoot the El train as the man he is now, always looking for new images, people, experiences and stories.
Gerard is a poet, not only in words, but also in his pictures and movies. They all bind together. To talk about movies with Gerard is rich, uplifting and inspiring. All of his art is poetic imagery in different forms. And I believe his work has influenced the art of movie making considerably.
Last year we talked about that and a lot more, focusing on movies and moviemaking for the upcoming cinema print magazine Divine Mistakes (published by Ragged Lion Press) and here’s what Gerard told me. Hold on. You might get inspired to create.
Lisa Marie: How did you start making movies Gerard? What was the first film that you made? What equipment did you use?
Gerard: The first film that I made and the equipment that I used were neither [laughs]. My first movie was a readymade, an objet trouvé. I’d been dealing with a lab in the Times Square area–the name slips my mind–for Andy’s movies and I asked the woman who ran the lab if she had any extra “leader” footage I could have. Leader footage was the countdown in reverse you’d sometimes see at the beginning or after the end of a movie spliced in. Graphically, it’s circular like a clock and like a clock once the second-hand made a complete swipe the number would change from l0 to 9 it would rotate all the way down to “0” at which point the movie would officially begin. It was never meant to be shown as part of any movie. It was merely leader to protect the movie in the projector. I don’t know where the word “academy” fits in, but I guess maybe it was to make it official in the movie business, so that’s what it was always called, and I liked the sound of it. It made it sound like the movie was about something; but it was really not about anything. It was pure abstraction, to my mind. And so she provided me with about 45-minutes worth of academy leader unspooled in a metal can and when I brought it back to the Factory I spooled it out onto a reel and when I showed it for the first time–it might’ve been at the Filmmakers Cinematheque. I played a reel-to-reel audiotape I’d recorded earlier of John Ashbery reading his poetry to accompany the Academy Leader as a soundtrack. So, you see, there was no film equipment involved. It was all there. It was Duchampian. It was what I called it, declared it to be. It was a readymade just like when Duchamp named his urinal “art.”
Lisa Marie: And your next films, what were your artistic influences? What was going on at the time that made you want to express yourself in experimental film?
Gerard: Good question. When I was in the very beginnings of writing poetry, Jean Cocteau was one of my earliest influences and role model. I related to what he was doing in the way he made it all seem easy, like you can do more than one thing at a time; express yourself in various mediums. I instantly related to that; my psyche could adapt. Besides his poetry, Cocteau was a filmmaker, a set designer for the ballet, an impeccable draftsman and illustrator, and a painter. He did just about everything imaginable with the grace and ease putting his stamp, his mark, his unmistakable touch to the fore of all he was making. So when I first embarked on making movies–I prefer “movies” to “film”–I had no qualms of leaping from poetry to movies. I seem to recall somewhere that he characterized his movies as “poetry on film.” A perfect example would be his first movie, “The Blood of a Poet.” That term was also adopted by the New York Avant-Garde filmmakers of the late 1940s. Two of its members, Marie Menken and Willard Maas, were my earliest mentors. Marie, especially, encouraged me to go out and make movies. She even gave me a Keystone 8mmm movie camera to do that. I still have the camera. I related immediately, that my interest in wanting to make movies was an outgrowth in translating my poetry pursuits into celluloid. In my mind, movies immediately comprise images, or imagery; that’s the basic root. Even a non-image like my “Academy Leader” is comprised of an image; and that to me was easily translated in what I was attempting to do. So the visual language was there, whether it was words on paper or images on celluloid.
Lisa Marie: Speaking of Marie Menken, one of your best-known Warhol collaborations is The Gerard Malanga Story in Chelsea Girls when you play opposite her. What’s the story behind that scene?
Gerard: The Gerard Malanga Story was solely created by me with Marie Menken specifically in mind. Marie would say to me, from time to time, how she wanted to adopt me as her son. But we both knew the problem was that my “real” mother was still living, and as the law stated, it would be impossible unless some provision in the law allowed for this to happen. We never really investigated it, and I never broached the issue with my mom. So, in effect, the Gerard Malanga Story was a fulfillment of the fantasy we both had for being mother and son. We were that, anyway. There was no script, per se. I wrote out a few notes and Marie and I discussed the outline of the movie in what it would propose. On the day of the shoot, Marie got into “character” immediately; she was a real trooper, a real pro. There wasn’t much left for me to do, except be her disobedient son. That was for the first reel. As the second reel got underway, we were in full-swing shouting at each other like mothers and sons and Marie cracking my whip from time to time on the bed; and the more we got into it, the more inebriated Marie became. She might’ve had a pint hidden away somewhere, but I didn’t take notice. Only the first reel made it into The Chelsea Girls. I held back the second reel because it was a bit sacrilegious and embarrassing. I would show it from time to time when I presented my Poetry and Film Programme at museum or college venues; and then eventually I withdrew it from circulation entirely.
Lisa Marie: When did you first start making movies with Warhol? How did that come about? How did you film them?
Gerard: From the very first day I went to work for Andy–this would’ve been the beginning of spring 1963–he expressed an interest in wanting to make movies. So one early afternoon Charles Henri Ford, a mutual friend and America’s first Surrealist poet, and I took him to Peerless Camera, one of the premiere retail camera supply stores in New York to shop around and we discovered a new updated model made by Bolex-Paillard that just came on the market, a 16mm camera with automatic motor-drive that allowed one to film continuously for 3-minutes without stopping. That was the camera Andy ultimately purchased. It was fairly easy to operate so long as you knew how to load the camera. So the early movies that Andy and I made were each 3-minutes long, what I refer to as a 1-to-1 film ratio. So all Andy’s early movies were shot with this camera all the way through the early part of l967. In collaboration, we did a major undertaking shooting film portraits of friends and strangers alike who came to the Factory which we called “Screen Tests” and consisted of someone sitting in front of the camera for the 3-minute duration. We must’ve done nearly 500 in all. We were basically shooting moving portraits before either of us became “real” photographers.
Lisa Marie: Why can’t we find your own movies anywhere? Can we in the future?
Gerard: Film distribution and keeping tabs on it can be a very exhausting, daunting task with very limited return on the investment of time allowed, not to speak of the minimal financial gain. Is it worth all the trouble? No. Us “underground” filmmakers are left to our lonesome to make sure everything is done right. I’ve basically limited the capacity to show my movies to invitational gatherings at colleges and universities and being present to discuss my work, and also the occasional movie theatre fits into this. I participated in a programme of my work at a movie theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, way in the wilds of Canada that specializes in underground movie programming. But this was a rare instance, since I was invited by the university proper to be interviewed for its special collections department. They have a substantial archive on the Black Sparrow Press and surprisingly they have a ton of material coming from me. So there was a direct bearing on my being there at the time. In the internet age, the big worry now is piracy. So far, I’ve not been a victim of that. I keep a tight lid on where a DVD goes, guaranteeing its return. My gallery in Nice does the same. Otherwise, my attorney will deal with it.
Lisa Marie: Please describe how you have chosen the subject matter and/or theme for a given film. Is there a pattern?
Gerard: There’s no pattern that I can think of. I don’t “think” through my movies. The images are randomly placed just as if I were writing a poem. It all has to do with the “feel” of what I discover along the way. I follow my “instinct” whether in writing or in splicing. It must be some secret code even I find it hard to explain. If I knew the answer, it would spoil the surprise that comes with the creation of a poem or movie. The difference is, in poetry you start out with “nothing,” usually a blank piece of paper. In making a movie, the process is more involved because you have to start out shooting whatever you and the camera can capture in front of you. Something becomes a process of “selection.” Supposing what I shot I don’t like? I can eliminate it immediately. But what if I consider certain shots super-important. So now I’m starting out with “something” in the editing process. I have something before me. In poetry you’re arriving at the end of the process when writing a poem. With movies you’re starting out with the beginning of “something”–movie footage already shot. Poetry starts out with “nothing.” With movie-making you start out with “something” once it comes back from the lab.
Lisa Marie: What material did you use for “Gerard Malanga’s Film Notebooks” that premiered in 2005 at the Vienna International Film festival? And what did you leave out?
Gerard: “Gerard Malanga’s Film Notebooks” runs approximately 27-minutes. So there’s a tight feel to how everything fell into place. Nothing changed since its movie premiere at the Viennale 2005. I don’t recall if I ever listed the contents formally. Otherwise I could put my hands on it. So from the top of my head the movie opens with Bob Dylan and me sitting side by side during Bob’s visit to the Factory. Then the 2nd sequence is a 3-minute reel in color of Bob, lots of close-ups. In fact, I’ve printed a still from this sequence. Then following at least 2 reels of Edie Sedgwick followed by Salvador Dali’s visit to the Factory followed by a general ambiance Factory reel followed the Velvets performing at Paraphernalia followed by Donovan and me sitting on a couch at the Factory and concluding with a 3-minute color reel of my visit with the poet Charles Olson in spring 1969, seven months before his untimely passing. The entire movie is wrapped up in excerpts from Angus MacLise’s music, except for the Velvets performance where I overlaid a track of Angus reading his poetry. So, in effect, nothing was left out. I could’ve made it longer, but I felt comfortable with the way it turned out.
Lisa Marie: I know that the filmmaker Barbara Rubin introduced you to the Velvet Underground. How did that happen? And what was Barbara Rubin like as an artist and as a person?
Gerard: Barbara was not someone you said “no” to. She had a way about her. Maybe it was her swagger, her demeanor; but I gotta say, most times she was right. And this time she was right when she arrived at the Factory one afternoon to find me all alone and said to me, that she had this rock band she wanted me to hear, and she meant “Now!” And so we hightailed it to the subway and arrived in time at the Cafe Bizarre where shortly the Velvet Underground would be performing. They were still tuning up and going over their playlist. There were several tables chairs lined up along the periphery. Lots of young people lounging around, I surmised. And when the group as gruffy as they were, started playing, Barbara nudged me on to get up and start dancing. She knew I loved to dance. I was hesitant at first; I felt I’d only be in their way. You see, there was no stage separating them from the dance floor; but Barbara insisted, stating that they wouldn’t even notice me. So I got up and started going through my routine solo, and at one point I undid the whip I had wrapped around my belt and danced with it just as the Velvets began their song, “Venus in Furs” which I knew nothing about. How synchronous was that?! And everyone got up from their chairs and started dancing also, like it was a frenzy of some sort. During the intermission, Lou and John came up to me and said it was amazing. They kept saying no one was dancing to the music and they wanted that to happen desperately and invited me back anytime… and so it happened. I get the feel Barbara never thought of herself as an “artist” per se. More along the lines of an anarchist, more like a mover and a shaker, a catalyst as best I can describe her. She had this knack of bringing people together who shared enthusiasms, ideas to make things happen. She was like a proto happening performer.
Lisa Marie: You worked with the Italian painter Mario Schifano for the multimedia show The Stars of Mario Schifano, in Rome in 1967. What was the show like and how was working with Schifano? Did you capture any of it on camera?
Gerard: My friendship with Mario goes way back before the Rome period. I first met him and his girlfriend Anita [Pallenberg] when they were visiting New York in the spring of 1964 at some cocktail party in the West Village. Mario was planning to shoot a movie of his visit; and then I didn’t see him again until three years later in Rome. In the meanwhile, I caught up with Anita in Paris the following spring. She’d already embarked on a modelling career with the Catherine Harle Agency and living in Catherine’s flat above the office in one of the famous arcades and we hit it off big. When I arrived in Rome in late September 1967, it was like all of Rome turned out to greet me. Peter Hartman, my host, and I went to meet the gang, Mario, Tano Festa, Franco Angeli, Plinio de Maartis, Mario’s dealer, at some sidewalk cafe just below the rusticated wall adjacent to the Villa Borghese. Mario was thrilled and all of a sudden so many ideas began to coalesce; and one of them was this concept he had for a multimedia extravaganza. He had seen me perform at the Balloon Farm the year before with the Velvets and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and this was a big inspiration for him. When Mario took to you it was camaraderie forever. He was totally simpatico. He was really fun to be with. He managed to enlist the services of a small Italian rock band which he re-named Le Stelle di Mario Schifano. So now it was a matter of designing the light show–a small project by itself. Mario designed all the slides and color transparencies by hand-painting each one for multiple projections and I choreographed some of the music that allowed me to perform in front of the huge audience. At this point, he recruited the services of the Piper Club, the biggest discotheque in Rome and Mario was well-connected when it came to getting things done enlisting the help of others. I created a multiple torchlight dance design. The show was captured by Patrizia Ruspoli’s camera; we were a team at the time; she was my mental mentor before I actually took up photography myself. Peter Hartman also played improv piano. The American artist Paul Thek contributed his know-how with working the projectors. It was a one-night gig, as I recall. The audience was jam-packed with hands waving, keeping to the beat of the music as the floor shook. Alberto Moravia gave a rave review in Il Progresso. It was an overwhelming success for everyone involved and it certainly put Mario on the map.
Lisa Marie: I know you met the multi talented film director Pier Paolo Pasolini during your time in Rome in 1967-68. What was he like? Has his work influenced you?
Gerard: I can’t say Pier Paolo’s work influenced me, but I was familiar with his poetry long before I knew his movies. His publisher was Garzanti. They were a left-wing outfit and they published everything he wrote. I must’ve had three or four of the original titles in Italian, but when I returned to New York, I sold them to a book dealer. That’s how poor I was. Pier Paolo was part of a circle of close friends around Elsa Morante, so I easily fit in because of my close ties with Elsa. He was a gentle soul. Very quiet. Very unobtrusive. A man of few words, so it seemed. I remember a group of us, including Elsa and Peter Hartman, attended a circus performance; it was a one-ring circus under the tent. When Patrizia [Ruspoli] and I were collaborating on a book of her pictures illustrating the Day Book of my journals, I arranged to have her photograph Pier Paolo, and we were invited to have lunch at his home where he lived with his mom. She prepared a piping hot meal of pasta with garlic sauce and parsley and a chilled white wine to top it off, as I recall. She also appeared in Pier Paolo’s movie, The Gospel According to Matthew, portraying the Mary Mother in the crucifixion scene. But my crowning association with Pier Paolo was when a poem of mine was accepted for publication in his magazine, Nuovi Argomenti, translated by none other than the distinguished Dacia Mariani who was Alberto Moravia’s second wife. Elsa was his first wife. The intellectual scene in Rome at the time was very social. Everyone mingled when we got together. It was sort of family and I was very much accepted.
Lisa Marie: How do you think the movies that came out of the Factory scene, I mean your own movies, Warhol’s the Velvet Underground projects with Barbara Rubin to mention what we’ve talked about, have affected or changed modern experimental cinema?
Gerard: I think the jury is out on this one. Who’s to say? Andy’s early filmwork had to do with “duration,” but Alfred Hitchcock was already there back in 1948 when he produced and directed the movie, “Rope,” and with an all-star cast, including James Stewart, Farley Granger and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, but it was Hitchcock’s only real flop. The movie literally disappeared off the register. And then there’s Shirley Clarke’s 1967 movie, called “Portrait of Jason” which she shot in her hotel room at the Chelsea over a nearly 24-hour period, though she whittled it down to a convenient 1 hr/45-minutes. So I’m hard put at coming up with examples showing where the “influence” might’ve been. They were cross-influences, at best. The Velvet Underground for Andy was his attraction to extend his art into a live 3-D format. Yes, there have been light shows in the past, all of them, I believe, produced in San Francisco, but Andy had the advantage of including his own movies as backdrops as well instead of relying on the prerequisite projection gels; that was too cornball, for our taste. Barbara [Rubin] has been credited with creating the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” as a roadshow, but she only played a small part, albeit running around backstage to see how things were getting on. She basically appropriated this concept from her compatriot, the poet Piero Heliczer, who created what I would call the first movie/live stage music combo a year earlier, with Angus MacLise, Tony Conrad, and La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, in an extended musical format with a movie screen fabricated out of muslin cloth, so the audience could get a glimpse at the silhouettes of the performers behind the screen as well; and this occurred at the Filmmakers Cinematheque. Otherwise nothing changed very much. Underground movies were limited basically by the kinds of equipment used, but these filmmakers, including Stan Brakhage who became the spearhead of the movement, created much with what little they had to work with. I remember attending the New York premiere of Stan’s movie, “Anticipation of the Night” at the Charles Cinema down at Avenue B in the East Village. It must’ve been 1962, a whole year before Andy lifted the camera to his eye. It was an exhilarating experience for me; not one I would forget. It was a completely silent movie lasting nearly an hour and yet the movie’s ambiance transmitted a soundtrack that didn’t even exist! It was all in the mind of my imagination that created what I thought I heard; let’s say a screen-door slamming or a dog barking in the distance. Sounds inhabiting a natural world as I came to anticipate with night coming on. Stan’s movie was a singular influence in my own work as a cinematographer/filmmaker with works I created later on, “In Search of the Miraculous” and the split/screen projection of “Pre-raphaelite Dream,” a movie that had its midnight premiere at the Elgin Cinema in Chelsea. The history of what started out as the American Avant-Garde of the late 1940s spearheaded by Cinema16 founded by Amos Vogel and then morphed into the New American Cinema is rich with examples by independent filmmakers, including Marie Menken and Maya Deren who were the ultimate pioneers. Warhol’s contribution was only a lone chapter amongst many, many others projected along the way.
Lisa Marie: Are there any contemporary avant-garde filmmakers that interest you?
Gerard: Well, it’s always been Marie Menken with whom Stan Brakhage and I shared as our mentor. That’s a long history for me going back to 1961. Her husband, Willard Maas, also a filmmaker and founding member of the Gryphon Film Group started in the late 40s and a poet besides, was my English professor at Wagner College. I’ve also been partial to Bruce Baillie’s work, though I found it hard to keep up. Simply, he didn’t keep up himself! He kinda slipped into some kind of dark obscurity. I remember his telling me he named one of his cats, “Gerard.” But as far as the more high profile moviemakers, Jean-Luc Godard and Orson Welles head the top of the list. Then, there’s Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse,” Visconti’s “The Leopard,” Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” William Wyler’s “The Little Foxes,” Richard Fleischer’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca,” Sidney Lumet’s “The Verdict,” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” Anyone wanting to challenge me to a duel, I’m ready. Ha-ha. These are the movies that entertain me without my ever getting bored. I can watch them easily and discover new details I might have missed. This may seem like a lot, but in my estimation, these movies are the best of the best based on their unique merits.
Lisa Marie: As a final question, do you have a favourite line in a favourite movie of yours that you can quote?
Gerard: Yes, the following quote occurs near the beginning of Luchino Visconti’s grand movie, “Il gattopardo” (“The Leopard,” 1963), where Burt Lancaster’s character, Don Fabrizio Corbera, the Prince of Salina, says that “for things to remain the same, everything must change.” I love the equation. Pure poetry. I saw the U.S. released version of the movie at my favorite neighborhood theatre in the Bronx, the Valentine, in which all the characters were dubbed into English, except for Burt Lancaster’s character, of course. It would’ve been a crudeness to dub Burt into his own language using someone else’s voice! But the odd thing that I caught which would’ve been missed by a viewing audience, is that when the movie was shown for the first time in New York, the shooting process was credited to CinemaScope, 20th Century-Fox’s trademark process, when in point of fact, the Italian movie posters listed the movie being shot in Technirama, since the Technicolor Corporations’s Rome affiliate had a big stake in promoting its new widescreen process. When I saw a newly restored print screened at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music in 2003 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the initial U.S. release, the shooting process was credited to Technovision which is an updated version of Technirama with a truly impeccable widescreen projection ratio, fully encompassing the magnificence of what might’ve been missed in the earlier versions. It’s one of the most impressive movies production-wise that I’d seen in a long time and truly lives up to its cinematic history.
A List of Gerard Malanga’s Films:
- Academy Leader (1964)
- Andy Warhol: Portraits of the Artist as a Young Man (1965)
- Prelude to International Velvet Debutante (1966)
- Portrait of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (1966). World premiere: Vienna International Film Festival, 2005.
- In Search of the Miraculous (1967)
- The Recording Zone Operator (1968, incomplete)
- The filmmaker records a portion of his life in the month of August (1968)
- Preraphaelite Dream (with music by Angus MacLise, 1968)
- The Children (AFI grant with music by Angus MacLise, 1969)
- April Diary (1970)
- Vision (incorporating Bufferin, 1976)
- Gerard Malanga’s Film Notebooks, with music by Angus MacLise (2005). World premiere: Vienna International Film Festival, 2005.