This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.

American Narrative Art Film:
The First Thirty Years, 1949-1979

By reason of priority, Sidney Meyers deserves to be called the father of the American independent narrative film--even if his work is not ultimately of supreme artistic interest. Meyers began as a documentary filmmaker in the early 1940s, and moved into independent fiction filmmaking in 1949 with The Quiet One, a film which follows a poor, young black boy's coming-of-age odyssey as he moves through New York and New Jersey's most poverty-stricken neighborhoods. For both financial and technical reasons, Meyers employed a voiceover narration (written by Helen Levitt and read by James Agee), reserving the use of synchronized sound for a few, particularly dramatic encounters. The Quiet One is not a major work of art. Meyers' story is morally simplistic. His photography indulges in heavy-handed symbolism. Levitt's voiceover narration is sentimental. However, even in the face of these shortcomings, it is undeniable that isolated moments within the film escape from the structural tendentiousness and offer wonderful, fleeting glimpses of lives and ways of living that never would have been included in a studio picture.

It is with the work of the second New York-based filmmaker, former still photographer Morris Engel, that American independent narrative comes to artistic maturity. With the collaboration of his wife, Ruth Orkin (who was herself an award-winning still photographer), Engel created three very fine films in the mid-1950s: The Little Fugitive (1953), Lovers and Lollipops (1955), and Weddings and Babies (1958). Although each film involves a different set of characters and situations, the three film form a loosely related trilogy of stories involving children and young couples in love. In tone and mood, Engel's films are the diametrical opposite from Meyers's The Quiet One: while Meyers lectures the viewer and attempts to manipulate his feelings, the beauty of Engel's work is precisely its delicacy of touch and refusal to simplify feelings in order to make a melodramatic point; while Meyers uses narrative events to overdefine and overdetermine his ponderous meanings, the strength of Engel's work is its apparent randomness, looseness, and openness of organization--narrative and scenic lessons undoubtedly learned from the neorealists.

All three Engel films have sprawling, anecdotal narratives, in which the viewer follows a small group of characters through a series of unemphasized, unpredictable encounters. In The Little Fugitive, for example, we watch a five or six year-old boy named Joey first playing with his friends and then running away to Coney Island (when they play a trick on him and make him think he has killed one of them with a toy gun). The trick the other boys play on Joey is really only a narrative contrivance to allow Engel to follow the little boy as he encounters the sights and sounds of the amusement park. The film "goes nowhere," except to go wherever Joey goes--playing baseball in the street, riding the train to the park, buying food at a concession stand, watching lovers cuddle under the boardwalk, looking fondly at a pony ride, walking along the beach in the evening. As in Bicycle Thief, the narrative is deliberately episodic, loopy, elliptical, and pointless. Or it would be more accurate to say the lack of point (in the Hollywood sense of narrative) is the point. Engel wants to make room, in the cracks between narrative actions, as it were, for the randomness, the clutter, the little feelings of life to emerge.

In Lovers and Lollipops and Weddings and Babies, Engel follows two young couples through a similar series of episodic encounters as they take in the sights around Manhattan, decorate their apartments, and hesitantly deliberate whether they want to make the commitment of tying the knot with their romantic partner. Engel's genius is his eye for the significant, but unemphasized detail, his extraordinary narrative tact, his ability to present uneditorialized, delicately semicomic vignettes that aren't merely aimless (though at first they may seem to be), but that allow us to get to know a small number of characters with a surprising degree of intimacy. Precisely because he frees his scenes from the melodramatic plottiness of Hollywood movies, tiny domestic details (like the way a mother washes her daughter's hair, or the way a woman sets a table for dinner) take on a delicate richness of meaning. Engel's love of children and young lovers, the small scale of his productions, and the semicomic delicacy of his tone anticipate the early work of the French new wave filmmakers. In an interview Truffaut gave to The New Yorker during a visit to New York in 1960, the French filmmaker was quite explicit about Engel's influence: "Our new wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with his fine movie, The Little Fugitive [which played at the Venice Film Festival]." It is typical of the neglect of the independent filmmaker in America, however, that Engel's fourth feature film, I Need a Ride to California (shot in color in 35mm, and completed in 1968), has even today not been given a public screening. After that experience, at the age of fifty, Engel abandoned independent filmmaking and returned to still photography.

Lionel Rogosin is the third pioneer of the independent narrative tradition in America. Although Rogosin's work is far more complex than Meyers's, there are certain similarities between the work of the two filmmakers--not only their sense of moral outrage at the plight of the poor in America, but also their mix of documentary and fictional techniques. The similarities are not entirely coincidental: Richard Bagley, the cameraman Meyers used in The Quiet One, was a friend of both Meyers and Rogosin, and photographed Rogosin's first film, On the Bowery (1956).

For that film, Rogosin and Bagley went down to the Bowery, the neighborhood where New York's drunks, derelicts, and drug addicts congregated at the time, and enlisted several of them to cooperate with a professional actor (who played the lead role) in a series of guided group improvisations over a period of months to create a series of narrative events that would appear to take place over a very brief period of time within the film. In this respect, On the Bowery defines an important genre within the American independent tradition: the work that blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction filmmaking by utilizing both unscripted, improvised scenes and rehearsed and scripted ones. From Rogosin's work here, through Cassavetes' in Shadows and Husbands, to Shirley Clarke's in Portrait of Jason, to Robert Kramer's in Ice and Milestones, to Rob Nilsson's in Signal Seven, the mix of actors and non-actors, and the blend of "grabbed" and planned moments would become one of the hallmarks of American independent film. (Cassavetes, for one, told me that he knew and greatly admired Rogosin's work, and employed a similar dramatic technique five years later in his A Child Is Waiting by bringing together a group of actual retarded children with an actor playing a retarded child. His Husbands also has a partially improvised drinking scene that seems somewhat indebted to a similar scene in Rogosin's film.)

The greatness of Rogosin's film is traceable to the fact that rather than making easy "points" about poverty in America (as The Quiet One had done), he allows his drunks and derelicts enough time on camera (telling jokes and stories to each other, and otherwise expressing their eccentric individuality) that they become incredibly complex and interesting characters in their own right. One figure in particular, a derelict named Gorman (who died of alcoholism shortly after shooting was completed) steals most of the scenes he is in, and in fact proves to be much more interesting than the professional actor he shares scenes with. In being allowed to get to know these figures so intimately, the viewer is forced to abandon his stock notions about street people. Poverty is given a human face. In this respect and others, the effect of On the Bowery is almost the opposite of that of The Quiet One: far from pitying or patronizing these derelicts, we are forced to admire their spunkiness, their intelligence, their strength--however doomed or weird their lives may seem. As they "perform" within the film (in both scripted and unscripted ways, both as characters and as human beings), we are left with the uneasy recognition that they are just as interesting and intelligent as we are. When we realize that they are not someone else, but are us--Rogosin has brilliantly succeeded at his task. We care about their lives, and mourn the immorality of a society that can allow such a waste of spirit.

Rogosin made five more films over the next seventeen years, all dealing with important social issues and concerns, though each focusing on a different geographical area and a different social group: Come Back Africa (1960), Good Times, Wonderful Times (1965), Black Roots (1970), Black Fantasy (1972), and Woodcutters of the Deep South (1973). Unfortunately, his work remains almost completely unknown and unscreened in America (with the notable exception of a brief, belated screening series organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1990).

Insofar as they relied on bulky and expensive 35mm equipment, Meyers, Engel, and Rogosin might be called the "first generation" of American independents. The weight, size, and power requirements of studio-gauge equipment placed obvious limitations on their work that they attempted to overcome. In this respect, Engel was not only the most artistically accomplished of the three, but was also the most mechanically ingenious and inventive. In The Little Fugitive and Lovers and Lollipops, he used a hand-made 35mm camera custom-designed to be light enough to carry on his shoulder, and looped the sound (having the actors dub it in during the postproduction process) to avoid many of the problems of recording outdoors. Rogosin and Bagley took another tack: for the majority of the scenes in On the Bowery (which take place on streets and sidewalks), they shot from inside an automobile with a full-size 35mm camera mounted outside the right rear passenger window.

Text Copyright 2005 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.