Hidden in Plain Sight: Jerome Hiler and Mac McGinnes in Conversation
The 1960s was a heady decade for the Bay Area’s experimental film community. In 1961, the San Francisco Cinematheque and Canyon Cinema were founded; by 1967, Canyon had morphed into a distribution company and the Berkeley Art Museum conceived the Pacific Film Archives. Thus, local filmmakers had a regular venue for public screenings, a company to disseminate their work to a wider audience, and an inspirational collection/exhibition program to view and explore the best of international cinema.
This is the atmosphere that Jerome Hiler and his partner Nathaniel Dorsky discovered when they moved to San Francisco in 1971. Both were experimental filmmakers making silent films using a Bolex 16mm camera; they had been deeply immersed in New York City’s burgeoning avant-garde film scene where Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, George and Mike Kuchar, as well as filmmaker/critic Jonas Mekas, were making their mark.
Jerry and Nick were quickly absorbed into the local community. Though Nick’s films were more visible publicly, Jerry preferred the intimacy of private apartment screenings for friends. He projected older footage from back East as well as new material shot in the Bay Area, using camera-original stock that was reedited for each viewing. Jerry also devoted much of his energy toward two long-time passions: music and stained glass. He conducted an in-depth study of Gregorian chant, which led to a public lecture. The stained-glass windows in New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine were featured in his earliest film and his interest grew to a study of the magnificent windows in Europe’s Gothic churches. This led to a decision to stop shooting film and learn the craft of designing and fabricating his own stained-glass works. When he returned to filmmaking, his Words of Mercury premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2011 and later played at The Castro Theatre. Completed in 2012, In the Stone House was a compilation of surviving East Coast footage shot between 1967 and 1970. It was followed in 2014 by New Shores, which included film shot in California between that same span of years. Marginalia and Bagatelle II debuted in 2016 and four Hiler films were screened in 2019 at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.
In November 2019, The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis cited the retrospective Luminous Intimacy: The Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler (2015) as being one of the ten most highly regarded programs of the decade. Already familiar with Dorsky, she noted that the dual retrospective served as her introduction to Hiler, describing In the Stone House as “an eloquent transcendent ode to their life together, the changing light and the passage of time.”
I am a long-time fan of Jerome Hiler’s lyrical cinema. If you are unfamiliar with his films, follow Ms. Dargis’s lead and introduce yourself to an extraordinary body of work. —MM
Mac McGinnes: You had screenings at the Anthology Film Archives in New York in early June. What did you show?
Jerome Hiler: I showed six films: Words of Mercury, Bagatelle II, Marginalia, Ruling Star, Bagatelle I, and an old film called In the Stone House.
MM: The crowds were appreciative?
JH: They certainly were. I couldn’t figure out where the crowds came from, nor did the management, because they looked at me in a puzzled way and said, “We’re not used to having this many people here.” A lot of people were turned away and others sat in the aisles, breaking the fire rules. I don’t know the network by which these people showed up. I told friends who were concerned about getting in: “Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of seats. Nobody knows me here.” I made no effort to publicize. What a surprise.
MM: My impression from going to Nathaniel Dorsky’s films is that the audience is younger. It’s not people our age who remember the great old days of experimental cinema, you know? They’re new people that have discovered the work and are taking it to their hearts.
JH: Yes, I know. It’s wonderful, but it’s also unnerving in the sense that it’s a connection that I don’t completely understand. Showing my films publicly is still new to me and it’s intimidating to face a room full of strangers.
MM: And of course, you’re a native New Yorker.
JH: Yes, and, perhaps, my memories of the New York audiences of the 1960s had me feeling nervous even before such a friendly group. In the days when handmade cinema was young, there was a lot of hissing, booing, cat-calling, and talk-back from viewers who were very wary of these new films and, most importantly, didn’t want to be “taken in.” Between that time and now, there have been a number of generations who learned about film in school. Now, I wonder if things haven’t gotten too accepting. But my childhood was spent in Jamaica, Queens. Until the mid ’50s, Jamaica used to be the main shopping center of Long Island, before suburbia developed. It had all the major department stores and we had around seven movie theaters.
JH: My favorite was a triple bill theater that changed its program every two days.
MM: Were you raised by a religious family?
JH: Yes, they were very religious. My entire neighborhood was Catholic. We all went to the same church, and all attended Mass on Sunday. I sometimes attended Mass at 6:30 in the morning on weekdays. I went to Catholic school. I regarded it as a jail. You had to sit in the same seat from September to June, there was no recreation period. And corporal punishments for everything.
MM: Did you grow up in what you would consider a kind of cultured house?
JH: No. Well, it was strange to call it culture. The culture was mostly around the television. My mother used to love to watch British films in the afternoon; Hollywood resisted letting television air American films in the early days, so TV could only get films from England. I used to watch those, along with Hopalong Cassidy films.
MM: When did you discover that there was another world of culture? Art, music, dance?
JH: Well, through films. Disney — things like that. I have to say that my family was not cultured, really, and they didn’t know what art really meant. They were completely against my going into anything artistic. The more I expressed interest in real art and the real art scene, the more opposition I got from them and our neighbors. I guess by seeing Fantasia when I was young, I first heard Stravinsky, which completely blew me away. And I think also the fact that I liked science fiction films of the ’50s, because the music in those films was just one step away from what was called serious classical music in those days. So that when I actually heard classical music that was contemporary, I immediately thought, “I love this stuff.” [Laughter]
MM: New York City was blessed with absolutely terrific classical music stations, so that there was music available of all sorts. All you had to do was find the right place on the dial. Do you remember DeKoven?
JH: Oh sure, DeKoven… his wild enthusiasm for baroque music and near-hysterical rating abbreviations such as OTW for “out of this world,” and the next step toward bliss — OTG for “out of this galaxy.” There were so many stations with both classical and jazz that listening was, if I might say, OTG. Let me say this for my parents: I grew up listening to classical music from the time I was an infant. They gave me records such as the opera Hansel and Gretel, Debussy and Tchaikovsky and Chopin; I played those records constantly. I liked rock ‘n’ roll when it came around, I listened to the Top 40 and so forth, but when I went to the record player, I always listened to “Clair de Lune” and pieces like that.
MM: And you were also interested in being a visual artist, a painter I think?
JH: Yes. I definitely wanted to be a painter. The first time I saw a modern painting was in, I believe, a very big, slick magazine in New York — Holiday or something like that. They had a picture of de Kooning with one of his paintings and he was very well dressed and his hair was combed — his painting, of course, was just splashes of color. And I thought, “This is ridiculous.” But I saved the magazine, and I always went back and looked at that picture. He eventually, became one of my heroes. It’s funny how one’s first view of things might make you laugh and then before you know it, it gets inside you.
MM: Another view: you’re first listening to The Rite of Spring, and you somehow realized that the New York City Ballet was doing a lot of Balanchine-Stravinsky collaborations. You started going to those when you were in high school?
JH: Hearing The Rite of Spring was a life-changing experience for me. It made me identify with becoming an artist. I became a Stravinsky fanatic when I was in high school. A wonderful library, the main branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, was nearby, and they had a great record collection. Lo and behold, I saw that they had a lot of records by Stravinsky. So little by little I started learning all his music. Then I started taking out books about him, and becoming quite absorbed in his life. I wasn’t doing well in school at all; I was absorbed completely in this other world, and not in the world of what I was supposed to be learning in school. It was a paradoxical kind of situation. Then when I was walking around Manhattan, I noticed a program for the City Center of Music and Drama had some Stravinsky for a ballet company, and when I went to the box office I saw it was eminently affordable. These were not expensive tickets.
MM: Four dollars and ninety cents was the top.
JH: Yes, so I bought those top tickets to hear the music, right? But I recognized the name Balanchine from Stravinsky biographies that I had been reading, so I thought, “By gosh, this guy isn’t in Europe in the past. He’s right here now.” I started using what little allowance I had to go to the New York City Ballet on weeknights, telling my parents I was going to do my homework at the library and instead getting on the E train and going to see Apollo, Agon, etcetera.
MM: Good for you. That same thing happened to me. I was a Stravinsky fan, and I was also a big Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya fan. My first summer in New York, I worked at a theater in New Jersey, and at the end of the season, I noticed that the New York City Ballet was doing Seven Deadly Sins with Lotte Lenya. I couldn’t miss that, and I fell in love with the company. And it was as cheap as going to the movies.
JH: Well, interestingly enough, that was the very year I was roaming around and saw those bills outside the theater for The Seven Deadly Sins. I remember that. I had more and more of an attraction to this world. I soon became something of a regular down front at the ballet. That theater allowed such intimacy with magic-infused art. One evening, I was there in the fifth row for the premiere of a Balanchine-Stravinsky ballet: Monumentum Pro Gesualdo. The new work came after the first intermission. I was so looking forward to it that I was the sole member of the downstairs audience to remain in their seat during the break. Eventually, I felt the eerie calm of being alone in that place. I slowly looked around at the empty hall and found Igor Stravinsky sitting about six rows directly behind me reading his program. The sight of him unattended like that had me riveted in place and dumbstruck in wonder. Eventually, his glance rose from his reading and we commenced to stare at each other. “Rudeness be damned,” I thought, “this is unbelievable.” After a surprisingly long interval, he blinked in such a way as to say, “Yes, I think we’ve done this enough,” and young Mr. Hiler turned his dazzled head toward the stage.
MM: After you graduated from high school, what did you do?
JH: I worked at the New York Stock Exchange as a runner on the floor.
MM: How did you get from the New York Stock Exchange, a money machine exemplified to the nth power, into the world of experimental film, which is the opposite of everything that Wall Street is?
JH: Well, these things run on parallel tracks. I always had this idea that I would like to be simply earning a living so I could do what I wanted to do with the rest of the day. I chose the Exchange because the day ended at 3:00. In high school I had met other like-minded people — troubled boys who fancied that they were Beatnik poets. They wrote a lot of Beat-type things and they turned me onto Ginsburg and the other Beat poets. We went to a lot of jazz concerts and I remember becoming very attached to the Village Voice, because it was such an “in” publication at that time. I would even, in the summertime, go into the city on Thursday nights just to get the newest copy from the Paperbook Gallery.
MM: In Sheridan Square?
JH: Yes. And there, of course, I would read Jonas Mekas’ column and he would talk about these films that were very new and different from the fare that I had been looking at. I started to go to them. I was only eighteen, living in Queens, but I remember taking the train into Manhattan to the Bleecker Street Cinema at midnight, and a young David Brooks, a filmmaker who at the time was I believe, the manager of the Bleecker Street, hosted these programs. Stan Brakhage appeared there; I think he presented The Dead there for the first time. He presented Prelude: Dog Star Man for the first time there as well, which completely blew me away. I think that was one of the things that told me I would love to do this kind of thing, making films.
MM: So now you’ve discovered a new world. How did you insinuate yourself in its depths?
JH: In those days, I identified as a painter. While I was still in high school, I went to a Saturday program at Pratt Institute and learned to paint from an abstract painter by the name of Natalia Pohrebinska. I learned to stretch large scale canvases, and she would say things like, “I want you to cover your canvas in five minutes with paint.” A lot of the students broke down in tears, because they were well-trained painters. But I was not a well-trained painter at all, I had no art training whatsoever. So I immediately jumped in and was very successful at this new art. When I proudly brought my work home, barely fitting it onto the elevated train to get it out to Queens, my parents and neighbors gathered to see it and all loudly condemned it. And my next-door neighbor, an Italian woman who coached opera singers at the Met, screamed that if I kept this up I would end up with “the nuts in Greenwich Village.”
MM: Oh my! You knew you had done the right thing.
JH: So I went right back to work. [Laughter] My story is very, very complicated, and I don’t want to go into so many details about how I got there, but at a certain point, after I shared a loft with some other people —
MM: So you moved away from home?
JH: Oh, I moved away from home when I was eighteen. As soon as I possibly could. And it’s a shame. It broke my mother’s heart. It took me a long time to make peace again with my parents. They didn’t understand that I was getting no love at home. All the love I was getting in those days was coming from outside my home. And people just follow the love.
MM: That’s true.
JH: If you come home, and you’re told that you’re worthless and no good, a jerk and a failure, etcetera, and other people are telling you that you’re absolutely wonderful, where are you going to go? I went to Manhattan and lived in a storefront on East Ninth Street between First and Second. $65 a month. Some years later, in a shared artist’s loft on Eldridge St., I had a falling out with the people who I lived with. They were, in my view, extremely unfair to me. In the middle of February, I was told that I had to get out. No reason given. And I had all my art equipment, paintings, everything, stored with a friend. That friend happened to be living with junkies, and that friend committed suicide and all the junkies painted over my paintings, and they used all my paints, and that was that. I was being very dramatic and sorry for myself about how down and out I was. I rented a room in a Bowery derelicts’ hotel. I could have done better, but I was being very flamboyant about having lost everything. There I was in my bitter little room when there’s a knock at my door: a friend of mine from Queens had brought Gregory Markopoulos with him to introduce us. I couldn’t have been more embarrassed. I had seen some of Markopoulos’ work. He was one of my idols. And here he was seeing me in my —
JH: — highly dramatic destitution, which I had stage-managed so carefully and now was acutely humiliated by. Gregory was wearing a camel hair overcoat. He looked around the room with great disdain and asked me if I wanted to be his roommate. Well, needless to say, this visit was almost supernatural in the transformation that was being offered me. I moved into his Civil War-era attic apartment on 11th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. He was busy shooting The Illiac Passion and, in a matter of weeks, I became his assistant, his location-hunter, and costume designer for nearly half a year. Gregory also let me borrow his Bolex camera, which was an honor beyond imagining. This mutation in my life was so powerful that I took it as a sign that film was my path from then on.
MM: You met Nathaniel around this time? Or is this still early for that?
JH: Nathaniel comes into the picture the following Summer. The Washington Square Gallery had an avant-garde film series and Nathaniel was there showing his very first film: Ingreen. Gregory and I went to that show. I ran into Nathaniel by chance, the next day, at the office of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, as I was on my way up to interview for a new job with the photographer Fred Eberstadt.
MM: Oh, he was a fashion photographer, I think?
JH: Yes. Frederick and his wife Isabel were really in the center of the social scene in Manhattan at that time. I didn’t have enough money to get to the job interview, so I walked up to the Film-Makers’ Cooperative to see if perhaps Leslie Trumbull would lend me subway fare. And there, sitting at Leslie’s desk, was Nathaniel, and there was a film can that said Ingreen, and I said, “Oh, you’re the guy who made that film last night.” And Nathaniel said “Yes.” But there was something extra in his look, a kind of a wicked twinkle in his eye. I returned it, and we talked awhile. Jonas [Mekas] caught what was going on with us, and said, “Would you two like to work together on Saturday? Just go and do some demolition work down at the Fourth Street Theater?” Nick and I looked at one another and said, “Yes!” spontaneously. So that’s how I got to meet Nathaniel. 1964.
MM: I think I saw most of the experimental films I went to at the 41st Street Theater. There were places — odd screens like the Bleecker Street, but they seemed at some point to settle into that theater in the basement of the Wurlitzer building.
JH: There were many locations: the Charles Theatre, the Gramercy Arts Theatre, the City Hall Cinema. There was a place on Lafayette Street and eventually the 41st Street Theater.
MM: And when did you start working as a projectionist?
JH: Oh gosh, I don’t recall exactly. But I’ll throw out ’65 or ’66. The main projectionist was a filmmaker by the name of Bob Cowan, who fans of the Kuchar brothers’ films would recognize on sight. He’s one of their major stars. Bob Cowan was the greatest silent film actor of our time. We had quite a schedule at that 41st Street Theater. Bob and I shared the workload.
MM: Is that when you guys premiered [Andy Warhol’s] Chelsea Girls?
JH: Yes. That’s particularly why they needed two people, because there were so many shows of the Chelsea Girls. That was a big hit.
But, you know, I wasn’t the greatest fan of the film — too much cruelty. At the time, Andy told me to play around with the image and the soundtrack as I felt like it. There were two projectors creating two screens, side-by-side. You could have one soundtrack going and then change to the other soundtrack, then you might go back to the first soundtrack. Perhaps even both of them together a little bit. And then you had some gels, some cellophane, and so forth. You would hold the cellophane whenever you felt like it, over one of the projector lenses so that it all went red. And then another one went blue. So he says, “Be random.” Well, that’s okay, because at that time I was reading Moby-Dick, and so I would get up holding the book in my hand, continuing to read. And then with my free hand I would just sort of wave a gel in front of the lens. I was utterly random. [Laughter] But the only time I was ever ashamed of my work was one time Andy came up and we started talking and I forget what went on, but my interaction with Andy was more interesting than the film. And one of the reels ran out. One projector was around five to ten minutes ahead of the other projector, so you could make your turnovers without disturbing the flow. And I said to Andy, “Look what you made me do! You made me miss the turnover.” So I’m putting the new reel on, but the projector bulbs, once turned off, took several minutes to get to full brightness. They started as a dull purple, then pink, and then bright blue. As a technician, I wasn’t supposed to start a reel until the light was completely bright. But, in this emergency, I started the reel with the image a dull purple. Andy looks at the screen, and asks, “What’s that?” I said, “That’s what happens when you let the light go off.” He goes, “Jerry!” — in a tone of voice that said, “you naughty boy” — “Why haven’t you been doing that?” You see, I didn’t understand the Andy aesthetic. He loves to expose the media. From then on, I’d turn the bulb on when the reel started and just let it slowly come up from a throbbing purple.
MM: When did you start meeting the young poets, like Anne Waldman?
JH: Not until Nathaniel and I moved to rural northern New Jersey. We made the move to distance ourselves from the high-tension energy of Manhattan. It was a spiritual instinct which was a prominent movement in those times. There was a psychedelic aspect, as well. Today, we forget that there was a sincere spiritual and philosophical movement behind the use of drugs — we considered it a moral thing to be a part of. But reality seems to always be at odds with high purpose. Our retreat house, which sat on a slope over a lake, was situated in the most conservative area imaginable. Our neighbors seemed only slightly updated from the cast of a D.W. Griffith film. But, to be fair, they were of a live-and-let-live nature and we did our best to blend in. Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep our friends from Manhattan from coming to visit us. So all our weekends were —
JH: And in the summertime, forget it! People stayed weeks on end. One particularly busy summer, I was so fed up. We finally drove the last person to the Erie-Lackawanna train station, which was a good forty-five-minute drive. We’re coming back to the house feeling so good that we’re finally going to be alone. And there’s a red sports car in our driveway. I was furious. Who is here? I came into the living room in a fury, and there were suitcases all over the place, hastily opened and no one around. I went down to the lake, and there standing in the water was Anne Waldman in a bikini, looking like Venus. And my resistance melted.
MM: You and Nathaniel had been filming for a good period of time now. Particularly Nathaniel, he started even earlier than you did. And you used a Bolex right?
MM: What draws you to that particular camera and the kind of filmmaking that you and Nick liked to make?
JH: There’s something about a Bolex — I think it’s one of the most handsome machines that’s ever been made. It’s like a little steam locomotive, right in your own hands. And it does so many things. Unlike many other cameras, you can look through it and see exactly what you’re going to be shooting. It had a fade in and fade out function, which I don’t believe too many other cameras have. It has a device for winding the film back, so you can superimpose in the camera with very precise markings, about where you were. A precise footage counter, and also beautifully designed. Seeing the camera itself was an inspiration, because it looked like some treasury that contained all sorts of magical riches within it.
MM: That period was very rich for both of you. I mean, Hours for Jerome — Nathaniel’s film — covers that period, as does your In the Stone House and New Shores. Both you and Nathaniel only make silent films. I’d probably call them handmade. They don’t use computers, none of that stuff. It’s the old-fashioned craft. A lot of your filmic ideas must have been coalescing in your mind then. And also the way you put things together, the editing process in both of your films, is always unexpected and delightful. It’s non-narrative.
JH: Nathaniel and I had been engrossed in discussing film and its possibilities from the moment we met. We also loved and drew inspiration from each other’s film footage, which we shared and mingled — both physically and mentally. As for myself, I don’t know whether or not I could actually call myself a filmmaker. I use film, but I’m still a painter by instinct. Now, when you add time to a painting it becomes something akin to the flow of thought. It has to do with mental sequence. This is where silence can enter the discussion. My thoughts don’t make noise. They’re quite quiet in my head. And yet, they’re very powerful. You could say that my films are actually expressions of thought patterns, visual thought patterns. Then there’s the matter of rhythm. My films have their own kind of rhythm. It’s not something that I can add music to.
MM: Your films to me are more like music than quote-unquote “movies.” I mean, they seem to be organized in the same way. They obviously engender strong feelings, emotions, thoughts, all sorts of references. Like music does. Then it goes on, then it stops, then another tune comes up.
MM: So there’s a suite of things.
JH: They are something visual that uses film and I do see film as akin to music. I got that from Brakhage. Brakhage always spoke of the kinship of film and music.
MM: So your filmmaking scene was a social scene, as much as anything else. You had screenings at your home for friends. Almost like a soirée. Was it like, every Friday night, show up at…?
JH: No, it wasn’t like that. And unfortunately, this is something that has passed in my life. When I lived in Manhattan on East Broadway, people were coming by almost every night. There was even a time when friends broke into my apartment while I was out for the night and screened my films for themselves. I came home to find some papers with appreciative reviews on them. We continued this in New Jersey. There, we had two projectors, so we could do screens within the screens, or double screens alongside one another. We did all sorts of fun projections, we super-imposed different people’s films on top of each other. And we brought this to San Francisco, when we lived together on Carl Street.
MM: When did you move to San Francisco?
JH: In the fall of ’71.
MM: And why?
JH: Much as I enjoyed a lot of the nature in New Jersey, still the community there was —
JH: Actually, many of our neighbors were wonderful and we became very close. There were tears when we left and years of letters. But, we were also experimenting with drugs, we were doing peyote and things like that. We were always smoking weed. And the police were an issue there. They came by at one in the morning one time, just to see what we were doing. You know, claiming that they were looking for someone else, but we knew they were looking at us. One time, a poet, Harris Schiff, hitched his way out to visit us. He had a mountain of hair on the top of his head, a beard, and the army flak jacket. So the New Jersey State Police spot him and ask him what he’s up to. And he says, “Oh, I’m going to see Nick and Jerry.” This is nowhere near our house, this is out on Route 206, miles and miles away. And the policeman says, “Oh, the stone house. Go ahead.” And they drove away. That’s how we learned that our place was referred to as “the stone house.” Needless to say, I freaked out that the cops knew exactly who Nick and Jerry were. [Laughter] And then we heard that the mayor of San Francisco, Joe Alioto, said, “No one will ever be prosecuted for marijuana in San Francisco.” I said, “We’re going.” We had visited San Francisco numerous times, and the atmosphere of the city, the friendliness of the people — compared to where we lived — was such a change. This is now the ’70s we’re getting into, New York was getting kind of grim. And I thought, we can’t go back to Manhattan. And so we went west.
MM: And you had friends there? Did the Kuchar brothers come around the same time?
JH: They came a little earlier, yes.
MM: So at least you had cronies that you could talk to.
JH: Yes, we had friends out here. Warren —
MM: Warren Sonbert, yeah.
JH: We also had friends that we’ve had for years — non-filmmakers. We didn’t come out here to be with anyone, but we wanted to be done with long, freezing winters. And we wanted to be in the city we saw depicted by R. Crumb in his drawings, which served as a lifeline to us in our isolated retreat back east.
MM: And it sounds like you duplicated the informal screening process here. I mean, there’s certainly a lot of filmmakers in the Bay Area that I would think would be very interested in that sort of thing. And Canyon Cinema had been going since when?
JH: Yes, a long time — the very early 60s. The San Francisco Cinematheque was also going strong.
MM: Carmen Vigil was there then.
JH: It was homey, in the sense that it was familial. Carmen and Susan, his wife, had a house on Head Street in San Francisco. They originally rented, but the owner sold the house to them for $10,000. It would take another essay to convey how different San Francisco was in temperament at that time. Carmen was a great cook, and after dinner, they had screenings. That was a way of saving money for the Cinematheque: they would invite people out, and they would simply stay at their house. Everyone came to the dinner for the visiting filmmaker. Carmen and Susan made their own wine and, at harvest time, a group of us would go to a vineyard and pick the grapes and crush them. As for the Cinematheque schedule, the screenings were several times a week at the San Francisco Art Institute.
MM: I noticed that there’s a stop in the production of film from both you and Nick around this time. There wasn’t anything with your name on it. Was it the shift to San Francisco? I know you both talk about the light here. What made you kind of reassess?
JH: I don’t know if it was reassessing. I think it was just that homey atmosphere. So many filmmakers were coming through, you could show what you were doing at home screenings and then they would show their films. That was enough for me. Meanwhile, I would be going to a lot of Cinematheque programs, and I would see the nature of the films changing to a conceptual or political focus, and I was feeling like I don’t know how I fit into this world. So I just kept to being local. And then at a certain point in the late ’80s I got so frustrated that I felt, “Maybe I’ll just stop making films.” But that didn’t work either, and so it was in the ’90s when a group by the name of Silt said, “We’re having a little program and would you show your work?” Out of nowhere, I was being offered my first public showing. I suddenly felt free of all qualms and told them I’d be honored to be among them. I called the film I showed Gladly Given.
MM: And does it exist anymore?
JH: As a matter of fact, I’ve just re-worked it a bit and I’m about to send it off to make a print. After its initial screening, it showed at the New York Film Festival and those two shows put me on my present path of making films and presenting them regularly. But before I resumed my personal film work, I worked on a documentary, Music Makes A City.
MM: During this time, you also worked on stained glass. What caused your interest in glass?
JH: During my “disillusionment with film” period, I often mused about the brief lifespan of film as material. I saw how colors faded after a few years. I’ve always loved medieval glass and marveled at how the colors still remained strong after eight-hundred years. That idea drew me to work in the medium.
MM: You give an illustrated talk on the subject of early glass — most recently you gave a well-received presentation at The Harvard Film Archive. You called it Cinema Before 1300. Just in a nutshell, what’s your idea?
JH: Oh, there is no nutshell. My basic idea is that stained glass at its birth was the most high-tech condensation of every known art, architecture, and science at the time, which coalesced into the first mass media. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, one hundred cathedrals and five hundred churches of near-cathedral size were built in France alone. These structures were not simply decorated with stained glass, but were there to display it, the same way that you would not claim that films were decorations in movie theaters. People are there to look at what’s on the screen; the cathedrals were built for the glass. Of course, they were used for worship as a spiritual center, but people traveled thousands of miles to witness these wonders. It was mass media in the sense that nobody could read in those days, and the panels on the glass — this was light-projected media, too — told stories, and there were narrators who took the crowds around and pointed things out, the same way the Benshi narrators in Japan would narrate silent films. So this was definitely the forerunner of cinema. It’s also similar to film in that you have light coming through a medium that changes color and affects it. It’s different in the brilliance of the day, in the noontime light or in evening’s mellow glow, whether it should it be on the south, north, or west side. And, should a flock of birds suddenly take off, or should a cloud come and turn it down, all the colors change suddenly. It almost is its own, slow editing process. Natural editing.
MM: Music Makes a City seemed to have been a natural growth out of your interests in contemporary music, your discovery of how a mayor in late-1940s Louisville, Kentucky used the new symphony orchestra to commission hundreds of musical works as an inducement to attract business and industry to his city. With Owsley Brown III, whose family is deeply connected to Louisville, you developed the project over many years, I remember you working on it forever — I think it came to be one of the most extraordinary documentaries I’ve ever seen. It stands alone in your work, it doesn’t look like anything else.
JH: I think we decided to make the film after a ballet performance. We had been to a Balanchine program at the San Francisco Ballet, and we were very inspired. We were talking excitedly, as one talks excitedly with Owsley all the time, about the particular kind of inspiration that comes from an event that raises your community’s vision of what’s possible. We were out in that courtyard between the Opera House and what is now the Veterans Building. And I was talking about how delicate the threads are that hold culture together. That we imagine that culture is a powerful, strong kind of thing, but I think that actually you’ll find out that there are only a few people who actually hold it together — what if Balanchine hadn’t existed, you know? I said, sometimes it’s very, very delicate and leadership is so important in the world — whether you like it or not, you think and act differently under a certain president than you do under another president. I said to Owsley: “Well you should know that from Louisville and Mayor Charles Farnsley.” And I told him the story of the Louisville Orchestra, and he said, “You should write a book.” And I said, “No, we should make a movie.” If I write a book about modern music, people won’t know what I’m talking about, but if we use the music as our soundtrack, and have sequences that play the music, people will know exactly what we’re talking about. It has to be a movie. It took a long time because I got sick for a while, right in the middle of it, and I couldn’t work as hard as I wanted to. Plus, the fact that then the film got to be, you know, five-and-a-half hours long, we had to cut it down a lot. I said, “I am determined to make this a good film.” And Owsley said, “Then don’t worry, because we will not stop until it’s a good film.” I might point out that Nathaniel Dorsky did a great job with the final edit.
MM: It starts out with the flood of the city, and the new mayor who wants to attract businesses. He has the crazy idea that if the city has cultural interests, people will want to live there.
JH: Yes, a crazy idea that worked. He’s a Southern mayor who was guided by the ideas of Confucius. I just felt like there’s no point in telling this story unless you’re going to start at the beginning and fully re-create the world.
MM: Louisville is a middle class, middle taste city and they got new, contemporary music that wasn’t going to freak people out. It was smart.
JH: The whole thing is a highly improbable story, but a success for the town, because it brought in a lot of jobs. GE moved an enormous plant there because of the cultural atmosphere. And then eventually, the Soviets came. Shostakovich came to Louisville, because the Soviet authorities were always jamming the broadcast of the Louisville Orchestra on The Voice of America, that actually the Soviet composers wanted to come to see for themselves. They had a fantastic night of their music that they conducted.
MM: The DVDs are really invaluable, because you get the film as shown, plus a second disk of very good interviews with each of the composers.
JH: Yeah, and there are many people who told me, much to my chagrin, that the two-and-a-half hours of interviews are their favorite feature. [Laughter.]
MM: And basically — you wrote it.
JH: Yes, I wrote it.
MM: And co-directed, with Owsley? And you did a lot of the shooting — the music photography, I’m sure, is almost all yours.
JH: Not all, but about half of it. And a good deal of the atmospheric photography is mine. And also, I chose all the music. If you wanted to know what took time, it was fishing through hours and hours, endless hours of music, to find music that has just the right tone of neutrality that somebody can be speaking over it. Because classical music tends to be — let’s just say —
MM: You can’t play the march from Aida and then have somebody talking over it.
JH: Classical music traffics in extremes of emotion. The depths of depression, the depths of agony — then the next movement is supposed to be a happy movement. Peel me off the ceiling, I’m so happy, you know? There’s very little music that’s written in between the wild extremes. It was for me to find that and that was a tough job.
MM: The amount of energy that it took to get this huge project done — it seemed to focus you creatively again. It came out in 2010. And then your films started appearing. I think Words of Mercury in 2011? And then In the Stone House, and New Shores, which used old material. Stone House was edited in 2012, New Shores 2014, and then two new films in 2016: Marginalia, Bagatelle I and II.
JH: And after that, Ruling Star. Well, I had wanted to do a lot more of my own kind of footage in the music sequences in Music Makes a City. But I was frustrated from doing that and I think that when I was through with the movie, it did make me turn to my own work with a passion.
MM: So the films — I can’t figure out how you make them. The layering of the images. Both you and Nick make silent, non-narrative films, often using similar imagery, but they don’t look or feel at all alike. One of the things that characterize your images for me are these wonderful colors, intense colors, the incredible layering of images on top of each other. And I know that it’s all done in the camera.
JH: Well, I guess the idea is that my films express who I am, and Nathaniel’s films express who he is.
JH: You wouldn’t believe it, but I try not to shoot things that Nathaniel does. Anywhere I go in San Francisco, I put the camera up and say, “Oh, Nick Dorsky was here.” And so I leave town to photograph. But no matter what I try to do, we have our similarities. We have our interests that are the same, you know? So we can’t fight that either, because that’s who I am and that’s why I was attracted to him in the first place.
MM: Yes. I know on the other end, he has the same concerns.
JH: I’m reminded of a story that the composer Walter Piston told. He said he was so tired of his style of music that he really tried so hard to do everything the opposite and use new kinds of themes and so forth, and he said that when his new piece was completed, the orchestra played it and it was just another piece by Walter Piston. [Laughter]
MM: But Words of Mercury is really quite a magical film. It’s transporting. Do you want to talk about superimpositions?
JH: Superimpositions, shot in the camera, are something I have always attempted throughout my whole life, with not much success. So, Words of Mercury is the product of a lot of failure. I realized that the important thing was to allow for a lot of black to be there, because black was what allowed the other layers to come up with their own colors. If you just pile up a lot of images, you’re going to get an overexposed mess.
MM: So if you keep painting colors, then it always turns to cruddy brown.
JH: Exactly, exactly. The idea is that everything I shoot should have a black background and not take up the whole frame. And then of course there are these rhythms of bringing them in and out, shoot for a while then let the roll be in blackness and then resume images later on, so that, like in a piece of music, themes appear for a bit and return sometime later. You have to learn to shoot that way.
MM: Do you shoot a roll of film and then go back and start layering?
JH: Yes, but there’s a lot of difficulty in this method. I don’t do it too much, because there’s a certain lack of joy in this style of working. I mean, joy is a very important thing — both in method and in the end result. I want to have a life-affirming feeling in viewing my work. I’m not interested in telling people what’s wrong with the world. At this point in time, everybody knows what’s wrong with the world. Everyone’s constantly dealing with what’s wrong with the world. I want to touch the joy of existence and I also have to enjoy shooting.
MM: And there must be a lot of death in the editing room, because things don’t work.
JH: There’s so many ways to ruin things. In shooting, one mistake in exposure can destroy a month’s work. And, yes, in the editing room, your material might not work at all the way you hoped. You have to be completely awake and aware and I’m not that kind of guy all the time.
MM: Well it seems to happen enough —
JH: Yes, it happens enough to pay off. But it’s a hard way to work.
MM: In the Stone House and New Shores are really salvaging what was left of stuff that you had shot and shown so many times in camera original. I think you’re one of the few filmmakers that allows original material to be screened. And it can be permanently damaged.
JH: Yes, very little of my body of work has survived. And after I had finished Mercury, I thought, “Okay, that’s my current statement.” But there’s this thing that happens at four in the morning. I wake up, and I have my gloomiest thoughts, right? And I think, okay, I’m ready to go onto make another film. But what about all that other film that you have in the closet there? What if you die suddenly and other people look in there and say, “Well, we really ought to do something with this stuff. Why don’t we try to edit it?” You know? And not only did I realize that A., they would never ever know how to edit that material, but B., more importantly, it’s a terrible thing to leave for somebody else to do. I have seen filmmakers who have saddled other filmmakers with enormous tasks to perform for them when those filmmakers are very creative people themselves. So I thought — in a cold sweat kind of situation — I have got to make a film out of all that stuff or else people are going to be trying to make a film out of it. So, that’s how In the Stone House and New Shores came about.
MM: Marginalia, isn’t that the one that you abraded the film? You wrote on it, scratched it?
JH: Yes, well that’s how you do marginalia, right, you have to write in the margins. With scratching and so forth, those things are like marginalia rhythms. When I’m painting on stained glass I scrape things away. And I realized — wait a minute, film is the same way. You can scrape away. So long as it’s black and white. It’s not so nice with color.
MM: What’s next?
JH: Oh. That’s the mystery of life!
MM: Well I know you go to films a lot too. I know you’re always trucking down to the Stanford Theater. I’ve been down there with you. I have a feeling your heart is there in some way. Or your emotional life is in those films.
JH: Yes, it’s not so much like I can say that I derive anything that inspires my filmmaking from looking at classical American films. I love them, but it’s more like going back to your origins.
MM: Yeah, like a childhood.
JH: It’s not exactly nostalgia, but it does connect me with the original brilliance of the square screen. These days, when I look at classic-era films, I mainly focus on the Director of Photography. I feel that, in a primal way, it’s the power of their lighting and compositions that is the secret ingredient of why people were so entranced by all the other elements of a film. In my childhood, I was brought to the movies well before I could understand them. But I still loved them for being illuminations and enlargements of fascinating characters. I mostly loved the clips before the trailers that said “TUESDAY AND WEDNESDAY” in scintillating block letters that miraculously floated in a twinkling cosmos. What promise they offered to my hum-drum week. Early experiences continue to affect us today, and my films are very open to an individual’s interpretation. I don’t know what they’re about myself sometimes. But it’s just the joy of sitting there watching them. They continue to move, they evolve, they surprise.