November 15, 2006

Pop Czar: New York's Post-War Art Movement Through One of Its Essential Champions

Geldzahler (left) and artist David Hockney. Photo: Robert Doisneau. Courtesy of Peter Rosen

Who Gets to Call it Art? is a literal title of a documentary that explores an amazing time in the history of pop art. The place was a 10-square block area in Manhattan where Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas and other artists lived, worked and displayed their wares in galleries. The time was the 1960s. Peter Rosen produced and directed the 80-minute film.

"I wanted to make a film about that extraordinary community of artists for years, but I couldn't figure out how to do it," says the New York-based nonfiction filmmaker. "It would have been boring to go from one artist to another in a linear fashion."

Enter the eureka factor. In 1999, Rosen suddenly had an idea for building the story around Henry Geldzahler, who was the curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan during that period. Rosen never met Geldzahler, who died in 1994, but research revealed clips of his speeches as well as photos, and radio and television interviews.

Many of the painters and sculptors who were discovered and otherwise affected by Geldzahler were alive. Rosen also identified critics and journalists who had crossed the curator's path. It was an incredibly ambitious endeavor, but Rosen had journeyed on that path many times before. His documentaries include Toscanini: The Maestro, Juilliard at 80, Carnegie Hall at 100, Reflections: Leonard Bernstein, Rubinstein Remembered, Yo-Yo Ma at Tanglewood, Midori Live at Carnegie Hall, Enrico Caruso: Voice of the Century, Khachaturian, and the 1989, 1993 and 2001 PBS specials on the Van Cliburn Piano Competitions, which won a primetime Emmy Award, a Directors Guild of America Award and a Peabody Award.

Rosen was born and raised in New York City, where his aunt, Maria Borde, was the chief still photographer for the United Nations. She introduced him to photography when he was six years old. Rosen took his first pictures with a plastic camera. He was the photo editor of his high school and college newspapers. Rosen studied architecture at Cornell University and continued his education at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, where he earned a master's degree in fine arts.

"Architecture was wonderful training," Rosen recalls. "I learned to think and express myself visually. Most of the other film students at Yale were writing screenplays. Michael Roemer was one of our teachers. He showed us films made by Albert Maysles, Robert Drew and Ricky Leacock. They were a big influence. I shot thousands of feet of student films, including my own. Joseph E. Levine (The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, etc.) backed my first film at Yale, Bright College Years. It was about student activism on college campuses during the late 1960s."

Rosen produced many arts stories for PBS' MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour from 1983-85. He also produced and directed children's TV programs for CBS in 1985. In all, Rosen estimates that he's compiled more than 100 long- and short-form credits.

Who Gets to Call It Art? is a blend of archival stills and TV news footage, including memorabilia harvested from Geldzahler's archives at Yale's rare book library, and dozens of interviews filmed with artists, critics and journalists he knew. The short list includes Mark Di Suvero, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Poons, James Rosenquist, Francesco Clemente, John Chamberlain, Jonas Mekas, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, among others.

"I didn't have preconceptions about how we should tell the story, but I did have some ideas," Rosen explains. "It was a very schizophrenic time in the art world in New York, so I wanted the look to be very edgy, with the camera always wandering around shooting something unexpected in a cinema vérité style. We filmed the interviews in Super 16 format in environments where people lived and worked. We used fluid camera movement and some crazy hand-held work."

Yan Vizinberg, Jonathan Rho, William Miller and Joel Shapiro shot the interviews. Rosen wanted the camera ready to roll the moment they walked in the door.

"I learned the hard way that in this type of situation the first words that come out of people's mouths are the most interesting and relevant ones," he says. "There is an openness that sort of evaporates when you start unpacking gear and setting up lights. It's great filming artists because they are non-conformists who don't care what people think about them."

The filmmakers chose to shoot Kodak Vision 500T 7279 film, and mainly relied on natural light augmented by a few Chimeras and little Inkies for fill and sometimes a little backlight.

"I wanted an edgy look, but sometimes we used a little eyelight because that's where we wanted the audience to look while they were listening to the words," Rosen says. "Many times, a person's true feelings are revealed by the eyes."

Rosen basically trusted his instincts and his own eyes. "I feel that when you are making documentaries about artists, you have to shoot on film if you want to be true to what they have achieved," he maintains. "When I started out, the film [stocks] were much less sensitive. You had to light to get details in the shadow areas. Today's film [stocks] see what your eyes see. Video images don't have the subtleties and colors that film offers."

The negative was processed at DuArt Labs in New York, which provided dailies and film-to-tape transfers for off-line editing. It's been Rosen's lab of choice since college.

"We had a wealth of material, and discovered the structure, form and storyline during editing," Rosen says. "It took about two years working with co-producer Sara Lukinson. My editor, Jed Parker, did great work."

The digital beta edit master was scanned and converted to a digital master file at DuArt, where the film was timed in a digital intermediate (DI) suite. The timed master file was then transferred to 35mm film with an ARRI laser recorder. Rosen stresses that advances in hybrid DI post-production technology is another quantum leap forward, because it eliminates the need for making an optical blowup from an edited 16mm negative and provides filmmakers with tremendous flexibility.

"Your 35mm prints are one generation closer to the picture quality of the original negative," Rosen points out. "That can give you an edge at festivals and in cinema distribution. There are 200 to 300 art house theaters with 35mm projectors in the United States and many others around the world that are interested in documentaries. There's a young and growing audience for this type of film. Your distributor needs two, three or four high-quality 35mm prints to make the circuit of theaters; otherwise you have almost no chance."

This story has a happy ending. Who Gets to Call It Art? was one of 15 long-form films selected for the International Documentary Association's 2005 DocuWeek Showcase. The film won first prize at the Festival di Palazzo Venezia Roma Art Doc Fest and was featured at the The Hamptons International Film Festival and The Goldeneye Film Festival in Jamaica, where it was picked up by Palm Pictures. Seventh Art Releasing has handled the distribution in Europe and Asia. The film premiered at Film Forum in New York earlier this year, and has rolled out to 50 theaters and museums to date; the DVD was released last May through Arthouse Films (www.arthouseinc.com), and a television deal for 2007 is pending.

 

Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.