A still from Breathdeath (1963) by Stan Vanderbeek (photo courtesy Film at Lincoln Center)

The 1962 formation of the New American Cinema Group was a pivotal moment in art history. For the first time, United States filmmakers took control over their own work, representing a significant departure from Hollywood’s creative and legal constraints. “We don’t want false, polished, slick films,” the group declared in their manifesto. “We prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive.”

This month, three Manhattan art spaces are celebrating New York’s contributions to this movement with two comprehensive film series and an exhibition. New York, 1962–1964: Underground and Experimental Cinema focuses on a three-year period of features, documentaries, and shorts that went on to influence generations of indie filmmakers. The program by Film at Lincoln Center pairs with a Jewish Museum exhibition tracing its influence on artists of the time, complemented by a more global survey at Film Forum. A trailer released today, included below, samples some of the highlights of the dynamic program.

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The years 1962–1964 saw the rise of Pop, Minimalism, and performance art as filmmakers and artists such as Agnès Varda, Kenneth Anger, Luis Buñuel, and Carolee Schneemann expanded the definition of narrative and performance. The work of these underground and experimental filmmakers would also inform directors of popular films at the time, including Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Joseph Mankiewicz.

Thomas Beard and Dan Sullivan, who programmed the series, contend that New York’s underground, embodied in the Filmmakers’ Cooperative, created a blueprint that was replicated around the world — yet their aesthetic intervention was at first met with hostile reaction. 

Still from Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) (image courtesy the Jewish Museum)

“There was a freedom that artists in this milieu had that others under studio contracts did not,” Beard said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “At the same time, some were arrested for obscenity, as with Ken Jacobs, Florence Karpf, and Jonas Mekas after showing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), so there is also a political dimension in the way they became targets of police and censorship.”

Marisol (Marisol Escobar), “Self-Portrait” (1961-62), wood, plaster, marker, paint, graphite, human teeth, gold, and plastic, 43 1/2 x 45 1/4 x 75 5/8 inches, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago. Gift of Joseph and Jory Shapiro (© 2022 Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; image courtesy the Jewish Musum)
Hallelujah the Hills (1963) by Adolfas Mekas (photo courtesy Film at Lincoln Center)

“The iconoclasm of these works existed outside the industrial prerogatives of big Hollywood films, and they noticeably have a more hand-crafted quality to them,” Sullivan added. “This is a very important precursor stage to the emergence of New Hollywood, which quickly started ripping them off.”

Beard and Sullivan point to Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth (1963), a landmark of expanded cinema with multiple projections, gels over the lenses, and AM radio as the soundtrack. Others stretched the limits of performance, such as Mekas’s The Brig (1964), which was filmed in a military prison. 

From Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), dir. Agnes Varda (image courtesy Film Forum)
From Cleopatra (1963), dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz (image courtesy Film Forum

Other non-narrative forms emerged in works by women filmmakers, such as Storm De Hirsch’s Divinations (1964) and Shirley Clarke’s idiomatic feature The Cool World (1963), which cast entirely with non-professional performers. History likewise functioned as a muse for filmmakers like Gregory Markopoulos, whose 49-minute drama Twice a Man (1963) recreated the classical Greek myth of Hippolytus in a contemporary setting.

These are among the numerous works that will be playing at Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater, while Film Forum will showcase 35 films by veterans such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francis Ford Coppola, and many others that represent “the last gasps of the Hollywood studio system.” At the Jewish Museum, visitors will be able to see works by dozens of artists including Diane Arbus, Lee Bontecou, Marisol, and Faith Ringgold, whose practices were entwined with the social and political upheaval of the period — a moment marked by historic events like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms.

Still from Andy Warhol’s Empire (1965) (image courtesy the Jewish Museum)

At a time of CGI fetishism, this series hearkens to what old-school film and independent cinema can accomplish, proving an important lesson for artists today — that style is far more dynamic than spectacle.

New York, 1962–1964: Underground and Experimental Cinema at Film at Lincoln Center will run from July 29 through August 4, and Film Forum’s 1962…1963…1964 series will run from July 22 through August 11. The Jewish Museum’s exhibition, New York, 1962–1964, will open on July 22 and remain on view through January 8, 2023. Tickets are available on the respective venues’ websites.

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Billie Anania

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.