Arch-Shadowplayer David Ehrenstein provides our second guest post for The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon. Subject: Adolfas Mekas.
Hallelujah the Hills
By David Ehrenstein
Hallelujah the Hills (1963) is most succinctly described by Ed Halter in the “Village Voice” in a column he wrote in 2003.
“A be-bopped beatnik riff on Mack Sennett madness, updated for the anything-goes youth counterculture, Adolfas Mekas’s 1963 Hallelujah the Hills provided a homegrown riposte to nouvelle vague zaniness, and became one of the more lighthearted cornerstones of the New American Cinema. Screening for its 40th birthday, a new 35mm print showcases cinematographer Ed Emshwiller‘s spot-on black-and-white lensing, which achieves a perfect balance of picturesque control and experimental fancy.
Loopy in more ways than one, Hills isn’t so much a linear narrative as an ongoing do-si-do between two madcap man-boys—bespectacled nebbish Leo (Marty Greenbaum) and studly Ivy League dipsomaniac Jack (Peter H. Beard)—in pursuit of the same girl, Vera, who’s coyly played by two actresses (Sheila Finn and Peggy Steffans) representing Leo and Jack’s different views of their shared paramour. In between wooing, the cast tool around wintery Vermont in a jeep, romp naked through icy waters, and spoof the art-film canon, from Griffith to Kurosawa. The finale brings a secret woodland cache of ga-ga-ga-goils and a film-stopping cameo from googly-eyed underground jester Taylor Mead. The result is a dizzy time capsule of proto-revolutionary anarchy, like bits of youthful, energetic innocence frozen in the snowdrifts of time.”
The premise (there’s no plot to speak of) is after being dumped by Vera for “the horrible Gideon (film scholar Gideon Bachmann) Jack and Leo take off for the territory to mourn their lost love. The morning process is delivered as a series of film homages involving not only Griffith and Kurosawa but Dreyer’s Vampyr and W.C. Fields’ The Fatal Glass of Beer.
Unable to contain itself any longer the film comes to a halt in what would otherwise be its “Third Act<” to show the ice rescue scene from Way Down East, before resuming again.
(Ice Rescue scene from Way Down East analyzed)
“Adolfas Meka 30 September 1925 – 31 May 2011) was born on a farm in Semeniskiai, Lithuania to Elzbieta and Povilas Mekas and brother to sister Elzbieta and Povilas, Petras, Kostas and Jonas. Adolfas was the youngest in the family.
At age 14, while still in Lithuania, Mekas saw his first film Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn, the cinemagic of which he would never forget. In July 1944, toward the end of World War II when Lithuania was occupied by both Soviet and German troops, Adolfas and his brother Jonas left Lithuania by train, fearing retaliation for their participation in the underground. Near Hamburg, they were taken from the train and put into a forced labor camp.[After World War II ended, the brothers were sent from one DP camp to another across Germany. While in the displaced persons camps in Germany, Adolfas attended classes in literature and theatre arts and philosophy at the University in Mainz, where he also wrote and published short stories, novels, and tall-tale books for children. Having been refused entry into Israel, New Zealand, and Canada, Mekas was sent as a refugee to the United States, where he landed with his brother at the end of 1949.[In the spring of 1950 he purchased a 16mm Bolex camera and began photographing life around him while he wrote more than 50 scripts and attended every film screening offered at the Museum of Modern Art, Cinema 16, Thalia, Stanley, and other venues for films of any kind, supporting himself with a variety of jobs from dishwasher to foreman in a Castro Convertible factory. He was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, assigned to the Signal Corps, and sailed for France in September 1951. On his return to the United States from Europe in 1953, he continued writing and filming and also began organizing, with his brother Jonas, the American Film House. Though the brothers approached many independent filmmakers, none were interested in collaborating on the project. Adolfas and Jonas persisted for over a year to find a location in Manhattan, but without success. In 1954 they abandoned the idea of the American Film House and with the money they had borrowed for the Film House project started a film society, which they called the Film Forum. “We showed films at public schools and at Carl Fischer Hall on 57th Street, wherever we could, until we went bankrupt in the middle of the second film series later in the year just in time to start Film Culture magazine, the first issue of which came out in December 1954.” – Adolfas Mekas
Film Culture magazine would be an outlet for anyone who had something to say about film.”
“In 1961 brother Jonas began shooting “Guns of the Trees.” Adolfas assisted him in all stages of production, writing and editing, and played one of the leads in the film. Other players were Ben Carruthers, Frances Stillman and Argus Speare Juilliard. The controversial film was considered to be a “poetic-political manifesto.”
In 1963 Adolfas’ film Hallelujah The Hills was the surprise smash hit of the Cannes Festival. Subsequently it was invited to 27 film festivals, including the First New York Film Festival, London Festival, Montreal Film Festival, Mannheim Film Festival and the Bombay Film Festival; it won the Silver Sail at the Locarno Festival, was invited to a Command Screening for the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace and had a 15-week run at the Fifth Avenue cinema in New York. Time magazine called it “… the weirdest, wooziest, wackiest screen comedy of 1963.” Jean-Luc Godard wrote in Cahiers du Cinema, “Hallelujah proved clearly that Adolfas is someone to be reckoned with. He is a master in the field of pure invention, that is to say, in working dangerously – ‘without a net.’ His film, made according to the good old principle – one idea for each shot – has the lovely scent of fresh ingenuity and crafty sweetness.”
In March 1964 he met his wife to be, Pola Chapelle. They were separated before their marriage by the production of his second feature film, The Double Barreled Detective Story, but never again during their long lifetime together. A rough and tumble nineteenth century town was built just outside Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for the location of the filming of The Double Barreled Detective Story. The screenplay was based on a Mark Twain short story and the film starred Hurd Hatfield and Greta Thyssen. In spite of the extraordinary performance of Hurd Hatfield, who played two parts in the movie, there were problems with the production from the start, and Adolfas never got to do a final cut. The producers took the film out of his hands and refused to release it. Nonetheless, with a little help from his friends, he was able to whisk a print to the Venice Film Festival of 1965. Gene Moskowitz in Variety wrote of the film – “The Double Barreled Detective Story is authentic Mark Twain-esque with all the rustic humor of the 1880s….Mekas shows he has a way with parody and he gets disarmingly innocent performances from his cast.”
In the same year Adolfas directed Pola Chapelle in a short parody of Italian art films of the time, written by Peter Stone for the Broadway show Skyscraper which starred Julie Harris and Charles Nelson Reilly. Paul Sorvino played opposite Pola in the three-minute film clip which won kudos from the critics. “…. a priceless film sequence satirizing Italian movies, for some of the heartiest laughs of the evening.” Nadel, NY World Telegram. “….there is a film sequence made by Adolfas Mekas: a very funny parody of an Italian movie, in Italian, complete with English subtitles and a projector that goes ‘zzzzzzz.” Julius Novick, Village Voice.
After his marriage in 1965 and for the rest of the 60s, Adolfas wrote and hustled his scripts to agents and producers while working as an editor and/or post production coordinator on various independent films, including the soft-core flics of Joe Sarno, ABC-TV’s Wild World of Sports, and a few TV musical extravaganzas. He was encouraged by Howard Hausman of the William Morris Agency, who had seen the future of cinema in Adolfas’ first film Hallelujah The Hills and made more than a few attempts at getting Adolfas’ scripts into the hands of independent producers who would understand their uniquely different style. Although three of his screenplays remained at Warner Brothers for a few years, under consideration, none were ever produced.
In 1967, with a very tight budget, Adolfas made a 16mm b&w film from his own script – “Windflowers, Elegy for a Draft Dodger.” “….No frills, no Gipsy violin effects, no second movement of Aranjuez’s concerto – and it is thereby, poignant. It is the other side of Vietnam. The stubbornness of a silent young man who is running away….who simply wanted to live.” Cahiers du Cinema, Dominique Noguez.
Shortly after the completion of Windflowers, Adolfas was contacted by Governor Harold E. Hughes of Iowa and his staff. After an interview with the Governor, he was given the job of creating promotional commercials for Hughes’ campaign for the United States Senate. He had no experience in the genre, but the challenge was enticing and he spent the summer of 1967 filming Harold Hughes as he stumped the Iowa cornfields. He produced 35 TV commercials for Hughes election to the Senate. Harold Hughes won.
In 1968 Adolfas wrote, directed, and starred in a 3-minute short entitled “Interview with the Ambassador from Lapland.” It was photographed by brother Jonas, with assistance from Shirley Clarke on sound. Pola Chapelle produced. “In these 3 minutes Mekas is Swift, the horrible and admirable Swift of the ‘Modest Proposal.’ One really must admit that Mekas has made the USA a bit less loathsome.” Cahiers du Cinema, DN. (Nota Bene: Jonas sometimes claims authorship of this short film, calling it the Time Life Vietnam Newsreel.)
In 1969 Adolfas photographed and edited “Fishes in Screaming Water” a catfilm produced by Pola Chapelle for the First International CatFilm Festival – INTERCAT ’69 – which she founded. For the 2nd International Catfilm Festival in 1973, he made the award winning “How to Draw A Cat.”
He edited and subtitled “Companeras and Companeros” in 1970 – A feature documentary, shot in Cuba by David and Barbara Stone. He edited three versions: for United States release, for European release, for Cuban release. That same year he cut and edited a film by Yoko Ono, 360 legs, in “Up Your Leg.”
In 1972, assisted by Pola Chapelle, Adolfas completed a film which documented the autobiographical journey of his return to Lithuania after a 27-year absence. “Going Home” was invited to the New York Film Festival and many other festivals that year. It was part of the Conference on Visual Anthropology at Temple University in 1974 and chosen by the Museum of Modern Art to be screened in its Anthropological Cinema exhibit, which toured internationally from 1975 to 1977.
On 3 July 1971 Adolfas received a teaching contract from Bard College. Soon after, he began organizing the young Film Department. At first denied tenure, he began a campaign in pursuit of it, believing that if he were given tenure, the Film Department would be tenured. Armed with letters from colleagues in the film world and ex-students, he was successful, and in 1979, tenure was granted him. He and Pola, young son Sean and Mamacat moved to the Hudson Valley, where he would dedicate himself to sharing his passion for the magic of film with the eager and talented young people of the then pastoral Bard College. Down The Road, a nearby pub became their after hours seminar room.
Only a very small budget was available to the Bard Film Department, and the department continued as the “orphan in the storm” for many years. Not deterred, never frustrated, once a year Adolfas rented a truck, and together with Pola, he scoured the labs of his film friends in New York City whose donations of reels, split reels, cores, viewers, projectors and occasionally a moviola, were carried back to Bard’s Carriage House – the Bard Film Center of the early years. The lack of proper funding of the department worked to energize Adolfas and his students in innovative ways, e.g., to raise funds for senior projects in film, he held lunchtime auctions outside the dining commons on campus. The film department was small – more than three graduates was rare in the early years; but unceasingly active and always visible, the dynamic center of the Bard campus. During his years as Chairman, Adolfas brought to the Bard Film Department some of the most noted independent and experimental filmmakers, including, Bruce Baillie, Ernie Gehr, Andrew Noren, Barry Gerson, Peter Hutton and Peggy Ahwesh and film historians and theorists Paul Arthur, P. Adams Sitney. John Pruitt, and guest faculty – friends including Ken Jacobs, Sidney Peterson, Shirley Clarke and George Kuchar. The Bard Film Department grew in stature to become one of the most respected film departments in the nation.
- Adams Sitney writes, “what came to be known as the People’s Film Department was his (Adolfas’) theater of hijinks; he surprised even himself with his enormous didactic gifts, his startling administrative skill and his unceasing fount of comic invention. His own fractured education and his nearly total disregard for academic decorum made him the ideal professor. Nowhere in the archive of film is there an invented character who could come near the brilliant, lovable, outrageous mischief that consistently turned his classrooms into arenas of magic. He taught generations how to see and act.”
And now the stars
Peter Beard first and foremost.
Here’s a fairly recent photo.
Here he is as I will always see him in my mind’s eye
“Peter Beard’s photographs of Africa, African animals, and the journals that often integrate his photographs have been widely shown and published since the 1970s. His grandmother, Ruth (Hill) Beard, married, as her second husband, Pierre Lorillard IV, who was a tobacco magnate and is credited with helping to popularize the tuxedo. A great-grandfather, James Jerome Hill, was founder of the Great Northern Railway in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. Railroads, in part, provided the infrastructure for colonization both in the United States and Africa, promoting expansion into undeveloped frontiers. James Jerome Hill made his fortune in the railroad business, leaving as legacy both money, colonialism and art to his great-grandson Peter. While not rejecting money from this trust, Beard laments the expansion of Western capitalism into Africa. James Jerome Hill was a great patron of the arts and all of his heirs were exposed to and owned great collections, thus having a great impact on Peter’s interest in the arts and beauty. Beard is famous not only for his photographs of endangered African elephants but also of supermodels and rock stars like Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Iman, Veruschka.
Beard’s milieu consisted of Andy Warhol, Jackie Onassis, Lee Radziwill, Truman Capote, and Bianca Jagger who all lived and rented houses in Montauk and Manhattan in the 1970s and 1980s. Beard also had a close relationship with the late painter, Francis Bacon (painter). He photographed Bacon and was also the model for several of Bacon’s paintings. Beard was traveling with and photographing the Rolling Stones on the infamous Rolling Stones 1972 tour of America.”
Thus the “Vera’s” of Hallelujah the Hills are models very much to Peter Beard’s exquisite taste.
Marty Greenbaum is quite different story. Here he is in a recent photo:
Here’s some of his art
Here’s his resume .
Here’s artist and filmmaker Ed Emshwiller, who was the film’s DP.
Hallelujah the Hills is one of the most gorgerous black and white films ever made – easily the equal of Fellini’s 8 ½ shot by Gianni DiVenanzo that same year.
Here’s Meyer Kupferman who composed the superb musical score.
And here’s his Symphony Number 4 (1955)