“Not everyone ‘digs’ underground movies, but those who do can ‘dig’ ’em here.” Now imagine those words spoken in the archetypal so-square-it’s-cool consummate midcentury newscaster voice — or actually watch them enunciated in just that manner out on the steps of New York’s The Bridge, “one of several small theaters around the country where ‘underground’ films are shown.” The report, which aired on CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite on December 31st, 1965, introduced to mainstream Americans such avant-garde filmmakers as Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, and Andy Warhol — as well as a certain band called the Velvet Underground.
This six-minute segment spends some time with Piero Heliczer, filmmaker, poet, and “once the Jackie Coogan of Italy.” As Dangerous Minds’ Martin Schneider writes, “When CBS came a‑callin’ to do its story, Heliczer was shooting a 12-minute short called Dirt, featuring the Velvet Underground, and that was the scene Heliczer happened to be shooting that day. (For some reason none of the fellows in the band are wearing a shirt.)” Schneider also quotes Velvet Underground founding member Sterling Morrison, who credits playing in Heliczer’s “happenings” with showing him the possibilities of experimental music: “The path ahead became suddenly clear — I could work on music that was different from ordinary rock & roll since Piero had given us a context to perform.”
I can only imagine how the viewers of fifty years and one week ago must have reacted to hearing these cutting-edge filmmakers discussing “the narrative aspect and the poetic aspect” of cinema, let alone seeing clips of their works themselves, right down to a representative twenty seconds of Andy Warhol’s Sleep. It even includes a clip from Brakhage’s Two: Creeley/McClure which must have made more than a few of them wonder if their set had suddenly gone on the blink. But even the most staid of CBS’s audience must have come away with a novel idea or two worth thinking about, such as Brakhage’s stated aim of making movies “for viewing in a living room, rather than in a theater.” That, perhaps, they could dig.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.