12/10/12

NBC NEWS PRESENTS: "THE AMERICAN IMAGE"



In 1966, the Whitney Museum of American Art settled into its new, lavish headquarters on Madison Avenue and 75th Street. The newness of the building, along with the uptown location (it formerly had been located on eighth street in Greenwich Village) and thus its proximity to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  all leant an air of new legitimacy to the institution, as well as to modern art itself.  To commemorate the opening of the new headquarters--and generate some national publicity in the bargain--the Whitney partnered with NBC news on an hour long documentary to be aired on prime-time television. The film was intended to be a sort of mini-history of American art and its host was E.G. Marshall. My father, Frank De Felitta--then a staff producer/director of documentaries at NBC--was chosen to supervise, produce and direct the film.

The resulting film, "The American Image", aired on Friday, May 26th, 1967 from 10-11 PM EST.
I have no idea if it aired again--typically these docs were shown a few times after their premiere, prior to being buried deep in the NBC vaults. But I've now posted the film below, in four parts, with absolutely no permission from NBC (or the Whitney for that matter). That the film has been out of circulation for so long is truly criminal. For it is by no means your standard guy-standing-in-front-of-painting-with-pointer kind of survey. Instead, my father found exciting, dynamic and creative ways to combine views of the paintings with filmed footage--some new, some stock--as well as creative use of music and spoken word readings (this last especially impressive as it pre-dates Ken Burns much lauded use of the technique by at least twenty-five years). Most importantly, there are brief but invaluable live interviews with several true legends: Stuart Davis, Jack Levine, Robert Rauschenberg and Andrew Wyeth.

Part one starts with a look at the paintings of the American wilderness, going back to the 1850's, gradually moving up to the Prairie school and the paintings of Grant Wood (pictured above) and Thomas Hart Benton. There's a moving interview of an aged woman, Sarah Card, who recalls being on the Oregon Trail journey of 1889--my guess is that she's somewhere in her late eighties during my fathers interview of her.

Part two is where, for my money, the film really gets cooking, with a fantastic look at the increasing mechanization of American life and how painters became infatuated with portraying the metropolis in both negative and positive lights. About eight minutes into the section, a marvelous montage of Stuart Davis' work (pictured above) arrives--along with a too-brief on camera appearance by Davis himself.

Part three--sub-titled "Patriotism and Politics"--moves backward to paintings of the founding fathers, work by Gilbert Stuart and Benjamin West, up to Winslow Homer and the increasingly negative depiction of war by modern artists. Then comes a long and fascinating section about the work of Jack Levine (pictured above), a now sadly neglected (but in his time much admired) social satirist. Levine is given the most amount of on-screen interview time and it's wonderful to hear him speak about his socially relevant and bitingly satirical work. (Personal note: in the late 1990's, while living in Greenwich Village, I used to eat at an Italian restaurant on Carmine Street and took notice of a regular patron, an old man who came in every night to have dinner. He was usually alone and always brought a book with him for company. Something about him told me that he was "somebody" and I finally asked the bartender who he was. "Mr. Levine," said the bartender. "He was painter." And it was, indeed, Jack Levine--he was a Villager for many years. When I introduced myself and told him about my father's film,  he claimed to remember being interviewed for it. Perhaps he did. Or perhaps he just wanted me to leave him alone so he could get back to his book).

Finally, part four moves us into the truly modern, with views and mentions of paintings by Warhol, Stella, Motherwell, Pollack, Raushenberg (pictured above) as well as on-camera interviews with Robert Raushenberg himself (eight minutes in) and Andrew Wyeth (ten minutes in).

The film contains so many quick cuts, super-impositions of paintings and photos, dynamic juxtapositions and the like that making it without the aid of a computer and Final Cut Pro seems to me an almost impossible task. And according to my father, it was!  Literally every few cuts had to be sent to a film lab for processing to see if the effects worked--and frequently they didn't. Thus the film took almost a full year to complete--airing well after the official opening of the Museum. In any event, "The American Image" is a heroic job of filmmaking on a heroic subject, one that demands to be preserved and seen. And as long as YouTube exists, it will be.

(NOTE: Below is part four of the film. For some bizarre reason it is the only one that will publish onto this blog. However, by clicking it you'll find yourself on my YouTube channel where the other three parts can be found.)



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3 comments:

  1. Good post, I got to eager to watch this movie after reading this blog post.

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