The Art of Seeing: Microcinema Series Recovers Pittsburgh’s Vital Film Heritage

Portrait of Stan Brakhage in Sally Dixon’s home, c. 1975. Photograph: Robert Haller


The Art of Seeing: Microcinema Series Recovers Pittsburgh’s Vital Film Heritage

Author: Ben Ogrodnik

PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture and 2017-2018 Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education

As the 2017-2018 Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education, one of my greatest joys has been learning more about local arts organizations and being able to spotlight the city’s art history for the general public. As a PhD student focused on films made in and about Pittsburgh, I am especially interested in how filmmakers and local institutions work together to make a vibrant, original contribution to film art.

The Andy Warhol Museum, for example, boasts an impressive, state-of-the-art mediatheque. Audiences can see Warhol’s ‘underground’ films (after being inaccessible for decades) and episodes of his TV show starring movie stars, musicians, and fashion icons. Another institution with a connection to film is the Society for Contemporary Craft, whose founder Betty Raphael, was a champion and advocate of scrappy independent filmmaking. Raphael was a close friend with Maya Deren, a modern dancer and artist. Raphael allowed Deren to use her parents Swissvale/Edgewood home as a movie set for her film Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946). Between 1970 and 2003, the Carnegie Museum of Art was a bastion of film-as-art. The Museum brought in visiting artists such as Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard and Yvonne Rainer for in-person presentations, screenings and festivals. Over the course of 30 years, 200 internationally recognized artists came to Pittsburgh and galvanized excitement in film production.

Many places have a connection to film if you look hard enough. One of our greatest institutions is Pittsburgh Filmmakers. This fall, I have been organizing a microcinema series that commemorates the rich legacy of this media arts organization. In the 1970s, Pittsburgh Filmmakers was founded by a group of poets, hippies, and visual artists as an artist-run equipment center. They intended to democratize access to costly equipment, and establish a free space for the exchange of ideas and creativity. Over the decades it has evolved into a world-class school for photography and visual media. This microcinema series highlights avant-garde filmmaking in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, with an appreciation of how this catalyst organization continues to support artists of various genres and backgrounds.

The first event, “Seeing with Experimental Eyes” on Wednesday October 18 2017, I have co-organized with Lauren Goshinski, and with financial support from History of Art and Film Studies at Pitt. We are screening one of the most influential--and controversial-- works of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Trilogy. In September 1970, the prolific artist Stan Brakhage visited the city. When he was in town the film curator Sally Dixon helped him get inside the West Penn hospital, the city morgue, and the Hill District police. As a result, he made a trio of documentary films about each of these “forbidden” places (eyes; Deus Ex; and The Act of Seeing with one’s own eyes, all finished in 1971). The Trilogy is today better known outside the city, being very rare and difficult to show.

With this collaborative event, both Brakhage and Pittsburgh Filmmakers will be commemorated. Robert Haller, the then-executive director of PF, facilitated workshops and filmmaking activity on the part of Brakhage. Brakhage’s 1970 visit inspired a new generation of local artists and PF members, including Brady Lewis, Greg Gans, Sharon Green, and others who felt empowered to pick up a camera and try their hand at film.

Pittsburgh Filmmakers is also one of the few places where people can still see 16mm film. Thanks to their commitment to analog film media and projection equipment, the Trilogy is being shown as originally intended, on celluloid film, for free. The Trilogy depicts the Steel City in a truly extraordinary way. Brakhage believed that the “Visual” was the primary, most essential element of film. He edited and recorded images in such a way that the spectator feels like a child viewing the world, with new eyes. He gives a hard look at life and death; after making the exceptionally demanding Trilogy, he would never be the same again. A post-screening roundtable of experts, artists and curators will discuss the films, considering their technical design and impact on the community.

The microcinema series emblematizes the work that I love doing as a Mellon Fellow — recovering the arts heritage of the city, and spurring more interest and enthusiasm in the vast institutional resources here. I hope to see you at the first event!

Click here for more details.

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