Screening Room with Robert Gardner
Presented on DVD by Documentary Educational Resources
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In one of those rare instances of television acknowledging a cinema existing beyond the mainstream, Screening Room
was a series uniquely devoted to the avant-garde and (very) independent. Hosted by filmmaker Robert Gardner
, his relaxed manner eased a wide range of guests who were beginning to gain notoriety in the pages of the burgeoning market of film and arts magazines—Take One, Film Culture, Film Quarterly
, to name a small handful. Once an unlikely scenario, Ricky Leacock, Hollis Frampton, Jean Rouch, Yvonne Rainer, Les Blank, Robert Breer and others had finally made their way from the so-called ‘underground’ into the nation’s living rooms.
Nearly one hundred installments of the ninety-minute program were taped between 1973 and 1980 for WCVB, the ABC affiliate in Boston. Since that time, it has been difficult (if not impossible) to track down and see any of them, particularly since it had been broadcast prior to the VCR. Take heart, there’s hope yet: the original two-inch video masters were recently acquired by the Museum of Television and Radio
in New York, and more than two dozen individual programs are available (or soon will be) on DVD from Documentary Educational Resources
The trio of episodes that I’ve seen cover the three areas touched on most often throughout the run of the program: Robert Breer discussing animation (taped in 1976), Ricky Leacock on the documentary (1973), and Hollis Frampton with his independent (or—albeit under protest—‘structuralist’) forms (1977). While watching them, the casual air of Screening Room
becomes intoxicating. (And smoky: shot in an age of lenient social standards, try keeping count of all the cigarettes puffed on camera.) In contrast to talk show hosts whose expressions and manner are frozen in manic performance, Robert Gardner is inviting, laid-back and perceptive, with a working knowledge of his guest’s films.
Above, Ricky Leacock
Below, Hollis Frampton
Though they’d experienced something of a boom in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the movies were virtually impossible to see outside of certain cities and universities. Showings were usually limited to small galleries and private film societies. Yet the exhibition of Frampton’s Lemon
(1969) at the Museum of Modern Art in 2004, the film—so dependent upon the contrasts of shadow and light—was appallingly looped and video-projected on a wall in a lit room, a vivid example of how these pictures continue to be slighted even within the arts community.
Nor is television the best medium to take them in. Breer’s rudimentary animation and experiments in sound certainly play better with an audience and a good 16mm print. Just as it’s preferable to experience Leacock’s dry wit in a roomful of responsive strangers. But opportunities like those are few and far between, making Screening Room
all the more valuable.
The rare samples of complete films and excerpts that were broadcast on the show remain intact in the DVD series—Peacock’s Queen of Apollo
, and Republicans: the New Breed
with its humorous gander at political advisors unable to figure out lunch; Frampton’s Maxwell’s Demon, Surface Tension
, and a clip from Magellan
critiquing the repetitive nature of discussion; Breer’s 69, Gulls and Buoys
and Rubber Cement
, where the images transform into a creative energy source—offers an extraordinary introduction to a bygone era of alternative cinema.
But the filmmakers also deserve special mention: the otherwise reticent Breer visibly jazzed when chatting about primitive filmmaking techniques, flip-book animation and moveable sculpture; Leacock, balancing a conservative, old world charm with a liberal’s sense of satire and a master technician’s hunger for information; and Frampton, whose frazzled appearance and ubiquitous intelligence made him a walking definition of eccentricity. The kind of person you’d want to have at your party, Frampton was an erudite conversationalist, and it’s evident that he and Gardner could have sat engaged in brilliant talk for hours.
This is an exceptional series, and one hopes that Documentary Educational Resources continues making it available on DVD. Fans and readers of this site are urged to contact them and check out the wide variety of other films and programs they have to offer.
Copyright © 2006 by Ray Young