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A retrospective on the master of retrospectives
Unless you're in the top one or two percent of movie buffs, chances are you've never heard of Chuck Workman. But even the most casual of movie enthusiasts—particularly those who watch the Academy Awards ceremony every year—have seen his work. And if you appreciate a good movie montage, you owe a debt of gratitude to the man who will be honored with a retrospective at next week's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. "Chuck-fest" is what the man himself has wryly dubbed it.
Now how to describe that work? It's difficult to articulate the filmmaking niche that Workman has carved out since entering the business more than four decades ago. He makes documentaries: There's Superstar, which delves into the life and times of Andy Warhol, and another on avant-garde cinema called Visionaries. He also produced and directed The Source, a documentary about the Beat generation. All three of these films will screen in Missoula.
Then there's his montage work for the Oscar ceremonies over the years. Though he's not working on this year's show, in the past Workman has often been tasked with producing the "In Memoriam" segment for the show, otherwise known as the montage of both famous and lesser-known influential members of the motion picture industry who died the previous year. But there are other projects as well, including the Academy Awards' opening sequence, which he has produced 10 times.
He's even earned an Oscar of his own, for the 1986 live action short Precious Images, an eight-minute film commissioned by the Directors Guild of America for their 75th anniversary. When Workman won the Oscar at the 1987 ceremony, the film—which is composed of 470 splices of movie segments covering the entire history of the motion picture—was shown in its entirety during the ceremony.
That short will show at the Big Sky festival, too, which is hardly a surprise. In the 25 years since its release, Precious Images has become the most widely shown short in history.
"I do a lot of different things," says Workman in a phone interview with the Indy. "What I don't do is commercial film or commercial television, but at the same time I work on the Oscars, which is the most commercial awards show out there."
To watch Precious Images today feels like something of a time warp, not only because a clip from Ghostbusters appears to be the newest film in the montage, but also because of the era in filmmaking that it represents. The short film itself could stand as a metaphor for the twilight of the analog age. When you consider that the frenetically paced film was produced without the assistance of digital editing equipment, the accomplishment becomes even greater.
There is a beauty to the choreography of the clips that cannot be overstated. Using a half-dozen or so of the most famous cinematic songs and scores of the 20th century, Workman tells the story of film, with film. In the digital age we take for granted montages like this, but 25 years ago it wasn't so easy.
Workman repeats this feat in his other shorts, which also will be screened during the retrospective. In Pieces of Silver, the seven-minute short from 1989 that commemorates the 100th anniversary of Thomas Edison's purchase of Eastman Kodak film, Workman integrates clips from 310 movies, television shows and commercials. And in Words, the 13-minute short from 1989 produced for the Writers Guild Foundation, Workman gives us just about every famous line of dialogue, almost faster than the audience can process what they're seeing.
While Workman is at his best with the shorts, his full-length 1990 documentary on Warhol is still worth a viewing. Released three years after Warhol's death, Superstar is essentially a 90-minute eulogy to the pop art icon. Interviews with family members, friends and former colleagues paint a colorful picture of the often-controversial man. Superstar shines when it demonstrates just how exasperating Warhol could be as an interview subject, and how his eccentricities made him equally beloved and hated. As one friend says in describing the seemingly asexual Warhol living through the height of the sexual revolution, "Andy wouldn't have the strength to have sex."
The film is littered with similarly sly observations about the mysterious man. It's as much a film for Warhol fans as it is for those whose knowledge of the artist runs no deeper than a soup can—if only people take the time to pay attention.
"I want people to watch movies more carefully," Workman says. "Don't just let it wash over you. It's not just seeing, but looking."
Showing: Pieces of Silver and Visionaries screen at the Wilma Theatre Saturday, Feb. 19, at 1:30 p.m. The Source and Words screen at the Wilma Saturday, Feb. 19, at 4 p.m. Precious Images and Superstar screen at the Wilma Saturday, Feb. 19, at 6:10 p.m.
Going beneath the surface
Twenty-one things you might learn during Yo La Tengo's The Sounds of Science
In 2001, the San Francisco International Film Festival commissioned experimental rock trio Yo La Tengo (YLT) to score eight silent films made by French scientist/educator/filmmaker Jean Painlevé. For the first time in four years, and only the 12th or 13th time ever (the band isn't sure of the exact number), YLT will perform the entire soundtrack live as the films play on the Wilma's big screen.
The pairing of two unconventional artists makes for a fascinating study in everything from the creative process to the sexual habits of octopi. This strangely captivating, deceptively educational and entirely engrossing collaboration has so many different things to offer viewers and listeners that we thought we'd break it down into a list of things you might learn during the rare performance.
1. Painlevé is not your typical science dork. While he graduated from Sorbonne with a degree in physics, chemistry and biology, he'd often escape his nerdy colleagues by indulging in Paris' 1920s avant garde film scene. According to biographers and film scholars, this made Painlevé an unusual and highly controversial scientist for his era.
2. Painlevé was also heavily influenced by Dadaism and surrealist art. It's hard not to recognize those interests in what would otherwise be straightforward nature films. "They kind of purport to being scientific movies, but they're not—at all," says YLT bassist James McNew in a recent interview with the Indy. "Painleve was not a scientist—at all. He made these great, psychedelic, dreamy nature films that are simply amazing."
3. YLT guitarist Ira Kaplan put it this way when talking about the project for a 2008 Painlevé documentary: "A lot of it looks like compelling abstract art that just happens to be done with...fish." To be more specific, the films cover crabs, sea urchins, sea horses, shrimp, jellyfish, mollusks, liquid crystallization and the aforementioned octopus sex.
4. The star of the first short film, Hyas and Stenorhynchus, is neither a hyas (a stocky little crab) nor a stenorhynchus (a slender, stick-like crab). A 6-inch-long spirograph worm steals the show with gorgeous footage of it extending out of a tube and exploding, as the film suggests, like "fireworks" into a full bloom of tentacles.
5. Painlevé had a sense of humor. Before seeing footage of two hyas getting into a tussle, the subtitle reads, "Like all crustaceans, they are arm-wrestling enthusiasts."
6. YLT didn't create a by-the-book soundtrack. "We never wanted to create a literal translation of the action," says McNew. In fact, the band hardly watched the films when making the music. Instead, each band member watched the films on their own and, as McNew says, "kept those moods in mind when we got together to play." The rest of the process was a matter of mixing and matching different pieces of music to each of the eight films.
7. YLT includes bassist McNew, guitarist Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, yet keyboards are one of the score's more prominent instruments.
8. Sections of the How Some Jellyfish Are Born music resemble the intro to a long-lost Doors track. YLT offers no shortage of anxious keyboard and dark bass lines here.
9. A newborn jellyfish looks like what you see in a tissue after you blow your nose.
10. Liquid Crystals reportedly reminds YLT of a "psychedelic light show that leant itself to a psychedelic freakout." This six-minute stretch of film and music intends to melt faces.
11. The subtitles in Liquid Crystals explain that the liquids' transformations in structure, form and color occur with certain changes in temperature and pressure. All of this looks like a kaleidoscope.
12. The Sea Horse will forever change the way you look at sea horses. Along with the spirograph worm, it's the evening's biggest onscreen attraction.
13. The sea horse is the only aquatic vertebrate to "stand upright." It's also the only fish with a prehensile tail, meaning it can hold things.
14. Painlevé thinks sea horses have a "pouting lower lip" and "shifting eyes," giving them a look of "worry" and "unease." Never have you thought more about the mental well-being of sea horses than during this short film.
15. A male sea horse—not a female—nourishes embryos in his pouch, and gives birth. Delivery takes several hours. "An anguished expression accompanies the rolling of his eyes," reads the subtitles. You don't say.
16. A sea horse embryo looks, according to Painlevé, "like a King Charles spaniel."
17. Sea horses are not as fast as thoroughbreds. The closing scene of The Sea Horse, which transposes images of the sea creature with footage from an actual horse race, proves this pretty definitively.
18. Don't expect YLT to interact with the audience during the show. "We've always played for each other, and to each other," says McNew. "That's not different than most of our shows, whether a movie is playing or not. We just don't look up much."
19. Expect a certain element of improvisation to the score. "The movements have a skeletal structure with lots of room to move within every one," says McNew. "And we take advantage of that room."
20. Octopus sex looks—and, thanks to YLT, sounds—like something Charlie Sheen would be involved in, which is to say chaotic and unpleasant.
21. This has little to do with the films, but YLT plans to get into the studio to record a new album later this year. "It's time," says McNew.
Showing: Yo La Tengo performs The Sounds of Science, a live score to Painlevé's eight films, Tuesday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m.