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PRINT Summer 2015

film

Edward Owens

THE LIST OF TEENAGE FILMMAKERS associated with the New American Cinema during its late-1960s glory days includes Barbara Rubin, Warren Sonbert, George Landow, and Robert Beavers.To these we can add Edward Owens (1949–2009), whose precocious 16-mm movies gathered dust on the shelves of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative for decades until Ronald Gregg programmed them at the University of Chicago in 2006 as part of the series “Beyond Warhol, Smith, and Anger: Recovering the Significance of Postwar Queer Underground Cinema, 1950–1968.”

It was in that context that the critic Fred Camper saw Tomorrow’s Promise (1967) and Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts (1968–70). Owens’s unearthed movies “aren’t great, but they’re very good,” he posted:

They both show the influence of Gregory J. Markopoulos, and it turns out that Owens was a student at the School of the Art Institute, doing painting and then collages from the early 60s on. He later studied with Markopoulos when he taught film briefly there in 1966–67, and the Owens films seem in some ways very much like Markopoulos’s at the time, with their use of editing and superimpositions to create a sense that figures and objects are interrelated and interpenetrating.

Three years later, critic and programmer Ed Halter tracked Owens down and learned something of his life story. Markopoulos had encouraged the seventeen-year-old to leave Chicago for New York, which he did in 1966, joining Markopoulos’s circle of friends and moving in with the filmmaker Charles Boultenhouse and his longtime lover, the critic Parker Tyler. Owens lived with the pair for several years, until problems with drugs and depression caused him to abandon filmmaking and return to Chicago.

While in New York, Owens completed the twenty-two-minute Autrefois j’ai aimé une femme (1966) and, twice as long, the impressively assured Tomorrow’s Promise—reminiscent of Markopoulos’s Twice a Man (1963) and The Illiac Passion (1964–67) in its percussive style, elliptical narrative, and elevated notion of cinema. The movie is a flickering series of solemn, light-modeled portraits—some of the subjects nude, others veiled by superimposed foliage—accompanied by moody classical music. In the second half, Owens begins focusing on a pensive bride and her phantom groom, both shown in close-up profiles. That he also begins integrating images of Greta Garbo, Ingres’s Jupiter and Thetis, and the cover of Jacqueline Susann’s pulp novel Valley of the Dolls suggests that their breakup is being played out on a mock-cosmic level.

The movie, which Owens attempted to fund via an ad in the Village Voice, has a sense of belatedness. Markopoulos left for Europe that year; Kenneth Anger withdrew (temporarily) from filmmaking; Andy Warhol’s great period had ended; Jack Smith was increasingly marginalized. One key development at the time was the anti-expressive structural cinema associated with Michael Snow. (Halter believes that Tomorrow’s Promise was shown at the 1968 Knokke-le-Zoute experimental-film festival in Belgium, where Snow’s Wavelength won the grand prize.) Another was the diary film, exemplified in the work of Jonas Mekas, Andew Noren, and Sonbert. It was here that Owens swerved—with a difference.

Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1963 crime novel The Expendable Man begins with an account of a young man’s mounting anxiety as he drives from Los Angeles to Phoenix in a borrowed Cadillac, the author strategically withholding the source of his disquiet until the subject of race is casually introduced in the book’s second chapter. There’s a similar temptation to keep back the information regarding Owens’s identity as a gay African American until one discusses his coming out, as it were, with Remembrance: A Portrait Study (1967), originally and pointedly titled No More Tomorrows.

Owens supplies a spoken introduction to this tightly edited six-minute contemplation of his mother and her friends hanging out at home. Carefully lit and burnished by flickering superimpositions, these middle-aged black women are treated as movie stars—Mildered Owens is seated in a throne-like wicker chair, swathed in a feather boa. Unlike the subjects of Warhol’s Screen Tests, these sitters seem amused, exuding the cheery self-presentation characteristic of seventeenth-century Dutch portrait painting. Cigarettes and beer cans are in evidence.

The superimposition of a white mannequin’s head underscores the incongruity. The women are accompanied at one point by Marilyn Monroe singing “Running Wild” and at another by Dusty Springfield’s typically urgent and vulnerable ballad “All Cried Out.” Owens told Halter that Markopoulos advised him against using the music: “Gregory didn’t think it was proper.” Perhaps this is why the movie seems never to have been placed in distribution and why the similar, somewhat swoonier Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts was silent.

Owens’s films left little trace in history—although, in his 1969 book Underground Film: A Critical History, Tyler included Remembrance (along with Norman Mailer’s Beyond the Law and Paul Morrissey’s Flesh) in a list of 1968’s most significant avant-garde films. He was right: More than footnotes in the history of American avant-garde cinema, Remembrance and its sequel are significant addenda to the history Thomas Allen Harris elaborated in his 2014 documentary, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.

To place Owens’s work in the context of African American portraiture is not to diminish it but rather to emphasize its singularity. According to Halter, the young Owens, perhaps understandably, imagined himself the only African American filmmaker in existence. Mekas, who evidently promised but never gave the artist a one-man show (his first, as far as we know, was programmed by Halter this past March at Light Industry in New York), once called avant-garde filmmakers members of the fourth world; Owens belonged to the fifth, perhaps the sixth, maybe even the seventh world.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.