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PRINT Summer 2018

books

HOT TAKE

Cover of Evergreen Review, no. 56 (July 1968). Still from Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow), 1967.

From the Third Eye: The Evergreen Review Film Reader, edited by Ed Halter and Barney Rosset. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2018. 336 pages.

“ANYTHING PUBLISHED by Grove Press was a must,” John Waters recalled of his high-school reading (and perhaps shoplifting) habits in his 1981 memoir, Shock Value. In that belief, Waters was not alone. Back in the early 1960s, Barney Rosset’s publishing house was an avant-pop name brand, like Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics.

As the signifier of hip modernism, Grove Press published Beckett, Burroughs, and Genet, as well as Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade. Grove also had a house organ, Evergreen Review, which, founded by Rosset, began as the quintessential existentialist-beatnik literary quarterly, steeped in theater of the absurd and the New Novel, with cover art by Robert Frank, Larry Rivers, and Diane Arbus. In the mid-’60s, Evergreen doubled down on “erotica”; changed its format from octavo journal to quarto magazine; went glossy and bimonthly, then monthly; and, like Grove itself, discovered what their house ads called “another four-letter word”—film, which is the subject of the anthology From the Third Eye, edited with Rosset by Ed Halter.

Advertisement for Ralph Thanhauser’s Godard in America, 1970, distributed by Grove Press/Evergreen Films.

Halter’s twenty-one-page introduction recounts Rosset’s career-long engagement with movies, beginning with the left-wing documentary feature Strange Victory, produced to coincide with the 1948 Henry Wallace campaign, and ending with the preparations for this book, published six years after Rosset’s death. In between, Halter details Rosset’s adventures in the film trade, particularly during the high- and late-counterculture period, 1968 through 1973. These include distributing the Swedish blockbuster I Am Curious (Yellow) (the now-forgotten cocktail-world soft-core sensation of 1967), creating a Grove Press film division(complete with a film festival that rivaled those organized by Lincoln Center), publishing annotated film scripts (most impressively, of Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie), and filling Evergreen Review with film pieces.

Evergreen film culture tended toward the synergistic—the magazine printed lengthy reviews or interviews pegged to Grove releases—and the incestuous. Rosset’s name is dropped in several pieces; Norman Mailer and Dotson Rader (perhaps the only SDS member with entrée to the back room at Max’s Kansas City) both doubled as authors and subjects. An article on Rader’s May Day benefit party for anti–Vietnam War activist Walter Teague begins with a short girl in a green T-shirt attacking the host: “Dotson Rader! You motherfucking Grove Press pig!

Page detail from Evergreen Review, no. 92 (September 1971). “Pasolini’s Decameron.” Photo: David Hamilton.

The times, they were contentious, and Evergreen could be as well, providing a platform for disgruntled established figures like the polymath Nat Hentoff, shut out of the film section of his home journal, the Village Voice, as well as the amply credentialed Parker Tyler and Amos Vogel. The last also served as Rosset’s film editor and consultant, and all had a bone to pick with the Village Voice critic, Film Culture founder, and all-around underground impresario Jonas Mekas.

Evergreen allowed Tyler and Vogel to take their shots. Barely deigning to call its target by name, Vogel’s manifesto “13 Confusions,” published in 1967, accuses Mekas of being a provincial, tasteless, historically ignorant publicity hound while suggesting that his unspecified protégés (most likely Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, and the Kuchar Brothers, and perhaps Barbara Rubin and Andrew Noren as well, none of whom ever showed their work at Vogel’s Cinema 16) were untalented slobs.

There’s mild irony here: Vogel’s assertion that “lack, failure, and disregard of form is the overriding weakness of today’s avant-garde” anticipates P. Adams Sitney’s discovery of “structural film.” In any case, Evergreen’s next issue had filmmaker Gregory J. Markopoulos firing back in Mekas’s defense; also included were more cautious responses from film distributor Dan Talbot and film cognoscente Annette Michelson. Tyler stoutly defended Vogel; Life magazine film critic Richard Schickel seconded him, then launched into a wholesale attack on the very idea of avant-garde cinema. (Mekas’s own response, a spidery cartoon captioned “Amos Vogel Trying to Walk on a Tightrope of the New American Cinema,” arrived late and appeared in a subsequent issue.)

Advertisement for the Evergreen Theater in the New York Times, November 22, 1970.

Evergreen was not so much of the counterculture as about it, mapping a gossipy realm wherein avant-garde critics clashed, Dennis Hopper and Jane Fonda (profiled by Seymour Krim) were the most important people in Hollywood, and Jean-Luc Godard cast his shadow over all. Perhaps for this reason, the journal sometimes seemed a few steps behind, as when, in an April 1968 manifesto, Hentoff ringingly demanded something like the cinema verité that had been around for nearly a decade. Some eighteen issues later, again speaking for the derriere-garde, Hentoff called for “participatory television” without mention of the then ongoing Porta-Pak-fueled video revolution.

Thanks to Vogel, who directed the New York Film Festival through 1968, Evergreen did keep abreast of current European and third-world art cinema. Taking over from Andrew Sarris’s short-lived Cahiers du Cinema in English, which had run from 1966 to 1967, the magazine provided translations, mainly interviews with filmmakers, from French. (Some of those reprinted in From the Third Eye originally appeared in the catalogue for the Grove Press International Film Festival.) The October 1970 issue even included a 1922 manifesto by Dziga Vertov.

Reviews were wildly disparate. Lita Eliscu, a columnist and rock critic for the biweekly East Village Other and one of Evergreen’s few hippie types, pondered Godard’s La Chinoise, Robert Kramer’s The Edge, and Mailer’s Wild 90 in a ditzy but not clueless style that verges on stream of consciousness: “Norman-Mailer-has-made-a-film? What the hell for, I thought.” Her conversational tone is more engaging than Stefan S. Brecht’s weightier analysis of Warhol’s Nude Restaurant: “This is a movie shown in a movie house. This being the case, its primary effect is that of a departure from the genre.” Venerable lit prof Wallace Fowlie was drafted to write on Pasolini’s Teorema, Julius Lester took on Ousmane Sembène’s Mandabi, Hentoff self-confidently debunked Tod Browning’s Freaks as pointless voyeurism, Tyler analyzed Cassavetes’s Husbands, and Tom Seligson plugged Ralph Nelson’s My Lai–inspired cavalry western Soldier Blue.

Page detail from Evergreen Review, no. 81 (August 1970). Cartoon: Tony Munzlinger.

Incorporating a trip to various American Indian reservations, Seligson’s review verged on New Journalism, a field in which Evergreen excelled. Lawrence Shainberg’s long profile of Conrad Rooks at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, where he had arrived to show his psychedelic vanity picture Chappaqua, is a zesty period piece: “One of the reasons I made this film was to show Leary where it’s at!” the artist rails. Even better are Vogel’s account of a would-be with-it press screening for Jules Dassin’s Uptight and Seligson on the celebrity-studded premiere of Charles Henri Ford’s Johnny Minotaur: “‘I only go to dirty films,’ [Tennessee] Williams said smirking, ‘and I liked Johnny Minotaur.’”

There are reports on various porn-film festivals as well as a lengthy, dispiriting piece by Sara Davidson on the sanctimonious moviemaking sexologists Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen. Truly, Evergreen’s evergreen was sex and cinema. Nothing says more than the fact that, in the summer of 1973, the Review excitedly devoted an entire issue—published on newsprint as though it were an old-fashioned extra—to Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, the final public event of imported art cinema, its opening famously compared by Pauline Kael to the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Evergreen regulars Tyler, Hentoff, and Rader were on hand to weigh in, as were Alberto Moravia, Fernando Arrabal, Charles Michener, Stuart Byron, and John Simon. Kael’s name is frequently invoked, although the only female voices belong to a pair of women journalists recruited to interview Bertolucci and Maria Schneider and Iris Owens (not yet known for her novel After Claude but famous among the Grove gang for having supported herself in France writing porn for Olympia Press), who wittily analyzes the film in terms of Parisian apartments.

Button protesting Grove Press’s distribution of Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow), 1967.

None of these is anthologized save the issue’s pièce de résistance and the concluding essay in From the Third Eye, Norman Mailer’s jealous appreciation, an implicit talkin’-’bout-my-generation rumination on his own film practice that begins: “To pay one’s $5.00 and join the full house at the Trans-Lux for the evening show of Last Tango in Paris is to be reminded once again that the planet is in a state of pullulation.” Pull My Daisy or pullulate then never, Evergreen had folded by the time its Last Tango issue was published in paperback.

From the Third Eye has a historically useful appendix listing all known films ever distributed by Grove Press (including some surprises—Flaming Creatures, Fuses, Wavelength) and copious illustrations. I especially appreciated the house ads promoting Grove films (in which fake-looking hippies brandish a picket sign demanding movies by Glauber Rocha) and sex—education flicks (seminude hippies canoodle in a cow pasture). Among other things, Rosset created the intellectual stroke book of which his fellow Chicagoan Hugh Hefner could only dream.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.