Drop What You Are Doing and . . . .

With Yom Kippur and a problem on the Jewish Week website (go live from technology!), one of my favorite recent pieces got lost in the shuffle. Ordinarily that wouldn't be cause for gnashing of teeth (although I gnash at the drop of a semi-colon), but the film program in question, an evening of the work of Beryl Sokoloff at Anthology Film Archives, is a one-time only gig, which goes on tonight. So drop whatever you are doing and get downtown right now.

Although his work is in the collections of numerous museums and film archives, Beryl Sokoloff remains something of an enigma as a filmmaker. In the notes to an evening of his films being held on October 10, an Anthology Film Archives programmer says, “He completed more than 75 films, yet virtually nothing is known about his cinematic output.” Yet Sokoloff himself was hardly an enigma. He was, rather, a fixture on the Greenwich Village and Chelsea arts scene of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

In a sense, Beryl’s career trajectory is a typical one for a Jewish-American artist of a certain era. His parents were émigrés from Russia, he and his brother Vladimir were born and raised in the Bronx before the family moved to Philadelphia. There they attended high school, studying music and art at the Settlement Music School. Beryl was an accomplished cellist but it was Valdimir who pursued a musical career, becoming a distinguished accompanist on piano and a member of the faculty at the Curtis Institute.

Beryl’s path was less straightforward, taking him from WPA projects to the U.S. Army and the Pacific Theater. At the end of the war, he returned to New York City and became part of the circle of Abstract Expressionists who were altering the face of modern art. He painted, he photographed and, gradually, he began making films. (One of his more off-beat professional gigs was as the photographer for a Mexican newspaper; his life partner Crista Grauer told “The Villager, “[They] didn’t have anyone else but him in New York, so they ran whatever he wanted to shoot.”)

What of Sokoloff’s films?

Looking at the dozen films that Anthology is showing on October 10, certain motifs emerge clearly, strikingly. Sokoloff was fascinated by the human figure in all its plasticity. In his lovely film “Gaudi,” a vivid sampler of the great Barcelona architect-sculptor’s work in situ, Sokoloff constantly is seeking out the most anthropomorphic images embedded in the intricacies of Gaudi’s buildings. The same can be said of most of the other films in the program, but the most disturbing use of these images of humanity occurs in “Movie,” a film that circles repeatedly around what can only be described as a myriad of death’s heads.

Sokoloff was drawn to primitive artists, to those creations who today we label “outsider art.” Perhaps the most satisfying (and certainly the most conventional) of the films, “My Mirrored Hope,” is a profile of Clarence Schmidt, a grizzle-bearded mountain of a man, whose life’s work was a huge “house of mirrors” that he constructed in Woodstock, NY. The work is a jaw-dropping collage of mirrors, windows, metal sculpture, found objects ranging from false teeth to a Flying A gas station sign, and hundreds of tiny, graceful mobiles made of glass and mirrors. The film ends with a dizzyingly fast tracking shot that reveals at last the full extent of Schmidt’s obsessive creativeness.

There are many other similar works found throughout the dozen films on display here. In Sokoloff’s camera lens, we are made acutely aware that even a self-conscious and highly trained artist like Gaudi owes more than a little to the DIY aesthetic of these so-called primitives. And in his highly personal mix of avant-garde and documentary film, Sokoloff is something of a primitive himself.

He also is clearly a committed progressive of the post-WWII stripe. Running throughout the films are images of anti-war demonstrations, picket lines, civil rights protests and the like. “Line” is constructed in large part around an “artists’ strike” from the early ‘60s, when painters, sculptors and like-minded creators picketed city hall trying to save their loft-based studios (a reminder that in New York, the more real estate changes, the more it stays the same, except for the price tag). Yet there is a playfulness about Sokoloff’s work, a winking at the audience that can be seen in the fact that “Movie” is a film in which there is almost no motion on-screen, that “The Wall,” made in Berlin, shows us everything about the city except the title object.

Still, there is an underlying seriousness to Sokoloff’s films. In “Gaudi” he superimposes images echoing the Spanish Inquisition on the Barcelona streets. In “The Wall” Sokoloff shows us East Berlin’s profusion of Soviet-era housing blocs, set off against the idiosyncrasies of the city’s medieval architecture. In the film’s most striking moment, we see what looks like a sea of broken, upright stones; Sokoloff cuts between several different angles of this somber moonscape before we realize that it is a Jewish cemetery, filled with uprooted headstones.

Whatever else one can draw from Sokoloff’s work, he clearly subscribes to the centrality of memory in Jewish thought. When he began working in film in the latge 1950s, Sokoloff wrote, “Film is a medium of discovery, of ourselves and new relationships with the past and future.” It’s only appropriate that, two years after his death at age 88, we begin to discover Beryl Sokoloff.

“Discovering Beryl Sokoloff,” two programs of six films each, will be screened at Anthology Film Archives (2nd St. and 2nd Avenue) on Friday, October 10.

In the meantime, my review of the Larry Charles-Bill Maher farrago, Religulous, appears on the Jewish Week website here.

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