This is the second in a series of reminiscences by Fred Barzyk, longtime WGBH producer and director.
An excerpt from a letter to Brian O’Doherty (artist, doctor, National Endowment of the Arts Administrator) who was writing the major article for my Haggerty Museum exhibit catalogue.
June 1, 2001
This is the first time I have ever tried to explain my aesthetic influences to anyone. So forgive me if this gets too obtuse.
My work has always been tempered by two parts of my personality: boyish enthusiasm and quiet politics. This entails equal amounts of innocence and cunning. On one hand they would call me “Freddy berserk” while still admitting, “everyone likes to work with him.”
I tried to take advantage of both sides. Like Cristo, part of my art form was dealing with management and the egos of those involved in production. It was important for them to feel that whatever crazy thing I did it would not upset them … too much. It worked most of the time except when Michael Rice yanked one of my shows off the air. Even then I got around it. (Remind me to tell you the story.)
I also believe in the intelligence of the audience. No matter how confusing my TV shows might appear on first viewing, I always assume the viewer will understand the intent after reflecting on the content/form. It doesn’t always work, but I have never changed the basic assumption or approach. In later works I have begun to give the audience a few more hints, a few handles to grasp the intent.
Juxtaposition became an important tool. Almost like a Rauschenberg, I would pile discreet content upon content hoping to create a new whole. Editing became a process that was not just functional but also emotional and educational. Here is where the Brecht theory comes in. Brecht called his theater “non-Aristotelian”: he deliberately did not want his audience to experience any kind of catharsis. He wanted them to see history, to educate the public about how society influences the characters. He was a poet/playwright who could also bring humor to his plays.
Hey, I was working in educational television. Maybe this approach could work for me!
My first TV drama was a Brecht style play with an anti war theme; “FIVE DAYS.” Here I used the Brechtian techniques in a TV drama. It took me years to learn how to apply the Brechtian concepts directly to the structure of non-dramatic TV program. That happened in the late 60’s.
The Double-Channel Experiment
I was asked to produce and direct a program for college kids during the summer of 1967. The series first started as 4 one-hour shows featuring a young Englishman who was lecturing at Tufts University. His name was David Silver and he looked a lot like Mick Jagger. This was the “Summer of Love, Love Ins, and Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30.”
I had been given Carte Blanc to do whatever might appeal to this particular age group. It was just what I needed to hone my personal vision quest. (I will write more about the Silver Show in a later Snapshot.)
The Rockefeller Foundation provided monies for a visiting artist program at WGBH. Michael Rice administered it. I asked Michael if I could invite Richard Schechner one of the people who most influenced me with his Drama magazine “The Tulane Drama Review.” Richard was always pushing the envelope and I thought his comments about our series with Silver could be explosive. It was.
What follows is the Wikipedia bio.
Richard Schechner is a University Professor and Professor of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and editor of TDR: The Drama Review.
Richard Schechner received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornell University in 1956, a Master’s degree from the University of Iowa two years later, and a Ph.D. from Tulane University in 1962. He edited The Drama Review, formerly the Tulane Drama Review, from 1962–1969; and again from 1986 to the present.
Schechner went on to become one of the founders of the Performance Studies department of the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. He founded The Performance Group of New York in 1967 and was its artistic director until 1980, when TPG changed its name to The Wooster Group. The home of both TPG and TWG is the Performing Garage in New York’s SoHo district, a building acquired by Schechner in 1968. That year Schechner signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. In 1992, Schechner founded East Coast Artists, of which he was the artistic director until 2009. He additionally writes for journals worldwide.
Richard came to WGBH for a week of viewing and talking about TV, especially focusing on the David Silver show.
He was not complimentary.
As a matter of fact, he thought we were being lazy and not taking enough real chances at being controversial. He yelled at me about formats and attitudes, and then he challenged us all to do something unique.
He knew that we had two TV stations, Ch. 2 and a UHF station, Ch. 44. He said we should broadcast our show on both channels at once, so that the story and images would bounce off each other in a stereo viewing of the show. We took the challenge to heart and produced the very first 2-channel experience in broadcasting.
We asked the audience to take 2 TVs and place them 6 feet apart, tune one to Ch. 2 and the other to Ch. 44. We then created 2 shows that week. As David was talking to Schechner on Ch. 2 in a normal interview style, you could see on Channel 44 a man going into a Laundromat, stripping down to his shorts, and washing his clothes. We also used some random B roll shots available in our film bin.
It wasn’t a good show, but it did take us into new territory with more double channel shows; a drama by Mary Feldhouse Weber directed by Rick Hauser, and a major dance piece by Gus Solomon Jr., called “City/Motion/Space/Game”, directed by Peter Downey.
Then the WGBH NEW TV Workshop and WNET’s TV LAB produced a double channel show in NYC. The show aired simultaneous on WNET and the local independent station, WNEW. My contribution to the hour show was a 15-minute piece that featured comedians Bob and Ray. One of the highlights was their endless search to find the right script, forcing them to walk back and forth between the two channels. The segment was called “The Yin and Yang of It”
What’s Happening Mr. Silver
“What’s Happening Mr. Silver?”, a docu-drama-performance art TV series, was the structure I needed. I was able to capture on film the “shocking” activities of 1968-69 college age kids … you know, drugs, sex, rock and roll, and, “oh, my heavens”, long hair (!) and construct the confrontation as theoretical, historical, educating the public about how society influences the characters. How Brecht! The confrontation of society by these theatrical hippies, “flower children,” flaunting their antics in staid Boston helped push them and others across the county into a radical movement. Society’s actions were influencing the characters.
The TV format for “What’s Happening” used a dispassionate and cynical approach, filled with whimsy and self-deprecating humor. To some critics the series seemed politically radical and inappropriate for educational television, but to me it was a philosophical and theatrical hoot. The Boston Globe’s critic at the time, Gregory MacDonald (he later wrote the “Fletch” detective novels), proclaimed me, “an underground filmmaker secretly working at a TV station”. Fortunately, he was a fan and wrote some terrific articles about the show. These articles probably saved my ass. I should send him a thank you note.
Side note: I found out in the 80’s that Army Intelligence had sent a guy to infiltrate our What’s Happening Mr. Silver “groupies”, investigating us to see if we were anti-government subversive militants. They even tapped my phone. What nonsense!
At the end of this series, David Loxton and I convinced Jac Venza to let us do a drama using David Silver as our dramatic vehicle; a young Englishman travels around the US trying to understand America. It was called “America Inc.”
We shot the entire drama without a script. We just went to places and made up the story: a burned out church; a used book store; an ice cream parlor that created huge, obscene sundaes; the abandoned Ellis Island, and The March On Washington protesting the Vietnam War. Now the challenge was to get the Brechtian overview into the drama. What could I do to show society’s pressures actually influencing the actions of this young man?
I created phony commercials; public service spots if you will, which appeared throughout the play. America Inc. turned out to be some monolithic do good organization that was trying to reassure Americans not to be upset about what was going on in the country. The commercials provided an address where you could order a free booklet, a self-help book that would answer your questions and allay your fears, a totally tongue in cheek act.
(We received over 10,000 requests for the non-existing book. Venza said legally we had to create one. So we wrote a four page handout and mailed it along with an “America Inc.” pin)
The final commercial finds David Silver in Washington to observe the anti-war march, where he is accidentally caught on film by America Inc. and featured as a typical American youth, learning to be at peace with himself and the angry protests around him; the ultimate usurping of one’s existence, and by a TV commercial. Great!
There still wasn’t enough societal observation and emotional separation from the characters. So I introduced a woman’s voice-over which interrupted the drama at various points, giving factual information about American life styles — i.e. while Silver and his companion are eating a ridiculously large ice cream sundae, the voice gives us statistics on the kind of ice cream Americans prefer; vanilla 62%, chocolate 28%, strawberry etc.
Still not enough.
So I brought humorist Jean Shepherd into the mix. Acting like a Greek Chorus, Shepherd would talk directly to the audience and reflect on what it is to be an American. Not on the story line, but on the very stuff that makes us Americans:
“Hi, my fellow Americans, fellow travelers on the yellow brick road of life. Do you sometimes feel that your life is the product of some really bad film editor? You know, while Gene Kelly is dancing and it’s Paris, you find yourself standing in line at the dry cleaners. It’s not easy being an American.”
In the final scene of the drama I had art students from the Mass. College of Art construct a huge sculpture on a snowy beach at Plum Island. They constructed huge cut outs of pop images from the story and began to mount them on a 20-foot steel scaffolding … a 10 foot sundae, 15 foot red lips, a 10 foot Statue of Liberty. Then suddenly a cold gust of wind swept down the beach and blew the whole thing down. Fortunately, no one was hurt. I had ordered a helicopter for filming and when it arrived I asked everyone to grab a small American flag and march around the collapsed structure. So in the freezing cold, knee deep in snow, fifteen of us marched while being filmed from a circling copter.
Add a little Fellini music…..
Wood and Trees
Let’s leave Brecht and turn to my interest in challenging prevailing TV formats.
Here is an example from 1964. The Museum of Fine Arts wanted WGBH to do a program on the importance of “wood” and “trees” in art, both in the content and in the actual making of art. I proposed a series of short videos (1 to 3 minutes), which would appear unannounced between programs for one solid week. No promos for upcoming programs, no fundraising, just little pieces about art, trees and wood. there would be no statement about their purpose or who produced them, and no mention of the MFA. Somehow I got this through WGBH and it ran for one week.
I’m afraid the audience was left confused. We finally ran it as a half hour program called ‘Trees”. One video featured a single tree both in full color and in reverse polarity all done to music. Another one used the “Bald Soprano” approach. Two people talked, argued, but their conversation made no sense. They talked in clichés and phrases that used wood and trees; “he’s a chip off the old block”, “you’re barking up the wrong tree” etc.
“And Now for Something Completely Different”
This snapshot is about my continuing search for a personal vision in broadcast television.
I tried to find it by experimenting with no traditional formats, and especially if it used new electronic equipment. I was fortunate to be at a TV station that allowed me to do just that. Here are a few “firsts” that gave me opportunities to pursue my vision. It also reveals a hell of a lot about management’s cooperation and generosity. I was truly lucky.
Ever since arriving at WGBH, I had serious questions about the coverage of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Couldn’t there be a more visual interpretation of the music, something besides the endless shots of the trombones, violins and flutes? I talked to many of the people directly involved in the production but they really didn’t want to hear my ranting. So I had to do something to prove my thesis.
I would need 3 camera people, a new TV director, and 3 engineers to help create 4 visual interpretations of short Jazz pieces in the studio AFTER THE STATION SHUT DOWN! This would have to be a clandestine production.
I convinced Bobby Hall, Larry Messenger, and Wil Morton not only to do video and audio, but also to videotape the 4 videos. I asked Mark Stevens, Peter Hoving, Bill Cosel, and Bill Aucoin to create the visual interpretations. They agreed with enthusiasm.
Each would choose a Jazz piece and direct the shoot.
Dan Beach, who was head of traffic, somehow found an “old” 2-inch tape for us to record on. Remember, during this era, tape was very expensive and many regular shows were wiped so the station could use the same tape over and over.
The clandestine production was going to take 3 nights. In 1962, after the fire of 1961, WGBH’s main studio was in the basement of the Museum of Science. We usually shut down around 10:00 pm and no execs were around. This is when we went to work.
First up was Peter Hoving. He picked a Miles Davis piece and used layers of scrim, screens and a constantly moving candle for his visual tools. Using the focus changes of the fixed lens on the black and white camera, his images melted and flowed into each other, while the candle slowly danced to the sad music of Davis.
Mark Stevens picked a Sauter-Finnegan piece. His vision included a 50-cent kaleidoscope attached directly to the lens, a turntable with a mound of crumpled aluminum foil, and 3 lights, each hitting the foil from different directions.
Bill Cosel and I had seen the “Steve Allen Show” record a comic bit on videotape and then run it backwards. This was a major technical breakthrough for the industry. Bill planned to do the same for a Blossom Dearie song. Bill peeled a potato to the rhythm of her song and then he was to run it backwards, so the potato would magically add its peel. We never could get it to work. (It should be noted that Bill Cosel became the renowned producer/director of the Boston Symphony Pops in which he perfected the coverage of an orchestra via the traditional images.)
Bill Aucoin hung real instruments from the grid and moved the camera around them to the strains of a Jazz piece. It was the most traditional of what we called “Jazz Images”.
A French critic has hailed this clandestine experiment, labeled as “Jazz Images”, as one of the first “video art” pieces. Merci!!!!!!
Incidentally, Bill Aucoin went on to NYC and soon created the rock group KISS. He later hired me to direct what may have been the first attempt at projecting CU shots of the musicians via an Eidofore projector live during the performance. The conclusion of my six-week tour was in Madison Square Garden in NY. By this time, I had 10 cameras covering the band. On the very first shot, the camera in the pit spun around and went to black. Some jackass in the crowd had thrown a beer bottle and hit my cameraman. He recovered and did the show without a hitch.
I also did a music video with the band in an armory in Bill’s hometown of Ayer. The shoot took place at night and employed vast amounts of fireworks. It took forever to setup the fireworks and we finally were ready to record at midnight.
I rolled tape and yelled out ”Stand By Fireworks!” The fireworks guy misunderstood and set off the entire load. It took him another 2 hours to set the new round. We finally finished at 2:00AM.
That was it for me. No more traveling with rock groups. No more KISS.