Of all the “kitchen-sink, dirty-bed-linen, bad-complexion movie-makers”1 in the New American Cinema Group, a “self-help organization”2 that included Shirley Clarke, Jack Smith, and Robert Downey Sr., perhaps the most raggedly singular was Peter Emanuel Goldman. Few directors of the period have been so tragically marginalised as this proto-mumblecore avant-doodler, so available biographies3 provide scant context for his short-lived career. But I know that he was born in New York in 1939, raised Jewish, and after making two films in Manhattan in his mid-twenties he moved to Paris for a scholarship under Jean-Luc Godard. He won several international awards, and was hailed by Susan Sontag, Henri Chapier, and Roger Ebert.

A more detailed account of Goldman’s twenties – those years he calls “the torn lining of the glowing coat” – can be found in Last Metro to Bleecker Street, his 2015 semi-autobiographical novel about three mopey, ravenous youths shuttling between Paris and New York on the search for carnal and spiritual experience. Its Preface checks off the most influential artists of their time – Miller, Hesse, Blake, Rimbaud, Dylan, Cassavetes – and notes that above all, of course, “there was sex, sex, sex.”4 Told in the first person, Bleecker Street unfurls as a phantom memory of New York’s concrete arteries and sedimentary hang-ons – the somnambulists, vagabonds and ravers who had populated Goldman’s earlier 1965 short Pestilent City.

It was in 1967 that Goldman released his first feature, Echoes of Silence. Completed for $1600, Echoes premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1966 and went on to play at Jonas Mekas’ Cinematheque in the Wurlitzer building. And despite the fact that he had now severed himself from the Filmmakers’ Cooperative, and probably didn’t care to be associated with their ideologies, it was Goldman who had most clearly heeded Mekas’ call on 4 February 1959 for “A DERANGEMENT OF CINEMATIC SENSES.”5

Every breaking away from the conventional, dead, official cinema is a healthy sign. We need less perfect but more free films. If only our younger film-makers – I have no hopes for the older generation – would really break loose, completely loose, out of themselves, wildly, anarchically! There is no other way to break the frozen cinematic conventions than through a complete derangement of the cinematic senses.

Mekas later observed of Goldman and Echoes of Silence that “he went through a period of depression, and his film is a record of that depression.”6 But rather than transferring his despair to a single male surrogate, which may have resulted in a more myopic and cloying film, Goldman reached out to his friends and asked to share their experiences with his camera. What emerged from three years of sidewalk shot-stealing and languorous group improv was a genuine UFO – a curious fusion of direct cinema and invented action, with the crudity a home movie and the sensation of a poem. Its scenarios are authentically modest, but their rendering is entirely stylised, stopping and starting like the inhalation and exhalation of breath. The locations are all real, but look at how Goldman ushers chiaroscuro into a flat-roofed tenement hangout in Greenwich Village, or captures the heady rhythms of 42nd Street with shuffled verses of jazz and folk. We see attempts at conversation, but never hear them; the film is entirely without diegetic sound.

Echoes of Silence

Goldman’s camera is deeply subjective, hugging close to the bodies and faces of his ‘actors’ as a means of narrowing the space between screen and spectator. Many come and go, but the primary characters include Miguel, who looks like a lanky, beatnik Belmondo; Stasia, whose sunken and sensual eyes belong to the real silent cinema; and Viraj, a sensitive, repressed gay man longing desperately for connection. Their lives intertwine casually and randomly, mostly around the (failed) search for sex, and in the scenes where they scout for potential partners we become witness to a striking mix of observed and organised anthropology.

In the first scene, Miguel roams a train station for some quick action, throwing his gaze around but attracting no interest. He continues outside, passing by sailors on downtime, a homeless man who vies for the camera’s attention with a hearty jig, and eventually a woman who refuses his advance. Lonely, he wanders to the park and becomes lost in the crowd.

Later on, Miguel brings home “a girl he does not like”, but still pursues an awkward attempt to make love to her. She’s unsure, they each stumble, and the moment is lost. After a long period of inaction, the girl walks to the bathroom mirror and seems to be on the verge of tears. Miguel follows, perhaps in an attempt to reconcile, and in one of the truest moments I’ve ever seen they simply burst out in laughter, and the night becomes an unexpected success.

In another haunting moment, Stasia picks up a middle-aged man in a café and takes him back home to earn a quick $25. Earlier in the film we saw her making up her eyes, brushing her hair, and posing for the mirror. Was it for this? The scene is a dramatic construction, but we have to ask ourselves: is it also re-construction?

There’s a frisson to these scenes that would be hard to come by if they were the result of securing planning permission, blocking the space, and calling ‘action’ on a series of pre-rehearsed gestures. The question of verisimilitude, or rather how and where ‘reality’ enters each moment, is so deeply layered into Goldman’s conception of cinema that each scene becomes a genuine phenomenological marvel, wherein the actor’s own subjective responses can sculpt its length, tone, and pace. The film just thrums with an intangible something, yanked from the air and given a rough, hesitant shape by the directive of the scene, i.e. find somebody to fuck.

Hopefully, with the recent re-release of his films on the French label Re:Voir, and a photography exhibit at the ArtMedia Gallery in Miami, Goldman can reclaim some of his deserving reputation and become more than, as Charles Silver once quipped, “a Salinger-esque gap”7 in our increasingly unkempt film canon.

 

Endnotes

  1. Filmfacts, Volume 10 (University of Southern California. Division of Cinema, American Film Institute, Center for Understanding Media), p. 102.
  2. Jonas Mekas, “The Film-Maker’s Cooperative: A Brief History” http://film-makerscoop.com/about/history
  3. Shelley Benveniste, “Peter Emanuel Goldman, Man Of Many Worlds,” The Jewish Press (29 January 2015), http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/community/south-florida/peter-emanuel-goldman-man-of-many-worlds/2015/01/29/
  4. Peter Emanuel Goldman, Last Metro to Bleecker Street (Lions Gallery Press, 2015), p. 1.
  5. Jonas Mekas, “1959” in Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema 1959 – 1971 (Columbia University Press New York, 2016), p. 7.
  6. Jonas Mekas, p. 187.
  7. Charles Silver, “Peter Emanuel Goldman’s Echoes of Silence” https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2014/02/25/peter-emanuel-goldmans-echoes-of-silence/