Feb 14, 2015

Rescue Operations: THE HOUSE IS BLACK & Alfred Leslie's BIRTH OF A NATION 1965

By Dan Streible

Here's the screening note that went with the 2001 Orphan Film Symposium session that coupled The House Is Black (1962) and Alfred Leslie's film Birth of a Nation 1965.  Although the Farrokhzad poetic documentary about lepers is memorable in any context, it resonates differently in this idiosyncratic pairing than in the teary setting of The Decaying Body quartet we screened in class on February 3rd.

The symposium program listed the session as beginning with a talk by Alfred Leslie, “The Artistic ‘Paraphrasing’ of Lost Films,” followed by a screening of his paraphrased version of his film. Next, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum introduced his undistributed (bootleg, one might say) VHS copy of The House Is Black, with the English subtitles as they existed then. A discussion and Q&A followed.

Leslie was the sole rights owner of his film and he himself made the "paraphrase" edition for his 1997 VHS commercial release entitled Beat and Beyond: The Films of Alfred Leslie (distributed by Facets Multimedia). Rosenbaum and his Iranian colleagues had not established the rights situation with Farrokhzad's film (indeed it was an orphan), but were able to show this ii in this educational, not-for-profit setting at the University of Soth Carolina. In 2005, Facets Multimedia released a DVD edition of The House is Black (also identified by its original Persian title, transliterated as Khānah siyāh ast).  This DVD, from the department's Film Study Center, is what we saw in class.

However, the 22-minute version of Alfred Leslie's Birth of a Nation 1965, exists only on the out-of-print VHS Beat and Beyond. As I discovered when I tried to recreate the Rescue Operations screening in 2011, Leslie's authorized DVD version contained a radically different work, running 40 minutes rather than 22. The disc was released as Alfred Leslie: Cool Man in a Golden Age: Selected Films (Lux, 2009), picked up by the Museum of Modern Art's program title, "Cool Men in a Golden Age: Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara," which Charles Silver organized that year. The DVD's audio track for Birth was a different recording, using must longer and more profane text from the Marquis de Sade. There were new end credits and different fonts for the subtitles. It no longer worked very well as a pairing with The House Is Black. The tone of the newer paraphrase (which was more like a new work) was much more abrasive.

If one wanted to show these works, it would require some effort to verify which  versions are which. There is considerable variability in how they are packaged and formatted. Catalogs and published descriptions are often inaccurate. The running times on Birth of a Nation 1965 are variously listed as 22, 24, 39, 40, and 41 minutes. The date of the re-edits are listed as 1988, 1997, 1998, among others. Film prints do not exist for projection, although the original was shot on 8mm film and blown up to 35mm for exhibition. Leslie says that some 14 minutes of footage, and few minutes of soundtrack, survived the 1966 fire that destroyed most of his life's work. The film is variously listed with the titles Birth of a Nation 1965, Alfred Leslie's Birth of a Nation, or simply Birth of a Nation. (I remain puzzled why the artist chose to evoke the 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation, since his 1965 film doesn't appear to reference it in any way. Another curator's challenge: how to make sure people don't think you're showing D. W. Griffith's atrocity?)

Here's what he writes on page 141 of the online book version of Alfred Leslie: Cool Man in a Golden Age (2009, an autobiography in verse).

As for The House Is Black, it has been presented with differing points of emphasis. A film by a woman (quite young) in an era when such was rare, especially in documentary. A sponsored film. A work by a filmmaker otherwise recognized as the greatest Persian-language poet of the modern era. The DVD liner notes assert that the film, produced before the so-called Iranian New Wave of the 1970s, has, since its rediscovery "heavily influenced the modern Iranian cinema of such great filmmakers as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who called it 'the best Iranian film.'" No less.  I prefer to introduce it to first-time viewers more modestly, letting its power surprise them. Often when a film is introduced as the best thing ever, a masterpiece, something you'll never forget, and so on, the viewing experience that follows is disappointing.

Alfred Leslie, born in 1927, still lives and works (painting, writing, editing video) in the East Village. Farrough Farrokhzad died in a car crash in 1967, at age 32. She was raising a son she adopted from the leper colony seen in her film. Several documentaries have been made about her, including the English-language I Shall Salute the Sun Once Again (Mansooreh Saboori, 1998) and a German film about her adopted son Hossein Mansouri, Moon Sun Flower Game (Claus Strigel, 2007).

HuffPo Caption: Alfred Leslie [2014] with a 2011 Portrait of a Younger Alfred Leslie.

See Elizabeth Sobieski, "Alfred Leslie: The Last of the Really Great Abstract Expressionists, Now a Master of 21st Century Digital Art," Huffington Post, June 3, 2014.

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