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In Memoriam: Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

May 7, 2016 5 comments

In August it will be three years since the death of my friend and frequent subject, documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, an Omaha native who made a great success for herself in Boston and New York City. Her films won awards and critical kudos. They often played on PBS. She was fascinated by a lot of things but she was particularly attracted to fellow creatives and artists, and thus some of her best known and most seen work explored the inner workings and demons of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Cab Calloway, and Jeff Bridges. Perhaps the film that got her the most attention was Making the Misfits,  an examination of that strange, wonderful, and star-struck amalgam of talent on that great American film The Misfits, whose cast included Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter. John Huston directed a script written by Arthur Miller. The following piece is something I was commissioned to write about Gail upon her death by her brother and sister in law. They knew of my personal and professional association with her and I was much honored that they would think of me to attempt to do justice to her life and career. We sent this piece to select media, including The New York Times, and the obit writer from The Times did follow up with me to ask me several questions. Some of what I wrote also ended up in an Omaha World-Herald piece. When I think of Gail, I think of high energy and deep passion. She was another of the hundreds of Nebraskans who came out of here to do great things in film. Her brother David and I have become friends and we have tried, so far without success, to interest local organizations in supporting a tribute program to Gail and her work. She left behind an immense and important archival collection of correspondence, photographs, tapes, scripts, and notes related to completed and unfinished work. She interviewed and corresponded with dozens of great artists over a four decade period. We do hope the materials find a good home and that her work can be remembered via an exhibition and/or repertory series.

On my blog, http://www.leoadambiga.com, you can search for additional stories I wrote about Gail and her work.

 

Gail Levin

 

In Memoriam

Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

 

If you’re a devotee of public television then chances are you saw the work of the late nonfiction filmmaker Gail Levin. The Omaha native and longtime New York City resident died July 31 in a NYC hospice care facility at age 67 after a long fight with breast cancer.

Outside Ken Burns and Errol Morris, documentary filmmakers are rarely household names. Levin herself was little known to the general public but her award-winning films were seen by millions on such PBS-carried series as American Masters and Great Performances.

Possessing an animated personality, intense curiosity and keen visual sense, Levin left an impression wherever she went and she leaves behind a body of work that will endure.

“Gail was an enormous creative force as a filmmaker and a creative thinker. I worked on many projects with her and she became a very good friend as well, and I’m very sad,” said American Masters creator and executive producer Susan Lacy. “Her films sort of had a poetic quality to them that is missing in many documentaries and she had a depth in the way she told stories. You could always tell a Gail film because she was so visual. She really understood the power of an image.

“Most documentary filmmakers work within a limited vocabulary, She did not want her vocabulary limited, and I really admired her.”

Levin made films about many subjects but came to be best known for her documentaries about cinema greats Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

Marilyn Monroe: Still Life (2006) explored the complicity of the sex goddess and the photographers who most worked with her in creating images that remain potent pop culture symbols today. Her struggles with fame and her eventual premature death forever fixed her as an alluring, beguiling figure in the collective consciousness.

James Dean: Sense Memories (2005) examined the many layers of the brilliant actor who blazed a hot trail in New York and Hollywood with his quirky Method style and unconventional lifestyle. His tragic death in a car crash at age 24 forever cemented his status as a rebel symbol.

Both the Monroe and Dean films earned CINE Golden Eagle Awards and were featured in Montreal’s International festival of Films on Art.

Another of her well known works, Making the Misfits (2002), delved into the personal machinations that went on behind the scenes of the 1961 John Huston-directed feature film The Misfits and its cast of doomed icons Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.

Two of her most recently telecast films were profiles of actor-musicians separated by distinct cultures and generations. In Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides she revealed the man behind the cool enigma of signature roles in such acclaimed post-modern films as The Big Lebowski. In Cab Calloway; Sketches she celebrated the multi-talented black entertainer’s impact on jazz and dance and his role in the Harlem Renaissance.

For the Calloway piece she incorporated animation by noted editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner. She previously collaborated with Brodner on the multi-platform political satire series The Naked Campaign during the 2008 presidential election.

She served as a series producer on Picturing America on Screen, an online, on-air National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS collaborative focus on how American art treasures illuminate American history and lore. She was also a producer/director of host introductions and other program content for the PBS ARTS Fall Festival.

Some of her favorite work came producing segments for the A&E cable network’s Revue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles of artists. She particularly enjoyed the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions.

“I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin,” she said in an interview. “I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.”

Other notables she profiled included Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Levin had two major film projects in-progress at the time of her death: a portrait of Hollywood photographer Sam Shaw; and the recreation of conversations between cinema giants Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, whose critical analysis helped turn Hitch from popular suspense director into serious auteur.

The 1965 Omaha Central High School graduate left her hometown nearly a half century ago but often got back to visit family and friends.

She’s survived by her brother David Levin, sister-in-law Karen Levin and cousin Jerrold Neugarten. She earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did graduate work at Wheelock College in Boston. Her first foray into filmmaking came when she enlisted children in a Boston Head Start program to participate in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement.

She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational and filmmaking doctorate.

Her path was similar to the one taken more than a decade earlier by fellow Omaha native and Central grad Joan Micklin Silver, who went East to work in theater and television before breaking into independent feature filmmaking. NYC-based-Micklin Silver still makes films today.

In interviews Levin traced her penchant for arts subjects to her growing up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family that owned a string of retail clothing stores and indulged a taste for cultural pursuits. She also spoke of having become a die-hard film buff as a teen upon seeing Italian director Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 at her neighborhood Dundee Theater in Omaha.

An internship on a Boston WBZ-TV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. She then evolved into being an intrepid independent filmmaker who went wherever the stories that inspired her took her. She captured a trans-Atlantic rite-of-passage in the Emmy Award-winning The Tall Ship Lindo.  She revisited the scorching Nevada desert locations of The Misfits for Making the Misfits. She also documented candid, intimate dialogues with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

By the early 1980s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, whose name she later changed to Inscape. Her deep ties to Boston led her back there for some of her most prized projects.

Levin often pursued film projects that coalesced with her passions. For example, the lifelong sports fan jumped at the opportunity to do a film profile of Boston Celtics coaching legend Red Auerbach. Her love of arts and letters found perfect expression in her Harvard: A Video Portrait, which she made to commemorate the historic Ivy League school’s 350th anniversary.

Her admiration of photography and film saw her repeatedly make artists working in those mediums her subjects.

Whatever the story, Levin steeped herself in it.

“I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things,” she told an interviewer.

Finding a subject that engaged her and running with it was her joy.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me,” she once said. “I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up exactly the right way and when that happens that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

“Gail Levin was one of the most exciting, caring, ALIVE people I’ve ever met,” posted National Public Radio host Robin Young on the in memoriam web page of WNET, the producer of American Masters. “Oh to be once more in her energy field when she was seized by a creative vision.”

It’s some consolation to those who knew Levin that she was doing exactly what she wanted to do.

“I’ve been so blessed,” Levin said in an interview. “I have had a career that I love…As hard as it is sometimes I don’t even care. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects and I’ve been able to see them from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

Her colleagues mourn her death and the stark reality there won’t be a new Levin film to look forward to.

“The documentary community is kind of in a state of shock and we’re all devastated by her loss,” said Lacy.

Levin’s passion work lives on though through revival screenings and viewing platforms like Netflix.

A 1 p.m. Sunday graveside service will be held at Fisher Farm Cemetery, 8600 South 42nd St, in Bellevue, Neb.. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center (c/o the University of Nebraska Foundation) or to Temple Israel synagogue or to a charity of choice.

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Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

August 3, 2013 Leave a comment

One of the nation’s finest filmmakers, Gail Levin, died at age 67 July 31 in New York City, where she lived and worked many years.  The Omaha, Neb. native and Omaha Central High School graduate was an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work routinely showed on PBS.  The series American Masters screened several of Levin’s films.

As an Omaha-based journalist and author I interviewed and profiled Levin several times.  Her family asked me to write the following article culled from the interviews and profiles I did with her.  In my line of work subjects sometimes become friends.  That was the case with the Gail.  When she was alive I felt motivated to draw some attention to her work.  In her death I feel obligated to recognize her legacy.  You may not have known her name but you may very well have seen her work.  Her films dealt with such iconic figures as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Cab Calloway.  This blog features the several stories I wrote about her and her films.  Gail was an accomplished filmmaker and an amazing life force. S he was very encouraging to me.  We’d talked about doing a project together.  She was one of two female writer-directors from Omaha to make significant contributions to film, the other being Joan Micklin Silver, who’s still very much alive and who also became both subject and friend.  My stories about Joan can also be found on thus blog.  I hope in reading these pieces you will appreciate that NebAlisa Cole ParmerAlisa Cole Parmerraska has produced filmmakers of note beyond Alexander Payne.
Services for Levin are being held Sunday, August 4 in Omaha.

Gail Levin in 2011.

CreditFrederick M. Brown/Getty Images

 

 

Filmmaker Gail Levin followed er passion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

If you’re a devotee of public television then chances are you saw the work of the late nonfiction filmmaker Gail Levin. The Omaha native and longtime New York City resident died July 31 in a NYC hospice care facility at age 67 after a long fight with breast cancer.

Outside Ken Burns and Errol Morris, documentary filmmakers are rarely household names. Levin herself was little known to the general public but her award-winning films were seen by millions on such PBS-carried series as American Masters and Great Performances.

Possessing an animated personality, intense curiosity and keen visual sense, Levin left an impression wherever she went and she leaves behind a body of work that will endure.

“Gail was an enormous creative force as a filmmaker and a creative thinker. I worked on many projects with her and she became a very good friend as well, and I’m very sad,” said American Masters creator and executive producer Susan Lacy. “Her films sort of had a poetic quality to them that is missing in many documentaries and she had a depth in the way she told stories. You could always tell a Gail film because she was so visual. She really understood the power of an image.

“Most documentary filmmakers work within a limited vocabulary, She did not want her vocabulary limited, and I really admired her.”

Levin made films about many subjects but came to be best known for her documentaries about cinema greats Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

Marilyn Monroe: Still Life (2006) explored the complicity of the sex goddess and the photographers who most worked with her in creating images that remain potent pop culture symbols today. Her struggles with fame and her eventual premature death forever fixed her as an alluring, beguiling figure in the collective consciousness.

James Dean: Sense Memories (2005) examined the many layers of the brilliant actor who blazed a hot trail in New York and Hollywood with his quirky Method style and unconventional lifestyle. His tragic death in a car crash at age 24 forever cemented his status as a rebel symbol.

Both the Monroe and Dean films earned CINE Golden Eagle Awards and were featured in Montreal’s International festival of Films on Art.

Another of her well known works, Making the Misfits (2002), delved into the personal machinations that went on behind the scenes of the 1961 John Huston-directed feature film The Misfits and its cast of doomed icons Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.

Two of her most recently telecast films were profiles of actor-musicians separated by distinct cultures and generations. In Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides she revealed the man behind the cool enigma of signature roles in such acclaimed post-modern films as The Big Lebowski. In Cab Calloway; Sketches she celebrated the multi-talented black entertainer’s impact on jazz and dance and his role in the Harlem Renaissance.

For the Calloway piece she incorporated animation by noted editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner. She previously collaborated with Brodner on the multi-platform political satire series The Naked Campaign during the 2008 presidential election.

She served as a series producer on Picturing America on Screen, an online, on-air National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS collaborative focus on how American art treasures illuminate American history and lore. She was also a producer/director of host introductions and other program content for the PBS ARTS Fall Festival.

Some of her favorite work came producing segments for the A&E cable network’s Revue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles of artists. She particularly enjoyed the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions.

“I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin,” she said in an interview. “I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.”

Other notables she profiled included Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Levin had two major film projects in-progress at the time of her death: a portrait of Hollywood photographer Sam Shaw; and the recreation of conversations between cinema giants Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, whose critical analysis helped turn Hitch from popular suspense director into serious auteur.

The 1965 Omaha Central High School graduate left her hometown nearly a half century ago but often got back to visit family and friends.

She’s survived by her brother David Levin, sister-in-law Karen Levin and cousin Jerrold Neugarten. She earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did graduate work at Wheelock College in Boston. Her first foray into filmmaking came when she enlisted children in a Boston Head Start program to participate in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement.

She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational and filmmaking doctorate.

Her path was similar to the one taken more than a decade earlier by fellow Omaha native and Central grad Joan Micklin Silver, who went East to work in theater and television before breaking into independent feature filmmaking. NYC-based-Micklin Silver still makes films today.

In interviews Levin traced her penchant for arts subjects to her growing up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family that owned a string of retail clothing stores and indulged a taste for cultural pursuits. She also spoke of having become a die-hard film buff as a teen upon seeing Italian director Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 at her neighborhood Dundee Theater in Omaha.

An internship on a Boston WBZ-TV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. She then evolved into being an intrepid independent filmmaker who went wherever the stories that inspired her took her. She captured a trans-Atlantic rite-of-passage in the Emmy Award-winning The Tall Ship Lindo.  She revisited the scorching Nevada desert locations of The Misfits for Making the Misfits. She also documented candid, intimate dialogues with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

By the early 1980s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, whose name she later changed to Inscape. Her deep ties to Boston led her back there for some of her most prized projects.

Levin often pursued film projects that coalesced with her passions. For example, the lifelong sports fan jumped at the opportunity to do a film profile of Boston Celtics coaching legend Red Auerbach. Her love of arts and letters found perfect expression in her Harvard: A Video Portrait, which she made to commemorate the historic Ivy League school’s 350th anniversary.

Her admiration of photography and film saw her repeatedly make artists working in those mediums her subjects.

Whatever the story, Levin steeped herself in it.

“I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things,” she told an interviewer.

Finding a subject that engaged her and running with it was her joy.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me,” she once said. “I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up exactly the right way and when that happens that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

“Gail Levin was one of the most exciting, caring, ALIVE people I’ve ever met,” posted National Public Radio host Robin Young on the in memoriam web page of WNET, the producer of American Masters. “Oh to be once more in her energy field when she was seized by a creative vision.”

It’s some consolation to those who knew Levin that she was doing exactly what she wanted to do.

“I’ve been so blessed,” Levin said in an interview. “I have had a career that I love…As hard as it is sometimes I don’t even care. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects and I’ve been able to see them from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

Her colleagues mourn her death and the stark reality there won’t be a new Levin film to look forward to.

“The documentary community is kind of in a state of shock and we’re all devastated by her loss,” said Lacy.

Levin’s passion work lives on though through revival screenings and viewing platforms like Netflix.

A 1 p.m. Sunday graveside service will be held at Fisher Farm Cemetery, 8600 South 42nd St, in Bellevue, Neb.. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center (c/o the University of Nebraska Foundation) or to Temple Israel synagogue or to a charity of choice.

Long Live the Dude: Gail Levin Chronicles Jeff Bridges for “American Masters”

January 5, 2011 2 comments

My friend and sometime subject, documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, has a new work premiering Jan. 12 on PBS for American Masters — a profile of Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges. Her film, Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides, comes just short of a year since the star accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. He may well be in contention for the award again on the strength of his performance in the Coen brothers‘ remake of True Grit.  I interviewed Levin by phone during a break from her editing of the film in New York, where she lives.  I haven’s seen the film, except for a brief excerpt you can find yourself on the American Masters web site.  But I know her work very well, and she’s handled similar assignments profiling acting legends quite well.  I expect the same with this project.  Levin is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker whose work has appeared before on both American Masters and Great Performances.  On this blog site you can find some of my earlier stories about Gail and her films The Tall Ship Lindo, Making the Misfits, James Dean, Sense Memories, and Marilyn Monroe – Still Life.  My story on Levin and her Jeff Bridges film is published in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

NOTE: Now that I have seen Levin’s film — on the rebound in a late night reprise screening — I can now say that it one of the better profiles of an actor I have ever seen.  Even though Levin expressed frustration to me at not getting in as deep or close with Bridges as she would have liked, I feel like I now have an authentic appreciation for who he is and how he conducts himself in his life and in his art.  As I mentioned to Levin when we spoke about the project, I have always felt that Bridges was hugely unappreciated and I think her film will be part of an ongoing reevaluation of his work and his career that will recognize him as one of the masters of his craft.

Long Live the Dude: Gail Levin Chronicles Jeff Bridges for “American Masters”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha native and Emmy Award-winning documentarian Gail Levin profiles actor Jeff Bridges in a new film kicking off the 25th season of American Masters, a series produced for PBS by New York Public Media THIRTEEN in association with WNET.

Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides premieres Jan. 12, showing locally on NET at 9 p.m.

 

Susan Lacy, Jeff Bridges, Gail Levin

 

 

 

Levin, an Omaha Central High graduate long based in Manhattan, says the project has been on quick turnaround to parlay the heat surrounding Bridges. A year ago he won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as country musician Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Oddsmakers predict a nomination for his rendition of lawman Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ True Grit.

“We’re really trying to take advantage of all the energy and buzz of everything that’s going on with him,” says Levin (Making the Misfits, James Dean: Sense Memories).

Her film reveals Bridges as a multi-faceted creative. In addition to acting he’s a musician. He performs with his band The Abiders. He’s also a photographer, painter, potter,  and vintner. Performing his own music in Crazy Heart surprised many, but it was simply an extension of what he’s always done.

“His great love is music, and it has been all throughout his life,” she says. “He’s now really playing a lot of music, doing gigs. We’ve got a lot of footage of him. We shot at this funny little place he played in Niagara Falls.”

She also captured him at a Zen symposium.

“I don’t know that he would call himself a Buddhist, but he’s certainly in that ether at the moment. He’s very involved with a group called Zen Peacemakers.”

Levin was struck by a passage Bridges wrote in the intro to his book Pictures, a sampling of images the actor takes on movie sets and gifts as photo albums to cast and crew. In describing why he prefers the panoramic Widelux still camera, he offers a key to his creative method:

“…it has an arbitrariness to it, a capricious quality. I like that. It’s something I aspire to in all my work — a lack of preciousness that makes things more human and honest, a willingness to receive what’s there in the moment, and to let go of the result. Getting out of the way seems to be one of the main tasks for me as an artist.”

For Levin, the insight helps explain what makes Bridges a durable star 40 years since his feature breakthrough in The Last Picture Show.

 

AMERICAN MASTERS "Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides" - Gail Levin | by PBS PressRoom

 

In her interviews with him, his family and colleagues Levin found he’s more complex than his public Everyman-Next-Door, laid-back Dude persona.

“The interesting truth about him is that he’s rather tortured all the time. He says in the film he’s rather reluctant to all of this (film career). I think he came to it obviously through the legacy of his father (the late actor Lloyd Bridges) and his older brother Beau, But he even says he’s a little bit lazy, he’s got a little of the Dude in him, and it’s always kind of hard for him to kind of gear himself up again.”

This “drag me to the party” resistance and ambivalence is how he moves through life. She says some Bridges collaborators, such as Terry Gilliam and John Goodman, speak to his cautious approach.

“He’s not a spontaneous, improvisational actor,” says Levin. “He really needs to know what and where. He has guides who school him in being a junkie or a drunk. He takes that all very seriously and seems to form close relationships with these people who sort of become his models for how to play various parts.

“I think he’s very particular about the kinds of things he chooses. I think he picks films that have some intrigue for him and not necessarily what are going to be the biggest blockbusters. He’s a very individual star. I think he’s really on his own path.”

While Levin enjoyed “amazing access” to Bridges and Co., she found his well-protected veneer hard to penetrate:

“You’ll see in this film there’s a much darker side to Jeff than people realize, and this kind of push-me, pull-you about the acting is really a great revelation. People think he’s easy going about it, and he’s really not. But he doesn’t divulge dark disappointments and things like that. Others say it.”

She says if there are secrets to pry loose, “you gotta be long and deep with him,” adding she didn’t establish a rapport that might have led to such intimacies.

As for Bridges being an American Master, she says, “He’s worked with remarkable directors, he has an extraordinary body of work. He’s an amazing amalgam. He’s an artist on many, many levels.”

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Exposed: Gail Levin and Steve Brodner prick the body politic

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Political Caricature: 'Go Away, Little Man, an...

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This is one of several stories I’ve written about documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, and I’m quite sure it will not be the last. As the piece infers she has a facile quality that allows her to do many different kinds of film work, including the hybrid form she hit upon for her collaboration with political cartoonist Steve Brodner.  My piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared during the 2008 presidential campaign, which was the fodder for Levin and Brodner’s project called The Naked Campaign.  Their work attracted a fair amount of attention, though I don’t think it quite got the play Levin had hoped it would net.  The two were still collaborating until recently, this time for occasional bits they doidfor the PBS series Need to Know, which has the dubious distinction of replacing the irreplaceable Bill Moyers Journal.  I didn’t see all of the installments in Naked Campaign, but I saw most of them and I must say they were highly entertaining micro-documentaries/political cartoons/reports.  I did not see their work for Need to Know. I meant to catch it some night, but Levin and Brodner have since dissolved their creative partnership and their segment is no longer part of the show. The last time I spoke with Levin, she was crashing to complete a new American Masters doc – a profile of actor Jeff Bridges. The film premiered on PBS earlier this year and it was quite good.  The story I wrote about the project – “Long Live the Dude” –  can be found on this blog.  I had hoped to interview Bridges for the piece but that was never really in the cards. Gail gave me a good interview though.  I look forward to whatever her next project is.

Exposed: Gail Levin and Steve Brodner prick the body politic

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

A pair of New York artists, filmmaker Gail Levin and political illustrator and art journalist Steve Brodner, are making the 2008 presidential race both the subject and the laboratory of their The Naked Campaign.

Appearing on The New Yorker Web site since last December, Naked combines the work of Levin, an Omaha native and seven-time Emmy-award winning filmmaker, with the art of Brodner — an acclaimed satirist in pencil, pen, brush and word. Melding film with caricature is not new but consider that Naked then adds the animation of Asterisk studio, along with media images, sound bites and eclectic music tracks. It’s all fodder and counterpoint for Brodner’s brand of irony. The eclectic content is a moving canvas for both his visual art and his verbal commentary, whose pithy, breezy observations are at least as sharp as his barbed illustrations.

Levin believes she and Brodner are innovators with Naked, a cross-platformed, animated, op-ed, multi-media series whose “films” are now on newyorker.com, YouTube, xml and will soon appear as run-of-schedule interstitials on cable TV’s the Sundance Channel. Naked has international distribution via The New York Times Syndicate. Galleries and museums are showing the work. She’s also piecing together a feature documentary based on the series.

“I think we have created a new genre here with extraordinary breadth and range and something very unique in its take and its scope,” Levin said. “This is not only political content, it is equally about ways of seeing — how art informs opinion. In fact, I am calling this Op-Art.”

New enough at least that the project’s been a tough sell to traditional media, although some outlets that passed before, like PBS’s POV series, are interested again, she said, after “the phenomenal reception” to Naked on the Web.

The fluid nature of an unwieldy national campaign with in-flux headlines, stories and sidebars poses unlimited opportunities and problems for those covering it. A new Naked piece — there are 24 and counting now — is posted every couple weeks in an attempt to stay current and respond to developing narratives.

“Its fluidity is both its great strength and its great challenge,” Levin said. “It is very daunting to find our way through some of this and keep these little pieces both reflective and a bit prescient at the same time. One wants to be able not to feel dated, and yet this stuff is dated within milliseconds. Still, though, it is my goal to keep this stuff feeling crisp and right on, even if the events have already begun to shift. There really is a sort of thru line and it is important to see it, and that is not in the day to day — the Obama victory here, the McCain race there. Rather it is finding the guts — keeping the soul of it all in focus that I like.”

 

 

Levin and Brodner intended going on the road to follow the slog through the primaries and caucuses, all the way through to the conventions. If Naked had taken that route, then Brodner and Levin would have practiced the kind of art journalism he’s done — from climbing Mt. Fuji to shadowing the Million Man March to covering eight presidential campaigns — that entails going out and coming back with stories.

Budgetary restrictions nixed that plan. So, other than attending a stray primary here and caucus (Iowa) there, and crashing a few photo ops (Obama at the Apollo Theatre), Naked’s creative team has largely monitored the campaign from afar.

No Boys on the Bus tour for this gang.

“We are definitely not on the bus, but that is great,” Levin said. “As fun as that can be it is also very insular. I think you get no distance and you can put no lens on the events. So I rather like this vantage point of ours.”

She said the individual films are stand-alone pieces informed by the entire “streaming” project. “Their present tenseness makes it a documentary which is a witness, not a pundit. We are kind of in a play-by-play mode. No conclusions, just moving decimal points.”

Naked’s not as subversive, say, as Robert Altman’s Tanner: ‘88, the quirky docudrama that inserted a fictional candidate into that election year’s actual ‘88 presidential scene. Clearly, Naked’s not drama. Neither is it straight documentary, nor even pseudo-doc in the way Michael Moore’s partisan films are.

As Levin herself said, “No, we are not exactly journalists and maybe not exactly documentarians either — though the documentary aspect of this will come.”

So, what roles do Levin-Brodner play? “Right now.” she said, “we are in a rather glorious position of our own — neither journalists, nor documentarians, but rather storytellers, animated documentary makers. Artists, I hope. Collagists. Improvisational yet deliberate. Something which is evolving as a whole new form outside the media apparatus but also commenting back on it.”

Brodner feels Naked qualifies as a kind of journalism.

“Anything you do that discusses current affairs can be called journalism,” he said. “George Will doesn’t have to leave his easy chair and he’s still considered a journalist just by sitting and puffing on his pipe and pontificating about things. So, this (Naked) all goes into the vast general description of journalism.”

Still, he said, Naked defies genre. “If you watch these films Gail makes for American Masters they’re about these people (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe) but not really about them, they’re about the art that they make. She really has this vision about the mechanics of art being a key into the lives of the artists or, in this case, the political life of the nation as we experience it. Or as it gets perceived under the surface of things. So this (Naked) is just kicking into her unique way of making film.”

For Brodner Naked’s just an extension of what he does in print, on blogs. “This is what I do, it’s what I always do, it’s no different,” he said.

His freelance work has graced the pages of The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, The Village Voice, The Washington Post and many other publications. The Brooklyn native’s collected political work was published in the book Freedom Fries. Brodner’s no stranger to celluloid. He created an animated film, Davy Crockett. He also made a documentary short, September 2001, on the emotional aftermath of 9/11. He drew on camera for a Frontline documentary about the ‘96 presidential campaign. He and Levin met when she interviewed him for a piece she did on political cartooning, a lifelong interest of hers.

A winner of the Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, his work is the subject of a new exhibition, Raw Nerve! The Political Art of Steve Brodner, at the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Some of his Naked work is on display in a video installation there

For Naked he transforms candidates into metaphorical representations based on the various ways they project themselves. That’s why he plays with the notion of tall, lanky orator-from-Illinois Barack Obama as Abraham Lincoln. But is he really Lincoln-like, he ponders. Or, as he suggests, is Obama an Adlai (Stevenson) with highfalutin ideas that don’t register? Or a neurotic intellectual, ala Woody Allen?

 

 

 

 

Brodner’s visual renderings and verbal takes, whether on Obama and McCain or the race writ large, are witty, inventive, dead-on interpretations that examine the subtext and context of these figures, their views, the issues, the parties, et all.

“This is Steve Brodner’s voice and it’s his voice very unedited,” Levis said. “I think he’s very eloquent and very smart. You don’t have to agree with him but he has great, brilliantly-conceived ideas. It’s amazing to watch his mind and hands work.”

Each topical piece is a few minutes in length and pictures Brodner doing his thing in a simple bare white studio, with a table and an easel set before him. He’s often shot over the shoulder, with his back to the camera, to capture him, almost in real-time, executing that episode’s sketches on greaseboard, paper, canvas. He caricatures over photographs in one and on an inflatable globe in another.

“What’s been most satisfying if not surprising is the range of our own method and the evolution and continuing refinement of our use of animation and commentary,” said Levin. “And we still haven’t begun to do a lot of what I hope to do.”

For example, she wants Brodner to paint on a glass plate and envisions him working on a blank museum wall before a live audience he interacts with like a street artist. “The continuing evolution is the thing,” she said.

As Brodner draws, inks or paints in Naked, he yaps about the topic in a running Bill Maheresque commentary, only smarter, with equal historical and pop culture references. “I love that you’re getting American civics-history filtered through this — without shoving it down your throat,” Levin said.

It seems less rehearsed agit-prop than off-the-cuff political banter. You know, the kind of give-and-take you engage in at the neighborhood coffeehouse or bar over the state of the nation or the character of McCain versus Obama.

“It’s the same thing, except I’m doing it with pictures,” Brodner said. “It’s just thinking about the campaign…being honest…being expressive about it. It’s just one voice expressing an opinion. I have no plan or expectation the art will accomplish anything other than just engage in one small part of the debate. We’re having a national conversation here.”

He said the remainder of the race is a referendum on who people trust is best suited to guide the country. Naked will be examining how the McCain-Palin, Obama-Biden tickets spin perception to their own advantage.

“That’s really the kind of dialogue we’re having here, over the next eight weeks especially,” he said. “People are going to be talking a lot about these topics and it’s wonderful. It’s so much better than the way it’s been where people have just not talked about politics, don’t pay attention, aren’t interested, aren’t listening, aren’t involved. We’re now involved.”

“I want to elevate this dialogue,” Levin said. “I want to contribute something to this dialogue.”

 

 

 

 

Brodner’s conversational style accentuates Naked’s in-the-moment sensibility, further heightened by the bleed-through ambient sounds Levin lets leak-in from the street outside. Sometimes you can hear her in the background, always off-camera, prompting him with a comment or question or responding to something he’s said.

In the throes of a sketch, the footage is slightly sped up, which combined with the artist POV, puts you right on top of his work in-the-making. The minimally-produced segments and hand-held camera techniques lend a sense of as-it’s-happening cinema verite intimacy, as if we’re peering in on the private Brodner at work.

He likes this artist-at-work aspect of Naked.

“I think that really brings people along — if they feel they’re watching something in the moment that it’s being created. That’s something most people don’t ever get to see. They just see the final product but they don’t see the person making it. I think everybody finds interesting how something gets made…the crafting of something by one’s hands.”

In the act of completing a portrait caricature all the puffery is stripped away to bare the candidate down to his or her essentials. Down to the naked truth.

“I think something big is revealed in watching the process,” Brodner said. “You see the creation and the act of creation together. It doesn’t bother you, in fact it excites you. I like things that show that the human being is there making this thing happen. At least slight little traces of humanity or maybe imperfection. Or just a sense that it’s art but it’s also a human product. It’s not this cut-off thing where you don’t see the brush strokes. Let’s see the brush strokes.”

There are also set-ups that have Brodner face the camera, obviously addressing the unseen Levin, and deliver op-eds, sans any art.

For “Straight Talk Eggs-Spress” Brodner inks Bush-McCain caricatures on eggs. The artist makes the case that no matter how much McCain tries distancing himself from Bush “he can’t separate his eggs” from George Ws’ on foreign policy. Brodner peels the eggs, places them in a bowl, then crumbles and mixes them to illustrate how the two “are sort of yoked together.” Brodner goes on to make an egg salad with ingredients symbolizing different political points. By the end, he’s left with a kind of Middle Eastern but thoroughly American concoction” that “you just keep spinning and beating into the ground.” The salad becomes an Obama spread that Brodner schmeers into a caricature that’s then animated to a sound bite of the senator intoning “we are hungry for change” over a crowd chanting “U.S.A.”.

Unlike Bill Maher, Brodner doesn’t settle so much for quips or punch-lines or argumentative rants, opting instead for interpretive riffs that take the measure of the candidates’ public faces in rich metaphorical bites.

In “Clash of the Titans” Brodner deals with the looming specters of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The segment appeared before McCain emerged as the leading GOP candidate and prior to Clinton making nice with Obama. “We’re talking about big characters here,” Brodner says. “Larger than life figures. Reagan and Clinton are both that and it’s interesting in this campaign how both have kind of overshadowed the people who are actually running for office.”

Brodner morphs Clinton into King Kong, “a big, weighty, ponderous, powerful character” holding Hillary in one hand while stomping Obama underfoot. Clinton-Kong “comes on the scene and throws his weight around. He knows how dominant he is. Instead of being careful with it he seems almost happy to do damage,” opines Brodner. “It seems like a calculation that something was necessary to stop Obama and that good old-fashioned politics was the ticket. With Hillary in his grip he overshadows and overpowers the other Democratics…”

Clinton is “matched by Reagan, the big mythic character,” observes Brodner, who imagines the Great Communicator “as a dinosaur,” but one “Republicans can’t stop mentioning. And the weaker they seem to be the more they kind of just flap their arms and howl Reagan’s name out — as if an incantation. What we end up with is this mythic figure that has tremendous power over the Republican Party.”

 

 

 

 

After Hillary dropped 10 straight primaries, Brodner-Levin did “Lost at Sea,” which pictures the Clintons as the doomed couple from the movie Titanic, standing at the prow of the ship as it goes down, sunk by an iceberg in the guise of Obama. It’s the connections Brodner makes, first positing Hillary as John Paul Jones, then Admiral Nimitz, before her fateful Titanic encounter, that elevate his work.

Where Maher wears his liberal leanings on his sleeve, infusing his rails against the Right with self-congratulatory indignation, Brodner keeps his own personal political persuasions close to his vest, although he clearly loathes the Bush administration.

Still, he retains an even-handed approach in his bashing. Everyone and everything is fair game. As Naked’s producer-director, it’s ultimately Levin’s call that the series not be identified as either Left nor Right. It is, if anything, Centrist.

Brodner regards candidates “as characters in a novel or a movie or an opera. That’s the only way to think about them in my opinion because they’re not real people,” he said. “They’re characters they consciously create for us to consume, and that’s what the cartoonist draws — that character. We never see the real McCain or the real Obama. I learned this by covering campaigns and by watching these people on and off stage. The performer is the layered-over version, sort of the adopted persona. We’re really shocked and amazed when there’s an open mike and they say something completely uncharacteristic when the real person comes through.”

Beyond the posturing and masks, he said, “what’s most interesting is what they stand for. That’s what we need to be looking at.”

What makes he and Levin a good team? “This is such an equal partnership,” she said. “We listen to each other,” he said.

“I think part of it, too,” he added, “is we’re both in a real way very experienced commercial artists. We both have been able to support ourselves by finding ways to say what we want to say with our respective art while also pleasing some clients.”

Levin said the project’s lack of funding helps keep it independent and free of interference. She said as the series’ title puts it “this is the bare ass look at the campaign, plan and simple. Stripped down. We’re going to give you what we think here. We’re in nobody’s pocket. It’s not a spin. It’s not doctored.”

As the series’ opening tag line goes, “Uncle Sam says, watch your back.”

Only time will tell if her grand hopes for Naked Campaign, which she sees as the start of a whole new way of filmmaking, are realized.

“We think we are doing something quite extraordinary in terms of the sort of nexus of appointment viewing ala television and the expediency of the Internet. I am very determined that we will change the whole paradigm in terms of collaborations, production, platforming, multi-faceted filmmaking, et cetera.”

A filming we will go: Gail Levin follows her passion

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Another of my articles about documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, this time taking more of an overview of her career.  If you’re a PBS television viewer then chances are you’ve seen at least one of her films on Great Performances or American Masters.  My profile of her originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com). I did a more recent piece on Levin for the same publication, this time having to do with an edgy collaboration she has with editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner.  Look for that story posted on this site as well. Gail and I recently lost a dear friend in Omaha, Ben Nachman, who devoted much of his life to collecting and preserving Jewish oral histories, including the recollections of Holocaust survivors. Look for some stories on this blog site about Ben and his work.  He led me to many survivors and rescuers, and a selection of those stories can be found on the site as well.  Rest in peace, Ben.

Gail’s most recent film to find wide viewing is her documentary profile of actor Jeff Bridges for American Masters. You can find my story “Long Live the Dude” about the project, The Dude Abides, on this blog.  She also has a recent film about Cab Calloway that hasn’t yet found a mass audience. Also on this blog you’ll find my stories about Gail and her Making the Misfits film, her James Dean: Sense Memories film, and her work with political cartoonist Steve Brodner.

 

 

Gail Levin

 

 

A filming we will go: Gail Levin follows her passion 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Reared in Nebraska, New York-based, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Gail Levin captures an encyclopedic gallery of subjects that resonate with her eclectic life. She grew up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family with a string of retail clothing stores and a taste for the arts and humanities. Levin, a die-hard cineaste since seeing Fellini’s 8 1/2 at the Dundee Theater as a teen, followed the example of her aunts, including a pair of English teachers/published poets, and a noted psychologist who was a pioneer in aging research, to choose a field diverse enough to encompass her many passions and interests.

Her most recent work, James Dean: Sense Memories, premieres May 11 (8 p.m. CST) on the PBS American Masters series and takes an impressionistic look at the life imitating art aspects of the late actor’s short but event-filled life. The film comes in the 50th anniversary year of Dean’s death in 1955. It follows another Hollywood-related piece she did, Making the Misfits (2002), for that acclaimed series.

Until its recent demise, Levin was producing and directing small documentaries on artists for a new high-definition satellite television network called Voom.

The Omaha Central High School graduate earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did grad work at Wheelock College in Boston. She enlisted kids in a Boston Head Start program in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement. She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational media and filmmaking doctorate.

An internship on a Boston WBZTV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. In only a few years, she evolved into the kind of independent filmmaker she is today, where she goes from essaying a rite-of-passage on the open sea to sweating out a shoot in the scorching desert to recording candid conversations with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

Impassioned Projects
Twenty-five years into her career as a television producer-director and documentary filmmaker, Levin considers her work a calling despite the endless pitches she makes, the constant leads she pursues, the interminable lulls between projects and the inevitable production glitches that crop up.

“I’ve been so blessed. I have had a career that I love and that I hope is not going to end any time soon,” she said on an Omaha visit. “As hard as it is sometimes, I don’t even care. When you know the roller coaster, you know how to ride it, I guess. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. You know, you are lucky in this life if you get to do a couple of the things you really want to do, and I already have, so, I think I’m already ahead of the game. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects…and I’ve been able to see them go from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

One of those dream projects came quite early in her career when, in 1980, she and   a small crew filmed a transatlantic voyage made by several young mariners aboard the Lindo, a 125-foot, three-masted, top-sail schooner built in Sweden in 1925. The ship left Boston harbor June 4, docking in Kristiansand, Norway 23 days later, where Levin filmed. Then the ship made out to the open sea for additional shooting before completing the return crossing in mid-July. She landed the Lindoassignment through her children’s programming work at Boston’s WBZ-TV. Her film charts the bonds that develop among a group of Boston-area youths initiated in the maritime traditions of old wooden sailing ships by a crew of seasoned sailors.

 

 

 

 

As soon as she heard about the prospect of this “across the ocean documentary,” she said, “I knew I wanted to do it. I couldn’t go fast enough.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made possible by some unusual circumstances. The U.S. boycott of that summer’s Olympic Games in Moscow freed-up hours of programming that needed filling by then-NBC network affiliates such as WBZ. “I can’t imagine it would happen today,” she said. “That a television station or even a network would send a filmmaker and crew off for what was a fabulous several-week adventure. This is what you now go out in the world and try to pitch people to finance for you.”

Despite “hitting some particularly bad weather” and nursing a cameraman who “became very seasick right away,” the journey and resulting film, The Tall Ship Lindo, lived up to her high expectations. “I loved every minute of it.” The experience of being ensconced in tight quarters on an old sailing vessel, totally exposed to and buffeted by high seas was, she said, “quite extraordinary.” She added, “To this day I’m still friends with the people from that voyage.” Her most lasting impression is of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the ocean. “A 125-foot boat is not a very big boat and you don’t know that until you go across the ocean on it. It’s tiny. You are very aware from the very first second…that you are just a speck. You’re out there and you are so tiny and it is so big, and but for the grace of God…You have to be in awe of it.”

The Tall Ship Lindo won Emmys for outstanding cinematography and sound.

The Boston Years
By the early-’80s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, which she’s since renamed Inscape. During those first years as an independent filmmaker, her deep ties to Boston often led her back there for projects, including a few she counts among her finest achievements. One of these prized Boston projects is The Story of Red Auerbach, a 1985 film she made as a WHDH-TV special profiling the shrewd, crusty architect of the Boston Celtics NBA championship dynasty.

A lifelong sports fan, Levin knew the Celtics legacy and Auerbach’s anointed status in its mythology. When she sensed old-school Red was resistant to an upstart woman treading on his traditionally male turf, she sagely deferred to one of his trusted friends, Will McDonough, the late sportswriter, to handle interviewing the curmudgeonly coach and his players. “Red was very funny about me. I think he thought, Who’s this girl? She can’t do this. And my reaction to that was, Yes, I can, but I’m not going to try to shove this down your throat. So, Will did the bulk of the interviews because I thought Red wouldn’t talk to me the same way he would with Will. It didn’t have anything to do with how much I knew. I knew a lot. I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things. Well, it worked out great and Red ended up really trusting me. One of the great things of my life is to have met Red and to have done that documentary.”

Another Boston project she regards warmly is Harvard, A Video Portrait, a 1986 film made in conjunction with the 350th anniversary of the prestigious Ivy League school. “It’s just an amazing place. We started shooting in the reading (pre-exam) period, which meant I didn’t have one working classroom to shoot,” she said. “So, we made it the great academy. The great hall of learning. Everything quiet and beautiful and iconic, which it is.” Her on camera interview subjects included famed lawyer and legal educator Archibald Cox, Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner for literature Seamus Heaney and leading architect Moshe Safde.

Making the Misfits
Then came a dream project — Making the Misfits. This documentary about the celebrated and ill-fated 1961 feature The Misfits starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe takes the measure of one of cinema’s most exhaustively analyzed motion pictures, yet one about which a documentary had not been made until Levin’s. Shot on location in and around the Nevada desert, the film, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller and directed by that late great lion of American filmmaking, John Huston, became a cause celeb due to the legendary figures involved in its making, the personal dramas unfolding during and after the shoot and the constant presence of Magnum Photo Agency photographers documenting the entire production. Levin’s impressionistic film touches on it all.

 

 

 

 

Penned by Miller as a vehicle for his then wife Monroe, the story of troubled Western drifters refusing to be reined-in by encroaching civilization had nothing over the on-the-set intrigues playing out amongst the rarefied company of creative titans making The Misfits. Hounded by the press since their headline-making union a few years before, the unlikely match of the intellectual Miller and the bombshell Monroe was falling apart by the time the movie began. Monroe was at a personal and professional crossroads. Desperate to shed her sexpot image, she was finding studios and audiences less than eager to see her in a “serious” light. Already suffering from the emotional turmoil that defined her last years, she caused much disruption and many delays with her chronic tardiness, absences and blown lines.

The Misfits has long been overshadowed by the looming, larger-than-life legacies of the three Hollywood idols who starred in the project and died untimely deaths after its completion. Gable, the one-time King of Hollywood, suffered a massive heart attack only 11 days after shooting wrapped. Gable, who was 59, lost weight in preparation for his part as a lean, laconic horseman. Plus, he did his own rigorous stunts, including wrangling wild mustangs on location in the unforgiving Nevada desert. About a year later, Monroe, the then and forever reigning sex goddess, died at age 36 of an apparent drug overdose. Co-star Montgomery Clift, the romantic screen idol who made male sensitivity sexy, passed away at age 45 in 1966.

Long an admirer of the film, Levin got the idea for her documentary when she ran across a book detailing the making of the movie with images by Magnum photogs given complete access to the set. Aware of the rich, behind-the-scenes goings-on of the United Artists release, she immediately saw the potential for a signature the-making-of project. Besides funding, which soon fell into place, she needed to access Magnum’s superb photos, along with excerpts from the film itself, and to record new interviews with surviving principal cast and crew members.

When she began making inquiries about doing a documentary, she assumed she was too late — that surely someone already had something in the works — but much to her surprise and delight she found she was the first in on it. “That was auspicious somehow, because it felt like it was mine to do,” she said in an online PBS interview with writer Gia Kourlas. “I love the notion of being able to approach the creative process on several levels, including the points of view of these photographers. The Misfits is a great film that wasn’t received in that way, but I think it’s so extraordinarily modern and courageous.” She also secured rather quickly the releases needed from Magnum, United Artists, cast and crew. Even the indomitable Arthur Miller agreed to participate without much prodding.

 

 

American Masters creator Susan Lacy, actor Jeff Bridges, and Gail Levin

 

 

Framing the Image
A film and photography buff, Levin also liked the idea of looking at cinema through the lens of still imagemakers, whose approach she is influenced by.

“I just loved The Misfits,” she said. “And I just love still photography. It’s very influential in my thinking. I do like what a frame does. I would never say I’m involved in formally composing shots, but some part of me is. I am looking at things always in terms of how I can use a frame, how the frame fits with the next image…I’m very informed by it. I think you can see it all the way through my film.”

Levin prefers “portrait-type” shots. “I am not afraid of a talking head. I like a tight shot. I like faces. I want to see them. I believe you hear people better the closer in the camera is.” Tony Huston described to her how his father, The Misfits’ director John Huston, considered the human face “a landscape unto itself” and therefore something to be explored in detail. “And I shoot like that,” she said.

That’s why Levin was furious with herself when she got back to her editing suite and discovered a sequence in which she’d inexplicably filmed interviews with crew members from The Misfits in wide body shots instead of closeups. The seated subjects were paired off in the open desert and the interviews shot using two cameras. Levin was there the entire time, even eying a video feed, and so she can only assume she got so wrapped up in the content of the scenes she lost sight of how she wanted them composed. “I was absolutely stunned by how much I hated it and by how much I couldn’t bear the notion that this was my frame. This was not the way I wanted this to look. I don’t like commonness in anything and I felt like these were common, bad, sloppy documentary shots.”

That’s when inspiration became the mother of invention. “So, I was looking at these pictures when suddenly I lined them up on the editing screen and I saw how I could use the shots like images on a contact sheet.” And that’s just what she did with the footage, breaking up the frame to run streaming, parallel interviews side-by-side. “It was a very still photographic-inspired solution for me to then take those wide shots and make them work as two shots, one next to the other. It was the opposite of the intimate, beautiful portrait shots I prefer, but what it gave you was all the activity of the interaction of these people.”

Airing to good reviews on PBS’ Great Performances in 2003, Making the Misfits satisfied Levin’s intent “to not have it be another one of the zillions of movies about movies. I wanted to make it have some resonance and to mean something to somebody, and have it not be another, ugh, Marilyn Monroe saga.” Her film played on a continuous loop during the Joslyn Art Museum’s 2003 showing of the traveling exhibition, Magnum Cinema: Photograph from Fifty Years of Movie Making.

Artists and Other Projects
Although she loves the documentary form, she doesn’t consider herself strictly a documentarian. Some of her favorite work includes segments she made for A&E’sRevue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles on individual artists. She’s particularly enamored with the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions. “I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. And I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.” Other notables she’s profiled include Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci.

She’s revisited the creative landscape with her current film on James Dean. The hour-long Sense Memories examines the art imitating life aspects of the late actor

She’s now trying to secure backing for a couple documentary projects she’s eager to develop. One would explore the price and promise of life on the Great Plains and the other would reveal the real life affairs that inspired a famous author’s literary romances. As always, her excitement about these new subjects consumes her.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me. I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up in exactly the right way…and when that happens, oh, that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”

September 20, 2010 2 comments

Cropped screenshot of Marilyn Monroe from the ...

Image via Wikipedia

Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of countless articles, books, and films, and filmmaker Gail Levin, like so many other artists, has long been fascinated by the pop culture icon’s hold on us all these years. Levin made a documentary a few years ago about the Monroe mystique, examining still images of the actress as a way of taking stock of  how the starlet and a handful of photographers she posed for over and over again were complicit in creating the intoxicating sex symbol she epitomized then and continues to represent today.  I must say that even as a young boy I was completely taken by the Monroe package — her looks, her voice, her manner, her everything. For better or worse, I am still enthralled today. In fact, as I write these words a Marilyn poster hanging on my office wall fetchingly looms over me, her abundant bosom straining against the decolletage of a slinky evening dress, one strap having fallen down, and she lost in the reverie of anointing her porcelain skin with perfume.  Marilyn, sweet Marilyn, the embodiment of innocence and carnality that has universal appeal.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Levin’s film is unavoidably also about Marilyn, a subject I don’t mind revisiting again, although I do tire of all the prurient conspiracy theories swirling about her untimely death.  I think the truth is she died just as she lived – messily.

Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Filmmaker Gail Levin is at it again. Only a year after the Emmy Award-winning Omaha native’s documentary on James Dean premiered on PBS as part of the American Masters series, she has a new Masters film set to debut on July 19 that tackles another, larger screen legend — Marilyn Monroe.

Another Monroe treatise? That cynical reaction is precisely what the New York-based Levin, a Central High School graduate, hopes to overturn with her new documentary Marilyn Monroe: Still Life, premiering next Wednesday at 8 p.m on Nebraska Educational Television.

Instead of yet another biopic approach to this much revisited subject, Levin’s “gentle film” examines the persistence of Marilyn’s image in pop culture as filtered through the canon of still photographs taken of her, photos that largely account for the potency of her sex goddess status 44 years after her death.

Long intrigued by how MM and the photogs who shot her crafted an image with such currency as to cast a spell decades later, Levin committed to the film after hearing Marilyn would have turned 80 this year; reason enough to delve into the ageless Marilyn forever fixed in our collective consciousness. The filmmaker dealt once before with MM — for her 2003 doc Making the Misfits, which looks at the intrigue behind the 1961 Monroe feature vehicle The Misfits, penned by her then-husband playwright Arthur Miller.

On a recent Omaha visit to see family and friends, Levin spoke to the Jewish Press about her new project and the Monroe mystique that still beguiles us. She said MM is a much-referenced figure all these years later “not because of the movies” but “because of all the photographs” — photos the image makers and the icon used to their own ends.

“She made herself quite available to photographers and the list is just endless. We sort of picked a path through this huge archive of photographs,” said Levin. In addition to being “perhaps the most photographed woman of the 20th century,” there are MM-inspired books, articles, songs, videos, “and I was interested in what motivates all of that,” Levin said. “The masters part of this American Masters is as much these great photographers as it is her. It’s kind of book-ended by the great Eve Arnold and the great Arnold Newman. These are two giants of 20th century photography.”

Not just noted photographers contributed to her image. The film includes pics by Ben Ross, “whom none of us had ever heard of before,” Levin said. “He was one of these itinerant photographers from the 1950s and his photographs of her are stunning.” At least one of the artists whose images of MM are featured, Andre De Dienes, was also her lover. “He really knew her from the time she was probably about 20 to the time she died, and shot her all that time, and had a big romance with her,” Levin said. “There’s some very beautiful young stuff with her.”

There’s the ubiquitous Andy Warhol take on Marilyn in the film. Some images are quite familiar but others are new, at least to a general viewing audience and, Levin predicts, some images will even be new to Marilyn and photography aficionados.

Besides interviews with top photographers who helped shape MM’s image, Levin’s film features comments from Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner. There are even audio excerpts from the last interview Marilyn gave.

Levin said former Redbook editor Robert Stein provided a key insight into MM when he told her “she was an odd combination of innocence and guile.” As Levin has come to find, “I think a transcendent aspect with her is this real genuineness. I think she was completely approachable and accessible…You could be no one and talk to her and you could get into her bed. I think there’s something about her that is completely open, completely accepting. Burt Stern’s assistant was 22-years-old when Stern took photos of her and he said, ‘I was at the bottom of the totem pole and yet she was so kind to me and so sweet to me.’ And people say that across the board about her. Marilyn Monroe was not an imperious bitch. She was not a diva. That’s not who she was. She was a very real person. She was an Everywoman. She really was.”

 

 

 

 

The invention of her image did not happen by chance. Nor did she play a passive role in its creation. She owned her image and, if not the negatives, then what they conveyed. “This was very deliberate. This wasn’t an accident,” Levin said. “She got it and she had it and she made it and she knew it. She was not guileless because she was not stupid. She manufactured this image brilliantly. It was a calculated image, but with good heart, with good intent, with good will.”

Levin feels it’s wrong to apply a feminist prism in viewing Marilyn as a victim of misogyny or unenlightened ambition. “This was a guy’s woman. She liked guys. It was not against her will,” Levin said. “I don’t think she felt victimized at all. I think she exploited it in every way.”

The story of the famous calendar nudes she posed for as an unknown, later published in Playboy at the height of her stardom, reveal an MM in charge of her own image. “Hefner makes the remark that nude photos in those days could take you down. But when they came out she stood right up to it,” Levin said. “Her whole attitude toward it was, This is life. She wasn’t ashamed of any aspect of her body or her being.”

Ironically, Levin was forced to pixilate the nipples and other body parts in the wake of the Janet Jackson breast flash, even though, as Levin argues, the MM nudes are “not pornographic, they’re not slutty, they’re absolutely beautiful. They’ve been made ugly by other people.”

What transpired with the nudes, which made others rich while MM never got a residual dime over the $50 modeling fee, mirrored her life in the spotlight, Levin said. “I think people were rather cruel to her and I think she was hurt. But I also think she was defiant in the face of it. She was courageous. I think the soul of her was terribly resilient.”

Much of the film refers to the sessions that produced the images that still transfix us today, including The Seven Year Itch shoot. In these settings MM willingly gave herself over to the camera. She projected a playful woman-child persona, both real and acted, as she also asserted influence over what final images would see the light of day. Perhaps nothing else gave her such a sense of self-determination.

 

 

 

 

“You see that she loved it. It was her best relationship, really. It was really the place where she was most comfortable and had the most control,” Levin said. “She very much had control of her contact sheets. She would edit them. She was notorious for Xing out photos in red lipstick or marker. Eve Arnold says in the very beginning of the film, ‘This was her way of working and even though I was free to do what I wanted, she really controlled the image.’”

As Marilyn evolved from aspiring actress to star “she understood what it was she wanted” and she pursued specific photographers she knew “could do her justice,” Levin said, “and got herself in front of those people and, of course, those people wanted to photograph her. They considered her a great subject. It was the perfect metier” for a photographer-subject to play in.

A model must make love to the camera for the images to last. MM invested her photos with rarely seen rapture. “Eve Arnold comments there were a lot of four-letter words used to describe the way she seduced a camera. She loved to do it and she did it great,” Levin said. “Marilyn’s take, which I think is the critical take, is she just thought it was great to be thought of as sexual and beautiful. And why not? I think any woman would want to look like that for five minutes of her life.”

For Levin, one particular image encapsulates Monroe in all her complexity.

“We open the film with a dark room sequence in which we print a photograph of her,” Levin said. “It was taken by Roy Schatt during the time she was in the Actors Studio in New York. Her face is completely open. No makeup. You see that sort of Norma Jeane plainness, really. There’s some pictures of her, like this one, that when you look at them you think, Whatever gave her the idea she could pull this off? She’s OK. She has a cute, sweet face, but hers was not a remarkable face. At the same time you see right through that to the whole iconography of Marilyn Monroe. I chose this picture because I thought it emblematic of the whole of her being.”

Like any fine actress, and Levin ranks MM “a great comedienne,” she could summon her public persona on demand. As Levin tells it, “There’s a known story of her walking down a New York street incognito and saying to her friend, ‘Do you want to see her?’” Meaning Marilyn Monroe, superstar sex symbol. The shape shift only took a subtle change — to a more free, less uptight bearing. The power of it bemused and bothered her. “I think she lived in that schism.”

Taking on as familiar a figure as Monroe and all that “we bring to her” scared Levin. “It’s the hardest film I’ve ever made. This material has been so manipulated in so many ways. The challenge and the task is how do I take this and make this something you feel is completely fresh?” In the end, she feels she’s captured the essential Monroe. “We started out liking her and we ended up loving her. We tried not to take anything from her. She looks so beautiful in this film.”

Levin’s Marilyn will have multiple showings, along with her James Dean, the last two weeks of July. Check local NET1 and NET2 listings for dates/times.

With two movie icon subjects behind her, one might expect Levin to tackle another, but her next film may key off a documentary she worked on last fall. From Shtetl to Swing deals with the great migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe to America and their development, with African-Americans, of the music style known as swing. Slated for Great Performances, the film was delivered in less than airable condition, causing series officials to call in Levin to do some “doctoring.” Her work helped the film get “the highest ratings in New York in years for a Great Performances. One of the things I’m planning on next is something similar to that, but on Latin music and how it’s transmorgified into the culture.”

American Masters is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York. Susan Lacy is executive producer of the acclaimed series.

Gail Levin takes on American master James Dean

September 20, 2010 1 comment

Cropped screenshot of James Dean in the traile...

Image via Wikipedia

My friend Gail Levin is a talented documentarian whose award-winning work covers many subjects, although she has a particular knack for portraying artists and creatives.  Many of her recent feature length documentaries have appeared on PBS and this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com)  is about one of those films, a look at the enigmatic James Dean, the brilliant Method actor whose bright flame was extinguished far too early. In part because of the resonant parts he played with such ferocity and in part because he did die so tragically young, he remains a symbol of youth angst and rebellion more than 50 years after his passing.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) explores both what Levin tried to capture and what Dean represented on screen.  I am posting other pieces about Levin and her work, including one on her documentary Marilyn (Monroe).  She profiled a latter day American rebel actor, Jeff Bridges, in a documentary for American Masters earlier this year. Bridges is one of my favorite actors, and I believe he’s every inch the artist Dean was but I must say that Dean had a spell-binding quality that only a few other actors possessed.  Marlon Brando was one.  Montgomery Clift was another.  Both born in my hometown of Omaha, by the way.

Gail Levin takes on American master James Dean

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

James Dean.

Chameleon. Seducer. Seeker. Rebel. Artist. Icon. The embodiment of youthful angst and the preternaturally old soul in touch with the ages. The epitome of cool. A timeless presence. An original. Seething with curiosity. Sampling life’s diverse offerings. Always running, yearning, racing. Forever young and free.

He’s one of those select figures whose legacy transcends time and culture. In this 50th anniversary year of Dean’s death, it’s hard imagining anyone who doesn’t know of the actor and his story. His coming from a shattered family in rural Indiana to make his way out west, where he pursued the Hollywood dream. Studying acting. Landing bit parts in some good and some forgettable films. Then rashly taking off for New York, where things broke big for him on stage and in live television. Doing the Actor’s Studio thing. The buzz from his Broadway and TV work got the same L.A. suits who barely noticed him before to come courting.

 

 

 

 

There was the remarkable string of three starring films he made for Warners, each directed by a master, all within a span of 18 months. Then, on the verge of superstardom, he died September 30, 1955 in an auto crash on a remote stretch of California Route 466. Apropos of his free spirit image, he died in a sports car en route to compete in a race. He was 24. His legendary status ensured not so much by an early death as by the enduringly fine work he left behind and the sublime expression he gave to emblematic characters. Three coveted roles came his way. His animus perfectly suited each and he made them entirely his own. Was it coincidence or serendipity or something else?

The art imitating life aspects of Dean and his very real dedication to his craft are the subjects of a new American Masters documentary, James Dean: Sense Memories, premiering May 11 at 8 p.m. (CST) on PBS. Its creator, New York-based, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Gail Levin (Making the Misfits), is an Omaha native and a longtime Dean admirer. In a recent conversation, the producer-director-writer said, “I loved making this film. It felt very true to me make this one.”

Dean is among many noted artists she’s profiled in her 30-plus-year career. With Sense Memories, the Central High graduate’s made an impressionistic film evocative of what made Dean the Beat poet among his acting generation and a style setter over the years. If only an interesting personality with killer good looks, his influence would have faded by now. If not an accomplished actor, his performances would be passe, his films dismissed. No, he’s still a vital presence and symbol because of a kind of genius — certainly, innovation —  for exuding truth.

Director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond), once a struggling young actor with Dean in New York, says in the film, “It was so clear that he was a special person. Every moment that you spent with him you knew you were with an original. Strange and peculiar and arresting — you couldn’t take your eyes off him.”

Sense Memories is fixed in that time and place when Dean emerged on the scene, like Elvis, as a new breed of hep cat straining against convention. Actor Martin Landau, a crony of Dean’s in the ‘50s, describes how Dean personified post-war America’s existential modern man — “a different kind of animal…that represented unrest and dissatisfaction with the status quo.” In sketching Dean’s life to a John Faddis jazz score and a black and white (actually, desaturated color) visual motif, Levin’s made a mood piece eloquent of an age of anxiety and possibility and devoid of the cliche and gossip that can distort an icon as potent as Dean.

“There’s been a ton of stuff that’s been done, and a lot of it is very tawdry,” she said, “which is really never where I wanted to go with this film. I really wanted the point for this film to be that his art and life were so close. Because he was so raw, it allowed him to inhabit these characters and to live those feelings and yet to have that one degree of separation that maybe made it less painful somehow. Although I think he lived that pain in his life, too. And then there was his exceptional collaboration with three directors of enormous stature and his truly good work for them. I think that is…often overlooked in telling the Dean story.”

To flesh out the man behind the myth, Levin filmed reminiscences with intimates of his from those halcyon days of new ideas and spectacular talents. The title,Sense Memories, refers both to the enigmatic portrait painted of Dean by his friends’ burnished recollections and to the Method Acting technique Dean presumably employed to elicit his extraordinary range of emotions on screen.

“It’s Rashomon. It’s just people’s memories, and some of them jive with each other and some of them don’t,” she said. “It’s meant to be interpretive. It’s not meant to be in any way a chronology. It’s not meant to be a biography. It’s just meant to evoke him from the experiences and memories of people who really knew him.”

She said it’s no accident Dean surrounded himself with special people. “There’s this range of exceptional men and women he found as friends and soulmates, and they’re all quite exotic little flowers. They all achieved a level of greatness themselves. They were there when it was all happening. Great music. Great art. Great theater. They were all touched by it and were all in it with him.”

Levin cast, lit and shot her on-camera observers as though characters in a drama of Dean’s life, which in a sense they were. Shot against a stark white backdrop and at an extreme angle, the texture of their faces and the vividness of their personalities come out and create a stream-of-consciousness effect when juxtaposed with the Dean images. “I am not afraid of a talking head. I like a tight shot. I like faces. I want to see them. I believe you hear people better the closer in the camera is,” she said. Tony Huston described to her how his father, The Misfits director John Huston, considered the human face “a landscape unto itself” and therefore something to be explored in detail. “And I shoot like that,” she said.

As Levin’s film reveals, Dean embraced life the way a method actor tackles a role, living in the moment and shaping the rhythm of his external self to the driving riffs inside him. His circle of friends was eclectic, cutting across age, race, gender, sexual persuasion, occupation, et cetera. He became whatever the circumstance called for and sought whatever he thought was missing.

Entertainer Eartha Kitt recalls she and Dean hanging out with: “We’d sit on the street benches on Hollywood and Vine and watch the night people. ‘That’s where we get our characters,’ he said.” That close observation and deep curiosity is what great artists have in common. It’s what allowed Dean to submerge himself in character and imbue himself so fully in it that his work rung authentic and fresh, as if happening for the first time. A student of human behavior, he applied research and technique to his creative process and then let his instincts take over.

“He was becoming one of America’s greatest actors,” Kitt says. “He instinctively knew what to do with a character because his spirit was free. It was quite interesting the way he went about it — methodically and then unmethodically.”

 

 

 

 

Dean was a mass of contradictions who gave and took from others as he saw fit and this ability to be different things to different people is part of the appeal he holds for us as viewers. With Kazan and Ray, for example, he felt protected and appreciated. Given free rein and much nurturing, the acolyte went out on a limb for them. With Giant director George Stevens, however, he was a petulant pain-in-the-ass unhappily constrained and stymied by G.S.’s penchant for many takes.

Perhaps the dichotomy of Dean is best articulated by actress Lois Smith, who played opposite him in Eden and recalls “a sweet rustic person, but on the other hand there was this suspicious, taut, guarded young man — and both of them seemed always present and, of course, that’s a thrilling tension.”

Just as Dean projected the tension of his complex inner life, he was a mimic and sponge who drew on persons, events and places as studies for his art.

“He was very willing to put himself in the hands of people he trusted,” Levin said, “but that trust was hard won. As his friend, writer William Bast, says, ‘he was very needy’ and he knew what he needed. I think he was a very canny guy about all those things. I think he definitely was living on the edge because he was so hungry for experience. He was definitely trying to take of everything.”

Separated from his mother at age 9, when she died of cancer, and spurned by his father, he attached himself to older men like Kazan and Ray and he acted out the demons of his real loss and neglect in the characters he played.

In Eden, Dean was — as we hear the late Kazan say — the incarnation of Cal Trask’s “twisted boy. Twisted by the denial of love.” Following a hunch, Kazan knew Dean/Trask were in “search for love everywhere and in every way.” Landau said Dean “understood pain.” Cal’s search for his lost mother mirrors Dean’s own sense of maternal abandonment. Cal is also desperate to earn his cold, stern father’s love. Dean’s life resonated with similar longing. After his mother died, his father dropped out, not seeing him again until years later. In Rebel, Jim Stark craves a strong father figure in the same way Dean craved one, too. In Giant, Dean plays Jett Rink, the quintessential wildcatter that goes his own way. Similarly, Bast says Dean brandished “a completely independent attitude” toward work and life.

Ultimately, what makes Dean still fascinating is his ageless quality. “He is so timeless,” said Levin. “His androgyny is way ahead of its time because it’s so completely in its time right now. You look at him in those films and in every shot he looks totally modern. He’s the one in Rebel who looks completely timeless, while the rest of them look like children of the ‘50s. The same thing is true in Eden. Every single frame of him could have been taken yesterday. With his shabby yet seductive good looks, you might as well be looking at Brad Pitt or Colin Farrell. That great Times Square picture where he walks in the rain, cigarette in his mouth, and coat collar pulled up — my God, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

That image has “influenced” Levin. “It’s a perfect picture to me. It’s everything black and white photography should do. It’s full of atmosphere and contrast, lights and darks and varying shades of gray, and then there’s THIS guy. It’s informed the look of my films. I tried capturing that era’s beautiful black and white photography in this film.” The man who made that image, famed Magnum shooter and Levin friend Dennis Stock, planted the seed for the Dean film when he told her: “‘It’s going to be the 50th anniversary, and we should do something.’ So, in a sense,” Levin said, “this project has completed a circle.”

 

 

Dean’s only the latest in a gallery of notables she’s documented: Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears, Francis Ford Coppola, John Singleton, Bernardo Bertolucci, Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Joni Mitchell, Bobby McFerrin, Paul McCartney, Yo-Yo Ma, Franco Zeferelli, Red Auerbach. Besides American Masters, her work has appeared on PBS’s Great Performances, the A & E network and the satellite channel VOOM.

Her work reflects an eclectic background. She grew up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family with a string of retail clothing stores and a taste for the arts and humanities. Her extended family included a pair of English teachers/published poets and a psychologist pioneer in the field of aging. Levin earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did grad work at Wheelock College in Boston. A die-hard cineast since seeing Fellini’s 8 1/2 at the Dundee Theater as a teen, she was inspired by the heady free cinema movement in the ‘60s to try her hand at filmmaking. She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational media and filmmaking doctorate.

A Boston WBZ-TV kids show internship led to an associate producer’s job that became a senior producer slot. She evolved into the independent filmmaker she is today, going from essaying a rite-of-passage on the open sea to sweating out a shoot in the scorching desert to recording candid conversations in hallowed halls with luminaries from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

She considers her work a calling.

“I’ve been so blessed. I have had a career that I love and that I hope is not going to end any time soon,” she said. “As hard as it is sometimes, I don’t even care. When you know the roller coaster, you know how to ride it. Besides, I don’t know how to do anything else. You know, you are lucky in this life if you get to do a couple of the things you really want to do, and I already have, so, I think I’m already ahead of the game. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects…and I’ve been able to see them go from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

Much like her artist subjects, she’s an intensely curious person.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me. I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up in exactly the right way…and when that happens, oh, that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

One of her dream projects came quite early in her career when, in 1980, she and   a small crew filmed a transatlantic voyage made by several young mariners aboard the Lindo, a 125-foot, three-masted, top-sail schooner built in Sweden in 1925. The ship left Boston harbor June 4, docking in Kristiansand, Norway 23 days later, where Levin filmed. Then the ship made out to the open sea for additional shooting before completing the return crossing in mid-July.

Her film charts the bonds formed among a group of Boston-area youths initiated in the maritime traditions of old wooden sailing ships by a crew of seasoned sailors. As soon as she heard about the prospect of this “across the ocean documentary,” she said, “I knew I wanted to do it. I couldn’t go fast enough. I can’t imagine it would happen today. That a television station or even a network would send a filmmaker and crew off for what was a fabulous several-week adventure. This is what you now go out in the world and try to pitch people to finance for you.”

Despite “hitting some particularly bad weather” and nursing a cameraman who “became very seasick right away,” the journey and resulting film, The Tall Ship Lindo, proved satisfying. “I loved every minute of it.” Being ensconced in tight quarters on an old sailing vessel, totally exposed to and buffeted by high seas was, she said, “quite extraordinary. To this day I’m still friends with the people from that voyage.” Her most lasting impression is of being overwhelmed by the ocean’s enormity. “A 125-foot boat is not a very big boat and you don’t know that until you go across the ocean on it. It’s tiny. You are very aware from the very first second…that you are just a speck. You’re out there and you are so tiny and it is so big, and but for the grace of God…You have to be in awe of it.”

The Tall Ship Lindo won Emmys for outstanding cinematography and sound.

For Making the Misfits, her take on the remarkable confluence of talents (actors Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, playwright Arthur Miller, director John Huston) that came together to shoot the 1961 classic film, The Misfits, Levin and her DP, Dewald Aukema, filmed in its Nevada locales. Her doc won a Cine Goden Eagle for and was included in the International Festival of Film in Montreal.

For Sense Memories, Levin and Aukema went to Marfa, Texas, where Giant was shot, and to that barren California spot where James Dean’s flaming life ended and his golden-hued legend began. Her film opens quietly there, with a gentle pan across the desert highway, lingering at the two-pump filling station that was his last stop. Desert and traffic noises rise. An engine revs. And then some jazz licks come in. It’s a haunting, muted elegy for a bright spirit dimmed too quickly, but still holding us entranced in its warm after-glow.

Sense Memories is a co-production of Thirteen/WNET’s (New York) American Masters and Warner Home Video. The acclaimed series is executive produced by Susan Lacy.

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