NEW YORK, NY.-
The early 1960s was the golden age of underground movies. Some, like Jack Smiths Flaming Creatures, provoked scandals. Others were too explicit to be written about (see Barbara Rubins Christmas on Earth). At least one was a commercial success: Adolfas Mekas Hallelujah the Hills.
A wild spoof on art movies by a new American director scored a surprise success Saturday at the New York Film Festival, Eugene Archer reported in the New York Times in 1963, the festivals first year.
Returning to Lincoln Center in New York for three shows, part of a series devoted to the early 60s avant-garde, Hallelujah the Hills, may be the seriess most conventional selection a feature-length movie with actors, some even professional, and a semblance of plot, shot in crisp black and white by Ed Emshwiller, an underground filmmaker of great technical expertise.
The movie is romantic slapstick set in sylvan Vermont. Two guys, Jack (the intrepid photographer Peter Beard) and Leo (painter and assemblagist Marty Greenbaum) are infatuated with same young woman, Vera (a lovely and enigmatic winter sprite per Archers review). She is played by two different actresses (Sheila Finn and Peggy Steffans), both with a marked resemblance to Jean-Luc Godards muse Anna Karina. The rivals court Vera in different seasons over the course of seven years a crisis arises when both show up for Thanksgiving.
As its title suggests Hallelujah is nothing if not exuberant. Adolfas Mekas, the younger brother of Jonas Mekas and, like him, an immigrant from rural Lithuania, was in his late 20s when he made the movie. Pratfalls and drunken antics abound. Beard gives a particularly athletic performance at one point bounding bare-bottomed through deep snow. (With his horn-rimmed glasses, Greenbaum seems more the Woody Allen type.)
Jump cuts are common, too. Very much an American homage to French new wave movies, Hallelujah suggests a frothy Jules and Jim made in the insouciant style of Shoot the Piano Player. Perhaps there was a two-way street. As Hallelujah was a hit at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, reviewed by Godard, its not inconceivable that it was an inspiration for his 1964 Band of Outsiders.
Hallelujah is not unduly sappy, although it does demand a tolerance for madrigal jazz (heavy on a tinkly harpsichord) and rampant cinephilia. I havent seen a movie in 10 days, Leo complains. The rivals play at being Kurosawa samurai. There are nods to not only Godard but the early cinema of Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett and W.C. Fields. Late in the movie, Mekas interpolates a celebrated bit of ice floe excitement from D.W. Griffiths 1920 Way Down East. The sequence still works and so, in a more limited way, does Hallelujah the Hills.
Actually, as fashionable as Mekas film once was it has an atavistic quality. Beneath the surface lurks a Lithuanian folk tale about rival princes and a princess (or goddess) linked to the changing seasons. Hallelujah indeed.
Hallelujah the Hills: On Friday, Tuesday and Wednesday at Film at Lincoln Center in Manhattan; filmlinc.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times