The following are the notes for two presentations given by Academic Film Archive of North America director Geoff Alexander at the Association of Moving Image Archivists Conference, held in Boston in November, 2002. The first, as a panelist on Rethinking 'Educational' Films, presented a differentiation between the Academic and the Guidance film, and called for increased awareness, scholarship, and preservation of the Academic Film. The second presentation was a one-evening retrospective on the work of filmmaker Bert Van Bork.
Rethinking ‘Educational’ Films
Panel discussion, 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm, Thursday, November 21, 2002
What we’ll discuss today:
1) What is Academic Film? AF enhances understanding of humanities and sciences, concentrating on subject areas of art, history, literature , science, and social science
2) How does it differ from the guidance film? GF concentrates on health, safety, dating, civics
3) What were the historical reasons for its emergence? (The post-1960 renaissance)
Key federal programs leading to increased funds for academic films:
4) State of Academic film today
Status of Academic Film companies
Status of filmmakers
Level of current scholarship
Current state of affairs
5) Resources for scholars, archivists, media librarians (the Academic Film Archive of North
America: who it is, what it does)
6) A call for increased awareness, scholarship, and preservation of the academic film
7) A short list of important academic filmmakers (visit http://www.afana.org/filmmakers.htm for specific films keyed to each filmmaker)
From Cave Dwellers to Volcanic Destruction: the Academic Films of Bert Van Bork
Screening, 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm, Thursday, November 21
Tonight we present the first national retrospective of the work of one of the more daring cinematographer/producer to work in the 16mm educational genre, Bert Van Bork, whose stunning camera work is defined by superior color, design, and perspective. Van Bork’s story is a fascinating one, not only in terms of his own personal history, but of his multi-dimensional relationship to many different art forms as well. Born in 1928 in Augustusburg, Germany, he studied graphic art and painting in the Academies of Fine Arts in Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden, leading him to produce stark two-dimensional woodcuts of intense and terrifying beauty. These were often made from the pine remains of destroyed buildings and old furniture, depicting a Berlin struggling with an uncertain future. In 1954, he moved to Chicago by way of New York, and continued working in oil on canvas and drypoint, displaying an influence of German expressionism in his portrayals of the landscapes of the American Southwest, and cityscapes of Chicago. By this time, Van Bork had become an accomplished stills photographer as well, and received the National Award for Outstanding Photography in Germany in 1954. In 1960, he wrote a book with photographs, ‘The Artist at Work: Jacques Lipchitz’.
In 1957, Van Bork was hired to produce films for Encyclopaedia Britannica, soon becoming noted for his stunning geological studies, and recognized for his daring in obtaining footage under extremely arduous volcanic conditions. Of all filmmakers working within the academic film framework, Van Bork may have been the most successful in terms of melding the art and science of filmmaking, blending artistic sensibility with exacting technical standards far superior to many of his contemporaries. His remarkable science films may be mistaken for art films: exploring nature’s forms, Van Bork is kin to Weston and Adams, supplanting their black and white with brilliant color, shot more than occasionally under arduous circumstances.
It is hoped this retrospective will encourage archivists not only to gain an appreciation for the work of one of academic film’s more prolific filmmakers, but to re-evaluate the potential for classroom academic films within their own collections.
On the program:
‘Cave Community’ (1960) 13m, dir. Bert Van Bork. In another dangerous assignment that virtually any other filmmaker would refuse outright, Van Bork and his crew lower themselves into the Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee, to film salamanders and other cave life. Van Bork relates an interesting series of events surrounding the making of the film: arriving in McMinnville, the crew stopped at a hamburger stand for lunch. "Sorry, no more hamburgers", they were told, even though other patrons were eating. Suspicious that the crew were government agents looking for illegal moonshine stills, word had gotten around the small community that no one was to cooperate with Van Bork. Needing several local workers to assist in helping to carry, lower, and raise the equipment from the cave, the filmmaker was refused personnel by the local employment office, a problem Van Bork eventually overcame by hiring a team of African-American workers, disconnected from the community power structure. Upon emerging from the cave, Van Bork and the workers were pelted with stones from angry locals. The filming itself was arduous, too: first, Van Bork lowered himself by rope so he could film the others descending, then he and the others crawled through passages so narrow that they had to remove the belts and pants to get through. Electricity was cabled from the surface, enabling them to generate enough light to succeed with the slow ASA 10 movie film which was standard in 1960.
Cave Community is a transitional film, containing elements of
static 1950's-style educational filmmaking, including elementary graphics and a
stilted narrative. It also includes sequences that are precursors to the more
modern era of academic filmmaking that was to follow, exemplified by the closing
shot, silhouetting the large, looming human shadow figures slowly walking
off-frame, casting their spectres against the sides of the cavern, providing a
German-Expressionist hue which seems more out of Fritz Lang’s M, than a
biology series funded by EB.
‘Heartbeat of a Volcano’ (1970) 21m, prod. Bert Van Bork. This film is, we think, the granddaddy of all volcano films, a twenty-one minute trip to hell in the fast lane. Van Bork intended, in his visit to the big island, to film the sputtering Kilauhea, show the geologists using seismographs and geotometers, and maybe get a shot or two of the degassing process at the vents. Instead, as the ground base geologist yells into the short-wave: "she's going wild, she's going wild!", the volcano trembles furiously, dramatically erupting from a threatening lava vent. The following sequence is perhaps unprecedented in academic film, roughly seventy seconds of non-narrated footage, accompanied only by natural sound. These moments are filled with spectacular night shots of a giant firefall twice as high as Niagara Falls, glowing lava streams and tremendous explosions.
Van Bork burned up two pair of shoes as he hung close to the carnage to film the greatest volcanic film we’ve seen. These spectacular shots were planned the day before the explosion, as Van Bork and assistant Ulf Backström reconnoitered the volcanic area, marking exit routes with reflective tape, and noting the location of lava vents. In one scene, geologists are shown fleeing the approaching lava, but the camera remains (Van Bork, his eye glued to the camera, was prevented from pitching forward into vents and calderas by the steady hand of Backstrom, holding tightly to the back of his belt). The hand of the AGI's John Shelton is in fine evidence here on the soundtrack, which is resplendent with time signatures from radio station WWVH, and motor sounds from seismometers to the generators powering field geometers.
‘Fire in the Sea’ (1973) 10m, dir. Bert Van Bork. In contrast with the "hard-science" treatment in ‘Heartbeat of a Volcano’, this unnarrated film poetically conveys the exceptional forces at the nexus of land and sea.
‘Mesa Verde: Mystery of the Silent Cities’ (1975) 14m, prod. Bert Van Bork. Few might argue the case that this film sets the standard for the Anasazi aesthetic in academic classroom film. Flying within impossibly narrow canyons to achieve dizzying shots of cliff-dwellings, Van Bork used two pilots during the filming, one of whom quit in the middle of the shooting out of fear for his life, reminding the filmmaker that he had children. Van Bork’s masterful shots were accomplished by removing the helicopter door, mounting the camera on a fixed mount, then directing the pilot through a headphone mic to fly in various trajectories. As if the breathtaking displays of the terrain and dwellings aren’t enough, Van Bork also begins some pan shots with abstract architectural designs abruptly jutting out from behind incomplete shadowy formations, resembling more a German expressionist painting than an ancient, deserted town built into the rock. The filmmaker tells an interesting story about the narrator of the film, Jack Palance. Contacting the actor by telephone, Van Bork secured Palance’s agreement to do the narration provided the script was acceptable. After reviewing it, the actor suggested they meet at one of Hollywood’s finest restaurants to discuss the project: Bob’s Big Boy! With Palance’s dramatic interpretation of the text accompanied by the haunting percussion ensemble musical score by Hans Wurman, the film transcends the didactic historical and dry anthropological, and transfixes the viewer instead by offering an in-motion armchair view of the challenging location these long-forgotten people chose as home.
‘Richard Hunt: Sculptor’ (1978) 14m. dir. Bert Van Bork . Hunt, who welds junkyard materials into fantastic art forms, discusses his own history as a black sculptor. The filmmaker originally met Hunt at a museum opening, where the sculptor pointedly referred to himself as a sculptor first, and eschewed characterizing himself as a "black artist". His sculpture of John Jones, the first African-American elected to an Illinois public office, is reminiscent of Rodin's 'Balzac' in abstraction, though not in form. See the Smithsonian Institution’s oral history interview with him at: http://artarchives.si.edu/oralhist/hunt79.htm
‘Protists: Form, Function, and Ecology’ (1986) 20m, dir. Bert Van Bork. Educator Benjamin Bloom, in discussing his three domains of learning, emphasized the value of the affective, which, to paraphrase, inculcates a stimulus that motivates the student to want to learn more about a given subject. In searching for superior academic films, one looks for affective triggers that induce interest, instead of sleep. Van Bork specialized in visually arresting images, intended to keep the student riveted on the film. Here, for example, he focuses on parasitic intestinal protists, the surprisingly sad death of a paramecium, and the contents found through a window in a steer’s rumen, from which a researcher grabs a handful of partially digested cud, wraps the slop in a cheesecloth, then wrings it out to obtain protists for microscope slides. Worse for us: plasmodium, the cause of malaria, and the knowledge that protists have been around for 500 million years, 100 times longer than humankind.
‘Eyewitness’ (1999) 38m, dir. Bert Van Bork. Nominated for an Academy Award in 2000, the film examines paintings and sketches done by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Van Bork painstakingly traced the chronological paths of three artists, Jan Komski, Felix Nussbaum, and Dina Gottliebova, conducted interviews, and provides examples of art never before seen on film. Like much of Van Bork’s other work, light and shadow are dramatically juxtaposed. Here, the power, and occasional beauty of the art, are a prelude to the horrors surrounding their creation. In Gottliebova’s case, she was requested to paint eleven watercolor portraits of Gypsy prisoners, who became her friends. Upon completion of the final portrait, Mengele sent them to the gas chambers.
‘Eyewitness’, although thematically different than Van Bork’s earlier work, draws heavily on the stylistic elements perfected in his days as an academic filmmaker.