An Avant-Garde Film That Went for Laughs Instead of Scandal

The early 1960s was the golden age of underground movies. Some, like Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” provoked scandals. Others were too explicit to be written about (see Barbara Rubin’s “Christmas on Earth”). At least one was a commercial success: Adolfas Mekas’s “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 festival’s first year.

Returning to Lincoln Center for three shows, part of a series devoted to the early ’60s avant-garde, “Hallelujah the Hills,” may be the series’s 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 far from the bohemian Lower East Side 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 Archer’s review). She is played by two different actresses (Sheila Finn and Peggy Steffans), both with a marked resemblance to Jean-Luc Godard’s 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-assed 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 the French new wave movie, “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, it’s 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 haven’t 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. Griffith’s 1920 “Way Down East.” The sequence still works and so, in a more limited way, does “Hallelujah the Hills.”

Actually, as fashionable as Mekas’s 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

July 29, Aug. 2 and 3, at Film at Lincoln Center, Manhattan, filmlinc.org.

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