Scott MacDonald traces his calling as an acolyte and advocate of cinema to a brush with King Kong as a young boy in the early 50s. "Going to the movies was one of the places where you could get away from adults," says MacDonald, an only child raised in heavily industrial Easton, Pennsylvania. "I went alone to this great big theater, and I remember sitting in a place where I could get out in a hurry. After watching Fay Wray getting strung up in the village, you start hearing the footsteps of King Kong coming in the distance. I got up in my seat and had the urge to yell to the audience, 'Get out while there's still time!'"
MacDonald's next trial was the artsy delirium of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, which he saw as an undergraduate at DePauw University in 1964. "I didn't get the idea that Fellini was switching back and forth between real events and dreams. It never occurred to me you could do that without the screen kind of shimmering into the dream--'signal, signal, signal; we're going into the dream now.' He just intercuts between dream and reality. I just figured it was a case of American Italophiles pretending this was good work. They were such snobs. I remember sitting in the back row of the theater, and the further we got into the film the louder I got: 'This is a piece of shit.' 'This is totally meaningless.' 'I can't believe people are faking this laughter.'"
MacDonald spent the rest of the 60s at the University of Florida writing his doctoral thesis on the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. But when he caught a second viewing of 8 1/2, he suddenly saw the light. "I realized how angry being dumb can make you, especially about film." MacDonald was converted to teaching the very films he had ridiculed a couple years before. "Right at the end of the decade students were demanding courses on film, and I knew I wanted to teach one of those--even though all I had done was go to the movies."
That single course on film listed on his resume helped land him a job at Utica College of Syracuse University, where he's taught film and English for the last 27 years. His parents didn't get it. "Like everybody in their generation, they wanted me to grow up to be an engineer, and they sort of never recovered when I became an English major," says MacDonald. "My father, especially, was always very embarrassed at what I did. Then later, when I got out of graduate school and started to teach film, it was like a whole new level of embarrassment. It wasn't the sort of thing you could tell the relatives or other hardworking adults. I mean, 16 years of college to teach the movies? It was inconceivable to them."
In the spring of 1972 MacDonald drove to a film symposium at the State University of New York in Binghamton, where he spent a weekend watching recent structuralist exercises and lyrical meditations by Larry Gottheim, Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr, and Stan Brakhage. These plotless affairs offered novel vistas of an upstate barn, a Lower East Side alley, a vacant hallway, and a Pittsburgh morgue, respectively. "It blew the hair off my head," says MacDonald. "I remember being as furious at this stuff as I was at 8 1/2. Maybe more, because it was so visceral and so powerful. I was furious at this stuff for days. But then I realized--and this was the pivotal thing--after about a month I was dying to show this stuff to my students. I couldn't stop thinking about it."
MacDonald had caught up with an American cinematic avant-garde that embraced the dreamscape aesthetics found in 40s classics like Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon and Kenneth Anger's homoerotic Fireworks. Later so-called film poems like Brakhage's rendering of the birth of his first child in Window Water Baby Moving (1959) used a handheld camera like an abstract expressionist wielding a brush.
That summer MacDonald traveled to a symposium at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where avant-gardist Jonas Mekas screened a poetic, personal film. "People went berserk afterward, absolutely screaming at Jonas what a monstrosity this film was," says MacDonald. Other works drew even more scorn. "You could hardly see the films for the stomping out of the auditorium. And yet I was awake all night, blown away by these films. I was interested in how violently people reacted to material that seemed to me just more and more terrific. I wanted to argue with them, but I didn't have the confidence and I didn't have the vocabulary for it. It took me to the end of the 70s to figure out how to respond."
MacDonald, who has immersed himself in the experimental genre, began interviewing those filmmakers whose nontraditional techniques intrigued him the most. The resulting three-volume series, A Critical Cinema: Interviews With Independent Filmmakers, covers over 70 directors. His latest project is researching the legendary screenings of Cinema 16, a film society organized by Amos Vogel that showcased experimental and documentary films in New York City from 1946 to 1963. MacDonald seeks to keep alive Vogel's agenda of challenging audiences with films that defy Hollywood dogma. "There didn't seem to be a whole lot of people willing to defend what seemed to me tremendously interesting work, so I decided, well, that's what I'll try to do."
MacDonald will show and discuss seven films from the days of Cinema 16 Tuesday at 7 at the Chicago Historical Society, Clark at North. It's part of the "Talking Pictures: Investigations in the Avant-Garde" screening and lecture series sponsored by Chicago Filmmakers. Admission is $8. For more information, see Jonathan Rosenbaum's Critic's Choice in the Section Two movie listings, or call 773-384-5533.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): MacDonald photo by Bill Stamets; "Fireworks" (1947) by Kenneth Anger; "Reflections on Black" (1955) by Stan Brakhage; "Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943) by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid.