Jack Levine: Feast of Pure Reason

Year: 1989

Length: 60 minutes

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"This peach of a collaboration between subject and Sutherland displays both their geniuses."
Overview

"I'm like the dog at the circus who runs the wrong way under the hoop." -Jack Levine

This bold and unconventional film portrait reveals America's foremost Social Realist painter doing what he does best: skewering corrupt politicians and police, raging over social injustices, and satirizing the petty foibles of humankind. Jack Levine got his professional start during the Federal Art Projects of the WPA, and quickly became world famous for his brilliantly painted, brutally ironic vision of America and the world. He is the only American artist who never stopped painting as a Social Realist, even when it went out of vogue in the 1950's and 1960's. "I'm alone at the old stand. . . I feel I still have something to say. . . Let the avant garde go hang-the human condition is what interests me." A self-imposed 'outsider', Levine has deliberately cut himself off from the mainstream: "I'm like the little dog at the circus who runs the wrong way under the hoop."

No one is immune from Levine's sharp eye and keen sense of irony, as his works attest, ranging from the McCarthy hearings of the 50's, the desegregation of the South, Mayor Daley at the 1968 Chicago Convention, the United Nations, Frank Sinatra and Las Vegas showgirls, contemporary political leaders, and international arms brokers.

Sutherland's innovative approach to documentary filmmaking--making the artist both subject and host without intervention of narrator or interviewer--is eminently suited to this articulate and outspoken individual who talks with a charming mix of erudition and the street lingo picked up during his childhood on the streets of Boston's South End. Sutherland's technique creates an exceptionally intimate relationship with the film's subject. . . eliciting startling revelations about the man and his art. Following his well-known series on the Kings and Sages of Israel, Levine has recently completed "Saul and David" in which he depicts himself as King Saul. . . ''Because I'm bad. . . I see myself as Saul, angry at the young David about to succeed me. . . I feel that way about the new generation of artists." Levine talks about his flesh paintings while standing before a nude model at the Copley Society of Boston, and reveals his passion for painting human flesh: "I use every excuse I can to work it into my oeuvre."

Jack Levine is a complex individual and Sutherland has accomplished a dazzling feat in capturing the many sides of this American Master. We get to know Jack Levine the intellectual--who for years has been one of forty members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters--and Levine the street tough. . . Levine the sports fan gives way to the playful Levine baiting an old friend about past embarrassments. . . A bereaved husband in one scene becomes the acerbic social satirist in another. . . Levine the reverent painter of Kings of Israel turns at other times into a man of fury, raging a solo battle against abstract expressionism and the New York art world. . . these vignettes combine here to create an unusually intimate and well-rounded documentary which shows Jack Levine to be a multi-faceted and brilliant painter, witty and erudite, but always compassionate--an American Master in his prime at age 70.

Producer and Director: David Sutherland. Screenplay: David Sutherland, Nancy Sutherland, Theresa Cederholm. Executive Producer: Theresa Cederholm. Artistic Director: Nancy Sutherland. Cinematographer: Joe Seamans. Editor: Mavis Lyons Smull. Original Music: Edward Korvin.

Broadcast nationally on P.O.V., the critically acclaimed PBS series of America's finest non-fiction films

Awards & Press

Praise for "Jack Levine"

"This peach of a collaboration between subject and Sutherland displays both their geniuses."

-NEW ENGLAND MONTHLY

"The symbiosis between director and subject is so pure that nothing distorts the relationship between audience and artist."

-Michael Blowen, BOSTON GLOBE

"**** One of the ten best films of 1986! A feast of a movie."

-Nat Segaloff, BOSTON HERALD

"David Sutherland has managed a coup -- having the subject be the host/narrator and still emerge with a magnificent portrait of a maverick satirist and social commentator."

-Al Morch, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER

"*****"

-Jack Garner, DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE

"Thoroughly engaging."

-Suzanne Muchnic, LOS ANGELES TIMES

"***1/2"

-Daniel Ruth, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES

"***"

-David Armstrong, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER

"Sutherland displays the sort of sensitivity and understanding that can capture, even in a brief period of time, the essence of an individual ... a tribute to Sutherland's empathy."

-David Bonetti, BOSTON PHOENIX

"A gutsy performance."

-Charles Giuliano, Art New England

"Levine is always riveting in this hour long film ... Sutherland has established a brilliant study in contrast."

-Jules Becker, BROOKLINE CITIZEN

"A totally absorbing hour is spent in the company of Jack Levine whose presence dominates this unique documentary."

-BOOKLIST NON-PRINT EDITORS OF CHOICE

Awards

Blue Ribbon: American Film Festival, 1987

Documentary Features, 1987

Selected to Input '88: Philadelphia 1988-Outstanding and Innovative International Public Television Programming

CINE Golden Eagle, 1986

Selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Foundation for the Series Featuring The Outstanding Documentary Films of 1986

Full Length Reviews

COLORFUL TV PORTRAIT OF AMERICAN PAINTER

"He sits in Boston's Fenway Park, watching batting practice, shooting the breeze with an old pal, Milton Brown. "I saw Babe Ruth here, believe it or not," says painter Jack Levine in David Sutherland's one-hour documentary JACK LEVINE: FEAST OF PURE REASON that airs tonight at 9 as part of the "P.O.V." series on Ch. 13.

Levine talks of Joe DiMaggio as craftsman; of Ted Williams. "You think there are any artists who can paint as well as Ted Williams can hit?" asks Brown. "Well, why not Ted Williams," says Levine, munching a hot dog. "A Leonardo at the plate. Nobody swings a bat like that. Nobody."

A little owl of a man, Levine has been a big-leaguer in American painting for half a century.

"I made quite a splash in the art world in the 1930s when I was just a kid, and it seems I've become less and less well known," he says in the film. "Just an elliptical way of attacking the system," he said later with a vestigial smile, long after that scene was shot.

The painting "Feast of Pure Reason," a Levine swirl of fatcats and crooked pols and cops as scabs in his native Boston, was done in 1937. Sutherland documents that painting and dozens of others spanning Levine's career, including the dark seething recent work "David Playing Before Saul," depicting the old king having to be held down because in his youth-envy he's having a nervous breakdown.

"He doesn't like this kid," Levine tells the filmmaker. "He wants to kill him then and there." Pause. "I identify with Saul. I really do."

Better take that with a grain of salt. Except that Levine also talks of the abstract expressionists seeing "the Burning Bush in the bottom of their glasses in the Cedar Tavern." Of Jackson Pollock: "It's like Robert Frost said of free verse -- it's like playing tennis without a net. And this, finally: "Let the avant-garde go hang. As far as I'm concerned, I want to remain the mean little man I always was."

Not so, says Sutherland, who spent almost two years, off and on, with Levine -- in the artist's workplace and elsewhere in New York, and in the museums and old haunts back in Boston.

The meanness, says Sutherland, is overrated. "He's a man of sensitivity and muscle ... sort of like an old Woody Allen."

The sensitivity shines through in Sutherland's film, also the muscle, as Levine brushes and scrubs away at a portrait of his grown daughter Susanna, telling her, as she chaffs with him and giggles, how much her cheekbones look like her mother's, then sneaks back to retouch the one he did of Susanna at age 9, some 20 years ago. "It's very eccentric of me to do that," he growled off camera.

Pure love shines through, growl or no growl, when he talks of Ruth Gikow, his wife and fellow painter who died of cancer in 1982.

This is a man of great hate -- social-injustice hate. And great love. The film has won 23 international awards or citations, cost $300,000 and deserves a theater booking after its TV showing tonight thanks to "P.O.V."

-Jerry Tallmer, NEW YORK POST

THE POINT OF VIEW OF JACK LEVINE

"I'm an outsider," Jack Levine proudly proclaims. "Most artists like to think of themselves as rugged individualists, as independent characters. But they're really pussycats. Not me. I really am an outsider."

"P.O.V." is shorthand for the sometimes startling, sometimes surprising, always compelling TV series dedicated to non-fiction "points of view" by some of our most talented filmmakers. It has returned for a second season on public television this summer and is providing us with fresh and provocative insights into all kinds of states of mind.

Among them is Levine, a bold, enraged, passionate painter who for more than half a century has been America's most forthright social realist. He is the "P.O.V" subject this Thursday night of JACK LEVINE: FEAST OF PURE REASON, David Sutherland's unconventional film portrait of the artist at work. And it is a project laced with humor, uncompromising in truth, riveting in its revelations.

Sutherland has captured this unique individualist in all his thorny moods and the brilliance of Levine's ideas reflects in the articulations of his words and interests as well as the rugged strokes of his brush and knife on canvas.

Levine became world famous during the '30s and '40s for his brutal, bitter, ironic visions of America and the world. But when post-war art perspectives changed and abstract expressionism became the vogue, Levine fell out of favor by refusing to go along with the trend.

"It was a movement," Levine recealls with a wry smile, "that had all the art critics, all the museum directors in its thrall. If you weren't a part of it, you were dead."

Levine, however, has always refused to compromise, remaining faithful to his own vision and continuing to paint his subjects his way, with bold strokes that make his subjects leap off the easel and sock the viewer in the eye.

"Look," he says, "I still believe that I have some mission in life to say what I think about the world. Let the avant-garde go hang!"

It's no wonder filmmaker Sutherland has picked Levine for this many-sided portrait of an artist as a doer, a thinker, and a man with a social conscience.

"He's a cross between Giotto and Groucho," Sutherland says with deep affection, "a combination of sensitivity and muscle."

The "P.O.V." film, begins with Levine and his lifelong friend, art historian Milton Brown, sitting isolated in the empty vastness of Fenway Park, waiting for his beloved Boston Red Sox to take the field for batting practice.

Levine, who later told us he had left his native Boston as a child, but never could leave his allegiance to the Red Sox behind, is as articulate about Ted Williams and the DiMaggio brothers as he is about politics and drama and the inequities of the art dealers of America.

"I wish there was a painter who could paint as well as Ted Williams could hit," he tells Brown.

"Jackson Pollock?" his friend suggests, knowing full well how Levine feels about that major force in abstract expressionism.

"Oh ... that's like what Robert Frost said about free verse: 'It's like playing tennis without a net'," Levine dismisses the sly suggestion.

"Velasquez?" Brown persists.

"I would say so, yes," Levine then concedes with a sigh. "Velasquez is Ted Williams."

Several years later, the painter still recalls, that day at Fenway. "It was bitter cold," he tells us during an interview at his studio, "not baseball weather. No wonder there weren't many people in the stands. And there we sat, bundled up in heavy coats, shivering away while David (Sutherland) fussed with the lights and the camera angle and what we had to say.

"I don't know what bugged David so. At least he didn't have to eat a cold hot dog."

The film was made in 1986 and already has won 23 awards at European film festivals. But Sutherland has had a tough time getting it shown over here, perhaps because there is one scene in it where Levine is attending a life class while students paint a nude model.

"I love this film," Sutherland says, "it's very dear to my heart ... It's great when you get a chance to work on something without anybody telling you to change this or that."

However, he says, several PBS outlets turned the Jack Levine project down before "P.O.V." gave him the go-ahead --nude model scene and all. "It was necessary," the filmmaker insists, "because the scene says a lot about the artist in his early days."

Indeed, while the students attempt to capture the model's nude pose, Levine in the foreground observes that, "like Rubens, I love to paint flesh."

And he points out that, along with paunchy politicians and sleazy gangsters, overweight cops and overwrought demonstrators, many of his paintings also include showgirls, the ladies of the chorus lines and other sassy Rubenesque displays of opalescent skin tones.

In one of his most famous works, "Orpheus in Las Vegas," Levine also includes a familiar face among the leggy chorines. "I couldn't resist throwing in Frank Sinatra," he says. "He sort of epitomizes the title of the painting."

Another of Levine's famous canvases is titled "Welcome Home," in which he depicts a corpulent, Blimpish general's boozy, broad-sy homecoming from the wars. The painting was included in a U.S. State Department show which was sent to the Soviet Union and caused a headline-making flap for him at the time.

"The House UnAmerican Activities Committee was between victims," Levine tells us, "and so they subpoena'd me to testify, on a charge that the painting was unpatriotic."

Levine wisecracked at the time: "Here we were, corrupting all those Russians toward communism."

Eventually, the brouhaha blew over, but what ticked off the painter was Eisenhower's dismissal of "Welcome Home" (which now is hanging in the Brooklyn Museum) as "a lampoon, not a real painting."

"What did Ike know," he muses. "After all, he painted by numbers."

Sutherland, in making his film, uses an interesting technique, blending traditional documentary methods with an ongoing narrative by the subject himself.

He spent many weeks with Levine, taping interviews and observing him at work, then created a "storyboard" and script for what he wanted the film to show and tell. The end result is what Sutherland describes as "the subject of a documentary playing himself in a docudrama."

Throughout this engrossing hour, we meet with Levine head-on as he discusses his boyhood, his life and career as a social realist, his family, his opposition to artistic strictures, his life-long quest for individuality, his anger at what his painter's eye perceives as the injustices of the world.

"Making the film his way was very hard work," he tells us later. "I'm not a professional actor and I wasn't going to memorize any lines, even though David had me down on his tape recorder. So I had to wing it from recollection. And sometimes, I didn't remember it all like David would have liked. So then we did it again. This acting was very hard work.

"Now painting," he observes, "is different. It's something recollected in tranquility."

Throughout Sutherland's film, we see him painting a portrait of his daughter, Susanna, one of his favorite subjects. And during the picture taking session for this interview, Levine refuses to just pose standing before a blank canvas and begins sketching still another portrait of Susanna.

"Impulses are hard to come by these days," he tells us, as he captures her likeness once again.

Finally, we get the impression that while Levine enjoys describing himself as "a mean little guy," he is sensitive to life and his art underneath it all.

"I see myself," he insists, "as the dog act in the circus. I'm the little dog who goes the wrong way -- under the hoop."

"I've always been maladjusted as far as society is concerned. I wind up more like somebody eating at a buffet, rather than at a set table."

The artist concludes with a touch of resignations that "by and large, I haven't had an easy time with the art world. I consider that a critic should only be concerned about the artists' premise and whether or not he fulfills it, not what style he paints in. And they somehow resent that.

"Ah," he ends with a smile, "but it's nice to be in the opposition, nice to be a bone in somebody's throat."

-Jerry Krupnick, SUNDAY STAR-LEDGER

FILMMAKER'S DYNAMIC PORTRAITS OF TWO EXCITING PAINTERS

"David Sutherland is a Massachusetts director who went to film school with John Carpenter and a clutch of other bright young cinemaphiles in the early 1970's. Unlike some of his classmates, Sutherland hasn't turned out blockbuster hits in the "Halloween" mold.

Instead, Sutherland has filmed intimate, accomplished film portraits of painters. More specifically, they are studies of still-living artists who got their start in the Works Progress Administration's art projects of the 1930's.

In theory, this could be crushingly dull, combining a static view of finished paintings with an archival approach to the dear, dead past. In practice, Sutherland's is a dynamic approach, as evidenced in two of his films showing Tuesday and Wednesday at the Roxie.

PAUL CADMUS: ENFANT TERRIBLE AT 80 is a polished profile of a painter known for his magical realism -- a representational, even narrative style that is exaggerated in an imaginative, sometimes satirical and often erotic fashion.

Like its companion film, JACK LEVINE: FEAST OF PURE REASON, released two years after this 1984 picture, PAUL CADMUS is a tightly scripted documentary that looks and feels spontaneous.

Sutherland shoots Super-8 footage of his subjects as a kind of film sketch. Then he fashions a script, using the subjects' best dialogue and most revealing scenes as take off points.

The result is a deceptively casual format in which the subject serves as host and tour guide to his life, addressing the camera directly, and usually comfortably. There is no additional narrator.

Cadmus -- a handsome, lank-haired octogenarian who looks like a vital 60-year-old -- talks about how he got started in the late 1930s, interprets his major works and shows his bucolic life in the Connecticut home he shares with his lover and model of 17 years, Jon Andersson.

Cadmus' notoriety came early. As a young painter on the New Deal payroll, his "The Fleet's In!" drew the ire of a crusty old admiral. Indeed, the work is playfully lascivious, depicting sailors on leave in a New York park, carousing with a colorful assortment of floozies. The outraged admiral inadvertently made Cadmus famous.

Other of Cadmus' works are shown in tactile, sensuous close-ups. "YMCA Locker Room" is frankly homoerotic (though not pornographic). "Subway Symphony," a hellish depiction of the New York subways is, as Cadmus describes it, his own "Inferno."

"People's noses should be rubbed in all sorts of things, pleasant and unpleasant," Cadmus asserts without rancor.

Sutherland also displays Cadmus' delicate touch with sketches and provides a fascinating discourse on painting with egg tempera -- cinematographer Joe Seaman's lens lingering on Cadmus' hands as he gently passes an unbroken yolk from palm to palm, to take off the whites.

Jack Levine, the subject of the second picture, provides a likeably abrasive counterpoint to Cadmus' gentility. Sutherland shows the Boston native, long since transplanted to New York, sitting with his pal, art historian Milton Brown, in Fenway park before a game, evoking Ted Williams' classic swing, then walking through his old South End neighborhood.

Levine is an energetic and defiant champion of the social realism popular in the 1930s -- and the only major American painter, according to the film, who's never abandoned the form.

The camera shows, in revealing close-ups, Levine's caricatures of double-dealing politicians and his large canvas renderings of Old Testament figures (with himself as a tormented King Saul) inspired by his Jewish heritage.

Sutherland also provides engaging footage of Levine painting a portrait of his daughter Susanna -- returning every so often to watch the artist select a color or rub out an error -- and moving moments in which Levine remembers his late wife, the painter Ruth Gikow.

Like PAUL CADMUS, JACK LEVINE is bracing, intelligent and intimate without being intrusive, adeptly fusing art history and the personal histories of these two talented American artists."

-David Armstrong, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER

A MAVERICK WHO DELIGHTED IN PAINTING AGAINST THE GRAIN

"In the art business I'm an outsider. I'm like the dog act in a circus. I'm the dog who goes the wrong way under the hoop." - Jack Levine

According to director David Sutherland, most people expect a film portrait of an artist to be "a narrated slide show."

"Jack Levine: Feast of Pure Reason," showing on "P.O.V.," PBS' independent documentary series Tuesday, is anything but a conventional portrait of an artist by Sutherland.

How many films about an oil-painting artist would start up in Boston's Fenway park with two old baseball fans discussing the greatness of Ted Williams while munching hot dogs? But that's just what Levine and his old friend, art historian Milton Brown, often do on a Saturday afternoon.

After spending several months with one of America's leading social-realist painters, who loves to paint corrupt politicians and police, rages over social injustices and satirizes man's petty foibles, director Sutherland figures this was an unconventional way to open his film.

Levine, 73, first became world famous during the 1930s. With his blunt-end brushes and a carpenter's spatula, he created canvases showing dumpy little characters with large heads and small bodies that satirically pictured everything from mob figures to international arms dealers to gamblers to show girls.

In the '30s, '40s and '50s, his paintings appeared in Time magazine. His works are in museums worldwide. He admits his art has gone out of style, but he won't compromise. Throughout his life, he has remained true to his own vision. "I still believe that I have some mission in life to say what I think about the world. Let the avant-garde go hang," says the man Sutherland calls a "cross between Groucho (Marx) and Geraldo; an old Woody Allen."

If Levine hadn't pursued painting he'd have made a great comedy writer. He spouts one-liners like a stand-up comic. Sutherland took advantage of these outbursts when he spent time with the artist before starting the film in 1985-86. He took such lines as, "If you ever want your wife painted, don't call on me, because if one eye is lower than the other, or there's a mole in a bad place, I will love it and catch it," and wove them into a script to fit sequences set up to match the comments.

"When he was painting his 24-year-old daughter, I'd feed his daughter some lines to get Levine going, reminiscing, laughing," says Sutherland, who returns throughout the film to check on how the painting is progressing.

Levine did a lot of flesh painting in his career -- taught it for awhile, too. So Sutherland has a sequence in which Levine, looking directly into the camera, explains his theories on painting nudes. Levine is in the foreground, a nude female is seen in the background, with two students working at their easels.

Sutherland, whose film on Levine already has won 23 awards in European film festivals, had a difficult time getting it on TV in America. "I love it; it's very dear to my heart," he says. "It's great when you get a chance to work on something without anybody telling you to change this or that ... Like in the nude scene, I couldn't have done that under the aegis of a public television station on its own; they've homogenized art."

A couple of PBS series turned his film down before Mark Wise of "P.O.V." considered it. Sutherland insisted -- and won his point -- that the nude model scene remain in "because it says a lot about Levine is his early days." Sutherland, to get a black-and-white '30 feels, had everyone dress in grays and black; the walls and floor were the same tones. He has the model cut her hair into the Clara Bow-style of the '30s too. "The only color you see that isn't monochromatic is the flesh of the model."

Thought Levine is outspoken and critical about his career, he's also an emotional man. Sutherland has to talk him into discussing his late wife, who also was a painter.

After serving in the Army during World War II, Levine leveled his satirical wit on military officers. In his painting titled "Welcome Home," he pictures a general's opulent homecoming showing "the big slob who is vice president of the bank. I couldn't say that sort of thing while I was in the service. This was my time to howl!" he told reporters at the time.

That painting got him in trouble with Joe McCarthy's witch-hunting House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the '50s when it learned the work was shown in the Soviet Union with a U.S. State Department-sponsored art exhibit. Levine was called on McCarthy's carpet. He survived and later quipped on the absurdity of the unpatriotic charge: "Here we were corrupting all those Russians toward Communism."

When Sutherland first met Levine in his home he was touching up a painting hanging on a wall. It gave the director the perfect ending for his portrait of this radically different personality. Levine was adding a bit of shading to a prize-winning painting he did of his daughter -- 20 years ago."

-Paul Henniger, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE