The Mediapolis Q&A: Joshua Glick on Los Angeles Documentary

Map of television studios in and around Hollywood. Wolper Productions is the studio on Sunset Boulevard near the Beverly Hills Hotel. Morris J. Gelman, “The Hollywood Story,” Television, September, 1963, 34-35.

Joshua Glick’s Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History, 1958-1977 (2018, University of California Press) offers a magnificent excavation of the city’s documentary production cultures. Importantly, the project explores how the city’s films and television programs made a significant impact on the way in which the country, as a whole, viewed itself and its past. Glick surveys a diverse range of documentarians from prolific, television studio-based figures such as Mel Stuart and David Wolper, to underground and independent filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Lynne Littman, and Robert Nakamura. More than an account of these figures and their work during the Long 1960s, however, Los Angeles Documentary offers a sophisticated model for parsing documentaries’ complex, overlapping circuits of production, distribution, and reception. At the same time, the book reveals the immense role Los Angeles played in negotiating a national identity during one of the most turbulent periods of American history and makes a case for the city’s central role in the relationship between public and privatized media in the years that followed. Using a refreshing methodological mix of cross-sectional and longitudinal history, Glick provides unique insight into the complicated relationships between public history, documentary production, and urban studies.

Alexander Davis (AD): Hi Josh, I’m really excited to continue discussing your fantastic book, Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History, 1958-1977. One of the things that has continually struck me is the degree to which some of the major figures have been entirely left out of histories of documentary and of Los Angeles filmmaking. Before diving more deeply into the space – both geographic and ideological – of documentary can you speak to how you came to the topic in the first place? How did you come to discover the fruitfulness of the period?

Joshua Glick (JG): When I began the project, I was in the joint PhD program in American Studies and Film & Media Studies at Yale, which really helped me to understand how documentary is situated at the intersection of social history, cultural studies, media theory, and cinema/TV history. Going to school in the Northeast, I was aware of both the vibrant history and contemporary state of nonfiction in New York and Boston. During and beyond my coursework I watched a lot of 1960s-era Direct Cinema along with more left-leaning activist and community films stretching from the Workers Film and Photo League to Newsreel, TVTV, and St. Clair Bourne. I even did some great interviews with Robert Drew at his home in Sharon, CT as well as DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus at their Manhattan office. I was particularly drawn to the confluence of media, urban, and political changes taking place during the 1960s. Call it both an intellectual interest in the period as well as an attempt to better understand our present moment, where nonfiction is at the center of so many conversations about media and social movements.On some level my way into the project was also personal. I wanted to understand the world in which my parents came of age. Both of them have enjoyed life-long careers as public servants and I grew up in the Washington D.C. metro area hearing stories about their experiences advocating for social causes.

I noticed that many accounts of documentary during the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s tended to concentrate on filmmakers based along the New York-Boston axis (or in San Francisco) and often looked at a particular strand of film practice. I became increasingly curious about what was happening in Los Angeles, a place that was both at the heart of the culture industries during a period of rapid reconfiguration for film and television, as well as a growing multi-cultural, multi-racial metropolis. I soon found a lot of local filmmakers who were pushing documentary in new directions (experimenting with compilation, observation, and docudrama) and were passionate about the pedagogical and artistic potential of nonfiction. Because Los Angeles’s status as a media center as well as its socio-cultural dynamics, the city was on the national stage. What happened in Los Angeles showed up on the small and large screen, was debated in Washington D.C., and written about in film journals and popular periodicals.

AD: That trajectory that you just mentioned, from a local production to national conversation, follows that of Los Angeles in the text as well, from a site for the making of films about national identity to a face of it by the bicentennial. What shaped your understanding and framing of the city throughout the research and writing?

JG: I was fortunate to be surrounded by many helpful mentors and colleagues during the early stages of the project. People like Charles Musser, JD Connor, and Matthew Jacobson encouraged me to dig deeper into the media history of Los Angeles. We had conversations about how to braid together a historical narrative that would incorporate Hollywood documentarians as well as more alternative figures. The project would address name brand movements like New American Cinema and New Hollywood, but bring a lot of new players and institutions into the conversation. I wanted to put people like the producer David Wolper – arguably the most prolific documentarian of the second half of the 20th century – on the map for American cultural history. At the same time, there was a real opportunity to bring PBS and especially local outlets like KCET into dialogue with documentary and the public sphere.

It was also inspiring to read texts that model how to write about very different kinds of films. David James’s The Most Typical Avant-Garde: The History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles offered a brilliant framework for how to think about alternative film formations in relation to the mainstream commercial industry. And I’ve always greatly admired John Caldwell’s work (particularly Televisuality) for how he writes about systems of production and really whole genres of film and television that other scholars have ignored.

On a more practical level, I spent a lot of hours searching through archives and online databases for documentaries. I was constantly trying to connect the dots in terms of who worked on what and when, as well as to think about how it might fit into a larger media context. Following the credits of projects like Wattstax (1972) was particularly illuminating. I had originally encountered the film as an innovative “concert film,” but it was so much more. I was drawn to the complexity of its production and how the project meant something different to each of its co-creators. The credits read like a “who’s who” of Los Angeles documentary: individuals associated with New Hollywood, the LA Rebellion, Wolper Productions, run-of-the mill studio tele-fiction – they were all there. Wattstax goes beyond the musical performances in the Los Angeles Coliseum to engage residents on the streets of Watts and listen to them talk about their daily lives. It’s really a film about cultural geography.

During the research process, I created my own lists of above- and below-the-line labor, major films, and key institutions. The Exiles was another film that included people working on a wide array of projects all over town. I developed some really wild maps of networked labor that visualize a whole media ecology of postwar film and TV production in the metropolis. In the end these maps became too tough to print in the book (they looked rather insane!), but I plan on using them for some spinoff Digital Humanities projects in the future.

 AD: One of the most immediately noticeable achievements of the book is the extensive and diverse array of texts you bring together; a single chapter can “braid” together such disparate films as The Making of a President: 1964 and the ultimately unproduced adaptation of The Confessions of Nat Turner. How did you approach the actual writing when it came to synthesizing this wealth of material? Did you work chronologically?

 JG: I was familiar with some of the standard histories of the “long 1960s” and I didn’t deviate too far in terms of my project’s temporal scope. But I did want to put some pressure on how documentary, Los Angeles, and public history could expand common understandings of the period and how the political uses of media have changed over time. I also wanted to think in terms of the succession of broad cultural epochs as well as synchronically within each epoch. For the former, I moved from cultural politics in the era of the New Frontier, then onto the Great Society, minority liberation movements, and the proto-multiculturalism surrounding the Bicentennial. For the latter, each epoch features at least two chapters that run parallel to one another, illustrating how mainstream and alternative filmmakers intersected or radically diverged. This structure allows the reader to see what was happening in the mainstream and in margins of media production in the city. Also, working in this concentrated time period allows the reader to see just how quickly things were changing. Much changed between making films in 1964 and then in 1966, 1972, or 1977.

The broad arc looks something like this: the late 1950s saw the emergence of a national discourse surrounding the uses of nonfiction. It was a particularly charged moment in the Cold War and there was a real interest among politicians, civic leaders, and the filmmakers in the entertainment industry in the educational uses of audio-visual media. In the mid-to-late 1960s, activists looked to documentary in the context of minority liberation struggles. By the end of the next decade, the conservative turn of the late 1970s saw a lot of public funding leaving the arts, which ultimately hurt the institutions in which all kinds of documentaries were produced (universities, PBS outlets, etc.). The Bicentennial was a major cultural event in which documentary provided a pivot moment for Americans to reflect on the state of the country and articulate a vision for the future. It also marked a startling turn towards a more conservative political regime and a more privatized, neoliberal economy.

Kent Mackenzie, Erik Daarstad, and Robert Kaufman on location for The Exiles (1961). Courtesy of Erik Daarstad.

AD: The chapters that move between Wolper and independent filmmaker Kent Mackenzie provide such a fascinating contrast of the simultaneous constructions of a “real” Los Angeles between the institutional work of the former vs. the more personal, grassroots work of the latter. What was important about each figure and the films they made? Why the need to tell their stories in parallel chapters?

JG: For the Mackenzie-Wolper chapters (grouped under the banner “New Frontier Visions in the Light and Shadow of Hollywood”) I wanted to explore the on-the-ground experience of making socially engaged documentaries in Los Angeles during the late 1950s–early 1960s. This struggling independent and emerging studio boss drew on some of the same resources, tapped some of the same below-the-line labor, and addressed some similar questions concerning the meaning of American identity and who had the privilege of being remembered. They each wanted to create films about the recent or more distant American past. There were, of course, also major ideological tensions that I wanted to highlight. Mackenzie was trying to find a new, freer film form to represent the social lives of some of the city’s most marginalized residents. Los Angeles was threatening to displace the downtown American Indian community and Mackenzie showed the community with nuance, compassion, and complexity. The city depicted in The Exiles (1961) was certainly not the one that appeared in glossy magazines and comedy television, nor the vision of the west coast evoked by President Kennedy. Wolper’s films, on the other hand, ultimately bolstered JFK’s administrative vision of a strong welfare state and America’s identity as a freedom fighting force in the world.

Bunker Hill—1956, directed by Kent Mackenzie (1956; Harrington Park, NJ: Milestone, 2009), DVD.

Throughout the section of the book and the project more generally, I wanted to show the traffic of intellectual ideas in and out of the city. The New Frontier touched down locally in Los Angeles as did the international New Waves. The films made by Wolper and Mackenzie were definitely exhibited throughout Los Angeles, but also across the country and at festivals around the world.

AD: It’s also fascinating to see throughout the book the extent to which these documentaries really made an impact in local communities, even those that we typically view as broader landmarks in documentary history like Wattstax. How did you come to realize how meaningful these films were to Angelinos of the time?

JG: Developing an archive with a wide breadth of primary documents was a lot of fun and a critical part of the project. Locating industry trade press not only helped fill in some gaps concerning the play-by-play of production, but it revealed how above- and below-the-line personnel were conceiving of their own work. The interviews I conducted with filmmakers ranging from Mel Stuart, to Lynne Littman, Charles Burnett, and Jesús Salvador Treviño were invaluable in this regard and one of the pleasures of the project. It was helpful to hear how Burnett viewed his films in relation to the Blaxploitation cycle as well as his thoughts on de-industrialization of his home neighborhood of Watts. I didn’t necessarily treat the insights of the filmmakers I spoke with as a kind of pure “truth,” but as valuable testimony open to interpretation. Additionally, daily newspapers, weekly magazines, and specialty journals helped me to reconstruct a context of reception and address such questions as: how did major critics, public intellectuals, politicians, and artists orient viewers to these films? How did they frame the ways in which viewers watched them? How were these films advertised?

Archived correspondence, production notes, and letters were also crucial. These kinds of primary materials helped to create the narrative spine of the project and provide other forms of helpful information. Letters written by viewers to filmmakers were particularly moving to read. They reveal the resonance of documentary and what it meant to individual viewers, as well as to communities of spectators.

 AD: Are you drawing on any major themes of the project these days? With current projects?

 JG: I continue to write articles based on the project. I’m working on a piece on the long history of the Civil Rights movement on screen as well as the phenomenon of televising film history in the 1960s – one of the main ways that audiences learned about cinema’s past (both silent era and Classical Hollywood) was through small screen programming.

I’ve been pursuing a new book that connects to some of these central ideas and questions. Whereas Los Angeles Documentary took place in the age of the Welfare State and the Cold War, my new project tries to understand nonfiction in the era of neoliberalism and the uneven expansion of the media and information industries. I’m invested in drawing some connections between a wide variety of projects and social movements over the last 30 years.

I’ve also expanded into documentary film practice. I first got involved with filmmaking for a multi-media exhibition titled Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861 – 2008. Most recently, I’ve been working on Last Days at the Duncan, a film about the radical transformation of a resident occupancy hotel in New Haven, CT. The building was one of the last sources of affordable housing in the area and will be reimagined as a boutique hotel. The film tells the history of the Duncan from the perspective of those who lived there. I also weave in a lot of archival footage and photographs from the New Haven Historical Society.

AD: You open and close the book with brief considerations of how public history as a concept began to be more widely pursued at the same time as it became a privatized endeavor in the incipient Reagan administration. I know one of your next projects will be the next phase of that development, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the contemporary role/status of public history.

JG: One iteration of public history today is the kind formally practiced within, or directly affiliated to, a university. These programs tend to connect students and school resources with local institutions and stakeholders – everything from historical societies, parks departments, public media outlets, and community outreach organizations. In turn, collaborators then draw on humanities and social science methodologies to create history that lives in public as well as engages overlapping audiences beyond the academy; for example, the design of a website or a curated museum display.

But even outside of formal “public history” programs and departments, there is a move to bring together scholars, technology specialists, artists, and local residents to create new ways of understanding the past. Public history holds a special power to excavate the silenced or effaced experiences of marginalized communities. So, too, can it reframe people’s understanding of and engagement with the past through different forms of still and moving image media, embodied performance, or site-specific art. Public history is about how the past might be used for the purpose of acting ethically, purposefully, and inciting social change in the present.

These days, some of the most interesting forms of public history focus on “place.” For example, projects that encourage a deeper and more expansive understanding of the transnational transformations of Queens, New York (Between Neighborhoods) or the industrial history and current challenges of McDowell County, West Virginia (Hollow). Thinking about “place” in this context means thinking through the critical issues that intersect in the study of a place: affordable housing and infrastructure, healthcare and environmental degradation, cultural expression and grassroots movements. It also means producing knowledge in collaboration with the people being represented.

Joshua Glick is Assistant Professor of Film Studies and English at Hendrix College and a member of Summer Session faculty at Columbia University. He served as a curator and produced the award-winning documentary This Side of Dreamland (2016) for the traveling museum exhibition, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008. Joshua’s book, Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History, 1958-1977, was recently published by the University of California Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.