By Mark Borchardt on 19th March 2015
We gather with our friends, we come up with ideas: “We should make this film – we should make that film.” We revel in our fantastic intoxications – the world is ours. Until one day – it isn’t; time has irrevocably passed us by and we stumble tragically around the smoldering ruins of our days.
Well, it wasn’t always that way for everyone, so, let’s cut back a bit in time to quite a different version of that story. In this particular case of rewarded intent, there was an ambitious organization called Cine Manifest. Cine Manifest was a socio-political film group formed to pursue a Marxist philosophy accordingly where everyone pitches in both financially and work-wise – but in this case, with a lot of intra-office memos.
It was still a freewheeling time in the Seventies, riding high off the momentous crest of the Sixties, and this hands-on, socialist filmmaking commune turned ideas successfully into concrete realities, a feat which absolutely distinguished them from the idle clubs of inert pipe dreamers. This fun, enterprising collective of cineastes and their work is illuminated in “Cine Manifest,” a film by one of its seven members, Judy Irola. The co-op itself existed from 1972 through 1978.
We spend time with various members of the coterie as they reflect on amusing as well as purposeful times gone by. Stephen Lighthill was an ace cinematographer in the group, consequently he pulled in the most amount of bread; his gig at CBS paid well. But all of the coterie contributed what they could and would take on outside gigs such as a Don Ho special in Hawaii to finance not only their passionate cinematic work but their lives as well. Spouses and children needed to be fed.
The association made a documentary about mining entitled, “Western Coal” and the first of their two feature narrative films observed blue-collar life in San Francisco, entitled, “Over-Under, Sideways-Down” (1975). In true commune style, these films’ directing and writing duties were shared by members who possessed those particular vocational inclinations. But it was their second and last feature film that really put them on the map.
And that film, “Northern Lights,” was a rarely seen, but remarkable piece of Seventies art cinema. And if you haven’t seen it yet – see it. And try to do so while we’re still in the snowy throes of the cold season so you can find some wintry parallelism to what you observe onscreen. I had become aware of “Northern Lights” about thirty odd years ago when it was shown on PBS. I didn’t get to see it then but what I caught in the advertisements always lingered on as definitely a film to see. And then, as luck would have it, within recent years I came across a VHS copy of it – I’m sure at a book sale. Not unlike the delight I encountered when I came across Welles’ “Macbeth,” also on VHS. Darn good finds if you ask me.
“Northern Lights” did not disappoint – far, far from it. Taking place in the harsh, unrelenting winter climate of the foreboding plains of North Dakota in a time gone by, it was shot in beautiful, stark, grainy black and white in breathtaking compositions. And with smart, vital editing, it becomes at times, a stunning visual poem of a hard-fought farming life. It is, unarguably, a work of art.
At the time of the film’s making, it was still an era of continuing social evolvement on many fronts and Judy Irola found herself for a stint in Copenhagen with a group of feminist filmmakers. She came back to the States and realized that she wasn’t just a camera assistant but rather, a full-fledged, extremely competent cinematographer. Consequently, she took the reins as director of photography on “Northern Lights” and burned some of the most beautiful cinematic images ever on celluloid. That feat did not go unnoticed as the film took home the “Camera d’ Or” at the Cannes Film Festival.
On a bizarre note, Cine Manifest actually housed filmmaker Nicholas Ray (check out the recent biography “Nicholas Ray” by Wisconsinite Patrick McGilligan – Ray was also born in Wisconsin), famed director of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “In a Lonely Place” among other films. At that time, in the Seventies, he was destitute and lived for some months in a sleeping bag on the editing floor of the co-op while piecing together some perplexingly esoteric film. The members look back on that with bemused wonder – and rightfully so.
And on a lighter note, and in direct contrast to the heavy-hitting socio-political agenda they so doggedly pursued, Cine Manifest created outrageous, imaginative romps succinctly entitled, “Birthday Movies,” joyous free-for-alls of spontaneous filmmaking to celebrate member’s birthdays.
But don’t forget “Northern Lights.”