As Peter Emanuel Goldman has graciously informed me, accounts of his death (as Mark Twain said of his own in 1897) have been greatly exaggerated. Once I got over some of my embarrassment, I began thinking about paraphrasing General Douglas MacArthur—something along the lines of “young auteurs never die, they just morph into international celebrities whose activities have ranged from playing for the French national champion baseball team to advising presidents.” Goldman, now based in Paris, seems to have forgiven me, but I doubt that I can persuade him to come back to New York and help the hapless Mets. He has written a novel, Last Metro to Bleecker Street, and perhaps we can grab him on a future book tour. (He previously published an autobiographical novel, Echoes of a Crying Floor.)
Long before I saw Echoes of Silence, I was intrigued by Goldman’s early break with the established film underground in New York and its high priest, Jonas Mekas. Mekas, then the film editor for The Village Voice, wrote his own column on the burgeoning avant-garde and brought Andrew Sarris in to write about those pesky commercial films. The soon-to-be creator of the Anthology Film Archives, Mekas, then as now, was a champion of Andy Warhol. In a letter to the Voice, Goldman depicted Mekas’s defense of Warhol’s Eat as an exercise in rationalizing “boring” movies, not the “pure cinema” that Mekas claimed it to be. At the risk of sacrilege, I must confess that I share many of Goldman’s sentiments, but I’m sure I can be written off as an addict of those pesky narratives. Of course, it is ultimately Mekas’s fault for putting Sarris in a place where he could be read by a long-time (but young and impressionable) moviegoer seeking distraction from academe.
Echoes of Silence (which is finally available on DVD, with Goldman’s Wheel of Ashes) was called by critic Henri Chapier “the most poignant film ever made about the profound despair of the young.” Susan Sontag designated Goldman as “the most exciting filmmaker in recent years.” The film shares some of Warhol’s traits, but, for me, there seems to be a planned sensibility at work here, whereas many of Warhol’s works seem to reflect a “director” who turned a switch on the camera and allowed his “actors” to offer whatever mindless chatter popped into their heads. Goldman’s film is, of course, without dialogue, but his images (some of them stills) capture New York scenes of the 1960s that remain indelible and hauntingly moving. They range from pickups at art museums or Greenwich Village coffee houses to pre-Stonewall gay encounters to pre-Disney-fication 42nd Street. There is a ghostliness that recalls F. W. Murnau’s sublime silents (see Faust and Sunrise in our upcoming April series The Aesthetics of Shadow, Part 2). Juxtapose these images with the decade of assassinations, Vietnam, and the Six Day War in which they were filmed, and one can’t help recalling the Bogart quote in Casablanca about problems of individuals under certain circumstances not “amounting to a hill of beans.”
The above reference to the Six Day War is poignant and pointed, since Goldman has directed much of his post-film career and life to championing the cause of Israel, and becoming, in his words, “Torah-observant.” He has, thus, traveled a long road since diverging from the denizens of the night depicted in Echoes of Silence. What might have been a long and illustrious career as a filmmaker gave way to another calling. It is, however, important to remember and salute the unique films that Goldman made, and to mourn (just a little) for those that might have been. In some sense, Peter Goldman has created a Salinger-esque gap in our medium.