All the Vermeers in New York, my 1990 film about the arts and stock market world of the time, along with other things, has been restored by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam and is to screen at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January 2020. This has prompted the usual congratulations and nice words, though those who do so probably have little idea that while, yes, it is a very good film, and so on, in my life it is also an albatross, a shadow cast across my path. So a little story.
As the 1980’s were closing down, in 1989, I was finishing up a new film, All the Vermeers in New York. It was my eleventh long film, and the first in which I had had anything remotely like a “budget.” $240,000, most from the now-defunct PBS program American Playhouse, and the rest from a little NEA grant. Against advice and the thoughts of some friends who know the “biz,” who had cautioned that AP was very script driven, and I had no chance at all to get money from them, I managed to raise all the funds myself, after two beers with Lindsay Law, then the head of AP. I made clear there was and would be no script, that I improvised, had no “story” and would find it while making the film. I said it would be about the stock market, the arts world, with a hint of deep New York history in it. He bought it and popped for their bottom-of-the-barrel budget of $200,000.
For the first time I shot in 35mm, with acquaintances inquiring if finally I would get a DP because 35mm was, well, 35mm and different, professional etc. I shot it myself, though I did have a camera assistant/focus puller. No lights. The way I always shot.
After it was finished, it was more or less mishandled, in terms of “business.” It got a berth, to premiere at the Montreal Film Festival, via a now-dead film world hot-shot who had assured my erstwhile “producer” – to be unnamed here – a prize was in the works. Instead it was greeted with puzzlement, dubious press, and no prize. (Somewhat later the head of the Venice festival told me he would have taken it.) It showed then in Berlin and later at Telluride. I personally contacted Roger Ebert (who had reviewed positively my first 1963 film Portrait) and asked him to look at it, which he did, and it got two thumbs up on Siskel and Ebert. But American Playhouse found it just too strange for their imagined audience and they broadcast it in the TV wasteland time of August. Opened commercially by the fledgling Strand Releasing company (no established distributor was interested), against my advice it opened in 4 cities at once – New York (in a Village cinema that a month before had been a porn house – I had argued to wait until it did BO elsewhere and then get a suitable setting), Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In LA it had 7 good reviews and none bad. And as luck would have it, the LA riots happened on the opening day and the city was more or less closed down, along with the cinemas, for the next week. And so no BO, and pulled from theaters the next week. As luck would have it, it was bad luck. While it ran for 6 months in Chicago and San Francisco, it flopped in NYC and LA, at least in $-terms, and nationally it made no money I ever saw, even though it sat on the Variety Top Grossing 50 list for nearly 6 months.
It did find some TV sales abroad and nearly recouped its costs which didn’t need to be given back to American Playhouse, so in effect it funded the next film, The Bed You Sleep In, which cost $110,000. For a brief period in the “real” film world I existed. The next few films did not get commercial release, and I moved to Europe where a few more unpleasant experiences inside “the business” confirmed my earlier view of Hollywood – that I just did not want to be around or deal with the people who made their living making or distributing films.
Emmanuelle Chaulet and Stephen Lack
Then, in 1997, shortly after it was introduced as a format, I had access to DV (digital video) through the Dokumenta arts exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and after having a camera in my hand for one minute promptly told myself I would never work in film again. I immediately began making work in DV, using its qualities for what they were, very different from celluloid. For some years I was deemed an outcast in the celluloid world, and treated as such. I proselytized for digital, saying before 1998, that it was the future, like it or not. And I began making films without worrying about money, figuring out how to make them for absurdly small sums (like a feature, La Lunga Ombra, with some modest name Italian actresses for $50 – of course no one was paid). Since then I have made 9 narrative features in digital formats. And 18 long films of documentary, essay &/or experimental forms. However, if one looked for public notice in reviews, articles and such, it would seem as if I had died 15 or so years ago.
6 Easy PiecesOUI NONHomecoming
The reason for this change likely had a bit to do with aesthetics – my work in DV tended to be freer, more “experimental” and less narrative. But it mostly had to do with money, which at bottom, is the driver for 98% of cinema. It is a business first. I had left, just as I had appeared ready for the cinema lime-light. And while there is, I am sure, no written blacklist, there didn’t need to be one – there was a censoring mechanism already in place, the magical invisible hand of the market: if it won’t make money it won’t be shown, and then it won’t be reviewed, and in practical terms it then more or less doesn’t exist. In the old Soviet Union something similar was called making someone a non-person. Here we use other mechanisms to accomplish the same effect.
And so while I continued to be productive, even more so than before, and while the creative/artistic quality of my work maintained and even improved, I slipped into the cultural shadows. Lists of independent American filmmakers of one kind or another almost invariably fail to mention my name. On the rare occasions that I exist in such contexts it is nearly always All the Vermeers in New York or Last Chants for a Slow Dance, which attach to my name. And never the long list of narrative features made in digital format since those times:
These films are all as good as Vermeers, if not as glossy – sez me. They are creatively all far more adventurous, taking risks and pulling it off. But they are decidedly not “commercial,” and often are sharply barbed politically. And they all cost one or two thousand dollars. Most were passed over by the festivals I sent them to – especially in America where the Iraq war trilogy of Homecoming, Over Here and Parable, each of which ends with a call for the impeachment of the Bush gang, was rejected by every festival they were sent to – ones that had shown my earlier work.
And the same could be said of my “documentaries” and “essays” which also for the most part fail to hew to conventional forms. I was at the Yamagata Documentary festival in Japan 5 times in competition since 1989, but if you saw a list of US or world documentary filmmakers I would never appear. Or similarly, were my landscape films Bowman Lake, Canyon and Yellowstone Canyon sent to a festival under the name James Benning, I would bet they would be shown. Under my name they have never been screened. Weird world.
A list of my “documentaries” and “essays”: Speaking Directly (1973), Plain Talk & Common Sense (1985), London Brief (1997), Nas Correntes de Luz da Ria Formosa (1999), 6 Easy Pieces (2000), Roma ritratto (2000), Chhattisgarh Sketches (2004), Rant (2007), Swimming in Nebraska (2010), Imagens de uma cidade perdida (2011), Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima (2012), Canyon (2013), Bowman Lake (2014), Yellowstone Canyon (2019)
And “experimental”: Muri Romani (2000), Vergessensfuge (2004), Passages (2006), Dissonance (2011), Muri Romani II (2019), Trinity (2012).
I, of course, have no way of really knowing why all this occurred, though to me it is pretty clear that the decades-long shift in American and European culture to raw dog-eat-dog capitalist business behaviors has taken root everywhere, including in esoteric film festivals which once at least provided a small shelf for less commercial work. No more. Instead festivals are concerned perhaps about their corporate sponsors, about running up a high warm butts count, and… And some of them seem to be scams, charging submission fees, getting thousands of entries and cashing in. Well, I could go on but I will stop. The basic reality is that society at large has become totally corrupted and there is little reason to think one’s own little puddle in it is not also corrupted. How it shows itself is varied, but it does so.
Below are my films available on Vimeo VOD. My website with information is
My website with information is:
For two blog posts on becoming a non-person see
Muri Romani II