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Watching the Watchdogs: Saul Levine and MassArt

Screenshots from Saul Levine’s Notes After Long Silence (1989), available to watch here on vimeo.

Recently Diabolique has started a new season that pays attention to the stifling of creativity, information, and political beliefs that are currently under attack by forces on both the right and left. Sometimes cinema and art can make for an uncomfortable experience, but attempts to censor, destroy, defame, or sugarcoat work is a disservice to everyone. While the terms “rejecting safe spaces” and “abandoning the ‘problematic’ in art and cinema,” currently found in this magazine’s banner may sound confrontational–and have been disputed among some of our own editors–Diabolique has a unified belief that free speech and willingness to have intelligent discussions that do not rely on personal attacks is absolutely essential to discourse on film and art. Of course, people are allowed to ignore the silencing of those around them by governmental, cultural, or social forces, but it is the belief of this author that silence is irresponsible and unwise. “Watching the Watchdogs” is a new, intermittent column we are dedicating to discussions and opinions about contemporary and historic attacks on intellectual and artistic freedom.

This first piece of writing focuses on the recent dispute between experimental filmmaker Saul Levine and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). As reported on by Art Forum and The Boston Globe, student(s) in his senior thesis class complained to administrators after Levine–a career-long professor at the school–showed his short film from 1989, Notes After Long Silence. The film contains some footage of Levine and a partner partially naked and in sexual situations. Apparently this was too much for some students–or even just one of them–as the administration accused Levine of “harming students.” The Art Forum article also mentions a previous legal complaint in which MassArt was accused of “teaching gay pornography,” with Levine coming to the school’s defense, only to realize that the school would not do the same for him later on. Levine ended up deciding to part ways with MassArt–after teaching there for almost 40 years–instead of paying for legal fees he would need for his defense.

There are a number of things that seem very wrong with this incident. If a student isn’t ready to see images of naked people, perhaps they aren’t ready to attend art school. Countless artists, for millennia, and filmmakers for centuries, have stood naked before canvases and cameras. Sex is one of the most pervasive subjects in art history. Quite often art about sexuality is very powerful and may evoke discomfort or uncertainty, but this is exactly why it is so important. Content warnings should not be necessary or mandatory in an art school because students should be ready, or at least understand that they may need to face confrontational things pretty much constantly.

No one should have to confront sexual harassment in an academic environment or anywhere else, but there has been no evidence or even suggestion that harassment is the offense in Saul Levine’s case. It is confusing that MassArt’s Title IX coordinator was at the meeting regarding Levine’s conduct, as the Art Forum article states, because Title IX is a policy that was put into place to combat sexual harassment and discrimination based on sexuality and gender. Seeing as how there does not appear to be any harassment or discrimination in the accusations against Levine, it appears to be a misuse of Title IX, which is quite a negative thing since it potentially de-legitimizes the policy in future instances when it will be really needed. I know people at other institutions who have attempted to use Title IX in the case of legitimate complaints regarding harassment, only to see their efforts disregarded. It is heartbreaking. The misuse of this policy will only work against it in the future.  

As for likening depictions of sexuality as obscene or pornographic, Notes After Long Silence should not be something that could even be considered inappropriate. It is available publicly on vimeo, people should watch it. Even so, pornography is a genre that warrants study for sociological purposes, if not viewing for pleasure. I can recall porn in syllabi of classes when I was an undergraduate, for example one class in which we studied an issue of Playgirl magazine in order to better understand what depictions and sexual fantasies mainstream media outlets try to sell to the masses. No one thought this was particularly outrageous, and I benefited greatly by learning about different popular–and unpopular–representations of sexuality. Just a couple of years ago I was a teaching assistant for a class entirely about depictions of the naked versus the nude in art history. I cannot stress more the importance of the human body and sex in art! Have the students in Levine’s senior thesis class ever been to an art museum?

Screenshots from Saul Levine’s The Big Stick/An Old Reel (1968-73), available to watch here on vimeo.

If you watch the film in question, it is clearly not pornography. It is not harmful. Notes After Long Silence includes some close up shots of a penis that are not even necessarily in focus or well lit enough for one to tell if it is erect or not. In addition, the other person’s body is shot from an angle that makes it difficult to even specify the biological gender of the person. In a facebook live video, Levine claims that he showed the film, as well as another of his works called The Big Stick/An Old Reel (1968-73) to foster a discussion about film editing, which makes complete sense. Both films have very fast editing rhythms. The first descriptor that comes to my mind is “disruptive.” You don’t have to be a filmmaker or a film scholar to know that fast cutting of dissimilar shots is not a technique that lends itself to arousing the viewer. Most shots in porn films are painfully long, as a matter of fact. Thoughtful film editing choices are responsible for some of the most remarkable scenes about sex or sexuality throughout film history–think of the psychedelic and ecstatic scenes in Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), or the sublimely normal sex scene in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). However, returning to Notes After Long Silence, it is difficult to even tell who’s penis it is. The film is ambiguous, or for lack of a better word “experimental” in what it shows, not some sensationalist stag film (to which I have to keep adding, “and even if it was, that should not present a legitimate problem that a professor would have to be disciplined for”). Bottom line–I can’t even believe I have to take the time to write about shit like this in 2018. Yet freedom of expression has been coming under attack now more than any other time in my life, enough to warrant a whole column dedicated to it.  

I have seen a film student go through a range of emotions after watching Carolee Schneemann’s explicit Fuses (1965). Uncertainty, discomfort, insight. These are all part of a learning process. I have also seen students falling asleep during the sex scene in Chantal Akerman’s Je, tu, il, elle (1974), because sometimes sex can be unremarkable. Students should be able to have opinions about subject matter like this, but not ruin an entire learning environment because of fear. MassArt, like most contemporary institutions of higher learning, act like businesses that will defer to students who pay them tuition. I hope MassArt suffers a significant drop in attendance because of their bad decisions. How can people learn and develop in environments like this if they have closed minds locked in concrete? Students deserve better than just shutting down things they don’t like. There is nothing academic about that. Teachers deserve better than this too. American culture and higher education have failed Saul Levine. If you ever watch any of his films, you will realize he has been fighting against hypocrisy like this for his entire career. It is a worthy and necessary fight.  

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Joseph Dwyer is an assistant web editor at Diabolique, where he concentrates on the Legacies of Sade and Watching the Watchdogs columns. His major interests are freedom of speech, desire, and dissent in horror/cult cinema. He lives in Oakland, CA, and has academic degrees from the San Francisco Art institute and Hampshire College.

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