The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 164-167
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The Cedar Bar(2001). Directed, written, and edited by Alfred Leslie
Alfred Leslie's The Cedar Bar is an inspiring new work from an artist who has returned to the moving image after thirty-five years. His unproduced play about the drunken disputations between the New York School of artists and critics serves as the basis for this feature-length collage of found footage designed to illustrate the emotional tumult unfurled during a night at the Cedar Tavern. Incorporating hundreds of excerpts from feature films, broadcast television, documentary footage, and conspicuous flashes of porn, The Cedar Bar would be a copyright clearance nightmare for a commercial distributor. Leslie, however, has chosen to ignore such concerns, making a digital video movie for himself and for screenings limited to festivals and noncommercial settings.
What makes this new work inspirational has as least as much to do with the circumstances of its production as it does with the movie on the screen. For more than fifty years Alfred Leslie has been recognized by art critics as an important painter, one who quickly abandoned the abstract expressionism of his New York cohorts for figurative and realist painting. He has also made significant forays into alternative filmmaking. Even before being "discovered" by critic Clement Greenberg as a significant painter, Leslie was making films. In the late 1940s he completed three films, screening Directions: A Walk after the War Games (1949, with Tony Guarino) at the Museum of Modern Art. He chose, however, to focus exclusively on his blossoming career in painting. In the late 1950s, he returned to filmmaking with Pull My Daisy (1958), a landmark of the New American Cinema, which Leslie made with photographer Robert Frank, writer Jack Kerouac, and a group of now-celebrated Beat-era artists who appear on-screen (poets Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso, painter Larry Rivers, musician David Amram, sculptor Alice Neel, actress Delphine Seyrig). The unexpected success of Pull My Daisy gave him entrée to film festivals and even a flirtation with Hollywood.
Leslie made two more avant-garde films, The Last Clean Shirt (1964) and Birth of a Nation 1965, before a singular event forced him, [End Page 164] in his prime at age thirty-nine, to suspend his artistic career and become a self-made archivist and preservationist. In October 1966, one of the deadliest fires in New York history consumed the building that housed his studio. Nearly all of his original film elements, plus manuscripts, canvases, and photographs, were destroyed. (Ironically, unlike nearly every other independent filmmaker, Leslie had just invested in a small "fireproof" cabinet where his films were stored; the destruction was so severe, however, city authorities would not allow him to attempt to salvage it.) Fortunately, prints of Pull My Daisy and The Last Clean Shirt were in circulation, as they remain today. But all of his pre-Daisy films are gone.
After three decades of continued painting, Leslie began what he calls a "paraphrasing" of his lost work. Taking a few shards of footage left from the jagged, jazzy movie he conspicuously titled Birth of a Nation 1965, he issued a reconstructed eighteen-minute portion of the once feature-length piece. With newly recorded sound elements and pieces of found footage standing in for missing images, the 1997 release (available on Facets Multimedia's Beat and Beyond: The Films of Alfred Leslie) is a nonnarrative collage that can only suggest what the complete film might have been like. More successful was Leslie's republication of The Hasty Papers (1999), a large-format book paraphrasing his noted 1960 "one shot" publication of the same name, which he edited (and sold on the street for three dollars). In the original, he cobbled together poems, essays, letters, novellas, stories, plays, speeches, sheet music, drawings, and photographs, solicited or appropriated from figures major (Sartre, Ginsburg, Genet, Castro, Kerouac, Eisenhower) and minor. Fortuitously, these papers had been microfilmed shortly before the 1966 fire. In the 1999 version, Leslie's documentation and metacommentary appear alongside the original texts and illustrations. His...