14 December 2010
Ted Nemeth and Mary Ellen Bute in their New York studio circa 1936. Their work will be on display this weekend at Anthology Film Archives.
Though her name may not ring a bell with most cineastes, Mary Ellen Bute's contemporaries and collaborators recall the New York-based filmmaker vividly. "She was a very determined steel magnolia," said John Canemaker, the Oscar-winning animator and director of Animation Studies at New York University's Kanbar Film Department. "She couldn't have done the things that she did without her persuasive powers, her determination, her persistence."
What Mary Ellen Bute and her husband, Ted Nemeth, accomplished goes on display this weekend at Anthology Film Archives in a dual program called "Passages From the Yale Archive: The Films of Ted Nemeth and Mary Ellen Bute." Featuring a never-before-seen version of Bute's feature-length 1965 Cannes entry "Passages from Finnegan's Wake," as well as the 1956 live-action short film "The Boy Who Saw Through"—both restored through a joint effort between the Yale Film Study Center and the National Film Preservation Fund—the three-day event sheds light on one of the lesser-known chapters in the city's long history of independent filmmaking.
Born in Houston, Bute (1906-83) studied painting at the Philadelphia Academy of Art, followed by stagecraft at Yale University's drama school and fine arts at the Sorbonne in Paris. Once settled in New York in the 1930s, she embarked on a series of experimental, animated short films that bore the influence of German expatriate animation pioneer Oskar Fischinger and electronic-music legend Leo Theremin. She collaborated in the 1940s and '50s with theorist and composer Joseph Schillinger and Ted Nemeth (1911-86), who served as Bute's cinematographer on 1933's "Rhythm in Light," and became her husband in 1940.
"Mary Ellen made quite a pilgrimage through the new York avant garde," recalled film historian and distributor Cecile Starr. After Ms. Starr was invited to screen Bute's work at Radio City Music Hall in 1952 for "The Saturday Review," she became the filmmaker's greatest champion, ultimately distributing her films through the Women's Independent Film Exchange that she founded in 1977, until Bute's death in 1983.
"She was a character," Ms. Starr said. "She was about five feet tall and she wore about four inch high-heel shoes and had a ton of energy and a southern accent from Texas that she never lost. It was one of her trademarks. I was brought up in Louisiana and lost my accent about three days after I moved to New York. So I was amazed. People didn't know whether to take her seriously or not."
Though long familiar with her work, Mr. Canemaker didn't encounter Bute in person until they were co-honorees at a Manhattan fund-raising gathering. "We had both gotten grants from the [American Film Institute] in the '70s," he said. "I saw this thin little woman in this huge hat walking around the party greeting people, and she came up to me finally and said, 'Hi, how are you? Do y'all know where I can get some money?'"
According to Ann Horton-Line, the manager of Yale's Film Study Center, Bute and Nemeth tackled the Sisyphean task of acquiring funding for independent film projects while raising their two sons via Nemeth's earnings from toiling in commercials, military training films and educational short subjects.
"He was doing a lot of commercial stuff, which gave Bute the opportunity to work on her creative endeavors," Ms. Horton-Line said.
But the dual responsibility of shooting his wife's films and punching the production clock on behalf of beer companies and the U.S. Air Force didn't prevent Nemeth from contributing surprising and inventive cinematic work of his own. Ms. Horton-Line said her curatorial motivation in compiling the two new programs was "not only to highlight the two films we had preserved, but also to grab some stuff that Nemeth had worked on himself, and put it all together."
Written, produced and directed by future Muppet impresario Jim Henson, who also stars in the film, 1965's playfully anxious "Time Piece" features particularly effective and imaginative 35mm cinematography contributed by Nemeth. "Rama" (1970), described by its writer, director and star Sugar Cain as "a beautiful sensual cine-poem," mixes dance performance, nature film and voice-over monologue so free spiritedly that it borders on cinematic outsider art. Nemeth's gauzy color photography of Ms. Cain interpreting a body stocking-clad sea nymph wandering Central Park and Shelter Island locations is a marvel. "Wasn't it beautiful?" Ms. Cain said from her home in Las Vegas. "Ted Nemeth figured all that out using various filters and all those things."
But perhaps the most surprising collaboration on view at Anthology involves a cast member in "The Boy Who Saw Through." Based on a short story about a Victorian 12-year-old boy who possesses the power to look through walls, the film features a well-known actor in perhaps his least-known role. Mr. Horton-Line recalled experiencing sudden recognition during the archival research leading up to the restorations. "When we were watching the film we were like, 'God that kid has a familiar look. Who is that kid?'" she said. "Christopher Walken!"