“Okay. We’re making progress.” Howard Guttenplan: A Memento.
By Jerry Tartaglia
(First published in The Millennium Film Journal, 2015)
“Okay. We’re making progress.” Howard must have said this to me at least once a week during the years that I worked at The Millennium on East 4th Street in the 1970s. Sometimes he would say this after we had finished checking in the equipment that was borrowed by filmmakers. At other times, getting ready for one of the weekly in- person film shows, the “big room” was swept and mopped, projectors were cleaned, wine was ready, and cashier’s table was set with program notes. “Okay we’re making progress.”
Even in the years to follow, when I remained on the Board of Directors, trying to help with grant writing and occasional projecting, always staying in touch with this place where my filmmaking was nurtured, he would remind me of this best evaluation that an artist can make against the times and conditions with which we all struggle: “we’re making progress.”
I always admired his quality of fortitude – the tenacity that he showed in his life, in his job, and in his film work. “Shooting in stride,” is what he called his own cinematic practice. Rather like “taking it all in stride,” shooting and editing in the camera, recording aspects of his own life and travels – demonstrating the value that he placed on the Personal Creative Experience – and hence his programming style that gave rise to the decades long “Personal Cinema Series” that gave the Millennium its international reputation.
It was from his programming style that I (a naive fellow Brooklynite) finally learned that experimental Cinema was an international phenomenon. Through Howard’s programming of the Millennium’s Personal Cinema Series I learned to look at Cinema beyond the confines of “Manhattan-below-14th Street.” He brought the work of hundreds of filmmakers to the Millennium audience. So many filmmakers were given the opportunity to create their films and to show their films through the generous vision of Howard Guttenplan!
In 1977 he encouraged me to submit my writing about Gay Experimental Film to the Millennium Film Journal. He gave me the opportunity to program a series of seminars of Lesbian and Gay Art – unprecedented in the Avant Garde film world at that time.
I like to think that I learned something from him that helped me to develop a sense of true responsibility, to work diligently without complaint, and to treat other artists fairly, always giving others the benefit of the doubt unless proven otherwise. Yes, he was sometimes adamant and demanding, but I always felt that these qualities were offset by his generosity of spirit and his willingness to encourage me in spite of my sometimes silly ideas. He once gave me, as a young filmmaker, some very good advice: to never show the work for the sake of having a show. Work at it until it is ready, otherwise it is a disservice to oneself and to the audience. There’s no rush; “we’re making progress.”
About a month or so before he died, I invited him to the Jack Smith screening that I was doing at the new Millennium, even though I knew he was too ill to come. He gracious declined so I visited him at home the next day. I am so happy I was able to see him and visit. He was totally Howard! With a brief apology for not being able to stand and greet me, he wanted to know all about the Smith films: how and what and why. He didn’t spend our time complaining about his own physical incapacity, though I understood how it was for him. We reminisced a bit about our more than 40 year friendship, filmmakers that we knew and works that we liked. To whine or complain about a situation seemed not to be in his nature. He favored action, courage, loyalty and dedication. When it was time to go we embraced in a hug (something he was not inclined to do very often) and we said goodbye.
Fare forward, traveler; we’re making progress!
Lobachsville, Pennsylvania. March 2015.