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Montage Man Chuck Workman on the Politics of the Oscar Death Clip Reel

You may know Chuck Workman's films, but you definitely know the way he uses other people's: Alongside making numerous award-winning documentaries (Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, The Source), for the last twenty years he's been making his famed Oscar montages, the assemblages of clips that pop up at every ceremony. Workman’s latest doc, Visionaries, , which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a loving and beautifully produced tribute to the American underground and avant-garde cinema, featuring such luminaries as Kenneth Anger, Ken Jacobs, Anthology Film Archives founder Jonas Mekas, and many others. We talked to him about his new film, as well as the politics behind creating an Oscar "death montage."

How much freedom do you have when you do your Oscar montages?
It depends on the producer. I’ve done about twenty Oscar shows, and of those, I’d say in about fifteen of them I had almost total freedom. This last year I had no freedom at all. The producers wanted to push their own agenda; they even came out in the press and said they were going to shake things up, and that a lot of people who had worked on the Oscars for a long time were going to be upset about it. Well, a lot of people were, because they thought that was a contemptuous thing to say. You’ve got a lot of really top professionals working on the show — to tell Marc Shaiman what to do is kind of wrong, I think … but you work with it. I’m a proud member of the Academy, so I’m happy to do it, but sometimes the producers of the show decide they want to go a certain way. And they’re given carte blanche, by the way, so it’s not like you can complain to somebody.

You did the “death montage” this year at the Oscars. How much freedom did they give you? Who decided to end the montage with Karl Malden?
This was the first time I did that montage. Since it’s totally controversial whom they include and whom they don’t, they care a lot about this, and they have a committee that decides who gets included in the montage. They give me a list, and if Farrah Fawcett is not on the list, so be it — that’s their decision. Personally, I thought Henry Gibson should have been on the list. So they gave me the list, 34 people, and they suggested that I open it with Patrick Swayze, since Demi Moore was presenting. And Karl Malden was a very, very important member of the Academy — he’d been president of the Academy, he’d won an Oscar — so they said, “Well, we hope you end with Karl.” And I said, “I was going to end with Karl anyway.” So that was okay. But other than that, what happened in between, that was up to me.

You live in a town full of big egos. Have you ever gotten complaints from people — producers, stars, reps — about the montages you’ve done?
Not often. Occasionally, for some reason, somebody is left out of something. I can’t remember what it was, but we once left Whoopi Goldberg out of something. And she was on TV and she complained about it. And she was probably right to. It had nothing to do with us not liking her; we just didn’t use it. And she got insulted, as I would have. There’s always a time problem, too, because the shows always last too long, and we always have to cut people we don’t want to cut. I made fun of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film once, and his manager called to complain about it. But I don’t mind that stuff. We try to be slightly irreverent sometimes.

What’s the craziest montage you’ve ever had to do, or been requested to do?
I became a favorite of the Republicans for a while, because I made a patriotic montage called “Spirit of America” right after 9/11. And I’d get all sorts of calls to do stuff like “Great Moments of War” and things like that. I got asked to do something for a militant gun organization, which I refused — they’d seen something I’d done on great war films for the Department of Defense. I also did a film called The Story of X, which was a history of dirty movies that I did for Playboy. I got a nice letter from Hugh Hefner, about another film I’d done, and I told him I’d always been interested in doing something on really dirty movies — and I don’t mean like Jean Harlow or whatever, I mean the kind of stuff I saw when I was a teenager. And he said, “Hey, I’d like to do that.” And it turned out he had the greatest collection of porn in the world. That was very strange material to work with. In less than half a day, it became anything but erotic. It was more funny than sexy.

So, what prompted you to make Visionaries?
You may know who Kenneth Anger or Stan Brakhage is, but a lot of people don’t. They may know who Andy Warhol is, but that’s about it. So I felt there was a need for this kind of film. It began as a story about Jonas [Mekas], and I soon realized that I had to show Jonas’s world, and to do that I had to show some of the films as well, because he was so involved with all these people — he inspired people like Norman Mailer and Andy Warhol, for instance.

What did these filmmakers — who are themselves very opinionated about cinema in general and their work in particular — think of the idea of being featured in your movie?
The filmmakers were, for the most part, flattered to be in the film. They all had a very close relationship to Jonas. I made a film about the Beat Generation called The Source about ten years ago, and Allen Ginsberg was my entry into that. So I could say, “Allen is behind this film,” to Ken Kesey, and Ken Kesey would participate, and so on. And in that way I’d say Jonas was involved with this film, and that opened many doors. Not too many people said no. Robert Frank said no — he didn’t want Pull My Daisy in it. There are so many other people involved in the making of that film — Jack Kerouac wrote it, Alfred Leslie co-directed it, Allen Ginsberg and others are in it — but he felt he spoke for the film when he said he did not want us to use it. And Werner Herzog wanted a great deal of money for a clip from one of his early documentaries, so I took him out. But just about every other filmmaker allowed us to use their clips.

I imagine that how the clips are edited in was also a concern for them.
A lot of people were very interested in how the films are shown; for example, Brakhage’s widow is very concerned that we get the right restored material of his films ... Much more than when I do a film about Hollywood movies — probably because in this case I’m dealing not with a cold Hollywood studio, but with the actual creators of these films. I mean, if somebody wanted to put a clip of one of my movies in a film, I’m sure I’d have these same questions and concerns as well. I hope I honored that. I even have one of these banner footnotes asking viewers to please see these films on a screen, and thanking the filmmakers for allowing me to show them on video. There’s a wonderful line of Brakhage’s, “Of course I’d like to see great art in person, but if it’s in a book, at least I get to see something about what it looks like.”

Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP