On Tuesday the 19th January EYE on Art will present an evening dedicated to the audiovisual legacy of the late filmmaker and poet, Piero Heliczer.
© A flyer from Heliczer’s private archive
ABOUT PIERO HELICZER
Piero Heliczer was born in Italy in 1937. Throughout his life he gained notoriety as a poet and publisher. However, he also dedicated a lot of his time and energy to cinema and experimental filmmaking. Wheeler Winston Dixon has described Heliczer’s film works to be “an important and too often forgotten part of 1960s experimental cinema.”
From a young age he was involved in the film industry; at the age of four he acted in Augusto Genina’s fascist propaganda film Bengasi which won first prize at Venice International Film Festival in 1942. It is curious that this was his first experience into the world of film; Heliczer’s mother was Jewish, from Prussia and his father, who, as member of the Resistance, was captured and killed by the Gestapo, was Italian-Polish. For the last two years of the war Heliczer and his remaining family went into hiding. Then, in 1947 he moved to the United States, where he lived for almost a decade.
In 1956 Heliczer returned to Europe. He initially resided in Paris where he began producing his own poetry and started his own small press – The Dead Language – hand-printing books and small publications, anthologies and magazines. It was during this period that Heliczer got involved with the Beat Generation; the likes of Angus Maclise, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, to name but a few. In the early sixties he moved to England for a few years. He lived primarily in London, where he acquainted himself with the Avant-garde film scene, and then for some time in Brighton, where he made his first film with Jeff Keen, The Autumn Feast (1961).
A few years later Heliczer relocated to New York where he became involved with the Film-makers’ Cooperative and the circles surrounding Andy Warhol’s factory. He acted in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Andy Warhol’s Couch (1964).
A flyer for an Amsterdam screening of Andy Warhol’s film COUCH, 1964. Courtesy of Daniel Singelenberg.
It was during this period that Heliczer made the majority of his own experimental films thus associating himself with 1960s American Experimental Cinema. Looking back on those years Heliczer spent in New York, Gerard Malanga, a friend of Piero’s but also a filmmaker and poet, describes Heliczer’s filming style as “free-wheeling” and “spontaneous”. He says:
“There was a definite collaborative energy present when Piero would set up a shoot and begin filming, though he was very quiet in his approach. One never knew what was happening until it was nearly over. That is, he did shoot at different angles within the one space, which was usually a rooftop above the flat where he was living at the time. In a way he just let us do our thing. There were no scripts but lots of random shooting. We just kind of stood around or moved around like we were in some kind of dance. I never recall Piero shouting out directions or outlining to us what he planned on doing.” (This quote from Gerard Malanga is part of a longer text published in a booklet that has been made to accompany the EYE on Art evening.)
Heliczer was a wanderer and a traveller. He never stuck around in any one place for a long period of time and by the end of the ‘60s it seems he was tired of New York. In the ‘70s he returned once more to Europe. The German government awarded him a sum of money as an act of reparation for the murder of his father and he invested this money into a house in Normandy, where he lived until his death. In 1993 Heliczer was tragically killed in a road-accident at the age of 56. Unfortunately, despite his strong associations with notable figures, Heliczer’s films have remained relatively unknown.
This EYE on art programme, in collaboration with Piero’s Amsterdam-born daughter, Wynn Heliczer (who will perform songs from her theatre production, The Missing Beat), traces the artist’s history as a filmmaker, taking a closer look at his influences and inspirations.
Poster for Wynn Heliczer’s Theatre Project THE MISSING BEAT © JOOST DE HAAS
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE FILM PROGRAMME
Andy Warhol, Screen Test – Reel 23, 1965
Heliczer, like other regulars to Warhol’s Factory studio in New York City was asked to pose to be captured by Warhol’s stationary 16mm Bolex movie camera on silent, black and white film. The result is a revealing and captivating portrait.
© Frame shots from Andy Warhol Screen Test.
Scanned from Piero Heliczer’s 1967 book, THE SOAP OPERA.
Martin Scorsese, The Big Shave (also known as Viet ’67), 1967, 6 mins
As well as the films of Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga and Jack Smith, the work of Martin Scorsese had a strong influence on Piero Heliczer’s films. Reflections of this early experimental film by Scorsese can arguably be seen in Heliczer’s film Joan of Arc, made in the same year.
The Big Shave, or Viet ‘67 as it is sometimes known, depicts one man’s brutal attempt at shaving. The film stands as a metaphor for the self-destructive nature of the USA’s involvement in the Vietnam war. Originally, the film was made for the weeklong anti-Vietnam protest “The Angry Arts Against the War” whereby artists of New York spoke “through their own work to disassociate themselves from the US policy in Vietnam.” [The New York Times, January 29th 1967]. However, the six-minute picture premiered instead at Jacques Ledox’s 1967 EXPRMNTL Festival of Experimental Cinema in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, where it won Le Prix de L’Age d’Or.
Screenshot from Martin Scorsese’s THE BIG SHAVE, 1967
Piero Heliczer, Joan of Arc, 1967, 12 mins
“The story of Joan of Arc as applied to the present revolution in arts and more. The Gothic is applied to the War in Vietnam. The film is experimental in the sense that in it the visual becomes tactile.” [Little Caeser #9, Gerard Malanga]
Features Gerard Malanga, Ira Cohen, Andy Warhol, Angus Maclise and many others.
The film, along with Scorsese’s The Big Shave screened at the 1967 EXPRMNTL Festival of Experimental Cinema in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium.
Poster from the 1967 EXPRMNTL festival, Knokke-le-Zoute
© EXPRMNTL – CINEMATEK, Brussel
Piero Heliczer, Venus in Furs, 20 mins
In November 1968 Heliczer filmed The Velvet Underground performing for his film Venus in Furs, an experimental film shot on 8mm. At one point in the film Heliczer himself is seen on camera playing the Saxophone with the band. The film was originally shown to “insider” audiences at membership screenings at The Bridge Theatre (also known as The New Bowery Theatre) at St Mark’s Place, Manhattan. In the following year, 1969, the film was screened at the Eight and a 1⁄2 New York Film Festival, an event organised by Jonas Mekas at New York City’s Elgin Theatre.
Heliczer’s Venus in Furs has been restored and digitised by the EYE film museum, Amsterdam.
© Poster from Heliczer’s private archive.
Piero Heliczer/Walter Cronkite’s The Making Of An Underground Film, CBS News, 1965, 6mins
A Newsreel which includes documentation of the making of Heliczer’s film Dirt, and possibly also Venus in Furs, as well as the earliest known footage of The Velvet Underground. Broadcasted on 31st December 1965. The clip features Jonas Mekas, Piero Heliczer, The Velvet Underground, Stan Brakhage, Willard Van Dyke, Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick and Peter Beard.
Bibliography & Related Links
- Little Caeser #9, Edited by Gerard Malanga, 1979
– Includes a Piero Heliczer Filmography
- The New York Times, January 29th 1967
– Article about “The Angry Arts Against The War” movement in NYC
– Piero Heliczer Biography
– PDF of the accompanying booklet to a Piero Heliczer Exhibition that took place in France in 2015
– Link to an article of an interview with Gerard Malanga that mentions Heliczer a number of times
- The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon, 1997
– Includes a section on Piero Heliczer and his films
- Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The films of Andy Warhol by Callie Angell, 2006
– Includes a description of the Heliczer Screen Test
– Information about the exhibition PIERO HELICZER & THE DEAD LANGUAGE PRESS, Curated by Johan Kugelberg & Jonas Mekas, Boo Hooray, Feb/March 2014
– Piero Heliczer Obituary by Tom Raworth
-Website about Piero Heliczer’s life and work by Tom Raworth
– video of Autumn Feast by Piero Heliczer and Jeff Keen
– Information about EXPRMNTL festival
– Website relating to Wynn Heliczer’s project THE MISSING BEAT all about her quest to understand her father’s life.
-Photographs taken by Adam Ritchie of Piero filming The Velvet Underground.
- Cinema in the Expanded Field, Eds. Francis Bovier & Adeena May, 2015 available here:
-Includes an Essay by Xavier Garcia Dolan on the EXPRMNTL film festival, Knokke-le-Zoute.
Author of the text and co-programmer of the event Ruth Sweeney.
Ruth Sweeney is a student at the University of Amsterdam on the MA course Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image. She has, in collaboration with Wynn Heliczer, compiled the film programme for this EYE on Art evening as part of a broader research project into the life and work of Piero Heliczer. Ruth is currently also an intern at the EYE FILM MUSEUM.