Beryl Sokoloff

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Clarence Schmidt House, Woodstock, N.Y. (destroyed) / PHOTO: © CRISTA GRAUER BERYL SOKOLOFF

Beryl who? Bear with me. On Friday night I made it over to Anthology Film Archives, a cinema in lower Manhattan, to see a screening of short films by Sokoloff, a New York-based artist/film maker who was largely forgotten when he died two years ago at the age of 88. Thanks to the efforts of his companion Crista Grauer he’s being rediscovered now. Starting in the early 1960s, Sokoloff made dozens of what used to be called experimental films, lyrical, non-narrative movies, edited to draw together patterns, visual and psychological, and most of them around ten or fifteen minutes long. A number of Sokoloff’s films were about other artists. The constantly fascinating one, which I’ve now seen three times, was My Mirrored Hope, from 1962, a 17-minute excursion over the surfaces and into the shadowy depths of a great American folk art eccentricity, the madly intricate, self-built home, now lost to a fire, of a tireless American ecstatic named Clarence Schmidt.

As a young man Schmidt was a plasterer, his father’s trade, and a movie set builder for the silent film studios that used to exist in Queens, N.Y. In 1931, when he was also in his thirties, a relative left him five acres on a mountainside in upstate Woodstock, N.Y. It was two years after the great stock market crash and the Great Depression was setting in hard. (Sound familiar?) Schmidt and his wife relocated. In Woodstock he worked as a handyman and began building the massive house/labyrinth that would become his life’s work. Over the years it grew into a huge assemblage of wooden window frames, mirrors, walkways, bedsteads, found objects — including rubber face masks, hands and feet that he made into sculptural assemblages — and whatever other oddities, many of them painted over by Schmidt. It was a towering superabundance of muchness. And by the time it all burned to the ground, in 1968, it was the Hadrian’s Villa of outsider art — 30 rooms spread over seven stories and topped by a garden. “My hopeless art”, he once called it.

Rather than construct a conventional documentary about Schmidt and his fantastical domain, Sokoloff produced a kind of parallel fantasia, consisting sometimes of little glimpses, jagged and voluptuous, of the details of Schmidt’s creation, sometimes of gliding shots that survey the exteriors, with a musical soundtrack of pounding enigmas, Scriabin’s The Poem of Fire. You will not be surprised to hear that Sokoloff also made a film about Gaudi. He was sympathetic to the aesthetics of excess.

In August I wrote about Werner Herzog’s documentary Lessons of Darkness, which he made right after the 1991 Gulf War. It consists mostly of slow aerial footage shot from above the burning Kuwaiti oil fields, images that are set to swelling passages of Wagner and a few other composers. I don’t know if Herzog ever saw Sokoloff’s film, but it’s plain that 30 years earlier, Sokoloff was working on some similar wavelengths.

For a few years in the 1980s I spent my summer weekends in Woodstock, where I heard about the house. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez had once been fans. But by then it was long gone. Schmidt had died in 1978. You only hear him speak at three points in Sokoloff’s film, each time suddenly and very briefly. At the beginning he says his name. Midway he comes back. Then at the very end he returns to announce: “There I was in the land of ecstasy!” By that point, you know what he means.