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Jack Levine: Feast Of Pure Reason by David Sutherland
About the Filmmaker:

David Sutherland, born in Boston and trained at the University of California Film School, has won over 100 international awards and citations for his films. He is best known for his intimate documentary portraits of unconventional subjects.

Sutherland wrote, directed, produced and edited the groundbreaking series The Farmer's Wife, which aired on PBS over three nights in 1998 and drew over 17 million viewers. The six-and-a-half hour "Frontline" series, about a Nebraska farming family in crisis, was hailed by The Chicago Tribune as "one of the extraordinary television events of the decade." Sutherland's other PBS credits include George Washington: The Man Who Wouldn't Be King, for "The American Experience"; Paul Cadmus: Enfant Terrible at 80, a portrait of the gay social satirist and painter; Feast of the Gods for the National Gallery of Art about the mystery surrounding a painting by Titian and Bellini; Halftime: Five Yale Men at Midlife, about five men from the class of 1963; Out of Sight, a portrait of a blind cowgirl; and High Energy, about physicist Melissa Franklin which for the series "Discovering Women."

Sutherland's next project for PBS is the six-hour film Country Boys, a portrait of two teenage boys coming of age in eastern Kentucky's Appalachian hills, which airs on the "Frontline" series in January 2006.

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Jack Levine: Feast Of Pure Reason by David Sutherland

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Press Release: PDF | DOC
Before A Farmer's Wife and Country Boy, filmmaker David Sutherland made Jack Levine: Feast of Pure Reason, a bold and unconventional portrait of one America's leading Social Realist painters doing what he does best: skewering corrupt politicians and police, raging over social injustices, and satirizing the petty foibles of humankind. Sutherland's unique film captures the formidable artistic talent and passions of Jack Levine, whose satiric work tackles the dark side of America's political and social life.

Jack Levine became world famous during the 1930s for his brilliantly painted, brutally ironic visions of America and the world. His paintings have dealt with such subjects as the McCarthy hearings of the 50s, Mayor Daley at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, mob figures, international arms brokers, and even Las Vegas showgirls.

With his characteristic straightforwardness and humor, Levine peers directly into the camera and guides the viewer on a personal tour of his world. He can discuss both the brush strokes of the European masters and the physical grace of modern athletes. While watching batting practice by the Boston Red Sox, Levine remarks that he wishes there were a painter who could paint as well as Ted Williams could hit.

Underneath this humor is a finely tuned sensitivity to the social and political afflictions that have plagued America since the 1930s. Jack Levine: Feast of Pure Reason is the story of a rare individual who has remained true to his aesthetic soul, despite the ever-changing fad and fashions of the art business.

The film has been praised by critics as one of the finest documentaries to explore the world of the contemporary American artist. Filmmaker David Sutherland has developed an unusual style that blends traditional documentary technique with narrative film direction. Sutherland spent many weeks with Mr. Levine, liberally taping interviews and activities. He then wrote the script incorporating his favorite lines and created a "storyboard," the comic strip-like blueprint commonly used in feature films. When Sutherland had perfected his story and assembled a film crew, Levine was directed as a professional actor might be, or as Sutherland describes it, "The subject of a documentary plays himself in a docudrama."

Levine burst into prominence during the late 1930s when he worked for the New Deal's Work Projects Administration (WPA). The film shows how young Jack Levine, as a leading figure of Social Realism, produced art that reflected and commented on the tumultuous issues of that era—and how he had remained steadfast in his devotion to create art that forcefully comments on our times.

The film introduces Levine as he sits alongside friend and art historian Milton Browne, while the two munch on hot dogs at Boston's Fenway Park. Later, as Levine walks down the streets of his youth—formerly a lowly Boston slum—he explains how the squalor and travail of the neighborhood affected his creative development and passion for social justice. Levine also describes how he was inspired by the Expressionists, Bertolt Brecht and "The Three Penny Opera," and the Mexican muralist movement. These influences helped mold an artist who could appreciate the teeming streets of a big city as well as the great artistic contributions of Velázquez, Rubens, and da Vinci.

The unusually articulate Levine is not reticent in sharing his own insightful—and painfully honest—viewpoints. Throughout his life, he has remained true to his own vision and has steadfastly refused to follow the trendiness of the art world. "I still believe that I have some mission in life to say what I think about the world. Let the avant-garde go hang!" he exclaims.

At Levine's New York City studio, he begins a canvas with his daughter as a model. It is evident that his sharply honed talent gives him great control of the brush, as he transforms a charcoal outline into a finished portrait. His own scrupulous honesty, he says, constantly affects his work: "Many times I have felt that I would love to paint a lovely girl and have her appear lovely. But it always turns out different. It's all right. It's just that if you ever want you wife painted, don't call on me, because if one eye is lower than the other, or there's a mole on a bad place, I will love it and catch it."

One of Levine's most celebrated paintings from the 1930s was "Feast of Pure Reason," which revealed the grim and threatening corruption a city much like Boston, with angry police and crooked politicians. Its title comes from the "Nighttown" sequence in James Joyce's "Ulysses."

When his father died in 1939, Levine found himself painting Hebrew Bible themes, including a series of works on the kings and sages of Israel. But he also continued to produce works in the Social Realist style.

After serving in the Army during WWII, Levine turned his satiric eye to military officers. A general's opulent homecoming in his painting "Welcome Home" shows "the big slob who is vice president of the Second National Bank and the president of the Chamber of Commerce, only now he's been in the Army. I couldn't say that sort of thing while I was in the service. This was my way to howl," he told reporters at the time.

"Welcome Home" later traveled to the Soviet Union with a U.S. State Department- sponsored art exhibition. But the painting drew the fire of the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Levine survived an appearance before HUAC, wisecracking on the absurdity of the charge that his work was unpatriotic, with such quips as: "Here we were corrupting all those Russians towards Communism."

With the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, Levine's popularity declined. Levine is an outspoken critic of the art world, which he says has become increasingly "corporatized," with artists more interested I profit than art. Today, he says, the art business is controlled by a handful of investors and gallery owners.

Jack Levine: Feast of Pure Reason has been hailed by critics for its incisive look at one of America's most important but little-known artists. The Los Angeles Times called it "thoroughly engaging," and The Boston Herald placed it on its "Ten Best" list.

(1989, 60 min.)


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Jack Levine became world famous during the 1930s for his brilliantly painted, brutally ironic visions of America and the world


True Lives is presented by American Documentary, Inc. and National Educational Telecommunications Association.

National Educational Telecommunications Association

Download the 2006 True Lives Press Release: PDF | DOC
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