In 1969, Robert Haller returned to Pittsburgh for a job. He was just in time ... not for a career with the Journal of Economic Literature, but to participate in a remarkable decade on the local scene in the art form he loves.
The 27-year-old experimental-cinema enthusiast found a local community that was about to explode. The spark was Sally Dixon, a Carnegie Museum of Art Women's Committee member who in 1970 (with funding from philanthropist Richard Scaife) created the museum's film program. A key component was Dixon's decision to pay generous honoria ($500 at first) for visits by avant-garde filmmakers.
In his 2005 monograph Crossroads: Avant-garde Film in Pittsburgh in the 1970s (Anthology Film Archives), Haller contends that the Carnegie was the first U.S. museum to pay such honoria. Also in 1970, Dixon created at the Carnegie a film-equipment center that shortly became Pittsburgh Film Makers Inc. With Haller as founding executive director, PFMI (now Pittsburgh Filmmakers) provided equipment access along with its own teaching and exhibition programs
Before 1970, experimental films were rarely screened outside New York and San Francisco. But combined with then-plentiful government funding for individual artists, and an international climate of cinematic experimentation, Dixon's vision made Pittsburgh the "third city" of American avant-garde film.
The list of filmmakers who visited, taught and made films here during the '70s is an avant-garde who's who, including Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baille, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Hollis Frampton, Gunvor Nelson, Yvonne Rainer and Michael Snow.
Dixon became a nationally recognized media-arts expert. Meanwhile, all the visits, screenings, seminars and shoots stimulated local artists. Haller will screen a sample of their work from his personal collection, in the original 16 mm, when he visits Pittsburgh Filmmakers for three shows.
The April 7 program features films by the late Charleston, W.V.-born artist Jim Davis. Davis never worked in Pittsburgh, but his pioneering, typically abstract studies of light in motion ... including 1961's stunning, otherwordly "Death and Transfiguration" ... were highly influential. On April 8 and 9, Haller presents distinct programs of key locally made shorts, including adventurous work by Sheila Chamovitz, Greg Gans, Paul Glabicki, Brady Lewis and Sharon Ruppert.
By the late '70s, price jumps in film stock and the rise of video art were bringing Pittsburgh's moment in the art-cinema sun to a close. Haller had documented it all with photos and interviews.
"I was on the spot of what I thought was gonna turn out to be an historically interesting episode," says Haller, who himself left Pittsburgh in 1980 for New York's prestigious Anthology Film Archives, which he's run for all but six years since. "It turned out it was."