Bright Lights Film Journal

Robert Cowan (1930-2011): Unsung Superstar of the Underground

“Bob and the new people he introduced us to were very inspiring because it meant to me, by seeing them, that you can get older and still run around in a world of uncharted horizons.” – George Kuchar

The New York underground film scene of the ’60s was a milieu populated by flamboyant cross-dressers, loony beatniks, and angel-haired hipsters. With Warhol at the helm, this movement caught the attention of the media in a big way, and not surprisingly a personality cult evolved. But those who were not diligent self-promoters or did not travel in the innermost circles of the cool world were often overlooked. Robert (Bob) Cowan, despite being very much in “the scene” and submitting some of the most offbeat performances of the era, is one of the unjustly overlooked. As an actor, a filmmaker, a columnist, and even a projectionist, he contributed much to this pioneering movement and encountered and collaborated with some of the most colorful figures of the era, including Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, Nam June Paik, and the brothers Kuchar.

The Early Years

Robert Cowan was born (and adopted) in Toronto in 1930. During his youth he attended a private boarding school (Upper Canada College-UCC) and later enrolled at the Ontario College of Art (OCA) as a painter. After graduation he spent a year studying in Paris and then returned to Toronto. An artist pal by the name of Bill Ronald had just moved to New York City and established himself at the Kootz Gallery, and he convinced Bob that as an artist that was where he should be. And so in the ’50s Bob moved to New York. Fellow Canadian Mike Snow, who would become renowned for his experimental film Wavelength, and who had also attended UCC and OCA, joined him a year later with his wife, Joyce Wieland, who would also make films. The three of them lived and hung out together in the bohemian enclaves of Greenwich Village. The New York underground film scene, officially dubbed The New American Cinema, was only just taking shape.

After his arrival, Bob studied painting with the German-born abstract painter Hans Hoffman (1880-1966). His early years in the City were devoted to that medium, but gradually he became more interested in film. Bill Ronald introduced him to Maya Deren, whose films he had seen in Toronto, but now he was able to attend some of her New York lectures and found them most inspiring. He saw as many movies as he could, among them Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet and Hans Richter’s Dreams Money Can Buy and later 8 X 8. In a small theater that he frequented in The Village he discovered the works of Stan Brakhage. And every once in a while a psychiatrist friend of Michael Snow’s hosted film screenings in his Manhattan apartment. (Years later the same psychiatrist would help two other budding filmmakers — Mike and George Kuchar — avoid being drafted and shipped to Vietnam.)

Bob’s own initial foray into motion-picture making was done with the aid of a cheap 8mm camera he’d liberated from a pawnshop, and most of the editing was done in camera. As he recalled in our interview, “post editing was accomplished by holding lengths of footage up to a bare 60-watt bulb, squinting and cutting with a pair of scissors. The 8mm stock was mostly outdated b/w with lots of faded grays and whirling dots to keep your eyes busy.”

This nameless early effort suffered an unknown fate and is today not in distribution from either the Canadian Filmmakers Cooperative (CFC) or the New York Filmmakers Cooperative (NYFC) where Cowan’s prints are archived. The Child, a 16mm short from 1962 that was praised by Jonas Mekas as “one of the most beautiful poems on childhood . . . a must-see” is his earliest work still in distribution from those sources. Over the course of the next twenty-four years Cowan made over twenty-two 16mm sub-feature-length films, but his best-remembered efforts took place in front of the camera.

He acted for various filmmakers, Bob Fleischner and Ken Jacobs among them. “I performed in Ken Jacob’s The Sky Socialist,” he recalled, “as a specific character type he needed.” (In his description of the film in the NYFC catalog, Jacobs describes “Maurice” — Cowan’s character — as “the dragging force of despair, ever reminding Isadore of rotten history and the fragility of things.”) He also provided music and built models on other productions and worked behind the camera. But today he is best known for his performances in the films of the aforementioned Kuchar brothers, twins from the Bronx who had been making movies since 1953.

Unnatural Natural Talent

Their earliest films were cast with friends and neighbors who lived nearby, but eventually they found their very own “superstar,” a well-endowed Brooklyn girl by the name of Donna Kerness who had graduated with them from high school. She attended dance classes taught by Alwin Nikolais, and Mike and George monitored a couple of sessions. “They were very science-fictiony,” George recalls, “what with the amoebae costuming and the electronic music score. We loved it.” As well as a dancer she was a poet and a model (she would pose for George Segal’s “Sleeping Girl”). Through other channels she had come to know Bob, who was infatuated with her and for whom she posed for still photos. One day she took George and Mike over to meet him.

“He had a very interesting face,” remembers George, “with a sharp prominent nose, black stringy hair and an aristocratic manner. He had a very bizarre apartment in The Village that was paneled in dark wood and decorated with unpretty art that was mysterious and pagan in intensity. . . . He was ten years older than us. It was strange and quite inspiring to meet grown-up people [Bob, Mike & Joyce — ed.] who were still as crazy as wild kids. They thought about things in an original manner and accepted us as equals. Bob and the new people he introduced us to were very inspiring because it meant to me, by seeing them, that you can get older and still run around in a world of uncharted horizons. They were free with their relationships and ideas . . .”

Bob and Donna began acting together in their films, infusing works such as Born of the Wind with a new dramatic intensity. Shot in 1961 (or 1962 or 1964 — all three dates are listed in reliable sources), this was the most ambitious of the early 8mm productions the brothers made and boasts amazing production values, stagings and special effects for such a tiny format. With its epic-historic theme of an ancient Egyptian mummy princess brought back to life and voluptuous costuming, it was very much a stylistic predecessor to Mike’s most famous work, Sins of the Fleshapoids, whichwas shot in 1965 when he upgraded to 16mm. Sins transpires a million years in the future, after “the Great War” has depopulated the earth. Those few humans who have survived have grown lazy and decadent, leaving all the work to be done by a race of enslaved robots, the “fleshapoids.” With great silent-movie-style expressiveness, Bob plays the lead robot who rebels against his evil human master, Prince Gianbeano (played by George). He attempts to seduce a human woman who rejects him and whom he then kills. Soon he is able to consummate his passion with a female robot — by touching fingers while sparks fly. Thus the “fleshapoids” join their human masters in sin. With its spirited twist on science fiction conventions, its comic book sensibility, and the joyfully amateur style of its acting, it captured the spirit of the day and was hailed by Jonas Mekas as being superior to — and more original than — Roger Vadim’s big-budget film Barbarella. Sins became the celluloid embodiment of the then emerging Camp aesthetic, and as an influential milestone of ’60s underground cinema it ranks high, alongside Scorpio Rising, The Chelsea Girls, and a handful of other works.

But perhaps Bob’s most interesting performance was his dual role in The Craven Sluck, directed by Mike Kuchar in 1967. This film concerns itself with the sordid domestic routines of a typical Bronx married couple, Adel and her goofy salaryman husband, Brunswick, played by Bob. Adel (Floraine Connors) seeks escape in the arms of a secret lover, Morton (George). To complicate matters, Morton is married, to a rotund, pill-popping frump called Florence, played by Bob in a cheap wig (which at one point falls into the toilet). Yet all these complications of the flesh are suddenly rendered inconsequential by a squadron of attacking UFOs that vaporize the leading lady and bring the plot to an unexpected and gloriously implausible halt. The skillful use of music in the Hollywood tradition makes the story come alive and seem surprisingly almost believable. For many years Mike shied away from showing this film as its loose, casual vibe and down-market look — it was in b/w — grated against his perfectionist sensibilities, but the enthusiasm with which audiences greeted the picture on his 1996 tour of the UK prompted a reevaluation. It is precisely this nonchalant approach that brings this cheap stew of sci-fi and domestic melodrama to life, and today it is one of his more frequently screened films.

Color Me Shameless, from 1967, is really in almost every sense George’s odd film out. The thirty-minute running time is unusually long for him at this point in his career, and the fact it was in b/w and the somber tone — a total rejection of the “camp” label that was being applied to his work — is also atypical. Unlike diarist films like Hold Me while I’m Naked, he himself never appears in it. Rather it is Bob who stars, playing the role of a lonely, dysfunctional artist that we can assume hits rather close to home. He vainly searches for companionship but is unable to connect with women or interpret their intentions, and the structure is more conventionally narrative. Increasingly given to bouts of voyeurism, he stumbles and crashes through the world of friends and acquaintances and parties with the oafish, overbearing gait of a silent-era comedian. But despite playful distractions such as the collage of pop music on the soundtrack and some physical horseplay, this is no comedy. He is out of place in this world, and the closing scene where he attacks his own painting with a knife seems like a genuine meltdown. This is a study of self-loathing and despair produced by the repression of desires that springs from an inability to connect, and in true underground fashion it is not a scripted fiction but an accurate reflection of where the main participants were at, psychologically speaking. As George writes, “This movie was made when I was a bit depressed . . . but Bob also happened to be depressed so we had a wonderful time working together.” (Note: During a party scene Bob clowns with the charismatic Warhol starlet, Edie Sedgwick.)

Bob made his own film that same year, the dire Soul Freeze. A priest is torn by the temptations of the flesh and driven to acts of self-loathing by repressed desire . Familiar territory. It has much in common with Color Me Shameless, and many of the same people worked on both films (Donna, Hope, Mike and George, etc.). There are also stylistic as well as tonal similarities; it was b/w and more inclined in a narrative direction than was the norm for Bob. But not narrative in an orthodox sense: like most underground films of the period, it was made non-sync, meaning that the soundtrack was recorded separately from the images. This compelled filmmakers to rely more on symbolism and associative montage, and films tended by necessity to be more abstract in their mode of expression. This was a hallmark of “underground cinema.” (About the only way to impose a narrative structure on a film in these circumstances was with — as per Sins of the Fleshapoids and The Craven Sluck — voice-over narration, which was inherently more “camp” and would have been ill suited to what Bob and George were attempting to achieve with these two specific films.) Soul Freeze also at times employs techniques that harken back to silent cinema, particularly the use of florid hand gestures and facial expressions, somewhat in the style of Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, although less artfully executed. The “old fashioned” feeling is further enhanced by the plentiful use of old pen-and-ink drawings of scenes of sex and violence. . . . And there is again a party scene. To make an underground film at this point was clearly also a social experience, even if the film itself was intended to express an antisocial psychology. It was all about using all your friends and acquaintances as actors, getting good-looking girlfriends to undress (a true act of bohemian daring in 1967) . . . getting people over for a party, and shooting and editing intuitively rather than according to the conventions of narrative. The film ends with a rapid-fire montage evoking all that (in the priest’s mind) is both alluring and grotesque about the nature of flesh. At one point a grotesque and ludicrous hobo-type figure rolls in the grass attempting to rape a girl. It’s only a brief sequence, and the figure is unrecognizable, but it appears to be Bob and would be true to form in terms of how he saw at least one side of himself. If so, this constitutes his only appearance in the film.

With the nine-minute Rockflow from 1968, Bob seemed to be cheering up. Hell — the ’60s could be fun! Especially when one was ground-zero at a psychedelic dance party at The Electric Circus in the East Village, surrounded by beautiful women and shooting in voluptuous color stock. The whole thing was arranged to launch the opening of a mod boutique, and the Chambers Brothers rock band played live. Mod fashions are on display as folks pack the dance floor, including Donna Kerness (in trademark antenna headgear) and Hopeton Morris, who as usual designed all the outfits. But what appears to be a straightforward if experimental fashion/dance/rock document changes mid-point into a psychedelic nightmare as eerie music creates an ominous mood, the images growing more hallucinatory and the editing more rapid-fire. Donna now reappears in a solitary setting in close-up, swinging giant earrings and staring at the camera as if she’s casting a spell. The effect is sinister and trance-like as special effects bombard the screen.

These are but some of the films Bob figured in as both actor and filmmaker.

Although to this writer’s knowledge no one ever called him a underground “superstar”, he really was one, if only on the strength of the pioneering Born of the Wind, the much-praised Sins of the Fleshapoids and the much overlooked The Craven Sluck. Soul Freeze and Color Me Shameless remain unfortunately totally obscure today. Bob was a non-actor who rose to the occasion and created something on the screen that was uncanny and timeless and yet very much embedded in the times. Warhol had Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Malanga; the Kuchar brothers had Donna Kerness and Bob Cowan, with Bob perhaps the most unnatural natural talent of all. Amid all the formalist experiments, beatnik debauches (Jack Smith, Taylor Mead, et al.), and glacial Warholian studies in static cinematography that dominated underground cinema of the period, the films of the Kuchar brothers were unique, alive, and intensely dedicated to capturing something of the magic of Hollywood movies. They were for the most part narrative dramas that spewed wit, imagination, and emotional pyrotechnics. Things happened. And Bob Cowan was an essential ingredient in that. His own films remain unjustly neglected, perhaps because they are stylistically such a mixed bag and never became parts of a greater whole the way George’s work did.

Interfaces with Other Stars of the ’60s Underground

None of his film work provided Bob with much of a living, and he was compelled to toil as a projectionist and light man to pay the rent. He worked various stints here and there, but his main gig was at the Cinematheque, the screening space for the NY Filmmakers Co-op. It changed locations at regular intervals, and Bob projected at all of them over the course of most of its existence. The ’60s were a very repressive time, and the Cinematheque’s open booking policy resulted in numerous clashes with the police and various types of other scandals. He recounted the following incidents in the interview.

Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman

(transcripted from interview)

“In reference to your questions concerning the arrests and censorship problems that plagued the early years of the Cinematheque, I will relate two examples of this silliness.

First, while working for Jonas Mekas as projectionist in the Wurlitzer building, located near 42nd and Broadway (filmmaker Tom Chomont was the manager at the time), we were warned that some police types would be arriving to confiscate our projectors because of some supposedly naughty stuff we were showing. When we got word that they might be on their way, we grabbed the projectors and escaped with them to the safety of Gregory Markopoulos’s apartment .

Another time, Nam June Paik and cellist Charlotte Moorman presented a mixed-media performance on stage in the same theatre, and I, as usual, was tucked away inside the projection booth performing my duties. Before Paik and Charlotte began their performance, Paik came out on stage and with arms outstretched welcomed two conservatively dressed men standing at the back of the auditorium. They seemed to be the only people in the audience wearing suits, so they were easily recognizable as the blessed fuzz. Paik carefully explained to them that this was a clean show, would not be offensive in any way, and he hoped they would enjoy it. Laughter from the audience. The two plainclothes cops stood firm with the obvious intention of performing their duty.

Charlotte Moorman was an excellent cellist, but she did something that other excellent cellists did not normally do. She often performed topless. As I dimmed the theatre lights from my perch in the booth, Charlotte began to play sans top while Paik prepared to contribute his segment of the duo. The two suits at the back of the theatre came forward to arrest them. The audience arose from their seats and ran on stage surrounding the two performers, forming a solid wall that nobody could get through. I turned off all the lights, and after a brief pause turned them on again before plunging the theatre back into darkness once more. Under the cover of darkness Charlotte and her cello and Paik hopefully had escaped out the back of the theatre to freedom. The two suits had disappeared and everybody went home. I discovered later that both Paik and Charlotte had been arrested, and following the arrest she lost her job with the American Symphony Orchestra. Paik was quoted as saying that ‘Charlotte’s renowned breasts symbolized the agony and achievement of the avant-garde for the past ten years.'”

Jack Smith

“I had contact with Jack Smith quite a few times, and always attended his unpredictable screenings. He would arrive at the theatre shortly before the show was to begin with his arms loaded with unattached lengths of exotic footage. The problem was that many of his splices had come apart and he was still editing up until the last minute. He would be in a complete frantic tizzy trying to get it all together for projection. It was his pleading request to me that could I ‘fix the splices so that the film would run through the projector’ that kept me very busy. I would splice away while a very patient audience sat and waited. This scenario happened several times so that it was almost expected. I recall another time when he presented some footage accompanied by a hilarious soap opera recording which created a very surreal combination. He was happily stoned, and due to his generosity so was Howard Guttenplan (the director of Millenium) and myself . . . we had a grand giggly time up on the projection stand, although I don’t recall any particular reaction from the audience.”

Harry Smith

“The other Smith, Harry Smith, was another matter. His animated films were marvelous, complex and pure magic. I projected them many times and each time found them amazing. The man himself seemed on the road to self-destruct.”

Andy Warhol and the Untidy Birth of The Chelsea Girls

Bob was not a member of the Warhol entourage but was something of a “fellow traveler” and appears in a Warhol “family portrait” taken at The Factory and published under the headline “The strange world of Andy Warhol,” in the June 5th, 1968 edition of The Daily News. (It’s a hack piece that ran two days after Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas and claims Warhol was a has-been who made his life into an art form “built on the morality of the four-lettered word.” Interesting to realize how much hatred there was for Warhol in the straight world.) In any case, Bob was tall and they put him in the furthest back row. Among the assembled are Viva, Paul Morrissey, Ultra Violet, and Jack Smith. Donna Kerness is also there as “girl with antenna . . . a Cowan underground star.” . . . Donna, antenna in place and with large balloon in mouth, had also been pictured with Warhol in the April issue of Life magazine, along one of his discoveries, “Penelope,” and two unidentified scenesters.

For many years Bob contributed a column on underground cinema to the mainstream Canadian film magazine Take One, and we hereby print the following (undated) piece with his permission, the story of how The Chelsea Girls came to be.

My Life and Times with The Chelsea Girls

The Chelsea Girls by Andy Warhol went through many changes before it became frozen in its present form. The version which started it off was the one with which I was associated back in the good old days as projectionist at the Cinematheque in the bowels of the Wurlitzer building on 42nd street. When Warhol brought it in to be screened, the first show was more in the nature of a run-through. Hopeless reels were discarded; the order of showing each reel was experimented with. The whole thing was shown double-screen, with two projectors alternating back and forth. The following show it became altered some more. Some of the Marie Menken material was discarded because of impossible sound. In fact, a lot of the sound was incredibly bad. After much initial fussing around, Warhol and crew left the theatre and wished me luck. They left behind a vague sort of plan for me to follow, but that was all. During the entire run of the film I never saw them again.

The final order for showing the various reels was a compromise between what they had suggested, and what I knew would work best technically. A switch box had been rigged up between the two projectors that could cut the sound off of one projector while turning it up on the other — or play both of them at the same time together. As I projected the film over and over, I gradually got to know the dialogue by heart, as well as knowing at what point it became unintelligible. I would fade dialogue in and out on both projectors, depending on which visual of the double image had the most interesting pieces of dialogue. Sometimes both tracks were played together with one track dominating the other, producing some rather startling results. The actor on the left hand screen would seem to be speaking to another on the right hand screen and visa-versa. I never ran it the same way twice if I could help it. Every show was a new challenge to see what new combinations I could produce. Volume levels and tone levels were altered as well. If one reel went ahead too fast (both images were supposed to be kept on the screen at all times) I would slow down one reel to 16 frames per second until the other reel caught up. When it came to the color section, I placed a wide-angle lens over one projector, sometimes switching it to the other projector in mid-reel and threw the alternate projector’s “normal” image over it. The effect was like a large Cinemascope image with another smaller image playing inside of it. I also used a zoom lens to shrink and expand the interior image. When the spirit moved me, I added a piece of distorted glass and waved bits of cardboard in front of the projector in rapid motion so that part of the color image seemed to vibrate and flicker while the rest of the total image remained still. Both tracks were played together during this section, since the sound was almost unintelligible on both so it didn’t make much difference. Occasional phrases that came through clearly were singled out and amplified.

At various times preceding and following the color section, I would fade various color gels in and out on the black and white sections of the film. A few times I used a multi-faceted lens which caused one of the images to multiply itself several times over. By using a small hand mirror I was able to beam part of the image off the walls and ceiling. The image would appear to drift slowly off the screen and on to the walls. The last couple of reels of the film had the best sound, so I played it straight.

I had a very entertaining few days with The Chelsea Girls — also probably the busiest few days I ever experienced as a projectionist. Later on, I saw a version at the Elgin Cinema which was pedestrian to say the least. The sound was a garbled mess, the image grey-brown and lifeless. There were maybe three or four old men in the audience. It was all very depressing. I was there applying for a job as a projectionist, but the whole set-up was so miserable I walked out on it. As for what it looks like now, at Anthology Film Archives where it is shown in a regular cycle about once a month, I have no idea. I presume it is shown in double screen with all tracks on. I don’t know if it is the same length as the version I projected. [Today in fact you can get the film on DVD, double screen and all — hideously formatted and surely a travesty for a film that was all about making film projection a live and interactive experience. I’m waiting for the moment when people start watching it on their cell phones. –ed.]

Modern-Day Bob

Bob’s collaborations with Mike and George continued well into the ’70s (they both act in his film The Shadow Glass from 1978), and he also served on the board of directors at the New York Filmmakers Co-op and worked at the Millennium Film Workshop from 1984 to 1986. He returned to Toronto in the late ’80s, after thirty-four years in the U.S. Following that, he served on the board of the Canadian Filmmakers Co-op, but due to the politics at play found it an unpleasant experience. Painting now once again became his main pursuit, not least because of skyrocketing film costs. “Film is now cost-prohibitive: the beautiful affordable film stocks of yester-year (Kodachrome 2 and Commercial Ektachrome) are no more. Lab costs, stock costs are out of sight and out of mind. I am still struggling with a film I began ten years ago. The last film that I actually completed, an animated film using my scratchboard work, called Night Streamers, was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1987.”

Back when I conducted this written interview with him in 2000, Bob had an agent who got him bit parts in films being shot in Toronto, but he never forgot his roots. “It’s after midnight now,” he writes at one point in the raft of papers he mailed me, “and I just came home from a movie job working as an extra in a scene with Olympia Dukakis. I had hoped I could ask her about her brief appearance in Gregory Markopoulos’s Twice a Man. I didn’t get a chance . . .”

On June 21, 2011 Bob Cowan passed away at his home in Toronto, attended by his wife, Jane.

Two days later in Berkeley, California, the Pacific Film Archives honored George and Mike with a tribute to their early 8mm work (part of a retrospective spanning 15 days), and for the first time this writer was able to see Born of the Wind on the big screen in a blow-up to 16mm, and to once again marvel at the expressive genius of one Mr. Bob Cowan. George, himself battling cancer, dedicated the show to his old friend . . . a man who never received the accolades he deserved, but whose films and performances still haunt the archives and film banks, waiting to be discovered.