Wait, what? Why study Pittsburgh film?
In the 1970s and 80s, Pittsburgh was widely considered to be “a third coast” of independent and experimental filmmaking. From George Romero to Andy Warhol, Pittsburgh cultivated a unique mix of film styles-experimental, documentary, narrative and animation.
Regardless of chosen genre, all the artists based here were linked by an interest in death, loss, and decomposition. They made films with gritty subject matter, pointing to the economic devastation hitting the wider region known as the Rust Belt. Pittsburgh filmmakers were unique in that they told stories of a place transitioning, painfully, from heavy industry to a new, flexible economy based on service, health, and tech.
Traces of this trauma are ever-present in their films. And their films - though not always commercially successful or widely seen - offer us compelling representations of urban change, working class politics, and radical expansions of film form.
Besides the local talent responding to changes around them, the Steel City was also, crucially, a central node in a burgeoning network of film exhibitors and media arts centers rising up across the world.
Pittsburgh was the birthplace of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Film Section (1970-2003), a groundbreaking museum film program. It brought an endless stream of visiting artists into the city, including Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard, Carolee Schneemann, David Cronenberg, and many, many more.
The Film Section also connected filmmakers and exhibitors through a long-running mailer, called The Film and Videomakers Travel Sheet (1973-1987), and the Directory, both of which were the first ever attempt to connect filmmakers with institutions to exhibit, sell, and collect their work. By the time it terminated, the Travel Sheet had over 2,000 subscribers and reached 47 U.S. states and 21 countries across the world. Today, artists like Schneemann frequently remark that the loss of the Travel Sheet forever altered the film community.
The art museum worked in tandem with another institution, the Pittsburgh Filmmakers Inc. (PFMI), a media arts center (1971-present). PFMI went from an artist-run equipment center to one of the largest schools of filmmaking and photography in the U.S. The PFMI supported filmmakers through innovative classes, workshops with visiting artists, film and performance art festivals, and the National Preview Network, a service which bicycled packages of 4-5 hours of film throughout 13 cities across the US; kind of a “Netflix” for the avant-garde before the age of the Internet. PFMI has evolved through several iterations, but it remains the main platform for emerging filmmakers, whether they want to enter the commercial industry or move into the art-world.
Unfortunately, few know this history, not even residents! This website recovers the lost stories of the filmmakers and film institutions that made this “Golden Age” possible.
Across these pages you will find a wide range of materials:
Audio interviews, digital tools, maps, films, images, and documentation of numerous film-related events. Plus you will find samplings of scholarly work I’ve written and presented on this period.
The site is solely for noncommercial and educational use, a laboratory for ideas intended to morph and change over time.
(FYI - Besides working on Pittsburgh film history, I also have done work on other arts organizations, such as: Outlines Gallery, the Society for Contemporary Craft, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, the Andy Warhol Museum, and the Carnegie Museum of Art. You’ll see non-film bits here and there, too.)
Contact me with questions, or to discuss work in this area, or if you just have a story to share. I can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks, and have a look around!