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Echoes of Silence: New American Cinema’s Take On Life in Greenwich Village

In 1965, Village Voice writer Jonas Mekas — founder of the Anthology Film Archive, Village Awardee, and subject of a Village Preservation oral history — wrote: “It is not very often a new film-maker with so much promise comes on to the scene. There are several things that are good about Goldman. First, the mastery and feeling that he managed to put into his first work. Second, the freshness he is bringing into the weakest part of the New American Cinema, the story cinema.” Mekas was writing about Peter Emmanuel Goldman’s rarely screened debut film, Echoes of Silence, filmed in 1964 and released on February 9, 1965, which chronicles the lives of twenty-somethings adrift in Greenwich Village. 

This is the opening image of the film, a photo of Goldman’s Greenwich Village building. The image is followed by a title card which says:

This photo is of a house in a quiet section of New York’s Greenwich Village. I lived in the apartment on the third floor. The second floor apartment was occupied by Stasia. When she left, Miguel became the tenant. They never met each other though they haunted the same cafes and had some of the same friends. Viraj lived where he could. Occasionally he visited Stasia. Sometimes I would accompany them with my camera. That’s how this film came into being.

And so the film captures this spirit of a true home project, the project of making art with friends, a tradition long held in the artistic, meandering circles of early 1960s Greenwich Village. Goldman followed his friends around the Village to cafes, parks, and late-night hamburger joints, full of a kind of neon that’s become rarer in our neighborhoods. The film is quiet, mundane, but meaningful.

Observing folks in their daily lives at Washington Square Park

Peter Emmanuel Goldman was born in 1939 in New York City, but little is known of his early life. According to Philippe Azoury of Play-Doc, an international film festival, Goldman graduated from Brown University, then moved to Paris in 1960 to study History at the Sorbonne. In 1961, he enrolled in Berkeley but spent most of his time in a boxing gym. Then he joined a vessel that took him to Venezuela. Upon his return, his father gave him an 8 mm camera. In 1962, he went back to Paris and wrote about art in the Paris Herald Tribune. In late 1962, back in New York, he shared a flat in Greenwich Village. He bought a Bolex 16 mm camera with a winding crank and started shooting. This is how Echoes of Silence was born.

From Greenwich Village, Goldman wanders all over New York City, from the high-brow Metropolitan Museum of Art to the strip clubs of Times Square. “Composed with a lo-fi purity and bereft of diegetic sound, its shadowy images of youthful flaneurs are paired with evocatively hand-painted title cards and a dynamic soundtrack drawn from the artist’s LPs that, when combined, conjure up a ballad of dependency like none other,” says IMDB.

These late-night celebrants are watching themselves being filmed at an unnamed music venue, listening to someone play the acoustic guitar. It could be at any number of spots in the Village for live music at the time.

Goldman’s film takes place behind the backdrop of music only, and so relies on the movements, moments, and gestures between the film’s protagonists and strangers. The images — many moving, but some static — capture New York scenes of the 1960s that are “indelible and hauntingly moving. They range from pickups at art museums or Greenwich Village coffee houses to pre-Stonewall gay encounters,” according to MoMA film Curator Charles Silver

Now that’s a great happy hour deal!

“Echoes of Silence,” was awarded the Special Director‘s Prize at the Pesaro, Italy, film festival in 1966, which is especially significant because the film was banned in both France and Italy, presumably for its sexual content. It also played to critical acclaim at leading film festivals, including New York, Venice, Cannes, and London. It was called by critic Henri Chapier “the most poignant film ever made about the profound despair of the young.” Film critic H.L. Linder wrote: “We are in the presence of a filmmaker who makes films that are without precedent today.” 

Peter Goldman is the most exciting new filmmaker in recent years. Echoes of Silence, his first film, is a stunning piece of work.

Susan Sontag
People-watching on a West Village subway platform — a timeless story

I really enjoyed reading Roger Ebert’s three-star 1967 review of the film, which you can read below, followed by the film itself. Enjoy! 

“Echoes of Silence” is hardly a movie at all, in the way we ordinarily use the word, and yet it is a sincere and rather effective film. Its flaws are honest ones, made for the right reasons, and there is not a false moment in it.

Like much of the other work coming out of Jonas Mekas’ Filmmaker’s Cooperative, it has a structure but no plot, and this is particularly infuriating to a generation raised on mass-produced potboilers. The evening I saw it, several couples walked out. Serves them right for believing those ads about “life and love in our mod world.” Peter Emanuel Goldman’s characters live as far away as possible from the “mod world,” probably through choice. The landscape they inhabit in this film is bounded by those two very different streets of garish despair, Macdougal St. in Greenwich Village and 42nd St. in Times Square.

What they seem to do, most of the time, is cruise around looking for someone to fall in love with. This is what most young people do, in one way or another, but Goldman’s characters do it with a helpless and naive intensity. They are almost always unsuccessful of course.

The film consists of a dozen or so short episodes from the lives of several young men and women, beatniks or hippies or whatever you want to call them who live in the Village. It is without dialog, but the classical, blues, and folk music on the soundtrack has been chosen with care and usually underlines the mood.

…In another episode two young women come into a Village bar, order beer, smoke cigarettes, listen to bluegrass music and then leave. That’s all. Nothing “happens,” but in some undefinable way a feeling is created.

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