Louis Agassiz Fuertes (not related to Louis Agassiz)
One day last fall I came across a flurry of confetti, brass bands, sweets and elderly Italians – it was the feast of Saint Cosmas and Damian.
Born in Cilicia (now known as Arabia) in the third century, Cosmas and Damian were the first children born in a family of seven boys. The twins studied medicine and are credited for being the first to attempt a limb transplant on a human being. They devoted themselves to the rich and poor alike, accepting no payment for their medical services, thus earning their title, “The Silver-less Ones”. These miraculous patrons of medicine were accused of being Christians by two fellow doctors and arrested by Lisia, the governor of the city of Aega. They were tried in a court of Ceasar’s and sentenced to death by torture.
The Saint Cosmas and Damien Society of Somerville-Cambridge MA (my former neighbors) organizes an annual celebration honoring the twins. In 1988, at the request of the Smithsonian Institution, members of the Society traveled to Washington DC to re-enact their feast. It looks like a fun and strange event – a folk celebration from Italy displaced to New England, then relocated to the Washington Mall as a living exhibit. A really nice video of the event is here.
I’ve linked here before to Salamanders: A Night at the Phi Delt House, a 1982 short documentary about a fraternity party that revolves around the act of 1. eating salamanders (as in the amphibious lizardy animals) 2. washing them down with beer, and 3. flirting heavily.
I like this movie and I wanted to find out more about how it came to be with us today, so I got in touch with George Hornbein, one of the filmmakers. Here’s what I learned from our phone conversation (a transcription, edited by me). You can watch Salamanders here.
Me: Can you tell me more about how you made this film?
George: I, Tom Keiter and Marie Hornbein had a small movie studio in State College, PA – we were out in central PA, not in New York or Philadelphia so we had to have all our own equipment. Tom Keiter was a former student of mine and Marie Hornbein is my former wife. The studio was also a sound studio and we would also record vanity records. We made money by doing industrial films and promotional films for universities, and when we had enough money we would go out and make our own films. We made documentaries about a hunting camp, gogo dancers, a grange fair, rattlesnakes. I made a living from filmmaking for about 20 years. One person would operate the camera, one would produce and one would record sound. It was a small team with minimal setup and minimal lighting.
Me: How did you get into filmmaking in the first place?
George: I went out to State College to teach architecture. I had previously had an architecture job in Philly and I would go out with my super 8 camera at lunchtime and shoot street films. As a professor at Penn State, I would hang out with the university filmmaking group.
Tom was one of my students – I was on the faculty at age 24-25 so I felt much closer to the students than the administration. The first film that Tom and I made together was a promotional film for Penn State; the university wouldn’t show it. It was during the Vietnam War and there were student protests; the university was shut down and they ran the president off the campus. We interviewed all these kids for this promotional film – we were very naive and we thought the university wanted to actually tell the story of the students. The university didn’t like what the kids were saying in the film. They asked us to redo it, interviewing only the student leaders, but those kids were more articulate, and much more radical!
When my teaching appointment was up I opened the filmmaking studio.
Me: So, how did Salamanders come about?
We were really into what we called exploratory documentaries, finding something that intrigued us then going to find out about it by filming without doing research; we weren’t into making social change documentaries. We heard about what the kids were doing at the fraternity house and thought it would make an interesting documentary.
We got the money to film it from the local beer distributor - in PA at that time you couldn’t buy any more than a 6 pack in a grocery store, so you had to get beer from the distributor - who was also our neighbor and the landlord for our studio. The film cost under $20,000, more like $10,000. He invested the money for the film but then after we made it Ripley’s Believe it Or Not bought the broadcast rights and we were able to pay him back with interest.
The shooting ratio was really low. The main thing we were worried about was this crazy group of animal rights people, who didn’t want people to even mow their lawns in case they’d kill animals – they were making a fuss all the time and they didn’t want the fraternity hurting the salamanders. Finally the fraternity brothers settled it with them by promising to kill the salamanders in beer. The CO2 in the beer would supposedly kill the salamanders humanely before they got eaten.
Me: How was the film received?
George: It did really well in festivals – it was at Cinema du Reel, the Margaret Mead Festival, the Athens Film Festival. Ripley’s Believe it or Not gave us more than enough money for broadcast rights. We marketed it mainly to colleges. We were always curious as to how colleges were using it using it. I remember one college was using it in a women’s studies program – the women in the class said “this shows anything guys can do girls can do” (this is when the women’s movement was kind of fresh), which was a surprise to me because there are a lot of sexual…not even undertones in the film.
I was at a party one night, there was this anthropologist there and she found out that I made the film. She told me that she shows it to her class along with classic anthropological documentaries, because her students were grossed out by the rituals of the “primitive” people shown in the films. She wanted to show “Salamanders” because it portrays kids like the ones in her class engaging in a pretty gross ritual of their own.
It’s a pretty pure example of the exploratory genre. It’s not about furthering a social agenda. The approach we took to these films was letting it happen and recording it the best we could.
In August I was in Birmingham, Alabama for this year’s Sidewalk Film Festival. It turns out Birmingham is full of gems (as well as really nice people); this depression-era mural featuring storybook characters is one. It was painted by Ezra Winter and it’s in the Linn-Henley Research Library in downtown Birmingham.