Dec 20, 2012

About PARABLE: Watch Mark Quigley's interview with Rolf Forsberg.

Guest blogger Mark Quigley is Manager of the UCLA Film & Television Archive's Archival Research and Study Center, who modestly describes himself as an "access archivist." As an adjunct faculty member, he teaches in UCLA's Moving Image Archive Studies master's program.  

Born in 1925, Rolf Forsberg began his career in the arts as a playwright and director in the Chicago theatre scene. (He was married to Second City improv master, Josephine Forsberg from 1945 to 1965). As a filmmaker, Rolf has written and directed dozens of productions, most notably, a number of innovative sponsored religious films, including Antkeeper (1966) and Stalked (1969; featured by archivist Skip Elsheimer on his “A/V Geeks Educational Archive Religion" DVD).  Rolf also co-directed the 1979 feature documentary, The Late Great Planet Earth, narrated by Orson Welles. Rolf is still working today, writing documentaries about the U.S. National Parks.

Parable (1964) made Rolf’s career as a writer/producer/director of sponsored films. Commissioned by the New York City Protestant Council of Churches for their 1964 World's Fair pavilion, the short film with a European art house feel was controversial, daring to use allegory in depicting “Christ as a clown.” Despite threats of violence and protests from numerous factions -- including objections from Robert Moses, president of the New York World’s Fair -- audiences embraced the strange, powerful short, with Newsweek calling Parable “very probably the best film of the fair.” Parable remained controversial, making local headlines in 1971 for its temporary removal from the Los Angeles Library system for promoting, “anti-establishment type things.” The film ultimately became a best seller in the religious 16mm market, successfully meeting the church’s aim of reaching secular audiences, and paving the way for Rolf’s hire on many subsequent film experiments to be funded by church organizations.

Watch Rolf Forsberg talk about Parable. (5:53)

Orphan films beget Orphan films.

In 2003, the UCLA Film & Television Archive acquired nearly the entire run of the ambitious religious TV anthology series, Insight (1960-1983), which also enjoyed distribution on 16mm to classrooms and churches. In 2006, I received a call from writer Paul Cullum, who was looking for a disturbing religious film (a dystopian take on government food assistance) that he had seen as a teen in Sunday school.  We both thought it was likely an Insight episode, but after much research it turned out to be a 1971 Lutheran short titled, And Then They Forgot God, made for the production company, Family Films. Our search for that obscure film is chronicled in the Dan Streible-edited Orphan Film issue of The Moving Image, vol. 9, no. 1, (Spring 2009).

Through that deep research, we came upon a fortuitous red herring -- recurring references to “Rolf Forsberg” as a “maker of odd religious films.” After tracking Rolf first in Chicago, and my later meeting with him in California, the UCLA Film & Television Archive became home to a number of Rolf's personal prints of his films. Our continued interest in Rolf's complex body of work, which is simultaneously surprisingly secular, expressionistic, and independent, has led to an extended dialog with the kind filmmaker, including a few rounds of an informal oral history (on digital video as well as good ol' audio cassette) and an even greater number of extremely enjoyable Sunday get-togethers for sharp reminiscences of a golden career. 

Thanks to Dan Streible and the Orphan Film Project for creating and nurturing a dynamic forum where talents such as Rolf Forsberg are embraced for rediscovery and reaffirmation.  Earlier this year, the "Orphans 8" symposium at Museum of the Moving Image featured a brief overview of Rolf's sponsored films, including a screening his provocative classic, One Friday (1973), which imagines an all-out race war. From that Orphans exposure came a BAMcinématek screening of Rolf's prescient ecological film Ark (1970), which played before Douglas Trumbull's partially Ark-inspired Silent Running (1972).

This momentum, of course, has now culminated with the Librarian of Congress naming Rolf's Parable to the 2012 National Film Registry.

-- Mark Quigley

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Primary documents, from the Times of New York (1964) and Los Angeles (1971).

Sharyn Elise Jackson's 2004 NYU honors thesis "International Participation in the New York World's Fair 1964-1965," mentions Parable. 

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A:  Parable is available from EcuFilm (United Methodist Communications) for $44.95., (888) 346-3862's record for Parable documents libraries holding it in 16mm, VHS, and DVD versions. Here's one library record, for the DVD. 
Parable [videorecording] / The Protestant Council of the City of New York
written by Rolf Forsberg; produced by Fred A. Niles; directed by Tom Rook, Rolf Forsberg.  Produced by the Council of Churches of the City of New York"--Back cover
Originally released as a motion picture in 1964.
--> Filmed with the cooperation of Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin.[Nashville, Tenn.] : United Methodist Communications: EcuFilm, [2005?].
(22 min.) : sd., col. ; + 1 leaders guide (11 p. ; 18 cm.)

Announcement of the video availability of Parable came in a 2004 press release. 

For some reason the record's item summary and subject listing are in French. 
Pantomime mettant en scène un clown qui prend la place des exploités dans une troupe de cirque. Bande sonore originale.
Subject: Morale pratique.
The leader's guide is available for free download at the United Methodist Communications web store. The catalog description reads: 
A timeless classic of service and self-sacrifice, Parable was the groundbreaking, award-winning film that astounded crowds at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Using only strong visual images and music, Parable continues to speak volumes to contemporary audiences about compassion, combating injustice, and selfless giving. Simple. Direct. Sure to affect any age or ethnic group and spark endless discussion. This is one film that your class will remember for years to come. Free guides are available for each title under the Free Study Guide section. Council of Churches of the City of New York.
Audience: Youth and adults
Suggested Settings: Sunday school, retreats, youth groups

The leader's guide also suggests showing the film to an audience either twice, or with "interrupted viewing" for discussion.  Another suggestion: "After a showing, you might leave the room darkened and comment: Let’s think for a moment about what we have seen...."