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Robert Flaxman Collection, 1966-1977

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Collection Identifier: C.2017-09
Repository
CFA
Extent of collection
22 reels of 16mm film totaling approximately 6415 feet.
Inclusive Dates
1966 - 1977
Bulk Dates
1966 - 1977
Abstract
The Robert Flaxman Collection consists of 16mm film prints and elements made or worked on by Chicago-based filmmaker Robert Flaxman in the 1960s and 1970s. The films include theatrical short subjects such as CLEO (1966), featuring an enterprising young shoe-shiner, and THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO RALPH WILLIAMS (1969) about the 1968 Chicago Auto Show; a segment of an unfinished feature film starring the cast of Second City ("PTA MEETING"); commercials for products like Yellow Pages phone books and new ATM banking technology; three educational films produced by Coronet Films, including the award-winning BOYHOOD OF GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER (1973); and industrial films.
Creator
Flaxman, Robert (created by)
Robert Flaxman (1942- ) was born in Chicago to Arthur and Mildred Flaxman. The family lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the south side of the city, where Arthur worked in real estate and Mildred was a homemaker.

Flaxman attended high school at Harvard School located at 47th and Ellis Avenue where he participated in varsity basketball and football and was captain of the tennis team. He graduated as class president and was a member of the National Honor Society.

In 1960 Flaxman moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he studied Art History at the University of Michigan. The objects of his studies would later serve to influence the visuals and the way he would shoot his films. His extracurricular activities included being on the central committees of campus events, appearing in “Guys and Dolls,” and playing the lead in a play that won second place in a campus competition known as “Spring Weekend.”

In his senior year (1964), Robert produced, wrote, directed, and edited his first film, That Was The World That Was, a comedy about the history of the world from Adam and Eve to the then-present day. The most spectacular scene depicted World War II on a life-sized chessboard with live actors portraying politicians and soldiers moving to the main theme from Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. The film, judged by the faculty, won first prize for the weekend known as “Michigras,” but appears to no longer be extant.

The success of That Was The World That Was encouraged Flaxman to pursue professional filmmaking. After graduating from Michigan, he moved back to Chicago to the Lincoln Park area of the city where he briefly worked odd jobs at different film studios. Then for more than a year he worked as a film editor for Coronet Instructional Films.

Based on a suggested story about a shoeshine boy by his college friend, Dan Stone, Flaxman made his first professional short film, Cleo (1966), which premiered at the second Chicago International Film Festival and subsequently (after being converted to 35mm) played along with feature films at Balaban & Katz theaters in and around Chicago.

While still at Coronet, Flaxman attended law school in the evening. He also performed as “son” Harold Seidman in the “Seidman and Son” production at Theater on the Lake in July 1966. Also in the cast was Warren Casey, who was in the process of co-writing the hit musical Grease (1971) with Jim Jacobs.

Later that year, Flaxman wrote and directed another independent short film, Who (1967), with Dan Stone and John Iltis as co-producers. He also left Coronet to work for director Herschell Gordon Lewis as the editor on The Magic Land of Mother Goose (1967) and the feature film Suburban Roulette (1968).

Flaxman left fulltime filmmaking briefly when the Chicago Public School System offered draft deferments to those willing to work as teachers during a period when there was a vast teacher shortage. His first assignment was teaching high school-aged patients at the Ridgeway Psychiatric Institute, a reform school for kids who committed low-grade crimes.

A year later, Flaxman was transferred to a school near Maxwell Street on Chicago’s West Side, where he taught special needs students. He was working there at the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968).  

Around that time, fellow filmmaker and friend Bill Schwartz bugged Flaxman to make a film about the annual Chicago Auto Show, but Flaxman wasn’t interested until he came up with the idea to cast the show as a religious event around the central figure of notorious Los Angeles auto dealer Ralph Williams. The resulting film, The Gospel According to Ralph Williams (1969) played in various festivals, including San Francisco and Chicago.

Now armed with professional film samples, Flaxman approached and worked with directors Linc Scherle (The Filmmakers) and Gordon Weisenborn. In his first films for both (The Condition of Man (1967) for Scherle and The Volkswagen Interview Film (1967) for Weisenborn), Flaxman was allowed total freedom to edit the films as he wished. He would regularly work with both men as director/cinematographer and editer while he lived in Chicago and even some time after he left.

Around 1970, Bernie Sahlins, co-founder and owner of Chicago improv company The Second City, hired Flaxman to direct a feature film based upon material created by the cast that included Harold Ramis, Brian Doyle-Murray, Jim Fisher, Joe Flaherty, David Blum, Roberta Maguire, and Judy Morgan. The film was mostly completed, but due to unknown circumstances never finished or released. Flaxman donated one segment to Chicago Film Archives, “PTA Meeting,” which features Doyle-Murray as president of the PTA struggling to contain angry parents played by other cast members seating in the Second City audience. During this project Flaxman and the Second City developed a pilot for CBS’ 60 Minutes whereby cast members would create a short segment at the end of each 60 Minutes program. “PTA Meeting” was used as a sample, but the collaboration was never picked up.

In 1971, Flaxman was hired by producer Art Springer to make a documentary film featuring the monks living on the remote peninsula of Mount Athos in northeastern Greece. The mountain is an important center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism, and only men are allowed to enter with permission from the Monastic State. No film crew had ever been allowed to shoot on Athos, but Springer, through his interpreter and friend Tony Maluhous, believed he had permission to be the first. Upon arriving on Athos and meeting the mayor of the capital city, Flaxman, Springer, and Maluhous were told there had been a misunderstanding and filming on Athos was out of the question. Some cooperative monks were filmed for a week, but eventually the filming was reported and Flaxman and associates escorted off the peninsula by the Greek military. The footage likely remains with Springer’s heirs.

In the early 1970s, Flaxman occasionally returned to working with Coronet, this time as a freelance producer/director on their larger budgeted projects. For his first film, a biography of inventor George Washington Carver as a youth, Flaxman traveled to Joplin, Missouri, near Carver’s hometown of Diamond in search of a boy who could play the role. With the help of a local sheriff, J.D. Love, Flaxman went house to house in the community until he found ten-year-old Eric Carr. The Boyhood of George Washington Carver (1973) was shown twice per day until 2014 at the George Washington Carver Monument in Diamond. Flaxman’s other projects for Coronet include Mexico, Four Views (1974), which was shot in and around Mexico City, and A Bike, A Birthday (1976), filmed in Evanston, Illinois.

In 1974, Flaxman’s friend, soundman Dan Goldman, introduced him to singer/songwriter Lynn Mamet. Goldman and Flaxman had previously worked together on many commercials, but Mamet’s song, Bringing Laughter Down, inspired them to make a film about the lonely, personal process of creativity. Intrusion (1974) became Flaxman and Goldman’s first noncommercial film together and started their company FlaxGold Productions.

FlaxGold’s next production turned out to be the feature documentary A Labor of Love (1976). In the fall of 1974, Flaxman was ordering film equipment at Jack Behrend’s rental business when he heard about a low-budget feature film being made in Chicago. As feature productions in the city were rare at that time, Flaxman was intrigued. He met with the director, Henry Charbakshi, and later learned Charbakshi’s financial backers were insisting the film include explicit sex scenes. With Charbakshi’s permission, Flaxman brought in Goldman with the idea to make a documentary about Charbakshi’s production. The new FlaxGold production was completed in the fall of 1975. It opened July 27, 1976, at the Three Penny Cinema and the Wilmette Theater and received favorable reviews from Gene Siskel (Chicago Tribune), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) and Lloyd Sachs (Variety). A Labor of Love was initially self-distributed in 1976 to the Midwest, Texas, and New Mexico. Later, a national distributor was found and the film eventually was distributed by Landmark and ran in the Landmark theater repertory film chain until the early 1990s.

The film was somewhat forgotten until 2009, when Joe Rubin, a programmer at Doc Films at the University of Chicago, found the second 35mm reel among a collection from a repertory film theater in Atlanta, Georgia. Rubin contacted Flaxman for more information and eventually set up a screening of the full film at Doc Films, with Flaxman and Goldman in attendance. Based on the enthusiastic response to the screening, Rubin coordinated a digital transfer to show in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and organized a full restoration of the film, released by Rubin’s company Vinegar Syndrome in 2013. The original film elements and new print now reside with Vinegar Syndrome, which also released the film on DVD. In 2015, AFI selected A Labor of Love to be included in the AFI Catalog of Feature Films.

As part of the initial promotion for A Labor of Love, Flaxman moved to Los Angeles to seek a distributor. He stayed in the city and worked on various commercial productions, including a PSA for March of Dimes starring Dick Van Dyke. However, he found it difficult to put together a follow-up to A Labor of Love. From the mid-‘80s to early ‘90s, he worked for and owned various businesses before semi-retiring.

In the mid-1990s Flaxman renewed his interest in filmmaking by studying old feature screenplays and attending film seminars. In 1996, a filmmaker friend asked Flaxman to study the filmmaker’s feature script and offer advice. After talking with a few other friends about their scripts, Flaxman learned that each person he talked to was impressed by the amount and depth of his feedback. He then decided to form Deep Feed-Back, a screenplay consulting service. In 1999, Creative Screenwriting Magazine gave Flaxman its highest rating in a review of screenwriting analysts, calling him the “Rolls Royce of Screenplay Analysts.” After that review Flaxman began receiving phone calls from all over the world.

Some influential films for Flaxman include Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) for its intimacy and grandeur, The Pawnbroker (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1964) for its emotional impact and editing style, The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) for its realism, Burn! (Pontecorvo, 1968) for its intelligent promoting of a political philosophy, director Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) for its unique dreamlike quality and his Nashville (1975) for its random structure, and Seven Beauties (Lina Wertmüller, 1975), which for its brilliance in storytelling, acting, cinematography, music, editing, and direction remains his favorite film.

Flaxman has been married for forty years and has one daughter. He currently lives in Southern California and enjoys playing tennis.
Custodial History
The films in this collection were originally made in Chicago, but moved to Flaxman's home in southern California with him in the late 1970s. They were stored there until shipped to CFA in August 2017.
Language of Materials
English
Access Restrictions
This collection is open to on-site access. Appointments must be made with Chicago Film Archives. Due to the fragile nature of the films, only video copies will be provided for on-site viewing.
Use Restrictions
Chicago Film Archives holds the copyright for films made by Robert Flaxman in this collection. Copyright for those made or sponsored by others remains with the creators.
Related Materials
Robert Flaxman worked on several films in the Don Klugman Collection at Chicago Film Archives, including YOU'RE PUTTING ME ON and MISSION THIRD PLANET: GREEN GROW THE PLANTS. CFA's Jack Behrend Collection includes other materials produced and directed by Gordon Weisenborn.
Collection Item
Cleo
Who
Gospel According to Ralph Williams, The
Intrusion
Boyhood of George Washington Carver, The