“Radio Unnameable” is showing through Tuesday, October 2 at Film Forum.
Running time: 87 minutes; Not rated.
“Radio Unnameable” skillfully explores the timelessness of community, loneliness, and freedom of expression. It is a film about a period in time, a man, and a radio program. While it intimates the inquisitive spirit of each, it substitutes a more daring and abstract approach, perhaps best reflective of the radio program itself, for a more linear telling of a nonetheless remarkable story.
Bob Fass’s New York City radio program, Radio Unnameable, hit the airwaves in 1963, when fast-talking, jingle-slinging Murray the K was king of the commercial dial. Fass and listener-supported station WBAI offered the alternative, a radio program that was an event and a quiet revolution that still makes people smile and reminisce today.
People from every class and walk of life would call in Monday through Friday, 12am to the wee hours of the morning, to voice their municipal grievances or share their favorite recipes on this open platform. One of the most beautiful moments in the film is a conversation between two callers discovering the first snow of the season.
The show gave a voice to the lonely, the outcast, and the unsung heroes of the city. It fostered an intimacy between callers, guests and listeners, not only exploring, but moving beyond differences of race, gender, and creed. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that after four years on the air, it also became the stage from which the radical anti-war and countercultural Yippie, or Youth International Party, movement was launched.
During the 1960s, Fass’s program promoted actions to help clean up neglected neighborhoods, and sponsored happenings, like the Human Fly-in, for the simple purpose of bringing otherwise unconnected people together. Neither Fass nor his listeners could define exactly what they were doing, but they knew it was liberating and that they were learning from each other. We hear one caller musing, “I haven’t done anything like that before… it was really great” over a photo of an impossible number of kids piled on top of an old Studebaker on a grungy Lower East Side street. This photo, snapped off-the-cuff during a Sweep-In, looks like a still from a 1980s Hollywood nostalgia film. While nostalgia films often mimic the look of a period, they fail to capture the true spirit of the time. In the Studebaker photo, however, we see the idealistic spirit that came to define an entire decade. We see it in outstanding detail in the bemused and delighted expressions of the kids and volunteers.
I spoke with directors Jessica Wolfson and Paul Lovelace, who were struck by how committed and dedicated the Radio Unnameable listeners were to speaking out against national and local injustices. “It was extraordinary… and the Yippie-lore was mind blowing.” The film is a beautiful tapestry of characters, images, and music, and it undeniably warrants repeat viewing.
Although the film begins in the days of the Three Penny Opera, it has an added air of immediacy as the parallels between the Yippies and the Occupy movement become strikingly apparent. Jessica comments, “To be honest, it’s somewhat depressing that fifty years later we still haven’t conquered these atrocities.”
Bob was an innovator in the field of citizen journalism, and many people compare the style of his show to that of social media. Paul said that it was a pleasant surprise to find these timely connections upon delving into Fass’s story. “Even though social media is evolving so rapidly today, it had a more potent effect in the 1960s.” Radio Unnameable was a centralized, unique island of misfits, sending out dispatches from the middle of the FM dial.
On Bob’s show, silence is golden (the antithesis of commercial radio). While the film itself embraces the more traditional structure of an interview-heavy documentary, it’s not afraid to sit with silence either. It takes us down the empty, night-washed streets of New York City after the nine-to-fivers have all gone home. This is when we see the city’s unsung heroes, Bob’s loyal and diverse listeners, come out to silently clean up the effluvia of the day.
When Jessica and Paul sat down to structure the film, they decided that Radio Unnameable’s stream-of-consciousness, free-for-all style didn’t make a lot of sense in this medium. They decided that the best way to tell Bob Fass’s story would be chronologically, “pinpointing these amazing events in his life.” While the film provides a fresh take and a personal perspective on protest movements that you may have thought you already understood, such as the women’s liberation movement, it’s strongest when it’s using abstract footage to elicit a feeling rather than obvious footage to illustrate a point.
The use of abstract, kinetic and neon imagery captures the manic nature of a free spirit experimenting in an unspoiled environment. (Nudity for Peace!) In combining color footage with dark, moody, and grainy shots of random corners of a sleeping metropolis, the film approaches the clever irreverence that keeps Fass’s show fresh and challenging.
Caller: “It’d be great if you could sing a little bit better.”
Bob Dylan: “Well, I appreciate that.”
The atmosphere that Fass creates in the WBAI studio seems to put people at ease and forces them to drop any of their pretentions. He has such an easy way with words, a measured cadence as he tosses off incredible insights, incomplete thoughts and affable reveries. He asks Joni Mitchell how to say her name “Joni or Joan?” And she replies “Joni, J-o-n-i, with a circle instead of a dot.”
Through Gregory Wright’s brilliant, but not flashy, editing we feel as if we’re getting a glimpse into Fass’s world. He pairs grainy, handheld footage of the period with audio from a typical Radio Unnameable program. It feels as if it could be Bob walking down the sidewalk with his color 8mm camera, dodging darting kids and lumbering garbage trucks on his way to work some chilly autumn evening, the spirit of New York coming alive on screen as over the airwaves.
Similarly, John Pirozzi’s cinematography reflects Fass’s wandering meditations. He expertly racks focus in the present-day studio scenes, and meanders between flashing lights, shiny microphones, and curious tangles of cords, searching for his subject, exploring different angles.
At the opening night screening , Bob announced the unsanctioned giveaway of bags of popcorn to any people who recognize themselves in the crowd scenes. This is indicative of his charming rebelliousness and frustrating eccentricity.
We’re privy to all the amazing audio included in the film because of Fass’s meticulous preservation. He says of the film, “It is a place where these archives I’ve been carrying around with me for fifty years, the photographs that people have taken of these various events, the film, and the comments are collected. It’s fifty years in ninety minutes.”
Jessica relates, “Bob is an amazing photographer, as well. He kept everything and gave us full access to this… treasure trove.” The last movement of the film follows New York City historian Mitch Blank—whose enthusiasm is infectious—as he leads a team of volunteers, young and old, to salvage the precious bounty from a makeshift, deteriorating storage room.
The film is one-third audio, one-third archival footage and stills, and one-third original footage. Jessica notes, “If you watch enough docs you tend to see the same footage being used over and over… we didn’t want to use the same stuff.”
Instead, they engaged amateur filmmakers and photographers who were just out there, reaching out to people on blogs, message boards, and the airwaves, tapping into stuff that’s never been seen or used before. It took several years and a lot of outreach. Anthology Film Archives was a big resource and was particularly helpful in connecting the filmmakers with contributors.
Bob says, “I really like the movie. And I tell ya, I don’t think it’s just because it brings back my memories. It’s because it brings back memories of times when there was an intentional community that took some of its ideas from what came out over the radio from other members of the community. We cleaned up blocks on the Lower East Side together. We got gassed and beaten together. We had laughs and we had parties and we’re still here.”
“Radio Unnameable” has screened at many festivals outside of New York, and according to Paul and Jessica, people consistently stand up and say, “I grew up in New York and Bob Fass’s show changed my life.” The directors confess that they are amazed and overwhelmed by the enthusiastic responses to the film from both longtime fans and new converts.
The premiere last week was a sold-out show, with friends attending from near and far. In her introductory remarks, Film Forum Director Karen Cooper called Fass a faithful companion and likened his voice to God’s, saying that you could roll over sleepless in bed and flip on the dial and he’d be there.
Bob Fass can still be heard on WBAI every Thursday night from midnight until 3am. Call and talk with him live at 212-209-2900. You can hear a Q&A with the directors and Fass on Film Forum’s podcast page here. Donate to listener supported Free Speech Radio 99.5fm WBAI, Pacifica Radio in New York City here.