DIANE THE ZEBRA WOMAN – Avant-Garde Patron & Savior Sheldon Rochlin’s Long-Lost Film

by JC Gonzo

Before cinephile’s could safely rely on curatorial video-distributers Criterion and Kino, there was Mystic Fire Video. Founded in 1977 by Sheldon Rochlin and his wife Maxine Harris, the tiny NYC-based company would forever shift the underground by rescuing seminal works by Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Derek Jarman, and critical Beatnik docs from near loss to obscurity. Mystic Fire paved the way for the mass distribution of transgressive cinema, specializing in esoteric essentials and avant-garde elites that have since come to be the foundations of the alternative screen. Sheldon Rochlin was well respected in the experimental film circuit and is known for being a skilled practitioner himself, having directed numerous documentaries revolving around spiritualism in foreign lands.

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– Watch DIANE THE ZEBRA WOMAN Here –

One of his rarest and perhaps most unusual pieces is this 16mm short narrative that has been salvaged and heedfully transferred to digital video from its original format by Anthology Film Archives. Created with collaborator, muse, and former wife Flame Schon (then Diane Rochlin), Diane the Zebra Woman follows four women’s misadventures through the streets of NYC 1962. All played by Flame, the characters consist of The Detective, The Mother, The Child, and the Medium (Girl on Bicycle). Amidst the enclave of the French new wave, an evident influence says Flame, metaphor is enacted and embodied through each figure. “He sometimes would imagine that I reminded him of Jeanne Moreau, he liked the dark circles under her eyes.” Evocative of the scene from which it emerged, the film features cameos from integral figures like William (Bill) Levy, Jonas MekasPaul Morrissey and features an original score composed by Malcolm Goldstein. This would be the first film Sheldon created alongside Flame Schon.

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Psych-cinema goddess and traveled cinematographer Flame Schon holds more than a few heavy credits to her name. Alongside Sheldon she directed the highly sought-after cult film DOPE–a junkie-chic first-hand account of London’s music/drug/sex scene in the late 60’s featuring rare appearances from Pink Floyd, Marianne Faithful, Chet Helms, and other legends of the era. She was a long-time collaborator and friend of the late multimedia shaman and visionary poet Ira Cohen, having shot much of the now-infamous Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda. Schon is also responsible for documenting the life of the influential bohemian icon Vali Myers. These days, Flame resides in her peaceful desert home crafting cutting-edge psychedelic video art that has been featured in numerous CURRENTS exhibitions and on August 4th, her film featuring Ira Cohen titled At Home with the Majoun Traveler will be televised on Manhattan’s Time Warner Channel 34, RCN 82, FIOS 33, and streaming live here at 11pm EDT. That’s Monday, so mark your calendars and check it out on Facebook.

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While Sheldon may have saved numerous projects from disappearance, his life story and contributions have been less fortunately cataloged. The NYU film school drop out met Flame shortly after her moving to the city, married in ’63 and from then worked closely together. Flame conversed with us about Diane the Zebra Woman and her time with Sheldon, sharing her recollections in a series of e-mails for over a month. She also included a statement from William (Bill) Levy and an elegy for Sheldon Rochlin written by Ira Cohen.With this, we begin:

Summer Solstice for Sheldon Rochlin

Today is the first day of summer
now is the time of the unthinkable
Sheldon being breathed on the ventilator
gasping for breath, all the lights turned off
There are still Tibetans who fill
the room with sound, holy mantras
We are all bereft
I will board a plane for London & cry
in the sky
I am running out of film
I stumble in the light of day
I find my glasses & consider it a miracle
I thought I lost my passport
I need help to sing my song
Sheldon father of our common dream,
the halls of summer prepare us for
the silence to come—
Friendship fallen, sirens of the morning
call out your name—Sheldon, Sheldon,
I have lost my dictionary 
The summer is over before it begins
You were the world’s best friend
The shore of the sea washed by the waves
Now you have reached the highest point. 
like the sun you stand still with Angus.

June 22, 2002
Ira Cohen

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How did you first meet Sheldon?

FS: When I first met Sheldon he was involved with Jonas Mekas, who was making a film with his brother Adolfas. The film was Guns of the Trees, Sheldon was shooting it for Jonas. Unpaid, mostly. At the time I remember Adolfas saying the trouble with me was that I needed to be comfortable, a judgement I remember all these decades later. The film was awful. Sheldon had gone to NYU film school for a year and then dropped out, he knew quite a lot of film history and I learned from him.

And Bill Levy?

FS: He was a friend of Sheldon’s from Baltimore where they both grew up. Sheldon also partly grew up in LA and had was a child actor on “The Howdy Doody Show.” He used to find scripts in trash bins in Hollywood. He wasn’t a “documentary film maker” yet, he had made a short previously by himself in Baltimore, Night Thoughtsa moody, sort of young man’s ‘night film.’

How did this script come to be?

FS: Diane the Zebra Woman was a product of his love for me and his need to make a film. What is lost in the mists of memory is how exactly it originated. Shortly before Diane, before Ave B, we lived on W. 8th St between 5th and 6th, the Village proper I guess. Sheldon traded his camera services to a young surgeon and filmed a bloody operation in exchange for a robin’s-egg-blue Chevy convertible. We set out to find, among other things, Ed Abbey about a story he wrote for a little magazine called “Black Sun.” This story had a lovely young woman/girl as its protagonist, although Sheldon didn’t see me as that particular character. We met Abbey and he sold Sheldon the rights for a dollar. That story never got made into a movie. We had scouted locations in Albuquerque and had other adventures along this drive across the country back to NY.

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Seems there is a connection of interest, considering the young girl protagonist…

FS: It was Sheldon’s nature to make a film with a woman. Sheldon adored women and working with them. As far as Diane goes, I have to conclude that we spoke to each other and concocted it from the truth of who I was. I wrote stories in college, thinly veiled stories of me and sex, perhaps I wrote it. We, Sheldon and I, collaborated well. He gave me scope, he put a camera in my hands, he saw what I did best and what he did best without ego or competition. He always knew how to give in, how to bend the winds. He taught me how to use my own sensibilities with film. Our most perfect collaboration was editing Dope. Dope was shot with two cameras, identical Beauleius. Nothing was done until we both agreed that it was the right thing. It took a long time to edit.

What was Sheldon like then?

FS: Sheldon was a wonderful hustler, eventually, a divine hustler. He was into poetics, beauty, and magic as it appeared to him. He was a very good camera person and made a living shooting for other people. Whatever would bring in the money–docs, commercials, art stuff, medical films, anything that paid. He even worked as a production manager for a West German TV company for a film on folk music in the western world. He convinced them to take me as an unpaid still photographer. I wasn’t actually a still photographer. Sheldon gave me instructions: just make sure you put something in the foreground and something in the background. OK, I did fine. The photos even got into some German magazine. We traveled to Haiti, Jamaica, Curacao, Puetro Rico…

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[In this sequence we see famed sex writer William (Bill) Levy, Warholian filmmaker Paul Morrissey, and alt cinema auteur Jonas Mekas.] 

Was it difficult to earn a living, to travel? Some projects sounded paid, some didn’t…

FS: In those long-ago days, a girl of no means could somehow save up money while in college by being a nude artist’s model. You could undergo paid psychiatric experiments where they put you into sensory deprivation with electrodes all over you, then it was night, and somehow one had to find a way back to college on public transport after being totally altered from 8 hours of sensory deprivation. I liked doing this kind of work because no one got to hire me for my mind. It was my own. I could, if I was lucky, just lie there naked and read a book. Of course, some photographers were sort of icky and one wouldn’t want to go back. But, it was a way to make money which would allow you to actually go to Europe. The dollar was worth so much more then than now. On a ship, with lots of other students, crowded into cabins with 6 or so bunks on the Holland America Line…

You play all four women, who are they?

FS: All of the characters are completely who I was (am). The Mother goes off into the bushes with a man whom she meets as her child rides a carousel. The fantasy of sex with a total stranger. Direct, no before, no after. I remember meeting the man who plays him, Otto, at MoMA. He was a professional actor. Good thing too, the film definitely needed that. Then there’s The Child, completely self-contained and joyful until she becomes lost with no one watching over her. The Detective is at work in the world of worksmart, tough, but really bluffing and finally frightened as she runs into the dark woods. The Girl on the Bicycle is a medium, a manifestation of inner psychic knowledge and as such, makes things happen, sees all that is happening. So, in a sense, a sort of shaman, containing all these characters (or more, perhaps) within her. The bike riding is connected to time, this medium allows all to flow through her.

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You wear a gorgeous array of dresses in this film. Are they yours or just acquired for shooting?

FS: The clothes were simply part of my wardrobe. The eclectic nature reflected my own. I could be this, I could be that. I could be anything, anyone at all. Growing up I had very little but always had an interest in design, fashion, style, and unusual clothes especially. I am able to place the time of shooting by one piece of clothing, that sundress the bicycle girl wears. I remember exactly where and when I got that.

How?

FS: Sheldon and I were supposed to go to the Dominican Republic but they were suddenly having a revolution. Haiti was governed by Papa Doc Duvalier… it was all under the surface, sort of sinister. I met a young revolutionary, etc. In Jamaica, we got a pound of ganja for a £1. In Curacao, I got that dress. There were many musty shops run by Indians. In one of them was this dress, which I remember perfectly. It was a dusty blue with a soft, dusty red print. It was from the Provence in France, from Avignon, with a kind of shiny Provence chintz. It suited me very well, I loved it. I remember most vividly the feel of the clothes I wore, the actual material feel, the sensation of slipping them on… For instance, in the beginning, I sit next to the fire escape and I’m wearing tight stretch denim jeans. So, the film was shot after we returned from the Caribbean shoot. Interestingly, since we couldn’t get to the Dominican Republic, they decided to go to Santa Fe and I decided to go to NY. That pound of ganja was waiting for me, we had shipped it from Puerto Rico by packing it into 16mm film cans.

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Sheldon is known for documentaries, but this is a narrative departure.

FS: Diane the Zebra Woman is not at all a departure from documentary filmmaking. It came before. Vali isn’t really a documentary, despite its using the reality of Vali Myers. Many of the scenes are concocted to express an inner truth. Dope isn’t really a documentary, either. Yes, people like to think it documents a time and place, and it does but only in its inner expression. The characters are in no way typical or generalized, although many like to think so because it becomes easier to relate to. Dope was unabashedly meant to be dope. Timeless.

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Would you say this subjective mode of documenting captures a truer element of reality?

FS: The distinction between doc and non-doc is tenuous and slippery, the more one contemplates, the more it slips and dissolves. Perhaps Sheldon was always a documentarian, and Diane is a “proto-documentary.” Or, even, a documentary of how it will all turn out in the end—a “prophetic documentary.” After Dope, I thought this distinction was worth taking a mental stand. I tried to articulate a difference between Sheldon and myself based on this imaginary distinction. Sheldon had an ethnographic viewpoint as if he were an anthropologist, or that he was a “worshipper,” or that a documentary’s viewpoint was exploitative out of necessity. But now, I think that unless you position a camera somewhere and just leave it, the very fact of being with a camera—whether or not you arrange, costume, or fabricate a story—you’ve interjected your own self somehow, inevitably. This fact always influences the document of whatever. As for my thinking of this distinction and that there was a difference between my and his approach, I may well have been simply far more self-involved than he. Sheldon was, in truth, a documentarian. He found his way to it as his true nature.

I like the term “proto-documentary…”

FS: The distinction was in some way what propelled me to leave Sheldon in 1974–the sense that we saw the world differently. Also, the awareness that what I was seeing was mediated by him. He was interpreting the world for me. Much later I came to see that this was all illusory. Now, I like the notion of documentary as elastic and something to hang one’s expression upon. The difficulty I have discussing or even seeing Diane comes from seeing this image of myself, this “proto-documentary” ostensibly about me, from so long ago and still identifying with that woman on screen. It’s necessary to separate myself from the illusion that this person is I.

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William (Bill) Levy adds to the conversation, commenting on meeting Flame elsewhere, his time with Sheldon, and not remembering Diane the Zebra Woman, “1962 was a major, pivotal year for me with a large amount of movement, changes, people, perspectives, drugs. Well, everything. So much of what happened, what I did, is remembered and still resonates today from that single year. I do remember seeing you and Sheldon then. You and I had met in Barcelona about a year and half previously.  Sheldon and I had lived, grew up together, around the counter from each other in suburban Baltimore… What I don’t remember is being in your film, although I am quite glad to be a part of it.”

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Sheldon Rochlin & Flame Schon (then Diane Rochlin), Kathmandu 1976, photo by Mike Spera

Sheldon Rochlin, Flame Schon (then Diane Rochlin), Kathmandu 1976, by Mike Spera

6 Comments

  1. Brilliant !!!

    (& delight full)

  2. flame says:

    yes Norvie it is. JC did a great job putting this interview together.

  3. amy says:

    Great interview, more stuff like this please.

  4. Flame Schon says:

    JC. This is a great article in Sensitive Skin. Thank you for ‘seeing’, thoughtfulness, and refined perception. xxo

  5. Flame Schon says:

    This is a great article JC. Thank you for your ‘seeing’ and your thoughtfulness and insight.

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