Pulitzer winner Tim Page on his life as a teenaged filmmaker and documentary subject
Tim Page may have won a Pulitzer Prize for his music criticism, but readers might know his work from an array of disciplines: His tireless efforts to resurrect the work of mid-20th century novelist Dawn Powell gave her new attention after decades of relative obscurity. Page’s bestselling 2009 autobiography, “Parallel Play,” recounted his tempestuous youth living with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome. For much of the 1980s, he hosted an afternoon new music show on WNYC in New York.
But before all of that, he was the upstart star of “A Day with Timmy Page,” a cult-classic 1967 documentary made about him when he was a precocious preteen filmmaker. Directed by Dave Hoffman, the short film shows young Timmy enthusiastically, at times tyrannically, directing neighborhood friends in low-budget, furrow-browed super-8-mm movies.
Like a pint-sized Cecil B. DeMille, we see Page in his family’s suburban Connecticut neighborhood as he wrangles his actors, gauges camera angles and shouts, “Action!” In cut-away interviews, the young Page expounds on French new wave directors and silent film stars with the intellect of the Pulitzer-Prize winning critic he’d become.
Tim Page in 1968.
On Nov. 10 at the Echo Park Film Center, the Center for Home Movies will present a program that includes a rare screening of “A Day with Timmy Page,” along with two films Page made as an adolescent auteur. Recently restored by the USC Hugh Hefner Moving Image Archive at the School of Cinematic Arts, Page’s movies haven’t been shown in five decades.
Page, who is a professor at both the Annenberg School of Journalism and the Thornton School of Music at USC, recalled his film work during a recent back-patio conversation at his home in Santa Monica. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to be the subject of a documentary film when you were so young?
Dave Hoffman’s nephew was occasionally in my films, and he told Dave about it. They came up and they stayed a day with me. Actually, now I’m going to get really obsessive on you. It was actually the night before, when I showed them my films, and then the whole day we shot this. So I guess it really was “a day with Timmy Page,” but there was sleeping in the middle of it.
How did “A Day with Timmy Page” first achieve attention?
It was screened in 1968 at Lincoln Center as part of the New York Film Festival. It was the short feature with a [Swedish] film called “Hugo and Josephine,” which was about two kids. They decided to make it a kids’ program, and they showed it in what was then Philharmonic Hall. The New York Times did an article with me holding a camera like I’m filming. Esquire did an article on me. All of the sudden, everyone was interested in me.
How had you learned so much about film by such a young age?
I got a book as a remainder called “Classics of the Silent Screen,” and I just became obsessed. I guess I would have been 10 or 11. I started to buy 8-mm versions of silent films, and I watched them all obsessively after school.
In 1966, I talked my dad into filming a film that I had written the script for, and after that, the camera sort of passed on to me. I liked the idea of having my friends over [to film]. We’d make these things where we pushed each other around, or did spy movies. But we also did some that were actively striving for something. Those are the two (“Kyrie” and “Opus 21”) that I’m showing. There are a lot more, and you really don’t need to see them.
A half a century later, which have stood the test of time?
I particularly like the only film I ever did about kids, which is called “Opus 21.” I like it because it’s not everybody with a machine gun and blowing things up.
And I think it’s rather a touching little film. I was a bullied as kid. I was autistic, and nobody realized that. So I was really, really good at some things, and I had some teachers who really loved me. I could recite the names and dates of the presidents back and forth. I could do all sorts of things, but I could not keep awake during an algebra class and I couldn’t control myself. If I got angry, I’d have a real meltdown.
“Opus 21” is from 1967. And I had just started seventh grade and had been getting bullied a ton. And so I made a film about it. It was certainly autobiographical, and I was certainly depressed. It was filmed in my neighborhood. I was actually friends with the three bullies, but you know, they were actors. They played the bad guys. They were actually lovely people. And one of them was really one of my very, very best friends.
Did you show the films to your classmates?
I did screen some of my films for my classes, but not very often, because most people just thought I was one weird, angry kid. But I would show them to my friends. They’d come over, and we watch the movies, and we’d talk about what was good and what was bad.
When you watch “A Day with Timmy Page” now, do you recognize that boy? Are you glad you participated in the documentary?
I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t really like the kid. You know, it was a kid really struggling hard to figure out what he wanted to do. I spent most of the rest of my time in my late teens getting high like a lot of other people from my generation. I also had mixed feelings about what it did to me, because it made me a little famous, but then, all the fame went away, and I was just sort of a stoned-out kid from Storrs, Conn., wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life.
When you say you were semi-famous, what do you mean?
Right after “A Day with Timmy Page” came out, Kodak got interested and they gave me a brand new Super 8 camera. Kodak made a one-minute commercial, and the first time it was run was before what was called “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” Kids all across the country were watching that, so I got recognized a couple of times. I signed my first autograph in the summer of ’68.
Did that change your standing at all at school?
Not a whole lot. I think it was something that made me proud. It was something that set me aside and said, “You’re not just a weird freak of nature. People are actually going to be interested in you, and there might be a life for you, somehow, in this.”
Did it surprise you, 50 years later, that someone wants to make a program of your work?
I’m finding it a little odd because I turn 65 tomorrow. I’ve done so many different things in my life — please don’t let this sound like I’m bragging — but I find that I’ve got fans in five or six different fields. The people who know my autism work don’t know much about my music. Some of the music people, they’re only interested in Glenn Gould or Phil Glass or someone like that. And then there’s Dawn Powell.
And so I was really shocked when [the film request] came about. And I thought, you know, it would be really fun to talk about it all, because I think it all makes sense. Anything I was interested in, I went after. And I was lucky enough and in the right situation and intent enough that, you know, it all kind of worked.
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