Two Memories of Alexander-Sasha Hammid
Alexander Hammid died on July 26, 2004 at the age of 96.
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1908, he gained fame with two films he made together with Herbert Kline, Crisis (1939) and Lights Out in Europe (1940)—the two films in which he warned the West about the rise of Nazi Germany. In 1943, in Los Angeles, he married Maya Deren and was the co-maker of her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon. Later he made many important documentary films of musicians and dancers including Arturo Toscanini, Pablo Casals, and Martha Graham. He was known for his very direct style and great respect and love for the subject he was filming.
The year was 1953. I had just moved into 95 Orchard Street place. The rent was $14.95 a month. During the days I worked at Lenard Perskie’s Graphic Studios on West 22nd Street, doing camera work. We did work for the international edition of Life magazine. I remember making for Archipenko copies of his old photographs. But my real work was to catch up with the best of New York’s culture. Especially, from the day that I landed in New York—that happened on October 29, 1940—I submerged myself into the world of cinema. One of my universities was the MoMA and its 5:30pm daily screenings. Another was Cinema 16 and its monthly screenings of experimental films at the Needle Trades School on West 24th Street. I had to see—and did see—everything that was screened in New York and I had to read everything that had been published on cinema in English. One publication that was always mentioned with great respect, in special publications on film as an art, was a mysterious book entitled An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film by a certain Maya Deren. I combed all the bookshops and libraries, but could not locate it. I got so frustrated in my search that I decided to locate the author of the book. I had heard that she actually lived here in New York on Morton Street. I was so obsessed with the book that I decided to call and ask her to lend me a copy of the book. And so I did.
A husky voice came on the line. She was Maya Deren, she said. I presented her with my problem. "Come, of course I’ll lend you the book," she said. We made an appointment.
At the appointed time I arrive, ring the doorbell, and begin to climb up to I think the fifth floor. I arrive at the top of the stairs and there is this woman, Maya Deren, staring at me very weirdly. I expected to meet her very simply and normally. Instead, I found this woman who seemed sort of panicky. I looked at her strange stare and I didn’t know how to react. She was really panicky.
"Anything wrong?" I managed to stammer.
The silent panic continued another moment, then Maya said:
"I really thought you were Sasha. You looked so much like Sasha and I had not expected him."
I was a little bit confused. But as she received me and we talked it became clear that Sasha was her recently divorced husband Sasha Hammid. Still in my old European Displaced Persons camp cloths, I was very European looking and when she showed me some pictures of Sasha I understood how close our resemblance was.
That’s how I met Maya Deren. Not as myself, but as a doppelganger of Alexander- Sasha Hammid. But we became very good friends immediately. And, of course, I walked out that afternoon clutching in my hands the thin volume of Anagram.
I met Sasha Hammid in real life in 1961. I was in the process of making my first "real" film, Guns of the Trees. Adolfas, my brother, thought we should get a car to help us move around. I don’t drive, but Adolfas does. We were told that Hammid had a car he was trying to sell. So we went to see him.
The first thing that we really appreciated was that the Hammids, Sasha and his wife Hella, treated us with a good meal. We were always hungry in those days; we put every penny either into our filming or Film Culture magazine. So a meal was always very welcome. Hella even gave us a big bag of food to take home with us. We especially liked her bread, which she baked herself. And of course we bought their old used car. They sold it to us for practically nothing. Their children called it Papacar. The Papacar served us faithfully during the filming of Guns. Whenever we visited the Hammids, the children always were asking us about Papacar. They were very attached to it.
Sasha helped us in another emergency. We had need of a tripod. When we told this to Sasha, he went to the closet and brought a beautiful giro-tripod. "Here it is, use it." So we took it and used it for a lot of shooting. But one night we were stupid enough to leave it in the Papacar in the street. Next morning it was gone. Luckily, Adolfas was smart enough to insure it. For months we hid from Sasha the fact that his tripod was stolen. Then three months later, we got the insurance money, $300 of it. So we stopped to see Sasha at 1 West 89th Street, where he always lived, and we handed him the money, apologizing profusely.
Sasha looked at us in disbelief then he began laughing. "Yes," he said, "thank you very much, but that tripod was worth only 30 dollars."
We couldn’t believe it. We were quite ignorant about the prices of movie equipment. But we had to believe Sasha. So we had some good food and some good wine and we celebrated the stealing of the tripod. I think we split the money.
As years went, we had many good days and evenings with the Hammids. He was one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life.
JONAS MEKAS has often been called "the godfather of American avant-garde cinema."