Anthony Stern may have been better known for his highly collectable glassware, but his work in film took him to the very heart of the transatlantic hippie counterculture. Born in Cambridge to academic parents, he would later immerse himself in the city’s thriving, mid-60s bohemia of jazz, poetry and sit-ins, alongside many who came to define the look and sound of London’s underground – he exhibited his paintings alongside Syd Barrett, soon to head Pink Floyd.
But it was a chance encounter with Peter Whitehead on the streets of Cambridge that opened a portal into pop culture. Whitehead asked for help on his first film, The Perception of Life (1964), a Nuffield Foundation documentary on the history of the microscope. From such auspicious beginnings, the two would embark on a dynamic quest to document the 60s zeitgeist. Stern was assistant director on Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling (1966) – the first documentary on the Rolling Stones – and Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), his lyrical look at the swinging London phenomenon.
Together they shot footage for Théodora Olembert’s documentary Is Venice Sinking? (1968) and Pierre Roustang’s Les Teenagers (1969). Well before the birth of MTV, they worked closely on some of the earliest British pop promos for Immediate Records, Andrew Loog Oldham and Tony Calder’s short-lived music label. These pioneering music videos – made for The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and P.P. Arnold – demanded a quick turnaround: Peter filmed and edited, Anthony recorded sound and shot stills. It was, as Anthony reflected, “an ideal system really, while it lasted…”
The two parted ways in New York in 1967, where Stern had been assisting Whitehead on his highly combustible and self-referential protest documentary, The Fall (1969). Stern was involved in 10 hours of rushes – mostly recording radical art performances and street protests, like Rafael Montañez Ortiz’s brutal Henny Penny Piano Destruction Concert (1967) and the March on the Pentagon – by the time he upped and left for the west coast to pursue his own vision. What came of that was San Francisco (1968), a short, highly kinetic diary film that deep-dives into hippie America but looks back to London with its rare recording of Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. Completed with help from the BFI Production Board, it won prizes at Oberhausen, Melbourne and Sydney film festivals.
Although none of his later films achieved the success of San Francisco, several continued its experiments in single-frame cinematography and portrayal of alternative lifestyles. The fragmentary diary film Wheel (1969 to 1971) follows actor Billie Dixon (his then girlfriend) on a surreal, associative road trip. He made Warhol-inspired film portraits of friends he admired: Whitehead in Nothing to Do with Me (1969) and the New York school poet Ted Berrigan. He even injected dynamism to the solidity of architecture in Serendipity (1971), a playful commission set to music by Barbara Moore. He continued working as a cameraman on concert films like Glastonbury Fayre (Nicolas Roeg and Peter Neal, 1971) and Yessongs (Neal, 1973) as well as collaborating with Neal on the erotic collage film, Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1974).
But the feeling that his film career had run its course dogged him, and he turned to glassblowing in 1976. Almost 40 years later, he returned to film after a Parkinson’s diagnosis made him re-examine what he called his “memory marbles”, culminating in the magnificent, autobiographical essay, Get All That, Ant? (2015). But was it ever such a leap? “Glass and film are identical,” he’d say. “They’re both translucent materials through which light passes.”
- Anthony Stern, 26 October 1944 to 10 February 2022