“Every moment at Black Mountain College seemed alive in a way that few have since. This had to do with being asked to be fully awake, to be at a new threshold of perception.” With these words by an unnamed student, Fully Awake: Black Mountain College both explains its title and shares the theme of its intended exploration of the legendary school. And a pretty successful exploration it is, too. I can honestly say that Fully Awake is quite the best of a number of films I’ve seen on Black Mountain College, not in the least because it’s the first such film that really explains the school within something like the context of the time and its overall impact. The other films about—or touching upon—the school have tended to operate on the idea that the viewer knows it all already. Once these films have touched on key events (like “the happenings”) and trotted out the names of the famous who were involved—Josef and Anni Albers, Arthur Penn, David Tudor, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Koonig, Robert Motherwell, M.C. Richards, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Jacob Lawrence, Hazel Larsen Archer, Karen Karnes, Ben Shahn, Cy Twombly, Robert Duncan etc.—you’re not left with much of a sense of the school and what it was like.
Fully Awake is different, offering a rounded and lively portrait of the story of the school and the experience of it. What a relief to find something other than a wholly safe and reverent image of Black Mountain College (and how wrong that image is when applied to something this wildly experimental!). What a delight to find director Arthur Penn saying, “We were not a bunch of seminarians. There were love affairs; there was sexuality; there was interchange between the men and the women. It was a lively, funny, exhilarating place.” Now, that’s more like it. It’s also more like it to be made to realize that this was not a revered institution at the time, but something that was looked on with great skepticism by the locals. It’s a treat to listen to a variety of alumni and former teachers speak candidly about the school and the impetus behind it. For the first time I was left feeling that I really understood what the school was about, and that perhaps it needed to end when it did, when it was still vibrant and alive. More, the film conveys the sense that it’s as much the wonder of the fact that the school could exist at all, as anything it accomplished. As artist Basil King says, “Thank God it existed.” A definite must-see for anyone interested in the subject.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke