Michael H. Shamberg was an artistic force of nature, making films that simultaneously puzzled and delighted his audience and producing music videos before anyone had ever heard of MTV. Even after becoming sick almost a decade ago with a progressive neurological disease that would eventually kill him, that commitment to his art never changed.
Shamberg, who grew up in Pikesville and returned to Baltimore about eight years ago to be cared for by his family, died Nov. 1. He was 62.
The tangible legacy he leaves is impressive enough, including music videos featuring such artists as New Order, Patti Smith, the B-52s and REM, as well as directing a feature film, "Souvenir," that Indiewire.com praised as "a feast for the senses" that "deserves a look by anyone interested in seeing how far the film medium can go."
But even after he became sick and work became difficult, Shamberg remained dedicated to bringing art into the world. Beginning in 2005 in London, he created a series of salons he called "Turtles," in remembrance of a protected stretch of beach he once discovered between Israel and Lebanon that had become a haven and breeding ground for endangered sea turtles.
Similar salons would follow, in Switzerland, France, Germany and the U.S. They were places where both new and established artists could display work. But they were also, Shamberg discovered much to his delight, places where he could bring people together, help projects get going and match people whose artistic sensibilities could mesh into something wonderful.
Shamberg became something of an artistic matchmaker. "Michael shared his extraordinary vision with everyone he met, forever pointing out the 'turtle' in them," said Sue Wrbican, an artist and photographer and associate director of the School of Art at George Mason University. "Most of the time I knew him, he couldn't speak, using an iPad to communicate. But he was clear as a bell in expressing how much he loved art and believed in artists."
Shamberg migrated to New York in the mid-1970s after studying at Villanova University and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. By the early 1980s, he was producing for the English post-punk band New Order, including music videos for the songs "True Faith" and "Blue Monday." Even after the band broke up in 1993 (and again in 2007), he remained close to its members. In fact, when the band re-formed yet again in 2011, it was for a series of benefit concerts for Shamberg.
"He was a dear friend, and we will miss his presence," band members Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert and Bernard Sumner said in a statement released after Shamberg died. Former band member Peter Hook told the Manchester Evening News, "His work on our videos, so important at the time, defined our image and an era. He was a true revolutionary."
But the roster of talent Shamberg worked with extended far beyond New Order. Over the years, he collaborated with the Talking Heads, B52s, Patti Smith and Grace Jones. Early in their careers, Shamberg helped find work for Oscar-winning directors Jonathan Demme and Kathryn Bigelow. The cast of "Souvenir," a film five years in the making, included Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci.
As a filmmaker, Shamberg was decidedly and determinedly outside the norm — commercial success never meant much to him, said his sister, Carol Wertheimer, who lives in Brooklandville. But his movies, especially "Souvenir," struck a chord by adhering faithfully to their own aesthetic. On its surface, "Souvenir" is the story of an American sportswriter in France obsessed with memories of childhood traumas and her late brother, Charles. The film, however, eschews traditional film structure and stands as a rumination on the nature of such things as memory, identity and loss. It is, former Baltimore Sun (and now Washington Post) film critic Ann Hornaday says, "really beautifully filmed, very poetic, very intuitive. … It left a lot of questions, and I like that."
"As filmmaking has become more industrialized and more homogenized and sort of hyper-structured, Michael really stood in opposition to that," she says. "That was really a brave stance and an important aesthetic position to take."
Although born in New York, Shamberg moved with his family to the Baltimore area when he was just 2 months old and remained connected to his adopted hometown. "Souvenir" played the inaugural Maryland Film Festival in 1999; 12 years later, his short film "Tribeca," an early chronicle of the post-punk band A Certain Ratio, was screened at the festival. He also served on its screening committee.
"For us, he was a great cheerleader, all the way through his life, even after he was sick," Maryland Film Festival director Jed Dietz said. "He was always calling or emailing about a film he had heard about."
That was Michael Shamberg, his friends agree. "He loved connecting creative people with each other," said Stephen Ames, a friend who became Shamberg's advocate and caretaker in the last years of his life. "He took great delight in seeing people have ideas."