Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The National Film Preservation Foundation is back with another multi-disc installment of short films representing a century's worth of film art restored and preserved by American film archives. Savant has reviewed the series since its inception in 2000 with Treasures from American Film Archives; I've gone back to that volume several times to re-view a haunting little film from 1912 called The Land Beyond the Sunset. More Treasures from American Film Archives arrived in 2004 and Treasures III:
Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934 followed in 2007.
The latest box, Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947 - 1986 collects 26 mostly short subjects that coincide with the heyday of film culture artisanship, when San Francisco Beat poets and Greenwich Village bohemians expressed themselves with 16mm and 8mm cameras. It was a world spawned in museum and college seminars about "film as art". The dominant mantra was that the medium would never find its full expression through commercial conduits. Thus we have a surfeit of films released from the strictures of story, character and a locked-down tripod; visionaries searched for meaning in abstract snippets more often than not spliced together to defeat any known continuity. Shirley Clarke has the gall to conclude one of her films with a conventional sunset; we're surprised that she wasn't banned from the film clubs.
As in a small art community, the avant-garde filmmakers congregated in groups around colleges and museums. Very few artists were sponsored. Pioneers like Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage mentored younger aspirants and in some cases preserved their work. Few of these pictures had any but limited public screenings and most were specifically made for a small audience. One noted filmmaker showed his 8mm efforts only to friends, in his own home, preferably one viewer at a time.
The movies chart a development from ingenious camera-less animations to collage films, from campy spoofs to the artistic promotion machine that was Andy Warhol's Factory. Along the way we find individual pictures so stimulating that they "mess with our minds" in a psychedelic fashion, and two or maybe three Deep Concept efforts that can be recognized at first glance as unique cinema art.
The selections are split onto two discs and not arranged in a wholly chronological order. The disc curators explain that they chose only one film from each artist, so as to cast their net as widely as possible. Composer John Zorn contributes a variety of music scores, as few of the original films were produced with synchronized tracks. The set comes with a fat book of film notes that are liberally referenced below. In some cases the notes are essential to making sense of the individual artworks!
Film No. 3: Interwoven 1947-49 3 min.
Described as an "alchemist, mystic, & bohemian at large", Smith made this jaunty animated picture without benefit of a camera. It's a lively series of morphing patterns set to Dizzy Gillespie jazz, and has been called "five instruments with optical solo". Crude but alive, the film couldn't be made with a computer and have the same effect. It defines what our UCLA film instructors hailed as a saving grace: "It's organic!" Named to the Library of Congress in 2006. (BTW, Harry Smith has equal importance as an anthologist of American folk music: The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology Of American Folk Music Revisited.)
Notes on the Circus 1966 12 min.
Mekas founded the magazine Film Culture in 1954 and wrote for the Village Voice. The movie is a stuttering, fragmented look at the circus in impressionist fast cuts, accompanied by Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band. Mekas has a website: www.jonasmekas.com
Here I Am 1962 10 min.
Some of the films included here don't seem all that avant-garde. Bailie, a Bay Area veteran who founded Canyon Cinema in 1960, simply filmed some developmentally challenged kids at a special school called the East Bay Developmental Center. The content-driven film isn't particularly experimental; we simply watch the faces of the children and think about their personalities.
Fake Fruit Factory 1986 22 min.
Another film from the Canyon Cinema group. Ms. Strand taught for 24 years at Occidental and made this movie in Mexico. Without a single establishing shot it covers the mostly female Mexican workers at an artificial fruit factory, all in choker close-ups. They work on their little models and discuss paints as well as their sex lives; we hear gossip about the (Anglo) factory owner, who apparently is unaware of the content of their (subtitled) dialogue. Eventually they attend a picnic at a pool. It's intimate, engaging and it works. Film theoreticians taught that the human face is all that is needed to create an absorbing film; this picture proves it.
Jane Conger Belson Shimane
Odds & Ends 1959 4 min.
This somewhat spoofy picture was made by the wife of experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson, who said offhandedly that she "just got high and put it together." The title is accurate, as the movie is constructed from leftover pieces of other films including advertising footage. The audio is a fake hipster narration that begins with sincere-sounding artistic observations but soon segues into a more practical viewpoint: "Money is irrelevant but being subsidized is great!"
Eyewash 1959 3 min.
By the late 1950s Jordan Belson was already making the experimental, abstract Vortex movies that would later become a staple of head-trip light shows. Many late 50s avant-garde efforts were abstract movies that sought to induce different moods with distorted visuals. This picture is re-photographed from animation projected on still slides, and relies on transformations for its major effects. Many blurs, some nice abstract images.
Storm de Hirsch
Peyote Queen 1965 9 min.
Ms. Hirsch actually began in the early 50's, making experimental feature-length dramas. For this piece she cut, etched and painted directly on film. It's described as a "mystic exploration of life" and is compared to Action Painting. For some sequences she uses un-split 35mm / 16mm printing negative, resulting in four split screens, the right side an inversion of the left. Peyote Queen was probably described as psychedelic, a term just being applied to film and music in 1965.
7362 1967 10 min.
This film is technically sophisticated in a way not common to most avant-garde efforts. O'Neill worked with effects advertising guru Robert Abel in the early 1960s and later contributed animation to a couple of Star Wars episodes; he set up the optical company Lookout Mountain Films. Using hi-con film stock #7362, O'Neill dazzles us with an array of auto-matting and bi-pack tricks that transform items like a rocking oil pump into kaleidoscopic patterns. Some of the mechanical abstractions resemble montages in Metropolis. The complex, mesmerizing moving images seem to mirror some invisible function in our own heads. This is the best brain-warp picture in the set.
Aleph 1956-66? 8 min.
Berman was a Beat artist known for a hand-printed art and poetry magazine called Somina. This is his only film; he showed it infrequently to guests, usually one at a time. Stan Brakhage rescued Aleph and blew it up to 16mm. The jazzy track is a new addition by John Zorn.
Note to Pati 1969 7 min.
Saul Levine loved 8mm and Super-8 and taught film; the movie is a series of blurry shots taken in a snowstorm in Medford, Massachusetts. This reviewer didn't see much connection between the film and the praise in the Treasures IV booklet. Levine's accomplishments as an activist and educator seem more interesting.
By Night with Torch and Spear 1940s? 8 min.
Cornell is famous as the maker of collage boxes using found objects. After a few early film works he became more associated in film through artists he inspired or sponsored, like Lawrence Jordan. This show of indeterminate date was discovered in a stack of cans donated to the Anthology Film Archives. Like Cornell's famous Rose Hobart, it is a compilation of discarded footage, some of it from educational pictures. The title is taken from an inter-title seen at the end; the great new score is by John Zorn.
The Riddle of the Lumen 1972 13 min.
The undisputed King of the avant-garde filmmakers, Stan Brakhage has already been the subject of a large Criterion collection, with another rumored to be on the way. He described this piece as an ode to light -- reflected, filtered, shining -- light is the "hero". As with many Brakhage films, the accompanying text introduction is necessary to gain a clue as to what is going on.
The End 1953 34 min.
Another filmmaker championed by Brakhage. Something of a Beat epic, Maclaine's mini-feature is a disjointed melodrama about the last day in the lives of five passionate people. A portentous, demented narrator interrupts at regular intervals to speak over a black screen. A nuclear war is about to wipe everyone out, and the narrator frames all of his statements in doomsday banalities. It's like a Coleman Francis film, or the home movies of a particularly emotional psychotic. The five people wander through San Francisco while the editing throws in random cutaways to odd subjects, like somebody's forearm. At the finish the voiceover tells us that nothing makes sense and that we'll have to "make our own movie" by assembling the random pieces in our heads.
Bridges Go-Round 1958 min.
Back we go to New York, to Shirley Clarke, later the maker of commercially exhibited feature works like The Connection, Cool World and Portrait of Jason. Building on her experience making films for the Brussels World's Fair, Clarke harnesses bi-pack techniques to superimpose multiple moving images of New York's bridges. Because of rights issues she used alternate soundtracks, one by Louis & Bebe Barron (which sounds suspiciously like cues for Forbidden Planet) and another by jazz man Teo Macero. Ms. Clarke came to UCLA to teach in the early 1970s and was much admired.
Go! Go! Go! 1962-64 11 min.
New York painter Menken was married to Willard Maas, a poet and professor. For eleven thrilling minutes her time-lapse camera wanders Manhattan and Brooklyn capturing the living, breathing city. She eventually ends up at Coney Island. Scanning the video at a slow speed produces an endless document of commuters, street activity and necking beachgoers as if seen through a Time Machine; we know that the 1964 date is correct because the movie Captain Sindbad is playing at a theater near the boardwalk. The Treasures booklet tells us that Menken & Maas were reportedly the models for Martha and George in his play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Little Stabs at Happiness 1959-63 15 min.
At this point the films in the collection veer into self-conscious Camp territory, losing their innocence along the way. Notorious filmmaker Jack Smith and Jerry Sims play an infantile couple acting out an absurd non-drama. Smith's oral-fixated clown has a blue nose; Sims wears a sheet of cellophane in her hair. She smiles while he tortures a Howdy Doody doll. We love ya, Ken, but the whole thing is trying too hard.
Chumlum 1964 23 min.
Ron Rice is another Jack Smith collaborator who ran with the Warhol crown and died young. This Camp mini-saga uses a score of Warhol notables, all wearing exotic costumes from Mom's attic and cavorting in sets made of sheer drapes, balloons, and whatever jetsam was available -- an Arabian Nights amateur haunted house. It's an elaborate ode to group narcissism, Kenneth Anger without the spiritual/demonic dimension: much writhing in hammocks, nothing gross or obscene. The percussion audio track is by Angus MacLise of The Velvet Underground. This is definitely more Underground than avant-garde.
Mario Banana (No. 1) 1964 4 min.
Warhol apparently filmed static "screen tests" of his large assembly of actors, "personalities" and hangers-on; this one-take wonder is a slow-motion close-up of cross-dressing Mario Montez eating a banana, with a predictably suggestive, comic result. Warhol's Superstars certainly proved that one could generate a bogus celebrity "in-crowd" out of thin air.
I, An Actress 1977 9 min.
On the other hand, George Kuchar and his brother Michael are the Real Deal ... they were making vaguely aberrant Hollywood-influenced Camp home movie epics at the age of 12, and were regularly banned from amateur shows. But their crazy parade of weirdness caught on in Art School, leading to demented epics like Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966) and Sins of the Fleshapoids. This exuberant effort is a project in a film class Kuchar was teaching. Aspiring actress Barbara Lapsley is hounded and harassed to let go and give an open performance in a screen test- like one shot setup. A wig on a post stands in for her co-star. Kuchar keeps breaking in to coach Lapsley and enthusiastically act out her role; the interplay is hilarious.
Robert Nelson & William T. Wiley
The Off-Handed Jape ... & How to Pull It Off 1967 8 min.
Not so amusing but reportedly representative of an avant-garde spur in the direction of stand-up comedy, this is a performance piece by a pair of "Funk Artists", sort of an anti-vaudeville act in search of laughs. One of the comedians does look a bit like John Astin, however.
New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops 1976 10 min.
A more involved piece that resembles a Monty Python sketch performed in a state of acute depression. The recorded instructions from some forgotten record (about learning how to follow instructions?) are the basis for an absurd "test". A skeptical but compliant man takes the test and "enters" an illustration on the test form; eventually succumbing to instructional overload. A concept film that almost makes it to the finish line. It ends with the filmmaker running with a banner reading THIS IS A FILM ABOUT YOU.
Hamfat Asar 1965 13 min.
Jordan was honored with an entire disc of his work in last year's The Lawrence Jordan Album. This relatively early film shows the basic filmmaking M.O. that served Jordan for decades: cut-out illustrations animated over a static background, in this case, a vintage ink drawing of a seaside cliff. Fanciful objects are created by combining images; many transformations occur.
Necrology 1969-70 11 min.
A brilliant concept film, the kind we film students would have killed to have invented for our UCLA Project One. For a full nine minutes, a steady flow of escalator riders rises backwards through the frame and into darkness. It's the multitude of humanity spread out before our eyes, to the music of Sibelius. The title (which means a list of the dead) suggests they are rising to heaven; the cumulative honesty of all the real faces is deeply affecting. They're just riding an escalator in Grand Central Station, but many of their faces already seem resigned to a meaningless eternity. Oddly, the filmmaker's addition of a cynical joke at the end doesn't break the magic spell.
Fog Line 1970 11 min.
Other concept films aren't so successful. This item consists of one unbroken shot of fog lifting on a country landscape. Eleven slow minutes later (apparently the length of a 16mm film magazine) what was a hazy blur is now a hazy view of a hill, some trees and telephone lines. Not exactly a transcendental experience, yet I can easily imagine it being praised to the heavens by some of my film school colleagues.
(nostalgia) 1971 36 min.
Then again, there do exist "pretentious" art filma that wildly overachieve. We're suspicious of Frampton's autobiographical memoir when it's described as a study of the "disjuncture of Image and memory", but then the shockingly simple concept movie goes way beyond our expectations. We see twelve prints of Frampton's favorite photos burn, one after another, on an electric stove. A narrator (Michael Snow, the maker of the similarly profound Wavelength) describes the image and tells an anecdote or two on how it came to be made. The gag is that the images and the speeches are offset -- each description/story aligns with the next photo, not the one we're looking at. We cannot associate any of the anecdotes to an image until the next photo comes up, by which time we're already listening to a new story. The memory of each picture quickly fades, like our own memories. Also, each story ends long before its accompanying photo finishes burning. The recurring silent images lingering on ashes are a reminder of the ultimate fate of all memories. As we near the end, we realize that there will be at least ONE STORY for which we'll have no picture at all ... which is strangely distressing. The voiceover finishes with words that might describe every filmmaker's desperate wish: "Here it is. Look at it. Do you see what I see?" One movie like (nostalgia) compensates for weeks spent watching unrewarding filmic junk.
Bad Burns 1982 6 min.
This is a rather late entry in the eternal, infernal student filmmaking subgenre known as "The Film Burns In The Gate". We all made or proposed pictures like this; Monte Hellman made good use of the gag in Two-Lane Blacktop and Sidney Lumet sort of did it in Fail-Safe. Burns worked with Stan Brakhage in Denver and experimented with re-photographing film in various states, finding opportunities in accidental technical mishaps. This entire exercise is a mostly out-of-focus shot of a strip of film moving crookedly through the frame, with a blur effect from a slightly unsynchronized shutter. The film periodically slows down, just enough to start burning. Like, Far Out.
The 26 selections in The National Film Preservation Foundation's 2-DVD set Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947 - 1986 are a serious chunk of film history in a box. All the films are given splendid transfers, with multiple soundtracks where warranted. The handsome packaging and menu design facilitates easy access, with the program book's thoughtful notes repeated in video text options viewable before or after each film. A foreword by Martin Scorsese is included, with introductory notes by Jeff Lambert. Once again, The National Film Preservation Foundation has come up with a definitive reference resource to our country's unseen filmic heritage.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde rates:
Movies: Good to Excellent
Supplements: Illustrated program booklet.
Packaging: Two keep cases and book in heavy card box
Reviewed: March 1, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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