Long before home video there flourished an alternative cinema culture on college campuses and around art theaters, where foreign film fare was often accompanied by a short subject. A short film might be from the Film Board of Canada or an animated piece by Italian Bruno Bozzetto or Czech Jirí Trnka. The classic crowd pleaser from the 1950s was the slightly longer The Red Balloon; comedies like the Bergman parody De Düva were popular as well. Only infrequently was a truly Avant-Garde or experimental film deemed commercially viable, even for this niche audience. For the most part, experimental European art films inspired by Dada and Surrealism remained artifacts held by museums and specialized archives.
As reliable 16mm film equipment became available to non-professionals, artists independent of film centers began experimenting with cinema. Serious film societies sprang up in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, holding semi-private screenings of non-commercial artistic films. One would view work by Stan Brahkage or John Whitney as if attending a gallery exhibition or a poetry reading. Before reviewers like Jonas Mekas spread the word, the audience for these short films was often restricted to closed circles of fellow artists. Occasionally a theater owner like Raymond Rohauer would serve as a patron of the arts and offer programs of the obscure and the arcane.
For years these pictures were exhibited only in infrequent museum screenings, if at all. Kino International's Avant-Garde series features work from Europe, England and America starting in the 1920s. Their new Avant-Garde 3: Experimental Cinema 1922 to 1954 is a selection of mainly American titles. Although some are highly polished and a couple exhibit truly experimental techniques, the majority here are one-man artistic endeavors: the very point of these films is to discover cinema's potential for individual expression. Anyone who has ever sat through a "demanding" film-school screening program will be on watch for deeper qualities, and perhaps notice when something cinematically interesting is going on beneath the handheld cinematography.
The Two-Disc set contains 19 films varying in length from just two minutes to an hour and four minutes.
Danse Macabre US 1922. Color Tinted 6 min.
The son of the head of Harvard's art department, Dudley Murphy eventually won a career directing musicals and socially conscious features such as The Emperor Jones. This elaborate dance-oriented piece is a good opener. Beautifully designed and filmed, it uses animation to set the scene and double exposures to visualize a skeletal "Death" character. The nicely synchronized dance is to Saint Saëns' musical piece; the overall approach may have been inspired by Fritz Lang's Destiny. "Death" is said to be actor Olin Howlin ... who 35 years later played the Old Man in The Blob.
Rien que les Heures (Nothing But Time) 1926 46 min., B&W
The underrated Brazilian-born director's "city symphony" silent experiment was filmed before Ruttman's Berlin, Symphony of a City and Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. It employs complicated double-exposures, montages and odd special effects. One early scene freezes into a photograph, which is then torn up by giant hands. The city is Paris and the imagery is a mix of docu work and artificial images. A little tale of the streets involves a prostitute, a thief and an old woman. The most impressive sequence shows a man served a steak in a restaurant. A view of his plate dissolves through to a vision of a cow being slaughtered, twenty years before Georges Franju's famous The Blood of Beasts. Composer Larry Marotta provides an excellent new score.
The Tell-Tale Heart 1928 B&W 20 min.
Charles F. Klein
This silent Poe adaptation is sometimes credited to its cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, who claimed that he re-shot all of Klein's work. It copies the look of Weine's 1919 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the point of plagiarism. But two brief montages of the murderer in psychic stress flutter-cut the word "kill" to brilliant effect. The new music track is by Sue Harshe.
Tomatos Another Day US 1930 B&W 7 min.
James Sibley Watson
The sarcastic hipster humor is delightful in this spoof of early talkies, a laugh riot for those aware of the stilted speech and static staging in the first talking pictures. The actors talk like distracted zombies, vacating long stage waits between every redundant line of dialogue -- the hero announces that he's leaving after he exits, for instance. The verbal jokes are painful Tex Avery- grade puns: "I give you my awl"; "I underwear my shirt is?" The maniacally awkward (and unidentified) leading lady reminds us of Shelley Duvall. Director Watson is responsible for two very serious art experiments, 1928's The Fall of the House of Usher and Lot in Sodom from 1933. Also includes five minutes of 35mm outtakes, in perfect condition!
Tarantella US 1940 Color 4 min.
Mary Ellen Bute, Ted Nemeth
Filmed with help from Norman McLaren, this commercially upbeat animated piece of "visual music" is clearly designed for the art film circuit. An explanatory title sits up front to let "civilians" in on the secret. Several animation styles are used in a free-form collection of images. The design is sharp and the colors bright, with rich blacks.
The Uncomfortable Man US 1948 B&W 23 min.
Kent Munson, Theodore Huff
Alienation enters the short list of experimental film clichés via Munson and Huff's study of a disaffected fellow wandering the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Time-capsule docu views show a WeeGee world of drunks living on the sidewalks below the 3rd Avenue El. Back in his dingy room the hero broods in isolation and bonds with images from his movie projector, like the madman in Michael Powell's later Peeping Tom. The filmmakers repeatedly return to 42nd Street to flash on a movie poster standee featuring a shirtless Burt Lancaster in Jules Dassin's Brute Force. The only problem with this subgenre is that once you've seen one alienated drifter hero, you've seen them all.
The Petrified Dog US 1948 B&W 18 min.
The next two pictures are "Workshop 20" films from the same San Francisco classroom that gave us the last collection's Potted Psalm. Instructor/teacher Peterson generated a film like this every semester as a student project. Filmed mainly in local parks, it consists of a lot of horsing around with the camera, "characters" in odd costumes, etc.
The Lead Shoes US 1949 B&W 16 min.
This second Workshop 20 effort is more structured; Peterson has obtained an anamorphic attachment for his camera and uses it to produce distorted images. The students try some tricks with reverse filming as well. The more organized storyline depicts a woman dragging a deep sea diver back to her apartment, a la a Luis Buñuel film. An occasional incongruous image results, as when she passes a fence papered with posters for Mighty Joe Young.
Four in the Afternoon US 1951 B&W 14 min.
Four episodes aren't much more than filmic records of little dances, each with a gesture in the direction of a storyline. Described as visual poems, they're filmed in San Francisco's public parks, including a location featured in Hitchcock's Vertigo.
Plague Summer US 1951 B&W 15 min.
This odd film is a reading of Kenneth Patchen's 1940 The Journey of Albion Moonlight, an anti-war parable about the fate of an odd group of characters in search of someplace secure in an absurd war-torn landscape. It's illustrated with crude drawings that occasionally add to the story's descent into apocalypse - the world is becoming more primitive. Kessler was reportedly a camera assistant to Kenneth Anger.
La mort du cerf (The Death of a Stag) France 1951 B&W 12 min.
Kirsanoff's immortality is secure with his masterpiece Ménilmontant; this docu exercise compares a group of aristocratic fox hunters with the fate of their quarry, a mighty deer run to ground by dogs. The stag is shot point blank, immediately dressed for the table and its carcass thrown to the dogs. Effective as far as it goes, but far too obvious. If anything, the prepared setups implicate the director in the slaughter -- the deer's demise is staged for the camera.
Image in the Snow US 1952 B&W 26 min.
Poet Maas (spouse of the more creative filmmaker Marie Menken) uses slow motion throughout this transparent, somewhat trite exercise in symbolism that accompanies a reading of his poetry. The young male protagonist dreams of a muscleman hero, a black dancer, and a princess who gives him a magic urn. When he wakes he rejects his mother (Menken) and wanders the cold streets, where he finds his dream characters corrupted or dying. The hero sets a dove free, finds that the urn contains a snake and retreats to a cemetery to die in the snow: "The pathways of illusion are the last hope of the lost". We wonder if Jack Kerouac's crowd would embrace or reject these (often homosexually themed) films of overwrought alienation.
Celery Stalks at Midnight France 1952 Color 3 min.
The amazing John Whitney's contributions could be counted on to brighten up short film festivals. Bouncy animation illustrates Will Bradley's catchy Big Band tune. Whitney built his own 8mm optical printer as a teenager and his experimental techniques include interesting opticals and color replacement tricks. The most brilliant real-time gag uses a stylus over a bath of oil, that produces animated "doodles". An abstract exercise with a lot of personality.
The Voices US 1953 B&W 14 min.
John E. Schmitz
This film by another Kenneth Anger associate has the distinction of being seized in an LAPD vice raid back in 1957, when Raymond Rohauer's Coronet Theater regularly scheduled notorious short subjects. It's another symbolism-filled expression of gay alienation and angst. A "medical advisor" is credited, perhaps to ward off accusations of pornography. Brides, knives, female nudity -- the hero-voyeur has problems relating to women and walks about brandishing a small crucifix. He ends up sinking into a swamp, like an old-fashioned movie monster.
Closed Vision US 1954 B&W 65 min.
Kino's previous Avant-Garde collection gave us Jean Isadore Isou's 2-hour Lettrist manifesto film Venom and Eternity, which sought to banish all narrative and rational content as a way of cleansing away all commercial and aesthetic preconceptions. That would have been swell had Isou also jettisoned his penchant for shameless self-promotion. The only coherent message was that absolutely no box office admissions will be refunded.
Marc'O (Mark Gilbert Guillamin) produced Isou's film. His much shorter mini-epic subtitled Sixty Minutes in the Interior Life of a Man shows more craft and attractive cinematography. Children dance and play on a beach, reacting to a mysterious mask; a dark haired man dies and is buried, first in the sand and then in a coffin. The soundtrack is filled with belligerent nonsense speeches from a number of voices. Announcements for candy at the concession stand are interpolated as well. Many cutout collages and scenes with a girl in a bikini figure into the stream-of-consciousness experience. The images are not random junk as in Isou's picture. Then again, for all the obfuscation and mystery on view, Marc'O takes care to render his signs and inter-titles in both French and English. Clear communication is important!
Kino's disc producer Bret Wood offers three extra films and a feature excerpt to illustrate the "diffusion of Avant-Garde techniques" on other modes of filmmaking.
Episodes in the Life of a Gin Bottle US 1925 B&W 11 min.
Bela von Block
Von Block's silent sermon on the evils of drink features a 'spirit' in a bottle that inspires alcoholics. The handsome spirit looks like a man who might appear in an alcohol advertisement. Is Kino saying that this accomplished, sordid fantasy doesn't qualify as Avant-Garde because it has a practical message?
Schichelgruber Doing the Lambeth Walk UK 1941 B&W 2 min.
Charles A. Ridley
This is the famous film fragment that alters footage from Triumph of the Will, rocking it back and forth to make storm troopers appear to dance. Hitler waves "Heil!" in rhythm to the music. Pure propaganda from a visual gag that could have been inspired by a Max Fleischer cartoon or any number of slapstick comedies. The film is a great example of popular defiance to tyranny -- it defuses dreaded visual icons by making them the butt of a joke. Jolly good show.
Dementia US 1955 B&W 7 min. (excerpt)
John Parker's scary dream of a woman's sordid parentage is like a horror version of A Christmas Carol. George Antheil's creepy score includes a wailing vocal by Marni Nixon. The notes for this title mention "the relationship between experimental psychodramas and psychotic exploitation"; I'd amplify that by saying that commercial horror and fantasy films developed the Avant-Garde spirit way beyond the confines of cine-clubs. Besides this darkly oneiric vision (also known as Daughter of Horror), the Avant-Garde spirit shows up in musicals (The Gang's All Here), romances (Peter Ibbetson) and science fiction ("X", The Man with X-Ray Eyes, 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Falling Pink US circa late 1950s Color 9 min.
Robert H. Spring
This last entry is an 8mm experimental look at the painter Llyn Foulkes, who at this time was producing canvasses similar to the work of Salvador Dali. Scenes of Foulkes and his paintings eventually break down into more familiar symbolic images. Music by Paul Mercer and Bruce Bennett.