Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Kino's newest collection of experimental films follows up on their excellent Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s from 2005. Other than losing a hyphen, the new Avant Garde 2, Experimental Cinema 1928-1954 focuses on fewer filmmakers, and in many cases, their earliest films. Fourteen of the seventeen titles are by Americans, although one of the French efforts dominates with a 111-minute running time. All are in B&W, and all are in surprisingly good condition.
As these films become harder to see with each passing year, the collection should be considered a reference work of historial value. What may have seemed revolutionary in 1946 often no longer seems as exciting. The collection comes with an insert pamphlet discussing the various films and filmmakers. It might be good to keep the Internet handy, to look up relevant essays.
Geography of the Body 7 min. USA 1943
A playful look at various body parts, many enlarged to the point of erotic ambiguity -- is that an elbow fold, or something more personal? As with most of the 40s examples in this set, the 'experimentation' consists largely at poking the camera at objects or emotions given little attention in the commercial cinema; the film is a moving still photography exhibit. Filmmaker Willard Maas was the husband of filmmaker, actress and painter Marie Menken; Andy Warhol called them "the last of the Bohemians." Includes a commentary by George Barker.
The Mechanics of Love 5 min. USA 1955
Willard Maas & Ben Moore
More evidence that the 'avant-garde' had a sense of humor. This show begins with a couple about to make love, and then does a tour of innocuous objects in the room around them that invariably suggest sexual activity. At the time, linking images to form ideas without words constituted film poetry - like many of the filmmakers represented, Willard Maas was a poet experimenting in the visual arts. Music by John Gruen
Visual Variations on Noguchi 4 min. USA 1945
This is a simple set of moving images found in the studio of sculptor/designer Isamu Noguchi. It consists mainly of pans across turning paper and pieces of sculpture. According to Wikipedia, Willard Maas and Marie Menken were the models for Martha and George in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Music by Lucia Dlugoszewski.
House of Cards 16 min. USA 1947
Another case of a film by an artist noted more for his paintings -- and paintings figure in Vogel's expressionistic images. The 'story' may have been suggested by the Black Dahlia affair, what with newspapers appearing about torture murders.
The Potted Psalm 18 min. USA 1946
Sidney Peterson & James Broughton
Another first film from Peterson, a San Francisco Bay area art professor, and young James Broughton, who went on to make many more films. New score by Susan Harshe.
The Cage 16 min. USA 1947
A much more structured effort, this was a class project and becomes kind of a catch-all of surreal images, some on the silly side. It's basically an interior study of the mind of an artist, by students of Buńuel and Dalí -- the artist begins by plucking out his own eye. New music by Larry Marotta.
Christmas, U.S.A. 13 min. USA 1949
According to Gary Morris' article in the Bright Lights Film Journal, Markopoulus was a USC film school graduate known as a "supreme erotic poet"; when he left for Greece in 1967, he did his best to remove his film work from circulation. This early picture shows a lonely young man drifting around a carnival site. New music by Larry Marotta.
Adventures of Jimmy 10 min. USA 1950
This picture proves that experimental film needn't be over-intellectualized; filmmaker Broughton plays Jimmy, a hayseed who journeys far and wide to find an appropriate mate. It plays like a joke, with earnest voiceovers and silly fantasies ... at the beach, Jimmy spies a boatful of lovelies. Will the girl of his dreams be one of these? Music by Weldon Kees.
Interim 24 min. USA 1952
Interim brings us to the first film of the incredibly prolific Stan Brakhage, who has 373 titles listed in the IMDB. The lengthy tale shows a lonely boy (recurring Brakhage actor Walter Newcomb) wandering under a railroad bridge. He meets a lonely girl. When it rains they take refuge in a shack and kiss. Then they part. The wordless story is simply a record of their mutual isolation.
Unglassed Windows Cast A Terrible Reflection 29 min. USA 1953
Brakhage's first films were done through a Denver film group, and this extended show is another exercise in lonely visuals. A group of students explore an abandoned mine site, finding plenty of odd compositions in the many-leveled structures. A rudimentary 'story' shows a fight and an accident. Like Interim, the show concentrates at length on visuals -- the setting mirrors the attitudes of the characters.
The Way to Shadow Garden 11 min. USA 1954
This San Francisco-based Brakhage film is much more self-consciously arty. Walter Newcomb is a drunken artist who returns home, putters around his studio and then becomes hysterical. When he opens the door to his garden the image inverts to negative.
The Extraordinary Child 13 min. USA 1954
A strange comedy about a married couple having a baby, which turns out to be a full-grown prankster in a diaper. Walter Newcomb is the cigar stealing 'baby' who interferes with a frenzied poker game while his distressed mother looks on. The baby eventually escapes, hiding on the back of the car of a visiting pediatrician.
Rebus-Film No. 1 15 min. USA 1928
An American film that looks like a German picture converted with new inter-titles. It's a filmed crossword puzzle with flash-cut visual clues instead of word hints. A lot of creative animation but rather slow. A novelty included because of the fame of its maker? In one brief tilted shot we see the front of the famous UFA Palast Am Zoo, a famous Berlin movie theater.
The Fall of the House of Usher 12 min. USA 1928
James Watson & Melville Webber
Edgar Allan Poe would have been pleased by this technically sophisticated film, which is a marvel of craft and artistry. Dozens of cleverly designed multiple exposures blend to create expressive haunted images; the fluidity of the dissolves and transitions is masterful. Escher-like patterns 'express' the idea of the steps leading to the tomb, while excellent lighting and twisted sets remind of Caligari. The only question about the inclusion of Usher and Rebus here is that they have been in at least two other collections and are not as rare as some of the other films.
Pacific 231 10 min. France 1949
A powerful picture that would be an excellent companion for John Frankenheimer's The Train. The 'poetic documentary' presents a giant locomotive, which is coupled to a train and then sent out on a run to the city, chugging like a juggernaut. It's cut to a dramatic score by Arthur Honegger, with extremely dynamic angles (many unusual camera mounts) and editing that for a few seconds reminds us that Mitry was an associate of Abel Gance on Napoleon and other movies. Very much rooted in reality and industrial hardware, the film's steam locomotive soon appears to be a living thing.
Arrière Saison 15 min. France 1950
Kirsanoff is going to remain immortal for his 1926 masterpiece Ménilmontant. This 'tone poem' minimalist exercise is the exact opposite of that film and would be a good choice to show with something by Robert Bresson. A woman waits for her husband, a woodcutter, during long lonely days. She becomes weary and leaves him to live with her sister. He takes the news with a look of resignation, but the next day she returns to wait for him again. It's all muted emotion and stasis. We don't envision a joyous reunion when the husband returns from work ... the movie is about emptiness and despair.
Traité de bave et d'èternité (Venom and Eternity) 111 min. France 1951
The final entry in this collection is a monumental, and monumentally annoying, manifesto for a new art movement of historic significance. Film can be an excellent medium to introduce new ideas, or to challenge the viewer to see the world in a different light; I'd nominate Chris Marker's Sans soleil as a successful example. Jean Isidore Isou's recent passing was ignored next to Michaelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, and we can easily understand why. Isou was a one-man exponent of "Lettrism", and his Venom and Eternity (better translated as 'Slime and Eternity' comes off as a desperate attempt to secure its acceptance. It's a tough film to watch, as it consists mainly of subtitled voiceovers, interrupted with frequent scrolling inter-titles that harangue the viewer with Isou's message. It's like a room with many doors, and behind each one is another vacuum cleaner salesman.
Lettrism (spelled Letterism in many of the scroll titles) is Isou's concept for a movement to banish all narrative and rational content from films as a way of cleansing away the commercial garbage and aesthetic preconceptions. He also calls it 'discrepant cinema', and 'demolished cinema.' The result would be a fresh start on a new filmic language. Isou is impassioned and dramatic. Most of his discourse is a narcissistic ramble around pre-existing ideas.
The film begins with a five-minute audio-only cacophony, followed by an infomercial-like gallery of books by Jean Isidore Isou ... establishing his credentials. About halfway through we are given a long passage of Lettrist Poems, which are simply staccato-shouted consonant noises, whose intention is to destroy poetry by getting back to the fundamental letter-sounds.
The bulk of the film is a conceit. An actor plays Daniel, a film theoretician who has just delivered his manifesto to an emotional audience at a film forum. Daniel is an obvious surrogate for Isou. While he wanders around Paris in mostly random scenes, we hear what is supposedly the speech he gave in the forum, complete with hecklers denouncing him and his ideas as boring: "Get to the point!"
In the second section, the narration interrupts the Lettrist Manifesto for a third-person talk that resembles a romance novel. Here is where we are supposed to see Lettrism demonstrated. When Daniel talks about meeting a girl, a girl indeed shows up on the sidewalk, which is as close as Venom and Eternity comes to a narrative. Daniel is as down on romance as he is on the film industry. He rails against bourgeois domesticity with statements like, "Our love will make people want to throw up."
The artistic arguments eventually return. Daniel's girlfriend steps out of character to criticize the film as well. Sure enough, by the end of this marathon, a female voice from the audience comes to the rescue, praising Isou's ideas as revolutionary. The speaker (Daniel? Isou?) also congratulates himself for his brilliance. It's as off-putting as Soviet propaganda that tells the audience how to think. Isou tries to equate Lettrism with Dada and Surrealism, neither of which were immediately accepted by the artistic community. He assures us that in 25 years Lettrism will prove the true path to cinema enlightenment. We then hear some vague promises about the grand effects to come from Isou's genius.
This is all a verbal diatribe. On screen, the random shots of the actor roaming Paris are interrupted with random stock shots -- sailors, images from Southeast Asia, etc. Many are upside-down and overlaid with ink doodles. Curiously, the ink doodles just happen to blot out many faces that might be recognizable. Could Isou be concerned with the legal ramifications of using 'found' film footage? Isou has demolished cinema all right, as the images are random wallpaper behind what should be a long-playing record or a text manifesto.
The film presentation becomes more complicated by the fact that Raymond Rohauer has translated Isou's scrolling inter-titles in the annoyingly pompous style we're accustomed to from his old 16mm presentations. They play as more sales rants challenging the viewer to stop being negative and accept his genius. Isou takes an aggressive attitude, telling viewers that those who hiss and boo at his film are philistines, and that great visionaries like himself are never understood in their own time. Added to that is the information that absolutely NO admission refunds will be given out!
The film is organized into several sections, with more scrolling inter-titles continuing the job of intimidating the audience. The cast list includes some famous people who happen to show up in the stock shots, although at one point the actor sits with Jean Cocteau in a street café. The cast credits repeat once or twice, accompanied by an explanatory title informing us that credits in Lettrist films can be anywhere they want to be.
Venom and Eternity clearly has historical interest but watching it is an exercise far more maddening than the most inane artistic discussions back at film school: "Ah yes. A magnificent work. Your film had organic unity." Even if Lettrism didn't catch on to revolutionize cinema culture, Isou's arguments are not without merit ... it's just a merciless pain to sit through this presentation. Isou claims that annoying his audience is his function as an artist. I'm told that 'Lettrism' was a stepping-stone that led to more movements seeking to find artistic essence by ridding ourselves of established forms; Yoko Ono was a serious exponent of this.
Kino producer Bret Wood reconstructed the film, adding 34 minutes to Raymond Rohauer's shorter American version. To direct readers to a more tolerant discourse on Jean-Isidore Isou and Venom and Eternity, I recommend this J. J. Murphy Independent Cinema Article from August 7. I bow to Mr. Murphy's more tolerant attitude; I suppose that, when it comes to the hard core of the Avant-Garde, Savant will remain a dilettante. Apparently Isou had trouble with others in the Lettrist movement he began, as seen in this Open Letter to Jean-Isidore Isou from 1952. Radical thinkers almost always have trouble reaching agreement on anything, which explains why the world is controlled by conformists.
Kino Video's DVD of Avant Garde 2, Experimental Cinema 1928-1954 is ultimately for film theorists and historians, and film students that want to dig deeper into the history of the Avant-Garde. Kino producer Bret Wood has done a good job of organizing the menus and other navigation tools, but unless James Broughton and Stan Brakhage are household names to you, keep the insert booklet at the ready. Sometimes one has to be talked through these things. Elliott Stein's insert notes are very helpful, with the proviso that the laudatory quotes one reads may not be reflected in one's personal experience with the movies. Remember that these pictures played mostly for specialized audiences in cozy non-theatrical venues ... where every anti-establishment tic would more likely than not be hailed as a wondrous innovation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Avant Garde 2, Experimental Cinema 1928-1954 rates:
Short Films: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Insert booklet written by Elliott Stein
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 15, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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