Avant-garde movies are sort of the 'crazy aunt in the attic' of the
film world. While animation, documentaries, short subjects, dramas
and the like are universally accepted they are done so only when they don't
push the boundaries of filmmaking too far. Experiment a little too
much, and the public won't accept it. For their fourth collection
of movies released on DVD, the American Film Archives have decided to unlock
the door and let the mad relative out to see what she has to say.
What may come as a surprise to some is that these movies are not pretentious
and opaque. They are often very engaging and thought provoking and
deserve to be seen more often.
Treasures From American Film Archives IV: American Avant-Garde
Film, 1947-1986, contains 26 selections that run over five hours.
Made on small, sometimes nonexistent budgets and occasionally even created
on little better than consumer-grade equipment the films in this collection
have never been released to home video before, and certainly not in the
restored state that these are in. It's a rare opportunity to discover
some little scene films that may make you look at movies in a different
So, what's in this collection? All sorts of short experimental
movies. There are animated films, documentaries, experiments with
time and narrative structure, and films that are purposefully abstract.
Many of them are hard or even impossible to describe with words, such as
the opening film, Harry Smith's Interwoven #3. A collection
of colors and shapes that dance across the screen while Dizzy Gillespie's
Guarachi Guaro plays, it's a beautiful piece.
One of the best films in this collection appears near the end of the
set, Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) (1971). In this a hand
places a series of 13 still photographs on a flame, one by one, and burns
them until there is nothing but ash left. While this is going on
a narrator describes the picture and the associations it has for the filmmaker.
The brilliant twist in this film is that the image the narrator is describing
is not the one that is currently burning; he's talking about another print
in the series. Much like the movie Memento, itself one of
the most avant-garde mainstream films to be released to a wide audience,
viewers are instantly engaged. They have to remember what the narrator
has said previously to fully understand the current photograph that's being
destroyed while also trying to memorize what's currently being said.
A bit complex but a very rewarding film.
Another stand-out movie is Christopher Maclaine's The End (1953).
This masterpiece of avant-garde filmmaking follows several people on the
day that they die. They expire in different manners but in all cases
their death was a good thing. By having their lives end when they
did, they avoid an unthinkable horror.
There are other great films in this collection too; film titles unknown
to even the most avid movie buffs, but worth tracking down in any case
including Ron Rice's Chumlum, Marie Menken's Go! Go! Go!,
and Ken Jacobs' Little Stabs at Happiness. There are also
offerings from some well recognized names such as artists Andy Warhol and
Joseph Cornell, and filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Like the previous three
American Film Archive editions, this is an amazing and important collection.
These 26 films come on two DVDs each in its own keepcase. The
pair of cases are housed in a thick board slipcase which also contains
a 70-page book. This accompanying book has information about all
of the filmmakers as well as their product.
The soundtracks are a mixed bag. Some of the older films have
cracks and pops or background noise which isn't surprising give the technology
of the time and the equipment that was used. Overall they sound fine, and
there are no examples where the audio adversely affects the viewing experience.
Like the audio, the video quality varies. All of the films are
presented with thier origianl aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in tact. Some
are soft and others don't have a great amount of detail, but that's not
surprising when all of these came from 16mm masters. In every
case however this is the best that there is, so there's really no use complaining
The excellent book that accompanies the set is the only extra.
Just as artists can create a wide variety of paintings using canvas
and oils, so to can filmmakers make an astonishing array of images using
shades of light and film stock. This set shows what happens when
people with imagination push the boundaries of what can be done with film.
While a few of these short movies failed to impress me, I found the vast
majority of them engaging and sometimes even mesmerizing. Profits
from this set go to the restoration of other films, so buy purchasing a
copy you're helping film preservation in America and getting an excellent
set of movies. A win-win situation. Highly Recommended.