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 light.
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 about it.
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.