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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
The Mechanics of Love 5 min. USA 1955
Visual Variations on Noguchi 4 min. USA 1945
House of Cards 16 min. USA 1947
The Potted Psalm 18 min. USA 1946
The Cage 16 min. USA 1947
Christmas, U.S.A. 13 min. USA 1949
Adventures of Jimmy 10 min. USA 1950
Interim 24 min. USA 1952
Unglassed Windows Cast A Terrible Reflection 29 min. USA 1953
The Way to Shadow Garden 11 min. USA 1954
The Extraordinary Child 13 min. USA 1954
Rebus-Film No. 1 15 min. USA 1928
The Fall of the House of Usher 12 min. USA 1928
Pacific 231 10 min. France 1949
Arrière Saison 15 min. France 1950
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,
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