CAPSULE: “MASTERWORKS OF AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE EXPERIMENTAL FILM 1920-1970”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: James Agee, , Bruce Baillie, Stan Brakhage, James Broughton, Rudy Burckhardt, Mary Ellen Bute, Joseph Cornell, Jim Davis, , Marcel Duchamp (as Rrose Selavy), Emlen Etting, Oskar Fischinger, Robert Florey, Amy Greenfield, Alexander Hammid, Hilary Harris, Hy Hirsh, Ian Hugo, Lawrence Janiak, Lawrence Jordan, Francis Lee, Fernand Léger, Owen Land, Helen Levitt, Jay Leyda, Janice Loeb, Jonas Mekas, Marie Menken, Dudley Murphy, Ted Nemeth, Tom Palazzolo, Bruce Posner, Charles Sheeler, Phil Solomon, Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, Francis Thompson, Slavko Vorkpich, J.S. Watson Jr., Melville Webber

FEATURING: Too many actors (many amateurs) to list

PLOT: A collection of influential short experimental films spanning five decades.

Still from Our Lady of the Sphere (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: To be clear, one of the individual films featured in this compilation (Meshes of the Afternoon) has already made the List. Many of the others are noteworthy, but we deem none quite List-worthy. As a collection, these discs are recommended for weird movie fans and adventurous cinephiles. This is a must-own, cornerstone release for dedicated experimental film devotees.

COMMENTS: Released by silent movie specialists Flicker Alley and curated by director/film historian Bruce Posner, “Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film” is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin—although we might quibble about whether every one of these films is actually a “masterwork,” they are all, at the very least, representative of a major figure or category of experimental film. These shorts, spread out over two DVDs or Blu-rays, are  rich and challenging, and may be best experienced in small nibbles, one or two at a time, contemplated over a span of several evenings, accompanied by a fine sipping beverage.

The films are arranged chronologically and although they span the full range of artistic expression, they often fall into several distinct types or subgenres. One of the earliest forms is the “city symphony” (à la 1929’s Man With a Movie Camera), of which the very first film in this collection, “Manhatta,” is an example. In a city symphony the director simply takes his camera into an urban environment (in American film usually New York City) and films what he sees, later arranging the footage into a montage that paints a portrait of the town. There are five or six examples of the form here, and although this can be one of the dullest of formats, Francis Thompson’s 1958 eyebending opus “N.Y., N.Y.,” shot with an array of distorting lenses of the director’s own design, is a notably thrilling exception. Other film types you may notice are the figure study, where the lens focuses on the human body in motion (“9 Variations on a Dance Theme,” “transport,” Maya Deren’s “Meditation on Violence”) and purely abstract films (“1941,” which uses broken light bulbs and wet paint, or Stan Brakage’s “scratch on the emulsion” experiments).

An especially noteworthy subset of these experiments is the music study (itself a branch of the abstract film movement dubbed “Absolute Film”), a form especially popular in the late ’30s and early ’40s, which synchronizes classical (or other) musical compositions to visual stimuli. The most historically significant of these is the famous Dada experiment “Ballet Mécanique,” with its shots of gears in motion contrasted with people on swings, innovative kaleidoscope and mirror shots (including a scene with the cameraman visible as he films a chrome sphere), and a dancing jazz tramp made from construction paper. The film is actually French, but many Americans collaborated on it, including composer George Anthiel. He was commissioned to create the abrasive, mechanical score, featuring airplane propellers and doorbells among its unusual instruments; the composition was completed but, after an artistic falling out between composer and director, never synced with the film until a  2000 reconstruction. Among other offerings in this genre, Oskar Fischinger’s “An Optical Poem” is a cosmic odyssey of geometric shapes (often resembling orbiting planetary bodies) dancing to Franz Liszt’s ebullient “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2”; it’s a personal favorite and was actually commissioned by a major studio, MGM. Given what underground filmmakers were doing at this time, ‘s Fantasia seems in retrospect a far more outré and cutting edge outing than contemporary audiences realize.

A few of the experiments are tedious, or only of interest to other filmmakers who wish to study the techniques therein, but that’s what the “next chapter” button was built for. Among the rest you will find many glittering treasures. What follows is a quick survey of some of the most notable or interesting films not already mentioned above. The 1927 silent satire “The Life and Death of 9413—a Hollywood Extra” is nearly a narrative film, a tribute to German Expressionism and a trove of inspiration for Guy Maddin. 1933’s “Lot in Sodom” is similarly linear, by this collection’s standards and assuming you know your Genesis well enough to follow along. At 26 minutes, the luminous and slyly homoerotic offering is also the meatiest of the lot. Kenneth Anger’s “Eaux d’artifice,” a semi-abstract study of the statues and fountains of the Villa d’Este, is not one of the Luciferean filmmaker’s more provocative works, but it’s important to have him represented. So, also, is the seminal Jonas Mekas, whose wildly-edited documents of everyday life are represented here by two excerpts from his Walden diaries. One of the weirdest gems is Lawrence Jordan’s “Our Lady of the Sphere” (pictured above), a bizarre cutout collage following the surrealistic adventures of a little boy, a old-timey diver in a bulky helmet, and a Victorian lady with a sphere for a head across ever-changing tinted landscapes, constantly harassed by the director’s joy-buzzer effect. Finally, “Love It/Leave It” is a smoky, seldom seen counterculture riff on the Vietnam era’s “my country, love it or leave it” slogan that blends nude beauty contests, parades, riot police, and political rallies into an American pastiche that’s simultaneously critical and patriotic.

No one will love every bonbon here—if they did, the collection would be insufficiently eclectic. But if you don’t find something in this package to delight you, you need to give up on movies as an art form and go back to .

At least five of these shorts (including “Manhatta” and “Ballet Mécanique”) underwent significant restoration for this release, while new scores were composed for many of the silent films (and, in the case of “Meshes of the Afternoon,” the old score was scrubbed).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many also have distinctive surrealist qualities — there are overlapping images, distorted images, forms and shapes with seemingly unusual relationships. Understanding their function — or why they do not have one — is what makes these films fascinating to behold… If interested in the history of experimental cinema in America, I urge you to consider adding the two-disc set to your collections because there really isn’t another release quite like it on the market. VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.”–Dr. Svet Atanasov, Blu-ray.com

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