Looking Back at the Avant Garde

by Michael Barrett

1 December 2009

These two new DVDs help us take a look back at forward thinkers, and although no one will like all these films equally, the whole is an experience not only edifying but, at its most radical, even pleasurable.
From Rien que les heures (Nothing but Time) 

Kino’s Avant-Garde 3: Experimental Cinema 1922-1954 is as essential a collection as the previous volumes, or nearly. These two discs contain mostly American films with some French input. All were produced independently, even personally, and all use technical or narrative experiments.

The first three films date from the silent era (and several of the later films are essentially silent movies as well, even when they have music or narration). Dudley Murphy’s quaint Danse Macabre (1922) is basically a dance-based music video for the Saint-Saens work of the same name. An image of fiddling Death is superimposed on a dancing couple in the room of a castle. Like Nosferatu, Death disappears when the sun rises and his threat is temporarily abated. I’d never heard that people don’t die in the daytime, but it’s good to know. There are crude bits of animation and the print has color tints.

cover art

Avant-Garde 3: Experimental Cinema 1922-1954

US DVD: 17 Nov 2009

From 1926, Rien que les heures (Nothing but Time) is a 46-minute item from Alberto Cavalcanti, whose peripatetic career included the British horror anthology Dead of Night. This is a city film, a form of documentary stretching from Manhatta (1921) to the classic features Berlin—Symphony of a Great City and Man with a Movie Camera. The city is Paris, and the approach is class-conscious. Title cards tell us the film is avoiding the rich and glamorous for the mundane.

The opening is a symphony of eye-catching devices, and we even look at modern French paintings to get the idea that film is a rival form of art. Actors play a few recurring characters: a prostitute, a woman who sells papers, a sailor. This leads to a bit of melodrama at the conclusion. Highlights include a carousel spin with many superimpositions; a montage of kisses; and a glimpse of the slaughterhouse, prefiguring the documentary Blood of the Beasts. This glimpse is introduced via a shot of what someone eats on a plate. The print is well scored by Larry Marotta, whose many moods include a Goreckian wash of musical waves.

Charles F. Klein’s The Telltale Heart (1928) is more evidence of how Edgar Allan Poe inspired surrealists and expressionists. (Two versions of The Fall of the House of Usher were made the same year.) It’s a straightforward adaptation, mostly emphasizing wacky, jagged, Caligari-inspired set design, but there are a couple of frantic montages in moments of intense mental crisis. One has the hand-painted “KILL” flashing all over the screen. Sue Harshe’s music especially abets the protagonist’s stylized performance during the moment when he senses the beating of his victim’s heart.

James Sibley Watson’s Tomatoes Another Day (1930), written by songwriter Alec Wilder, is a comedy of eccentric, facetious acting, all declamatory and redundant yet uninflected. Such is the approach for a woman and her lover, while the husband has a more normal presentation. The absurd skit degenerates into a series of puns, with death as a final punchline. Unbelievably, outtakes of this film survive and are included as a bonus. (Watson made one of those aforementioned House of Usher films, which is available on Vol. 2 of this series.)

Mary Ellen Bute

Mary Ellen Bute

Mary Ellen Bute’s Tarantella (1940) is one two color films in the set, and both are examples of abstract, music-based animation of transfiguring lines and shapes in the tradition of Oskar Fischinger. The other is John Whitney’s jazz-scored, blue and green Celery Stalks at Midnight (1952) on Disc Two. Bute is now overlooked but had notable success in her day. Her film explains itself as the title dance “presented musically and in linear forms in color.” Whitney’s film has an odd visual texture based on photographing a bath of colored oil over a light and through which he creates self-erasing shapes with a stylus. He also uses cut-out paper shapes and colorful scratches etched into the film.

Skipping over most of the ‘40s and going directly to postwar malaise, Kent Munson and Theodore Huff’s The Uncomfortable Man (1948) is completely silent, without even music. It’s partly a city film of New York (with emphasis on brownstones and the view from the elevated train) and partly a film of subjective tricks. It’s self-conscious about being a movie, and one sequence projects images on the screen of the protagonist’s face. He’s having some kind of breakdown, perhaps from seeing too many movies or not enough. We see crowds on the street in front of theatres showing films with loaded titles like Brute Force and Panic.

The last three items on Disc One are really getting somewhere. Two are from Sidney Peterson, a teacher who made one film a semester with his classes. The Petrified Dog (1948) consists mostly of people doing odd things in a garden or park while we hear concrete music. The activities are in some way artistic, such as pretending to paint within an empty frame, or taking photos of statues. A child looks around in something like horror.

People walk the street. There’s some slow-motion, some appearing/disappearing effects. A skit about a masseur combines slapstick comedy with the macabre as one patient ends up wrestling a skeleton. In fact, almost everything in the film is visually a comedy but the soundtrack makes it disturbing or sinister.

No silence for Peterson; he’s fully committed to the interactions and disjunctions of sound and image, as demonstrated even more amazingly in The Lead Shoes. The soundtrack is a masterpiece of loud, raucous, beautiful folk-blues performances at times resembling an emergency siren; K.A. Westphal’s excellent on-screen notes describe it as a “perverse sacred-harp jazz variation on two English ballads”. There’s a girl playing hopscotch and a woman in a slip who does peculiar things with an underwater diving suit that sometimes has a man in it. The image is distorted by the choice of lens, and some images run backwards. Vivid, harrowing, almost literally nightmarish, this is one of the set’s highlights.

James Broughton’s Four in the Afternoon is a poetry video, as Broughton narrates four of his poems to filmic illustration. In contrast to the solemn self-involvement of the Munson-Huff piece or others of its time, Broughton’s film demonstrates a whimsical, physical, affirmative, erotic charm. (More such is on display in the box set The Films of James Broughton.)

In the first section, a girl trips down a San Francisco stairway that looks like the same one in Christopher Maclaine’s contemporary The End, which is in the box Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986. (The more of these you see, the more they speak to each other.) As a child’s game, she wonders who she’ll marry. Then there’s a youth yearning for love, then a mature couple dancing with humor, then an older man (“the aging balletomane”) recalling lost love in the scene of most delicate trickery.

Disc Two covers the early ‘50s and opens with Chester Kessler’s Plague Summer (1951), a series of drawings illustrating events from Kenneth Patchen’s The Journal of Albion Moonlight. If you remember kids’ programs that show illustrations from picture books while someone reads the story, that’s what it’s like—except characters die in absurdly off-handed ways.

From the same year, Dimitri Kirsanoff’s The Death of a Stag looks like a simple documentary of a stag hunt, introduced by lofty narration about its historical tradition, until we get to the simple, jarring moment of the actual death (cross-cut with shots of chopping down a mighty tree), at which point (Kirsanoff may assume) the images of elegantly dressed hunters leave a sour taste.

Willard Maas’ Image in the Snow (1952) uses a mournful cello and a narration of gobbledy-gook alternating with lugubrious doggerel. We begin with a young man’s homoerotic dream and finish with his wanderings through rubble, a graveyard, the closed church, and finally the snow. Alienation was definitely “in” that year. (Of course mainstream cinema had plenty of people enjoying themselves, but only within narrow parameters.) The notes on this film are especially telling. Maas is quoted saying it was “only slightly more expensive than a year on the couch”, and critic Parker Tyler noted that it “pushes sentimentality to the point of hysteria at the same moment that it vividly documents a certain typical violence of adolescence”.

Blessedly free of narration, John E. Schmitz’s The Voices (1953) continues the tradition of films about pretty young men wandering around. This has a glimpse of female nudity as our hero peers in windows (as did the man in the previous film), and that darned crucifix is in the way of his desires again. As he crosses some rubble to a lake or sea, the image is highly exposed and saturated with light.

These films clearly owe something to Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, which may have ruined many a young aesthete in the way Hemingway and Carver ruined many a young writer. Emulation of a master isn’t always a good thing when you emulate the surface more than the depth. Westphal’s notes observe that this film wasn’t mentioned in Jonas Mekas’ 1955 article carping on the “conspiracy of homosexuality” in American underground film, but it fits the bill. It was playing with Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks when both were seized by the Los Angeles police at Raymond Rohauer’s Coronet Theatre in 1957.

Speaking of Cocteau, he’s credited somehow with dialogue and screen treatment for the 65-minute Closed Vision, written, produced and directed by Marc’O (Marc-Gilbert Guillaumin). One of the founders of Lettrism (which breaks art down into its component parts, like the letters of words), Marc’O produced Jean-Isidore Isou’s remarkable feature Venom and Eternity (in Volume 2 of this series). Titles inform us that Marc’O's film was hailed by Cocteau as the most significant avant-garde film since his Blood of a Poet. That sounds audacious enough if he wrote dialogue for it, but Cocteau believed in honest self-promotion.

This movie doesn’t want anybody to get lost, so both cards and narration take a good deal of time to explain that we’re about to watch what goes through a man’s mind as he walks on the beach for an hour, “the aesthetic representation of a stream of consciousness”. The viewer “should not look to a comprehension by logic of the scenario, the sound, or the pictures, but rather to a general emotion which gives meaning to the unrecognized beauty of innermost thought.” It’s not too convincing as a man’s thoughts, unless the man is Cocteau, and then it’s really an illustration of a kind of prose-poem complete with observations and aphorisms.

People on a beach. A young man buried under a cross. A teenage girl with long blond hair. Children play like little monsters. Many voices say things like “A man is not an artist unless he has dreamed of stealing with impunity.” (This is the version with an English soundtrack, by the way; there was also a French track but that option isn’t here.) At one point the voice of the supposedly 16-year-old girl says, “Love makes God powerless and accursed, so God becomes his own contradiction, the devil, the impotence of God. You know, that’s why the devil only makes you smile. He’s not evil, he’s the absurdity of God.” Immediately the male chorus responds, “No girl could ever say those things. Only a man would identify himself with a being he desires, and in loving her, love himself.”

That gives you some idea. At the end, the multivalent subject decides to make a movie like this. “Only those haunted by insomnia would enjoy such a film,” thinks one voice, and another chimes in, “Critics are professional onanists.” In fairness, we should point out that many critics are amateurs. (There’s probably a Latin pun in there somewhere.)

A few items are listed as bonuses. Bela von Block’s Episodes in the Life of a Gin Bottle (1925), well-described by its title, is intended as a warning on the evils of demon alcohol. The episodes all reek of the illicit, as this was during Prohibition. A little man is double-exposed into the bottle to represent its spirit.

From the UK, Schichelgruber Doing the Lambeth Walk (1941) is a famous propaganda film credited to Charles A. Ridley of the British Ministry of Information. Distributed free and seen in countless newsreels under various titles, it uses tricky editing on footage from Triumph of the Will to give the impression that Hitler and German soldiers are dancing to the British tune. Making the joke more delicious is the fact that the dance had been condemned by Nazis as degenerate.

There’s a five-minute excerpt from John Parker’s Dementia (1955), an avant-garde feature that got released in alternate form as Daughter of Horror. (Kino has released a DVD with both versions.) From the late ‘50s, Falling Pink is carefully labeled “a surrealistic study of an infantile creator”. We see a young artist (Llyn Foulkes, misspelled in the credits) who paints Dali-esque images, apparently kills the paperboy, and dresses up in a fright mask. The faded, grainy 8mm color adds to the effect. The notes say its images feel “resolutely non-deliberate in intent and effect. They emerge not as personal expression, but as generic images of anguish floating in the avant-garde ether filtered through an almost ‘outsider’ sense of craft.” We couldn’t have said it better.

Don’t expect stunningly restored clarity on these prints, but they’re all in good shape, with Closed Vision especially sharp. Many prints come from George Eastman House and others from Douris Films. (For the record, Danse Macabre, Tarantella, The Telltale Heart and Tomatoes Another Day are also included in the Unseen Cinema box set.) Although no one viewer will like all these films equally, the whole is an experience not only edifying but, at its most radical, even pleasurable.

From The Telltale Heart

From The Telltale Heart

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