Altered States of Cinema, or Movies to Hallucinate By

Michael Barrett

The short films collected in Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1970 offer something to confuse, astound, bore, and dazzle any viewer.

Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1970

Director: Various
Cast: Various
Distributor: Flicker Alley
Year: 1920-1970
US DVD release date: 2015-10-06

There's something here to confuse, astound, bore and dazzle any viewer, although it's impossible to guess which will have what effect on whom. Curator/annotator Bruce Posner and producer David Shepherd have gathered 37 short movies, with new soundtracks for most of the silent films, 10 of which were previously gathered in Unseen Cinema, their essential DVD box of a decade ago. This combo pack, two Blu-rays and two DVD's, sensibly arranges the films in chronological order and divides them by decade. We'll divide them into thematic categories for the purposes of cogitation, and the results of our analysis will be that these are arbitrary overlapping categories.

1. Cinema as City Documentary: The city film is a genre invented by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's elegant Manhatta (1921), here in stunning 2K digital restoration with two score options (one on each disc). These views of Manhattan, with quotations by Walt Whitman, emphasize the monumental to unite the concepts of "city" and "cinema" in modernity. People are distant masses of rushing ants, a point that marks a tension between celebration and discomfort.

Robert Florey's Skyscraper Symphony (1929) offers more of the same, contrasting with the street and human-level eyes of Jay Leyda's A Bronx Morning (1931); Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee's In the Street (1946), with Spanish Harlem kids cutting up at Halloween; Rudy Burckhardt's The Pursuit of Happiness (1940), which climaxes in funny and lovely optical effects (changing speeds, split-screen) as satirical commentary; and the delirious kaleidscope-ism and distorting mirrors of Francis Thompson's N.Y., N.Y. (1958), the wittiest and most dazzling example. Bruce Baillie's Castro Street (1966) indescribably treats and layers images of a railroad yard.

2. Cinema as Machine, as Music, as Machine Music: Related to city modernism is the ambivalent intoxication of machinery in Fernand Léger and Dudley Nichols' Ballet Mechanique (1924), rapidly edited with colored inserts and an animated salute to Charles Chaplin (who probably saw this as a precursor to his Modern Times ) and a raucous score by George Antheil; the optical spirals and untranslated French wordplay of Marcel Duchamp's Anémic Cinéma (1926); the impersonal assembly-line nightmare of Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich's The Life and Death of 9413 -- A Hollywood Extra (1927), made with actors, cut-outs, and models; and the whimsical, suggestive close-ups of cogs and gears in Ralph Steiner's Mechanical Principles (1930).

3. Cinema as Dream Dance: Like proto-MTV videos, some of these musically edited films emphasize ballet and erotic gestures. Thus, the hocus pocus of Emlen Etting's Poem 8 (1933), as women dance and pose before a (male) subjective camera; the writhing semi-nudity and montages of Watson & Webber's Bible-based Lot in Sodom (1933); the simmeringly violent, frankly symbolic split-personality dream of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, here with three restored shots; Deren's dance film Meditation on Violence (1948), with its phases marked by either Chinese flute or Haiti drums or both together, and starring Chao Li Chi (the butler on TV's Falcon Crest ); and Hilary Harris' circling 9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1967). Not to forget a man "dancing" with a kangaroo in the found footage of Joseph Cornell's Thimble Theater (1968).

4. Cinema as Poetry and Eros: Many artists talked of "visual poetry" and used sexual themes and metaphors. Aside from those already mentioned, James Broughton's Four in the Afternoon (1951) humorously illustrates childlike love poems; Kenneth Anger's Eaux d'Artifice (1953) has a masked woman strolling in a garden of fountains, set to Vivaldi; Ian Hugo's Bells of Atlantis (1953) adds color effects and electronic music to an underwater revery by his wife, Anais Nin; Marie Menken's Hurry Hurry (1957) covers sperm cells with fire imagery; and Amy Greenfield's Transport, labelled a dance, is about grappling and lifting people.

There's sensual excess in the "documentaries" of Tom Palazzolo's Love It/Leave It (1970), whose witty montage of public events includes a nudist pageant, and a loud, strobic, fragmented nightclub scene from Jonas Mekas' epic Walden (1969).

5. Cinema as Animation and Abstraction: Here's the razzle dazzle, baby. The eye-popping full-color musical abstractions of Oskar Fischinger's An Optical Poem (1938) and Mary Ellen Bute's Tarantella (1940) prefigure Fantasia; Bute was still at it in 1952's Abstronic. Prismatic light effects define Jim Davis' Evolution ("The spectator may simply relax and look at these films as one would listen to music," he says) and Hy Hirsh's jazzy mind-blowing sculptural study Gyromorphosis (both 1954). Owen Land's Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter (1968) uses line drawing, Lawrence Jordan's Our Lady of the Spheres (1969) typifies his elegant collages of classic images, and Lawrence Janiak's DL2 (1970) uses color gels to Pollock-esque effect.

Francis Lee, who responded to Pearl Harbor with a collage of paint and broken light bulbs in 1941, also made the black ink animations of Ch'an (1983), included as a bonus. More bonuses: Phil Solomon and Stan Brakhage's Seasons... (2002) reframes Brakhage's hand-painted abstractions into dizzy flashes of color, while the curator's own Sappho and Jerry (1978) puts found footage through elaborately layered print and split-screen effects. The final effect of sitting through all this is expansive, exhausting, and exhilarating. Measured doses are recommended.


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