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Avante-garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954

Michael Barrett
Image from Kinomadic

Kino's second avant-garde film set showcases a few major pieces (such as Isou's Venom and Eternity) and some tantalizing minor works from major names (such as Broughton's The Potted Psalm).

Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954

Director: Various
Cast: Various
Distributor: Kino
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2007

Avant-garde cinema is largely the province of private, consciously artistic filmmakers, often active in other arts, who got hold of a camera and explored the boundaries of the medium. The techniques they developed or exploited, such as rapid montage or split-screen effects, were often incorporated into the mainstream.

Kino's first Avant-Garde set was an essential release that concentrated on silent cinema. This follow-up crosses into the sound era with a few major pieces and some tantalizing minor works from major names.

Willard Maas' Geography of the Body (1943) presents extreme close-ups of body parts so that it's not always obvious what we're looking at. We suddenly identify a belly button, or the sly movement of a tongue poking through lips. The only naughty bits are shots of a woman's nipples, unless we failed to recognize others. Their textures become terrain, a conceit emphasized by poet George Barker's absurd narration of journeys. Some of his words refer obliquely to the body part or its function.

The Mechanics of Love (1955), made by Maas and Ben Moore, begins and ends with shots of a man and woman in nude embrace. In-between are still lifes, as it were, of household objects that may or may not have a Freudian dimension (a cactus, a faucet) while we hear a dialogue between this couple or any couple. She spills her guts sincerely and romantically while he replies with flip or cynical remarks.

Marie Menken's Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945) is one of several films linking avant-garde cinema to other modern arts, in this case Isamu Noguchi's sculptures. As the camera glides closely over the curves and shadows, documenting space and form, we might expect a soundtrack of harmony or serenity, but instead we get a collage of discordant (electronic?) notes, words, and concrete sounds.

Trivia note, if biography is trivia: Menken was Maas' wife. Andy Warhol supposedly called them "the last of the great bohemians" (she was in some of his films) and they allegedly inspired the characters of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This doesn't tell you how productive she was as a director (and neither does her IMDB listing); a lot more of her work needs to be on DVD.

The Maas-Menken films emphasize the conjunction or disjunction between vision and sound, but many avant-garde films of the sound era still explore the language of silent film, even if a music track was added in post-production. This obsession or convention is borne of the technology they had to work with; they couldn't afford bulky sound cameras, any more than our parents or grandparents made home movies with sound.

As today's young cineastes grab DV cams, perhaps we are witnessing a generation that will skip the special visual vocabulary of silent expression, or perhaps silent techniques are alive and well in their last commercial bastions, the TV commercial and the music video. We don't think of these works as silent but they often are, aesthetically if not literally, and this is where the avant-garde often bears fruit.

Joseph Vogel's House of Cards (1947) harks back to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou via Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon. Deren's film, a 1947 prizewinner at Cannes but made a few years earlier, was a monolith to the avant-garde, especially to those in LA like Vogel and Gregory J. Markopoulos. They already understood the cinema's connection to dreams, as pointed out by the original Surrealists, but Deren's personal example and her depictions of a woman waking, gazing out the window, and walking repetitively in slow motion has many echoes in the films made after her, including this one and the next item, Markopoulos' Christmas, U.S.A. (1949).

In Vogel's film, a man wakes in a room when his sheets remove themselves by stop-motion. He looks out the window down into the street, echoing Bunuel. He is assaulted by floating newspapers and collapses into a vision or dream or flashback in which he seemingly kills a woman in a room of expressionistic shadows. His guilt-trip is illustrated with slow-motion, multiple images and distorted superimpositions of Vogel's paintings, which owe an admitted debt to Picasso.

At one point a dancer performs in front of screens based on the paintings. Neither this film nor Vogel's are currently listed on IMDB, but he gave a lengthy interview to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in 1965, and this can be found online. He mentions that he writes for TV but declines to name the programs. He was a combat cameraman with the Signal Corps in WWII, and he credits the influence of Bunuel, Picasso, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau (the king of incorporating slow and reverse motion into narrative). Unfortunately, the interviewer didn't know enough about LA's avant-garde film scene to ask about Deren.

The Markopoulos film is a collection of memories around a man's last days with his family: young sister, hard-working mother, dour dad. The man dreams of fairground images. When he looks out the window, it adopts the Deren angle of looking in at him from outside the reflective glass. More dreaming, waking, walking and bathing until some kind of vision in which he genuflects before a shirtless man in Christlike pose under a bridge. This is the call of art or sex or life or all of the above.

The late Markopoulos wouldn't release his films on video but the rights to this early work escaped him. It's a very minor shard in his mosaic, as can be understood by visiting the website devoted to him, The, where Robert Beavers writes, "His important innovations, such as editing with the smallest unit of film (the single frame), and the simultaneous narrative of past, present, and future, or his most individual use of colour, are all directed towards the representation and resolution of complex emotions." Check also the Fall 1998 issue of Millennium Film Journal, which is devoted to him and Beavers.

From The Potted Psalm

James Broughton made witty, playful, sexy films, and those qualities in The Potted Psalm (1946), which even has a title more clever than earnest, may be attributable to him more than co-director Sidney Peterson, especially since Peterson's 28-minute The Cage (1947) isn't nearly so light. Both of these films are silent but optional new soundtracks have been added.

The Potted es mPsalm is full of visual jokes as a young man wanders about at a party and women do odd, suggestive things for the camera. Often seen in distorting mirrors, they wear absurd make-up and weird masks. A man without a head pours his drink into his open collar. A grave marker says MOTHER, at one point OTHER when a woman stands on the M. And what of stop-motion shots of a nutcracker? Perhaps inspired by T.S. Eliot's Prufrock rather than reality, the whole exhibits a fascination with, fear of, and hostility toward sex.

Broughton's other film, Adventures of Jimmy (1950) resolves its immature hero's quest for "playmates" through a tongue-in-cheek narration that juxtaposes ironically with the images. We are told his family left him their whole estate, as we see a shack in the woods. The happy resolution is a joke on monogamy. It's a straightforward story, the work of someone who wants to entertain with elegance and quiet subversion. These two Broughtons aren't included in the Films of James Broughton box set put out by Facets.

Peterson's The Cage, like the films of Maas, Menken and Vogel, presents more bridges with modern art. It's set at the art school where it was shot and gives us full-frontal nudity of the female model, who runs in slow motion away from the camera as did the heroine of Psalm. We have a literal artist's eye, which is removed from his head and put in various other contexts in a flurry of devices: stop-motion, distortion, mirrors, and reverse motion. The last is used to fascinating effect as the actors walked backwards through the streets, glancing over their shoulders, and this footage is shown in reverse, so that all the bystanders appear to be walking backwards while the actors have a disorienting demeanor.

The last four films of Disc One are early works of Stan Brakhage not included in the great Criterion set By Brakhage, in some cases not without reason. Interim (1952), as the title suggests, is the work of an artist in waiting for his voice.

A young man meets a young woman under a bridge by a railroad. They shelter from the rain and exchange a kiss. The man grows sullen and leaves. The film starts with him and ends with her. It's a straightforward anecdote told in traditional ways, the likes of which he'd forsake forever; that is, it uses actors, a soundtrack with music and post-dubbed sound effects, a photographer who frames everything professionally and a coherent edited narrative.

It's way too flimsy to be strung out for 24-minutes, which brings us to the half-hour Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection (1953), about six chums from the University of Pueblo who explore a ruined building in the middle of nowhere. It's a kind of horror movie about its own sense of creeping dread, as tensions build to tragedy. You could argue that the house reflects the cracks in their personalities or their relationships, but this film seems to have been made because Brakhage had actors and a location, and that he would have been just as happy dispensing with the actors.

He shot it himself and he starts to discover a type of framing we might call discomposed off-center, full of deep blacks and literal obscurities. When two men fight, he's more interested in the light patterns on their bodies. A new soundtrack has been added, which might violate his intentions. Once he moved away from sound, he didn't want it added, and these wishes are respected with the two following films, which are classic Brakhage from 1954.

The Way to Shadow Garden is wonderfully baroque and unnerving. The hand-held camera wanders all over a crowded room whose objects are themselves in motion. A young man enters and strikes various campy poses of unease before removing his shirt in a kind of exhiliration and, in another mood swing (mirrored by the swinging camera and abrupt edits), performs a "mythological" act directly related to seeing. The last minutes offer his altered sense of vision, including beautiful negatives, as Brakhage begins his career-long program of forcing the viewer to see anew.

In another mood swing, The Extraordinary Child applies his developing style to broad slapstick. His friends from the previous films and the director himself play out a riotous farce about an overgrown baby who steals his father's cigars. Everyone mugs hilariously. The movie could be taken as another example of the Romantic notion of the artist as a monstrous child or misfit, or a parody of the same rather than the personal confessional statement seen so often in these film movements.

These are early Brakhage not only chronologically but in their commitment to characters who perform actions in a story, no matter how vague. As he grew more serenely radical, he would make films in which the camera (and by extension the viewer) is the only performer, and he even made beautiful films without a camera. He also took to scratching and painting over found footage -- but hold that thought until we get to the final film on Disc Two.

Disc Two concentrates on a European tradition with the exception of James Watson & Melville Webber's The Fall of the House of Usher, one of two avant-garde versions of the Poe story made that year (the other was Jean Epstein's). Whereas various unrestored prints on this set range from pretty good to ragged, this print from George Eastman House is gorgeously clean and sharp. Every shot and sequence is a tour de force of elaborate camera trickery. (This film has already been included on the essential Unseen Cinema box in a slightly different but also excellent print.)

From the same year, Paul Leni's Rebus-Film No. 1 is filler that gives viewers crossword clues. Its claim to notability is the elaborate visual montages and some basic animation. Kino gives the year as 1928, but other sources make it earlier, before Leni came to Hollywood from Germany. This is the English version, which was also seen as a bonus on Kino's disc of Leni's Waxworks, although that presentation was botched by not properly reducing the image; now it's fine.

Jean Mitry's Pacific 321 (1949), a montage for railroad fetishists, is essentially a music video for Arthur Honegger's piece of the same name; it won an editing prize at Cannes. Dimitri Kirsanoff's Arriere Saison (1950) is an autumn anecdote about a bored wife who looks out a window at her lumberjack husband and temporarily leaves him, although we don't follow her; it's another film about silent narrative techniques, in this case mainstream and "lyrical" in bucolic mode.

At last we come to the collection's coup, the feature-length Venom and Eternity (1951) from Jean Isidore Isou. Isou founded Letterism, a vast and complicated movement to renew art forms by reconstituting their basic elements. For example, "sound poetry" is based on the sounds of letters only, not the senise of words. We're used to abstract vocals in music to carry a melody or rhythm in everything from jazz scatting to classical compositions to the film music of Ennio Morricone; well, this is abstract vocalization in literature.

Venom and Eternity uses a Letterist score, and at one point stops for performances accompanied only by scratchy reels of film-leader. But its main exercise is "discrepant editing", or the disjunction of sound and image. The "story" is literary narration with patches of dialogue, similar to a fancy radio show, about a man's love affair and how it reminds him of others. It's all very French and Isou announces that he knows it's insipid but that's what people expect from movies.

Meanwhile, we see documentary footage that's been scratched, faded, printed upside down, etc. He calls this "chiseled photography". Some shots seem to be original and the rest isn't always as random or irrelevant as he claims; he includes footage of people important to him, such as avant-garde idol Jean Cocteau (who welcomed the film with open arms) and Children of Paradise actor Jean-Louis Barrault. So the discrepancy isn't complete, notwithstanding that the viewer seeks connections out of the juxtapositions.

This treatise or manifesto explains itself exhaustively in narration and posted messages that want to make sure we get it. The first half hour prepares us with dialectical harangue over shots of our hero walking the streets of Paris. One early posting: "Dear Public: You are about to see a 'discrepant' film. Complaints of any nature by any viewer in the audience will definitely not be entertained. Money will positively not be refunded."

Some viewers in 1951 were reportedly bothered by this experiment, but it seems amusing and valid now, even with its youthful, self-important Left Bank hectoring (or because of it). Exhibitor Raymond Rohauer's 77-minute American print was cut from the two-hour version at Cannes (which itself was cut from a much longer version); it's now been expanded to 111 minutes. (Believe it or don't, the shorter version is available for viewing at

The English posted announcements are fine, since there'd be no great benefit from looking at scrolls of French with English subs flashing over them. However, the original white subtitles are sometimes hard to read. For a film like this, we can even wish the distributors or director had prepared an English soundtrack, since occasionally inadequate subs on complex ideas can distract us from the "discrepant" experience.

This title alone makes the Kino set a major release. Remember what I said earlier about Brakhage, his scratchings and paintings on found footage, his commitment to making the spectator experience film anew? He was profoundly influenced by Isou's film, used it in the classroom, and according to critic J. Hoberman, declared it a "portal through which every film artist is going to have to pass."

There are no extras. The box claims there are film notes by Elliot Stein but we couldn't find them.


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