Tremors and Transformations: Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film, 1920-1970


Originally published in Sight & Sound, January 2016

Given the sheer number of histories one might prescribe to a given field of cinematic practice, any attempt, no matter how valiant, at cataloging an entire era of creativity or period of productivity can only reasonably be said to offer a single interpretation of said events. To their credit, Flicker Alley do not attempt to annotate a half-century’s worth of non-industrial cinema with their new Blu-ray/DVD box set, “Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film, 1920-1970,” so much as outline one rough trajectory of noteworthy accomplishments in interdisciplinary visual art over its most evolutionary span. Curated by filmmaker and preservationist Bruce Posner, the four-disc, region-free collection resurrects 37 works (many of them restored and new to digital) of experimental and non-commercial Stateside cinema, allowing the films themselves to navigate a course through the past rather than imposing an ahistorical lineage through which to view their attributes.

Which is to say the films included cover not only a wide-ranging ranging period, but also a variety of practices best understood as products of a medium in continual metamorphosis, whose practitioners were consistently attempting to reconcile material means with ever-ambitious conceptual interests. The earliest film in the set, Manhatta (1921), by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, embodies one of the most frequent of these approaches: an observational portrait of an urban locale––in this case, New York City. It exemplifies the nascent ‘city symphony’ movement which would take hold in various cinematic sectors throughout the 1920s, culminating with Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera in 1929.

It’s a style which continues to this day, and it’s a method seen across this set, from Robert Florey’s self-explanatory Skyscraper Symphony (1929), to Jay Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1931), to Rudy Burckhardt’s The Pursuit of Happiness (1940), to, finally and most impressively, Francis Thompson’s N.Y., N.Y. (1958), a literally kaleidoscopic vision of Manhattan that outfits the camera lens with mirrors and various reflective surfaces to produce a color-coated prism of spiraling architecture and refracted light sources.

Besides being set in New York, all these films adopt a quasi-documentary mode of production and perspective. Across the country in Los Angeles, meanwhile, filmmakers were grafting abstract narratives onto evocative visual frameworks, producing ghostly simulacra of concurrent Hollywood melodramas. Included here are two of the best: Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s The Life and Death of 9413–A Hollywood Extra (1927), and Maya Deren and Alexandr Hackenschmied’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). The former, an industry parable set in a deserted, eerily nocturnal Los Angeles, is defined by resourceful effects and noir-tinged cinematography (courtesy of a pre-Citizen Kane Gregg Toland); the latter, a surrealist psychodrama starring the filmmakers as a couple caught in a web of domestic unease and shifting identities, all but redefined cinema’s capacity for suggestive and imagistic storytelling through its radically intuitive editing strategies and inscrutably gothic imagery. (Made between these was the lesser known but equally uncanny Lot in Sodom [1933], a contemporary reimagining of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah whose trio of directors stage the film as a vaguely homoerotic nightmare of flesh and fury.)

As technology advanced through the decades, narrative often took a backseat to pure aesthetic spectacle. Mary Ellen Bute described this new medium of expression as the “Absolute Film,” an appropriate designation for Tarantella (1940), which she directed with Ted Nemeth (with additional animation by Norman McLaren) and whose playfully geometric abstractions helped further the notion of ‘visual music’––or as Bute and Nemeth deemed it, the ‘Seeing-Sound film.”

It’s a definition that can also be used to describe Abstronic (1952), another of the duo’s sensory animations, as well as such disparate works as Ian Hugo’s intoxicating aquatic revelry Bells of Atlantis (1953), Jim Davis’ painterly, shapeshifting Evolution (1954), Hy Hirsh’s sculptural motion study Gyromorphosis (1954), and Lawrence Janiak’s DL2 (1970), a process-based piece which applied color gels to ‘shocked’ strips of unprocessed film, resulting in a rush of randomized illuminations.

The chronology becomes more curious at the turn of the ‘60s––a nearly ten gap is unaccounted for between 1958 and Hilary Harris’ 9 Variations on a Dance Theme, from 1967. The early ‘60s represented the apex of the underground film movement in America, an era this set doesn’t attempt to address. Thus, while the strikingly beautiful early Kenneth Anger film Eaux d’artifice (1953) is included, it’s not exactly representative of the more provocative persona he would soon cultivate; meanwhile Jonas Mekas, the founder of the flagship New American Cinema Group, is left to represent the New York contingent with an excerpt from Walden (1969), a scintillating audio-visual diary of late-60s Manhattan.

So while Jack Smith, Ron Rice, Andy Warhol, and Gregory Markopoulos are conspicuous by their absence (as if to acknowledge the elision, the late Stan Brakhage film Seasons… [2002] is amended as one of four “bonus films”), the less outwardly challenging but nonetheless progressive Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness), by San Francisco’s Bruce Baillie (1966), and The Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter (1968), a hybrid live-action/sketch animation by New England’s Owen Land, evidence the happenings occurring elsewhere in the US during this most tumultuous of cultural moments.

And ultimately, that’s the greatest virtue of this set, as it allows the viewer to chart the country’s tremors and transformations through its most modern of artistic practices, proposing these frequently staggering films less as time capsules than historical rejoinders. ♦