THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
March 1, 2006
DVD Access to the Avant-Garde
By DAVID STERRITT
Quick, name Orson Welles's first movie. Citizen Kane, right? Guess
again. It's The Hearts of Age, which the 19-year-old prodigy co-directed
with a friend in 1934.
This eight-minute trifle isn't much of a movie. Still, its story-free
parody of modernist mannerisms gives a tantalizing glimpse of the
visual preoccupations — startling images, fluid cinematography,
eye-jolting montage — that would become Welles's trademarks.
Want to check it out? Until recently, that meant tracking down one
of the movie's few existing prints — or getting hold of the
ultra-low-quality videocassette that presented Welles's film (with
other works of "experimental" cinema) in a murky, muddy
transfer that made it difficult to see, much less analyze and appreciate.
But that was then. Now the elusive avant-garde item is viewable
and re-viewable with a flick of your DVD remote. So are an imposing
number of similarly adventurous films produced outside the money-driven
frameworks of major movie studios.
Unsupported by the film industry's marketing and promotion, such
proudly independent works usually plummet straight to obscurity
— joining the vast unseen cinema, to borrow the title of a
new DVD set devoted to making that cinema (including Welles's early
effort) more seeable than ever before.
Not only is this a great development for movie buffs and avant-garde
connoisseurs. It also marks a quantum improvement in the plight
of film-studies and art-history professors wanting to illuminate
this shadowy continent in the classroom.
The territory is so shadowy that its inhabitants have never agreed
on a name for it. Usually they settle for "experimental,"
despite the connotation of cinéastes fiddling with film like
so many mad scientists, or "avant-garde," which means
"advance guard" and therefore suggests that Steven Spielberg
and George Lucas must somehow "catch up" with high-toned
artists whose works play mainly in museums and galleries. I have
no better nomenclature to offer, so I'll do what most critics do
— use both terms interchangeably.
Celluloid prints of key experimental works have long been available
from such specialized sources as the Museum of Modern Art, in New
York, and the Canyon Cinema cooperative in San Francisco, to name
just two. But most of these movies were made years or decades ago,
and the revenues from renting them don't justify making many copies,
or maintaining the existing copies in tiptop condition. So you can't
be sure what you're going to get — assuming the movie is available
at all — until it's actually unspooling on the screen. Irritating
scratches, sloppy splices, and badly faded images are common.
As a film professor, I've been down this path many times. Like others
I know, I stuck with the purist position — films should be
viewed as films, not as videos or digital clones — until I
realized those scratches, splices, and washed-out images were making
students tune out challenging yet rewarding works without giving
them a fair chance.
When your audience has been weaned on Terminator and Lord of the
Rings epics, it's not easy sparking interest in the abstract tone
poem H2O, made by Ralph Steiner in 1929, or the surrealist hallucination
Le Retour à la raison, shot by Man Ray in 1923, or the colorful
Spook Sport, animated by Mary Ellen Bute, Norman McLaren, and Ted
Nemeth in 1940. It's that much harder if the film snaps in two,
slips off the projector's sprockets, or registers on the screen
as a barely legible blur. So bring on the DVD's — assuming
their images have been carefully transferred from top-quality celluloid
prints stashed in archives, collections, and cinematic storehouses
around the globe.
The hunt for rare movies can take many forms, but sometimes a DVD
company finds that the hard work has already been done. An example
is Kino Video's recent release, Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema
of the 1920s and '30s, comprising 25 pictures (from two to 37 minutes
long) gathered by the cinephile Raymond Rohauer over the past half-century.
Having acquired Rohauer's collection, Kino needed only to transfer
them well and supply DVD extras — pithy annotations by the
veteran film critic Elliott Stein, optional English subtitles where
appropriate, and music for silent movies.
In compiling Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941,
the New York cinema museum Anthology Film Archives faced a harder
job. It accumulated the 155 movies on seven discs (running time:
about 19 hours) from 60 international archives consulted by the
curator Bruce Posner, who originated the project, and the historian
David Shepard, who produced the DVD set. Combing through such treasure
troves as the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and
the British Film Institute, these moving-image detectives selected
not only complete, properly stored films but also partially preserved
copies whose unscratched, unfaded portions could be spliced together
with other bits of footage to create crisp composite prints.
Virtually all the Unseen Cinema items are striking, and some are
downright dazzling. One example is Ballet Mécanique (1924),
directed by the French artist Fernand Léger and the American
cinéaste Dudley Murphy, who provided many of the movie's
playful, collagelike visual ideas. A staple of modernist programs
in classrooms and elsewhere, the film contains many seminal Dadaesque
images: a woman swooping upside down on a garden swing, a newspaper
headline with animated letters, a washerwoman trudging up a staircase
that never ends. What's new in the Unseen Cinema presentation is
the presence of George Antheil's music, composed for the film in
1924 but never before paired with the movie in a readily available
edition — not surprisingly, since Antheil's score calls for
an unorthodox orchestra including a siren, three xylophones, numerous
electric bells, and three airplane propellers.
After years of viewing Ballet Mécanique in silence, I found
it thrilling to see and hear it in a form even more authentic than
that experienced by its original Vienna audience some 82 years ago,
when the music — too unwieldy to sync up properly with the
movie — was ingloriously omitted. Its unprecedented sounds
and images remind me why I love exposing students to such audacious,
inimitable work. In an age when movies and TV shows are straitjacketed
in a tiny number of iron-clad formulas, the obstreperous sights
and sounds of a Ballet Mécanique are eruptions of liberating
artistic freedom that wake and shake our habit-ridden sensibilities.
Like all ambitious film endeavors, the Unseen Cinema and Avant-Garde
collections have been criticized. Unseen Cinema, for instance, has
been faulted in a Film Comment review for presenting an enormously
diverse array of works as if they represented a single cinematic
tradition. That complaint strikes me as wrongheaded, since a major
point of the collection is its anything-goes eclecticism —
historically rich items by D.W. Griffith, meditative travelogues
by Rudy Burckhardt, cine-poems by people even specialists have rarely
heard of, and forays into film by major painters and sculptors like
Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell. Not to mention outlandish montage
sequences from Hollywood entertainments like So This Is Paris and
Footlight Parade, which are as idiosyncratic and eccentric as anything
else on view. That said, I do see minor flaws in the set, which
includes some items that hardly seem avant-garde at all —
the early-1930s documentaries Windy Ledge Farm and A Day in Santa
Fe, for instance — and a few that are closer to casual amateurism
than to truly creative work, such as the aptly labeled Stewart Family
Home Movies of the late 1930s, which are more charming than artistic.
Kino's more-modest Avant-Garde has inherited a bit of the controversy
that greeted Rohauer's involvement with reissued Buster Keaton comedies
in the early 1970s, when he allegedly tinkered with original content
in order to recopyright films in his own name to make new profits
from them. If minor meddling has indeed affected any of the pictures
in Kino's new collection, that will be visible only to the most
scrupulous movie mavens — certainly not to the cinema students
and film buffs who will use the DVD's as their first gateway into
a world of strange and marvelous visual expression.
The possibilities for eye-opening new DVD experiences are not limited
to old movies, moreover, since an increasing number of contemporary
avant-garde filmmakers are moving away from their celluloid-only
bias and embracing DVD's — the first nontheatrical format
with a sufficiently strong image quality — for distributing
and exhibiting their works. After decades of presenting his movies
only through celluloid prints, the late Stan Brakhage cooperated
with the Criterion Collection to compile By Brakhage: An Anthology
shortly before his death in 2003. The result is a two-disc set by
a towering artist who combined aspects of romanticism and modernism
into a profoundly personal style, imitating the mind's eye via radically
nonlinear photographed images, and painting and carving the surface
of the film itself.
Newer still is The Films of Su Friedrich, a five-disc set
from Outcast Films summing up the career (to date) of America's
most influential radical-feminist filmmaker. The highlight is Sink
or Swim, a 1990 memoir of Friedrich's relationship with her linguistics-professor
father. I regard it as one of the most intellectually lucid, aesthetically
accessible, and emotionally moving avant-garde films produced in
the past 25 years.
But as exciting as it is to have these recent masterpieces at one's
fingertips, it's the availability of timeless classics that constitutes
DVD's most invaluable contribution to avant-garde history, appreciation,
and pedagogy. I even value the flaws found in transfers of old,
imperfectly preserved prints of old, meagerly budgeted movies.
In an uncharacteristically ill-considered statement, English avant-gardist
Peter Greenaway asserted in 1994 that "material changes in
film are irredeemably disadvantageous. Film will not sustain aging
processes or be made profitably resonant by them." I thought
of this as I watched the dances by a vaudevillian called Annabelle
that were filmed by Thomas A. Edison's studio more than a century
ago — a time when, as a film historian once put it, every
film was experimental. Even the superb Unseen Cinema transfers of
the Edison movies are marked by "aging processes" galore
— deep scratches, patches of congealed graininess, missing
frames that turn the flow of choreography into a rumpus of fits
But these "flaws" are integral aspects of the Annabelle
movies as they now exist, and they are as visually beautiful, as
aesthetically expressive, and as historically genuine as anything
on the "real" film that ran through Edison's camera. They
don't subtract a thing. What they add is magical, unpredictable,
unique — touches of the "abstract" imported into
an art form that normally does everything it can (even in most avant-garde
work) to look realistic. Unplanned though it is, this is a different
sort of realism that I find positively poetic.
Then comes the capper — a printed statement, signed by Edison
himself, shown immediately after the Annabelle footage: "This
film is sold subject to the restriction that it shall not be used
for duplicating or printing other films from it. Any use of it for
those purposes is an infringement of the patents under which it
is made and sold."
Sound familiar? It's the 1893 version of the copyright warning found
at the start of virtually every DVD and videocassette sold in today's
market. I find the contemporary warning's 19th-century doppelgänger
a poignant reminder that motion-picture creativity has always traveled
hand in hand with commercial preoccupations. Sometimes art and money
have been mutually supportive, and sometimes one has killed the
other off. But they've been chronic codependents since the first
moments of cinema's existence.
As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead; it isn't
even past." The stimulating new wave of avant-garde DVD's makes
the same point, with a vengeance.
David Sterritt is an adjunct professor of language, literature,
and culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, chairman of
the National Society of Film Critics, and author, most recently,
of Guiltless Pleasures (University Press of Mississippi, 2005).
DVD COLLECTIONS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s, Kino Video,
By Brakhage: An Anthology, Criterion Collection, 2003
The Films of Su Friedrich, Outcast Films, 2005
Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, Image