Treasures IV

Malcolm Turvey

It is hard to find enough superlatives to praise Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986 (2009), the latest installment from the National Film Preservation Foundation in its ongoing DVD series Treasures from American Film Archives. Showcasing preserved films from 18 archives, the first release in 2000 contained everything from features and documentaries to home movies, cartoons, and experimental films made between 1893 and 1985; the second (2004) and third (2006) narrowed the focus to the first forty years or so of cinema's existence and films dealing with social issues. This latest addition, a two-disc set of 26 works accompanied by an informative 72-page booklet, covers the American avant-garde from 1947 through 1986. Curators Steve Anker, Mark McElhatten and Marie Nesthus are to be congratulated on their judicious selection, which for the most part manages to be comprehensive without being exhaustive. The set mixes well-known masterpieces (Christopher Maclaine's The End [1953], Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) [1971]) with more obscure oddities (Jane Conger Belson Shimane's Odds and Ends [1959]; Robert Nelson and William T. Wiley's The Off-Handed Jape . . . & How to Pull It Off [1967]). It gives equal weight to east and west coast filmmakers: I, An Actress (1977), a screen test in which San Francisco-based filmmaker George Kuchar hilariously pushes an actress to reach for ever more melodramatic heights of acting, is felicitously positioned on disc two after Andy Warhol's more minimal Mario Banana (No. 1) (1964) which, while not one of Warhol's famous screen tests of people in the New York art world and beyond, applies a similar stylistic approach (close-up, single shot, still camera) to drag performer Mario Montez lasciviously eating a banana. And it includes five films by women, three of them--Chick Strand, Shirley Clarke, and Marie Menken--major filmmakers.

Most of the genres of post-war American avant-garde filmmaking are represented by several films, at least one of which is canonical. There are, however, major absences: the trance and mythopoeic genres that flowered in the 1950s and early 1960s (with the possible exception of Ron Rice's Chumlum [1964]); the essay film (Paul Arthur's term) and Menippean satire (P. Adams Sitney's) that emerged in the 1970s; the feminist psychodrama of the 1980s. But these omissions are probably due to the fact that the work of leading practitioners of these forms--Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, James Broughton, Stan Brakhage, Yvonne Rainer, Su Friedrich--is already available on DVD. (It is the NFPF's policy not to include films that have been released on good-quality video in the United States.) The set kicks off in spectacular fashion with one of Harry Smith's sumptuous abstract animations, Film No. 3: Interwoven (1947-49), a major example of the graphic film, which takes as its subject the shape, color, texture and movement of both representational and abstract forms. Smith painstakingly painted directly onto film using tape and Vaseline to block parts of the frame while applying paint to other areas, and he purportedly worked on it for five years. The DVD transfer successfully preserves the pulsating, shimmering colors and shapes of the original as they metamorphose to the accompaniment of Dizzy Gillespie's "Guarachi Guaro" (a new musical score by John Zorn is also included, as is the case with several other films in the set). Robert Breer's Eyewash (1959) mixes live-action footage with drawings and cutouts in constant motion, often edited extremely rapidly. The counter-culture of the 1960s is much in evidence in Peyote Queen (1965) by Storm de Hirsch, who in addition to painting on film, cut and etched into it to create light patterns that flicker in time to a hypnotic drumbeat. She also used split-screen and kaleidoscopic refraction to evoke a drug-induced state. More futuristic is Pat O'Neill's 7362 (1967) and its mirror images of some kind of machine blended with a dancer. The eerie soundtrack, with its strange electronic noises, only adds to the mysteriousness of the symmetrical, other-worldly shapes, which become more complex through the addition of color, superimposition and a strobe effect. Reaching back in time instead of forward is one of Lawrence Jordan's exquisite animations of Victorian illustrations, Hamfat Asar (1965).

What Sitney calls the lyric -- in which "the images of the film are what [the filmmaker] sees, filmed in such a way that we never forget his presence and we know how he is reacting to his vision" -- is also well represented, especially in its quotidian form: "While the avant-garde quotidian lyric shares the home-movie maker's recognition of the importance of place, of family celebrations, of capturing the look of people and things against the pressures of time, it is also particularly receptive to nuances of light intensity and to the articulation of mood through the film-maker's manipulation of the time in which events are represented" (Visionary Film, pp. 160; 425). Time and light are at the forefront of Larry Gottheim's Fog Line (1970), an eleven minute, black-and-white film consisting of a single, still, long shot of a hillside covered in a luminous fog that gradually clears to reveal the underlying landscape. Light is also the subject of Stan Brakhage's The Riddle of Lumen (1972), which draws attention to the myriad ways light transforms the everyday world and is in turn transformed by the way it is filmed--the choice of film stock, gauge, aperture opening, etc.; as well as Saul Levine's Notes to Pati (1969), an 8mm film Levine made for a friend while she was away, which shows her family in the aftermath of a snowstorm in Massachusetts. Less quotidian is Jonas Mekas' Notes on the Circus (1966), later incorporated into Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches) (1969). Mekas' trademark jittery camera, fast motion and copious jump cuts infuse the footage of circus performers with a joyous energy. Bruce Baillie's Here I Am (1962) also takes as its subject something out of the ordinary. The founder of Canyon Cinema on the east coast, Baillie made this film about a school for emotionally disturbed children located in Oakland for Canyon's newsreel. It is less about the filmmaker's reaction to what he films, however, than an attempt to capture the emotional isolation of the children. Fake Fruit Factory (1986) by Chick Strand, another Canyon member, can also be construed as a lyric in the relentless focus of its handheld camera on the faces and hands of women working in a fake fruit factory, although it too is more about the women and their experiences than the filmmaker's response to them. Lyrical in a different sense are the films by Clarke and Menken. The city film was a major genre of pre-WWII experimental cinema, and both Clarke's Bridges-Go-Round (1958) and Menken's Go! Go! Go! (1962-64), taking New York as their subject, employ innovative means to revitalize the form--superimposition and color in Clarke's case, time-lapse photography in Menken's.

The only film in the set that qualifies as narrative is Maclaine's The End, although it is more about a state of being, one of alienation in the face of possible nuclear destruction, than a series of causally related events. Its ironic voice-over narration, which often directly addresses the viewer over long passages of black leader, confirms it as one of the most innovative films of the period, as does its use of multiple, unconnected protagonists. Ken Jacobs' Little Stabs at Happiness (1959-63) and Rice's Chumlum also capture states of being associated with one of the stars of both films, Jack Smith. In the former, it is his "spirit of listlessness," which is how a makeshift title card refers to Smith before he appears dressed as a clown cavorting aimlessly on a rooftop in the film's final section. In the latter, Smith’s state is one of reveling in the textures and colors of the "Arabian" setting, costumes, and other paraphernalia found in his notorious Flaming Creatures (1963). Indeed, Rice shot much of the footage for Chumlum while Smith was making his subsequent film, Normal Love (1963), and he and his actors congregated at Rice's apartment still in costume after filming during the day.

The last half of the second disc is devoted to the Structural film of the late 1960s and 1970s and its various knock-on effects. As famously (and controversially) defined by Sitney, "the structural film insists on its shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline. Four characteristics of the structural film are its fixed camera position . . . the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen" (Visionary Film p. 348). Frampton's linguistically inflected version of the genre, (nostalgia), is the prime example. Its structure of slowly burning a series of 13 still photographs one at a time while the voice-over discusses the next photograph in the series gradually becomes apparent to the viewer. Frampton took issue with Brakhage's faith in the primacy of the filmmaker's sight, which spawned the lyric genre mentioned earlier, and (nostalgia) is an amusing lesson about the role of language in shaping both mental and physical vision, as well as the opacity of the self. Something similar is at stake in Standish Lawder's less well-known Necrology (1969-70). A single still shot of rush-hour commuters on a downward escalator at New York's Grand Central station is accompanied by ominous music by Sibelius. Due to reverse motion and other optical effects, they appear to float upward, their mostly expressionless faces occasionally registering the presence of the camera. The film's title means obituary, but just as the film appears to be commenting on spiritual death in modern mass society, a credit sequence listing the "cast" interrupts. It is obviously fictional, containing characters such as "Man with Ulcer" and "Assassin with Two Assistants," but it conveys how little we know about the people we have seen in the film and how wrong we were to project such a cliché about modern life onto them (it also points to the power of techniques such as music and choice of title in shaping our response). Like (nostalgia), the film teaches us a lesson about the limits of vision in a witty fashion. It is this didactic quality of Structural films that is in turn parodied by Owen Land's New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals and a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976) and Nelson and Wiley's The Off-Handed Jape . . . . In both, people are tested to the point of absurdity, thereby mocking the way Structural and other avant-garde films often ask their viewers to perform cognitive and perceptual tasks for which the rationale is not always apparent (or compelling). Fog Line, meanwhile, applies Structural techniques to the lyric film, showing their fecundity. Only Paul Sharits' Bad Burns (1982) is a disappointment. Compared to other films by Sharits (which are not available on video), this short film of outtakes from a three-screen installation, 3rd Degree (1982), is distinctly minor.

Finally, there are three examples of the compilation or collage film, in which original and/or found footage is edited and manipulated in such a way that new meanings and emotions not present in that footage are created. Unfortunately, this set does not contain a film by Bruce Conner, one of the most brilliant practitioners of this genre, whose work, like Sharits', is not available on video. Instead, there is Wallace Berman's Aleph (1956-66), in which the filmmaker hand-paints onto found footage of '60s pop cultural icons to create what Brakhage called "the only true envisionment of the sixties I know"; and Shimane's Odds and Ends, which mixes shots from travel and advertising films with various kinds of animation to the accompaniment of a voice-over narration that satirizes Beat culture. Best of all is Joseph Cornell's dazzling By Night with Torch and Spear (1940s?). In this film, it is not so much the editing that transforms the found footage of industrial steelmaking, exotic locations, and insects, but simple optical techniques, such as turning the image upside down and reversing the negative. They testify to Cornell's genius for revealing the latent mystery in his subjects.

A number of Cornell's films are also included in the 7-disc Unseen Cinema DVD collection that was released by Image Entertainment in 2005 and covers pre-WWII American experimental film. Unlike that set, this new installment of Treasures does not aim to be exhaustive, which is a good thing. As Jeff Lambert from the National Film Preservation Foundation makes clear in his introduction to its accompanying booklet, the collection is not intended as a substitute for seeing prints of avant-garde films in theaters or renting them from Canyon Cinema in San Francisco or the Film-Maker's Cooperative in New York. Let us hope this is the case, as, aside from the issue of image quality, filmmakers continue to depend on rental fees from these and other distributors for income. This excellent set functions as a supplemental study-aid for those of us who are well-acquainted with the films and filmmakers of the post-WWII period, but ideally, it will be a foretaste for those new to American avant-garde film of this era, one that introduces them to some of its major forms and practitioners and encourages them to explore it in more depth.