Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954 is a laudable, curious and at times frustrating collection of French and mostly American experimental films made across a 25-year-period. It is a sequel of kinds to Kino International’s 2005 release that mostly, and probably more successfully, focused on the European avant-garde cinema of the 1920s and ’30s. Both DVDs are drawn from the collection of Raymond Rohauer, a Hollywood-based programmer and raconteur who occupies an ambivalent place in the annals of American film distribution (though these DVDs and their accompanying notes are mostly laudatory he is also infamous for his dealings in the work of Buster Keaton). Nevertheless, Rohauer is a key figure in the spread and preservation of avant-garde cinema in the United States, and the films collated across these two double-DVD sets are testimony to the exploratory, influential and groundbreaking nature of the collection he gathered (offering an alternative to Hollywood through his programming of these films at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles). The provenance of these prints, and the varied print movement histories attached to each film, accounts for the somewhat eclectic, less-than-exhaustive and uneven physical qualities of the films included on both collections. Thus, the noticeable deep scratches on many of the films included are partly a material recognition of the collection itself and its ultimate circulation (as well as an indication of the paltry conditions under which many of the films were produced). This is definitively a DVD but the artefacts it collects still betray their analogue origins and natures (and this, of course, in the clinical world of digital imagery is both a cause for complaint and a partially welcome registration of cinema’s still pertinent corporeality).
Avant-Garde 2 is dominated by American avant-garde cinema of the post-war period, the first (or near enough) films of a range of key figures within this geographically situated but fractured movement (the shifts between New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver, Colorado, on this DVD are one of its most fascinating and noticeable characteristics), and Isidore Isou’s monumental, egotistical, maddening but undoubtedly influential Venom and Eternity (Traité de bave et d’éternité, 1951). Isou’s film provides a far from neat summary of the DVD as a whole. It is a wilfully fragmented film, but most of the techniques and approaches it deploys can be traced within the various other films collected on the DVD. Isou’s film both points backwards to some of the experiments of the post-war American avant-garde – the exploration of the relations between sound and image, in particular – and 1920s European movements like Dadaism, and forwards to the found footage films of Bruce Conner, 1960s and ’70s structuralism and the post-May 1968 work of Jean-Luc Godard.
On another level, Venom and Eternity is also a remarkably singular work. The film opens with an overture of chanted Lettrist poetry (Isou was the founder of this movement) before moving onto a screed of written texts that establish both the credentials of the filmmaker (the film subsequently illustrates this by blatantly arranging a series of Isou’s books before the camera) and the manifesto-like intentions of the film itself. Thus, the film is self-consciously revolutionary, an attempt to break free from established paradigms of cinema – for example, at one point Isou calls the cinema a “fat pig”, heralds its “destruction” and calls for “fresh atrocities” (and these are by no means exceptional or singular claims). The intermittent use of such written texts grounds the film but ultimately acts to undermine its scatological intentions (it actually explains and structures the film too much). Still, Venom and Eternity is a remarkable, exhausting and vertiginous film, that is most interesting for the ways in which it draws upon pre-existing footage, disfigures the image (by scratching and drawing onto the emulsion), relates to and expounds upon film theory, and explores the nature of the “synchronised” relationship between sound and image. It is also, self-consciously, a formative film that suggests a series of other and further explorations of cinematic form. Isou egotistically suggests that he will make these future films (he didn’t), but it was left to figures like Godard – who was very ambivalent about Isou’s film, by the way – to further his explorations into “son+image”.
Venom and Eternity is also interesting for the ways in which it incorporates its own reception. Amongst the first title-cards is a brief account of the film’s riotous, and probably apocryphal, reception at Cannes, and the film constantly refers to its own structure and its relation to existing cinema (like many films of the French New Wave it is also preoccupied with, at times, l’amour fou and dedicated to specific filmmakers of the past: “Griffith, Gance, Chaplin, Clair, Eisenstein, Von Stroheim, Flaherty, Buñuel, Cocteau”). It is probably also amongst the first films to deal explicitly with the death of what it calls the “God of cinema”. The film moves through its three parts – “The Principle”, “The Development”, “The Proof” – in a quasi-scientific fashion by first establishing a premise and then demonstrating it (only partly successfully). Like Godard, its discourse on the “demise” of cinema is as much about a melancholy “end of things” and the debilitating “glut” of already existing masterpieces, as it is a celebration and anticipation of what might follow. As Stan Brakhage himself has said, “Venom and Eternity is a portal through which every film artist is going to have to pass.” I’m not so sure about this but Brakhage’s statement is suggestive of the impact of Rohauer’s collection, and films like Venom and Eternity, on American avant-garde cinema.
Nevertheless, the version of Venom and Eternity included on this DVD is a curious artefact – it is actually a reconstructed version of the film that is more than 30 minutes longer than the print originally distributed by Rohauer. Similarly, the print of James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Webber’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), one of the true masterpieces of pre-World War II American avant-garde cinema, is actually from George Eastman House, the same source for its inclusion on the first volume of The Treasures from American Film Archives series. Although these are very valuable additions – and the print of Usher is far superior to any of the others included here – they again highlight the somewhat piecemeal nature of this collection and its provenance. This is accentuated by the incoherency of the overall contents of disc two. This disc includes five films, and is a mishmash of American and French films made over a 23-year-period. Paul Leni’s Rebus-Film No. 1 (1928) is predominantly a curio, an associational and somewhat tedious visualisation of a crossword puzzle (it hardly constitutes avant-garde practice beyond a certain point). Although the inclusion of Usher on this disc suggests its greater affinity with the European avant-garde, it has less connection to Leni’s slight film, Jean Mitry’s propulsive Pacific 231 (1949), Dimitri Kirsanoff’s atmospheric Arrière Saison (1950) (of particular significance as it suggests a continuity in his work stretching back almost 25 years to Menilmontant , included on the first collection) and Venom and Eternity than it does to several of the films included on the first collection. Mitry’s film is the most famous of this group, and like most of his other works explores the dynamic relation between sound and image, as well as foregrounding rhythm as a defining principle of the cinema (ideas that Mitry also explored in his film theory). The film is often remembered for its rapid, rhythmic cutting, but it now seems more remarkable for the ways in which rhythm is generated within specific shots, relying heavily on the pulse of light and dark areas of the image that cascade through the film.
Other than Isou’s film, the most significant discoveries to be found on this DVD collection are the two films made by Sidney Peterson (1946’s The Potted Psalm, co-directed by James Broughton, and 1947’s The Cage, a workshop film produced during Peterson’s tenure at the California School of Fine Arts), and four of the first five films made by Brakhage (the various ways in which he “signs” these films a clear indication that he hadn’t yet settled into an established style or set of preoccupations). This compilation works best as an insight into the nascent work of a range of significant filmmakers, rather than a survey of American avant-garde cinema in the immediate post-war period. To gain this kind of insight one would need to combine this DVD with several others recently released covering the contemporaneous work of Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren, by some distance the most celebrated figures of this era (at least in retrospect). The relatively recent release of a compilation of films by James Broughton, as well as the relatively slight The Adventures of Jimmy (1950) included here, highlights the datedness of his œuvre (particularly his work from this early period). But the two Peterson films included here suggest that he is a figure whose work should be re-examined. Like Isou, Peterson’s films appear almost drunk on the possibilities of cinema. Strange, grotesque, tawdry and quite fetishistic in their preoccupation with the body (characteristic of a number of the film’s included in this package), Peterson’s films suggest the possibility of a less restricted and more formally adventurous avant-garde cinema that suggests the subsequent work of figures like Harry Smith, Jack Smith, Brakhage, David Lynch and even the Kuchar brothers. For example, in The Cage a painter’s eye falls from his head and leaves his studio, leading to a strange chase throughout the streets of San Francisco (a fixation on “disembodied” vision that was a key influence on Brakhage, who had tried to enrol in Peterson’s by then discontinued class). Similarly the two films included by Willard Maas, Geography of the Body (1943, shot by his wife Marie Menken) and The Mechanics of Love (1955, co-directed by Ben Moore), point forwards to the more erotic and abstract qualities of later avant-garde cinema (these two films are also, chronologically, the first and last titles in the collection). The Mechanics of Love is mainly remarkable for its candid, lyrical and erotically symbolic portrait of a young couple preparing to make love, but Geography of the Body is the more adventurous work, a sculptural and tactile exploration of the surface and shapes of the human form. Although extremely pretentious, the film’s voice-over soundtrack also foregrounds a preoccupation with the relation of sound and image that marks almost every film in this collection. Luckily, the scores that have been composed for the “silent” films contained in this collection can be easily muted, the DVD giving the viewer the option to watch these films with or without these soundtracks (a remedy for a fault contained in the first collection).
The first disc of the collection finishes with the four Brakhage films, including his first, Interim (1952). Although a couple of these films are definitely interesting in their own right, they are significantly more revealing and surprising in the light of Brakhage’s subsequent and prolific career. Understanding of Brakhage’s early work has been somewhat clouded by the laudable but obscurantist analysis of P. Adams Sitney in his seminal book, Visionary Film. Sitney’s attempts to categorise post-war American avant-garde cinema, often using literary and poetic terminology and approaches, has tended to shift focus away from the more formalist and materialist aspects of the films. Brakhage’s early work is often discussed in relation to what is called the “trance film” (and the problems of categorising each of these films in this way has led to a general lack about discussion of them). The Way to Shadow Garden (1954) certainly fits Sitney’s description, and is a key Brakhage film in terms of his subsequent exploration of metaphors and forms of vision. It is also the most psychologically determined of the four films – focusing on the hermetic space of the artist’s studio and the tortured manner in which he attempts to extend or transform the way he sees things. It also demonstrates a clearer exploration of form than the other Brakhage films included in this collection. Its last couple of minutes, where the artist, somewhat unconvincingly, pokes out his eyes and wanders into the “shadow garden”, rendered as a solarised, negative world where blood registers in deep, somewhat shiny blacks a clear pointer to Brakhage’s immediate and future “experiments” in discovering a mode of vision “unbound” by human made rules of perspective, language and comprehension. Nevertheless, like many of Brakhage’s early films, The Way to Shadow Garden is somewhat turgid and schematic in its exposition (and yes, it does have one). Like most of the other American films on disc 1, it is still narrative driven and betrays the key influence of the European avant-garde, Jean Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un Poete (The Blood of a Poet, 1930) in particular, and like the work of Deren and Anger, and many of the other films included, is also “shadowed” by the spatial, temporal, narratological and even psychological (at this stage deeply Freudian) coordinates of Hollywood.
The three other Brakhage films included are nothing short of a revelation. Although all are plainly juvenile works – Interim, for example, was completed while Brakhage was still a teenager – they highlight several of the concerns (such as place) and formal interests that will preoccupy him for the next 50 years. Both Interim and Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection (1953) are tense, moody and extended explorations of simple narrative situations. Like much of the work of the neo-realist directors, both films are equally concerned with the geographic environments the characters are “encased” within. Both films are studies in post-industrial alienation, relying to a surprising extent on the performances of the theatre group Brakhage was then working with. The most striking element of the films is the way in which the camera frames and probes the environment, pre-empting the visionary exploration of the immediate experiential world that marks Brakhage’s work from the late 1950s onwards. In these films, we can also see and hear Brakhage playing with his soundtracks, moving between atmospheric sound, silence, more experimental soundscapes and the complete absence of sound “found” in most of his later films. These four films are fascinating as a portrait of a filmmaker trying to find his focus (or, appropriately, lack thereof) and develop a particular vision of the world. In this regard, The Extraordinary Child (1954), the final film on the first disc, is truly surprising. Using several of the actors that appear in the other films, it is a somewhat surrealistic, slapstick comedy based on the premise of a grown man playing a young baby. Featuring Brakhage and Larry Jordan in small parts, it is predominantly of academic significance (as is something like Robert Bresson’s early comic farce, Les Affaires publiques, 1934) and is illustrative of a form and tone that Brakhage, luckily, never pursued again. Like a number of the films on the first disc, it is primarily an historical artefact and is most illuminating as an early “experiment” by or comparative marker for later works by the same filmmaker (this is also definitely true of Gregory J. Markopoulos’ impressionistic Christmas, U.S.A., 1949).
So what can one do with such a collection? Avant-Garde 2 is both a revealing and somewhat incoherent snapshot of American and French avant-garde cinema from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. It is most valuable as a repository of several seminal and formative works by key figures in film history, and a partial resurrection of some relatively forgotten and under-represented figures like Willard Maas and Sidney Peterson. It is worth seeking out, less as a truly representative survey, than a collection of rare, sometimes brilliant and historically significant artefacts. The first disc of the collection is by far the most coherent, but many of the most compelling reasons for attaining this set can be found on disc two: Venom and Eternity, Pacific 231 and The Fall of the House of Usher. Like the films themselves, this DVD needs to be seen as part of a broader collection or history, and is an essential purchase for those developing a representative survey of mid-20th century avant-garde cinema in digital format (particularly in light of the fact that these works are much less widely screened these days on film). It should be placed alongside previous releases devoted to the work of Brakhage, Conner, Anger, Broughton, Deren and Joseph Cornell, and regarded as a less ostentatious “afterword” to the mammoth Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941 collection (in fact, its first film dates from only two years after the loose cut-off date of this important set). It is an intermittently fascinating portrait of an undervalued period of experimental film practice, and its focus on American avant-garde cinema in the immediate post-war era provides a useful and important contribution to the DVD release and wider circulation of films from this disparate movement.
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