Bright Lights Film Journal

Opposition Compositions: Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film 1947-1986 on DVD

“Avant garde filmmaking has been defined almost entirely in opposition to the Hollywood mainstream.”

One of the fundamental purposes of a review, as opposed to a pure analysis or commentary, is to answer the questions: Is the product good? Do you recommend I consume it? With respect to Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film 1947-1986, the answer to both of those questions is a resounding yes!

Treasures IV offers a representative, if by no means all-inclusive, sampling of American avant garde filmmaking from the post-WWII era through the Age of Reagan. The 26 short films collected on two DVDs here have been painstakingly restored, and look/sound as good as they ever looked and sounded — in some cases, I suspect, better.1

However, the whole collection begs the question, “Just what is an avant garde film, anyway?” It can’t be defined purely by style, as there are a plethora of styles (and anti-styles) here; nor can it be defined in terms of innovation, since so many approaches that once seemed innovative and “avant garde” were later co-opted by the mainstream — if not in narrative filmmaking per se, then in title sequences, dream or “trip” sequences, or advertising.

Avant garde filmmaking has been defined almost entirely in opposition to the Hollywood mainstream: short as opposed to feature-length; low or minimally budgeted as opposed to Hollywood extravagance; elliptical, anecdotal, or non-narrative as opposed to traditional Hollywood storytelling; amateur actors, non-actors, or no actors as opposed to Hollywood stars (though Warhol and his followers arguably created a star system of their own); non-synchronous sound or no sound at all; and an attraction to subject matter that Hollywood once considered taboo (one of the aspects of avant garde film most likely to have dated, since there is very little Hollywood considers taboo these days).

Of course, what one person calls an avant garde film may have as little in common with another film so labeled as it does with a Hollywood feature. What Treasures IV gives us is a grab-bag of radically different types of non-mainstream filmmaking.

Harry Smith’s Film No. 3: Interwoven (1947-49, right) provides a great high-energy introduction to the set. The animation is purely abstract, consisting of hand-painted squares, rectangles, and other geometric forms pulsating to a beat. (Smith would show his animations accompanied by any music that suited his mood at the time, from Dizzy Gillespie — one of the tracks included here — to the Beatles and Kurt Weill.) The effect created is pure joy.

Robert Breer’s Eyewash (1959) employs a variety of techniques in its three-minute silent running time. If this film were a painting, it could be described as a combination of action painting and collage. Ragged cut-out animation is rapidly intercut with painted film and photography of abstract patterns, the reflection of light on water, tearing fabric, a child rolling a ball. It’s a “bath” for the eyes.

Where Breer’s film reminds one of action painting, Storm De Hirsch’s Peyote Queen (1965, right) frequently recalls a kaleidoscope. Imagery shot through colored glass alternates with patterns scratched directly on the film — eyes, flowers, breasts.

In 7362 (1967), Pat O’Neill, a special effects artist who later worked with George Lucas, uses a contact printer to create complex Rorschach-type patterns moving against solid color fields. Animation is not really an accurate term for what O’Neill does. Call it image processing.

Lawrence Jordan’s Hamfat Asar (1965) harks back to the surrealist collages of Max Ernst. Like American underground animator Stan Vanderbeek (not included here), Terry Gilliam, and a number of Eastern European animators, Jordan practices a kind of cut-out animation using black-and-white illustrations, photos, and engravings from the Victorian era. Hamfat Asar consists of a simple unchanging background — a drawing of a seaside and cliffs — in front of which various bizarre collage figures balance and cavort.

Christopher Maclaine’s The End (1953) is a half-hour story film shot in New York without synchronized dialogue about six ordinary people confronting the bomb. (“Observe them well. See if they are not yourselves.”) The film was made by a Beat poet whose narration gives the film its distinctive flavor. I was reminded of another avant-garde meta-narrative from the same year, John Parker’s Dementia, which obtained a mainstream theatrical release by adding a scary Ed McMahon voiceover and a more commercial title, Daughter of Horror.

Jonas Mekas was the Henry Langlois of the American avant garde. He wrote a weekly column on the subject for the Village Voice and helped to found New York’s seminal Anthology Film Archives. His Notes on the Circus (1966, right), part of his ongoing Diaries, Notes and Sketches, consists of swift, impressionistically blurred images of a circus performance — the way a very young child might experience it.

Bruce Baillie’s Here I Am (1962) illustrates the principal difference between the avant garde and mainstream documentary films made at the time. In the former, such as Baille’s, there is no omniscient narrator telling us what to think. (This distinction between the avant garde and the mainstream vanished when Frederick Wiseman began making feature-length documentaries without narration.) In Here I Am, Baillie’s camera regards an East Bay activities center for emotionally disturbed children. Nothing is evaluated. We are not asked to pity or admire. Things are what they are.

Chick Strand’s Fake Fruit Factory (1986) is an extremely effective study of a small factory in Mexico where young women mold and paint artificial fruit. At one point, the boss takes the women on a picnic. The film is shot almost entirely in tight close-ups of the working women’s hands and faces. The soundtrack consists of their worktime conversation and gossip, often concerning each others’ sex lives or the antics of their pussy-chasing boss.

Saul Levine’s Note to Pati (1969) is an example of the home movie as art. Consisting of impressionistic 8mm footage of a snowy winter in Boston (with scratches and splices visible), Note to Pati was conceived as a letter to a friend visiting the West Coast to show her what she was missing.

Shirley Clarke’s Bridges-Go-Round (1958) is made up of moving images of bridges superimposed on top of one another to create complex patterns. The film has two different soundtracks, one an electronic soundtrack composed by Louis and Bebe Barron, the genius couple behind the soundtrack of Forbidden Planet (1956), the first and greatest of electronic film scores.

Marie Menken’s Go! Go Go! (1962-64) gives us a day in the life of The City (New York) shot in super-accelerated motion. It’s a technique that has been copied many times since, notably in Godrey Reggio’s Koyaanisquatsi.

Standish Lawder’s Necrology (1969-70) consists of a single shot, played backwards in dreamlike slow motion, of Grand Central Station commuters descending an escalator. The shot is followed by the “Necrology” of the title, a mock credit sequence describing the people we have just seen: “Worried Mother,” “Software Market Research Analyst,” “Man Picking Nose,” etc.

As Wikipedia notes, Joseph Cornell’s most characteristic art works were “boxed assemblages created from found objects.” He brought the same surrealist pack rat sensibility to film, creating movies out of the bits and pieces he liked of other films removed from their narrative contexts. His By Night with Torch and Spear (1940s?) typifies this kind of “scrapbook film,” a form he arguably invented. It combines tinted footage of an iron foundry projected upside down and backwards with ethnographic footage (island fishermen hunt “by night with torch and spear”) and science film footage of insect larvae projected in black-and-white negative.

Aleph (1956-66?, right), by Beat artist Wallace Berman, is a manically edited scrapbook of black-and-white imagery from the news and popular culture, scratched, tinted, painted upon, and otherwise reprocessed.

Jane Conger Belson Shimane’s Odds and Ends (1959) intercuts brightly colored summer vacation footage with painted film and paper cut-out animation while a narrator discourses on the difference between poetry and jazz.

Ken Jacobs’ Little Stabs at Happiness (1959-1963, right)2 has a charming let’s-dress-up-and-make-a-movie quality. The principal performer here is filmmaker Jack Smith — auteur of Flaming Creatures — with a head scarf and blue-painted nose (later he wears a clown suit) playing with balloons, dolls, and other props while we listen to scratchy 78 rpm recordings of songs like “Keep Smiling at Troubles” and “Happy Bird.”

Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964) is primarily the record of a scene, a party taking place in what one imagines is a Greenwich Village loft — dressed to look like a sultan’s harem — attended by various hipsters and eccentrics, including the aforementioned Jack Smith. The partygoers swing in net hammocks and dance with scarves. The shots are superimposed on top of one another, creating an atmosphere of dreamy exoticism.

Andy Warhol’s Mario Banana No. 1 (1964) is one of Warhol’s portrait films or “screen tests,” single-take silent close-ups of friends or visitors projected in slightly slow motion. The subject is white-gloved drag queen Mario Montez, who demonstrates how to consume a tropical fruit.

George Kuchar’s I, An Actress (1977) shows an actress auditioning for a role, with the director (Kuchar) directing her to amp up the melodrama and to strike increasingly outlandish poses as she attempts to deliver her lines with a straight face.

Robert Nelson and Robert T. Wiley’s The Off-Handed Jape . . . & How to Pull It Off (1967) represents another kind of performance, a proto-YouTube comedy routine by the two filmmakers that isn’t particularly funny.

Owen Land, the filmmaker formerly known as George Landow, is a truly singular talent. His New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976, right) is a deconstruction of an educational film. While an offscreen female voice intones, “This is a test. It is a test of how well you follow instructions,” we see the poor schlub who’s attempting to take the test. The tester instructs the testee to mark certain items in a photograph. Then the testee is inside the photograph trying to mark giant props (à la The Incredible Shrinking Man) with an oversized pencil. Reality breaks down further, and we see a jogging green-skinned extraterrestrial carrying a sign that says, “THIS IS A FILM ABOUT YOU.” Delightful.

In Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971), the camera regards a series of photos as they are placed on an electric burner, then shrivel and burn up like Citizen Kane’s Rosebud. The problem with this film, as with many conceptual films, is that once we figure out the concept (the narrator is not talking about the photo we are looking at, but the one we are about to see), interest wanes.

Paul Sharits’ Bad Burns (1982) deconstructs the medium itself, with a filmstrip re-photographed as it passes through an optical printer, showing the sprockets, the lines between the frames, and so on. Quite beautiful, actually.

For a long time, I’ve considered The Riddle of Lumen (1972) to be one of the quintessential Stan Brakhage films. As the title suggests, this is a film about light and the mystery of how it creates and shapes what it falls upon. Silent and devoid of anything remotely approaching narrative, The Riddle of Lumen is a poem constructed out of pieces of film Brakhage gathered over the years, in which one shot “rhymes” with the next one based on form, texture, and motion rather than objective content.

Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line (1970, right) is an 11-minute single shot of fog clearing from a hillside. At first, we can hardly make out anything; then trees, horses, and other aspects of the landscape gradually appear. This is cinema with its roots in photography and painting rather than D. W. Griffith-style melodrama (or, as he called them, “photoplays”), yet it recalls Griffith’s words, paraphrasing Joseph Conrad’s famous preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, “The task I’m trying to achieve is above all to make you see.”

  1. The Treasures IV DVD set was produced by the National Film Preservation Foundation using films preserved by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Anthology Film Archives, The Museum of Modern Art, The New York Public Library’s Donnell Media Center, and The Pacific Film Archive. []
  2. The title of this film inspired the title of a periodic column by our Bright Lights editor, Gary Morris. []