Cineaste, Winter 2006, Vol. 32 Issue 1

“Unseen No More? The Avant-Garde on DVD”
By Paul Arthur
Copyright 2007 Cineaste

Thanks to several landmark DVD releases, the works of avant-garde filmmakers have at last become available for home viewing. But how will this new visibility affect the movement?

When it comes to home entertainment, the avant-garde is always late—that is, if it isn't left off the guest list altogether. Needless to say, the absence of a reliable niche market for sub-feature-length nonnarrative movies is a major stumbling block to corporate investment but let's not discount ingrained suspicion by experimentalists of mass culture, specifically its tendency to maim experiences of fragile art in the process of making it more available. Media industry honchos and filmmakers working at the motion-picture fringes have ample grounds for mutual distrust. For the average fan, an evening in the company of experimental shorts has traditionally conjured visions of dental surgery. While any genuine rapprochement between mainstream and margins remains a pipe dream, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of exotic yet user-friendly DVD's of varied provenance, released through a combination of discerning commercial distributors and fledgling, Internet-based boutique operators. If the proportion of absolutely essential nonmainstream work lags far behind that of classical Hollywood or, for that matter, key European art films and documentaries, the helter-skelter rush toward digital conversion constitutes a genuine watershed for a kinetic movement sporting a long and often recondite history. Although DVD's have been around for barely a decade, the time is ripe for an assessment of how this dominant format is exposing cinema's perennial underground.

First, however, a bit of explanation, a brief history of the avant-garde's flirtation with in-home technologies, and a dollop of esthetic theory are in order. Given the mythology surrounding marginal cinemas, newcomers might well regard this turf as narrow, demanding, and ultraserious. In fact, the movement has nearly as many branches, moods, and avenues of pleasure as, say, Hollywood cinema. For starters, the avant-garde is not a genre; it has genres, including the portrait, comic parody, landscape study, and autobiography. Further, even the epithet 'avant-garde' is contested, a useful label for French films of the Twenties allied with prominent artistic factions like Surrealism, but misleading when applied to sixty-plus years of institutionalized nonmainstream American endeavors. Some prefer the term 'experimental' although it makes complex, highly articulate idioms sound like quasiscientific exercises.

At this late date, it makes no sense arguing over well-worn nomenclature; I use the conventional terminology loosely and interchangeably. Regardless of what they are called, films discussed here tend to be low-budget, non-feature length, and made outside industrial systems of production by single artists (or, occasionally, by several collaborators). The idea that they are oppositional to values and codes of Hollywood movies is simultaneously true--they are certainly defiant in creative method—and decidedly misleading since from the beginning they have carried on intricate dialogs with commercial fare. Moreover, any insider/outsider exchange cuts both ways, with Hollywood and its satellites borrowing esthetic or technological innovations, styles of editing or shooting, and even personnel from the avant-garde roster (perhaps the most famous instance of appropriation involves a mysteriously celestial filming technique pioneered by Jordan Belson then adapted by Kubrick for the 'slit-scan' ending of 2001). The point is that even devoted Hollywoodians, who wouldn't ordinarily watch something devoid of stars, stories, or schmaltzy music, already possess a substantial backlog of crypto-avant-garde experiences--and don't get me started on the condensed formal languages of TV commercials or music videos.

Not surprisingly, the early marketing in the 1950's of 8mm movies for domestic consumption--including newsreels, sports and science 'featurettes' along with flashier attractions--bypassed a great legacy of European experimenters ranging from Man Ray to Joris Ivens. The videotape revolution of the 1970's presumably deemed both homegrown and foreign avant-gardes too arcane to justify the expense of professional transfers. Laserdiscs hit the scene in 1978 but didn't last long enough to reach the cinematic margins. Cable TV's unprecedented growth

in the Eighties was hailed as a potential conduit to wider circulation, with the giant maw of twenty-four-hour movie channels turning inevitably to eye-catching avant-garde 'filler.' It didn't happen. Ditto public television, despite its mandate to encourage subaltern social perspectives.

Few observers could have predicted in 1997 that DVD's would so swiftly transform not only worldwide patterns of movie viewing but also economic realities in the dominant industry. For practitioners outside the mainstream, the format's initial promise was of greater image fidelity than VHS--an important factor for celluloid purists--plus increasingly affordable access. Pragmatic issues of reproduction and image retrieval were soon trailed by the familiar, millennial whiff of enhanced public exposure. To be sure, experimental filmmakers had for years circulated videotape copies of their work for promotional or study purposes. Yet the collapse of once sacrosanct boundaries between mechanical and electronic recording, prodded by skyrocketing 16mm production costs, made the prospect of disseminating new or established bodies of work on disc, as well as digitally preserving deteriorating film prints, a salutary breakthrough instead of a wary compromise (nearly all surviving first-generation American avant-gardists have by now tried their hand at video production, and not a single filmmaker I spoke to in preparing this article disparaged benefits of converting films to DVD, although several noted that public screenings should remain limited to celluloid).(n1) On the negative side of the ledger, the DVD explosion has clearly exacerbated an ongoing and generalized decline in 16mm rentals--especially to universities, a primary income source for the avant-garde's= ever-beleaguered artist-run distribution cooperatives. And here is where financial concerns bump headlong into esthetic tradition and cultural ideology.

n "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," theorist Walter Benjamin famously proclaimed that movies and related organs of twentieth-century mass culture had sapped the "aura" from previously exclusive experiences of art: the "presence in time and space [of an artwork's] unique existence at the place where it happens to be." Unlike dance or theater, the same movie can be shown democratically in multiple locations at once. It is indeed a striking irony that the history of avant-garde film has been galvanized and sustained by an updated, strangely incongruous version of phenomenological presence, the aura of uniqueness. From the beginnings of European experimental cinema in the 1920's, filmmakers not only showed their work to small bohemian gatherings but, as members of a contentious artistic milieu, also made in-person appearances to annotate or discuss their creations. Film projection was often accompanied by live music or was interspersed with autonomous musical or dance performances. The fact that one did not go to the local picture palace to see Viking Eggeling's abstract Symphonie Diagonale(1924) became part of the movement's implicit appeal, a condition which informed the imagination of possible film experiences.

As the avant-garde impulse caught on in America in the mid-Twenties, a similar ragtag network of film clubs, gallery events, lectures, and specialized journals helped connect what were otherwise isolated creative struggles. Such institutional supports attained greater stability as a post-WWII generation of experimentalists installed their own highly original forms of subcultural community: workshops, co-ops, screening venues, funding and exhibition affiliations. Consequently, part of the meaning of the avant-garde--any given film as well as the movement as a whole- resides in where and how it is consumed by actual viewers. There are no comparable site-specific dynamics, including IMAX, relevant to commercial moviegoing. Over the last twenty years or so, a robust avant-garde faction has reinforced an ethos of unique presentation by mining new variations on improvised projection, performance-film hybrids, and other 'live' uses of the medium.(n2) In this context the notion of 'home entertainment' becomes moot.

Demographic setting, however, is crucial. It will come as no shock that so-called alternative cinema has a distinctly urban profile, forever dependent on industrial and social resources of modern cities. Less obvious is that at least in America, slightly risqué vibes surrounding experimentalism cannot be divorced from an individual's immersion in an esoteric subculture, the charm of both screening venue and the person occupying an adjacent seat. Prospective audiences for the avant-garde are thus constrained by the exigencies of small nonprofit theaters nestled in peripheral neighborhoods in a handful of cities along with irregular programs in art museums and university film societies. Living beyond reach of this loose circuit, even the most avid or catholic movie fan would find it impossible to stay abreast of emerging artists and styles--even grizzled old troupers like myself often feel at sea--or, for novices, to acquire a passable understanding of the movement's history. Regardless of how many nonmainstream DVD's are rolled out, a residue of material contingency is unlikely to disappear entirely. Its coordinates, however,will be irrevocably transformed; indeed they have already changed

In the future lore of film scholarship, 2005 will be known as the year in which historical avant-gardes seized the public spotlight at last. Two
landmark, highly praised, and fascinating collections--Kino Video's six-hour, twenty-five film Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s
and '30s and Anthology Film Archives' nineteen-hour, 155 film Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1893-1941--render obsolete standard excuses spouted by even dedicated movie fans for avoiding this longstanding terra incognita. The best news is that leaving asideQuestions of historical scope or completeness--always dicey given the Morass of movie copyrights and hermetic print elements--each set offers plenty to savor for every conceivable movie taste: narrative or No narrative, allegorical or factual, sober or emotionally gut-wrenching, Heady or frolicsome. Extras are predictably lean, although explanatory notes by mostly firstrate film scholars are a welcome feature. Kino's lineup was drawn from the holdings of cinephile Raymond Rohauer, a somewhat notorious entrepreneur who helped prime the allure of foreign films in the Fifties and Sixties but who also, as a distributor, exerted suspect control over a sizable portion of Buster Keaton's oeuvre. Unfortunately, it seems that most Rohauer transfers were made from scratchy 16mm positives, resulting too frequently in poor image quality. On the other hand, the unequivocal gems in this collection look fine.

Questions of historical scope or completeness--always dicey given the Morass of movie copyrights and hermetic print elements--each set offers
plenty to savor for every conceivable movie taste: narrative or No narrative, allegorical or factual, sober or emotionally gut-wrenching, Heady or frolicsome. Extras are predictably lean, although explanatory notes by mostly firstrate film scholars are a welcome feature. Kino's lineup was drawn from the holdings of cinephile Raymond Rohauer, a somewhat notorious entrepreneur who helped prime the allure of foreign films in the Fifties and Sixties but who also, as a distributor, exerted suspect control over a sizable portion of Buster Keaton's oeuvre. Unfortunately, it seems that most Rohauer transfers were made from scratchy 16mm positives, resulting too frequently in poor image quality. On the other hand, the unequivocal gems in this collection look fine.

From comments thus far, Unseen Cinema might seem the collection of choice, yet the Kino set has at least a couple of virtues that outshine its
bigger, more refined competitor: namely Dimitri Kirsanoff and Jean Epstein. The former, an Estonian émigré who blossomed at the edges of the
Parisian avant-garde of the Twenties, was a soulful lyricist with a strikingly original take on film language. For lovers of silent melodrama, Frank Borzage's acclaimed Seventh Heaven (1927) or Street Angel (1928), Kirsanoff's near-contemporaneous Menilmontant is a revelation, arguably
the best film on either collection. Starring his wife at the time, Nadia Sibirskaya, this story of country sisters wracked by a traumatic childhood
incident, then falling prey to the malign indifference of Parisian modernity, is a stealth masterpiece that rewards repeated viewings--not least because of Sibirskaya, whose face is so astonishingly luminous it constitutes, à la vintage Cahiers du cinéma, an axiom of cinema. As a
bonus, Kino includes a shorter, more pastoral but no less gorgeous study from 1929, Brumes d'Automne (mysteriously absent from Kino's printed table
of contents).

Epstein is a major director and important early theorist whose work is scandalously little known in this country. Kino serves up two interestingly fractured narratives: the acidic La glace a trois faces (1927) and Le tempestaire (1947), a late gloomy seascape. The earlier film is an impressionistic cautionary tale about a self-destructive rake and his three female victims that anticipates radical attacks on dramatic structure launched by the French New Wave. Here, as elsewhere in the collection, we are transported back to a period in which standardized visual idioms and the syntax of movie stories functioned less as imperial edict than open blueprint for personal exploration. Part of what makes the viewing of these films so satisfying, indeed so necessary, is the reminder that commonplace devices such as dissolves, tracking shots, slow motion, and superimposition can be deployed, as it were, against the grain for deeply expressive effects. If nothing else, these collections revive our sense of the medium's vast formal possibilities in an era consecrated to technological glitz. Speaking of glitz, one of cinema's supreme innovators, Sergei Eisenstein, gets a wry nod from Kino on Romance sentimentale (1930), directed in France with Grigori Alexandrov, one of
the strangest protomusic videos on record. Gotta see it to believe it!

There are a number of quirks in the Kino set, not all of them salutary--careless subtitles, contradictory release dates, untranslated titles and untranslated voice-overs, incomplete notes and incomplete credits. Nevertheless, if the goal is to redress a missing chapter in the early push-pull between mass-produced linear storytelling and category-busting independent exploits, Kino's lineup offers a great platform. In addition, there are intriguing opportunities to compare noted European stylists with their underappreciated American counterparts; the latter tend to be a bit heavy-handed in symbolism and derivative in their use of film language. One can also extrapolate shared themes, such as the subjectivity of sexual longing, which Hollywood productions of the time barely touched. Over the course of roughly two weeks, I devoured both collections end to end (that's why Cineaste pays me the big bucks). Less compulsive viewers will undoubtedly take a different route--mixing and matching, jumping back and forth to revisit especially challenging work, creating custom miniprograms organized by motif or year or esthetic affiliation (graphic abstraction, Surrealism, poetic documentary). Even if you don't wax nostalgic for the bounty of 'short subjects' that routinely fronted commercial double bills, Settling in for a couple of cine-poems as prelude to a recent blockbuster--or as late-night substitute for that obscure Andy Hardy sequel on TCM--can sharpen visual sensitivities to realms of pleasure way beyond narrative-driven action

Regardless of how you navigate these twin streams of pre-WWII experimentation, it will be evident that Unseen Cinema possesses enough
raw ambition to float a raft of film-historical arguments. Among the best-received DVDs of the year, Dave Kehr of The New York Times called it
"one of the monuments of the DVD medium." Film Comment dubbed it a "must have" while even frothy Premiere gave it a Top Ten pick. Variety's Robert Koehler was the first to claim that the collection would "permanently rewrite the story of American experimental film." That "story," if I understand Koehler's reference, has in truth undergone constant, and significant, revision. An acknowledged impetus for Posner's eclectic approach was a 1947 essay by Lewis Jacobs arguing that an avant-garde impulse in America could be traced back to the Edison studios, an impulse that kept bubbling alongside Hollywood's roaring cataract. In the wake of P. Adams Sitney's seminal 1974 study, Visionary Film, focus on the American avant-garde as a coherent esthetic movement veered away from traditions of poetic documentary and non-studio narrative-offshoots championed by Jacobs--to enshrine Maya Deren as the founding mother of a narrower, post-WWII eruption nurtured by modernist paradigms in poetry, painting, and, to a lesser extent, music. Needless to say, Sitney's master narrative became a target for various political complaints by feminist or Marxist scholars regarding male privilege or teleological reductiveness.

Minus an ideological ax to grind, Posner follows the line adopted by Sitney's critics. His project benefited from a 1995 collection of essays edited by Jan-Christopher Horak, Lovers of Cinema: The First American Avant-Garde, 1919-1945, which explicitly took issue with Sitney's
historical model in celebrating a host of filmmakers--Paul Strand, Ralph Steiner, and Mary Ellen Bute among others--whose pre-Deren efforts "have continued to be completely ignored or devalued in importance." In the catalogue produced for Unseen Cinema's traveling show, as well as a
pamphlet by Posner included in the DVD package, the idea that the spirit of avant-gardism infiltrated nearly every segment of American film
production, save perhaps for Warner Bros.'s cartoons (Duck Amuck, anyone?), is affirmed in several scholarly perspectives and it ripples across the seven-DVD extravaganza. The point is not that Posner's 'unseen' choices are the equal of, say, Stan Brakhage's mature work or even that they are good, only that they deserve our attention as "independent and provocative art." Indeed they do; their inclusion, however, within the
ranks of the avant-garde is another matter.

Distilling the rarefied from the merely rare in a collection this huge is no easy task. Each disc is loosely organized around a specific theme or idiom or mode of production: headings include "The Devil's Plaything: American Surrealism," "Picturing a Metropolis: New York City Unveiled," "Viva la Dance," and "The Amateur as Auteur." Posner's rubrics are, to be sure, largely ornamental since consistent rules for inclusion are ambiguously instated then heedlessly trashed. For instance, I have no idea why brief visual fanfares extracted from Douglas Fairbanks and Victor Fleming's When Clouds Roll By (1919) or James Cruze's Beggar on Horseback (1925) should count as "Surrealism" although the case for including junk footage collages orchestrated by assemblage virtuoso Joseph Cornell (but completed years later by Lawrence Jordan) is relatively obvious. Bringing to light seven delicate vignettes by one of the giants of twentieth-century art--each plying unsettling juxtapositions that burrow under rose colored myths of childhood--is a genuine gift. That said, Posner's decision to file three Cornells under the heading of "Amateur" is grossly misleading. Cornell was a recluse who reportedly saw little of the avant-garde canon but I question the logic of placing him alongside casual Sunday filmers like Elizabeth Woodman Wright, who wouldn't recognize a metaphoric edit if it bit her in the ass.Distilling the rarefied from the merely rare in a collection this huge is no easy task. Each disc is loosely organized around a specific theme or idiom or mode of production: headings include "The Devil's Plaything: American Surrealism," "Picturing a Metropolis: New York City Unveiled," "Viva la Dance," and "The Amateur as Auteur." Posner's rubrics are, to be sure, largely ornamental since consistent rules for inclusion are ambiguously instated then heedlessly trashed. For instance, I have no idea why brief visual fanfares extracted from Douglas Fairbanks and Victor Fleming's When Clouds Roll By (1919) or James Cruze's Beggar on Horseback (1925) should count as "Surrealism" although the case for including junk-footage collages orchestrated by assemblage virtuoso Joseph Cornell (but completed years later by Lawrence Jordan) is relatively obvious. Bringing to light seven delicate vignettes by one of the giants of twentieth-century art--each plying unsettling juxtapositions that burrow under rose-colored myths of childhood--is a genuine gift. That said, Posner's decision to file three Cornells under the heading of "Amateur" is grossly misleading. Cornell was a recluse who reportedly saw little of the avant-garde canon but I question the logic of placing him alongside casual Sunday filmers like Elizabeth Woodman Wright, who wouldn't recognize a metaphoric edit if it bit her in the ass.

Similarly, what makes esteemed Griffith cameraman G.W. "Billy" Bitzer's 1904 two-minute overhead crane shot of a Westinghouse factory floor an
"avant-garde" exemplar is baffling but fortuitous. The beauty of this sinuous long take capturing the detailed flux of skilled labor registers as a political gesture out of middle-period Godard, or a Diego Rivera mural come to life. Nearly as thrilling is Bitzer's 1905 uninterrupted tracking shot from 14th St. to 42nd Street aboard a New York subway car. A plethora of consistently delightful actualités, early newsreels, and trick films make "Picturing a Metropolis" perhaps the strongest disc in the set. Alongside Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's legendary Manhatta (1921), its
images interlaced with verses from Walt Whitman, eminent film historian and Melville scholar Jay Leyda's succinct neighborhood symphony, A Bronx Morning (1931), and Robert Flaherty's little-known 24 Dollar Island (1926) are impressive additions to our store of indelibly filmic urban taxonomies. Flaherty's rare city sketch is stunningly composed, pairing subtly elemental motifs in hard-edged rhythms of whirling machinery that are poised against the geometry of skeletal skyscrapers. Also worthwhile is a languid narrative, Autumn Fire (1930-33), by von Sternberg biographer
and historian Herman G. Weinberg. Despite a trite romantic anecdote, Weinberg plies meditative urban/pastoral visual analogies that denigrate
neither setting.

It is worthwhile recalling that during the period covered by both collections, the status of cinema as art in American cultural discourse was far from a done deal. To legitimize film within the pantheon of traditional art forms, filmmakers and advocates alike borrowed the cultural prestige of painting, music, dance, or poetry. Assertions on behalf of Hollywood narratives inevitably enlisted the qualities of theater or the novel. It is no accident that avant-gardes on both sides of the Atlantic were stocked with practitioners from other mediums, nor is it irrelevant that in most instances successful artists abandoned cinema after an experiment or two. In Travel Notes (1932), Walker Evans demonstrates that even the greatest still photographer doesn't always know when to end a shot, or how to transition from one shot to the next. Similarly, when the painter George L.K. Morris converts graphic shapes to animated color phrases in Abstract Movies (1937-47), the outcome is a hopeless muddle. Morris's failure, however, doesn't prevent Dwinell Grant, in two films usually referred to as Themis (1940) and Contrathemis (1941), from evoking the type of rich painterly tensions associated with Kandinsky. The work of Morris and Grant appear on a disc labeled "Light Rhythms: Music and Abstraction."

Unseen Cinema unearths a startlingly prolific gang of cine-paintings, eye-music études, and other crossbred entities. The inclusion of several otherwise forgettable women filmmakers--perhaps to deflect charges of gender imbalance (although no such quota was applied to quirky filmmakers of color like Spencer Williams)--does not negate the ambitious animations of Mary Ellen Bute yet an overabundance of similar films does her a disservice. In one sense, however, she is the epitome of Unseen's transmedium agenda since Bute seemingly tried to incorporate all other art forms Simultaneously. Nonetheless, as is true of Posner's nomenclature generally, what distinguishes Bute's cine-dances from her
cine-anything-elses remains opaque.

The flipside of the 'film art' debate is embodied by Slavko Vorkapich, an omnidimensional cinéaste represented here by his groundbreaking
collaboration with Robert Florey, The Life and Death of 9413--A Hollywood Extra (1927), by several small poetic sketches, and by vigorous montage sequences he created in the Twenties and Thirties for A-list studio productions. Vorkapich was also a writer and lecturer who argued
forcefully that the path to true movie art was esthetic autonomy, doing precisely and only that which is specific to film as a medium and to hell
with imitating older creative models. On the other hand, his Moods of the Sea (1941), among a dozen undulating seascapes scattered through the
Unseen set, performs a melodic rift on Mendelssohn's "Finegal's Cave," a testament to the highly permeable boundaries between modernist autonomy and cinematic absorption of classical idioms. Because Posner lacks any explicit account of how disparate creative drives are either buoyed by a consistent transmedium ethos or constitute separate, irreconcilable strands, the Unseen DVD's eventually pull the conscientious viewer in too many murky directions at once.

In personal conversation, P. Adams Sitney accurately referred to Posner's method as "history by curating." I would add that it is also history by
shadowy implication. Declaring his anthology to embrace "the widest possible spectrum of experimental films," Posner filters in excerpts from commercial features that are not 'films,' adduces standard 'trick films' whose putative experimentation is entirely technical rather than esthetic,
welcomes casual home movies devoid of any hint of esthetic consciousness, and so forth. I would have been happier had the collection's subtitle read "A Bunch of Interesting Movie Images." Instead, Posner has redrawn the category "Avant-Garde" with no discernible, or consistent, principles for inclusion, recruiting European films made by American-born artists, and films by European artists who spent minimal time in the U.S. (Eisenstein for starters). He even cheats on historical periodization by admitting films completed well after his cutoff date of 1941.

How do individual films acquire the avant-garde mantle? Posner's introductory notes contain clues: Bitzer's subway tour is a "predecessor
of [avant-garde] structural films;" the excerpt from As Clouds Roll By is an "example of the avant-garde in a Hollywood release;" a simple trick film manifests "dream logic;" a famous Busby Berkeley sequence, "Lullaby of Broadway" "anticipates" Maya Deren. If this species of loose associative connection augurs a genuine historical rewrite, I shudder to think how the "Experimental" listings on Netflix will 'rewrite' the avant-garde story. Along with a hardy sampling of Buñuel, Derek Jarman, Lynne Sachs, Guy Maddin, James Fotopoulos, and others, Netflix highlights A Clockwork Orange, Shock Corridor, Pi, and The Royal Tenenbaums under the vague rubric of 'weird.' Although laughable at first glance, a scene like the psychotic breakdown in Sam Fuller's kinetic B-movie is as worthy of avant-garde consideration as countless selections in Unseen Cinema. Make
no mistake. Posner's landmark achievement deserves full credit; he has ferreted out reclusive visions otherwise relegated to darkness, and has made heretofore obscure classics available in pristine digital versions. But pared to roughly half its current length, Unseen Cinema would carry far greater historical weight.

So where should you draw the line in excavating the 'true' avant-garde? Elsewhere I have argued that definitions of, especially, the American movement based on modernist pedigree, esthetic innovation, or opposition to Hollywood are not only simplistic, they wind up being either too narrow or too amorphous to handle copious stylistic or rhetorical options. In contrast, an institutional perspective--call it vulgar materialism--might
on the surface sound dull or merely tautological but has the virtue of empirical flexibility. Hence what is avant-garde is identified as a set of typical, historically prevalent conditions of possibility governing the funding, method of production, distribution, exhibition, and publicity of nonmainstream films. In short, if it quacks like a duck and flies like a duck… By this standard, Man Ray and Ralph Steiner and Joseph Cornell are part of the club; Busby Berkeley and Fox newsreels are not.

It must be acknowledged that institutional markers have become increasingly conspicuous and fixed since the 1960's, even as specific organizations or practices have waxed and waned. Eighty years ago esthetic and social boundaries between what we now recognize as the domains of avant-garde, documentary, and mainstream narrative were more fluid than they are today, an important caveat whose implications are explored by
documentary scholar Bill Nichols in several essays) My good friend David James, in The Most Typical Avant-Garde, a majestic study of what he calls "minor cinemas" in Los Angeles (see Cineaste, Spring 2006, for a thoughtful review), makes the case that during the 1930's, the "poetic principle" energizing previous nonmainstream efforts survived as interludes "embedded in the prose of studio features." Like Posner, he cites Berkeley and Vorkapich while also examining Orson Welles's formalist ambitions in Citizen Kane. James, however, carefully avoids conflating
nonrealistic outcroppings in commercial cinema with later instances of self-consciously avant-garde filmmaking. While I am in strong agreement with James's thesis, here and in Allegories of Cinema (1989), of an intricate web of exchange between experimental and 'industrial' camps, I am equally convinced that Posner's attribution of avant-garde chops to potentially any deviation in linear narrative is of little help in understanding the unequal pressures informing the dialectics of film history.

The bridge between early avant-gardes and the contemporary American scene is anchored, as Sitney rightly insists, by Maya Deren. Her off-screen influence, as it were--via DIY distribution schemes and public advocacy--proved as decisive as her small, six-film body of work. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a pioneering Trance Film made in the shadow of Hollywood with her professional cameraman husband, Alexander Hammid, is available from Mystic Fire Video in a nicely tailored "authorized edition" DVD. Along with her more obscure yet fascinating dance-dreams like At Land (1945), extras include a fragment of Deren's prodigious unfinished project on Haitian mysticism, Divine Horseman, a bibliography, and assorted writings.

Space limitations do not permit a comprehensive guide to the post-Deren era on DVD; what follows is intended to alert potential buyers both to
estimable products and to a welter of diverse enterprises now serving this neglected field. For my money, Criterion is without question the premiere purveyor of digitalized art films and it was the first to tackle an avant-garde disc (full disclosure: I've written notes for several Criterion releases). According to company president Peter Becker, discussions with Stan Brakhage about a laserdisc collection of his work began in 1996. Near death in 2003, the doyen of American avant-garde cinema was still finalizing details on By Brakhage: An Anthology, a topnotch tribute to an astounding, 387-film career that embraced a multitude of visual idioms, genres, film gauges, and running times (from a few dense seconds to over four hours). The twenty-six films in Criterion's double-disc set are meticulously presented, setting a standard no subsequent avant-garde offering--including the Kino and Anthology Film Archives sets--has equaled. A cogent introductory booklet and supplemental video interviews with the filmmaker orient untutored viewers to what Brakhage refers to as a visual universe "before the beginning was the

Discovering what looks good on a TV screen is a trial-and-error process. Some films simply demand a larger-than-life scale and thus shrink into
triviality; others possess such delicate coloration or iconographic intricacy that they barely register in electronic formats. Brakhage's five-part Dog Star Man (1961-64) is among his best-known films and the only feature-length text selected for inclusion. Regrettably, neither its dense layers of superimposition nor its jolting combinations of macro- and micro-spaces are particularly receptive to digital translation. Moreover, the central figure of an ax-wielding climber, an autobiographical projection of Brakhage himself, looked rather less than heroic on my living-room appliance. On the other hand, subtle gradations of color among several chosen film stocks made the technological leap in The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971), part of a visual ensemble transforming grisly autopsy procedures into a lambent suite of human meat shapes and textures. By the late Eighties, Brakhage had segued almost completely from photographic depiction to brief bursts of rhythmic abstraction painted directly onto film stock. Possibly due to the fact that light on a television screen glows from behind the image, as in stained-glass windows, or due to the nature of pixels versus film grain, Brakhage's vibrant celluloid paintings tend to retain their original vividness. If you are worried that the dozen studies chosen for inclusion look the same, think again. Even a cursory viewing reveals stark differences in mood and cadence in The Dante Quartet (1987), The Dark Tower (1999), and Love Song (2001), each one a separate--and altogether moveable--feast for the senses.

Anthologies are by nature partial and subjective, imposing particular esthetic frameworks or interpretations on larger oeuvres. By Brakhage is
no exception. In a career stretching back to the early 1950's, only ten selections date from 1987 or earlier, giving short shrift to arguably Brakhage's greatest period of experimentation, the serial 'home movie' of the Sixties and Seventies devoted to myriad bonds suffusing his living
environment and large family in the Colorado foothills. Thankfully, thereare four luxurious paintings done on 35mm but why were his sizable achievements in 8mm and Super-8 studiously excluded? Since Brakhage habitually disdained the use of sound, it is puzzling as well that Criterion chose to include five sound pieces--roughly half of his total encounters with sound and not the most interesting half.

Applied to almost any other filmmaker, such observations would be the minor quibbles of a fussy academic. Here, however, they underwrite some
disturbing, if inadvertent, repercussions. While awaiting the next fat DVD anthology to flesh out additional angles in Brakhage's career--don't hold your breath--it is troubling to learn that Criterion's popular release has already slashed 16mm rentals (a rumor confirmed by director of the Film-Makers' Cooperative MM Serra, who called the decrease "catastrophic"). Moreover, Criterion's DVD selections will likely harden into a de facto canon, the only titles regularly screened in college film classes or recognized by general movie fans. In a recent phone conversation, Peter Becker acknowledged these problems and said they were broached with Brakhage during production. Becker added that in an attempt to keep 16mm prints in play, Criterion did not obtain rights for public showing and it diverts all theatrical requests to the artist-run co-ops.

If the market for avant-garde discs continues to expand, we may expect the current frontier atmosphere to be supplanted by a few hardheaded
mercantile options. As it stands, filmmakers can deal their work to a mainstream company like Criterion, sign on with specialty distributors
Women Make Movies, Peripheral Produce, or Outcast Films--focusing ongay/lesbian/transgender media--or choose the Internet-aided route of
self-distribution. There is little uniformity, little pressure, and predictably little financial gain. Art-world distributors like Electronic Arts Intermix and Video Data Bank price DVD's solely for institutional purchase (often in excess of five times a typical home-market disc). Zeitgeist is among several companies offering DVD's aimed at both markets. The word is out that not only are some distributors demanding exclusive rights on given titles--a policy anathema to the avant-garde's legacy of promiscuous placement--but also that filmmakers have been asked to front the costs of DVD transfers in deference to supposedly slim profit margins and the expense of corporate advertising.

In the category of self-distribution, you can't go wrong with Ken Jacobs's incredible Star Spangled to Death (1956-2004), the Moby-Dick of
experimental cinema. Seven hours long, fifty years in the making, with a cast of hundreds culled from the found-footage detritus of old adventure
films, cartoons, televisual science docs--and did I mention a trove of original scenes featuring underground legend Jack Smith--Jacobs's
quasisumma tracks the great white whale of American stupidity: a compositeof racism, nationalism, imperialism, and religious fervor, or what Smith
cheerfully intones as "nescience."

Zeitgeist, an excellent source for contemporary foreign films, has brought their collection of feminist icon Yvonne Rainer's work to DVD, but for
some bizarre reason priced it only for institutional sale. The good news is they have issued an inexpensive edition of Peter Greenaway's early
films in a handsome, extras-laden two-disc set. During an otherwise smart and informative supplemental chat, the director refers to his efforts as
"juvenilia." Au contraire! Be assured that Vertical Features Remake (1978) and, especially, The Falls (1980), a three-hour, encyclopedic sci-fi
threnody, will help banish the foul odor of a Greenaway 'adult' project like 8 1/2 Women (1999). Cleverly structured, exquisitely photographed,
Greenaway's immodest experiments are a subtle cautionary remainder to avant-gardists contemplating the risks and rewards of commercial

Aside from Rainer, Su Friedrich is probably the most respected and accomplished contemporary woman filmmaker. Unlike Rainer, her films are
all over the map: shorts and features, scripted fictions and documentary interviews, diaries and structural narratives. What ties them together is
a relentless, often acerbic exploration of autobiographical memory, the roots and branches of personal identity. Outcast's five-disc set pairs
longer treatments with 'bonus' shorts. The celebrated Sink or Swim (1990) is a moving dissection of Friedrich's relationship with her cruelly
dismissive father. If you are convinced that movies have nothing new to say about romance, Rules of the Road (1993), an extra on the disc
featuring Damned if You Don't (1984), a Catholic school girl's sexual fantasy, will turn you inside out and back again.

Two upstart avant-garde outfits deserve a final, brief mention. Based in Portland, Oregon, Peripheral Produce has been around for a decade helping promote younger mediamakers straddling accepted boundaries between avant-garde, documentary, and indie narrative. Naomi Uman, an artist previously unknown to me, has made both observational studies of Mexican farm families and poetic, found footage distillations that foreground corporeal anxieties. Her Hand Eye Coordination (2002) generates a lively riff on manual film manipulation.

Other Cinema, a plucky tendril of filmmaker-entrepreneur Craig Baldwin's subterranean San Francisco antiempire, dispenses cheesy exploitation
products as well as avant-garde cinema. My pick of the catalog is Mike Kuchar's hilarious 1965 sub-sub-spectacle, Sins of the Fleshapoids. The
Kuchar brothers, Mike and George, are among the movement's true wonders. As Bronx teenagers in the Fifties, they started directing loose--very
loose--Hollywood genre satires starring magnificently untalented friends and neighbors (think Douglas Sirk meets Ed Wood). Their prolific,
devil-may-care vulgarity, an inspiration to John Waters and Todd Haynes is nothing less than a subversively anarchic rebuke to the 'official'
avant-garde's high-art pretenses. Without rehearsing the deranged plot of Fleshapoids, let it be said that the climactic scene of an android giving
birth to a tiny robot is worth a permanent niche on the National Film Registry. Of course that's an unlikely outcome, nor will Fleshapoids grace
the DVD best-seller list anytime soon. Still, in one of Brakhage's favorite phrases, it is "a blessing" to know that this nugget, previously
invisible to all but a handful of cognoscenti, is out there waiting to be scooped up by adventurous viewers exhausted at last with what passes these
days for mainstream entertainment.

DVD's and Books Reviewed in This Article

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941 Seven DVD set,
B&W/tinted/color, silent/musicalaccompaniment, approx. nineteen hours. Anthology film Archives in association with the British Film Institute, Cineric, Film Preservation Associates, Deutsches Filmuseum, George Eastman House, The Library of Congress and The Museum of Modern art. Distributed by Image Entertainment

Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ‘30s Two DVD set, B&W, silent/musical accompaniment, approx. six hours. A Kino Video release

Maya Deren: Experimental Films DVD, B&W, 73 mins. A Mystic Fire release

By Brakhage: An Anthology Two DVD set, B&W/color, silent/sound, 243 mins. A Criterion Collection release

Star Spangled to Death Ken Jacobs, Four DVD set, B&W, 440 mins.

Greenaway: The Early Films Two DVD set, B&W/color, 326 mins. A Zeitgeist Fims release

The Films of Su Friedrich Five DVD set, B&W/color, 447 mins. An Outcast Films release

Sins of the Fleshapoids  Mike Kuchar, DVD, color, 97 mins. An Other Cinema Digital release

Milking and Scratching: Hand-Made Films by Noami Uman DVD, B&W/color, 99 mins. A Peripheral Produce release

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1893-1941 Edited by Bruce Posner. New York: Black Thistle Press/Anthology Film Archives, 2001

The Most Typical Avant-Garde:History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles by David E. James. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.



(n1)  A minority opinion, vigorously and persistently voiced by filmmaker entrepreneur Pip Chodorov, founder of the Paris-based avant-garde distribution company Re:Voir, insists that videotape offers a superior visual copy due to the algorithmic compression, hence loss, of information on DVD; read his analysis at Lacking the requisite technical knowledge to evaluate Chodorov's rebuke, I can only say that his company has turned out terrific cassette editions of films by Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Robert Breer, and other pantheon directors. In 35 years of writing about--and making, and curating, and administering--American avant-garde film, I can attest to the utter speciousness of cultural stereotypes about arrogant, hermetic, elitis filmmakers. Historically, an unremitting desire for greater public exposure and acceptance has spawned any number of, sometimes misguided, initiatives and stylistic trends. Like Dali and Buñuel, who wheedled a performance of Un Chien Andalou before an outraged bourgeois movie house, most filmmakers I have met would savor the opportunity for responsible theatrical distribution. Which is not to say that the movement isn't replete with cantankerous, dogmatic egos.

(n2)  For an overview of avant-garde engagement with performative techniques, see Millennium Film Journal 43/44 (Summer/Fall 2005).

(n3)  See, for example, "Documentary Film and the Modernist Avant-Garde," Critical Inquiry 27 (Summer 2001).


Copyright 2007 Cineaste