Published: September 2, 2005

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941
When the smoke clears, this amazing seven-disc set, which comprises 18 hours and 47 minutes of material, will undoubtedly stand as one of the major monuments of the DVD medium. Curated by the archivist Bruce Posner and produced by David Shepherd, the collection brings together experimental work from, among other institutions, the British Film Institute, George Eastman House, Deutsches Filmmuseum, the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art - and, of course, the Anthology Film Archives, the East Village treasure house in an abandoned bank at Second Avenue and Second Street.

Mr. Posner's definition of "avant-garde" is agreeably broad and includes everything from early home movies (in Volume 6, "The Amateur as Auteur") to Busby Berkeley dance numbers (including "By a Waterfall," Berkeley's hymn to cellular mitosis), along with more traditionally defined avant-garde films by artists.

Disc 2, "The Devil's Plaything," is devoted to American Surrealism and quite plausibly advances from Edwin S. Porter's 1906 "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend" to four rarely seen gems by Joseph Cornell, circa 1938: "The Children's Jury," "Thimble Theater," "Carousel: Animal Opera" and "Jack's Dream." Fernand Léger's famous "Ballet Mécanique" (directed with Dudley Murphy) is presented in a tinted and hand-colored print from the Nederlands Filmmuseum, accompanied by the notoriously difficult original score by Georges Antheil, a suite for player pianos, airplane propellers and police sirens.

The distributors plan to issue Disc 5, "Picturing a Metropolis," as a stand-alone release, for those who may not want to invest in the entire collection, and it does stand on its own as a tribute to early 20th-century Manhattan and the freedom and modernity that artists found in it. Edison Kinematograph films - including a fast ride from 14th Street to 42nd on the newly opened subway - accompany more "made" commodities, including Robert Flaherty's 1926 "Twentyfour-Dollar Island," presented in a long version discovered in the Russian Gosfilmofond archive.

The suggested retail price of $99.99 for "Unseen Cinema" would be worth it simply for Rudy Burckhardt's rapturous, all-embracing views of New York street life in the 1930's. Consider the other 153 films a bonus. Available Oct. 18.

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