By DAVE KEHR
September 2, 2005
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
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.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company