'Unseen Cinema' a trove
By Gary Arnold
October 22, 2005
If you can afford
to splurge this holiday season while shopping for a dyed-in-the-wool movie
nut whose tastes are not strictly mainstream, the most generous purchase
might be the DVD collection "Unseen Cinema."
Culled from about 60 movie archives around the
world, it offers about 155 titles, mostly shorts, that illustrate experimental
and abstract filmmaking in the United States over half a century, from
the dawn of movie production to the early 1940s.
The subtitle sets the boundaries: "Early
American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941." A similar anthology, Kino
Video's "Avant-Garde: Films From the Raymond Rohauer Collection,"
was released a few months ago. A two-disc set, it consists of about two
dozen titles -- most European in origin and all from a single source.
At a glance, "Unseen Cinema" has this
forerunner decisively outgunned. It boasts five more discs and about 130
more selections. The category "American Avant-Garde" is also
roomy. It includes numerous emigre filmmakers who ended up living and
working in the United States at one time or another.
Judging from a preview sampler that includes two
pictures common to both collections -- the documentary tone poem "Manhatta,"
made in 1921, and the cubist caprice "Ballet Mechnique" (from
1924) -- "Unseen's" curators, Bruce Posner and David Shepard,
may have enjoyed access to the superior archive copies. In the case of
"Ballet Mechnique," a collaboration between Fernand Leger, Dudley
Murphy and George Antheil, they also have been able to restore Mr. Antheil's
original orchestral accompaniment for the first showing in Vienna.
This cacophonous composition proved difficult
to synchronize for a long time.The orchestration is proudly eccentric.
Heavy on player pianos and percussion, the score at one point also calls
for an airplane propeller. The movie's imagery seems to scamper and cascade
more effectively if the volume is moderate to low. On high, you can get
the impression that Mr. Antheil is determined to upstage, even smack down,
A newly commissioned and lovely score for "Manhatta"
by Donald Sosin accompanies the film in both collections. About two-thirds
of the films in "Unseen Cinema" were silent. Unless the curators
knew for a fact that music was anathema to the filmmakers, scores enhance
their substantial silent inventory.
Each disc is freighted with a theme: "The
Mechanized Eye: Experiments in Technique and Form"; "The Devil's
Plaything: American Surrealism"; "Light Rhythms: Music and Abstraction";
"Inverted Narratives: New Directions in Storytelling"; "Picturing
a Metropolis: New York City Unveiled"; "The Amateur as Auteur:
Discovering Paradise in Pictures"; "Viva La Dance: The Beginnings
The sampler suggests that arbitrary sorting will
be a constant. "Ballet Mechnique," for example, would seem a
natural for "Mechanized Eye"; it's full of shots of mechanical
objects in motion, and it's self-evidently an experiment in technique
and form. Nevertheless, the film has been reserved for "Light Rhythms,"
perhaps because the Antheil score is back in force.
The vast majority of selections might qualify
as American surrealism or amateur auteurism. The only example of "inverted
narrative" in the sampler is seven minutes from "Native Land,"
the Leo Hurwitz-Paul Strand propaganda relic of the late 1930s. In this
case, the "new direction in storytelling" is a stilted dead-end
leftist special pleading and caricature in which documentary glimpses
of labor marches and riots fail to harmonize with stiffly dramatized vignettes.
The dance and New York categories look most promising
in the preview disc. The first selection, "Annabel Dances and Dances,"
is probably somewhat familiar to everyone who has seen an evocation of
early film history.
Made for the Edison Studio in 1896, it observes
solo dance performances by an Annabel and a Crissie (last names Moore
and Sheridan, respectively). Their footwork is less conspicuous than their
arm work. Capacious, winglike costumes threaten to enfold and engulf the
dancers during much of their exertion, but they remain skillfully upright
while simulating the movement of butterflies and perhaps time-lapse flowers.
Hand tinting enhances most of the footage, and it's particularly striking
when the hues resemble orchids in bloom.
A different approach to dance is exemplified in
"Spook Sport," an animated collaboration of 1939-40 between
Mary Ellen Bute; her husband, Theodore Nemeth; and the revered Norman
McLaren -- whose specialty became drawing directly on celluloid.
This forgotten Halloween treat, presumably one
of the Bute-Nemeth shorts that used to be on the bill at Radio City Music
Hall, animates amiably ghostly shapes to the score of Camille Saint-Saens'
"Danse Macabre." Walt Disney would have been well-advised to
snap it up for "Fantasia," which still could use a blithe eight
minutes somewhere in its ungainly continuity.
"Unseen Cinema" appears to be promising
a number of rediscoveries from the vintage-film-society catalogs, such
as Miss Bute and Mr. McLaren, whose work richly deserves a DVD generation
of admirers. An excerpt from James Cruze's 1924 movie version of "Beggar
on Horseback" -- a giddy dream sequence with Edward Everett Horton
as a bridegroom that fits into the "surrealism" basket -- suggests
that a Cruze tribute might be a little overdue on Turner Classic Movies.
Paramount seems to have supplied the curators with an impeccable print,
and the sequence certainly makes an amusing teaser for the movie as a
TITLE: "Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde
CONTENT: Seven-disc anthology of abstract and
RUNNING TIME: About 19 hours
DISTRIBUTOR: Image Entertainment
WEB SITE: www.unseen-cinema.com