Home Video Hovel: Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film (1920-1970), by Scott Nye
While the term “avant-garde” is best applied in translated form as “advance guard,” meaning those who forge new paths by which future artists can navigate, my remedial French lessons more directly translated “avant” to mean “before.” What is interesting in that approach, considering avant-garde cinema in a historical context, is that it looks at the then-future of film language as inevitable, that the techniques experimented and developed by filmmakers in (for the purposes of Flicker Alley’s new box set) 1920-1970 would necessarily be adopted by the mainstream. These works just came before them. In this way, 1970 is hardly a stopping point, the effects of these films still being felt today.
More learned scholars of the form could break down what exactly each artist is trying to do, but I come to these for the thrill – the thrill of truly not knowing what the next frame, shot, or cut will be, the thrill of not even knowing the subject matter or whether it will suddenly be in color. I never thought ill of those who go to movies for explosions, action scenes, or a bit of sex, and that sort of elemental thrill – the purity of movement, light, and color – is central to how good so many of these films are, and how enjoyable they can be.
“Enjoyment” seems central especially to films like Oskar Fischinger’s An Optical Poem from 1937. Released by MGM(!), this 7-minute short utilizes hundreds of paper cutouts, manipulating them in concert with “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” by Franz Liszt. We see similar modes in Mary Ellen Bute & Ted Nemeth’s Tarantella and Abstronic, Hy Hirsh’s Gyromorphosis, and especially Jim Davis’s Evolution. Davis himself stated plainly that he wished not for the viewer to “search for hidden meanings… The spectator may simply relax and look at these films as one would listen to music in order to fully respond to them.” These works were designed for an era in which short films were regularly shown before features, in an era when classical music appreciation was moderately popular, and even Looney Tunes were making similar sort of riffs (see what I mean about techniques adopted by the mainstream?). Imagining this sort of work as commercially viable may seem fantastic now, but it’s key to understanding their more “pop” feel.
Which is not to say all the films in the set are along these lines. Indeed, Flicker Alley has included such landmark works as Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Meditation on Violence, James Agee’s In the Street, Kenneth Anger’s Eux d’artifice, and Robert Florey & Slavko Vorkapich’s The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra. All are a bit more heady than those previously noted, but often carry the same sort of surrealist thrill. Deren’s work especially feels almost like a thriller; Meshes has been linked to the film noir genre as vigorously as it has to the avant-garde. A Hollywood Extra anticipates the nightmarish comedies of the Czech New Wave.
All in, you’re looking at thirty-three films, plus four bonus “legacy” films (including Stan Brakhage’s stunning 2002 film Seasons…) – seven hours of film – given spectacular high-definition transfers. The dual-format set includes two Blu-rays and two DVDs, with content duplicated across both. Summarizing the video quality of such disparate films, taking into account the diverse circumstances under which they were made and preserved, is necessarily wanting, but suffice to say you’re going to deal with a good deal of damage, softness, and missing frames, but I’m happy to report that I didn’t notice any compression artifacts or anything of that sort. Some films look better than others, certainly – Meshes is breathtaking (preserved from a reversal master positive!), while Four in the Afternoon has not perhaps been as carefully-cared-for. But as with past releases like their Mack Sennett Collections, these discrepancies seem less the fault of Flicker Alley than the inherent difficulty in dealing with films made with very little money, and which might not have gigantic companies to take care of them. In the booklet accompanying this release, curator Bruce Posner notes that they utilized all manner of source prints, including museums and private collections.
Helping cap off an outstanding year, this is among Flicker Alley’s most important releases, gathering together a huge swath of filmmaking that has not been well-serviced by the home video industry. To get these films on Blu-ray especially is a huge treat.