Kino International's Avant Garde 2 and Avant Garde 3 (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Michael Sicinski
Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954
DVD, B&W, 331 min. Released by Kino International, 333 West 39th Street, Suite 503, New York, NY 10018, www.kino.com
Geography of the Body (U.S., 1943) directed by Willard Maas, 7 min.
The Mechanics of Love (U.S., 1955) directed by Willard Maas and Ben Moore, 5 min.
Visual Variations on Noguchi (U.S., 1945) directed by Marie Menken, 4 min.
The Potted Psalm (US, 1946) directed by Sidney Peterson and James Broughton, 18 min.
The Cage (U.S., 1947) directed by Sidney Peterson, 28 min.
House of Cards (U.S., 1947) directed by Joseph Vogel, 16 min.
Christmas, U.S.A. (U.S., 1949) directed by Gregory Markopoulos, 13 min.
Adventures of Jimmy (U.S., 1950) directed by James Broughton, 10 min.
Interim (U.S., 1952) directed by Stan Brakhage, 24 min.
Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection (U.S., 1953) directed by Stan Brakhage, 29 min.
The Way to Shadow Garden (U.S., 1954) directed by Stan Brakhage, 11 min.
The Extraordinary Child (U.S., 1954) directed by Stan Brakhage, 13 min.
Rebus-Film Nr. 1 (Germany, 1925) directed by Paul Leni, 15 min.
The Fall of the House of Usher (U.S., 1928) directed by James Watson and Melville Webber, 12 min.
Pacific 231 (France, 1949) directed by Jean Mitry, 10 min.
Arrière Saison (France, 1950) directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff, 15 min.
Traité de bave et d'éternité (Venom and Eternity) (France, 1951) directed by Jean Isidore Isou, 111 min.
Avant-Garde 3: Experimental Cinema 1922-1954
DVD, color and B&W, 321 min. Released by Kino International, 333 West 39th Street, Suite 503, New York, NY 10018, www.kino.com
Danse Macabre (U.S., 1922) directed by Dudley Murphy, 6 min.
Rien que les heures (U.S., 1926) directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, 46 min.
The Tell-Tale Heart (U.S., 1928) directed by Charles F. Klein, 20 min.
Tarantella (U.S., 1940) directed by Mary Ellen Bute, Ted Nemeth, 4 min.
Tomatos Another Day (U.S., 1930) directed by James Sibley Watson, 7 min.
The Uncomfortable Man (U.S., 1948) directed by Kent Munson, Theodore Huff, 23 min.
The Petrified Dog (U.S., 1948) directed by Sidney Peterson, 18 min.
The Lead Shoes (U.S., 1949) directed by Sidney Peterson, 16 min.
Four in the Afternoon (U.S., 1951) directed by James Broughton, 14 min.
Plague Summer (U.S., 1951) directed by Chester Kessler, 15 min.
La mort du cerf (France, 1951) directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff, 12 min.
Image in the Snow (U.S., 1952) directed by Willard Maas, 26 min.
Celery Stalks at Midnight (France, 1952) directed by John Whitney, 3 min.
The Voices (U.S., 1953) directed by John E. Schmitz, 14 min.
Closed Vision (U.S., 1954) directed by Marc’O, 65 min.
Tomatos Another Day (outtakes) (U.S., 1930) directed by James Sibley Watson, 5 min.
Episodes in the Life of a Gin Bottle (U.S., 1925) directed by Bela von Block), 11 min.
Schichlegruber Doing the Lambeth Walk (U.S., 1941) directed by Charles A. Ridley, 2 min.
Dementia (excerpt) (U.S., 1955) directed by John Parker, 5 min.
Falling Pink (U.S., c. late 1950s) directed by Robert H. Spring, 9 min.
There are some basic conundrums endemic to “cinephilia in the digital age” that we seem to find ourselves going over time and time again. Like the recent tooth-gnashing over “the death of film criticism,” these well-rehearsed arguments can become frustrating and at times circular. But it’s not without reason that we have to keep thinking about these matters. The forces that ask us to forget about such issues as celluloid preservation and distribution, medium-specific esthetics, or small-scale artisanal efforts in an industrialized world, are capitalist forces, ones which tend to care very little about the human experience of art. We know we live in a world of compromises, and that we have to keep up the good fight or else every minoritarian esthetic value will be wiped off the ledger in favor of better, more predictable profit margins.
So here’s what we know. Films are made to be seen and enjoyed on film. This is not always possible, especially in the case of certain minority-taste films, the avant-garde being an extreme case in this regard. Fewer and fewer possibilities exist for 16mm and 8mm exhibition, especially outside major urban centers. However, it is argued that DVD availability will only exacerbate that problem, “replacing” the celluloid objects rather than (as hoped) alerting the interested to their existence and promoting their continued value. (Speaking as an educator, I have had to teach entire film courses from DVD, something of which I am not exactly proud, but which I was in no financial position not to do.) And so, even more than with other types of cinema, the release of avant-garde film on DVD represents more than a set of technical or commercial challenges. It has become an ethical issue, one in which all of us who care deeply about this work are embroiled to some extent.
In the Winter 2006 issue of Cineaste, one of the most learned and astute commentators on avant-garde film, the late Paul Arthur, weighed in on this very topic. What does it mean for the study, enjoyment, and continued vitality of experimental cinema(s), when that once-elusive corpus of films (and, to a lesser extent, videos) finds its way onto DVD? In Arthur’s essay, “Unseen No More? The Avant-Garde on DVD,” the author took the opportunity of an unprecedented wave of avant-garde related DVD releases to think more broadly about the specific (and medium-specific) difficulties, as well as the substantial benefits, that arise when works of film art composed for exhibition in the celluloid format begin circulating in a very different form. Arthur noted that one of the most (justly) celebrated avant-garde DVD releases of the decade, Criterion’s first by Brakhage collection, exemplifies this boon-or-bane conundrum. Arthur acknowledged, as have so many, that the Brakhage collection sets the standard for the meticulous digital translation of works whose esthetic character is so richly wedded to the luminous potentials of projected film. (The fact that Brakhage expert and video-skeptic Fred Camper himself was involved in the process, along with technicians at Brakhage’s old lab, Western Cine, certainly helped.) But Arthur also noted some unavoidable downsides. M.M. Serra at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative has reported a significant decline in 16mm rentals of Brakhage’s films since the by Brakhage collection’s release. (And I may as well acknowledge that I’m part of the problem, since in my present post I have no rental budget and no real hope of attaining one.) What’s more, Arthur expressed concern, not unfounded, that the Criterion discs (another edition of which is on the way) would become a de facto Brakhage canon, the only films from among his hundreds that future generations might ever really get to know.
Arthur’s lengthy review essay covered no fewer than ten single DVD or DVD-set releases, and in the course of evaluating this burgeoning trend, his conclusions were characteristically nuanced. Arthur noted that some films, such as works by Mike Kuchar or Naomi Uman, might go unjustly ignored or unknown without the assistance of DVD releases boosting their profile. What’s more, a vast array of historical works are, of course, now much more widely available for academic research purposes, giving us reason to hope that the recent mini-boom in scholarly interest in the avant-garde (after a fallow, somewhat ideologically-driven blackout period in the 1980s and early ’90s) will only continue. But as I turn my attention to the two DVD collections under review in the present essay, I think it is not only wise but also imperative to keep the terms of this ongoing debate (especially Arthur’s exceptionally deft articulation of them) in the backs of our minds at least. Each move toward the greater accessibility of avant-garde cinema through digital means, and home video in particular, comes with a set of costs and benefits, and our thoughts about any given release (though each will always have to stand and fall on its own merits) will of necessity become, to some extent, micro-terms within a bevy of crucial and legitimate macro-arguments.
With this in mind, it must be said that the ongoing Avant-Garde series by Kino on Video (one of our most invaluable home-video labels, and the adjunct business to Kino, one of our finest theatrical distributors) exists somewhat above the fray, since the discs issued under this banner have so far been strictly historical titles. Unlike other projects centered on more contemporary filmmakers, these discs serve an unambiguous purpose, providing digital access to benchmark classics, struck from archival prints in most cases. Usually, the films Kino is making available have been out of circulation for years, and so there is a much more limited sense that the DVDs are in direct competition with the films’ celluloid incarnations. The first Kino set covered the 1920s and ’30s, and it had at least two key advantages. First, this period was a particularly rich one for experimental cinema, especially in terms of its engagement with European Surrealism, Dada, and Cubism. Works of pure visual invention, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1926) and Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique (1924), existed alongside radical experiments in narrative by the likes of Germaine Dulac, Dimitri Kirsanoff, and Jean Epstein, in a milieu pregnant with possibility and about to explode in multiple directions. Second, most of these films had already been available on video for years, in an admirable but sadly inadequate VHS series from the 1980s, and so there was no question as to whether or not the films should be on video. The Kino set was simply a much-needed upgrade.
The second and third editions in the Kino series aim to extend this valuable service, although taken as a pair, these two reveal some unique complications in the project. Like the first edition, both 2 and 3 are comprised of films from the collection of Raymond Rohauer. Rohauer, one of the most significant collectors and archivists of films from the silent era, was a man (and a promoter) of commendably catholic tastes, as evidenced by the avant-garde works Kino has licensed from his estate. But seen in context, the films represent a particular image of the avant-garde, at a specific time and place. Many of the films in Rohauer’s collection favor an esthetic teleology running from early European and Russian silent experimentation, and the films in the Kino set display this tendency. These works often showed before narrative features in adventurous venues like Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 in New York and Frank Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema series in San Francisco. Many tend to foreground performance values and even “direction” in the conventional sense, much more than the dominant sensibilities that came to define avant-garde cinema from the early 1960s on, especially in North America. This is by no means a categorical dismissal, since this inchoate, hybridized mode of narrative pointillism produced some major works. The films of Dimitri Kirsanoff in particular display a poetic economy certainly equal to that of the stringent European masters who would follow in his wake, most notably Robert Bresson. HisArrière saison (1950) and La mort du cerf (1951) amply demonstrate that identifying Kirsanoff solely with his signature chef-d’oeuvre Ménilmontant (1926) is inadequate, and that he is in fact one of the great unsung modernists of the era.
But many more of the films in Avant-Garde 2 and 3 are simply not as compelling on their own terms, instead serving primarily as points on the curve, signposts, or even footnotes in an ongoing history of experimental cinema as a whole. Without denying the pivotal importance of the work of this era, from the late 1920s through the mid-’50s, it is difficult not to see these films at least partly as dispatches from a transitional era, when the American avant-garde was still struggling to define its identity independently from European painting, on the one hand, and from the twin influence of German Expressionism and Soviet montage filmmaking on the other. A Volume 2 selection such as James Watson’s and Melville Webber’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), or Volume 3’s The Tell-Tale Heart (Charles F. Klein, 1928, one of six selections from the George Eastman House), finds film artists achieving “seriousness” simply by adopting the trappings of the European art films of the era, with poetic condensation often being the only discernible contribution to the cause. In a similar vein, we can see the dual influence of Soviet documentary and the lyrical style of Robert Flaherty working through Alberto Cavalcanti’s city symphony Rien que les heures (1926), although the film itself doesn’t quite achieve the power or the poetry of either source. Which is fine; that’s what early experiments are for. Seven years after Rien and following an unsatisfying stint at Paramount, Cavalcanti cultivated a fruitful relationship with John Grierson’s team at the Empire Marketing Board, where the lyrical/montage documentary dialectic was in many respects perfected.
Part of the difficulty facing the Kino sets, apart from the general flux in American avant-garde esthetic consciousness that in many ways characterized the 1930s and ’40s, is the fact that the greatest, most influential filmmakers of the era are already well-represented by stand-alone DVD releases. Both at the time and in retrospect, Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger were laying out radical new esthetic programs for American experimentalism, picking up aspects of the European Surrealist traditions, along with certain performative and dramatic possibilities, and refashioning them along the lines of absolute medium specificity, the primary concern that would eventually come to define the movement, whether in positive or negative terms. Deren’s exploration of the psychological dimension of editing, and Anger’s focus on transportive intensities of light, were already moving the “trance film” or the “psychodrama” well beyond the realm of European narrative. The Kino sets’ “ace in the hole” in this regard, the featured filmmaker whose contributions are unquestionably equal to those of Anger and Deren, is Sidney Peterson, represented in the series by his four most important films, The Potted Psalm (1946, with James Broughton), The Cage (1947), The Petrified Dog (1948), and The Lead Shoes (1949). Peterson’s films are not as immediately seductive as Deren’s or Anger’s, partly because they are expansive in tone and sensibility. The films resulted from a collaborative process in the classes he oversaw at the California School of the Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), an ad hoc film course known as Workshop 20. (This classwork-into-finished-film is a noble tradition carried on for years by George Kuchar.) The Peterson films owe much to the Beat sensibility—fragmentary, anarchic, driven by a youthful iconology—but continually explore the sense-making/sense-defeating potentials of associative editing, anamorphic distortion, fast and slow motion, expressive angles, and most of all, direct visual communication, a tendency toward patterns of images that refuse symbolic explanation but instead simply assert their own physical presence, as odd, inexplicable things in the world. The availability of these major works of the avant-garde, in lovely transfers from beautiful prints, is reason alone to recommend Avant-Garde 2 and 3. And although I’m a purist myself, and prefer to view The Cage and The Potted Psalm in their originally intended silence, Kino’s commissioned soundtracks (by Larry Marotta and Sue Harshe, respectively) are serviceable, in the Alloy Orchestra mode.
And then, on Disc 2 of Volume 2, there is another stunner, a film which I was fortunate enough to catch up with only because of its existence on the Kino set and which now, having seen it, strikes me as axiomatic, one of those rumored masterworks that actually lives up to (and even exceeds) the hype. Jean-Isidore Isou’s Traité de bave et d’éternité (Venom and Eternity) (1951) is, in some ways, the “one of these things that doesn’t belong,” as they used to sing on Sesame Street, since it is a feature-length work, kinda-sorta narrative, and its lineage to the European art cinema is far more direct than even those Poe adaptations or city-symphonies. But at the same time, this is the Isou film’s great advantage. It actually serves as a dialectical hinge between the Dadaist impulses and the more self-reflexive rumblings of North American mythopoeia. Isou, founder of the “Lettrist” movement, aimed to take Dada even further, drawing on the most radical implications of Modernist poetry and cinema in order to destroy “form” as it was then understood. His poetry broke language down altogether, into pure sonic noise-babble. His cinema strove to disengage crutches such as plot, character, spatial continuity, and the like, resulting in something both direct and attenuated.
After a black-leader overture of pure Lettrist mouth-noise, we are treated to an explanation of the Lettrist program, and, over scenes of Isou wandering around Paris in a snit, a strident, bad-ass narration telling us all the things Venom and Eternity was about to do (or not do). Greil Marcus, in his book Lipstick Traces, compares the film to both Theodor Adorno and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and in mode of address this is not far off. But then, in the main section of the film, we get something like a tortured, proto-Nouvelle Vague narrative, the story of Daniel (Isou), a heartless cad who breaks women’s hearts almost as a matter of theoretical principle. In the midst of this excruciating first-person narrative, Isou scratches deep white calligraphic lines into the emulsion, paints blobby bubbles on the film to white-out faces, flips the images upside down, vertically blurs environments by printing them as they lose registration in the gate, and perpetrates all manner of materialist intervention at the level of the celluloid. The story of a man’s refusal to commit to his world, or his commitment to being cruelly noncommittal, is displayed through a severe commitment to keeping us simultaneously engaged with, and apart from, the physical substratum of his own film. In 1951! Said to have provoked riots upon its premiere at Cannes (in an original four-and-a-half-hour cut!), Venom and Eternity represents a crossroads. Not only does all of Godard stand within it, but post-Godardianism as well—the self-laceration of Fassbinder, Eustache, and Garrel. The entire North American line is there as well, waiting to be tapped—the physical manipulations and naked-eye directness of Brakhage (who at this time, as seen by the four early films included on Volume 2, was still in poetic narrative mode), as well as the more conceptual materialism of Ernie Gehr, Hollis Frampton, Ken Jacobs, and Michael Snow. It is not for nothing that Brakhage himself said, “Venom and Eternity is a portal through which every film artist is going to have to pass.” Many thanks to Kino for making the portal that much easier to find.
Michael Sicinski is a writer and teacher based in Houston.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 3