Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986 (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Michael Sicinski
DVD, B&W and color, 305 min. Released by the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Film No. 3: Interwoven (U.S., 1947-49) by Harry Smith, 3 min.
Notes on the Circus (U.S., 1966) by Jonas Mekas, 12 min.
Here I Am (U.S., 1962) by Bruce Baillie, 10 min.
Fake Fruit Factory (U.S., 1986) by Chick Strand, 22 min.
Odds & Ends (U.S., 1959) by Jane Conger Belson Shimane, 4 min.
Eyewash (U.S., 1959) by Robert Breer, 3 min.
Peyote Queen (U.S., 1965) by Storm De Hirsch, 9 min.
7362 (U.S., 1967) by Pat O’Neill, 10 min.
Aleph (U.S., 1956-66?) by Wallace Berman, 8 min.
Note to Pati (U.S., 1969) by Saul Levine, 7 min.
By Night with Torch and Spear (U.S., 1940s?) by Joseph Cornell, 8 min.
The Riddle of Lumen (U.S., 1972) by Stan Brakhage, 13 min.
The End (U.S., 1953) by Christopher Maclaine, 34 min.
Bridges-Go-Round (U.S., 1958) by Shirley Clarke, 4 min.
Go! Go! Go! (U.S., 1962-64) by Marie Menken, 11 min.
Little Stabs at Happiness (U.S., 1959-63) by Ken Jacobs, 15 min.
Chumlum (U.S., 1964) by Ron Rice, 23 min.
Mario Banana (No. 1) (U.S., 1964) by Andy Warhol, 4 min.
I, An Actress (U.S., 1977) by George Kuchar, 9 min.
The Off-Handed Jape…& How to Pull It Off (U.S., 1967) by Robert Nelson & William T. Wiley, 8 min.
New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (U.S., 1976) by Owen Land (George Landow), 10 min.
Hamfat Asar (U.S., 1965) by Lawrence Jordan, 13 min.
Necrology (U.S., 1969-70) by Standish Lawder, 11 min.
Fog Line (U.S., 1970) by Larry Gottheim, 11 min.
(nostalgia) (U.S., 1971) by Hollis Frampton, 36 min.
Bad Burns (U.S., 1982) by Paul Sharits, 6 min.
In the realm of DVD releasing, clearly there are multiple considerations that any disc publisher must take into account—availability of suitable materials from which to generate a master; prospective market demand; and, in the case of certain cinephilic DVD labels such as The Criterion Collection and Masters of Cinema, the relative historical significance of the film or films in question. Most of these considerations are invisible to the casual buyer. But the most rarefied film releases don’t have what we’d typically call “casual buyers,” the Saturday night shoppers who pick up the two-disc set of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) in the checkout line at Target next to sell-through copies of Unbreakable (2000) and Stuck On You (2003). (Incidentally, just to stave off needless charges of elitism, I crafted my example quite carefully. I cited a store where I actually shop—not “the other place”—and two films by at-the-time respected pop auteurs, films I actually like.)
The point I am making is that a label like Criterion is intensely scrutinized by Web-based fans and chatgroup cinephiles, and there are several reasons for this. One is simple: excitement over which classic films will be getting the “Criterion treatment,” i.e., becoming newly available in sparkling transfers, with outstanding extras, commentary tracks and scholarly essays. But there is another factor as well. Inclusion in the The Criterion Collection, to many, has come to signify high-art imprimatur, if not outright canonical status. How else to account for the fact that certain titles’ inclusion continues to rankle collectors and film fans years after the pressing (Michael Bay’s Armageddon ? It’s Criterion #40), or serve as a catalyst for heated debate over whether certain directors, such as Paul Verhoeven (Robocop , Criterion #23) or Wes Anderson (#65, 157, 300, 450, and 540) deserve the status accorded them.
In certain respects, though, it’s even simpler than all that. If a film is on a high-quality DVD, it is going to be seen more often, discussed more, and enter the general circulation of cinephilic “objects” that, in actual practice, determines canonicity. The lack of general availability of certain films may not have diminished their reputation per se, but it has frequently reduced them to rumor, while implicitly elevating others over them by sheer practicality. Robert Bresson’s oeuvre is a fine example. During the retrospective that traveled North America a few years back, Bresson’s already sky-high reputation was cemented. Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), Au hasard Balthazar(1966), and Mouchette (1967) were confirmed as modern masterpieces, and late works such as L’Argent (1983) and The Devil, Probably (1977) were reevaluated to the positive. But among many, Four Nights of a Dreamer was the absolute revelation, primarily because in it, we had discovered a film that was every inch the equal of Diary, Mouchette,Man Escaped, and Balthazar, but which we had not had the chance to see in decades. And now, unavailable on DVD and without a domestic distributor, Four Nights has once more retreated into the realm of luminous rumor. Until recently, much of the work of masters such as Maurice Pialat, Nagisa Oshima, Ritwik Ghatak, and Alexander Kluge occupied a similar position. Cinematheque retrospectives, together with the circulating gesture (and implied canonical stamp) of DVD labels such as Criterion, MoC, BFI, Facets, and Edition Filmmuseum, have gone a long way towards correcting this neglect.
But it could be argued that, rather than considering this or that individual filmmaker, the entirety of avant-garde filmmaking has for decades existed as a rumor or an inaccessible chimera for most cinephiles, even those most ardent in its pursuit. This is perhaps why, as more DVD sets of classic experimental film appear on the scene, the discussions surrounding them seem to take on a tenor of concern and even frustration. Apart from the question of whether or not avant-garde film, an unusually medium-specific endeavor as cinema goes, belongs on a digital recording process to begin with—a question that will not be solved and to which I devoted some significant attention in my previous article on the Kino Experimental Film sets [http://www.cineaste.com/articles/kino-internationals-emavant-garde-2em-and-emavant-garde-3em]—another looming prospect seems to be, “Are we giving a proper representation of the avant-garde?”
This isn’t a concern to be taken lightly. The recently released Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986 is a two-disc set that will most certainly be purchased by libraries and universities, and will become a backbone of many college film-studies courses. As with those pesky Criterion sets, Treasures IV does have an implicit canonical role to play, even as it also doubles as a kind of Whitman’s Sampler box of unique films by most of the key experimental film artists of the era. Some reviews have questioned the selections included in the set, which is something that, according to my research, did not really happen with the three previous Treasures sets. (Those sets, understood to be collections of films preserved by various American archives through grants by the National Film Preservation Foundation, tended to be taken as representing only themselves and the wide-net work of the NFPF.) And, like those and any other DVD releases predicated on top-notch presentation quality, the selection was to a large extent dictated by the materials available, with the additional proviso that the included films had to have been preserved by American archives (the films on the set are the results of the preservation work of five institutions—The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Anthology Film Archives, The Museum of Modern Art, The New York Public Library, and The Pacific Film Archive). But my firm contention is that, even taking into account the numerous extrinsic factors that impacted the production and curation of Treasures IV, this is a top-drawer selection that is as fully representative of the power, beauty, and breadth of the American avant-garde as any two-disc set could ever hope to be. Its release is a genuine landmark. Its makers have earned the right to beam with pride and offer no apologies whatsoever.
The care and intelligence that went into the selection process for Treasures IV is evident throughout, in large part because, even with all the hurdles and red tape it was necessary to navigate, all concerned understood every issue on the table before them—the canonical conundrum, the need to be inclusive and diverse, to present both a deep and a broad picture of the corpus of experimental film during the forty years covered in the set. Treasures IV is, above all, the brainchild and multiyear labor of love of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Assistant Director, Jeff Lambert. A longtime ally of the avant-garde cinematheque community on both coasts and all points between, Lambert’s commitment allowed him to assemble what amounts to a blue-ribbon panel to assist with film selection for the discs—CalArts Film and Video dean Steve Anker, New York experimental film programmer/impresario Mark McElhatten, and former Donnell Media Center director Marie Nesthus. Together, the four of them assembled a collection of impressive variety, united by a general consistency of vision and purpose.
Canonical debates being what they are, my assessments are indeed subjective. But I contend that any major avant-garde filmmaker from the period who is not represented onTreasures IV is absent for a good reason, and I do believe that this was very much by design of the curators, although I have no particular knowledge to this effect. The entire classic output of both Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger is already available on high-quality DVD. The Kino sets have Sidney Peterson pretty well covered. The music clearances for nearly every Bruce Conner or Jack Smith film, along with their nonpreserved status, would presumably disqualify them. Two major figures to have emerged in the late Seventies, Yvonne Rainer and James Benning, both work almost exclusively at feature length, making their inclusion in such a project unfeasible. A few others, one presumes, may well have declined to participate, or simply did not have archivally preserved works that met the Foundation’s requirements. But even at that, very few truly significant film artists from the period are AWOL.
As for what Treasures IV does include, many of the filmmakers are indeed represented by their best-known films, or films that are among their most canonical. As such, the set clearly stands up as a de facto Criterion/Masters of Cinema effort for anyone with a serious interest in cinema as an artistic pursuit. Stan Brakhage, whose work has been so well represented by not one but two multidisc Criterion sets, is included on Treasures IV with one of his indisputably major films, The Riddle of Lumen (1972). Presented via a stunning color restoration by Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive that brings out the film’s deep crimsons and blacks for the first time in decades, Lumen is one of Brakhage’s key photographic works of the 1970s, a visual compendium of various textures and intensities of light, all joined by bracing straight cuts. Far from being a “bonus track,” Riddle of Lumen is a necessary completion to the Criterion Brakhages. No one has anything close to a full picture of the man’s career without this film.
Likewise, Treasures IV includes an important work by the great, underappreciated San Francisco area lyrical observationalist Bruce Baillie. (As a measure of Baillie’s importance, no less a contemporary film artist than Apichatpong Weerasethakul has cited him as a primary influence.) Here I Am (1962) is an early Baillie work, a bit atypical compared to the later films that made his reputation such as Castro Street, All My Life (both 1966) and Valentin de las Sierras (1967), films which Baillie himself has recently issued on DVD. But Here I Am, with its firmer basis in poetic documentary—the film observes kids at play at the East Bay Activity Center, a facility dedicated to helping emotionally disturbed children—demonstrates Baillie’s unerring sense of patience before the world in front of him, and the gentle, almost recessive camerawork which is seemingly incapable of absorbing a phenomenon that cannot be beatified by its grace. Baillie’s career blueprint is in Here I Am, along with everything future filmmakers (Apichatpong, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jennifer Reeves) have found within his work as inspiration.
Filmmakers of the so-called structuralist period are very well represented on Treasures IV, most by top-tier efforts. Hollis Frampton (rumored to be the subject of an upcoming Eclipse box set from Criterion) is included with (nostalgia) (1971), probably his most famous as well as his most critically acclaimed film. A disquisition on the nature of photography and memory, (nostalgia) is also a highly literate, wryly comic autobiography in which Frampton recalls his lost friendships, artistic failures, and his eventual intellectual growth, all the while destroying image after image on an electric hotplate. Lyrical and plangent, (nostalgia) undermines any prejudice regarding formalism’s alleged soullessness. In a similar vein, Ken Jacobs is in the set with a film from his “Baudelairean” period with Jack Smith, Little Stabs at Happiness (1959-63). Although the film dates from before his most formalistic work begins, Jacobs can already be seen exploring disjunctive sound/image relationships, and much like Frampton in (nostalgia), Jacobs laments the distance between the images in the film and the time of narration, recognizing that many of the good friends captured in the film are lost forever.
Two lesser-known structuralists are also included with films that rank among their very best. Standish Lawder’s sly, puckish Necrology (1969-70) is deceptive, a kind of one-liner whose ontological significance resonates well beyond its apparent simplicity. When André Bazin described cinema as “death at work,” he could not have anticipated a film likeNecrology. Larry Gottheim, a severely underrated filmmaker and former colleague of Jacobs’s at Binghamton University, appears on Treasures IV with one of his best-known films, Fog Line (1970). This subtle, gently miraculous single-shot film begins with a flattened, fog-covered field of vision. As the fog slowly dissipates, depth enters the frame, and, like a magic trick, much more world is revealed behind the “curtain” than we ever could have expected. It is a film that truly rewards patience and readjusts almost all of our customary viewing expectations.
Also extremely well represented in the Treasures set are filmmakers loosely associated with the Beat movement, those New York and San Francisco underground rebels who practically invented the New American Cinema from whole cloth. This healthy sampling is of historical significance, of course, since many of these key films have been underseen for entirely too long. What’s more, this freewheeling, often improvisatory filmmaking has tended to fall off the cinephilic radar in recent years, as compared to Brakhage, the structuralists, and proto-postmoderns like Anger and Conner. Every contemporary understanding of the history of film is in part generated by present-day influence, and in recent years the art cinema has found less to be inspired by in “hippie film.” But this momentary lapse in fashion will surely shift when more people encounter the masterworks on the Treasures IV set, such as Christopher Maclaine’s The End (1953), Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964), Wallace Berman’s Aleph (c. 1956-66), and Storm De Hirsch’sPeyote Queen (1965).
Maclaine was a tragic figure, a poet and magazine publisher in San Francisco who never achieved success and eventually succumbed to drug addiction and madness. He completed only four films before his death, The End being the most fully realized. In it, an omniscient narrator informs us that we are witnessing events on the last day before total atomic annihilation. We follow several luckless individuals, some concocting cruel schemes, some merely lonely, none of them realizing they are about to die. “Look at them,” the voice exhorts. “See if they are not you.” The End combines collage, free-form narrative, proto-New Wave technique, and an almost Brechtian direct address in a bracing, radical film form that virtually indicts itself. (Its closest cinematic cousin is most likely Timothy Carey’s independent film The World’s Greatest Sinner ). Rice, another Beat straggler who died young (of pneumonia at the age of twenty-nine), completed six films during his brief four-year career. Chumlum is one of Rice’s collaborations with the inimitable Jack Smith, and the film displays as much of Smith’s artistic sensibility as Rice’s. A blissed-out Orientalist fantasy filmed in Smith’s apartment, Chumlumdistills Smith’s fetish for von Sternberg textures of mesh and lace, light, shadow, and filigree into a pure spectacle of colored lights, superimposition, and slo-mo mysticism. Here is one film where the DVD transfer makes all the difference; the deep black shadows and the subtle gradations of overlapping color really pop on the Treasures IV disc, makingChumlum a purely sensual contact high.
By comparison, there is a built-in ramshackle quality to Berman’s Aleph that is intrinsic to what it is, and which has also kept the film rather marginalized over the years despite its importance. Berman, like Maclaine a poet first and foremost, made only one film, and made it in a most unconventional manner. Aleph (so named by Berman’s son Tosh—Wallace never titled his piece) was conceived as a never-ending film journal comprised of collected snippets and pop images deemed significant or uniquely telling, or troubling. Berman used Letraset letters and superimposed graphic images to supplement and critique the photographed footage, much of which he shot off a TV, resulting in a sort of Rauschenberg/Johns riff on Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice (1961). (A silent film, Aleph features an optional alternate audio track with a specially commissioned score by John Zorn, one of three such scores.) By contrast, De Hirsch’s film is a celebration of altered consciousness, a paean to letting go. Made primarily by scratching directly into the film emulsion with surgical tools, Peyote Queen employs primitive-looking animation (designed to resemble cave paintings or children’s drawings) to generate elemental symbols. Swimming fish, eyeballs, breasts, and other signs of life all dart across the screen, performing a kind of ritual dance. De Hirsch, yet another Beat figure who started out as a poet, makes prospective drug consciousness the substitute for any firm sense of formal organization. The “play” is the thing.
These are four films that have been “in” the canon for quite some time, but have not been as fully present on our radar as certain other films in the experimental pantheon, theMeshes of the Afternoons and the Dog Star Mans and the Scorpio Risings. And so, Treasures IV, with its highly considered choices and willingness to put adventurousness and deep connoisseurship ahead of a roundup of the same old suspects, has made an implicit argument. Lambert and his panel understand that the vitality of the avant-garde involves carrying the best of its history into the future, and this means it’s high time that anyone genuinely curious about American avant-garde film should be able to find out who Storm De Hirsch is. Likewise for Saul Levine (Note to Pati ), Chick Strand (Fake Fruit Factory ), Shirley Clarke (Bridges-Go-Round ), Robert Breer (Eyewash), and others. If Treasures IV is a primer, which to a certain extent it is, then I think it so far has no peer. But if it is a major statement, intended or not, on reorganizing the avant-garde canon (a “Criterion move”), then I must say I really have no worries whatsoever. There will be subsequent disc sets, we presume (we hope), to keep the argument going. But even if Treasures IV ends up as a kind of definitive statement, I feel it’s a strong one. The future is in good hands.
To buy Treasures IV click here.
Michael Sicinski is a writer and teacher based in Houston.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1