of the 1920s & 1930s
Firstly: What a joy to have these shorts compiled in one double-disc package. Some of them I hadn’t seen in years; others are revelations. Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ‘30s doesn’t contain everything canonical from the period and practice it seeks to document, but it doesn’t have to. These films—by Duchamp, Epstein, Man Ray, Richter, Eisenstein, Leger, and Welles, to name the artists of greatest stature—come from the collection of programmer and archivist Raymound Rohauer, and thank the cinema gods for such a devote of the medium. Unless you live in a city fortunate enough to have an art cinema with a risk-taking schedule, where else would one be able to see The Hearts of Age or Ballet mécanique if not for Rohauer, and for Kino’s decision to make his personal treasures available on DVD?
For this reason alone Avant-Garde earns instant recognition as “essential,” forming a perfect primer in various schools and applications of early experimental filmmaking. Surrealism is represented by four Man Ray classics, Germaine Dulac’s divisive The Seashell and the Clergyman (violently protested upon its release by scenarist Antonin Artaud), and proto-Surrealist Jean Painleve’s documentary Le Vampire. Ray’s films are not only the height of Surrealist exploration, but now seem startlingly prescient: Emak-Bakia’s mirror-produced abstractions call to mind the distorting lenses of Sidney Peterson and Stan Brakhage years later; Les Mystères du Château du Dé’s de Chirico-esque locales and strange, faceless figures announce the psychodrama nightmares of Maya Deren.
The works P. Adams Sitney termed (insufficiently, but as best as could be done) “graphic cinema” in Visionary Film are all accounted for here: Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (his Nazi-suppressed Ghosts Before Breakfast is on the same disc), Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale, Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, and Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique. This tenuous category of films (Duchamp’s project could also be considered Dada) derived movement from objects or animation or, in the case of Ballet mécanique, both. Ballet mécanique was a high watermark for cinematic modernism; like the greatest achievements of Soviet cinema during this period, Léger’s film finds unique, thrilling correspondences between man and machine, including toys and everyday bric-a-brac. The complex montage rhythms, the goofy visual motifs, the utopian fervor of its thesis—no cinephile, no matter how many times he or she has viewed this classic, can resist getting swept away by its energy.
Speaking of the Soviets, two Russian directors make an appearance on Avant-Garde in an interesting collaboration. Sergei Eisenstein joined forces with co-director Grigori Alexandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse in 1929 to make Romance sentimentale. The title accurately describes the result, a lugubrious piece in which a woman (the mistress of the film’s wealthy financial backer) sings a Russian tune that conjures images of love lost and renewed. According to Elliot Stein’s liner notes, Alexandrov’s fingerprints were all over this short, but the opening is pure Eisenstein: a brilliant montage of falling trees and splashing water that also marked the director’s first attempt to experiment with sound montage, the principles of which were set forth in the manifesto he’d co-written with Alexandrov and V.I. Pudovkin a year before.
Until the emergence of Deren and Peterson in the Forties the American avant-garde featured more dabbling than serious cinematic statements, and the entries by Yankee filmmakers tend to be lighter in tone and intention than their European counterparts. Even—As You and I, a 1937 piece by Roger Barlow, Harry Hay, and LeRoy Robbins, is a straight-up parody: three filmmakers (played by the co-directors themselves) wish to enter a movie competition, but are bereft of ideas. One of them discovers an article on surrealism, and inspiration quickly follows. Their resulting masterpiece, The Afternoon of a Rubber Band, hilariously spoofs Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou: instead of opening up an eyeball, the sharp razor politely shaves a cheek. Rarely seen, Orson Welles’s true filmmaking debut, The Hearts of Age, both sends up and pays homage to the classics of experimental cinema like Andalou, Caligari, and The Blood of a Poet (the influence of these three films, as well as Metropolis, is thoroughly conspicuous in most of Avant-Garde’s entries). By 1934 Welles (who co-directed the film with William Vance) is already a filmmaker with an abundance of wit and imagination. Just as he displayed his mastery and transcendence of the Hollywood idiom in Citizen Kane, Welles gleefully shows off his knowledge of experimental tropes in The Hearts of Age, though the execution is somewhat crude: montage editing, the use of negative images, and caked, exaggerated makeup create a foreboding mood to heighten a story about Death (Welles) enticing a woman to her doom. Welles’s preoccupation with existential subject matter was initially realized in cinematic form here, but the tone remains playful as well as melancholic: the action feels as if could be taking place in Kane’s snow-globe.
To watch Avant-Garde is also to immerse oneself in nostalgia for a strand of experimental filmmaking that, while influential, has largely fallen out of favor. Many of the films presented on the DVD are of a time when the practice of combining experimental poetics and accessible narrative was not viewed with the skepticism that it is now. Take for example Joris Ivens’s 1929 short Regen (Rain) : the film follows the build-up and release of a storm through beautifully composed, elliptically edited shots of Amsterdam over the course of a day. Not quite abstract (which the similarly themed H20—by photographer Ralph Steiner, and also on Avant-Garde—leans toward), Regen constructs its story through oblique suggestions. Herman G. Weinberg’s Autumn Fire, about the lonesome separation and joyous reconciliation of two lovers, sounds naively simple by today’s standards—the experimentation in the film comes from its parallel editing juxtaposing images of rural and city life. Other filmmakers like Dimitri Kirsanoff and Jean Epstein incorporated trick photography and effects into complex, groundbreaking narratives. The avant-garde, by definition, remained outside and continues to remain outside the mainstream, but the abovementioned films, as well as several others from Rohauer’s collection, attest to a universal appeal sought by forward-looking filmmakers, an appeal hardly as coveted by filmmakers in today’s more insulated, academic experimental film scene.
Kino’s done a solid job with the packaging and layout for Avant-Garde. Stein’s notes (featured on the DVD but not provided in a separate booklet) are concise and informative, providing useful credits and background for each film. The transfers are sharp for the most part, although certain films have understandably undergone enough wear and tear through the years to warrant significant future restorations. Only the decision to provide the silent films with updated soundtracks makes little sense—with a few notable exceptions, the music is at best merely serviceable and at worst jarring. Larry Marotta’s gentle guitar-picking score, reminiscent of Loren Mazzacane Connor and John Fahey, perfectly compliments the rhythmic raindrops of Regen. But other scores are off the mark: Ghosts Before Breakfast contains an overly literal soundtrack (aside from the bizarre barking noises that bear little connection to the film’s images) by Donald Sosin that nearly cancels out the absurd slapstick, and Sue Harshe’s composed music for Rhythmus 21 and Symphonie diagonale doesn’t work at all. Because films like Symphonie diagonale—notice the lead word in the title—seek to create music through visual movement, any sort of music is wholly superfluous. Of course, one always has the option of putting speakers on mute, but Kino might have used greater discretion in determining which films would be aided by musical accompaniment and which films would have benefited from silence.
Perhaps the highest praise that can be given to a collection like Avant-Garde is that it defies neat summary: there’s such a plethora of material—with so many connections to past and future work and containing so many innovations that pushed the medium into new territory—that a single review, let alone a single in depth study, wouldn’t do it justice. Kino has done a great service to those interested in the earliest forms of cinematic experimentation by releasing this set. Now it’s up to us to discover and rediscover the mastery of these films.
—MICHAEL JOSHUA ROWIN