The arrival in Austin of Unseen Cinema, a landmark series of experimental film from film history's first half century, put me in a mind to revisit the watershed event of the second 50 years, Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon.
Mystic Fire Video has released Meshes, along with five other works, on Maya Deren: Experimental Films, a disc that probably won't be at your local Blockbuster, but is essential viewing for those interested in the avant-garde. The sensibilities of these shorts have been aped by so many film students that they might seem dated now, but once you get beyond that, Deren's ability to recreate the sensation of dreaming (and to infuse that form with her own personally symbolic content) is impressive, and has influenced everybody from first-semester artistes to David Lynch.
One of Deren's amateur-friendly techniques is using stop-motion to move her body magically up and down a staircase. That device pops up throughout Cut-Up: The Films of Grant Munro, as the filmmaker choreographs whole films using actors as animated puppets. More playful than daring, Munro looks pretty square today, but there are a couple of treats here for animation buffs.
More than a few gems are scattered on The Best of Resfest Vol. 2 & 3, a pretty remarkable collection of short films from the traveling festival. A favorite that will be familiar to some viewers from other film festivals is The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, Matt McCormick's film which argues (almost sincerely) that the folks who slap crude coats of paint over unwanted graffiti have birthed a new movement in high art. McCormick's deadpan narrator even pulls out some Mark Rothko slides to make her point. The second volume's highlights include two shorts employing one of my favorite techniques, the Xerox-machine-animated film - where individual frames of a movie are blown up as photocopies, then photographed in sequence to turn them back into a moving picture. The most exciting of the two, Copy Shop, blends old-tech with computer effects to clone one actor into a whole community.
| Maya Deren: Experimental Films (Mystic Fire)
Cut-Up: The Films of Grant Munro (Milestone)
The Best of Resfest Vol. 2 & 3 (Palm Pictures)
Rejected (Bitter Films)
Lyrical Nitrate (Zeitgeist)
H.R. Pufnstuf (Rhino)
| Armchair Cinephile
Returning to the world of the highbrow, Decasia brings experimental cinema into the 21st century by digging up a mildewed and moth-eaten past. A feature-length assemblage of found footage, Decasia obsesses over pieces of film that are on the verge of disintegration, some eroded so badly that it can take a minute or more to make out what was being photographed. The whole thing is accompanied by an atonal "symphony" encouraging the viewer to see the images as a meditation on mortality. It's a trance-inducing work that polarizes audiences; some can't bear it, while a handful of critics named it on their year's-best lists.
One ancestor of Decasia, Peter Delpeut's 1991 Lyrical Nitrate - which is more interested in preserving the photography of the past than relishing in its deterioration - has been unavailable for some time, but will be reissued on March 30 paired with another of Delpeut's films, The Forbidden Quest.
Finally, from the sublime to the ridiculous, something about H.R. Pufnstuf demands inclusion on this list of mind-bending movies. A TV series about a cockney moppet and his magic talking flute who find themselves on a living island with a yellow mushroom-guy for a mayor, it was not (creators Sid & Marty Krofft swear) in the least inspired by the drug culture. Right - and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" had nothing to do with pot. •