Unseen no longer
Newcomers to the world of experimental cinema quickly come across a few key facts. The American avant-garde was born in 1943, the conventional wisdom goes, when Maya Deren made Meshes of the Afternoon. Before that, there was little activity this side of the Atlantic.
Try telling that to Bruce Posner, whose Unseen Cinema collection — which toured museums some time ago and now arrives in a 7-DVD box from Image — gathers 19 hours of pre-Deren shorts and makes an overwhelming argument that the first half-century of American film history was more complicated than most historians have allowed. (A 1995 book, Lovers of Cinema, blazed the trail for Posner, but until now few have been able to see the films it cites.)
Some of the names on the program, far from being obscure, are legendary: silent-film pioneer D.W. Griffith, collage artist Joseph Cornell, even choreographer extraordinaire Busby Berkeley are here, alongside such amateurs as Archie Stewart.
Their inclusion serves two purposes.
First, the curator argues that daring segments of commercial film — Berkeley’s human kaleidoscopes, say — should be credited for pushing the boundaries of film language, much as we now recognize music videos as a mainstream laboratory for experimentation.
More intriguingly, Posner demonstrates that this era drew less distinction between high art and home movies. A network of film clubs existed in which footage of one member’s summer vacation might screen on a program alongside work by a celebrated artist.
Unseen Cinema is programmed with a similar disdain for categories, which can make for challenging viewing. Art lovers eager to see Cornell’s films will find them interspersed with reels of birthday parties. In his effort to dispense with barriers, the curator is as idiosyncratic as the strangest films he is championing. It’s possible that his evidence won’t convince every devotee of the avant-garde’s established heroes — but he makes a dry historical debate awfully fun to watch.
More than 60 years later, the literal meaning of “avant-garde” may no longer apply, but filmmakers still heed the call to sneak away from the conventions of mainstream storytelling. Some have done the miraculous, managing to get their most eccentric visions into commercial (albeit arthouse) theaters: Take Guy Maddin, whose Cowards Bend the Knee (Zeitgeist) is a feature-length assemblage of 10 shorts originally made to be watched through peepholes at an art installation.
Other filmmakers work their idiosyncracies into (slightly) more conventional stories while saving their wildest visions for shorts that few ever get to see. The formidable David Lynch has gone so far as to launch a pay-membership website (davidlynch.com, naturally) to distribute some titles big studios wouldn’t risk: alongside the cult classic Eraserhead he offers The Short Films of David Lynch and a new title, the primitively drawn, surreally vulgar animated series Dumbland. Short Films is of particular interest to fans, as the director appears between the films to recount the circumstances of their making.
Indie darling Hal Hartley has followed the same route, using his possiblefilms.com to distribute a disc of experimental shorts, titled Possible Films, and even self-releasing his latest feature, The Girl from Monday. After the commercial failure of his last studio-distributed film, No Such Thing, the director has embraced the internet’s ability to get information straight from artist to audience.
(Both auteurs also distribute their work through licensing agreements: TLA is set to begin distributing Lynch releases; after a short exclusive deal with Netflix, Hartley’s work can be found at microcinema.com).
The really exciting territory, though, is the vast space between the home movies that Bruce Posner’s set includes and the work of cinema’s established celebrities — film-school denizens, self-taught wunderkinder, and indie stars in the making. Self-publishing has been very good to some of these folks, as we’ll see in a future column. Until then, digging through the forgotten experiments and made-for-pleasure’s-sake collages of Unseen Cinema is a great reminder of how the language of film can be reborn with each practitioner who takes up a movie camera. •
By John DeFore