Silent Avant-Garde


Presented at SFSFF 2018
Live Musical Accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble

Essay by Michael Atkinson

Selections from the touring retrospective Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894–1941, a collaborative film preservation and restoration project by Anthology Film Archives, New York; and Deutsches Filmmuseum, Frankfurt am Main; in collaboration with sixty of the world’s leading film archives and with generous support provided by Cineric Inc.; Eastman Kodak Company; Filmmakers Showcase; and Film Preservation Associates.

Ah, that ultimate ghetto orphan of cinema history, the avant-garde film, shunned by distributors, unseen by impatient audiences, relegated for decades to boutique screenings or club meetings or late-night reefer party impulse, struggling to make something absolutely forward-looking in a world only interested in the Right Now, and endeavoring to burn down the edifice of cinematic-narcotic storytelling the Industry has labored so hard to construct. It may come as a surprise to some, but avant-garde or experimental or “underground” film has been a busy and fecund secret history of movies, running alongside mainstream cinema at least since the turn of the 20th century and the fin-de-siècle riffs of Georges Méliès and Frederick S. Armitage. It’s still there, occupying the occasional urban art-house screen, intoxifying the fringes of the more adventurous festivals, influencing advertising and music videos, and somehow finding its faithful cult of global viewership in one viewing form or another.

The spirit of the avant-garde has always been to flout the common conventions, artistic but also social and sexual; radical bohemians have no use for Hollywood after all, just as they haven’t for rules about premarital sex, dope, strictly cisgendered relationships, or churchgoing. (An important but unexplored factor of our fascination with fringe aesthetes is that they always seem to be having more fun than ordinary, job-holding people.) This is undoubtedly part of their allure. The thing is, avant-garde works cannot stay front of guard forever, or indeed for very long, in any of these areas. Time marches on, and so, in time, like many other categories of visual media with a kind of baked-in ephemerality (Communist propaganda and bygone-era exploitation films, for two), avant-garde movies become something else once their radical, relevant moment in the sun of controversy and hip unorthodoxy fades into the past.

But what? This is where classic cinephilia steps in and lifts the scantily-clad damsel from the cliff-edge: for our tribe, movie history is the movie present, thank you, and the classic silent works of the avant-garde have never quite gone out of style. In fact, today they look like living dreams, maybe antique-y but just as present in our consciousness as physical, beautiful vestiges of yesteryear: helplessly seductive, adorably pretentious, child-like. If they seem naïve, it’s because they’ve already changed the world. In the watching, though, their naïveté scans like history, charming in its past-ness but relevant in the essence of its questions. (Before we even go there, there’s the fact of the early avant-garde movies as an infinitely ponderable showcase of extinct cultural history, happenstantial as it was. Artists can’t afford sets and production infrastructure, so we get the private reality of the 1920s moment as we rarely do in movies outside of newsreels: the homes and neighborhoods of the new century, newly built California bungalows and Lost Generation cafés, tracts of land as yet unsurrendered to overdevelopment, handmade studio spaces carved out of living rooms and lit to be abstractly empty.)

But what’s fascinating, as always with the avant-garde, are the ways in which the filmmakers sought to rescue film from its industrialized, commercialized formulaic position in our broader cultural brainpan. For each of them, from Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp to Slavko Vorkapich and Maya Deren, cinema had an essential self that needn’t have anything necessarily to do with telling stories—and particularly the sort of melodramatic, resolution-burdened, happy-ending stories Hollywood was churning out by the square yard. Storytelling was a borrowing, after all, of theater and fiction; the representational nature of cinematography was an extension of photography. What was cinema itself, and what was cinematic? How would the medium come to grow up and justify itself as a unique and intrinsic art form, independent of the elements in its original genetic makeup? It wasn’t an easy question to answer in the ’20s, or now—which is why “experimental,” as monikers go, suits these films very well. You look at Duchamp’s Anémic cinéma (1926) or Jay Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1931), and amid the sheer enjoyment radiating from behind the lens you get a clear sense of mad-doctor experimentation going on, a tactile aesthetic gambling, wherein each filmmaker is asking, could a movie be like this? Why not?

Of course the early influences come from abstract painting and Dadaist poetry—as if the avant-gardists had to digest these additional influences before they could get to the marrow of the matter. Abstract cinema, exemplified by Duchamp’s famous one-off, is its own kind of filmgoing challenge; and you could call Anémic cinéma the very first movie made up of absolutely nothing. If the films often feel like nursery playthings, winner-less games of tic-tac-toe and doodles brought to temporal life, then that’d be a conclusion the filmmakers would happily accept. (This sensibility embraced dance as an expressive form as well, as in Miklos Bandy and Stella F. Simon’s Hands, from 1928, in which hands floating in abstracted space act out love, sex, oppression, resistance, in a flurry of activity that suggests a desperate search for Muppets to inhabit.) This aura of innocence did not last. As the idea of abstraction on film grew more precisely cinematic, through the 1950s and beyond, you’re faced with the looming presence of arch-abstractor Stan Brakhage, for whom experimental filmmaking was a serious, even mythic, business (and whose movies, up to his death in 2003, are mostly silent).

Other aesthetic avenues required resources, even to the cut-rate extent of the lavishly designed and postproduction-heavy Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1928), which owes its hyperbolic style to German Expressionism, but completely owns its transgressive storytelling style and caustic view of Hollywood. Vorkapich is a fascinating figure, a Serbian artist who arrived penniless in Hollywood and quickly enough created a new and singular role for himself: as a master montagist, tasked to crafting elaborate time-bending, theme-pounding montages for all kinds of movies, but rarely given credit. You’ve seen a Vorkapich montage, even if you didn’t know it was his; they have a distinctive intensity and full-blooded Surrealist flavor that often ran so counter to the films they were intended for that his original versions were usually trimmed and tamed. Looking at his originals is making contact with a fiery imagination unique to Golden Age Hollywood. If only every avant-gardist, then and now, had his budgets.

The credit for reinvigorating interest in Vorkapich as an artist, indeed as an avant-gardist, belongs to scholar and curator Bruce Posner, one of the country’s preeminent authorities on early experimentalism. He’s also pushed the boundaries by including Busby Berkeley and early Edison shooter Edwin S. Porter in his scholarship about the history of avant-garde cinema. It’s a salient point to make, given how influential even the craziest of these films have been. Once you start thinking of Vorkapich and Berkeley’s haywire and very popular roles within the Hollywood system, and how the visual vocabulary of movies was always testing out new territories, you start to wonder if there has been such a vast difference between the fringe and the mainstream after all. In the 1920s, if you look to the Soviets and the Germans and the French, it seems as though everyone was experimenting.

Cinema was, and in some areas still is, an experiment. Which means the early avant-
garde films are never obsolete and will not go gentle into the night of bygone eras. As novelist Michael Chabon has said in an essay redefining what it means to be a nostalgist, “The past is another planet; anyone ought to wonder, as we do, at any traces of it that turn up on this one.” That’s perhaps what these old movies have become: strange and impish messages from another world, claiming a permanent place in this one.

ANÉMIC CINÉMA 1926 (Danish Film Institute)
The name of the credited director, Rrose Sélavy, is a pseudonym for Marcel Duchamp, who first appeared as Sélavy in a 1921 photograph by Man Ray pasted onto a perfume bottle. Duchamp’s only finished film, Anémic cinéma is a series of hypnotic twirling discs, what the artist later sold as “rotoreliefs,” embossed with erotic puns in French. His collaborators were longtime friend Man Ray and future film director Marc Allégret, who made his first film, Voyage au Congo (1927), while touring Africa with his lover, the writer André Gide.

PAS DE DEUX 1924 (University of South Carolina Newsfilm Archive) This fun-house mirror on film is part of the Looney Lens series shot by Alfred “Al” Brick, a cameraman for Fox News and Fox Movietone from the 1920s through the 1950s. According to film scholar Bruce Posner, “Brick made the only commercial footage of the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor … not presented to the public until one year later. He ended his newsreel career covering Hollywood glamour events.”

Born in Serbia in 1894, Slavko Vorkapich survived World War I to mingle with the avant-garde in Montparnasse, settling in the United States in 1920. After Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, he went on to become a sought-after special-effects expert, creating what he called “symphonies of visual movement” for feature films. Screenwriters indicated “vorkapich” in scripts as shorthand for the insertion of such a montage.
SKYLINE DANCE 1928 / This minute-long city symphony montage comes from Paramount studio’s Manhattan Cocktail, a Dorothy Arzner-directed film about two small-town hopefuls trying to make it on Broadway but get caught up in New York’s seedy side. THE MONEY MACHINE 1929 / The U.S. Mint churns out cash in this fleeting but potent commentary on what makes the world go ’round in the first Wolf of Wall Street. The Rowland V. Lee-directed tale of greed and revenge came out eight months before the stock market crashed. PROHIBITION 1929 / Part of Ludwig Berger’s Sins of the Fathers, about a restaurateur turned bootlegger, this fast-paced, masterfully economical segment depicts the last night Americans could have a legal drink. THE FURIES 1934 / Sexual infidelity and its twin, jealous rage, are encapsulated in this spectacular prologue for Crime Without Passion, written and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (of Front Page fame) for their own production company. Vorkapich’s scantily clad mythical creatures proved too much for censors, as did other visual indiscretions, and had to be trimmed for release.

A BRONX MORNING 1931 (British Film Institute National Archive)
Trained as a fine art photographer, director Jay Leyda also studied filmmaking in Moscow under Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. A prodigious scholar who translated Eisenstein’s theories into English, Leyda directed only two films, this “borough symphony” being the first. Assisting him was future blacklister Leo Hurwitz, best known for 1940’s Native Land made with Paul Strand. Leyda also fell under suspicion for his years in the Soviet Union and had difficulty getting academic positions. At the time of his death in 1988, he had been teaching at New York University for fifteen years.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413, A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA 1927 (Film Preservation Associates)
Shot in Slavko Vorkapich’s kitchen with miniatures made out of matchboxes, tin cans, and other household items, this thirteen-minute tale of life on the fringes of the movie industry is edited to the rhythms of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. An impressed Joseph Schenck gave it a splashy premiere with live orchestral accompaniment. Director Robert Florey went on to helm fifty-plus Hollywood features, including 1936’s Hollywood Boulevard, a remake of 9413. The man assisting at the camera, Gregg Toland, became a multiple award-winning cinematographer, best known today for the deep-focus photography of Citizen Kane.

HANDS: THE LIFE AND LOVES OF THE GENTLER SEX 1927 (Cinémathèque Française)
While this thirteen-minute “hand ballet,” titled Hände: Das Leben und die Liebe eines zärtlichen Geschlechts in the original German, has been historically credited to director Miklos Bandy, Stella F. Simon is recognized today as cocreator of this abstract depiction of a love triangle from a female point-of-view. An American photographer who trained alongside Dorothea Lange and Ralph Steiner, Simon learned motion picture photography in Berlin, where she collaborated with Hans Richter (her disembodied head appears in his 1926 Filmstudie). In 1929 the New York Times wrote of Simon’s only film at the helm: “It seeks to employ hands as graceful and plastic units in some sort of cosmic drama that may mean everything or nothing.”

Dance of the Heads and Day of the Dead
1930–1932 (Gosfilmofond of Russia)
A trip abroad to study the West’s sound technology included a stopover in Hollywood for Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, whose contract with Paramount sadly bore no fruit. It led, however, to an independently produced project about Mexico, and some breathtaking footage. Aided by longtime colleagues cinematographer Eduard Tisse and multi-hyphenate Grigori Aleksandrov, Eisenstein shot some forty hours of footage for what was supposed to be a short political movie. Anxious financiers, led by author Upton Sinclair, pulled the plug on production. When Eisenstein tried to cross back into the United States to work on the edit, border guards denied him reentry because of “lewd” drawings in his possession. Eventually he was able to return to New York but, in the end, a visit by the KGB to his mother in Moscow sent the filmmaker rushing home. He never got to finish his Que Viva Mexico! although it has been released over the years in several iterations.

THE GHOST TRAIN 1903 (Paper Print Collection of the Library of Congress) directed by Frederick Armitage, is seen with the Unseen Cinema Cineric logo at the beginning of the program.

The Matti Bye Ensemble includes Matti Bye, Helena Espvall, Kristian Holmgren, Lotta Johanson, and Laura Naukkarinen.