Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1970, Blu-ray (2015)

Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1970, Blu-ray (2015)

Filmmakers: Paul Strand, Dudley Murphy, Fernand Leger, Marcel Duchamp, Oskar Fischinger, Robert Florey, Joseph Cornell, Maya Deren, James Broughton, Kenneth Anger, Anais Nin, Bruce Baillie, Jonas Mekas, Larry Jordan, Stan Brakhage & many others
Composers: George Antheil, William O. Smith, John Lewis, Louis & Bebe Barron, Christopher Atwood, and new soundtrack music by various composers
Video: 4:3 for 16X9 screens, 1080p HD color & b&w (mostly blowups from 16mm)
Audio: mono & stereo PCM
Studio: Flicker Alley FA0043 (2 Blu-ray & 2 DVD discs) (10/6/15)
Extras: HD restorations of several of the 37 films (2K or previously unavailable & generally cleaned up), 28-page illustrated booklet with details on each film.
Length: 418 min.
Rating: ****

A wonderful collection to have in hi-def, beautifully restored in each case, and including some films about which I have heard for years but have never seen before. Plus several of the silents have new musical scores composed and performed by various musicians. Each of the films has a couple paragraphs in the illustrated booklet with notes on the film and the filmmakers. The collection came from archives around the world and it was fascinating to hear the music by such composers as George Antheil with some of the films. All are as far as you can possibly get from the mainstream Hollywood film and TV world. In fact a few of the filmmakers seem to be trying a bit too hard to be avant-garde, but that goes with the genre.

The collection is so large it takes two Blu-ray discs. The entire program is bookended with a repeat of the first selection, the 1920-21 35mm film Manhatta, by Sheeler and Strand. Most of the films were shot on 16mm and are here restored with excellent definition, while those which were deliberately intended to be projected silent – such as Brakhage’s – are such. Each one is prefaced on the screen with the title and a short description of the film. Many of the short films are of abstract images, and therefore the 4:3 ratio may be expanded using your remote to 16:9 for a more involving appearance on the screen. The few with circles become only ovals, which is not upsetting.

This provided me an opportunity to see some classic experimental films about which I had known for many years, but had never seen as a former member of Canyon Cinema in San Francisco. These included Bruce Ballie’s Castro Street, Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, and James Broughton’s Four in the Afternoon. The three films on New York City were all fascinating and innovative in their depiction of that very photogenic metropolis. I see why Manhatta was selected to be both the first and last of the films. It is a landmark in the beginning of 20th century modernism. Seasons… by Brakhage and Solomon, is a fine example of abstract images expanding the limits of visual perception, and had more interesting images than any of the previous abstract-image films. The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra – which I had seen before – does a good job of getting its story across silently by using mostly closeups and no studio shots – necessitated by the shoe-string budget.

My favorites among the 37, to which I plan to return to viewing, were Leger’s Ballet Mechanique, Fischinger’s An Optical Poem, Our Lady of the Sphere by Larry Jordan, and Love It / Leave It, by Tom Palazzolo. Jordan – whom I knew at Canyon Cinema – animated a collage of old engravings and cut-outs into dream-like visual journeys. It was interesting to see composers such as Alec Wilder and John Cage listed as having worked on some of the films. Cage even helped synchronize Fischinger’s primary-color simple shapes to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 – something completely anathema to his later Zen/indeterminacy style. (And this was two years before Fantasia.) All of these innovative filmmakers were terribly under-funded and had non-existent budgets, so it is quite amazing that the films all look so good today. Bravo to Flicker Alley!

FilmList:

The 1920s

Manhatta (1920-21) by Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand

2K digital restoration from 35mm 1.33:1 black & white silent 16fps, 11:41 minutes; new music by Donald Sosin

Ballet Mechanique (1923-24) by Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy

2K digital restoration from 35mm 1.33:1 black & white with color tints silent 20fps, 15:53 minutes; music by George Antheil from original 1924-25 score adapted and arranged by Paul D. Lehrman and remixed by Gustavo Matamoros

Anémic cinéma (filmed 1924-25, released 1926) by Rrose Sélavy a.k.a. Marcel Duchamp

35mm 1.33:1 black & white silent 20fps, 6:40 minutes; new music by Gustavo Matamoros

The Life and Death of 9413–A Hollywood Extra (1927) by Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich

35mm 1.33:1 black & white silent 20fps, 13:20 minutes; new music by Donald Sosin

Skyscraper Symphony (1929) by Robert Florey

35mm 1.33:1 black & white silent 24fps, 8:53 minutes; new music by Donald Sosin

The 1930s

Mechanical Principles (1930) by Ralph Steiner

35mm 1.33:1 black & white silent 20fps, 10:18 minutes; new music by Eric Beheim

A Bronx Morning (1931) by Jay Leyda

35mm 1.33:1 black & white silent 20fps, 14:05 minutes; new music by Donald Sosin

Lot in Sodom (1930-32, released 1933) by J.S. Watson, Jr., Melville Webber, Alec Wilder, Remsen Wood, Bernard O’Brien.

35mm 1:20:1 black & white sound, 25:53 minutes; music by Louis Siegel

Poem 8 (1932-33) by Emlen Etting

16mm 1.37:1 black & white silent 18fps, 19:40 minutes; new music by Rodney Sauer

An Optical Poem (1937, MGM release 1938) by Oskar Fischinger

35mm 1.33:1 color sound, 7:02 minutes; music Hungarian Rhapsody, No. 2 by Franz Liszt

Thimble Theater (c. 1938, unfinished until 1968) by Joseph Cornell

16mm 1.37:1 black & white with color tint silent 18fps, 6:07 minutes; completed by Lawrence Jordan; new music:

vintage circus organ

The 1940s

Tarantella (1940) by Mary Ellen Bute, Ted Nemeth, animation Norman McLaren

35mm 1.37:1 color sound, 4:24 minutes; music by Edwin Gerschefski

The Pursuit of Happiness (1940) by Rudy Burckhardt

16mm 1.37:1 black & white intentionally silent 16fps, 8:09 minutes

1941 (1941) by Francis Lee

35mm from 16mm 1.37:1 color sound, 4 minutes; music by Igor Stravinsky

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren, A. Hackenschmied

16mm 1.37:1 black & white intentionally silent, 13:46 minutes

Meditation on Violence (1948) by Maya Deren

35mm enlarged from 16mm with 2K digital insert from 16mm 1.37:1 black & white sound, 12:27 minutes; music a mix of Chinese classical flute and drums recorded in Haiti by Maya Deren

In the Street (filmed 1945-46, released 1948, 1952) by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, James Agee.

16mm 1.37:1 black & white silent 18fps, 16:50 minutes; music by Arthur Kleiner

The 1950s

Four in the Afternoon (1950-51) by James Broughton

16mm 1.37:1 black & white sound, 14 minutes; music by William O. Smith

Abstronic (1952) by Mary Ellen Bute, Ted Nemeth

35mm 1.37:1 color sound, 5:45 minutes; music Hoe Down by Aaron Copland, Ranch House Party by Don Gillis

Eaux d’artifice (1953) by Kenneth Anger

16mm 1.37:1 black & white tinted color sound, 12:57 minutes; music “Winter” movement of The Four Seasons by

Antonio Vivaldi

Bells of Atlantis (1952-53) by Ian Hugo, Anaïs Nin, Len Lye

16mm 1.37.1 color sound, 9:27 minutes; electronic music Louis & Bebe Barron.

Evolution (1954) by Jim Davis

16mm 1.37:1 color sound, 8:01 minutes.

Gyromorphosis (1954) by Hy Hirsh

16mm 1.37:1 color sound, 6:40 minutes; music: Django by John Lewis, played by the Modern Jazz Quartet

Hurry, Hurry! (1957) by Marie Menken

16mm 1.37:1 color sound, 4:27 minutes.

N.Y., N.Y. (filmed 1949-57, released 1958) by Francis Thompson

35mm from 16mm 1.37:1 color sound, 15:10 minutes; music by Gene Forrell

The 1960s

9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966/67) by Hilary Harri

16mm 1.37 black & white sound, 12:39 minutes; music by McNeil Robinson.

Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) (1966) by Bruce Baillie

16mm 1.37:1 color sound, 9:59 minutes

Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter (1968) by Owen Land, formerly George Landow

16mm 1.37:1 black & white sound, 8:26 minutes

Excerpt from Walden: Diaries, Notes and Sketches (1969) by Jonas Mekas

16mm 1.37:1; color sound excerpt end of Reel 5 and beginning of Reel 6, 13:05 minutes; music by Frédéric Chopin, Group Image

Our Lady of the Sphere (1969) by Lawrence Jordan

35mm from 16mm 1.37:1 color sound, 9:14 minutes

1970

Love It / Leave It (1970) by Tom Palazzolo

16mm 1.37:1; color sound, 14:07 minutes; music by Ray Whilding White

DL2 (Disintegration Line #2) (1970) by Lawrence Janiak

16mm 1.37:1 color sound, 11:46 minutes; music Bumblebees Sip Honey by Peliatan Gamelan

Transport (1970) by Amy Greenfield

16mm 1.37:1 color sound, 5:43 minutes; music by Indiran

Legacy Bonus Films

Curator’s Carte Blanche

Sappho and Jerry, Parts 1-3 (1977-78) by Bruce Posner

35mm 2.55:1 reformatted to 1080 color sound, 5:35 minutes

Ch’an (1983) by Francis Lee

16mm 1.37 black & white sound, 6:08 minutes; music by Christopher Atwood

Seasons… (2002) by Phil Solomon, Stan Brakhage

16mm 1.37:1 color silent, 16:00 minutes

Manhatta (1920-21) by Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand

See first entry [repeat] – new music composed and performed by Henry Wolfe and Phil Carluzzo.

—John Sunier

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