New DVDs: Avant Garde Film 1947-1986

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This Sunday in the New York Times, a review of the new set from the National Film Preservation Foundation, “Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986,” which includes 26 restored films from such masters of non-narrative filmmaking as Stan Brakhage, Storm De Hirsch, Hollis Frampton, Ken Jacobs and (above, from “Film No. 3: Interwoven”) Harry Smith.

Anthony Kaufman’s excellent piece on the end of VHS and what it means for you, the movie consumer, has been generating a lot of discussion since it was published on Moving Image Source last Friday, including this reaction from Peter Martin at Cinematical.  Must reading!

124 comments to New DVDs: Avant Garde Film 1947-1986

  • Kent Jones

    There’s a lot of camera movement in many of those early Antonionis, if my memory is functioning correctly. In any case, I’m not so sure about WAVELENGTH as a model for the end of THE PASSENGER either, Mike. In a sense, Snow’s movement and Antonioni’s are polar opposites.

    I’m not surprised about Resnais. I can tell you one thing that has influenced him profoundly: Broadway musicals. I once listened to him speak rapturously about getting SRO tickets for GYPSY when he visited New York in the 50s.

  • dm494

    There is a lot of camera movement in CRONACA, LE AMICHE, and IL GRIDO; those films employ a reframing style which Gilberto Perez describes succinctly in his largely ECLIPSE-centered chapter on Antonioni in THE MATERIAL GHOST.

    I’d like to know if any of Rose Lowder’s work is available on DVD.

  • Ben

    Kenji, yes and yes.

  • Alex Hicks

    Kent, Can you think of any specific candidates for possible influence of the Broadway musical on Resnais films through his celebrated 1955-1980 period, indeed any even before “The Same Old Song”?

  • jbryant

    Coincidentally enough, I was browsing through a 2007 issue of Film Comment this morning and saw a quote from Resnais (from Positif) in which he claims that “Private Fears in Public Places” bears the influence of TV director Kim Manners, who helmed dozens of episodes of The X-Files as well as many other shows. Manners died quite recently. A friend of mine worked with him years ago on numerous Stephen J. Cannell shows and raved about his “eye.”

  • Kent Jones

    Alex, if you’re looking for straightforward evidence of influence with a capital I, you may not find much beyond the fact that Stephen Sondheim composed the score for STAVISKY, and was asked to do so because of Resnais’ admiration for his musicals. However, I guess I’d also say that the voice is always extremely important in Resnais’ films, and that it’s often used in a musical way (I’m thinking of Delphine Seyrig in MARIENBAD and MURIEL, of Gielgud in PROVIDENCE, of Ruggerio Raimondi in LA VIE EST UN ROMAN, and so on). Given the pedigree of his films, one might guess that he went to the opera more than the musical theater, but I think his love of the musical is present in those films in an extremely interesting, refracted way. I think it’s also present in the way he thinks of movement, the intergration of movement, music and voice. In the later films, as you suggest, it’s less difficult to detect. One of his most recent films, PAS SUR LA BOUCHE, actually is a musical.

  • Brian Dauth

    Resnais’ COEURS always struck me as having the structure of a musical vaudeville much like Sondheim’s FOLLIES. There are lovely duets and trios throughout, and then a fabulous 11 o’clock number when snow falls in a kitchen.

  • Kent Jones

    Brian, I think that’s true. He loves everything by Sondheim. When I met him, he was rhapsodizing about PASSION. He also loves movie musicals. Chris Marker once remembered that when AN AMERICAN IN PARIS came out, he and Resnais went back to see it every day for a week.

    Speaking of Resnais, a couple of friends who worked on his upcoming film have told me that it’s going to be very special.

  • Thanks for the hint about Resnais … he’s one of my favorites. Kent, do we have you to thank for the Robert Mulligan retro in March? New Yorkers will have the welcome opportunity to see BLOODBROTHERS and THE NICKEL RIDE, among other less rare films.

  • Let’s not overlook the fact that Resnais has made a documentary called (and about) Gershwin–certainly one of his most neglected works.

  • Kent Jones

    Jonathan, thanks for the reminder. That’s a beautiful film.

  • Kent Jones

    Stephen, if not for Dave and everyone else here, I never would have looked back at Mulligan or programmed the series. Going back to his movies has been a great experience for me.

    I want to warn everyone here in New York who’s interested that we’re only screening THE STALKING MOON once. The print is not in good shape, although the color is stable. Such is the current state of repertory programming. On the other hand, the prints of THE NICKEL RIDE and BLOODBROTHERS are in great shape.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I think Brian is really right about COEURS; more generally there is a formal quality about most of Resnais’ films that I find somehow “musical” — except in his actual musicals, which I find somewhat pedestrian (I know I’m in a tiny minority on this matter — everybody I know loves them). ON CONNAIT LA CHANSON and PAS SUR LA BOUCHE, two much admired films, just don’t work for me (each for different reasons), actually they are the only Resnais films I don’t like. I know that’s not an auteurist stance but I can’t help it.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    dm: thanks for the Ubu link. Actually that site is an incredibly rich trove of avant garde stuff. I’ve just spent a couple of hours watching Frampton and Breer stuff. Wonderful.

  • Dave Kehr

    J-P, Ubu is also an incredibly rich trove of pirated avant garde stuff, usually in very poor copies that add aesthetic insult to copyright injury. Please proceed with caution.

  • Kent Jones

    When I wrote “once is often enough,” I was referring to lesser films, of course. I can never see RIO BRAVO too many times, but once is enough for A SONG IS BORN.

  • Nicolas writes: “Science-fiction films also have their share of avant-garde influence: FANTASTIC VOYAGE, and that incredible opening “flying shot” after the credits of PLANET OF THE APES.
    There is an incredible montage in a very interesting film by Nicholas Meyer, TIME AFTER TIME, which you could take out of the film and show at The Kitchen or any art gallery: it’s a collage of sound sand colors supposedly describing HG Wells’ journey into time: quite something. Not as impressive as 2001 but still.”

    Mike here:
    One can also find abstract passages representing sf journeys in experimental films themselves. BELLS OF ATLANTIS (Ian Hugo, 1952) starts out with its heroine underwater in Atlantis. Towards the end, the heroine is suddenly pulled towards the surface. The film switches from water imagery, to geometric abstraction of curving lines, to represent her journey. It is like a (much simpler) version of 2001.

    Comic books also used abstract art, to represent journeys in space, time or other dimensions.
    “The Secret of the Golden Thunderbolts” (Green Lantern #2, September-October 1960) is written by John Broome and drawn by Gil Kane. The images showing the transition from Earth to the parallel dimension of Qward are visionary works. They are pure geometric patterns of brightly colored circles, in the tradition of geometric abstraction, looking a bit like Kandinsky’s paintings of circles, and also of Alexander Rodchenko.
    This tale is now available in the inexpensive SHOWCASE PRESENTS reprint of the Green Lantern stories.
    Broome and Kane used similar imagery earlier in “Dream-Journey Through Space” (Strange Adventures #58, July 1955). The only place the public can read this story today is at the giant Comic Art Collection at Michigan State University library. They have 180, 000 comic books. People come there from all over the world.

  • Craig

    I just watched Ronaldo Klein’s CHAC: THE RAIN GOD and it certainly made me think of many “avant garde” films. One wonders how often this is true of films that explore indigenous narratives? I am thinking of something like the work of Bolivian filmmaker Jorge Sanjines who made films directly with indigenous communities. This could also be the case with some two thirds world narrative films such as Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki or Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmere, I am curious if it is possible that things we identify as “avant garde” may within another cultural context be more normative ways of dealing with narrative? For example, the films made by Sanjines were not intended to be “abstract” by the makers but when shown to European or North American festival audiences read as highly experimental. Of course, this makes some sense since the European avant garde movements in the visual and performing often borrowed elements from non-European cultures.

  • Alex Hicks

    Any other “Big Love” fans at the site? It seems to me that the series is rising to something like the heights most recently attained by the first several seasons of “The Sopranos” and the first two years or so of “Deadwood.” (Alas, I’m too behind on “The Wire” to include it in such comparisons.) Indeed, the current season does not so much surpass the previous two as provide a perspective from which one can better appreciate their merits. Not exactly Avant-Garde, yet the series’ current incorporation of its increasingly arcane Mormon elements is beginning to take on a surreal character somewhat reminiscent of Bunuel’s Catholicism in its institutionalized capacity for secular and spiritual mayhem.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Big Love seems to have found its voice this year more than in its initial seasons. Nowhere close to The Wire or Sopranos at its best, but not unworthy to be compared.

    And whatever its other merits, its casting, particularly beyond the central family, is astounding – Harry Dean Stanton as good as he’s ever been, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Grace Zabriskie, Mary Kay Place, many others – it’s a great ensemble.

  • Kent Jones

    I’ve never watched BIG LOVE, but now that I know that Mary Kay Place is in it… She’s always been great, from MARY HARTMAN and NEW YORK, NEW YORK through her incredible performance in THE RAINMAKER and that forgettable independent movie where she played the nurse.

  • skelly

    Tom and Alex – agreed. I’ve stuck with Big Love since the beginning but only the past 4 episodes or so has it really reached its true potential. Great stuff. The recent road trip episode (while still having cliched elements) was the peak for me.

  • alex hicks

    True, “Big Love” is peaking this season, for me in the latest (or yesterday’s) episode. However, for me who liked “The Sopranos” best for its juxtapositions of everyday middle class life and the Jersey Italian crime world Tony does double duty for Meadow and the Mob taking meadow on a tour of elite Main Colleges (Colby etc.) on which a hit can be accomplished– the juxtapositions of the middle class everyday and fundamentalist Mormon religion (gang-like as well as polygamous) is a key reward as presented in restrained satire since the series began. The current level of elaborate yet clear, character rooted, fully credible (melo?)dramatic complications strikes me as astonishingly high. (Paxton, Tripplehorn, Sevigny,Goodwin and Seyfried strike me as quite up to the high standard of Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Grace Zabriskie and Mary Kay Place, or, in any case, pitch perfect.)

    Kudos, I would say, to Bernadette Caulfield in the theoretical terra incognita in which executive producers reign.

  • Fascinating thread, and a few comments.

    In terms of the connection between Michael Snow and Antonioni, it should be remembered (why do people always forget?) that the screenplay for THE PASSENGER was co-written by Peter Wollen, and that when he was working on the screenplay, Wollen had written about Michael Snow. So SOMEBODY connected with THE PASSENGER knew Michael Snow’s work and was considering its implications.

    In terms of Stanley Kubrick and the avant-garde, in 1964, just after the release of DR. STRANGELOVE, Kubrick contacted Jordan Belson and Ed Emshwiller. He made an offer to both of them, to come to England and work on his new science-fiction film. But they both refused, because it would have meant devoting themselves to someone else’s work for what turned out to be three years, and also relocating to England. But he was very aware of their work, and any “influence” of their work on 2001 was deliberate on Kubrick’s part.

    BTW: Anthology Film Archives will be premiering a “new” film by Harry Smith, FILM #23, next month as part of a series of the Chelsea Hotel. It is about half-an-hour in length, and it is (surprisingly) very tight and cohesive; in fact, it is truly brilliant. (The story of how the film came to be and why it is surfacing now is pretty amazing.) FILM #23 is like a compendium of his work: he uses (discarded) footage from EARLY ABSTRACTIONS, he uses superimpositions, he uses footage which he would use in the long version of MAHAGONNY, and he edits all this together to the LITTLE JOHNNY JOHNSON score by Kurt Weill. Yet the film does not feel like something tossed off to raise money (which is how it started), but a really complete and fully achieved work.

    And about BIG LOVE: i agree this season it has reached its potential; i am very proud because Billy Scheffer started his career with me, acting in my performances, and i noticed that this season he and Mark have done a lot of the writing.