A recent driving tour through the wilds of Northern California and Southern Oregon only reaffirmed what I already knew: that Bay Area cinephiles are lucky, especially in these dull summer months of big-budget drivel, to live in a place where film artistry is not only appreciated, but relatively plentiful.
If you’re looking for something a bit different, you have a decent chance of finding it at a local venue. And if it’s still not forthcoming, there’s always the home theater. And if you’re looking for something still more different...
Kino has just released the second volume in its Avant Garde series, featuring films drawn from the collection of the late film collector and preservationist Raymond Rohauer. Rohauer is best known today as the man who rescued the cinematic legacy of Buster Keaton, saving the great comedian’s films from disintegration at a time when they were all but forgotten. But Rohauer’s foresight was not limited to commercial cinema. He also had an appreciation for more aesthetically challenging work, helping to preserve the works and reputations of significant artists from the edgier side of cinema history.
These films will challenge your preconceptions about the nature of experimental cinema. If your notion of avant-garde film is bad poetry and pretentious close-ups of the human eye ... well, actually there is a bit of that here. More than a bit, really; most of the films in this set feature at least one ominous eyeball. But there’s far more than that here, including a few flat-out masterpieces, films that retain their power more than half a century since their creation.
The disc begins with Willard Mass’ Geography of the Body (1943), a seven-minute journey across the fascinating terrain of the human body. The film consists of close-ups of the body that at times render it unrecognizable, accompanied by a poetic spoken-word travelogue, rendering the body as a foreign landscape. The film is a tribute to sensuality, providing a new appreciation for that which is often taken for granted.
The Mechanics of Love (1955), by Maas and Ben Moore, expands the subject matter to the use of the body, juxtaposing it with shots of everyday objects and machinery. The technique brings to light the mechanistic aspects of the human body as well as the sensuality of the inanimate.
The centerpiece of the set is the seminal avant-garde manifesto Traité de Bave et D’Eternité (Venom and Eternity, 1951), Jean Isidore Isou’s controversial diatribe in which he attempts to transform the language of cinema by destroying the notion of narrative imagery. “Is (the film) a springboard or is it a void?” asked Jean Cocteau. “In 50 years we’ll know the answer.” Well, I have my answer, and I’d say the word “void” is generous, but what do I know? Stan Brakhage called the film “a portal through which every film artist is going to have to pass.”
Brakhage himself is amply represented with four films on the disc. The Way to Shadow Garden (1954) is a disturbing work, with a soundtrack made up entirely of electronic buzzes and screeches for an Oedipal tale in which the protagonist gouges his eyes out. Meanwhile The Extraordinary Child (1954) is a light, silly tale about a baby born fully grown.
Other films run the gamut from a cinematic crossword puzzle which viewers are invited to solve based on a montage of clues (accompanied by music by Pacific Film Archive house pianist Jon Mirsalis), to silent domestic melodramas, to stylized visions of the human psyche. But the highlights of the set are two of the shorter films.
The first is The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), a 12-minute adaptation of the short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Directors James Watson and Melville Webber, heavily influenced by the bravura visual stylings of German Expressionism, employ a battery of effects in depicting the paranormal paranoia of Poe’s Gothic horror. Striking set design and mesmerizing optical effects combine to create a surrealistic nightmare.
The second is Jean Mitry’s Pacific 231 (1949), a kinetic masterpiece that juxtaposes stirring imagery of a train thundering along the French railroads accompanied by a dramatic orchestral score. The footage includes rapidly edited images of the journey, from close-ups of wheels and gears, to the maze of telegraph wires overhead, to the quickly passing landscape, all pieced together in a thrilling montage of power and velocity. Orson Welles once criticized the ponderous style of director Michel Antonioni by declaring that a great shot is not improved by holding it for 10 minutes. Pacific 231 embodies that notion, never resting on a single shot for more than a few seconds in its frenetic rush to its final destination.
AVANT-GARDE 2: EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA, 1928-54
Featuring 17 films from France, Germany and America. Notes by critic and historian Elliott Stein.
341 minutes. $29.95. www.kino.com.
Photograph: A locomotive barrels along the French railways to a dramatic orchestral score in the stirring avant garde masterpiece Pacific 231.