Saturday, 7 July 2012

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941

A landmark release in the history of the DVD format, Image's 2005 boxset gathers together 155 Underground and Experimental Films spread over 7 discs with each platter representing a specific theme. The films themselves chart the development of early Cinema from short-burst camera experiments to long-form art films. There are montage films, poetic essays, experimental animation, optical films, abstract color films, documentaries and so on. Curator Bruce Posner explains in the accompanying booklet that the selection of films was as much decided by what was available rather than any strict artistic criteria. A wealth of Experimental films have been lost or destroyed over the years and many of the films here have been rescued from obscurity, previously held by private collectors and film archives. Given the personal nature of Experimental Cinema, many of the film makers represented in the box set are little known but there are a surprising number of famous names attached to these films, among them D.W. Griffith, Billy Bitzer, Edwin S. Porter, Douglas Fairbanks, Victor Fleming, Orson Welles, Robert Florey, William Cameron Menzies, Ernst Lubitsch, Busby Berkley and Robert Flaherty.

In general the quality of the films themselves is excellent. Many of the films may have been exhibited just once or twice and prints are for the most part in very good condition. Some of the films are featured here with their original soundtracks, while the silent films have been given excellent and thoughtful scores. Some films play completely silent as per the wishes of their creators.

Anyone wishing to write about the set is immediately faced with the sheer volume of films on offer but I'd like to take up the challenge, investigating the contents of each disc. Where available I have added links to view the films online. The 7 discs are as follows:

Disc 1: The Mechanized Eye
Experiments in Technique and Form

Disc 2: The Devil’s Plaything
American Surrealism

Disc 3: Light Rhythms
Music and Abstraction

Disc 4: Inverted Narratives
New Directions in Story-Telling

Disc 5: Picturing a Metropolis
New York City Unveiled

Disc 6: The Amateur as Auteur
Discovering Paradise in Pictures

Disc 7: Viva la Dance
The Beginnings of Ciné-Dance

Disc 1: The Mechanized Eye

Experiments in Technique and Form

From the liner notes on the sleeve:

The dynamic qualities of motion pictures are explored by cameramen and filmmakers through novel experiments in technique and form. Early cinematographers James White, "Billy" Bitzer, and Frederick Armitage display experimental shooting styles that wowed audiences. Other independent companies further image manipulation through creative staging, editing, and printing, such as a stunning three-screen film that predates Gance's Napoléon. Experiments by photographer Walker Evans, painter Emlen Etting, musician Jerome Hill, and the film collectives Nykino and Artkino record the world in a continual process of flux. A most extreme approach is realized by Henwar Rodakiewicz with Portrait of a Young Man (1925-31), a monumental study of natural and abstract motions

5 Paris Exposition Films (1900) incorporating Eiffel Tower from Trocadero Palace, Palace of Electricity, Champs de Mars, Panorama of Eiffel Tower, Scene from Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower view

The first batch of films on The Mechanized Eye set are known here collectively as the 5 Paris Exposition Films, each one a short segment of Parisian life filmed in and around the Eiffel Tower. Made in 1900, these short snapshots filmed by James White are early prototypes of the "city symphony" genre - films like Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), and Man With a Movie Camera (1929) which focused on the sights and rhythms of everyday city life. The "city symphony" film took a more poetic approach to documentary filming, often taking a subjective view of its surroundings, as does White's film when his camera takes a trip up the Eiffel Tower, the spectacle of the City of Light laid out before it's mechanical eye. For audiences of the early 20th century, this extraordinary vista was no doubt thrilling but watching the films today, the scene where curious Parisians mug for White's camera is a highlight...

Captain Nissen Going through Whirpool Rapids, Niagra Falls (1901) view

Filmed by the Edison Company and running just under two minutes, this little film records a trip by daredevil Peter Nissen through the furious torrents of the Niagra river inside a rather strange looking submarine-like vessel (complete with smoking chimney). The vessel known as the Fool Killer II was appropriately named considering Nissen had no way to steer the craft. The Edison film captures well the shifting patterns and textures of the river, and is notable for it's impressive travelling shot. Incidentally, Nissen survived the journey down the Niagra but his luck ran out in 1904 when he was killed crossing Lake Michigan in a wind-powered balloon...

Down the Hudson (1903) view

The first of two experimental shorts by Biograph and Edison Company cameraman and director Frederick S. Armitage, Down the Hudson is a film of a boat trip down the river using time-lapse photography, the entire voyage lasting an astonishing 3 minutes. By modern standards, the film looks primitive but remains an important snapshot (literally so) documenting how the landscape looked at the turn of the century. 85 years later sound artist Annea Lockwood took a similarly abstract record of the Hudson, with her Sound Map of the Hudson River, a 71min field recording of the sounds and sonic textures experienced on a journey along the Hudson. A journey I would highly recommend...

The Ghost Train (1903) view

Frederick Armitage was an early pioneer of Cinema, and in addition to time-lapse photography, he experimented with super-impositions, reverse motion and other special effects. His 1903 film The Ghost Train (which runs a breezy 20 seconds) is a spectral version of the Lumière Brothers famous L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat. Armitage used a negative image of a train coming down the track (surrounded by ghostly railroad men), and combined a positive image of the moon and clouds in the background. A simple but effective piece of cinematic trickery...

Westinghouse Works, Panorama View Street Car Motor Room (1904) view

Filmed in 1904 by D.W. Griffith's perennial cameraman Billy Bitzer, Panorama View Street Car Motor Room was made as part of a 21-film collection entitled Westinghouse Works, 1904. Each film in the collection lasts approximately 3min and were filmed by Bitzer at various Westinghouse manufacturing plants. For the Panorama View sketch, Bitzer stationed his camera on a ceiling crane and had the crane move from one end of the plant to the other in one complete shot (at one point the crane stops momentarily to take a breather before moving on). A simple but in many ways remarkable film, the vertical movement of the shot meshing with the lateral movement of workers entering and exiting the frame from either side is quite hypnotic. The film is valuable also as an insight into the working conditions of men in heavy industry, with regard to safety (and the lack of it). Around the 1 minute mark, an iron bar falls from the ceiling narrowly missing a worker. In 2006 film maker Jennifer Baichwal composed a similar long tracking shot of people working for the documentary Manufactured Landscapes...

In Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea (1924-25) view

In his liner notes that introduce the 5min In Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea, film historian Kevin Brownlow admits that he assumed the film's triptych technique (whereby two side screens are hinged to the centre screen) was inspired by Napoléon but In Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea seems to predate Abel Gance's 1927 epic by a two years. Here the triptych has a dual function, sometimes used as a prototype widescreen panorama, and in other instances used to illustrate the protagonist's mix of memories of his youth. The film, based on a poem of the same name by American poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich features on screen text from the poem as well as some simple but effective special effects of fairies dancing. Appropriately enough the authorship of this mysterious film remains unknown...

Melody on Parade (1936)

The first of three montage experiments featured on the The Mechanized Eye collection, Melody on Parade is a dated but delirious mixture of newsreel footage of military parades (cadets drilling and marching projected at various speeds), a baby parade contest and the final segment entitled Presidents on Parade, a roll call of American presidents past and present using newsreel footage and animation. The montage is set to theatre organ music courtesy of Lew White (superimposed at the foreground of the frame) with maudlin narration sung by vaudeville singer Irving Kaufman ("And I see Franklin Roosevelt a gunnin', He's gonna start things hummin'"). Melody on Parade is hardly an essential addition to the collection but it's an amusing one nonetheless...

La Cartomancienne (The Fortune Teller) (1932) view

La Cartomancienne is 12min poetic film directed by American artist and film maker Jerome Hill. Set in a small coastal village, a young woman visits the fortune teller of the title who sees love in the woman's cards. When the woman meets an Adonis-figured man emerging out of the ocean, she reaches out to touch him - a dream or reality ? Filmed most likely in the south of France, La Cartomancienne is a highly symbolic work with references to Carl Jung and his theories of the subconscious. The film is a visual feast, shot with color tints, with Hill experimenting with animation and in one scene, the print itself seems to deteriorate and momentarily transforms into something akin to a Jackson Pollack drip painting. Jerome Hill's most widely seen work was in the field of documentary (his film 1957 Albert Schweitzer won an Academy Award for best documentary feature) but he looms large in the story of Experimental Cinema, as he was one of the patrons of the Anthology Film Archives, a museum and theatre dedicated to preservation and exhibition of Experimental Film...

Pie in the Sky (1934-35)

Directed by Ralph Steiner and produced by the leftist Nykino collective (an abbreviation of New York Kino) Pie in the Sky is a 22min Depression-era comedy which lampoons religion and it's empty promises. Two down on their luck men denied a meal at a soup kitchen ignore their hunger pains by mucking around in a bleak rubbish strewn landscape. Nykino's mission statement was to make dramatic revolutionary films, but Pie in the Sky is decidedly less pretentious, it's a playful, funny and at times irreverent work. The film is noteworthy for an early appearance by Elia Kazan (appearing as part of the Stanislavsky-influenced Group Theatre) playing one of the bums. Interestingly Kazen appears on the credits with his nickname Elia "Gadget" Kazan. The film itself is something of a rarity, Kazan made no mention of the film in his autobiography and it's also absent from the otherwise comprehensive Kazan on Kazan (Faber & Faber, 1999)...

Travel Notes (1932)

On New Year's Day, 1932 American photographer Walker Evans set sail on a four-month cruise to the South Seas. Evans was invited along on the journey as official photographer, and in addition to his photographic record, Evans shot some 35mm footage which was used for his 12min expressionist film Travel Notes. With little more than a flat sea to photograph, Evans instead fixes his gaze upon the business of the ship, and the 170-foot schooner's network of ropes and pulleys (often filmed from dizzying high angles), while deckhands are observed at work among the rigging. The second half of Travel Notes, filmed on the island of Tahiti is more conventional but no less impressive, Evans' visuals have a wonderful a sense of space and composition. Writing in her biography of Evans, Belinda Rathbone mentions that Evans befriended a 10-year old native boy who had appeared in Murnau's Tahiti-shot Tabu, the film Travel Notes closely resembles...

Oil: A Symphony in Motion (1930-33)

Two Californian film makers working under the name Artkino were responsible for this 8min film which forges a link between nature and the mechanized world, the pivotal role oil production played in the transition from agriculture to industrialization and the evolution of transport. Oil: A Symphony in Motion takes a novel approach to its subject by having the oil itself narrate (through intertitles) its own story, amusingly so in brash language - "I am the commodity men call oil, and this is my saga...I was here all the time, a mile below the cows...Yes I was walled up for a long time but I got away!" The film is heavily influenced by Soviet aesthetics, with low angle heroic shots of crops and cattle framed against huge skies, and farmers toiling away at exhausted fields. Artkino's achievement is better realised when the film is viewed alongside the 1923 industrial film The Story Of Petroleum (available as an extra on the DVD/BR of There Will Be Blood), which takes a far more conventional view of the oil business...

Poem 8 (1932-33) view

Painter, sculptor and experimental filmmaker Emlen Etting once described his 1933 film Poem 8 as "conceived directly in the language of visual symbols in action". Despite it's brief 19min the film is a dense and highly personal work, filmed from the author's point of view a la the 1947 noir The Lady in the Lake. The film's meaning is determinedly obscure but is concerned with movement, innocence and desire - we see images of foliage blowing in the wind, a young girl is seen dancing, followed by images of transport (a train pulls into Penn Station in New York, a liner leaves port to cheering crowds). Later, the author makes love to a woman in a garden, and there are shots of blood dripping onto paper intercut with frenzied hand-held street scenes. The pace slows again and returns to the young girl dancing, this time shrouded in a white veil followed by tranquil shots of autumnal leaves. Incidentally, the woman seen in the garden is American patron of the arts Caresse Crosby who was part of the lost generation of American expatriates who fled to Paris in the 20's. At 19 she invented the modern bra, while later in Paris, Crosby along with her poet husband Harry Crosby set up the legendary Black Sun Press which published works by Joyce, Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot. and other luminaries. The heavy eye make-up she wears in Poem 8 makes her look like one of the apparitions from another great experimental film, Carnival of Souls...

Storm (1941-43)

Among the films collected on The Mechanized Eye, Paul Burnford's Storm is notable for opening with the familiar MGM lion roar. Originally filmed as the longer Storm Warning, Burnford's montage film about unruly weather was bought by MGM who shortened the length to a single reel and added narration. The film's virtues still survive in this revised version - the evocative photography - wind-swept landscapes, trees bending with the force of the wind and pedestrians seeking shelter from a driving blizzard, as well as the rhythmic editing, the film begins with a gentle pace and gathers momentum as the storm is unleashed. London-born Burnford shot well over a 100 educational films but also dabbled in pure experimental film making like his 1954 abstract film Color

Portrait of a Young Man (1925-31)

By Experimental Cinema standards Henwar Rodakiewicz's Portrait of a Young Man is something of an epic, running 54 minutes. The film is structured as three "Movements" and is composed of images chosen for their continuous motion - water, leaves, smoke and moving machine parts. Rodakiewicz collected the footage over a number of years, and filmed in a wide variety of locations - Arizona, Bermuda, and British Columbia. The film is intended to be viewed without any musical accompaniment which may seem daunting given the considerable lenght, but after a spell the film becomes a powerfully hypnotic experience. Ambient Cinema is born...


  1. Wow. I can see what you've been up to while you've been away, Wes. Watching and writing about these fascinating films. I'm going to take my time to read your posts on these DVDs and enjoy...

  2. Many thanks Jon. Yes, I haven't been watching any Horror recently, I've been under the influence of Mark Cousins' Story of Film series, and going back and revisiting a lot of Silent and World Cinema. As well as that I've been listening to a lot of avant-garde music, Electronic and Musique concrète stuff so the above post was born out of that mind set. But happily after reading your fine piece on the films of Jeff Lieberman I feel like I've been plugged back into the mixing board of Horror so many thanks, your article was the perfect prescription...